Saddam's Crossed Swords Monument and Parade Ground in the Green Zone commemorating the 1980s Iraq-Iran War. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO
He had the innocent look of a blond cherub, his hand twisted upright toward me as he lay asleep, his torso thrown over the scratch-graffiti surface of the wood table. His soft white palm was empty now, but I knew that only days before it had tightly grasped a rifle. The scattered voices of the other men who walked past us, the rumble of trucks and the roar of airplanes – none of it disturbed him, as if he were finally catching up on the sleep his time here had denied him.
As I went over my notes, I stared into his face, one that still bore traces of baby fat that I imagined still lingered after years of his mother's Southern cooking – perhaps the stuff of his dreams as he gently snored away.
NYC Journalist's Mission to Tell the Story of Iraq's Gays
Beyond him, taking refuge in the open-air tent's shade were dozens of others, their heads burrowing into camouflage duffel bags, their bodies heavily wrapped in the same pattern uniforms, helmets and bullet-proof jackets haphazardly scattered to their sides. The soldiers piled along the concrete floor under the canvas tent, or on the dirt outside in the shifting corners of its shadows, escaping the 140-degree heat as best they could. Further on lay a vista of the burnt dust of Iraq and more camel-colored tents of the occupation, the dirt and cloth blending into each other, each struggling to dominate the other and hard to distinguish the longer I stared out on the horizon.
I was at BIAP, the military-run side of Baghdad International Airport. Like the hundreds of tired soldiers sprawled around me, waiting for their plane home, permanently, or for a temporary respite, I was about to finally leave Iraq. My month in the country was over. The US government does not make it difficult for independent journalists to visit, offering a friendly show of what they feel is their good work. It's just a lot of paperwork and process, and waiting, endless waiting in dusty environs like this one, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days.
But it was finally the end of my trip – the incredible experience, the hard work, all of it was over. I had come to look at many things in this country that has taken up so much blood and treasure and attention, and foremost among them was what was happening to gays in Iraq, in the northern, prosperous Kurdistan, and here in war-torn Baghdad.
Even though Arab men tend to use their hands more expressively than Westerners, Rahim, a gay Iraqi (here and in the photo that follows), shows how his long hair and his particular hand movements can mark him as gay to strangers. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO
The logistics of the gathering of interviews, the escaping the possibility of death for myself, and hopefully for those with whom I met, all of that was over. I was from the beginning, both with military press officers and the US Embassy in Baghdad, usually open about my mission and my sexuality. And rarely was it a problem.
As happy as I was to finally be leaving, I felt an emptiness, a sense I had so much more to do, that I did not have the whole story. I had interviewed gay Iraqis, US Embassy employees gay and straight, members of the military, contractors, a slew of journalists based in Baghdad, and countless others, the majority off the record or with the promise of anonymity, and yet even so I was not sure I could parse the myriad details and make out a full, coherent picture.
I was perhaps like President George W. Bush himself, preemptively announcing to myself and in my notes “Mission Accomplished,” when in the back of my head, I didn't feel I had it all together.
There were many things that surprised me when I started researching the story of gays in Iraq. The first was that there were hundreds of men on the Iraqi pages of Gaydar. They are a mix of Iraqi locals, members of the US Army, contractors, even employees at Baghdad's embassies. Many, even the Iraqis, had their faces showing.
Gay men face divergent fortunes in Iraq, but freedom is a relative term and an anonymous blessing. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO
At that point, virtually everything about Iraqi gays in the gay press was reported from outside the country – by Doug Ireland in this newspaper, later by David France in GQ, and in many translations by Ali Hili, the exiled leader of the group Iraqi LGBT, working from London. With gay, often underground contacts in Iraq, they offered a view of what is going on, not in any way a pretty picture.
Some mainstream journalists based in Iraq, from the Los Angeles Times, for example, later followed suit.
But I wanted to see things directly for myself.
Hili and I had numerous conversations before the trip, hashing out details of how to stage interviews without risking anyone's life. One thing he made clear to me from the very beginning was that even if my own government occupied his country from the relative safety of the Green Zone, I would not have that luxury if I expected to meet gay Iraqis. Entering the Green Zone could mark any Iraqi as a collaborator, an instant target for death. I would have to travel to some of Baghdad's more dangerous zones.
Hili also told me also about a Baghdad, gay-friendly in its own way, which once existed.
“People don't believe it when I say we had three nightclubs dedicated to homosexuals,” he said, mentioning the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, now more famous for housing journalists or being bombed. He mentioned “picnics on the banks of the Tigris, where men could gather by the water,” conjuring in my mind the reedy edges of that eternal river where perhaps since the days of Gilgamesh, men had been meeting.
Hili's own story – he was forced to work as a spy for Saddam seducing gay diplomats before he managed to escape to England in exile – suggests as much intrigue as anything going on in Baghdad today.
As for a translator, I was on my own.
“Try to get a Sunni,” Hili warned, adding, “Sunnis are more liberal on these issues.”
Minaret Park in Erbil, with a rainbow-lit fountain, becomes a gay cruising area at night. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO
Saddam was a Sunni, along with most members of the Baath Party that once controlled the government. The Shia and Sunni split occurred in Islam long ago, with Shias believing that the true religious leaders trace their roots through Muhammed's daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali, who was married to Fatima. Sunnis, who represent the majority of Muslims worldwide, believe that a consensus method for selecting the caliph was established after Muhammed's death and that leadership in the religion is traced that way. Overall, Sunnis in Iraq are relatively secular, shunning the religious fervor of Shias, who are the majority in neighboring countries including Iran, an historic enemy of Iraq.
By toppling the secular Sunni regime, the US created an opportunity for the long oppressed Shia majority to gain power and align itself with Iran. The leader of the Shias in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, had lived in exile in Iran, and his Mahdi Army is associated with the ongoing violence in Baghdad and the infiltration of the Iraqi Army, estimated by some I met in Baghdad at 30 percent. This has been nothing but trouble for gays in Baghdad, along with so many other groups.
“Nobody cared about who we were,” in the Baghdad he remembered, Hili said, adding, “We still have no written document that a law has been passed to punish homosexuals.”
There has been, however, a strong religious insurgency since the US invasion.
Musical diplomacy brought me to Iraq in the first place. My friend John Ferguson, who heads American Voices, an organization that takes US music to war zones and developing countries, held a concert in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Musicians and dancers came from all over Iraq to perform, creating a sense of unity rare for the nation at this moment.
Ferguson, who is gay, and I know each other from our mutual work in Afghanistan in recent years.
US soldiers seen in the only hotel in the Green Zone, the Al Rashid. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO
Erbil is a dusty city of endless construction projects, with monstrous new, American-style suburban malls and housing developments. Compared to southern Iraq, stable, relatively peaceful Kurdistan appears liberal, but that is simply a distortion of the war. Tribal authority reigns strong, and honor killings of women in rural regions continue in spite of modern capitalist trappings. Still, the outright murders of gays do not seem to exist.
It was here that I met 27-year-old Arsad, who like other Iraqis in this article, is identified by a pseudonym in order to protect his safety. Hili arranged the interview for me.
Arsad is slightly built, about 5-foot, 7, his constant smile, neat dress, and unfailing politeness my first impression. Our interview was in one of the new malls, sprouting from the dust in glitzy, glassy, tacky glory, where he works part-time.
Arsad and I spoke for a few hours in the mall's cafe. During the course of our conversation, he repeated several themes over and over again, and I would hear some of the same later from other men. He remarked on how feminine he thought he appeared, that his hand movements and his way of speaking, with its high pitch, gave him away. He said that at times even his own family would comment that he acted “like a girl” – and that he also felt the sting of hatred on his job.
These sorts of experiences of course are not unfamiliar to many Western gays, but Arsad also talked about far darker elements in the discrimination he has faced. Harassment caused him to drop out of several schools, and he moved from university to university across Kurdistan, because of “all the people in my life that threaten me.”
Male rape is a real and constant fear for him; he once suffered it at the hands of an older man who had blackmailed him into sex, threatening to report him to authorities. Arsad sadly recounted another time when a taxi driver had tried to drive him to a remote area after asking him if he were gay. That time, he managed to escape.
“I said stop the car, stop the car, and I ran away,” he told me. “If I didn't run away I am sure he was kidnapping, trapping me, taking me, and would rape me.”
In a society where to be raped as a man would bring great shame to the family, there would be no way to report the crime to authorities.
After the interview, Arsad helped me buy Iraqi music, including recordings by stars long rumored to be gay. Later, some of his co-workers approached, telling me he is a nice guy, contradicting what he had told me about his treatment by them. But I was a foreigner, a guest; I was meant to feel welcome as his friend.
The encounter was as well an early reminder that in Iraq, one is always watched.
A few days after the interview, when Ferguson's responsibilities for the concert were over, he and I spent time touring the city. We traveled with my translator and driver, Hewraz, hunky, handsome, and straight, but also sporting a moustache reminiscent of the '70s San Francisco clone look – a style so common in the region that even Saddam seemed to favor it. As far as we knew, Hewraz didn't know that I am gay, yet he never asked me if I had a wife and children, a question typically asked of me in my journalism travels.
Erbil was brutally hot during my July visit, but nightfall gave a sense of relief and brought the city, normally devoid of pedestrians, alive. Minaret Park, home to an enormous ancient tower that is all that remains of a once glorious mosque, was on our list. Ferguson and I knew that Erbil had nothing in the way of bars or other formal gathering places that we think of as part of a gay community in the West, but it became obvious that the park after dark was a cruising hotspot.
Fountains line the park's paths, including one with a Caesars Palace-style colonnade with rainbow-lit water works cascading down a terraced hill. Where the water collected into a pool at the bottom, lone men sat on park benches, their profiles silhouetted against the lights. Some of the men glanced up at us, smiling, nodding, clearly checking us out.
By the time we walked to the darkest, furthest edges of the park, where the ancient minaret stands sentinel, the furtive sense of men meeting men was even more apparent. Here, there were virtually none of the families with children wandering and playing we had seen elsewhere. But teenagers hung here as well, far away from their chaperoning families. Indeed our one conversation was not with a man but rather bold, 15-year-old girls, Kurdish, but raised in Germany. I couldn't tell if they were flirting with me – which I would have regarded as daring – or simply looking to practice their English. But as we chatted, men walking by themselves continued to lurk, pacing around us slowly.
A few days later, I visited Suleymania, the cultural capital of Kurdistan, a three-hour drive away. It is a more liberal city where women wear high heels, tight pants, and their hair uncovered. Liquor bottles glow in shop windows on the city's streets. The city is famous for its art scene, and I met Sirwan, a gay artist who lives overseas, but was home visiting his family.
Sirwan's family does not know that he is gay and he insisted, “I think it is better this way,” than the more open nature he has encountered in the West. Over a dinner of lamb and stuffed grape leaves at his house, Sirwan surprised me by using the word “gay” in front of his mother as we chatted in English.
“My mother doesn't even know the word,” he said. “It's not even something she remotely thinks about.”
Sirwan and I spent time with his friends in a park across from my hotel on Salim Street, the city's main thoroughfare. The park is crisscrossed with walkways lined with low bushes and benches where men sat, older ones eating pistachio nuts, the rhythmic clack of the shells against the concrete at their feet. Young men lay on the grass together chatting in pairs and trios, drinking and smoking cigarettes. It was a male domain, the perfect location to socialize as gay men.
Here I met Saleem, Sirwan's handsome friend from Baghdad; Sarkis, a Kurdish-American who wore army clothes and had bruises on his face he said came from an Improvised Explosive Device; and Dozan, a tall, thin Freddie Mercury look-alike visiting from Sweden, where he had moved 10 years ago. Dozan struck me as daring, often leaving to talk to men who sat alone. His interactions sometimes led to more than conversation. These contacts in time got him into trouble; about a month after visiting Suleymania, I learned that Dozan had been arrested and medically tortured by the Kurdish police.
By phone, Dozan told me, “I met a man and we were kissing, and a little hugging also. And someone discovered that in the park and called the police.” He explained that “they took us to the hospital and they tested us to see if they could find some sperm” in his anus using a medical probe in what was a painful procedure.
Dozan said they “brought us to the police station. We were transferred into another room and there was no fan and no light, but it was a big hole in the wall. They looked into that small hole in the wall and they threw also a lot of shit words to us.”
At one point, he recounted, “we were hit in the face by the policemen. And they kept shouting, 'What did you do in the park?'” After a bribe was paid by his family, Dozan was able to get out of jail and then he quickly left for Sweden. He has no idea what happened to the man he was arrested with. In jail, they avoided each other, hoping to escape attention from the other prisoners.
Suleymania might be liberal for Kurdistan, but clearly it is not that way for gays. Still, Kurdistan paled in comparison to reports of repression and outright murders of gay men in Baghdad, much of it originally brought to the attention of the West by journalist Doug Ireland.
My trip to Baghdad began on a military flight from Erbil, approved by my own government, which seemed not to worry about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the case of a journalist whose paperwork included a credentials letter from a New York City gay newspaper. I chose not to be classified technically as an embed, but I applied to enter the Green Zone under the US military's protection and stayed in its press compound.
The documentation required is complex, including a statement explaining the purpose in visiting Baghdad. I laid it out frankly in the application, calling ahead also to speak with Major Armando Hernandez, one of the officials in charge of Baghdad's Combined Press Information Center, or CPIC. He said there was little about my subject of interest that he could help me with, but also that it would not be a problem working on that or any other story idea. I was surprised by his easy acceptance.
In fact I had the same experience with other Americans in Baghdad, including at the US Embassy, where quite a few gay men work. The British Embassy I was told is even more gay-friendly, with “Benny Hill”-style drag parties at the holidays, though I was not around for those.
My first day in Baghdad was spent in dusty BIAP, at times in an area that's called the Stables, a series of wooden sheds with tables, couches, and a TV. As I awaited transport into the Green Zone, I watched a steady stream of CNN, FOX, NBC, and the military's own programming, an incongruous mix of Lindsay Lohan reports and warnings to soldiers to avoid journalists. I was traveling with my friend Cynthia Barnes, a freelancer for Slate magazine, and as we watched Lohan, she said to me, “I thought we escaped news like this by coming here.”
Barnes is pretty, blonde, Southern, and flirtatious, and when she showed me a pink and black camouflage shirt she brought, I began calling her Embed Barbie. She nicknamed us the Gay and the Girl.
Long after darkness had set, we boarded a Rhino, an armored black bus, and traveled in a convoy along Airport Road. The desert air was something like 120 degrees, but the military required us to wear full protection for the crossing. Groggy, confused, but obedient, I strapped myself together. The sweaty scorch of the body armor bit into my belly, the helmet weighed down my neck, but I eagerly peered out the Rhino's tiny darkened windows.
As we entered the city, suburban homes with palm trees came into view, until our path was slowed by barriers. Behind enormous blast walls, I caught glimpses of destroyed but once grand buildings; we had begun the arduous process of passing into the Green Zone. Eventually, we arrived at CPIC, and after a sweaty rest, we met Major Hernandez, a polite, low-key 34-year-old from East Los Angeles.
Journalist friends who had been to Iraq before me, in between asking repeatedly, “Are you crazy?”, insisted that no freelancers had dared venture to Baghdad since 2005. This I soon recognized upon arriving there was patently untrue. As many as 20 journalists a day from the US, Europe, and even Iraq passed through the dorm room I stayed in at CPIC, creating a chaotic, noisy work environment. Most were embeds heading to other points of Baghdad and beyond; others, local Iraq media attending press conferences. After a deceptively peaceful first night, I would come back to strangers in my bed but not in any way I would normally dream about. Because Barnes is “girl,” she had a private room.
The next day we visited the U.S. Embassy, the former Republican Palace, one of Saddam's residences on the banks of the Tigris. I was meeting a contact, who himself is gay and knows a great deal about Baghdad's security situation. Barnes and I toured the most impressive rooms in the palace, one with a dome painted with allegories of Iraqi history and doors ornamented with brass calligraphy.
We went out to the Embassy's pool, enclosed within its own blast walls. It resembled that of any resort, including an adjacent open-air dance floor which that night blared Arab techno music. We spread a map of Baghdad across a table and my contact explained the dangers of the Red Zone, including the neighborhood Karada, which I planned to visit. A brilliant moon, low on the horizon, lit the tops of the lush palm trees around us, but MedEvac helicopters buzzed just above them, continually reminding me where I was.
“There was a car bomb here the other day,” my contact said, pointing at a street near where I scheduled interviews.
He commented wryly that the Green Zone was not so safe either, saying, “We can't do anything about things coming from the sky,” referring to the rockets launched over the walls by insurgents.
Death was a constant part of the conversation in Iraq. Another time at the Embassy, a press officer pointed at empty desks and told me tragic tales of the Iraqi employees who once sat at them. Attacks on gays were now and then part of the staff's conversation. That same press officer knew of David France's GQ article on gays in Iraq.
When I met Philip T. Reeker, the Embassy's counselor for public affairs and discussed the topic, he immediately mentioned that he had been both surprised and disgusted when he heard of the firing of gay translators of Arabic by the US Army because of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
“I'm from the Northeast and just don't understand” why sexual orientation should be an issue, he said, explaining he would readily hire those same people to work for him.
Barnes and I sat talking to Reeker in his small office, perched uncomfortably on a couch with a thickly carved baroque wood frame, the kind you see in pictures of Saddam and his family. A strong historic preservation ethic has gripped the Embassy's overseers, meaning that the palace's original furniture – at least that which survived the early looting – cannot be removed. Still, furniture designed to be purely ornamental has grown dingy and threadbare from its constant use in the occupation.
After meeting with Reeker, I spoke with another press officer, and again raised the issue of gay Iraqis being killed as part of the sectarian conflict. I was met with the response that it is “an Iraqi issue.” The US occupation might have unleashed the violence, but if an Iraqi kills another Iraqi, it seems that a prevailing view is that the US has nothing to do with it.
It would be a few days before I met 24-year-old Rahim, a gay friend of Ferguson's who speaks excellent English. He would be my translator, and his own stories of growing up gay in Baghdad were enlightening. He and I met at the Al Rashid, the Green Zone's only hotel, just around the corner from CPIC.
The Al Rashid conveys a sense of dated grandeur. The public corridors soar several stories high and are decorated like a modern mosque, pointed arched doorways emboldened with multi-colored glass panels through which the light softly flows in dreamy hues. These give way to a more austere lobby, its ceilings high, but the materials made from simple, smooth, polished woods and stones. The side of the lobby is glass, offering a view of the gardens, once meticulously maintained, but now needing a thorough watering and pruning.
Rahim has long hair, stylish glasses, and a wispy manner accentuated by oversized hands. Though I would probably have never guessed he was gay, he told me that these are all signals in his culture that he is. We chose to talk in the Al Rashid's back bar. The hotel has been taken over by religious Shias, and only soft drinks are now served.
I had been warned its Shia ownership meant that it is also a base for spying, which soon became obvious. Rahim and I spoke in low tones, laying my recorder on the surface of the table between us. I avoided using the word gay, but Rahim said it from time to time, even as I looked around to see who could hear us.
Rahim's long black hair seemed to disappear into the dark marble walls behind him, his face half hidden in creepy somber shadows, framed by blazes of light pouring in from the garden through the dust-coated plate glass windows. He told me of the problems in his neighborhood, the dangers in coming to the Green Zone, his need to take four different busses and a taxi, and how his long hair could at times be a danger, marking him as gay.
“I refuse to cut it,” he said, explaining he had died it dark instead to look more Arab. We moved close as we spoke, edging off our octagonal midnight blue, crushed velvet seats. They were from the 1980s, a time when Iraq was awash in oil money fueling a construction boom even as another war, the one with Iran, ravaged the lives of most of the population.
One by one, men gathered at the dim bar just to our side, all staring but trying to do so unnoticed. Every so often I would look up at the couple behind Rahim, a man and a woman, both in business attire, and noticed they would pause when we came to delicate parts of our conversation. When it was clear we were being monitored, we paid our tab and moved into the main lobby. The well-dressed couple did the same.
Still, Rahim and I gabbed more freely in the bright lobby. At times, he made Iraqi gay jokes, talking about how modern Babylon is a place rumored to be full of gays. The name Hili connotes someone from Babylon, so it was appropriate from his perspective that Ali Hili would have chosen that name for his life as an exiled leader of Iraqi LGBT when he arrived in London.
The lobby was a place of wonder for me. Sheiks in long ceremonial robes paraded near the reception counter, constantly pulling my eyes in that direction. Everything seemed fresh and wonderful to me, a sensation that made it possible to forget momentarily the war that raged beyond the hotel gardens over the concrete walls protecting us from the wilds of untamed Baghdad, as yet unknown to me.
As we laughed, the man from the well-dressed couple came over, asking in perfect English, “Do you have a match?” I felt my heart drop, and afterward said to Rahim, “He wanted us to know he understood everything we said, didn't he?” But Rahim brushed it off, arguing the man merely wanted to practice his English and rarely had the chance to do so with a native speaker.
We next moved into the heat of the gardens where we could finally be alone. I had read gardens were the only place people felt safe to talk under Saddam, difficult as they are to bug. As we walked, Rahim moved his hands as he could not in the hotel's lobby.
“If I was walking with you and I don't know you, and I just recognize that you are talking and you move your hands like these moves, I will know and I will think and I will have some ideas about you and that you are a gay,” he explained.
I photographed Rahim as we walked, and it reminded me of the conversation I had in Erbil with Arsad.
Rahim described for me an attempted entrapment he experienced by members of the Shia Mahdi Army who use gay websites to chat with, meet, and then kill gay men in Baghdad. I had read about such cases, but hearing the details first-hand was fascinating.
“Yesterday I was speaking with someone on Gaydar,” he told me. The man told Rahim he had seen his picture and liked him, but would not send his own. “He opened his web cam for like three seconds and then he closed it,” Rahim explained. “And he said, 'It is enough, my family is with me behind me.' But I don't believe it, because he was naked, even for that three seconds.”
Rahim said he knew it was a trap. In spite of the man begging him, “'Habibi, we can have sex, we can meet each other. You can trust me, I am a good person,'” Rahim told him no. Friends of his had experienced the same sort of come-on.
“From this time, I don't trust anybody,” he said.
Rahim and I had spoken for several hours, and though it was not yet late, knowing it might take hours to get home, he decided to leave. Arriving in his neighborhood too close to nightfall could mean death, he explained nonchalantly. Afraid for his safety, I offered to walk with him to the very edge of the Red Zone, to see what he and thousands of Baghdadis experience daily, but he insisted that I stay by the Al Rashid. I waved goodbye, and Rahim turned and faded into a speck against the gray concrete barriers.
Getting into the Red Zone for the interview I had set up with one of Ali Hili's contacts put me in mind of a James Bond movie. Well, sort of. I was met at CPIC by a security man, a handsome Brit with a gun and piercing blue eyes, though his car was a beat-up Toyota driven by an overweight Iraqi. The hotel where I had my interview was only about a mile away, but this being Baghdad, it was well more than an hour before we arrived there.
The British security outfit operates as much under the radar as possible, and this meant crossing checkpoints not like an occupier – that is, easy passage with the flash of a badge – but as locals. Our first obstacle came almost immediately – a checkpoint where we waited with everyday Iraqis for body checks, car inspections, and weapons searches, as I beat back an impending sense that something terrible could happen at any moment.
Right after we cleared that and our car began to move away from the checkpoint, it came under attack from mortar fire. My guards acted as if it were an everyday occurrence, which of course for Baghdad it is. I found the experience surprisingly exciting, my head moving with each ear-piercing boom, which my caretakers misinterpreted as fear.
When the attack finally ended, it took only moments to reach the 14th of July Bridge, traverse the Tigris, and arrive at the hotel I was using for the interviews. Here, I was deposited in the care of a British journalist working for a major London paper. Nearly every man who mentioned her commented on her being among the most beautiful women working in Baghdad, but what ran through my mind as we greeted each other was if not for the advice and assistance of professionals like her working in Baghdad, I would never have been able to accomplish anything.
Having completed my difficult journey to the Red Zone, of course I hoped that my Iraqi contacts had arrived at our meeting place as well. But I had also come to recognize by this point that no one was in more danger than the Iraqis with whom I interacted. Rahim explained that insurgents are so ubiquitously on the lookout to kill collaborators that even to speak English on a cell phone in public in Baghdad could mark someone for instant death.
Like the Al Rashid, this hotel, which for the safety of those staying there, will not be named in this article, is a faded remnant of a more glorious time. From the balcony of my room, I had a gorgeous view of the lushly palm tree-planted Dora neighborhood in the distance. It looked deceptively like a Middle Eastern dream; in fact, it had been a center of the US surge, where fighting was at its most dangerous.
Dora, in fact, was where my interviewee, a young man named Hassan who has a remarkably good command of English, would be coming from. I called him before the interview to confirm, and knowing I would need it for the guard at the hotel's entrance, I asked Hassan for his full name. To my alarm, the phone suddenly went dead. I called back several times, but each time only got voicemail. The British journalist advising me told me, “Oh dear, that's a bad sign,” explaining Hassan could have been kidnapped if someone overheard him talking in English to me. She also suggested that an insurgent might come in his place if he knew where he was going.
“Do you know what he looks like?” she asked.
Of course, I did not. I desperately called Hili in London, explaining the problem and asking if he had a picture he could email me. Baghdad might be lacking in infrastructure, but most hotels are well-wired.
When the image finally came through, Rahim, who had arrived to translate, took one look at it and said, “He does not look normal. Anyone seeing him would know he was gay.” For a man who appeared so obviously effeminate to try to travel from Dora was very risky, he said.
Still, hotel staff, knowing I was waiting on someone who was late, but unaware why I was interviewing the young man, advised me not to worry, explaining that in Baghdad unaccountable delays happen all the time, a point Rahim too conceded. People can run hours, even days late, without the chance to communicate their delay.
One of the dancers I met at the Erbil concert arrived at the hotel for a lunch and photo exchange we had planned, and he too advised me not to worry. He said that he used to fret about the absence of people he was supposed to meet, but that “after six months, it became normal. Whether he comes or not, you still have to eat.” He and Rahim said they would run out to buy food for lunch; as a foreigner, simply stepping outside the safe confines of the hotel posed too much of a risk.
But I remained too nauseous with anxiety to eat, and as the hours mounted, and I left one unanswered frantic message after another, I worried that my appointment with Hassan had meant his death, whether by a random bomb or his confinement at a checkpoint. I waited another full day at the hotel, but he never showed up. One journalist tried to reassure me that my asking for his last name is what derailed the meeting. You can get Iraqis to tell you anything, she said, but never their full name. The idea that he was afraid, not dead, offered some cause for comfort.
My final full day in Baghdad was Barnes' birthday, and we spent that evening in neo-Colonial splendor, dining at the Embassy and swimming in the pool.
But I also used the day to have some last-minute conversations with gay American officials I had been put in touch with, including one Ferguson as well as nearly every journalist there had suggested I speak with. I asked that official if he had become friends with gay Iraqis, and he said, “Yes, and they're afraid for their lives.”
In Baghdad, it's difficult to determine if people are killed because they are wealthy, the wrong religion, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or gay. The variety of reasons boggles the mind. And it doesn't make matters easier that some of the markers for being wealthy – stylish clothes and long hair, for example – are the same as those for being collaborators with the occupiers or for being gay. With any individual death, it can be difficult to sort it all out. Children have been known to be shot dead in front of their parents for wearing shorts.
The American official I was urged to speak with, asked about the difficulties of discerning the truth behind the killings in Baghdad and which ones might be due to the victim being gay, said, “It's part of Iraqi culture to be dramatic about things and exaggerate, but I don't think with this that's the case.” The difficulties for gays in Iraq, he said, have worsened since the previous regime, but they were far from perfect then either.
“Even under Saddam, it was bad,” he said. “They didn't have Internet, and they could not do large networking, but they had places, they had their small circles where they could socialize.”
His words were nearly the same as what Ali Hili had told me when I began my work as the American official added, “I have even heard that there were clubs in hotels where they could meet. Some Iraqis say even though they could not be out, this was better than now.”
As the official and I spoke, Hassan, the man who never turned up for the interview in the Red Zone, finally called me on my cell phone. He was crying and desperate, apologizing profusely for not having shown. I told him I had reluctantly returned to the Green Zone and concluded that our meeting was simply too dangerous for him to risk. He begged for another chance to meet me, saying he would chance traveling to the Green Zone.
As I listened to his pleas, I felt tears coming from my own eyes; the sorrow and despair in his voice were harrowing.
“I don't want you to get yourself killed,” I told him as I dipped my foot in the embassy pool. “It's too dangerous, we can talk on the phone another time.”
Hassan was worried I was mad at him, disappointed he did not meet me before, and I assured him that I was only happy to hear he was alive. And in the end, he accepted that we could not meet not merely because of the danger, but more importantly because the time had passed and the logistics could no longer be arranged.
The American official and I looked at each other as I hung up the phone. Reminding me that gay men are “sitting ducks” at checkpoints if they have to wait for long periods of time entering the Green Zone, he assured me I had made the right decision.
The next morning, I called Rahim and let him know that Hassan was alive and wanted to risk his life to meet me in the Green Zone. Rahim suggested that Hassan probably thought that if he saw me in person, I could help him get out of the country, help him with an asylum bid in the US or elsewhere. Why else would he risk his life for an interview with a journalist, Rahim asked.
I was reminded of a comment Rahim made as we walked in the Al Rashid gardens the day we first met. I pressed him to describe the differences between now and the time before the US invasion. At first, perhaps afraid he might offend me as an American, he hesitated to answer. Then, he said simply, clearly, and firmly, that for gays in Iraq, “It was better under Saddam.”
Michael T. Luongo is the editor of the Haworth Press book “Gay Travels in the Muslim World,” among much published travel journalism. He has reported previously for Gay City News from Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. More of his work on Iraq and other countries can be found at click.