Ali was the meekest of the group. It was hard to believe what he told me, that he had been a fighter pilot in Saddam Hussein's air force. He stood there, flanked by his two friends, his hands folded in front of him, one hand trying to keep the other one still.
I was interviewing Iraqi candidates for a position in Baghdad with the American company I work for. The successful applicant had to write English easily, be able to travel around Iraq, be comfortable talking with - and fearless enough to get information from - Americans and Iraqis of high position, and be available now. That last requirement was easy to meet. None of them had jobs.
Each was brave to come, because working for Americans can be a death sentence in Iraq today. (For that reason I have changed even the applicants' first names here.)
"Can you write English well?" I asked Ali when we sat down in the conference room.
"Yes please, Mr. Keith, I am happy to take test." Not a promising start, but I gave him a test. He was to interview me and then write a paragraph in English as if it were a news story. I had to help him with the questions - he didn't want to offend me by asking anything too personal. I left him alone for 30 minutes to write the story.
When I returned, Ali had written one sentence. It was a well-crafted sentence. He had written it 10 times, correcting mistakes each time. His brow was coated with sweat. I hated to do it, but I thanked him and told him I was sorry, I didn't think he was the right one for the job. He said he understood and walked slowly out the door, his head down.
That afternoon, Farah arrived ahead of schedule. Her face startled me.
She looked European, but she wore a head scarf tightly wrapped around her face. She behaved not as a Westerner but as an Iraqi woman who knows her place, speaking not to my face but alternately to my shoulders and my shoes. When I shook her hand it felt as though I was holding a wilted flower.
She spoke perfect English, though, and confided that she was in fact half Irish, her father having come to Baghdad from Dublin as a diplomat and married an Iraqi wife. Farah now had an Iraqi husband and had successfully merged with the culture. She called the Iraqis "my people."
I asked her if she would be able to travel to other cities in Iraq. She said she would have to ask her husband, but that she doubted it. As she spoke, her shoulders were hunched and she looked down at the table, but it didn't seem to be a posture of submission. Then she startled me for the second time.
I was curious to know how she thought, so I asked for her opinion on the war with America, about the rebuilding effort, about life as a half-Westerner in a Muslim culture. As she began to answer she lifted her head. Her scarf drifted back to reveal strands of blond hair. After a few minutes she looked me in the eyes for the first time, and I was struck by the anger in her face.
"My people are suffering so much," she said. "I would like to do something for you here in Baghdad."
Her transformation was fascinating, but something about her alarmed me. Her anger seemed fueled by hatred, but hatred of what? I wasn't sure.
"I'll think about it," I said, wanting to let her down easily. "But I'm not sure, since you are unable to travel, that this would work well." Farah's face dropped again, her body folded up, and she said quietly that she understood.
After a few more interviews I was out of candidates and almost ready to give up. Then I received a call from Ahmed, the head of our security force. Would I be willing to meet one more person, a friend of his wife's?
I dreaded having to say no to another woman like Farah, but I assented. Reem was a shock in her own right. She stood tall and wore a skirt and blouse that would be appropriate in any Western office. She spoke good English and clearly could converse as an equal with anyone. She had once headed a European organization in Baghdad.
Reem's face told me that she'd had a hard life as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated society, but that she would never give in to self-pity. She seemed to have the combination of confidence and ability that would make her successful.
I gave her a test, and she could write well enough that I could edit her material and make it fly. I told her she had the job if she wanted it. She said she would be in touch soon.
A week later I received an e-mail:
Dear Mr. Keith: I am extremely sorry for being late to answer you. I passed through a horrible time these few days. My eldest brother's car was looted in Basra and he was severely injured, and my father in a very angry mood nowadays, and I had a long debate with him regarding working with your company. He will never allow me to travel to other provinces after what happened to my brother.
He keeps telling me, 'Look what happened to your brother, and he is a man. What may happen to you in the future? I do not want to risk any more with your lives.'
I answered you so late, thinking that he may change his mind, but I think in vain. Finally, I can not say more than thank you very much for you and for the opportunity with you.
Best regards, Reem.
I was back to Square 1, but I had learned more about what I was looking for. The person I hired would not only have to be able to do the job but also have to be free - free of fear, of hatred, of others' control. For the moment in Iraq, it seemed, that kind of freedom was asking too much. We were willing to pay a good salary, but there are some things money can't buy.