An Iraqi whose art spans worlds

As an artist and interpreter, Esam Pasha al-Azzawy links US troops and suspicious Iraqis.

The Iraqi artist splodges a few dollops of bright oil paint to a makeshift cardboard palette, readies his brush, then casts his eyes up onto his "canvas" - a vast concrete slab once plastered with portraits of Saddam Hussein.

Now the slab at the Labor Ministry is awash in bright blues, purples, and yellows that illustrate the depth of Iraq's history and values. It is the first official mural painted in postwar Iraq, a work of art meant to help light Iraq's way toward a brighter future. The artist has deliberately not used a drop of black

But it is also the realization of a dream that artist Esam Pasha al-Azzawy first shared with the Monitor shortly after Baghdad fell to invading American forces last spring: to replace the ubiquitous public face of Hussein with art.

"It has been very nice," says the husky, thickly bearded painter, who had to first peel away two back-to-back,12-yard square images of Hussein that had been defaced with mud and paint, before beginning work. "Me, the most modest and small citizen in Baghdad, tearing this tyrant's portrait down."

But Mr. Azzawy's journey since war's end has taken him farther than the luxurious colors of the mosque, sun, astrolabe, birds, and ancient columns depicted in his mural.

Within a week of Baghdad's fall, he began working as an interpreter for US forces - an experience that has given him an insider's view of the American occupation.

A few Iraqi interpreters for the US military are known to have turned against their employers, and used their job to spy on potential targets, after witnessing rough treatment meted out by US forces, and angrily concluding that American soldiers hate Iraqis.

Others have been killed for their "treason" by loyalists of the former regime. "A note was left near the body of one interpreter slain in Tikrit, that read: 'We warned you before: We will never stop killing,'" Azzawy says.

A guitarist friend of Azzawy's was thrice warned in Bagdhad, before he was murdered.

But Azzawy's experience has been far more nuanced and positive, because he has been working with "good units," he says, that remain largely respectful even during raids.

"I now realize that my role is much more important for the Iraqis, than it is for the Americans," says Azzawy. "Soldiers don't care: They'll do their job anyway, and search you or pull you out of the car, whether you like it or not.

"But I can make the Iraqis understand what is happening and why, and lots of times it calms them down," Azzawy says. "Soldiers are soldiers, and no matter how nice they are, they are only trained for one thing: to kill the enemy. Anything else is a police matter. My job is to convince people."

That hasn't been too difficult, Azzawy says, since he is working with a National Guard unit from Florida which does everything from patrols and raids, to security duty at Western embassies - but has not engaged in the kind of heavy-handed behavior that he has seen elsewhere, and heard about. "They never checked my background, as far as I know," says the artist, whose English is excellent, but who regularly turns heads. With his long hair and beard, he is a shoe-in for the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Some US troops, he says, jokingly call him "Jesus."

"Everything depends on how I deal with them," Azzawy adds, noting that getting through tight spots together has created a certain bond usually reserved for fellow soldiers. "Now I am friends with many of them. I trust them, and they trust me."

That doesn't mean there is no culture gap, nor that Azzawy's vocabulary hasn't been unavoidably assaulted with an array of soldiers' expletives. Troops checked out his CD collection of Enya and mostly classical music, which helped Azzawy keep sane during the US bombing campaign of the war - and declared it "boring."

He says he doesn't understand their noisy rap music, either.

But it was a US officer's encouragement that prompted Azzawy to take up his brushes and turn a defaced Saddam into art. He and the officer were sitting looking at the paint-splashed portrait.

"I laughed, and said I'd paint it myself," Azzawy recalls. "The soldier said: 'You should! Do something that represents your country."

Azzawy drew up a proposal and some sketches, and was awarded a $918 offer to do the mural, paid for out of the discretionary fund provided to senior US commanding officers.

The artist has worked as an interpreter, without a day off since mid-April. Normally he works the night shift, though often he spends more time at the US base than that - finding a taxi to take him to work after the 11 p.m. curfew is impossible. The $5 per day pay has recently doubled, to $10.

It can be risky work, and US troops dealing with the interpreters make clear that any doubt whatsoever can be grounds for dismissal. During one lecture on security, a US officer told the Iraqis that he is "paid to have no friends," when it comes to the job of keeping an eye on them.

Azzawy says that his job with US forces has also opened his eyes about his own countrymen, however. "The ones who hate Americans have no good reason - only because they are foreigners," Azzawy says.

"Day after day they are getting used to the Americans. At first they thought the war was still going on, and blamed them for the deaths of Iraqis," Azzawy says. "But now they see that the Americans are rebuilding, and that it is Iraqi [resistance] attacks that are killing Iraqis.

"I think we are going to reach the peak of the pyramid [of anti-US violence] soon," he says. "At the beginning, there were rumors that the Americans would bring everybody cellphones. It's good to give up stupid expectations.... Now [Iraqis] know the Americans are not magicians. They have expectations of real things."

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