Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Mayada Salihi: Red hair, raised in Baghdad, divorced mother of two adorable kids, herself the daughter of a divorced Shia mother and Sunni father. A scrapper. A Baghdadi through and through. Not always factual, but usually a truthteller. Devout fan of cheesy 1980’s American music, particularly Air Supply. Mayada was my translator through much of last year. You knew her too, albeit indirectly. It was because of May, and through her, that we found the schools which you so generously supplied and supported last year. Those who sent donations usually received a letter and pictures from me of the deliveries. May is in some of those photos. She was my friend.
She was well traveled for an Iraqi, having visited Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in her 20s, but after her children, and Iraq, there is nothing which May loved more than a country to which she had never been, America. Her father was a comfortable government functionary and in those days she lived a life of moderate privilege. She had seen much of the Arab world, but for whatever reason, call it cultural penetration or just internationalism, May grew up fascinated by and adoring America. She started teaching herself English through that most classic of methods, singing along with American albums. As I recall, she told me that it was the Foreigner 4 album at first, and only a little later did she discover the obscenely sugar-coated songs of Air Supply. Eventually, in college, she majored in English.Story continues below ↓
Life in a Middle Eastern nation being what it is, however, she had a lot of pressure to marry. Eventually she settled on the wrong guy. He cheated, a lot, and so in a quintessentially American move, so did she. That ended it. Cuckolding publicly reduced her husband and they divorced. She got the kids.
Then we invaded.
A month after the fall of Baghdad May was volunteering, working as a translator for a succession of US and Iraqi forces…too many it seems. Living in Baghdad she got one warning note, ignored it, and was gunned down and left for dead by masked men in the alley beside her house just two days later. That was in the Spring of 2004. But May would not die.
Whisked to a hospital where her identity as an American translator was revealed, she was declared dead back in her neighborhood for the safety of her family, while in reality she went into hiding. Ultimately she recovered in Jordan, but the recovery took months. She could have stayed in Jordan, but in the end, she found that her heart would not let her. The two nations she loved most were now fused in a death-love struggle, she could not leave them alone. Besides, working for us paid better than just about anything else a divorced woman could legally do in Baghdad, and that allowed her to support “H” (her son), “M” (her daughter) and her mother. So she came back.
Working for the same unit again, we kept her out of the city, doing good work elsewhere in Iraq. But the draw of motherhood, and her city, brought her back to Baghdad. It was at that time that we met, in April of last year.
Living now in another neighborhood, May thought she was safe. But as any New Yorker will tell you, even seven million people can make for a small town in some ways. By late summer they had found her again. A note at her home, I have a copy of it which she gave me, told her to stop working with the Americans or she would be killed. But May would not, and I now think perhaps could not, stop. A few nights later she slipped her mother and kids into the Green Zone, buying off another family who had themselves received an eviction notice from the Iraqi government.
In Iraq, as it is in many other countries, its all about who you know. May thought that she could work her personal connections…this person knows that person whose second cousin is a deputy minister of agriculture…to pull the right strings and keep the apartment, and her family, together. I had a hand in that, while I was there. It was a distraction from the work I was supposed to do, but in some ways you could say that it was also the work that needed to be done. I left in February. Apparently, not long after I left, she was evicted.
May couldn’t live outside the Green Zone anymore. To do so would be to invite risk to her kids and her mother. So the kids went to live with her Ex, and her mother went to her sister. May found a small place for herself, a single room apparently, inside the Green Zone.
Motherhood is a strong pull though. May would leave the Green Zone fairly often, alone in her car, to go see her children for a few precious hours.
At the end of the month of May, just after returning from my pre-wedding honeymoon, I found an e-mail in my inbox from one of my friends back in Baghdad. Nobody had wanted to tell me, at least initially, but now they felt they should. Two weeks earlier, while driving through the city to see her kids, May was intercepted and kidnapped by Ansar Al Sunna. Their standard tools are the AK-47, rape, and the power drill (with which they torture their captives, drilling holes through body parts until finishing them off with a drill-bit to the head). The day before the e-mail, the police found the husk of my friend’s body in downtown Baghdad. Ansar Al Sunna had taken full credit. Now I understand hate.
Mayada Salihi, 1970-2006. (Link) Please remember.
My new brain crush. While he's no Ze Frank, then, Ze Frank no him either. Similar brilliance, entirely different delivery, sui generis thought. Big words can be our friends too, now.