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From Iraq — hope, fear, and reality

" Ahmad’s War, " an hourlong documentary that will be broadcast on WBUR Radio this week, grew out of a remarkable piece of good fortune. Michael Goldfarb, senior correspondent for the station’s Inside Out series, hired Ahmad Shawkat as a translator — and learned that he’d hooked up with someone who embodied all of the contradictions and potential of Iraq.

Shawkat, Kurdish and secular, is a Faulkner fan, a former university professor, and a political activist who’d been tortured in Saddam Hussein’s prisons. " They practiced every violation, every body violation, with me, every kind, " he says at one point, laughing, perhaps out of a combination of nervousness and exhilaration. His wife, Um Sindibad, with whom he has eight children, is Arab and religious, and believes her prayers to Allah saved her husband’s life.

Goldfarb follows Shawkat on a journey — a quest to return from Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdistan, where he and his family had lived in exile for seven years, to Mosul, where he’d grown up. Along the way they observe a horrific friendly-fire incident, in which US bombers killed 17 pro-American peshmerga fighters, and experience firsthand the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. Upon entering Mosul, they found the looting and violence so out of control that, rather than staying, Shawkat actually encouraged family members who were there to join him, at least temporarily, in Erbil.

" I feel very sad. Really, I feel very sad, " Shawkat tells Goldfarb near the end of the hour. " I didn’t expect that my people were going to behave in such a manner, a strange manner, to rob everything from the formal institutions just to [impress] themselves that they are against Saddam. Well, if you are against Saddam, try to know how to protect these formal institutions, how to build your homeland again. "

Goldfarb spent a month in Kurdistan, entering from Iran and leaving by driving to Baghdad and, from there, to Amman, Jordan. He had previously reported from the Kurdish region in 1996, a time when the two main Kurdish factions were fighting each other. " I’m glad I had that experience because it gave me a standard of comparison to the state of Kurdistan today, " Goldfarb, who’s based in London, told me by e-mail. " In 1996, there was no electricity, the hotels were disgusting and telecommunications extremely difficult. Once the two factions had made up U.S. aid began to flow and the result was the comparatively comfortable conditions in which I was able to cover the war. "

As for what has become of Shawkat, Goldfarb says, " I exchange e-mails with Ahmad periodically. There are net cafes in Kurdistan. In the most recent communication I had with him he said he had been elected to Mosul’s local council — you may have read about these elections two weeks ago — but he had to turn down the job because it would have meant giving up his work as a translator. The day before I left I set him up with the L.A. Times guy. Ahmad said he needed the money too much to work on a council that couldn’t pay him. I believe him. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get involved with local politics eventually. The day we went back to Mosul he was mobbed in his local neighborhood. Ahmad is a genuine leader at the ‘ward’ level if nothing else. "

" Ahmad’s War, " part of the documentary series Inside Out, will be broadcast on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) on Thursday at 9 p.m., on Saturday at 10 a.m., and on Sunday at 3 p.m.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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