Remembering Allan: a tribute to Jill Carroll's interpreter

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He had kept a famous music store open in Baghdad until last summer, when conditions made purveying Western CDs too dangerous.

Still needing to support his young and growing family, Allan Enwiya turned full time to interpreting for American reporters, a job that he had dabbled in since 2004. And it was while doing that job with journalist Jill Carroll on a Saturday morning in January that Allan became a victim of an abduction on a Baghdad street, where he was shot and killed.

Allan was one of 82 journalists and media assistants who have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war, according to the international organization Reporters Without Borders. Of that number, 25 were media assistants killed, like Allan, while doing their job.

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Often their stories, even their names, are not told. But Allan's story is representative of why Iraqis are willing to take such risks by working with foreigners.

For some it's the chance to break into journalism, to be a part of telling their country's history. But for the majority - and Allan was one of these - it is a means for turning a prized talent, facility with English, into a job and a way to support a family in a difficult economy.

With Allan's death, another small chip of the cosmopolitan and partially Westernized mosaic that was prewar Baghdad was lost. As one Baghdadi blogger who had known the famous "DJ Allan" wrote shortly after the news of the abduction spread, for "those Westernized Iraqis who craved foreign music, [Allan] had very few rivals... He had just about everything from Abba to Marilyn Manson."

Yet as much as he loved music and as comfortable as he felt with Americans and other Westerners, what motivated the young Iraqi Christian with a degree in electrical engineering was his family: his parents, to whom he was an only son, but especially to his wife, a 5-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, and a toddler son, Martin. "For them," he sometimes said, "I'll do what it takes."

Omar Fekeiki, an Iraqi who had known Allan since the late 1990s, was a college student when he first walked into Allan's music shop. "Allan needed to provide for his family, and what he was good at was the English language," he says.

Now a special correspondent in Baghdad for The Washington Post, Mr. Fekeiki says, "For some of us, it's the chance to be a journalist that brings us in, but Allan wasn't like that. Like the doctors and pharmacists and engineers you see doing this job," he adds, "he used his skill to have a job and make a living."

A correspondent's perspective

I worked with Allan while on a stint in Iraq in December, just before the national elections. During those weeks, I came to know an easygoing young man who took his job seriously, but who liked to gossip, always good-naturedly, about Iraqi politicians or international stars. He dressed nattily - crisp jeans and a sport shirt or T-shirt that looked more Western than Iraqi. And while he was interested enough in the politics of what then was an Iraq deep in campaign mode, he saved his passion for his young family.

I had known other interpreters during my stints in Iraq who seemed to use the job to escape their families and those duties, but clearly for Allan, the job - as interesting as it was to him - was a means to an end. He was not a daredevil, not even really a newshound. Which somehow makes his death all the more tragic.

"His family was his top priority, and his kids were his life," says Carolyne Hanna, a cousin now living in Chicago who played with a young Allan until her family left Iraq in 1982. "Sure, he did it for the money, but it was also something he liked that he was good at."

The Allan I knew less well was the young man who had run the music shop, Allan Melody, in Baghdad's once-chic A'arasat neighborhood. That Allan had turned to family in the States to send him the latest music so he could be up to date. "He'd send me a list, and I'd send him 20 CDs at a time," says Ms. Hanna.

Allan shuttered the shop after receiving death threats and having an unexploded hand grenade tossed through the front window. But he kept the dream of being a music producer.

He could also laugh at himself. Allan was the first to recognize that he had not been formally trained as a interpreter, and that as a result he was prone to find himself over his head in some interviews. Fully at ease in man-on-the-street interviews (at least the ones that were in fact off the street and behind shop doors, away from peering eyes), Allan was less in command in formal interviews with officials using precise language, and he knew it.

He chuckled heartily for hours after a highly intellectual official in one ministry, endowed with enough English to know he was not happy with Allan's translation of his references to 19th-century philosophers, stopped the interview. "He's saying you need a new interpreter," Allan stage-whispered to me, grinning as the official fumed in the background. "What do you want to do?"

But on another occasion he picked up on the tension between an outspoken official and a ministry minder who in veiled terms warned the official not to dwell on certain issues - in this case sectarian tensions in schools - with the American reporter. Allan let their discussion go on without seeming to take note of it or translate it, but later in the car he filled me in on the heated words and, to his thinking, their significance.

Covering Saddam Hussein's trial

Allan also wanted to learn on the job, so he could be a better interpreter. When he found out he was going to fill the Monitor's slot in a pool of interpreters for the Saddam Hussein trial, he was worried. "Really, I'm terrified," he told me.

Part of it was a concern that he would be recognized by the wrong people. That fear was allayed when he learned that he would not be seen or have his face broadcast on TV. But he also worried that he would stumble over legal terms he just didn't know. So we spent hours over a couple of days before his translating stint, watching the trial and making a list of key words: defendant, plaintiff, prosecution, witness, evidence, and so on.

The evening of his day in court, Allan called me, euphoric. "It was frightening and exciting at the same time, it was amazing," he said, breathless. "Do you know what it's like for an Iraqi to be in the room with the man who controlled our lives for so many years? It was crazy."

Allan seemed happiest, and proudest, the day he took me to have lunch at his house, where he lived with his own family, his parents, a sister, and a cousin. His mother, originally from Basra, prepared masgouf, a large river fish, with a fabulous Basran sauce of olives and spices.

After lunch, we sipped sweet tea and Raymond Enwiya, Allan's father, told me of his own good years and decline as a Baghdad businessman. Allan juggled Martin on a knee while keeping Mary Ann busy with his other arm. He made a video, speaking as he filmed to provide the audio for the kids' antics.

Today Mr. Enwiya, his wife and daughter, and Allan's wife and children, have left the country. They await word on their request for visas to go to the United States. Their lives have changed drastically, but they watch the videos Allan made, even the ones he isn't in, just to hear his voice.

"I won't let his children forget him," Allan's father says.

Back in Baghdad, others won't forget Allan so quickly either, especially those who cherished the music shop. Like the blogger, who, remembering how much Allan loved Pink Floyd, closed a cybertribute with these Pink Floyd lyrics:

Did you see the frightened ones?
Did you hear the falling bombs?
Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter
When the promise of a brave new world
Unfurled beneath the clear blue sky?
Did you see the frightened ones?
Did you hear the falling bombs?
The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.
Goodbye, blue sky
Goodbye, blue sky.
Goodbye. Goodbye.

How to help

Donations may be sent to:
The Allan Enwiya Fund
c/o The Christian Science Monitor
One Norway Street
Boston, MA 02115

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