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War Tourist

An Iraqi translator comes to New York.

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Why isn’t all of this stuff in Egypt?” Hiba Dawood asked, peering over the edge of a heavy stone sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Earlier, upon encountering a row of Grecian nudes, she covered her mouth and sped toward another room.

This was Hiba’s first visit to the Met. She’d never left Iraq before this summer. Now she’s visiting journalists she worked with in Baghdad as a translator, in part to drum up more work back at home.

At 29, with two children and a degree in English lit, Hiba, like many middle-class Shiite Muslims in Iraq, finds herself stuck between two extremes. She’s glad Saddam’s gone. But, she says, “I support the idea of [the resistance]—their right to self-protection, that they don’t want Americans to enter the cities.” Even so, she’s terrified of some of the more militant factions. In fact, Hiba’s not her real name. While in the States, she’s using a pseudonym out of fear that her visit could be enough to label her as a “collaborator,” a charge some groups punish with death.

And traveling from one country at war to another, she was struck by how different life during wartime could be. During a Yankees playoff game (at which I gave up trying to explain the rules), she expressed “surprise that people in spite of everything come to such places to have fun. They don’t seem to care about Bush doing all this stuff.” But she was also enthralled when virtually the entire crowd stood up to sing “God Bless America.”

The culture clashes only continued. At a post-rock-show party on the Upper East Side, Hiba ignored the rock star in attendance, a member of the Libertines, who was sitting next to us on the couch, fixating instead on the short-skirted groupies who made eye contact with the men they were speaking with, a faux pas in many Islamic societies. It offended her so much we had to leave.

Which made me smile: The last time I had to depart so abruptly with Hiba was when we were in the house of an Iraqi gangster, four hours south of Baghdad, asking him about his supposed Pentagon connections. He was less than thrilled with this line of inquiry, and she and I left right after his son took our pictures “just to remember us” by.

On the street, Hiba was intrigued by women smoking in public. And floored by people holding hands—much less making out—in front of other people on the subway. “They can really do that? No one cares?” There were, inevitably, other awkward moments, like when she explained to my roommate what it’s really like to be unable to find a job.

Just as inevitably, everyone quizzed her on the election. We watched the returns at the Bowery Poetry Club. “I think Kerry would have been exactly the same,” she said. “But this will just make the mujaheddin want to fight more.”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take her to ground zero before she left New York, but we ended up passing by it. “If that hadn’t happened,” she said, looking through the fence, “I guess we would never have known each other.”


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