An acrid haze carpets Cairo, rendering the grimy cityscape still grimier, adding flavor to the sights and sounds of controlled chaos. Sometimes the pollution makes it impossible to see across the Nile from the window of my riverside apartment. Most nights, I fall asleep to a soundtrack of honking cars and screeching tires. Relief comes on Fridays—the Muslim day of prayer—when the streets are quiet except for the call of the muezzin.
I moved to Egypt in August to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. I came by way of UVA, but more by way of Iraq, a place I’ve never left far behind. I was a soldier there from 2004 to 2005, and I feel compelled to re-engage the Middle East on civilian terms. My goal, one I adopted while studying at UVA after my service, is to pursue a career in journalism as a way to bridge the gaping cultural divide between the Middle East and the United States.
During my tour in Iraq, I felt like I left no imprint. I know my fellow soldiers and I protected each other, but I cannot be sure that my unit helped the Iraqi people. We secured clean water for a few local villages, and my platoon protected a mass gravesite where scientists identified Kurdish remains, which brought closure to families whose relatives disappeared during a massacre 16 years earlier. Aside from those operations, I can’t remember feeling like I made a difference.
Iraq, however, made its mark on me. During my fourth year at UVA, with a College of Arts & Sciences grant, I filmed interviews with Iraq veterans from all over Virginia, focusing on the transition to civilian life after wartime deployment. My questions revolved around the experience of returning to work and school, the pain of loss and the difficulty of rejoining intimate family relationships after long separation. The effort provided the basis for an article in the Virginia Quarterly Review (“A Few Unforeseen Things,” Fall 2008) that was dedicated to veteran homecoming, post-traumatic stress disorder and crises of conscience resulting from wartime service.
Now that I’m in Cairo, I’m still confronting aftereffects of my Iraqi experience. Soon after arriving, I befriended an Iraqi restaurant owner named Taisir, who prefers to be called Abu Bashar, or “Bashar’s father.” In Baghdad, Abu Bashar’s engineering firm benefited from American contracts, so he wasn’t surprised when gunmen came for him in 2006. His family fled immediately, first to Syria and then to Egypt, where they settled in a Cairo suburb with a large Iraqi refugee community.
“The time to go back is now,” Abu Bashar told me in October. “There will never be a better time.” He hoped the stability resulting from the “surge” would enable him to resume business. His wife, Um Bashar, was less optimistic. Um Bashar, who never removes her Iraq-shaped pendant, told me, “If the rest of my family could be in Egypt, I would never go back to Iraq.”
Abu Bashar introduced me to an Iraqi doctor named Aous. Aous is 27, my age exactly. After graduating from medical school, Aous worked in Baqouba, a city ravaged by sectarian fighting. Working in the emergency room there left Aous feeling like a man “with a beating heart and no soul.” Those are his words; he uses them to describe himself and the Iraqi people.
Understanding Arabic will help me understand men like Aous. Before coming to Egypt, a UVA faculty member warned me, “Studying Arabic is pure misery.” Yes, Arabic is frustrating, even humiliating. But the joy of discovery outweighs the misery a thousand times over.
When my Arabic is good enough, I plan to return to Iraq to write about the joy and misery of those whose lives have been touched by living—or serving—there.
There are a million stories waiting to be told. They will pour from the mouths of soldiers and mothers, teachers and engineers, children and clerics, and yes, from the mouths of militants, too.
I want to listen to them all.