My first day in Iraq was marked by warm welcome after warm welcome. (And not because the temperature was 110 degrees.)
I flew out of Amman, Jordan at 1 am on Sunday morning, June 19, and arrived in Najaf an hour and a half later. My host, Sami Rasouli, was waiting for me. The airport staff was polite and curious: Where are you from? Welcome to Najaf, hope you enjoy our city! What are you doing in Najaf? Where did you learn Arabic? Ma’a Salaama (with peace/goodbye)!
After I gave the visa officer my documents, it was a quick process to approve my entry into Iraq.
Sami’s brother-in-law picked us up and drove us through Najaf to Sami’s house. It was early morning after a sleepless night, but it was a first chance to catch up with Sami (I last saw him in snowy Minneapolis during his visit there this winter). Sami is charismatic and warm with a hearty sense of humour, and I quickly felt at ease. He pointed out new construction, Kufa University (which has an official relationship with the University of Minnesota), government buildings, roads to Karbala and other nearby towns, and places where our mutual friends live. We reached Sami’s home at 5 am.
After a few hours of sleep, we woke up for breakfast with Sami’s family. Sami’s wife Suaad had prepared eggs, bread with cheese or honey, rolls, tomatoes and cucumbers, fruit, and tea. Though more reserved than her husband, Suaad also welcomed me with a big smile and impeccable hospitality. She is very patient with my broken Arabic and careful to make sure I have everything I need.
Sami and Suaad have two sons, Redha, 9, and Omar, 3. Redha is quiet and can speak good English when he chooses. On my second day in Najaf we played a game of Candy Land that I brought with me as a gift. Almost every card he drew sent him ahead only 1 or 2 spaces or back to Gumdrop Mountain or Candy Cane Forest, but he didn’t complain. Omar is the most energetic 3-year old I’ve ever seen. I made the mistake of giving him a Clif Bar I had brought with me, which resulted in him pretending I was a Jungle Gym to be climbed on. Sami and Omar call each other Baba, meaning Papa.
After breakfast Dr. Najim Askouri picked us up for a tour of Najaf and a few meetings. Dr. Askouri is one of the few remaining nuclear physicists in the country and is a professor at Kufa University, a large university near the border of Najaf and Kufa (after visiting the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2009, Dr. Askouri started calling Najaf and Kufa the “Twin Cities” of Iraq). Like Sami and Suaad, he also greeted me with warmth and a big smile. He speaks perfect English and was happy to hear the greetings I brought from the many friends he made in Minneapolis in 2009.
After seeing a few of the city sights from Dr. Askouri’s car, we met Dr. Abd Ali Hassan Khaffaf for lunch at a restaurant called Tanjara. Dr. Khaffaf is a professor of Geography, also at the University of Kufa. Like everyone else, he greeted me warmly and welcomed me to Najaf with a big smile and a handshake.
After lunch Sami, Najim, and I took a taxi to the Najaf Chamber of Commerce, where we met with Zuhair Sharba, President of the Chamber. Zuhair had come to Minneapolis for a month in December, 2010 to learn English and meet with Minnesotan businesses. He was obviously very busy with people waiting outside his office to meet with him, but he offered us refreshments and sat with us for half an hour. He also was delighted to hear the greetings I brought from friends in Minneapolis, especially his hosts Steve and Christine Clemens and their dog, Mishki.
At about 4:30 we went to a room on the second floor of the Chamber building, where Sami holds an English class from 5 – 7 pm three days a week. The students are mostly professionals–engineers, professors, pharmacists, doctors, officials–and a few younger people. Some will travel to Minneapolis this fall at the end of the 5-month course to participate in the “Sister City” relationship between Minneapolis and Najaf (the two cities became Sister Cities in 2009 after much work by Sami and colleagues in both cities). The class is not only an English class, but also a forum to learn about America and eventually build or rebuild relationships with Americans.
I cannot emphasize enough the warm welcome I received on my first day in Najaf. I am one of the few Americans in Iraq without a gun or an armed security escort, and I could not feel more welcomed. I imagine my experience embedded with Iraqi citizens is very different than that of the Americans embedded with security forces or living behind walls of American bases. I have much to write about since the first day here, but that will be for the next post, inshallah.