Hope Is Alive

The Hard Life of a Christian in Baghdad
The story of Andraus, one of the best interpreters available to the Italian journalists in the Iraqi capital. A look at his family’s safety, food to buy, the information in the newspaper, and the information that isn’t written there. Sunday Mass, where one prays and listens to hope

by Toni Capuozzo*

His name is Andraus. At times, in public, he’s called Yussuf, so others don’t know that he’s Christian. He’s the best of the interpreters who work with the Italian press in Baghdad. His accent reveals his French studies at school, and this, together with his good-natured appearance, a bit chunky, his lively gaze, and pallid coloring, would make him seem at home in any little square in Provence, absorbed in watching a game of bowls, or crossing the road with a baguette under his arm. There’s only one detail that gives away his belonging to Baghdad: his smile, the shy and crooked smile of someone who’s lost a few teeth, and this isn’t the moment for perfect smiles.

Things to do

There are other things to do: two children to bring to school and pick up afterwards, because kidnappers might even be attracted to the few dollars of an interpreter. There’s food to buy in abundance, as if a reward for so many years of scarcity. This is Andraus’ only weakness, and perhaps that of his wife as well. He brings her, as if on a royal platter, whole cartons of eggs, packs of margarine, and everything reappears in the complicated dishes that only women shut in at home can prepare, and that provoke in Andraus various stomach aches, insistent headaches, and heaviness in his back, about the level of his kidneys. Other than that, Andraus is perfect, a small man who crosses the hotel hall every morning with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. He reads them with two different approaches. The first is that of his Italian clients, the news that will end up in their stories, the background that explains an attack in Falluja, the car bomb to kill a minister, the negotiations with Moqtada. The second is his personal approach to information that won’t end up in the news, and that constitute a kind of personal horoscope, brief glimpses into a fate that is familiar to him: the terrorist attack on a bus in which seven Christians were traveling, the closure of another liquor store, the writings on the rolling gate of a modest beauty parlor. Only rarely do these two approaches coincide; it takes an attack on a church, a declaration of the Nuncio, or a bishop’s prayer for hostages. And then, when the newspapers are closed, ready to besummarized , there is the unwritten news, the news that is only Andraus’ personal diary: the Christian family that’s preparing the papers to leave the country, the news that even his new identification documents will indicate his religion, the rumors about the health of Tareq Aziz, who for a long time was a kind of guardian angel for the minority, and now seems a prisoner doomed to pay not only for the regime’s evildoings, but also for the touch of presentability that he could give it, and the meager privilege that spared his minority the persecutions visited upon others, others who today are ready for a reckoning.

A nationality, a curse

“ You’re happy when you see the Americans, aren’t you?” his neighbor asked the other day. “No,” Andraus responded, without comment. “Aren’t they Christians like you?” the neighbor asked. Sometimes, I tell him about the Christians of Beit Jalla and of Bethlehem, in Palestine, who don’t have it any better, to console him. Sometimes I remind him about the new constitutional charter, with group and individual rights. Sometimes I tell him he could start a new life in France or Italy. He shakes his head, as if belonging to Iraq were a curse that can’t be lifted, and instead follows the moves of Christian families who change neighborhood or province, and blend in elsewhere, far from their only familiar pleasure, the Sunday morning Mass. There, their children play on the church steps, before their parents call them back, fearful of bombs, where everyone lights a candle to the Virgin Mary in a cave that seems like a giant Christmas creche, where the girls look at each other’s new clothes, and the old people count the absences from the community, and then everyone goes in together to pray and listen to words of hope, like on any given Sunday.

*correspondent for Tg5
in Baghdad