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Two lives, two courses changed by war in Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2006



BAGHDAD

Not long before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the two Iraqi men frequented some of the same intellectual circles in Baghdad.

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They drank tea with friends at Shabandar Cafe, holding long discussions near the Friday book market in the heart of Old Baghdad. They attended the antique auction - where this reporter first met them - held every other Friday night in a dim but inviting shop crammed with dusty artifacts.

But three years later, their lives have been touched very differently by the US occupation, and by its soldiers. The men's trajectories have forced them to confront a wrenching decision: whether to reorient their lives in a radically changed Iraq - or to leave their homeland.

As US forces rumbled toward Baghdad, Esam Pasha al-Azzawy, with his thick beard and long black hair, was gaining ground as a young artist who talked up his paintings as the auctioneer gaveled gilt chairs and old swords. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Esam Pasha al-Azzawy's name.]

Bassim Sulaiman was an established antique dealer with an air of high learning, who chain-smoked his way through each auction, seeking out customers and friends, as well as deals for his antique shop.

The artist

Today, Mr. Azzawy says he is fully experiencing the American dream - a rare enough event these days for any Iraqi. But after three years of violence in his homeland, Azzawy says that the promise of freedom carried by US forces when they invaded Iraq can only be found in one place: America itself.

Azzawy left the car bombs, killing, and chronic danger behind, and was invited by a Minnesota gallery to visit last spring. Earlier this year he exhibited work in New York - as part of the first east coast showing by Iraqi artists. He has spent the past six months living in New London, Conn., in a "dream" studio as an artist-in-residence at the Griffis Art Center.

"This is a great experience; the horizon is wide open here," says Azzawy, in a telephone interview. "People are very nice and cooperative. Iraq is also a melting pot, with so many religions and ethnic groups. So in Iraq nobody is a foreigner, and it's the same in America."

Azzawy's grant ends this month, and he will apply for asylum in the US. But the path from his tiny Baghdad apartment and studio has been difficult and dangerous.

Azzawy had mixed emotions about the US arrival, and what it would mean for his beloved city. But just after the regime fell, he said it felt like "my first time in the outside world."

His first contacts with American troops were "gentle" because "we [Iraqis] were gentle with them." But he warned then that "hoping is not enough. We must act, and take [government] out of the hands of the Americans before it is too late."

An optimist by nature, the tall, barrel-chested Azzawy is a former Iraqi national judo champion. He began working as a translator for US units a week after they arrived, quickly picking up the nickname "Jesus" because of his looks. His job with the 101st Airborne and later the Florida National Guard, was made easier because he was with "good units," he said at the time, which did not partake in heavy-handed raids that alienated many Iraqis.

But the close calls began to add up, as Iraqis working for Americans began to be targeted by insurgents. One fellow translator was killed. And besides working nights for US units at five dollars a day - raised later to $12 a day - Azzawy also worked for Western journalists.

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