Friday afternoon in the Pita Shack diner in the northern suburbs of Austin, Texas and I was surrounded by Iraqis. There was even a picture of a sweet-looking Marsh Arab girl in her papyrus boat hanging on the wall. It was all unexpected but strangely familiar, stirring memories of Delta-30’s turret-scanning the junction of Red 11 in downtown Al Amarah back in 2004.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, the Maysan province around Al Amarah was the site of local uprisings against Saddam Hussein. In retaliation he drained the region’s marshes to deprive the local Marsh Arabs of the waters on which their livelihoods and 6,000-year-old culture depended. At least 100,000 of the 250,000 Marsh Arabs were displaced within Iraq, many swelling the population of the city of Al Amarah throughout the Nineties. An additional 40,000 fled to Iran.
Meeting an Iraqi is a bittersweet encounter for me these days. During my 2004 deployment, the vast majority of Iraqis, bar the small minority who were shooting at us, were friendly and hospitable. Near the end of what I remember as the hottest, sweatiest and most exhausting midday foot patrol, I signaled to the soldiers to take a knee on the sidewalk. The wizened head of an old man appeared from a shack off to the side, before disappearing. I thought nothing of it, focusing instead on the sensations of relief coursing through my weary limbs. The man reappeared, carrying a silver tray with a steaming glass of sweet tea.
But then our military coalition’s presence took the country down its road to destruction. Which partly explains why I keep crossing paths with Iraqis beyond their country’s borders, from encounters with Iraqi taxi drivers in western cities to the Iraqi engineer working on the ferry that plies the Gulf of Tadjoura, next to Djibouti City in the Horn of Africa.
There’s a good chance our paths will keep crossing in Texas. In 2014, 19,651 Iraqis were resettled in the US. Texas took 2,445, the third-highest number after California and Michigan. The growing Iraqi community in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has given rise to talk of a Little Baghdad. Whenever I bump into Iraqis, they appear no different than most of them did in 2004. They don’t hold anything against you on a personal level for what has befallen their country.
A mixture of local Austinites and Iraqis come into the Pita Shack for lunch. I was directed there by a contact at the Refugee Services of Texas. I was writing about Gov. Greg Abbott. After President Trump issued an Executive Order granting local politicians a veto over the placement of refugees, Abbott had declared that the Lone Star State — its motto ‘Friendship’ — would accept no refugees in 2020.
Pita Shack’s owners, 50-year-old Ayman Attar Bashi and his wife Raya Thanoon, came from Iraq in 2010 as refugees after a 12-year application process. I didn’t mention my military adventures at first. We veterans tend to be sensitive creatures, and the calculating journalist side of my brain didn’t want to imperil my story. I needn’t have worried on either account. Once the official interview was wrapped up, Attar Bashi went into the kitchen to make cups of Turkish-style coffee. Fueled by this delicious brew — ‘It’s the cardamoms,’ Bashi replied to my praise — I volunteered how I had served with the British military in Al Amarah.
‘Adil! Get over here!’ Attar Bashi called to the kitchen. ‘This journalist used to be in Al Amarah.’
Thirty-one-year-old Adil arrived in 2012. Flashing a winning smile, he talked amiably about growing up in the Al Amarah region before moving to Baghdad. ‘Sure, you could visit; it’s not as bad as Baghdad,’ he said when I told him I have always wanted to return. Adil looked pretty buff, which may have had something to do with his joining the US Army. Not, as you might think, to get US citizenship: he already has that.
Perhaps because they have little choice, the Pita Shack Iraqis seemed pragmatic about making a home in the country responsible for the destruction of their old country.
‘We separate the actions of the US government back then from the American people,’ Thanoon says. She explains that they are grateful for the second chance the US has given them. Their young daughter is growing up with a light heart, and they’re participating in America’s grand tradition of social mobility. ‘We could never have opened a business in Iraq,’ Thanoon says, noting how they started the initial catering business that led to the restaurant with only $100.
That doesn’t mean they have forgotten what has been lost. ‘Being a refugee is not a choice; we didn’t want to have to come,’ Attar Bashi says. ‘Before the invasion in 2003, we had a stable life; it was good in Baghdad.’
The bloody horrors that have waylaid Iraq since the 2003 invasion obliterate thoughts of its glorious past. Iraq was once the ‘cradle of civilization’. Its ancient Mesopotamian cities were famed for innovation in science, writing, literature, medicine, theology and law. It is the old Babylonia, once the stomping ground of Alexander the Great. Not long ago, travelers were drawn to attractions ranging from breathtaking mountains to vibrant cities, rich archaeological sites and a people famous for their hospitality.
Agatha Christie visited Iraq before its independence from Britain in 1932 and lived for a time in the city of Nimrud, where her archaeologist husband was excavating. The visits inspired her novel Murder in Mesopotamia, and she began writing her autobiography in Nimrud too. ‘What a beautiful spot it was,’ she wrote. ‘The Tigris was just a mile away, and on the great mound of the Acropolis, big stone Assyrian heads poked out of the soil… It was a spectacular stretch of country — peaceful, romantic and impregnated with the past.’
I reacted as Christie had when it came to Al Amarah — and even remained entranced as the security situation deteriorated. My unit’s main camp was outside the city in the desert. The only military presence in the city was at a compound known as CIMIC House, set on a fantastic riverside spot. Rory Stewart, later a writer and Conservative MP, did a stint there in 2003 as Coalition Provisional Authority Deputy Governorate Coordinator for Maysan.
At CIMIC House we collected our plates from the sweating chefs and ate outside at tables, savoring the majestic view as the lowering red orb of the sun hovered over the Tigris’s wide, shimmering expanse. With midday temperatures that could exceed 122°F, the early evening temperature (around 100) felt pleasantly balmy. There should be an outdoor restaurant here, I thought as I relaxed in my chair, forgetting my sweaty combat clothing.
While my fellow officers discussed forthcoming operations, guard routines and the manning of tanks, I imagined a riverside restaurant fantasy: the glow of bare shoulders, the swirl of elegant dresses, the laughter amid the pouring of wine and clinking of glasses. Throughout that tour, it often struck me what a fine destination Al Amarah would make — the glittering river, the palm trees, the atmospheric souk, the sunsets, the minarets and the calls of the imams — were there not a war on and 72-ton tanks rumbling down its streets.
By the end of my tour in October 2004, no one was eating outside at CIMIC House due to incoming mortars and RPGs. The riverside view was screened off from the enemy’s eyes. By 2006, the country and way of life that Attar Bashi and Thanoon had known were lost.
‘There were so many killings and kidnappings, if you or another member of the family went out into the city in the morning, you couldn’t be sure that you would see each other again at the end of the day,’ Thanoon says. ‘The fear from those days was the worst part; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. With that sort of fear, you don’t feel anything else; you can’t even feel hungry or happy.’
Both husband and wife agree it would have been better if Saddam Hussein had been left in power.
‘At least we had a country, and could walk around safely,’ Attar Bashi says. Thanoon notes the dreadful ripple effects of Iraqi’s disintegration that have destabilized the whole region, contributing to death and destruction in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt.
Then again, another Iraqi told me the US was right to remove Saddam Hussein.
‘I know what it is like under a dictator and a genocidal system,’ says 38-year-old ‘Dilan’, who came to the US in 2012 after working for five years as an interpreter for the US military in northern Iraq. He doesn’t want his real name used due to potential reprisals against his family, who are still in Iraq. ‘The US freed 95 percent of Iraqis. After the invasion we were so hopeful for prosperity and cooperation between the two countries to build a new Iraq.’
What went wrong, Dilan says, is the Americans tasked with rebuilding the country ‘didn’t think they needed us’. They didn’t confer with the Iraqis and made too many bad choices. At the same time, he says, neighboring countries exploited the situation. He blames Iran more than the US for what has happened to Iraq.
Faced with the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, these days Americans are more focused on sorting out America’s domestic problems. People like Attar Bashi and Thanoon are more than happy to help out as tax-paying citizens.
‘This country accepted us,’ Thanoon says, ‘so we now give back.’
This article is in The Spectator’s September 2020 US edition.