Children of War: Baghdad

Emad Abdelkarim Ali

Emad Abdelkarim Ali was fifteen years old when the American invasion of Iraq began.

They call me Mikey. It’s my name from the army. I grew up on Al Kifah Street in Baghdad. My school was called Al Rashid. I’m twenty years old, and I have seven people in my family — four sisters and three brothers. Under Saddam, my father worked with the Iraqi army. He was in charge of the salary distributions. He didn’t love Saddam. He worked for the army for thirty years and until the end came home with just $30 every month. He told us things would get better after Saddam was gone.

The Americans came to our country in 2003. I was in middle school during the invasion. The day it started, we went north in an old car with my uncle and my cousins and came back three months later to find our home trashed. There was dust and ash and broken glass everywhere. There were Humvees and tanks in the streets. Everyone was waving. It was like “Hello! Welcome!” all the time. A lot of smiling. They gave us candy, the Americans. It was chocolate. Real chocolate. Long bars that tasted different from our chocolate. Iraqi chocolate tastes like dirt. I think about that time, and I can taste chocolate.

I didn’t go to school for four years after that. My school was the Americans.

I worked for them for two and a half years. I mean, the Americans. They treated me fine. My father worked as a translator for a while, and then he opened a store. He ran his store at two different army bases.

Nosb Al-Shaheed was the location of the first base. That means “the monument of the martyr.” The area was beautiful. Everything was clean. There was a soccer stadium nearby. The street was called — I forget what it was called. The Ministry of Oil was close by, though. We were there for a year and a half. We left that base eventually because they evacuated us. But before we left, some of the American guys took me and my little brother Ziad on a helicopter ride over Baghdad.

Next we moved to another base, by the police academy. This was the new regime’s academy. It was where the Americans trained the Iraqis. We were there one year and one month after we left Nosb Al-Shaheed. At one point, I lived there for three months on my own with the Americans. When they needed anything, I would get it for them, morning or night.

Our store at both bases was called Karim’s Store. That is my father’s name. We sold Pepsi, cigarettes (Marlboro and Camel), TVs, blankets. The army guys loved Marlboro Reds. There was another kind of cigarette with a blue cover, but I can’t remember the name. They asked for Pringles, beds, pillows, video games — especially Xbox. Sometimes they asked for Iraqi souvenirs like knives and swords. They also wanted whiskey and hashish.

We sold them DVDs, the new movies. They would bring a list of movies to me, and I got all of them from the black market. I guess they filmed them in the theater because a lot of them were still in the movie theaters in the States when I would get them. I watched them, too. I saw a boxed set called Jackass. Also Batman Begins. And we used to sell them Van Damme and Arnold boxed sets. They loved any war films. Like Saving Private Ryan. They also bought porno from us. I always gave them discounts. I always said, Bring me the money later.

Oh, I used to play volleyball. I was on the American team. Some people asked me why I was on their team and playing against Iraqis, and I said, I want to be on the American team. They boxed a lot, too, and we played billiards. And they had a big gym. See all these muscles?

Mostly, I learned English from the army men. I only knew “Hi, how are you” before. By the end they said I spoke just like they did. Most of my friends in the army were black. They were from New Jersey, New York, and Boston. One of them was called Q, and he worked for that big company KBR that has all the contracts. He used to give me a haircut that was really short like his. A buzz. And he gave me a jersey, some fancy pants, and shoes. They were real Michael Jordans, but they were too big for me. I still have one of them with me now, and it fits Ziad.

They taught me a lot of words. Like “Wass-up, yo.” “Fo shizzle ma nizzle,” also. That’s Snoop Dogg. We laughed and joked and listened to hip-hop, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Eminem “When I’m Gone.” It’s all cussing. Beyoncé, Tupac, Superman.

I learned how to talk to girls on the base. The Americans showed me how they did it. Some of them used webcams to talk to their girls at home. Sometimes they had sex pictures on their computers.

In return, I used to teach them Arabic words. There were good words and bad words. They wanted to know things like, “Get away.” “Stop.” “Greetings.” “Be careful.” “Marhaba Shlonak” (“How are you?” in Iraqi dialect). “Shakoo Makoo” (“What’s up?” in Iraqi dialect). But most of them were afraid to go outside. They were afraid of the Iraqis. Some of them wanted to walk with me in the streets. I was scared, but I would do it.

Most of them wanted to go back to America. “I miss my wife. I miss my children,” they would say. They always talked about the mountains, the freedom, the girls in America. You can drink there, they would say. A lot of them said “Fuck Bush… I came here for the money… now I want to go home.”

In 2005, my brother Ziad was kidnapped. It was for eleven days. It could have been the Mahdi Army, or it could have been anyone, because we worked with Americans. We paid $14,000 to get him out. We paid everything we had. We still don’t know who did it. He was held under a bed the whole time and saw nothing.

They took my uncle next. Because they thought he was my father.

That was when we came here, to Egypt.

I don’t know where most of those guys are now. I used to not have email. Now I have two emails. One is Hotmail and the other is Gmail. I write to them, and they don’t really write back. We burned everything from that time before leaving because we were afraid of the militias coming back. So I don’t have any photos from that time. I lost all my Iraqi friends in the war.

I guess I didn’t really want friends. I had the Americans.

I’ve been living in Cairo for almost three years. I use Facebook a lot. I have forty-two friends on it, and forty of them are Egyptian. I joined lots of groups, especially Lebanese groups. Because the girls in Lebanon are beautiful. I think two Lebanese girls poked me on Facebook. Facebook has photos, girls, everything, it’s helwa.

In Cairo, they hate Iraqis because they think we make life expensive. There are maybe eighty thousand of us here. They ask us why we came. I hate that question. But there are some things I like here.

I love tourism.

I like Sharm El Sheikh.

I like to go to the beach.

I like the pyramids, too. It’s a good place to take girls to see the view. I like to go to Al Haram Street. There are nightclubs there. I went once last year. I had to pay 150 pounds and then pay for a drink. I went to another place, and they told me I couldn’t come in because I was not part of a couple.

And there is Shirine, I love Shirine the singer. She’s like Haifa — hot. Tamer Hosny is a hero with the girls. Lots of girls love Tamer Hosny.

I like the girls here, sometimes. I meet them in school and by Hotmail. In school, I was a little bit older than most of the boys, so the girls like me. I’m also good at football, and I’m a foreigner. They like that. I play forward and score many goals. I got kicked out of school last year, so I go to the mall at City Stars in Nasr City every day. It’s clean. The fine ladies are there, the beautiful ones. They are moratab (put-together). Downtown, people are more shabby. I stay at the mall every day until 11. I go there with a friend. He’s also from Iraq. He has spiky hair, and his name is Anmar.

We love to look at the fast cars at the mall. There’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza… they have the best clothes, too. I meet girls there. We look at them, and we give them the look. If she smiles back at us, we move forward. I say, “What’s your name, can I know you, how old are you, where do you go to school, what is your favorite place, what is your number?” I like when they use kohl on their eyes. I like girls who are veiled, too. Their body is important. A lot of girls in Egypt are fat. I met Rana the other day. She’s hot. She has black hair and black eyes. She is not really tall and not really short. She has a beautiful smile. She’s Iraqi. See, we heard her speak Iraqi. When we hear them speak Iraqi, we follow them. I feel lucky. I have Rana’s phone number. But I don’t have my own phone yet. I usually SMS girls from my friend’s phone to tell them “I miss you.” I get love poetry from the Internet and send it to them. You can call me Romeo.