Pretend I’m Not Here
Sarah didn’t say she would be bringing a friend. They sat down across from me at The Green Bean coffee shop on Elm Street, Sarah in a champagne satin hijab, her friend in maroon cotton.
“Pretend I’m not here,” said her friend, paintings of jellyfish-kitten hybrids on the wall, duct tape around the thick duct stretching across the stamped-tin ceiling, Sarah’s cell-phone adorned with gold glitter-studded mouse ears and a silver neck-lanyard because she’s always losing everything.
“It’s just cuts,” she said, referring to her memories of Iraq.
Sarah grew up in the Al-Wesfya neighborhood of southern Baghdad, known by some as The Triangle of Death. She now lives in Colfax, North Carolina, where she often likes to start her days with meditation and Korean OST (original sound tracks), a form of music she finds soothing and “romantic.” But Sarah can only handle so much romance. Sometimes, on the way to school, she’ll turn up Evanescence (a hard rock band from Arkansas), and pound the wheel as she drives down the highway.
“I’m not just one thing,” she said. “I don’t like it when people try to put me in boxes or use stereotypes or generalizations like chess pieces.”
When I asked Sarah about 2006, the year her family left Iraq, and what she remembered other than the war, she suddenly smiled at her friend. Sarah’s bright brown eyes, so wide even when she’s pensive, lit up the room like a laugh.
“There was a boy in my fifth grade class,” she said. “His name was Marjwan. He wrote me a confession letter.”
“A confession letter?”
“A love letter.”
“He got caught!”
I’d like to give you a photograph or a video to show you Sarah’s expressive face as she described the fiasco of the two Marjwans in her school and how the wrong one was punished by the teacher for the love letter (which Sarah never got to read), but Sarah’s story belongs here with the written word because she doesn’t allow her face to be photographed. Although I’m tempted to say her big sultry eyes remind me of Marilyn Monroe’s (whom Sarah admires), I think that would be putting Sarah in a box, using the celebrity descriptor as a “chess piece.” After all, Marilyn Monroe’s eyes were blue.
Sarah studies biology and chemistry at Guilford, a Quaker college here in Greensboro. She and her friend are two-thirds of “the trio,” a group of three generally inseparable women, one Saudi Arabian, Sarah and her friend both from Iraq.
“I am the crazy one, and she is the mature one,” Sarah said, pointing furtively with her eyes.
Shortly after the real Marjwan confessed his love, Sarah and her family of six left Baghdad to vacation in Jordan, as they often did. But the violence in her neighborhood was so bad that her family never returned. For seven years they lived in Jordan until her father told the family to get ready to fly to America.
“They gave us a weight,” Sarah said. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to throw things away, but all we could carry was this very certain weight.”
She cried as she looked into her father’s closet and saw a particular shirt he would have to leave behind. Her father told her if she would stop crying he would carry less of his things so he could carry more of hers. When I asked what should be done about other refugees fleeing the wars and if America has a responsibility, Sarah said:
“We do, but for a limit.”
She looked at her friend.
“I want to put it in a good way,” Sarah said.
“I don’t think you should have asked that question,” her friend said.
“Why not?” I asked.
Some conversation topics feel easy. TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy? Yes. Sarah loves it. The old woman in the shoe store at the mall who scolded Sarah for a pair of high heels, saying “You can be sexy down there but not up here?” Yes. Bring it on. All the Guilford “hippies” who like to “run around almost naked”? Fine. Yes. Sarah describes herself as a “feminist” who loves her fellow students and the fact that they get to be who they want to be, just as she is grateful to be able to express herself in her own way. But this question of immigration and refugees inspired what, for a moment, felt like an intervention.
Eight years ago, just before the election of Barack Obama, I visited Sarah’s home country of Iraq. Just before I stepped onto the midnight plane to Baghdad, a fellow war reporter asked me what should have been a simple question:
“Who do you work for?”
The reporter’s name was Moni Basu. She had thick dark hair, an intense, purposeful demeanor, and she wore a helmet that said “Evil Media Chick.” We were drinking coffee at a picnic table behind a beverage kiosk at the back of the Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait. Her traveling companion, a mustachioed photographer named Curtis Compton, had caught shrapnel from an IED during a previous embed. I told Moni I worked for a magazine called “CQ.”
“You write for Congressional Quarterly?”
The questions never stopped with Moni. She now works for CNN, but reported for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution at the time.
“Convergence Quarterly,” I said. “It’s a new magazine. This will be our first issue. We’re sponsored by North Carolina A&T.”
“You work at North Carolina A&T?”
I nodded nervously. I’m white. A&T is a historically black college in Greensboro. Many people argue that the student protest movement of the 60s began at A&T when four courageous young men conducted a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1st, 1960. This was the part of the school’s history that we advertised to the world. There was another history, however, that we ignored.
“Do you know who graduated from there?” Moni asked.
“Uh, Jesse Jackson?”
“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?”
Moni said it like that, like a question, like she couldn’t believe that I was here with her and didn’t know this crucial fact about Greensboro. It was early March, 2008, fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. I’d been working at A&T as a lecturer for three years, but I didn’t know who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was or why I should care, and Moni Basu was about to tell me why.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it turns out, got nearly his entire exposure to America from Greensboro in the mid 1980s. Moni glanced at Curtis, her photographer, who was applying a cloth to a lens with calm circular strokes. It was just beginning to dawn on me that I might be in way over my head, like maybe I was the man my father and some of my friends were afraid I was, a fool destined to die some ridiculous death in the coming days, my charred body hung from a bridge in some war-torn hamlet, men in loose-fitting garments cheering as my ashy American corpse twisted in the wind.
I took a long sip of my coffee. There I was, about to visit Sarah’s country—about to embed with a Joint Special Operations Force in Haditha, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq—and I had no idea about the man who had started the very war I was trying to cover. I’d traveled seven thousand miles from Greensboro, North Carolina to find out that the mastermind of 9/11 had been educated in my own backyard.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Rather than being a good humble journalist and question Moni relentlessly about KSM, I retreated to the base bathroom where I stared at the graffiti on the walls:
Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer. Too bad he never cries.
Here I sit, cheeks a’flexin, ready to unleash another Texan.
Have a nice war.
They called our bus. I put on my army surplus helmet and my bulletproof vest. I jotted down a few notes. I sat close to Moni as the bus filled up. I didn’t want to lose her. I wanted her to teach me more, stay with me a little longer. I felt like I needed her, and I wasn’t used to that feeling, that fear. The simple truth is: I was scared. I didn’t want to be left alone in Iraq.
We walked across the tarmac, up the ramp, and into the plane, the loud bloated hull of a C-130 Hercules. It was me, Moni, Curtis, four soldiers, and two contractors. The C-130 is an exposed experience, a cabin stripped of padding and panel, the seats nothing more than red net and steel pole, the lights a dim red, white, and blue, the floor studded with traction pads. After the plane took off, Moni fell asleep, and so did one of the soldiers. Another sat with his headphones blasting death metal so loud it sounded like spit was coming out of his ears. I smelled grape Kool-Aid powder. I looked around at the seemingly calm faces occasionally jostled by the turbulence. There was no turning back. For the past six months, I’d been obsessed with seeing Iraq for myself but now that I was here I couldn’t stop thinking about how blind I’d been to the very place I was escaping: America: Greensboro: my own backyard.
All the lights went out in the Hercules, the cabin a dark tunnel of jiggling multi-national bodies as this massive airship began its spiral descent to Baghdad, the famous lights-out, corkscrew roller-coaster free-fall approach the military’s way of evading RPGs and demonstrating to rookie journalists just how simultaneously colossal and agile America can be if she truly wants to keep herself a secret.
Since that journey to Iraq, the big secret I’ve been interested in telling is not so much that Greensboro was the womb of The War on Terror insofar as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was educated here, but that now Greensboro is the home of so many of the war’s consequences, otherwise known as human beings.
According to the United Nations Hight Commission for Refugees, over two million Iraqis were displaced as a result of the American invasion. After leaving North Carolina A&T, I began teaching at Guilford College in 2013 where I met Sarah last year. In our early conversations, I realized she was special, bold and curious, extremely intelligent. But I also noticed that Sarah was not alone. There were many others like her in the Guilford community. Just as our Quaker community of friends once lent a helping hand to slaves seeking passage on the Underground Railroad, so do they now offer refuge to immigrants from the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
“I almost died,” Sarah’s friend said to me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“My dad got kidnapped.”
Even though Sarah’s friend told me I “shouldn’t have asked that question” about America’s responsibility for the chaos in her country, she didn’t ask me to stop asking questions once I started.
“I don’t get politics. I don’t like politics,” she said. “People see these issues and they want to solve it and they put these videos on the Internet and they go viral and I’ve just been through like so much that my heart—it’s like not dead—I just don’t care.”
Sarah’s friend, who is also from Baghdad, does not wear makeup. She leaned forward. Band of Horses played soft on the Green Bean stereo. She said that during the war, for her family, every trip to the grocery store was “suspense” because she didn’t know if her mother would return.
“One day,” she said. “My grandma was the principal at the school, and my mom worked at the school, and we were leaving and stuff, and my grandpa came to pick us up, and we got into the car, and we were about to leave, and this woman came up to us and ran up to the car and wanted to talk to my grandma about this child and like two minutes later these bombs went off.”
Her eyes were wet. I wanted to reach across the table and take her hand. Her pain was palpable. I felt responsible. I told myself to remember Moni and the way she kept asking questions, that questions were not rude but good. I asked how close the bombs were to the car where she sat with her mother, her grandmother, and her grandfather.
“Close,” she said. “They were on a bridge two miles away. That woman was like an angel. We would have driven across that bridge.”
Sarah’s friend described being a young girl in this neighborhood where she saw bodies and bombs all the time and airplanes flying so low she felt like she could reach up with her fingers and touch their wings.
“Every single time children are the victims,” Sarah said, returning to the conversation.
Her friend nodded.
“Do you see yourself as a victim?” I asked.
“No,” Sarah said.
“Do you ever want to go back to Iraq?”
Sarah paused before answering that question.
“I’m scared to go back,” she said. “But I’m the sort of person who is like ‘I’m going to say ‘yes’ because I’m scared.”
I think I’m a bit like Sarah.
I, too, am scared of what has been done, and what’s to come. But I also want to understand. I want to see things for myself.
Sarah wants to be a dentist. She likes swings, has never once touched pork, and loves America. But she’s not so sure how serious America is about certain things like protecting the first amendment, the freedom of religion.
“It’s a pretense,” she said.
Sarah stood up just before the end of our conversation.
Her friend smiled into her fist. I looked down at the hundreds of scuffs and pocks from other heels that have stomped and danced on the hard wood of The Green Bean’s floor. Sarah said she doesn’t trust Donald Trump, but that “every country has its Trump.” She said her two favorite places to eat are Panera and Nazareth. But her champagne hijab and her high-heeled open-toed Aldos said something as well, and so did her smile and her desire to tell her story with a friend by her side.