Translator Details Difficulties of Iraqi Life

Abdulla, an Iraqi graduate student, speaks about translating for NPR since just after the fall of Baghdad. The work is extremely dangerous, he says, but he wants to speak about the current state of Iraq, and how the U.S. presence is viewed there.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's a voice you've heard in many of our reports from Iraq over the last couple of years.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ABDULLAH(ph): `They call the restaurant Hidillah(ph) because the sandwich for the falafel is big. It's double the size of a normal one. That's why they call the restaurant and the guy Hidillah or "hey there, double."'

MONTAGNE: Today, we introduce you to the person behind this voice. His name is Abdullah. He's translated for NPR since just after the fall of Baghdad. Abdullah came to Washington, DC, this month. He had been here once before but he was only two years old at the time. His father was a diplomat.

This is the first visit to the United States since you've been a grown-up. What's your impression?

ABDULLAH: It's green. It's, you know, never-ending green.

MONTAGNE: The story of how Abdullah became a translator began just after he saw his first American soldier.

ABDULLAH: They look like, you know, troops from "Star Wars," you know, their gear, their weapons, everything. Their, you know, equipment is just like in the movies.

MONTAGNE: And it wasn't long before American soldiers moved in to his neighborhood. They transformed a school into a makeshift base and then one day...

ABDULLAH: Their translator was not there. So they started asking, `Does anyone speak English?' So I told them I did, and one of the guys was coming to report that there is this secret cell in one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein and there are prisoners over there and you've got to free them and stuff like that. So I came and, you know, translated for them, and before leaving, one of the soldiers came to me and says, `Wait. Don't go.' Then he goes and calls one of the sergeants who--and says, `You know, actually we're looking for translators and you happen to be here, and who's going to speak better than you do?'

MONTAGNE: Did you like them? Did you like the soldiers?

ABDULLAH: Well, at that time, yes, I did. I worked with the 101st Airborne Division. It had some time in Baghdad and then they had to travel to the north. So they said, `Come on. We'll pay you and just come with us.'

MONTAGNE: How did it happen that you became a translator and journalist translator for NPR?

ABDULLAH: I'm studying English literature and I got a call that, you know, `You have to come back to join classes because they reopened.' So I went back, but then because of the situation at the university, they had to close it. You know, libraries were burned. There was no material enough for us to start our study. So I said, `Look, the best thing is to, you know, go and try to do my thesis beforehand and work on it.' So I go to this famous place called The Book Fair(ph) on Mutembi Street(ph), a very famous part of Baghdad, an old part of Baghdad. I go there, you know, to look for sources on Eugene O'Neill and I happened to see Deborah Amos and Tom Bullock...

MONTAGNE: Our producer.

ABDULLAH: ...our, you know, Baghdad producer. So, you know, I come forward and tell them, you know, `Look, this is my opinion. You want to talk to me, this is my opinion.'

(Soundbite from interview)

DEBORAH AMOS (NPR News): He says each week as daily life improves for Iraqis, their expectations rise, too.

ABDULLAH: I understand that the United States, the coalition forces, cannot rebuild Iraq within two months, but do the people understand this? They think as long as the US forces are here, Iraq will turn to heaven.

And I just start storming them, you know, about the situation and that Iraqis are so pissed because they can't be more patient. They've been patient all their lives and they want change.

MONTAGNE: We are only using your first name to protect you really. Are you a target then because you are working with Americans, you're seen as being on the side of the Americans?

ABDULLAH: Well, it's not just dangerous using my last name. I mean, just having this interview to me sometimes shocks me to be, you know, dangerous in a way.

MONTAGNE: There have been close calls for you.

ABDULLAH: You know, there were a lot of calls, I mean, dangerous situations. One which was really terrible is the car bomb that exploded outside the convention center I think a year ago. I was with one of our reporters at NPR, Anne Garrels, and we were very close to death.

MONTAGNE: Right.

ABDULLAH: It's kind of difficult for any Iraqi to live in Iraq, but for me, I mean, it's probably more difficult because of the kind of work I do every day and, you know, where I live.

MONTAGNE: Where do you live, with your family?

ABDULLAH: I live with my family, with my father and my mother and my two brothers.

MONTAGNE: Do they like that you're going out every day more or less with these American journalists to hot spots?

ABDULLAH: Well, that's the thing. I have to lie all the time. I don't tell them everything, especially my mom. My mom hates me, you know, for working with NPR, and she's so afraid that some day I'll go in the morning and I'm not going to show up at the end of the day. You know, my dad thinks it's a great chance for me to develop and learn more.

(Soundbite from report)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO (NPR News): The first edition started in the capital.

MONTAGNE: Here's Abdullah at work with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro earlier this summer.

(Soundbite from report)

ABDULLAH: `Our editors are actually the Iraqi people and even the grocer, the porter and the man who drives the car can write in my newspaper. Even a child can give his opinion.'

MONTAGNE: Abdullah, thank you for talking with us.

ABDULLAH: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for your work with us as well.

ABDULLAH: I'm honored.

MONTAGNE: Even as he continues to work with NPR, Abdullah is working towards his graduate degree in English. The subject of his thesis: the disintegration of the family in the plays of Eugene O'Neill.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

SUSAN STAMBERG (Host): And I'm Susan Stamberg.

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