When you’re done reading what I’m about to write, you might question the authenticity of the events. I assure you I couldn’t in my wildest dreams fictionalize such mind-blowing stuff. After all, fictionalizing, much like the subject of this account, scares me enough that I wouldn’t venture in its direction so boldly. I AM a print journalism grad, after all.
You see, dear reader, I’ve made it clear to many, and it is clear on its own that I am an Arab and Muslim. I presume that some of (I daresay) my regular readers are getting sick of me harping on such a point. This time, however, it is quite necessary for me to harp on this point.
Not only am I an Arab and Muslim, but I happen to be an Arab and Muslim from Iraq. When the first strike warning sirens sounded in Baghdad back in March 2003, my family and I were glued to the television. Thanks to satellites, we watched the events of the still ongoing war unfold in our native tongue, Arabic, on the now infamous Al Jazeera. I watched my country get bombed for the second time, and being old enough to understand what those lights falling from the sky could really do, I really cried. The psychological war began along with the bloody war. The only thing that could get me and my family through the war this time around was our ability to hear the news in Arabic, from an Arabic point of view. We didn’t feel so alone in our view of the horrors happening in our home land; that it was horrible, and unfair.
There are only three events in my life that have made me cry to the point where my entire body is parched, and exhausted. One of them was 21 days following the air strikes; April 9, 2003 American tanks entered Baghdad. Soon after that, American and British tanks became like the double-decker buses in London; they became part of the parched and thirsty landscape.
For weeks, my family and I were depressed, but life had to go on. I had to keep going to work. I had to keep dealing with the rest of the world, even though all I wanted to do was go to sleep and wake up somewhere else. When I say somewhere else, I mean like the moon. It was a very hard thing for everyone to deal with, but as hard as it was for me, or even my sister, it was especially hard for my parents.
Up until now, dear reader, I’ve told you nothing too out of this world, but I’m just now getting to the part that will make my introduction relevant.
Of course, you must excuse me, as I don’t know exactly when and how exactly everything happened. It all became a blur soon after it took place, but I still remember enough and clear enough to merit a “juicy” story of sorts.
So, back to my life post-occupation. Al Jazeera was always on in the background and my parents were obviously depressed and terrified for their families still in Iraq. I had and still have countless cousins living there, along with aunts and uncles. My maternal grandmother, the only grandparent I ever really got to know, was still alive when the war and occupation took place, though she passed away soon after.
I feel I should point out that though I always say I’m originally from Iraq, I never actually lived there. In fact, I wasn’t even born there. I visited there during summer and winter breaks throughout my childhood, but I knew and still know next to nothing about the place my parents call and will always call “home”. All I remember is my grandmother’s house in Baghdad, and my uncle’s house in Mosul among other extended families’ houses between the two cities. They’re childhood memories that don’t mean much when trying to gather intelligence in war times.
Here is the climax of my story.
I was driving home from work one day in late April. I was in a great hurry to reach my driveway as I was having a really bad allergic reaction to a peanut mix my manager had purchased from the Mountain Man lady. She left it on my desk when she found it was too spicy for her. Needless to say, I ate enough peanuts to make me sick.
I parked my car in the garage and immediately ran straight into the guest bathroom. I was thankful I made it. I wanted nothing more than to go upstairs to my bedroom, wash up, change clothes and get in bed, as I felt like death. I was washing up in the guest bathroom, when a knock came at the door.
“I’m having issues!” I yelled in English, not asking who it was, or what they wanted. At times like these, one gets irritable, or at least I do.
My sister has always been a kidder, so when she said, “We have guests, and they want to see you,” I was sure she was just being annoying.
“Whatever!” I shouted. “Go away!”
“You need to come out. The FBI is here, and they’ve been waiting for you.”
“Shush!” I yelled, and took one last look in the mirror to find a pale, sick face looking back at me. I really looked like death.
When I turned to open the door, my sister had just slid a business card under the door. I knelt down and picked it up. What the business card read is a blur, but it made it clear to me that my sister wasn’t joking. It made it clear that the FBI were indeed our guests, and indeed waiting for me.
I immediately went into panic mode. I remembered the sound of my high heels echoing through the house as I ran into the bathroom before the loud slam of the door. I remembered yelling that I was having issues loud enough for the whole house to hear. I was mortified. I had no time, or place to go but to face the FBI. When I came out, my sister was standing by the door, smiling. She tilted her head in the direction of the FBI, i.e. the living room.
The first guy I noticed was straight out of a Hollywood movie, a la LA Confidential. The proverbial young, handsome, clean-cut, and meticulously dressed FBI agent, legal pad and pen in hand; perhaps a rookie. His handsomeness just added gas to the fire that was my mortification.
He smiled at me as I inched closer toward him. He shook my hand and introduced himself. I thought to myself that maybe it wasn’t too bad to have the FBI come right to my home if they’re this fit and good-looking.
All I could do was confirm I was Reem Al-Omari, smile, and hear BOOM-CHIKA-BOOOOOWWWW playing in my head.
I eventually had to snap out of my Harlequin romance moment though when I saw the other guy. He was older, wiry, perhaps in his 40s, and had unkempt hair. He wore a taupe Members Only jacket and jeans, with a plaid shirt, if I remember correctly. The exact opposite of the cute rookie in a dark suit and tie. He said hello, shook my hand and also introduced himself. He sat back down on the couch and stretched his right arm across the back of the seat in a casual manner. I could tell he was only there to observe.
The rookie asked me a lot of routine questions. (How routine could a conversation with the FBI be, really?) The rookie asked me my age, birth date, birthplace, original nationality, immigration status, family situation, whether I was single or married (the whole time I was thinking “wouldn’t you like to know?”), when and how I came to the States, my schooling, my work and how long I’d been living in the town where I still reside.
After I was finished telling him my life story, I closed with: “And so, that’s how we ended up in this little town.”
He asked me if I liked it in my town, and I told him that I did. “It’s a cute and quaint little town,” I added.
“I saw the Waffle House driving over here, and thought that was pretty cool!” We joked about the Waffle House experience, and how one seems to enter some kind of time and place warp when they walk through its doors, ending up in Arkansas. He laughed at my jokes, and I forgot what institution he represented. I was having a good time talking and laughing with the cute rookie in a suit. I loved his dark hair and light eyes, and I was already having fantasies of what our children would look like.
There was a pause, and he looked down at the legal pad in his lap. When he looked up, he explained that he’d spoken with my father, mother and sister before my arrival, each individually. He also explained that the FBI was visiting all Iraqis in light of the war and occupation to gather information about the infamous WMD’s, or any other “suspicious activity” that may help. I told the rookie I had no information to give, that I was a child the last time I was there, and all I remembered were happy childhood times.
“Ok. Thanks,” the rookie smiled and scribbled something on the legal pad and looked back up. “One last question. Do you know what the LIFE organization is?”
“No,” I replied immediately, and the rookie nodded and went back to scribbling on his legal pad. “What is it?” I asked him innocently, and he thought it was funny.
“Oh, we don’t know. That’s why we’re asking everybody,” he chuckled and was smiling as he said this, but the Members Only guy didn’t seem too amused with my curiosity. I cleared my throat nervously and waited as the last few notes were scribbled by the rookie.
My meeting with the FBI was nearing its end. The rookie and Members Only guy both stood up shook my hand and thanked me for my time. My family came out to say goodbye to them, and we saw them out. Their cars, which I hadn’t noticed when I drove up, were parked across the street next to the mailboxes and they were the typical government cars in maroon and black.
As the rookie and Members Only guy drove away, my father, mother, sister and me all filed back into the house and locked the door. We were speechless, exhausted. We didn’t say much about what had just happened and all went our separate ways the rest of the evening. I slept and could’ve slept all the way through the next morning.
Days later, my brother called and told us that he, too, was visited by the FBI.
Though I don’t remember the exact date or the names of either agent… the day the FBI came for a visit is a day that will live in my memory forever. I’ve been living in the States for 18 years now. I’ve been to Disney World, the prom and New York among other American places and events. But very few Americans can say they’ve had the FBI over. And even fewer can say they fantasize about the cute rookie FBI agent who laughed at their jokes, and thought their neighborhood Waffle House was cool.
Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.
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6.4.07 @ 5:17a
Reem, thanks to your perspective as a young Arabic Muslim woman, you've just shown how intimately frightening it is to be a target of anti-Arab sentiment- something I only know on very abstract (and usually political) terms. I hope you and your family weather these angry times well enough to remain strong, and I especially hope you keep harping your points.
6.12.07 @ 12:56a
When I was young, living in Denver, a guy had been window peeking and watching my Mom at night. (My dad and my uncle caught him and threw a couple punches before the police got there.) Years later my dad got a phone call at work (No one EVER called my dad at work; that was a major no no!)and the guy introduced himself as so and so from the FBI. My dad said,"Ya! and I'm Mickey Mouse!" and hung up on him.
That evening two FBI agents landed on our doorstep, not really very happy with my dad. As it turned out, they just wanted to ask my dad about the window peeper, as said peeper had applied for a secret clearance for a government job.
They never smiled or joked. I thought they were rather scarey.