‘Everyone was watching everyone’: Interpreting for the US in Iraq

Nidal was an interpreter for the Americans for five years during their occupation of Iraq. In the eyes of many fellow Iraqis, he is a traitor – but he says he had no other choice.
When the US military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Nidal – a Sunni, along with 30 percent of Iraqis– was 23 years old. Heavy fighting soon broke out between Sunni insurgents and US troops, plunging many Iraqis into poverty. “Everyone lost their job,” Nidal remembers. “I had the choice between planting bombs for the ‘bad guys’ or working for the Americans.”
Nidal was living with his parents and five siblings, so there were eight mouths to feed. “Our fridge was empty,” he says. “One day my uncle said to me, ‘Your English is good – why don’t you become an interpreter for the Americans? They pay well.’ I thought that was a weird question. I hated the Americans – they’d ruined Iraq.” But, little by little, the idea grew on him, and, in 2005, Nidal went for an interview.
“The American interviewer asked me if I could work with the Shiites. I said no. He closed the file.” However, Nidal’s younger brother avoided that mistake, became an interpreter for the US military, and came home a month later with US$600 (€490). So Nidal tried his luck again, and this time he got the job. It was the start of a new, secretive life. Only his family knew.
‘Everyone was watching everyone, all the time’
“The first week, I didn’t even dare to go up to the Americans. I thought they all wanted to kill us – that they hated our religion, hated our skin colour. One day an American soldier said to me, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I said, ‘Rice, vegetables and some meat’, and he comes back with a tray. Well I had never seen this kind of meat before. I had a bit and found it very bland. Then all of a sudden the soldier shouts: ‘Oh my God, you’re a Muslim! It’s pork – I am so sorry!’ He spent another five minutes apologising and then went and got another tray. That gave me a good image of the Americans. He could have just said ‘Shut up and eat’.”

Nidal soon found his niche in his role alongside the US troops, who called him ‘Nick’. “There was this one time when we were on patrol,” he remembers with a smile. “The muezzin gave the call for prayer in this absolutely horrible voice, and a soldier started mocking him in the loudspeaker. So I turned to the captain and said, ‘Look, the muezzin is talking about Jesus and the Virgin Mary – I don’t think this is appropriate.’ Suddenly the captain yelled at the soldier to shut up. As it happened, the muezzin didn’t say a thing about Jesus or Mary. I just wanted that soldier to put a sock in it.”
If anyone found out that Nidal worked for the Americans, it would have been a death sentence, so he had to use subterfuge. For example, one day he had to give his wages to his family and return to the base without being seen. “I gave the Americans a meeting point and they stopped me there, right in front of people. They put a gun to my head and said, ‘What have you got in your bag? A bomb!’ They put a cloth over my head and put me in their Humvee. Madness!” Even though this happened far from home, Nidal’s neighbours heard about it and were worried. “It just shows you that everyone was watching everyone, all the time.”
‘I saved lives’
This game of hide-and-seek was not without consequences. For many in his home country, Nidal is a traitor, a spy. “That’s wrong,” he says. “I was an interpreter. To start with, I just did it for the money. But it wasn’t dirty money. Unlike the ‘bad guys’ [the militias], I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t steal anything. I saved lives.”
Nidal remembers one man the Americans arrested. They had found explosive material on his hands. “His wife and children started crying. I asked this man what he’d done; he replied that he’d picked up a ball from the ground to stop his kids from playing with it. So the Americans looked for this ball and they found it. They did a test and found it was the same chemicals on his hands as the ball. Without an interpreter, he’d have been off to Abu Ghraib.”
In 2010, Nidal’s neighbours spotted him leaving his house at night. He received death threats and so decided to leave Iraq. Since then he has lived in Amman with his wife. His application for a US visa was rejected, as the embassy considered Jordan to be sufficiently safe.
“I learned during those years that behind politics there are people. I saw disgraceful things on both sides, but good things, too. If there were more dialogue, there’d be fewer atrocities.” Nidal says that he has no regrets, and points out that he is wearing badges given to him by American officers. He is proud of his experience. “It is a human one, he says.

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