Letters From Baghdad

By John Agresto, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education from September 2003 until June 2004 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 18/02/07):

Americans have always been fascinated by correspondence from the front. I have nothing from our soldiers to share, but I do have letters from an Iraqi friend and his wife. Hasan (sadly, I dare not give his real name) was a translator for the Coalition Provisional Authority when I worked in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. These brief letters catalogue the deterioration, the chaos and the human tragedy that have become Iraq’s lot. Perhaps they show the futility of our remaining there; perhaps they point out why we must stay. But they surely speak to the need to help those who once so hopefully helped us.

Here’s a small window into the sadness called Iraq:

John Agresto

June 24, 2004: I hope you made the trip safely. If I may loosen the rein to my humble imagination, you may be relaxing in an easy chair . . . savoring the tranquility of the scene in front of you, listening to “American Pie.” [Along with anything by Buddy Holly, Don McLean’s 1971 classic was one of Hasan’s favorites. He knew all the lyrics by heart and sang them repeatedly.] If that’s what is happening, then I’m really happy for you, after all the effort that you made, you deserve a lot more.God, I’m so talkative, even for a first e-mail across continents!

Aug. 12, 2004: Things are going well for us, in spite of the deteriorating security state . . . [My wife] is going to work [at] an independent women assembly . . . I’m doing well, too, been praised & paid monthly. Lots of work, but I’m for it.

Sept. 9, 2004: Hello Sir, I’m still alive! It’s been nearly a month since I e-mailed you last. The situation is getting tighter by the day, one can even smell chaos in the air! Being a confirmed optimistic, I still lead a sociable life, with great assistance from [my wife], who believes like me that one can only die once, so it better be done in style!

May 16, 2005: [A] burglar or “s” broke into our house twice & a car exploded in our neighborhood, not far away, which caused window-glass breaking. [B]ut we’re safe & sound, comparatively speaking for what others are suffering. [B]ombed cars are by wholesale nowadays! Miraculously, [my wife] was not affected by the exploding car [because] she decided to leave the living room just seconds prior to the explosion. The broken glass covered all the sofa she was sitting on! Our ration of optimism is decreasing drastically!

Nov. 30, 2005: The situation here is deteriorating by the days, nowadays, even I, the optimist see it as unbelievingly unbearable beyond any standard. The constitution is a disaster, & [the] religious fanatics are power-thirsty, driven only by their complexities. I’m not only revealing my own opinion, this is standard street talk . . . Iraqis are yearning for a government that brings security & order among other obvious needs. They brought us ethnic & sect segregation, while most Iraqi families have [had] a husband or a wife from the other sect & even another ethnic group, for generations . . .If these degenerates continue in power after Dec. elections, God forbid, then it becomes inevitable for any sane Iraqi to get the heck out! We had humble hopes. [W]e came to the levee but the levee was dry! [We need America to] simply support sane, secular &; multi-party government, even bring it to power. By doing so, be assured every Iraqi will praise US of A all night & day . . .It could be immensely enhanced if Uncle Sam comes to rescue, don’t we wish, oh boy, that’ll be the day!

March 7, 2006: A nearly total eclipse of the heart & soul is the reason behind not writing! As you’re concluding from what you gather, nothing is going the right direction. Deterioration is the master of the scene. I don’t want to depress you more; you’re too dear to us to do so. We’re still in Baghdad, where else to go to? No place on the sphere is willing to accept Iraqis. I suppose we’re considered potential threat, especially after the Amman explosions, not to say what we’re doing in our own country, flying a 1,000-year-old, gold-cladded dome high in the sky & turning it to debris — a shameful example of what I’m stating. Any way, I don’t blame the world for looking down to us.

June 17, 2006: We’re fine & safe by current Iraqi standards! Although we’re living in unbelievably unbearable circumstances . . . [E]verything is worse than the day before: infrastructure, services, security, even hope! I don’t need to elaborate. What you gather from media is only a fraction of reality. Baghdad is taking the worst out of that. Nowadays women are afraid of going outdoors unless for an absolute need, or going to work, but most wear veils as a precaution from a sudden harassment by a stupid degenerate, claiming to implement religion . . . To top it all, we have a curfew extension, so now we should be home at sunset till 6 am, just like domesticated farm animals! [W]asn’t I right [back in 2004] about sitting down & watching [TV] with a drink in hand, hoping to live another day with our limbs & head where they were the day before?! Our feelings & reactions have become numb . . .

Oct. 12, 2006: [All] things [are] worse in everything & by all standards. Public electrical power is only 2 hours a day for ordinary citizens; VIPs (Hakim & his likes) get 24! I suppose you’re well aware that what is circulated by media regarding the daily casualties is only the tip of the iceberg. Last night, the announced figure was 60 for the day, but a neighbor informed that till noon [it] was 198 in the city morgue, when he was collecting his tortured & killed brother’s corpse. Killing on identity [i.e., because of one’s religious or ethnic identity] is the hottest trend in our beloved & multi-ethnic, sect & religion city! We, citizens, used to judge each other by personalities, good or bad, never by sect, ethnicity or religion, for so many generations. Hell, you can rarely find an Iraqi family that’s single sect, without marrying from the other. The same with ethnicity. . . . [D]isplaced families by force are now 51,000, not persons but families according to the minister of immigration & displaced announcement yesterday! We both take moral support from your e-mails . . . & your passport photo, that’s still put in our living room! That’s what we really needed & what we always will: your friendship & communication, although we would really love a reunion, any time! Of course USA is out of the question for a simple Iraqi couple . . . . it’s a wide world, though not so “wide” for Iraqis.

Christmas Eve, 2006: This time of the year enables us to seize the opportunity to wish you & your family a MERRY CHRISTMAS & a HAPPY NEW YEAR. We’re still alive; suffering of what now must have been obvious & clear to the entire world. Restricting our daily movement to essential needs, but thinking positively & not trying to ruin the occasion — hoping for you times of joy & comfort.

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I have written Hasan three times now since this last letter, and I have not heard back.