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335: Big Wide World

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Prologue

Ira Glass

When I was in seventh grade, I was at my friend Dave [? Berowi's ?] house. And we went to the fridge for a snack. And he opens up the door to the fridge. And inside was a six pack of beer. And I had never seen beer in real life, in someone's house. Beer was just something from TV. You know, it was just like one of those things from TV that was out there that never really showed up in the real life of anybody that you knew.

And I say this knowing how this sounds, how sheltered this sounds. But my parents were Jews. And I grew up on this block in suburban Baltimore where everybody was Jewish. And just people didn't drink when I was a kid. I did not see booze in people's houses. But this was seventh grade. And I was getting off the block for the first time. And seeing this beer, I remember it seemed dangerous. It seemed actually dangerous.

I remember thinking the [? Berowis ?] have this secret, this dirty little secret. Mr. [? Berowi ?] suddenly seemed capable of anything. But at the same time, the [? Berowis ?] were really great. I used to go to the ocean with their family during the summer. They were great. And I remember I had to rearrange in my head all of my half-baked ideas about alcohol to accommodate the thought that normal people drink, which I guess is what happens when you see a little more of the world.

Valentina Filimonova

I was like the first bird among all my friends. And nobody could believe that I got visa to go to America.

Ira Glass

Valentina was 24 when she left Odessa-- in the former Soviet Union-- to come work in the United States. And after two weeks here, she had a sudden and very urgent need to go to the store.

Valentina Filimonova

And I went to the supermarket to get what I need, my feminine hygiene products. And it took me probably long, long time to find the right aisle. And I saw the rows of tampons. Maxi, mini, super, with wings, without wings.

Ira Glass

Got that? It was overwhelming.

Valentina Filimonova

Maxi, mini, super, with wings, without wings. And thinking, I don't know what they use it for. First, it was very interesting. Then it was confusing. And then it was sad. And then it was frustrated. It was a very, very sad experience for me.

Ira Glass

She left the store without buying anything, went to the place she was staying, and cried.

Valentina Filimonova

And I couldn't ask for help because my American friends, they were still new to me. And I didn't want them to look at me like I'm from the forest or from a cave. I really wanted to go home. It made me feel very small.

Ira Glass

Though you know, sometimes when the world gets bigger, it's great. One of the regular contributors to our program, Starlee Kine, tells this story about her dad. Starlee's family's house was so chaotic when she was growing up-- they never ate regular meals together. Nothing was normal-- that after she moved away from home, whenever she would fly back to see her family, she would actually stay with a friend, not with her parents.

And her dad would come and hang out with her at her friend's house. And after her parents split up, she was staying at her friend Allison's.

Starlee Kine

And usually when he comes over, he'll just kind of walk around, asking lots of questions. And he touches everything. And he'll pick up pencils, and pens, and anything that's lying around. Little objects on top of the mantel place. Kind of how they arranged their living room furniture.

And at Allison's house, she has an aquarium. In the living room is a huge aquarium with lots of fish. And they're all pretty and different kinds of fish. And the first time my dad ever came to Allison's house, he looked at this aquarium for like an hour. And I thought he was really into fish. Or something. I didn't understand what was going on.

And then he started asking Allison all these questions like, who feeds the fish in the house? And where's the fish food kept? And all these kinds of things. And Allison would be all, like, either I feed it, or my brother feeds it, or Ben feeds it, someone around. And my dad got really confused. And he was like, I don't understand. Wouldn't you over-feed it if you guys are all feeding the fish? And she'd be like, no. We just know who's fed it before. And he's like, I don't-- do you-- how do you commun--

He just was really confused about how they communicated this information to each other. And then finally Allison was like, we just tell each other who's fed the fish. I talk to my brother. And that's how I know. And then my dad was totally blown away.

I realize that what my dad-- why he was staring at the fish tank was that he couldn't understand how a very simple thing like fish getting fed worked in a functional household. And it was like, as soon as she said that they talked to each other, my dad realized there was an entirely different way for families to function, which involved communicating basic things.

Ira Glass

You can travel to another continent to see how the rest of the world lives. Or you can do that sitting on a couch, in a house that's just ten minutes from your own.

Starlee Kine

I think it was hopeful. Because I think it's always when you discover that the world is bigger, or there's something new that you haven't known, like a different way of doing something, it's pretty exciting.

Ira Glass

For today on our show, the Big Wide World, and how it's both exciting and frightening when you head out to discover the new things you hadn't known. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in two acts. Act One, Teen Wolf Blitzer. Act Two, I've Got The Whole World in My Hands. In that act, a girl who can not see wanders around a place that she's never been and tries to figure out, not just if it's safe or dangerous, but at a much more basic level, where is she? Stay with us.

Act One: Teen Wolf...blitzer

Gideon Yago

Haider Hamza was a professional teenager. This is how his job worked. Say a group of Japanese dignitaries were coming to Iraq. The Ministry of Information would call Haider and a couple of other teenagers to come and be the face of Iraqi youth at a get together. Or some foreign journalists would show up and want to do a story about Iraqi teens. Well, the Ministry of Information would assign Haider to be the subject.

Or Haider would work as a fixer, helping reporters to find other people to interview-- other kids-- people who wouldn't say anything too bad about the regime. He was part of Saddam's propaganda machine. And he liked it.

Haider Hamza

For me it was kind of cool. Because I was 19. I got to skip all classes at school. I didn't have to go to school. All I needed to go was just to go to my professor and say, well, I'm wanted at the Ministry of Information. And Saddam's son, Uday, was the one in charge on most of the media in Iraq at the time. So I was like, oh, Mr. Uday wants us at the Ministry. And he'd go, of course, of course, just go ahead. And I kept getting straight A's. And I hardly went to school.

And the salary was good. I was making more money than my dad. And my dad was an ambassador for, like, 40 years. And I had this badge that said Ministry of Information. And the thing is, most of the employees of the Ministry of Information actually work for the intelligence. And they take it as a cover, like for the Mukhabarat, which is the intelligence service in Iraq. So when I show it, people think I work for the intelligence service. So I wouldn't stand in any lines. I wouldn't wait anywhere.

Gideon Yago

At 19?

Haider Hamza

At 19. Yeah. So I loved the attention, just like any 19-year-old would. And we got to stay at five-star hotels, because whenever a delegation of journalists comes to visit the country, they would take us to stay with them at the hotel and just guide them around. And basically also make sure they don't interview someone they're not supposed to interview, or they don't say something they're not supposed to say, or any of that. So I enjoyed it. I quite enjoyed it.

Gideon Yago

At first, Haider's job was just part-time. But by 2002, more and more journalists were showing up in Baghdad asking questions about the war that was looming. And the Ministry needed Haider to work full time. He wound up in a lot of news stories about youth in Iraq, and on several panels with American students, answering their questions.

Vanessa Rae

Hi, and welcome. I'm Vanessa Rae, and today we're participating in a historic discussion between the young people of two countries on the brink of war. We're building a bridge to Baghdad. And in New York City--

Gideon Yago

This is from a TV program called Bridge to Baghdad. Just before the invasion, a New York group called Downtown Community Television connected two groups of students via satellite. Iraqi and American kids talking war. The Iraqi group includes a couple of Ministry of Information plants, including Haider. The Americans sit in comfy couches near glass windows overlooking the New York skyline. The Iraqis are on fold-out chairs in a Baghdad art gallery, where, just off-camera, stands a pack of Ministry of Information minders and Ba'ath Party officials.

Haider Hamza

Well, hi there, dudes. My name is Haider. And I won't say anything else, because I'm really, really eager to rock and roll. What Saddam wanted to do is to show a different image of Iraq that was sort of portrayed in the West and the US, an image of a backward country, and people are oppressed, and uneducated, and people don't have any freedom. And our policy was mostly to stay as social as possible, and avoid being political as much as possible.

Boy 1

How are things resolved within the government when there are differences of opinion?

Girl 1

Can we change the subject a bit? Do you like sports, any of you? Do you--

Gideon Yago

The most striking thing about the footage is how earnestly the American teens ask questions that no Iraqi could ever answer without risking jail time, and how uncomfortable the Iraqi teens look when trying to answer.

Boy 2

Are you guys-- are you able to find a new leader if you wanted one?

Girl 2

We feel that this person really represents that. So we are supporting him, of course.

Gideon Yago

Haider generally didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on the bad things that Saddam's regime had done. Sure, Saddam had run Iraq with an iron fist. But this didn't seem all that different from the leaders of Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or lots of other countries in the region to Haider. And living in Iraq, he didn't exactly hear details about Saddam's atrocities. People didn't talk about those things. They were rumors, vapors, hard to be sure of.

Meanwhile, every time he turned on a TV or opened a textbook, there he was, smiling benevolently. Papa Saddam. Like a member of your family. Even though they were just teens, Haider and the other kids at the Ministry of Information got treated like professionals. Before press appearances, they'd be exhaustively prepped, sometimes for days.

Haider Hamza

They would sit us in a room. And we'd have all these different professors, and intelligence officers, and diplomats, and a psychiatrist as well, actually. He came to tell us about human psychology, and what to say, and what not to say, and our facial expressions, how they should be.

And they gave us sheets. And we did exams. And how to answer-- if we're going to be asked about Halabja, how to avoid talking about the invasion of Kuwait, how to avoid talking about mass graves, and all this kind of stuff that we wouldn't dare to talk about. So for me it was very thrilling that I could actually have a conversation with an Iraqi official about these things, because I was not even allowed to talk with this with my parents at home. It was like a taboo.

Gideon Yago

Would you say-- do you think it's fair to say that your job was sort of as a professional-- I don't want to say actor, but professional kind of representative, mouthpiece?

Haider Hamza

I was a diplomat.

Gideon Yago

You were a diplomat. That's how you view yourself.

Haider Hamza

Yeah.

Gideon Yago

You were a 19-year-old diplomat on behalf of Saddam.

Haider Hamza

Yeah. My father was an ambassador. So I was like, OK, I'm a little him. I'm also a diplomat. I'm doing what he's doing. Because he spent all his life. My father was--

Gideon Yago

Lying? Spinning? Sorry.

Haider Hamza

Well, no. That's what politicians do. But he--

Gideon Yago

What do diplomats do?

Haider Hamza

They sort of dress up the truth, and make it look nice, and make it friendly. I think it's less mean, less evil, than what politicians do.

Gideon Yago

Haider's father used to tell Haider being a diplomat was the safest way to work inside the regime. If you're in the Foreign Service, he'd say, you can live abroad, and they can't monitor you too carefully. And they can't ask you to do things too terrible. The worst thing they can ask you to do is lie. Haider's dad had been a diplomat for 40 years and for four different governments. Monarchs, military coups, the Ba'ath party, and then Saddam. But despite-- or maybe because of-- this, he was totally opposed to his son's new job at the Ministry of Information.

Haider Hamza

Because he thought I was very naive, that I would do anything they asked me to. So they might ask me to do something that's going to hurt him, but I would still do it. He would say, listen, this is not a rational government you're dealing with. It's not about what you do. You can get in trouble even though you are doing everything right.

Gideon Yago

He was worried about you becoming an out-and-out intelligence agent.

Haider Hamza

And that. He was worried about me becoming arrogant. He was worrying about me becoming a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] person. He was worrying about me becoming Saddam-ish, basically.

Gideon Yago

Right.

Haider Hamza

That's what he was worried about. And he was worried about me getting killed.

Gideon Yago

Haider tuned his father out. He was 19, and, like most self-respecting teenagers, felt that he could handle making decisions on his own. But the Ministry of Information gig didn't just creep his father out.

Haider Hamza

I remember my best friend at the time, he didn't hang out with me anymore. Because he said, listen, you're going to get in trouble one day. And I don't want to be driven down with you as well.

Gideon Yago

What does that mean, you were going to get in trouble?

Haider Hamza

Well, it means that on one of the shows or one of the interviews I'm going to say something stupid. Or I'm going to slip, and say something I'm not supposed to say. And then-- And I think something close to that happened.

I remember I was interviewed by ABC Australian. And at the time, they did a whole documentary. They would follow me around. And we would go to a football match. And they would film me at a football match with my friends, and stuff like that. And I think it was at the stadium, they were asking me, what do you think of Saddam? And I've seen Saddam. I met him once back then.

And they said, what do you think of Saddam? And I just posed. And I said, I think he is very polite. And they said, and? I was like, that's it. And it's like, what do you mean, that's it? It's like, very polite? Is that all you can say about him? Then they said, well, is he, like, the best?

And I said, well, no one is perfect. He's not a prophet or anything. So he definitely has some merits and demerits just like any other person. And I kept it to that. I thought that was not offending anyone. But people disagreed back in the office. And they said, how dare you say that he's just like any other person. He's not. He's Saddam.

Gideon Yago

Haider spent a night in detention answering intelligence officers' questions about his relationship with the reporter and his feelings about Saddam. But maybe because the war was looming and there were bigger fish to fry, all Haider got was a reprimand. He went back to work at the Ministry.

In the days leading up to the invasion, Haider spent most of his time at the Ministry. School, classes, family and friends all took the backseat. Haider filled his days doing interviews, hosting delegations, and working on songs and poems for Iraqi youth radio. Overseeing his work was Dr. Huda Ammash. Her nickname when she wound up on the coalition's deck of cards a few weeks later was Dr. Germ, for the work that she'd done in the development of Iraq's biological weapons program.

But to Haider, she was a kindred spirit. Every day, she helped him and the rest of the Ministry of Information's junior league craft their messages and toe the party line. Working with her, Haider felt important and safe.

Haider Hamza

I have to confess I was enjoying this for a while, that I forgot how serious this is. And that's the other thing. We didn't feel there was a war. I remember until five days before the war, I had an exam at school. And I went to school and had my exam. We still went to school every day. There was still running water, electricity, and phone lines. People didn't leave. We didn't see anyone packing and leaving.

I believe until two or three days before the war, I thought, the US is not going to invade. And it's because I was close to all-- well not close, but I was around many senior officials of the government. And I think most of them believed that it's not going to happen. They believed it was just a threat. Russia and France would never allow that. They'll take care of us. And no, they'd give a warning to Saddam if it gets too serious. And that they can strengthen the sanctions, or impose more, or whatever, but that's going to be it. They're not going to actually invade.

But I think it was three days before the war, it was the last time I met with Dr. Germ. It was the last radio show we did. And when we were leaving, she said, where is your family? And I said, we're all still in Baghdad. And she said, take them out. And I was like, well, why? And she said, just take them out. They are coming. So take them out.

And I think that was when I believed it's going to happen. It was that moment when she said that. I said, OK. It sort of took me out of the whole world of having fun, and talking to the media, and having cameras around me, and showing off, and walking out with my badge, and all that fun.

Gideon Yago

That night, Haider relayed to his parents what Dr. Ammash had told him. It was time to get out of Baghdad. Haider's father knew a place where they could lay low. There was a farmhouse four hours north of the city. It was a good place for the family-- Haider, his parents, and three siblings-- to wait and see what would happen next. Grudgingly, Haider climbed into the family car and left.

Haider Hamza

We went there. There was no electricity, of course. And there was no running water. It was totally different. And it was hot. At the time it was getting hot. It was in April or March. And there were all these mosquitoes, I remember, because it was a farm. It was one night I spent there.

When I left I didn't tell any of my friends. So I got up, and I walked up to my dad, and I said, I can't stay here. I'm going back. And he was like, what are you talking about? I was like, we still have shows scheduled. We still have interviews on schedule. And I want to be part of that. I don't want to be living in a farm with a bunch of horses and cows.

He said, you're out of your mind. You're not going to go back. You're going to die. We are so lucky. We should be thankful that we made it here. We're going to stay here until this whole thing is over.

I went back to my mom and said, I'm leaving. She knows that I can not handle it there. She wasn't-- I mean, it was horr-- It was not a way to live. You have to sleep on the floor. And you have no electricity. They didn't even have a bathroom. It was like they had something that they called a bathroom, which was like you have to walk forever out in the middle of nowhere. And I was like, I can't live like that. I'm a celebrity. I am not going to live like that.

Gideon Yago

You're used to being in cars and having a badge.

Haider Hamza

It was funny. It was very odd. I believed there was a war coming. And I believed truly that it was the safest place to be, probably, if the war was going to happen. But I didn't want that. I didn't want to be in the safest place and not have any stories to tell afterwards. I was like, but I believe this whole thing is going to be over one time, and that I'm going to meet back, and they're going to say, OK, tell us how was the time in the war? What am I going to say? That I spent it with cows and sheep in the middle of nowhere? I was like, no.

Gideon Yago

You were going to need some stories to tell.

Haider Hamza

Exactly. I said, I can do better than that. I mean, it was that many things else, of course. But that came across my mind as well, I have to say. So my dad was like, I'm not driving back to Baghdad. And I have young siblings. And he said, I'm not taking your siblings through this. If you're crazy, you have to face that alone. You don't have to let your siblings face that with you.

So I said, OK. I'll just take a cab. But there were no cabs around. So I had to walk for half an hour or so until I got to the closest house. And there was a farmer there with a pickup truck. And I said, would you take me to Baghdad? At the time I paid him, it was about $13. But in Iraq, $13 is a lot of money. And he said, OK, I'll drive you. Just one way. I'll drive you. So I go, OK. So I went, I packed.

My dad wouldn't even see me off. He was really angry that I'm doing this. But I got in, and I drove back. And I drove directly to the radio station, because at the time there was a show ongoing. And I saw my group and stuff. And I saw everyone. And everyone was like, so what are you guys doing? And they said, oh, we're all leaving.

I was like, where are you leaving? They said, we're leaving Baghdad. Because we all believed that the war was going to happen in Baghdad. It was going to be sieged for like months. And Saddam might even use chemical weapons. Because we didn't know if he owned them or not. So all my friends said, oh, we're leaving. I said, but now? I just came back.

So I realized I just made a mistake by coming back. I should have just stayed there. And all of a sudden, the life of cows and sheep didn't look so bad. And maybe that was the best option, and I should go back.

So I called the driver. I was like, I want you to drive me back to that farm. And this time I had to pay $30, because it was getting serious. And no one would go anywhere. Everyone was busy with his own family. I got down, and I went to the family, the farm. And I was like, I'm back. I'm taking my stuff down. And he said, no. I was like, what? He said, your parents just left-- went back to Baghdad-- because they couldn't be away from you. And there were no phones.

He said, they just left. They just went to Baghdad. Your dad didn't sleep all night. He was crying all night, actually. And he thought you were going to be trapped. And he said, the family is not going to be in two different locations. All the family will be together. So this morning-- about two hours ago-- your family went back to Baghdad because of you.

I actually felt, I felt like [BLEEP] at the time. I felt-- I don't know. I felt like nothing, you know. I was like, what am I doing? They saw me. I almost had a breakdown. So they took me inside. And they were just talking. And the guy, the owner of the house, is an older man. And he was like, listen, your dad is definitely concerned about your life more than he's concerned about his own. But just go back and be with your family.

I said, what if I go back and they come back here again? And he he was like, no, it was just broadcasted on the news that people are allowed to get in the city but not out of the city. So you're going to be able to go back. They're not going to be able to leave anymore. And that's what I did. I went back. I was praying, all the way, that I'd find them and that they're not going to be angry. So I went back home. And I saw their car was parked outside. So I knew they were there. And my mom was outside in the garage waiting. And she was holding prayer beads at the time. And she was just praying and stuff. I saw her. And I came down. She really hugged me. And she was crying. And she was like, never do this again.

Gideon Yago

Haider's father was more reserved. He gave his son the silent treatment at first. Ignoring his advice about the Ministry of Information job was one thing. But coming back to Baghdad? Their family's house was close to three major military targets-- the Baghdad airport, Iraq's national security headquarters, and one of Saddam's main palaces. The whole neighborhood was being evacuated. All the major roads were closed. And now, getting out of the city would be tough.

Haider Hamza

So we all go. We had a family meeting, and we're talking. And we were suggesting ideas. And my dad was like, nobody suggest anything. It's going to be my call. And we're going to go all the way south, as far as we can. Because if they're going to invade, the US troops will invade from Kuwait, from the south. So we're going to go to a point where we're going to be behind their lines as soon as possible. You know what I'm saying? He's like--

Gideon Yago

Yeah, no, absolutely.

Haider Hamza

He said, they're going to pass us-- exactly. Exactly, he said, if there's a war, if there's an invasion, they're going to pass us in the early days. And then if they're going to siege Baghdad, or bomb Baghdad, or whatever, we're going to be safe.

Gideon Yago

So it was back in the car, this time headed in the opposite direction. And there was something new to worry about. The Iraqi army was looking for anyone over 17 to send to the front lines. They'd put up checkpoints on highways and bridges. Haider's father was too old, and his younger brother had yet to hit puberty. So if the car were stopped, it was Haider who was likely to be seized.

Haider Hamza

And my dad was very paranoid that I'm going to be taken away. And he had a plan. He was thinking of a plan. So what if we accidentally run through a checkpoint and they want to take you away? What are we going to say? My mom said, oh, we have to tell them that you're retarded. And you have to act retarded. And we're going to say he's retarded. You can't take him.

And I was rehearsing in the back with my sister. I was rehearsing being retarded, basically. And I would, like, just have my tongue out. Like blah, blah, blah, and that kind of stuff. I mean, now it sounds funny. But at the time it wasn't. My sister thought it was funny, but-- I was talking to my sister, like listen, don't look at me if we ever get caught. Because I'm going to laugh if I see you laughing. So just turn your face off.

And I was talking to her. Then my dad stopped the car, and he turned back, and he said, listen, this is not a joke. This is your life we're talking about here. He literally said, this is not a show.

Gideon Yago

After a tense four and a half hours in the car, Haider and his family finally made it to a tiny tribal village in Diyala province, close to the Kuwait border. There, Haider's father had arranged with a family friend to stay as guests until it was safe to return to Baghdad. Haider unpacked his things from the car and introduced himself to the large countrified family who were now his new hosts. That night, crammed in the living room, they listened together to radio reports of air strikes across Iraq. The war had begun. The next morning, everything was different.

Haider Hamza

I remember I walked out of the house. And everyone was trying to get at the door. And we were looking down the road. And on the main highway there were American soldiers with the full gear. They were on one knee down, on the gunning position. And they were not moving. It was as if they were statues. And they just showed overnight.

At night, no one would go out, of course, because there were sirens. So when you can go out in the morning, you saw them. And they were not there the last time you checked. So it was like they showed out of nowhere. And the people were just staring at them. It was funny. It was like watching E.T. landing in your front yard. Seriously, that's how they were looking at them. People didn't know, should they walk down and talk to them? Should they be friendly? Should they not?

I couldn't wait, actually, to go talk to them.

Gideon Yago

Very quickly, Haider got his chance. The Americans were the Army's Third Infantry Division. On that first night they had arrested two local imams. This did not go over well. Several villagers, including Haider's host family, approached the American army to plead for the imams' release. But something was getting lost in translation.

The Americans had an interpreter, an Egyptian. But he was having a very tough time penetrating the town's rural Iraqi dialect. Perhaps, the villagers suggested, Haider might be able to help. He spoke English well, and he had talked to Americans before. So Haider went to speak with the Americans and brokered the imams' release. He walked out of the base a hero.

Later that day, a squad of American soldiers showed up at his door asking if he was interested in taking over the translator's job. It would be a chance for Haider and his family to get back to Baghdad with American protection. Haider was intrigued. His dad, not so much.

Haider Hamza

My dad was totally against the idea. I loved the idea. I was like, of course. Sure. I'm going to go. And he was like, no you're not. I was like, yes I am. And he was like, no. And we were talking about it. I was like, listen, it's a good way to make money. It's a good way to have protection. And I want to go to Baghdad. And they will take me to Baghdad. I would rather be with them than be alone, because I'll be in the armored vehicles and stuff.

And he was like, you're crazy. No. He said, listen. Throughout history, whenever there's an occupation, whenever there are foreign soldiers, there's always a resistance. We still don't know how strong the resistance is going to be. We still don't know how ruthless it's going to be. So it's too early to take any sides. You should just not take any sides. Don't show that you are the American side. Don't show that you're with the resistance. Just don't take any sides now.

Gideon Yago

And that's how your dad had survived, right?

Haider Hamza

Exactly.

Gideon Yago

That's how he had been so--

Haider Hamza

And that's what he told me. He said, listen, I've been through several changes. And the only way I made it so far is by not joining sides when it's too early.

Gideon Yago

Haider was starting to realize that he and his father looked at life very differently. Haider's dad had always survived by being cautious, keeping a low profile. To Haider that sounded like a perfect plan for wasting away.

Haider Hamza

I would tell him that I would rather regret things I've done than regret things I haven't done. For him it was no. It was just if you have doubts about anything, just don't try. And then you won't regret it. Because you didn't try, so it wouldn't go wrong. Basically my dad would say that his ideology is, or theory is, to-- He would always say that you should climb the stairs step after step. Not jump any steps. Because if you jump, you can tremble and fall, and go all the way down the stairs. I jump steps.

Gideon Yago

With the war, suddenly a new world had arrived in Iraq, with a new set of rules. And Haider saw it as full of possibilities for someone willing to stick his neck out. So he took the Americans up on their offer. And the family split up. Haider would ride back to Baghdad with the Americans in a Bradley assault vehicle. His father and siblings would stay behind. His mother would keep an eye on Haider, following the American convoy in the family car. About an hour and a half outside of the city, Haider saw smoke over Baghdad. And as they got closer, wreckage from the US assault.

Haider Hamza

I remember when I saw all that, I saw all the military vehicles completely destroyed. We saw all the destruction, the houses, all the headquarters of the Ba'ath party knocked down. You didn't know-- you go back and say, oh but wait, that's my country. Oh but wait, that was my army. And this is not my army that I'm with. Who are these people then? And that's when you start asking that.

I remember, that's when I said, you know what? I want to be with my family. I want to be in the car. I don't want to be in the Bradley. It was not cool anymore. It didn't feel so cool. It felt weird. It felt awkward.

And I kept going back and forth. I kept having these trials like, no, I should get over it. I shouldn't be so emotional. Saddam didn't represent me anyway. Saddam was not a-- it was not a democratic regime that we had. It was a dictatorship. So that wasn't my army anyway, or my country. But then you go, no, but it is. It was very, like, you had this conflict going on all throughout the roads.

Gideon Yago

Just a month before, Haider was working for Saddam Hussein. And now here he was, riding into town with the invaders. His father had warned him about picking sides too soon. And he was starting to regret the one that he'd picked. So shortly after he got back to Baghdad, Haider quit his job with the Americans.

Ira Glass

Coming up, out of one dangerous job and into one that's probably even more dangerous. That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International. When our program continues.

[MUSIC - ALA HONAK" BY SAJADA AL UBAID]

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, stories of people discovering the big, wide, dangerous world. Gideon Yago's story about Haider Hamza continues.

Gideon Yago

Haider spent his days at home. And his father, sisters, and brother had returned from the south. There was no running water in their home, no regular electricity in Baghdad. He was 19, packed in the house with his family, hot, bored, and with no exit strategy. If he was going to stay sane, he needed to get out of the house. So he decided to look for work as a translator. He got a job with Reuters, and later with ABC News. The city was cracking up into different factions. And Haider thought that working with the media was the smart thing to do.

Haider Hamza

I felt that with all the chaos happening, with all the different parties being formed-- the Americans, the insurgency, the radical Islamists, the nationalists, Saddam's loyalists, the political parties, the Kurds, the Shias, the Sunnis-- all these parties being formed around you. Everyone is getting into groups. You either join one of these groups, or you need to get a protection. You can't be by your own. If you're alone, you're a very soft target.

So I thought my protection was going to be by working with the media. You have media badge, you're protected. You're protected by your organization, your network. You're protected by the US military and from the US military in the same time. I remember there was-- when they do a military operation, they just go raiding houses. My house was raided twice. Random raids. They broke down the door, because that's how they do it. I don't know why they never knock.

They just kick down the door. They go inside, they start shouting and screaming at everyone. The power is off, and they have these torch lights on their rifles. And all you see is the lights running around. And you panic. You don't know what to do. But when they came into my house and they did all of this-- they knocked the door down-- I stayed in my room, waiting for them to come in. It's not a good idea to go out looking for them. You might as well wait for them to come to you.

So they walked into my room and stuff. And I showed them all my badges. And I said, I work for the media. Basically, you're just not like a poor Iraqi guy who doesn't know what to do, who doesn't know what his rights are.

Gideon Yago

You're like an aristocrat.

Haider Hamza

They would know that you're a journalist. You know what your rights are. You're going to go back and report all this. You have contacts in the media. You have contacts in the Iraqi government. You have contacts at the US military. So they ended up paying for the door they knocked down. They paid us compensations. They apologized. And they gave me a camel bag. That I just thought it was cool to have one.

Gideon Yago

But things were tense at home. While Haider was going out on assignment, the rest of the family was stuck in the house. His father was retired. His older sister had dropped out of Baghdad U. And his little brother and sisters had stopped going to grammar school classes.

Once again, Haider's dad would make noise whenever his son would come home about Haider's decisions, his job. He thought they were too risky, too public. Haider began to lie, telling his dad that he spent his days chained to some desk, filing papers, stuff like that. Instead, he was in the field, covering the Marine offensive in Fallujah or at interviews with heads of state in the Green Zone. Or covering Saddam's trial.

Then the city really started to go nuts. Remember the TV show that Haider had participated in at the beginning of this story, Bridge to Baghdad? A few months after the invasion, the producers came back to tape a follow-up with the same teens, only this time, no Ministry of Information minders. They wanted an honest conversation, where the kids were free to speak their minds.

The Iraqi teens agreed to do the show, but on one condition-- that it would not air in the Middle East. It was mid-2003, and the stances that you took in Baghdad were starting to have very real repercussions. The kids were assured that the show wouldn't make it onto the Arab airwaves. But somehow, without the producers at Downtown Community Television knowing, the program found its way on to Al Jazeera. For a week leading up to the airing, Al Jazeera heavily promoted it, using the most inflammatory clips from the Iraqi teens. Here are two, Saif and Waleed.

Boy 3

I've waited to say this word for 19 years. I hate this man.

Boy 4

Saddam Hussein, of course, everybody knows that he's a big torturist. We are glad to get rid of him.

Girl 3

We don't agree with him.

Gideon Yago

There's actually nothing that bad in the show. Mainly Haider and the rest of the kids talking about how devastating the invasion and occupation had become. But Haider was nervous, particularly because the show ended with one of the teenagers playing a new song that he'd written with his heavy metal band. It was called "Saddam Sucks."

Haider Hamza

I knew it was going to be aired now. I remember my mom also went in to pray that no one would watch it.

Gideon Yago

Pray for low ratings?

Haider Hamza

Yes. Exactly. She was praying that nobody has electricity. No one's going to be able to watch it. And I'm not going to get in any trouble. Then the way I knew that people did watch it, is that-- I think it was aired on a Wednesday night or something. On Friday morning, there was the Friday prayers, which is the big prayers for the Muslims. It's like the Sunday mass for Christians, basically.

So in Friday prayers, there is always a speech by the imam, just like there's a speech by the priest. But the difference, in the mosque there are loudspeakers. So for those who can not make it to the mosque, they will listen to the speech while they're at home. All you need to do is just open the window. It's really loud. I don't usually listen to the speeches that much. But it was there, and someone was shouting.

And I was just walking around in the house, doing whatever I was doing. And then, suddenly I heard my full name in the speech. I was like, was that my name? And then, basically he was saying that a group of young Iraqis who claimed to be Muslims-- he didn't even call us Muslims-- have participated in a show on a channel of infidels.

Gideon Yago

Pamphlets started to appear in the street with Haider's picture on them. Wanted posters. Threatening his family's safety and Haider's life. The day after the imam's speech, Haider came home to find his parents had packed his bags and left them at the front door. It was too dangerous for him to stay at home anymore. He moved into his office in the Green Zone for a while. Day in, day out, Haider's parents begged him to quit.

Haider Hamza

So I would always say, OK, one more month. OK, something's going to come up. I'm going to get an offer somewhere overseas. Something's going to happen, you know? And that was the only hope, because otherwise you would sit at home and hope for what? Maybe I'm going to die as well. That's the thing.

And yet before the war, there were certain red lines during Saddam's regime. You don't talk bad about him. You don't talk bad about his regime. You don't talk bad about his character. You'll be OK. No one's going to hurt you. You do, you die.

Now, there are no red lines. If there are, then they're invisible. You don't know what they there. You can be standing on the traffic light, and the car next to you goes off, and you die. Just a lost bullet goes through your head. You're driving and a US convoy shows out of nowhere, and they open fire, you get caught in the firefight and you die. You go shopping in the market, and a suicide bomber blows himself up, and you-- so it's not up to you anymore. It's not that you avoid certain things and you survive.

Gideon Yago

Haider ran this argument by his father. And his father said it was all the more reason to stay inside.

Haider Hamza

Like he said, you don't go and jump off a bridge and you say, well, maybe I'll die, and maybe something-- a miracle is going to happen, and I'm not going to die. So if you hide at home, you have much higher chances of surviving. But I was looking at it as a slow death. To sit at home with no electricity, no water, fighting with my dad all day, that is slow death. That's how death is like.

My world was much bigger than my parents' world. That was the problem. My dad's world is his home and his kids. It's not even the neighborhood, because he can not go out. That's his world. So that's why, for him, I mean so much, because his world is so small that everything in it just means everything. My world was much bigger. My world was like media, with globalization as a world. My world is like America, and Iraq, and Britain, and the coalition forces, and everything. That's my world.

So my world was much bigger than that. So will I give all this up and go to the much smaller, limited world? I can't. You can't. After a while, you can't. You just can't.

Gideon Yago

So when it came to your dad trying to be a parent, did he even have a chance?

Haider Hamza

Well, that was the struggle. He had the feeling that he is not needed. I don't need him. I don't need a dad anymore, which I'm sure was not easy for him. And he would always walk up to me and say never give up having a dad. Don't-- he would literally use the term like don't put me on the shelf yet.

Gideon Yago

Haider kept working for two more years as a producer and translator, while all around him, the new Iraq disintegrated. Then one day, on a field assignment in Najaf, Haider finally understood what his father had been trying to tell him. He was there to cover Ashura, the annual Shia pilgrimage, which every year since the start of the war has come under attack with car bombings and shootings.

And just a warning to listeners, this is where the story gets a little graphic.

Haider Hamza

You know Ashura? Pretty violent. And there's a blast every year. And people know it. And you know what? That's what is sad. We go there. We know people will die. And that's why we go, so we're going to be there when they die. So it was like, I tell you there is a time bomb next door. And you say, oh, OK, great. And you go next door, and you set up your camera so you can film the time bomb when it goes off. And that's sad.

So they were going to say, OK, there's Ashura. People are going to die. You have to go and be ready. And get us a decent life position so we get good shots of people dying. That's the level that we got there. And we do it. And 3 million people gather. They know some of them are going to die. They still come.

And I didn't tell my parents. My parents were like, if you're going to go to that, that's suicide, if you're going to go to that ceremony. Because people are going to die. You're going to be one of them. Don't go. I said, oh, I promise I'm not going. I had to go. I told them I'm going north, like just the opposite side. I'm going there to cover whatever, I told them. There was a golf field opened. They're opening a golf field on the US military base for the officers to go play with their cigars and stuff. And we did do that story, as well. But I wasn't on that team. So I told them I was going to do that instead.

I went down there. And the last day of December, we knew there was going to be something. All the cameras were rolling 24 hours, because we knew it was going to be any second, and we wanted to catch it. You see how crazy it is. So we were rolling, and it happened. There were seven blasts, a series of seven blasts in a row. About 400 people were killed. That's a lot of people.

And I remember the scene, what you see when the blast-- when the bomb goes off. You actually can see the bodies just flying in the air. And I was down with the crowd at the time. I was looking at my trousers, my pants, and I saw all these tiny pieces of human flesh that stuck to you. I didn't know what they were in the beginning. I was looking. I was like, that's meat. And then I was like, wait a second. That's human flesh.

One of the cameramen came in. He had a tape. I was sitting in the SNG just feeding stuff. And he came. He had a tape. And he had a nervous breakdown. He was like, blah, blah, blah. He couldn't talk. I was like, what? And he said, he died, blah, blah, blah. So I took the tape. And there was a scene, a horrific scene. A woman, she was Iranian, because a lot of Iranians come to the ceremony.

And she was-- you could see her holding her child, like from the armpits like that. His head was laying down. She was so silent. She was not crying, she was not shouting, she was not weeping. She was just quiet, looking around, holding her son. And her son is only-- he was cut from here. You can't see. Just from over the belt. And you can only see the flesh hanging down. And blood was just pouring down from his body. And she was holding him as if he was alive and he was a full body, although he's just half-child.

And she was in shock, that she was not reacting at all. She was not even looking at him. She was looking around as if she's looking and saying, what are these crazy people? What are these crazy people doing? And then I saw that. And what it was like-- I thought of my family right away. And I said, I have to call them.

I called my family. And my mom picked up the phone. She was already crying. And she was like, I saw the news. I know you are there. She's like, are you fine? I was like, yes I am. And she was like, don't let me-- I mean, in Islam, if a person dies, his family has to wash the body before burial. She was like, don't let me wash your body one day. And I was like, I'm not. She said, I'll go talk to your dad. Your dad knows as well.

And I said, oh, I'm in so much trouble. I don't want to go back home. I did go back home. First, both my parents were hugging me and stuff. And then my dad grabbed me, and sat me down, and said, listen, one of these days I pass away, then it's your fault. It's because of you.

Gideon Yago

What does that mean?

Haider Hamza

It means he was so worried about me, that if he's going to die of a heart attack or stroke, then it's because of me, and my job, and my lifestyle. And that for me was very-- I don't know. I didn't expect something like that to come out of him, actually. And, I realized--

Gideon Yago

Why?

Haider Hamza

I don't know. Maybe I was too self-centered at that point that I couldn't see-- I would think, oh please, what is all this drama? I couldn't see how crazy it was, what I was doing. I remember thinking, that was one of the things I considered the most of everything he said all his life to me. He's an older man. If anything happens to him, how would I be able to live with that?

Gideon Yago

Haider decided that he had to leave Iraq. An American employee for ABC who Haider had met during the Saddam trial told him about the Fulbright scholarship. It was a chance for Haider to study in the US for free. He applied and won. A year later, Haider was on a plane to New York.

Haider Hamza

I haven't seen my parents since last August. Though I know they're really proud. I know he is really proud, especially now. I know he changed, that he changed his thought about me. I think he's now wondering, you know what? Maybe he was right. Maybe the kid knew what he was doing. Maybe this is a different time. And I'm just the old school. And that doesn't work anymore.

Gideon Yago

When he was 16, he chose to be a spokesman for Iraq. And now, living in New York, he finds that he's still one. His classmates and people that he meets always have a ton of questions about his hometown, what happened, and what's coming next. Though Haider says living in America on the Fulbright scholarship with the US government paying for his college classes, it's confusing.

Haider Hamza

I mean, it's very weird. I have a whole mix of feelings here when I came. After all, I'm in the country that's in a war with my country. And the same time, I love this country, and I wanted to come here for so long. It's my childhood dream to come to New York. But that was before America invaded Iraq. So that makes it very-- I don't know. It makes me feel weird. It makes me feel guilty. Do I fit here, do I belong here? I still don't know. I still don't know that.

Ira Glass

That story from Gideon Yago.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Well, we just have time for one more quick story about heading out into the unknown of the big, wide world. Sally Goode was born blind. Filmmaker Tony Hill took her to a location but didn't tell her what it was.

Sally Goode

I can sense something in front of me. I can hear it in the sound. The sound changes as you're just walking around. This feels quite closed in. I think it's a wall in front of me. I'm just going to put my hand out. Yes it is. It's a brick wall.

We're walking up onto the grass now. Right, we are in front of a rather large object. A stone arch, about my head height. And another stone structure. This again is standing on a pedestal like a tower. This one is kind of cylindrical. A cylindrical tower this is standing on. And then it comes up to a long barrel-shaped stone object. Just placed on top of the tower horizontally. And then on top of it there's another cylindrical object placed vertically on the long the barrel.

Bang. Lots of bangs going on. I don't know quite what's happening. But you can hear there are quite a lot of birds. Twigs underfoot. Well, well. This is quite a big rectangular, extremely tall, extremely wide stone block. Now I'm going to follow this and see where it goes. It goes a long way. It's going to the right now. It's a huge place. Off to the right again. I've just nearly fallen over onto the stone structure.

The wall is now on our left, and I'm following it round to the left. It's just a great big, huge, stone wall. And a big metal [KNOCKING ON METAL] object. A cube-shaped object. Going way up, higher than me. I haven't the faintest idea what this could be. Following the wall again on our left. There's a bit sticking out there. That could be a door. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] No, it won't open. Hm, that's interesting. This is a clock. But I can't see where you'd wind it.

Following the wall around again to the left. We're on a path now. It goes in a little bit. We've reached a big-- ooh. There's an echo. Hello! We've reached a big wooden door. And the right of it is a handle. Just above the handle is a sort of a catch that you push down. A bit like on an outside door. Wall's coming around to the right again. All right. Another one of those metal cubular objects.

And I found a window. I think that this could possibly be a church. The reason I say that is, sometimes church windows are like square shapes and diamond shapes. I think this possibly might be stained glass, which means we are by a church. We're walking up onto the grass. And now a stone table on a big platform. [KNOCKING] And there's some more lettering here. And I'm trying to work, and find if it makes any sense to me.

That looks like an S or a two. I'm not sure about this. It's a bit worn away. This is another stone structure. But I haven't really worked out what they're supposed to be yet. Oh my. The only other thing I can think of is gravestones.

Ira Glass

Sally Goode, at the churchyard at Radbourne, Derbyshire. That story was produced by Tony Hill with thanks to Sally Goode and the Derbyshire Association for the Blind. Story is called A Sense of Place. Part of the Audible Picture Show, which is a collection of stories that they call a dark cinema. It is at www.audiblepictureshow.org.uk. Thanks to the Third Coast International Audio Festival, where we heard about this.

Thanks also today to Jon Alpert at Downtown Community Television, Michael DiBenedetto at Next Next Entertainment. Waleed Rabi'a, David Novak, [? Debbie Rothbert, ?] [? Michael Esse, ?] and [? Paul Bolester. ?]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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Ira Glass

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