The Oil Sheikh

By Fall 2006 Baghdad existed for me mainly through visitors to my hotel room. My guests were torture victims, militia members, disgraced Iraqi military officers. The outside physical realities—streets, buildings, the mortar rounds, artillery, helicopters—didn’t mean anything. By the third year of the war, the fear in people’s eyes and the anger in their voices were more real than brain matter on a car seat or a heap of bleeding, naked bodies after a bombing.

Sometimes I thought about how words crumbled in a person’s throat and how grown men dissolved into tears. I asked myself about the fates of various people I had met. Had they fled to Damascus, Amman, or Cairo? Had they been abducted? When I heard news of an acquaintance killed, I experienced a kick in the gut and wondered if there was any justice, any way to put things right. I asked myself whether I made the lives of the people I met better or worse; had I met my obligations to them?

One of the people who periodically came to mind was Sheikh Hatem Assy al-Obeidi. Three years earlier I had played a role in his life, and I wanted to know what had happened to him. There are always reasons to delay knowing, but eventually I had no more excuses, so I decided to contact him through an Arab friend living in the north. The sheikh remembered me and said he would be happy to meet in his village, but he refused to travel to Baghdad or Kirkuk, where he had once been welcome. Life had become too dangerous. But it was doubtful I could evade mujahideen checkpoints on the way to or from his house. All I could do was ask my friend to go to the sheikh with my questions about what had happened to him since our last meeting.

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