Fear of Informants Leaves Arab Americans Reluctant To Speak Out

By Simona Shapiro

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

CHICAGO — Covering the Arab-American community here in the Windy City is not easy. People hide from reporters. They don’t want their names to appear in print. They seem irrationally mistrustful and refuse to speak on the record for any number of reasons: one “because I have a sister in Ramallah,” another because he didn’t want to “get his church involved.” One young couple fears Saddam Hussein — who “reads everything” — will track down their family members in Iraq.

It’s enough to make a reporter feel thoroughly paranoid — or worse, cynical, like a reviewer sitting through a bad spy movie.

And then something happens to remind you that this stuff is real.

Earlier this month, the FBI arrested Chicago suburbanite Khaled Abdel-Latif Dimeisi on suspicion of providing intelligence to Iraq. Using a pen with a hidden camera and microphone, Dimeisi (code-named Sirhan by Iraqi intelligence) is being accused of recording conversations with Iraqi opposition leaders in the United States and using his position as the editor of an Arabic-language newspaper in Chicago to provide press credentials and freedom of movement to fellow Iraqi agents. According to local Assyrians, he spied on ordinary people, not just bigwigs. “He would write pro-Iraqi articles and people would comment. Then he would register who said what,” Iranian-born Marina Shapira, an accountant, told the Forward.

Following Dimeisi’s arrest, I decided to spend an evening at Chicago’s Assyrian Social Club to see if I could learn more about this strange world of fear and informants, deception and doublespeak that seemed to characterize Saddam’s Iraq — and now Chicago.

I wondered also whether a similar fear prevailed among émigrés from other Middle Eastern countries.

“People in our community, as soon as they would say something, a few weeks later their relatives would get beaten,” said Peter Dagher, a former Clinton aide of mixed Lebanese- and Iraqi-Assyrian descent. Dagher said that the phenomenon of informants like Dimeisi, if not their identities, was well-known within the Iraqi émigré community in Chicago, the majority of which is Assyrian: “He was no James Bond. They get a few bucks.”

Sinnecharib Rasho, a retired math teacher, said his brother was poisoned while visiting Iraq in 1973. A family friend, Emmanuel Solomon, recalled the story: “The Iraqi government had given some provisional rights to the so-called Syriacs [Aramaic speakers]. His brother was active in the Assyrian Universal Alliance and was the editor of the then-Chicago-based Assyrian Star. He told the community in Iraq to be wary of the Baath Party’s maneuvers because they were trying to neutralize our political movement. When he came back to Chicago, he eventually died, and the autopsy revealed mercury poisoning.”

It is incidents such as these, the two men said, that make even American citizens afraid to speak. “Some people wouldn’t attend the rally supporting our troops,” Rasho claimed. “Some people said, ‘Why are you going out? Saddam is still there.’”

Solomon, a poet, said that such intimidation tactics are not confined to Iraq. “I have a friend from [my native] Syria who was a priest,” Solomon said. “In 1990, he was at a small banquet with Jewish leaders in Chicago including a member of the Israeli Consulate. Their picture was published in the Chicago-based Assyrian Guardian. The Syrian mukhabarat [secret police] got hold of the paper, and his friends in Syria were arrested. The friends, not even relatives, were arrested and tortured, and they were accused of being collaborators with the Israelis. So you have to understand the fear.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.