NPR's Jacki Lyden Reflects on an Iraqi Friend's Fight for Freedom
Jacki Lyden and Esho Yousif sharing a happy moment in Carmel, Calif.
"Today Esho is one of the top Arabic experts at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he lives with his wife and two children. We have never lost touch. His views of Saddam have always intrigued me, and never more so than now, when we are waiting to see what will happen in Iraq. I am hesitant, but Esho is not. Like many exiles, he wants Saddam out and if it means a U.S. attack, then so be it. When I point out that many members of his extended family could die, he says, 'We are dying anyway.'"
NPR's Jacki Lyden
March 22, 2003 -- NPR Senior Correspondent Jacki Lyden was part of the team of NPR journalists covering the 1991 Gulf War. Over her career, she has reported for NPR from Afghanistan, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and many ports of call in the U.S. and Europe. In this essay exclusive to npr.org, Lyden reflects on the talented people who help journalists understand new cultures -- and one man in Iraq who risked the wrath of Saddam, and became a lifelong friend. Listen to selected reports from Lyden before and after the 1991 Gulf War.
By Jacki Lyden
My Iraqi friend Esho Joseph helped translate Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses for Saddam. It was his telling of that anecdote, and others like it, that drew me to him in Baghdad in the summer of 1991.
"I did not want to do it," Esho said of the translation work. "I did not think it was possible, but Saddam wanted to know why the Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa (death threat) against Salman Rushdie. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And I had no choice. I was told that in the world of Saddam, nothing is impossible."
So each translator spent a week translating one half of a chapter. In Esho's half, the protagonist Gibreel is still falling from the sky. When the translators were finished, having stayed up night and day and day and night, the translated manuscript was given to Saddam.
"This man took it, Jacki," Esho said, "and flung it across the room after he read one sentence. 'Garbage,' he said."
Esho is one of the people who seldom are acknowledged in a correspondent's dispatches. Yet someone like him, who translates not only a language but the context of history, is invaluable for foreign journalists. We ask these people to trust us with some of their stories. And very often, by telling their narratives, our own lives are entwined and changed. At least mine was.
It is the official decree in Iraq that foreign journalists do not travel about without "minders" from the government. My first minder, in the fall of 1990, was a man named Amer who told me that the year before he had been a sports journalist, traveling with Iraq's soccer (or football) team to Bulgaria. Clearly, shepherding people like me around was a comedown in the world.
Of course, like every journalist, I felt a certain amount of trepidation at crossing into Iraq. But it was clear from the first night that this was a two-way street. Amer took me to a nightclub, then later knocked on my door and proposed marriage, a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label in hand.
"I have seen by your passport that you are over 30 and do not have a husband yet," he explained, truthfully enough. He also added, "you would probably like to take back to America a husband who can talk about manly things such as sports." It's true my father's a sports fan, but I passed.
Esho was in no way like Amer. He was a professional translator trained in London; he spoke Chaldean and Aramaic, the ancient languages of the region. He was Christian, and from the north of Iraq. I knew he wanted to take his wife and leave Iraq, but I did not know how desperate he was.
On a trip back from Basra, Iraq's major port city, he gave an interview in the car in which we were traveling in the company of two Italian television journalists. While camera lights rolled, he was asked if thought the invasion of Kuwait was "a good thing." I could not believe the Italian television journalists were putting him on the spot like this, and I was even more alarmed when he answered them. "Of course not," he said. "Saddam is untrustworthy."
It was a glove thrown down. He had been asking me to help him; and now I felt I had no choice. And yet I did not think there was much I could do.
In the days that followed, I would meet with him sometimes in the courtyard of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Kerrada, in Baghdad. He told me of the threats to his life when he returned to Iraq from London -- of his time in prison where he had been explicitly threatened with physical and sexual degradation.
(Much later, he told me of a night in which one of his translation notebooks was missing from an important Iraqi government meeting with Kurd leaders. The secret police, the Mukaharabat, showed up at his door. He was taken to an old villa, blindfolded and handcuffed behind his back and thrown in a pool where he had to stand on tiptoe or drown.)
I did not know all that in the summer of 1991. But I did know that he was in danger. He had been imprisoned in the 1980s, and now, since the war against Iraq had been portrayed as a war between believers and infidels, the million-and-a-half strong Christian community in Iraq began to see the signs of purges. Esho's wife lost her job, another family member lost his home. I did a story on the growing dangers to the Christian community.
When I returned to Jordan I made appointments with both the American and British ambassadors. I had other things to discuss with them anyway, but one of the things I wanted to talk about was Esho. As I had expected, neither country was interested in having him, and I felt dispirited.
I figured that Esho would leave Iraq and wind up in Jordan, one of the many refugees there who continue to live in fear of the Iraqi secret police. I got a letter from Esho in the fall -- they were in Jordan and his wife had had their first baby. That winter I got a call from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Esho had told them of his conversation the summer before traveling from Basra in front of the Italian journalists, and I confirmed it. He will be killed if he returns to Iraq,” I said.
"Alright," the woman said, calling from London. "We can use that. We will send him to Sweden." Esho's force majeur had nearly worked; but I couldn’t believe they were sending him to Sweden.
"He's an English translator," I pointed out.
"Sweden will take him," the UNHCR woman said. "And the United States won’t."
I was ready to write whomever I could about Esho, but at this point I started to lose track of him. Months passed -- it was late spring. I was on a leave of absence at the University of Chicago, studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. One day the phone rang at home.
"Jacki, it is Esho... and I am standing on Michigan Avenue."
I couldn't believe it. He was living in Chicago. World Catholic Relief had brought him over, to a city where he knew exactly one person -- me. Esho was always his own man, always working the jobs that came his way through the refugee organizations.
Today Esho is one of the top Arabic experts at a language institute in Northern California, where he lives with his wife and two children. We have never lost touch. His views of Saddam have always intrigued me, and never more so than now, when we are waiting to see what will happen in Iraq.
I am hesitant -- but Esho is not. Like many exiles, he wants Saddam out and if it means a U.S. attack, then so be it. When I point out that many members of his extended family could die, he says, "We are dying anyway."
I will be in Iran during this war, and very likely in occupied Iraq at some point. I intend to track down the many members of Esho and Tanya's family. But what it makes me think of most of all -- whether it is this story from Iraq or another part of the region -- is that the places which are hardest for journalists to get to are the places where we are most dependent on the tale-tellers.
To a Western eye, perhaps Esho in some way looked dependent on me, on what I might be able to do to help him. I would suggest that it is we journalists who are dependent on the Eshos of this world -- the people who are our eyes, and ears, and tongues in this foreign culture.
They are the stuff of our narratives, which we offer to our listeners -- and I for one am proud to be part of that chain in the story. Whatever happens, I know we journalists can come and go. The people we talk to seldom have that privilege. I will keep that in mind during any conflict with Iraq. And I am glad that when so many people are left behind in the advance-and-retreat of journalism, Esho is still my friend, and still a man who helps translate his culture for the world.
Sept. 21, 1990: Lyden reports that Arab leaders have not given up on finding a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis -- but despite a recent meeting in Morocco to discuss a peace plan, Arabs still seem bitterly divided over Saddam Hussein.
Oct. 30, 1990: NPR's Jacki Lyden reports that at least in private, Iraqi citizens are beginning to show contempt for President Saddam Hussein and his instigation of the Gulf crisis.
Sept. 1, 1991: Lyden reports on the Christian community in Baghdad, and visits an Iraqi Christian family who say they have been persecuted by their government because of their religion.