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.”