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Thursday, December 25, 2014

A True Christmas Story

Link: History of The Assyrian People

For those of you who eventually read my book, you will find a longer, more spiritual version of this story.  Given that Christmas is upon us, and this is a true story, I chose to share it with everyone.  Sometimes when you least expect it, and in the most unlikely places, a little miracle with sneak up on you.  Rejoice!
Medieval icon depicting
Ephrem the Syrian

It was December, 2003, and Mike and I were going about our daily routine of ops meetings and paperwork.  I had been in Baghdad for roughly eight months, and Mike had been in country for five.  Mike and I lived in the Green Zone, within the Agency compound, and we worked together on a daily basis.  It was not normal for two case officers to work together as a team, but we gravitated to each other from the start, and modesty notwithstanding, we were as productive as three officers.  Otherwise, I can guarantee you, the arrangement would have come to an end.  Why did we work so well together?  If was a combination of Mike's amazing sense of direction, intelligence, his work ethic, and his patience, mixed with my experience.  We had separate cases and met with our own list of contacts, and we always managed to not let it get complicated.  Unfortunately, both Mike and I were missing one important skill: neither of us spoke Arabic.  We always seemed to have a shortage of linguists in Baghdad, but we managed.  The entire compound was lucky to have a family of brothers, all older gentlemen, travel out to Baghdad and share their Arabic skills.  The three Hanani Brothers, Lucas, Luther, and Nicholas, were all American citizens and all over the age of sixty-five (Lucas being the oldest at seventy-eight).  The Hanani's were ethnic Assyrians, with Lucas having been born in Baghdad.  The large Hanani family were successful merchants in Baghdad, but the unstable political situation following the second world war convinced Hanani Sr. (the father of Lucas, Luther, and Nicholas, who is still around) to move to the United States.  Over the Years, hard-work and sacrifice led to tremendous success in business, and the Hanani's were proud to call themselves Americans.  The family in the United States did its best to keep in contact with family in the relatively large Assyrian community in Baghdad, but communication was never consistent.  While the American Hanani's enjoyed the opportunities and freedoms of the United States, life became more and more difficult for Assyrians living in Iraq.

Assyrians originally come from Syria, and most have always been Orthodox Christian.  As has been the case with Armenians and Kurds, Assyrians have faced episodes of pogroms and ethnic cleansing related to both religion and culture.  During the years of the Ottoman Empire, the Assyrian community was heavily involved in trading, and close, trusting relationships were developed between the Ottoman authorities and Assyrian leaders.  In reality, the Assyrians were able to determine who to bribe and when, which made life so much easier for everybody.  But one morning, soldiers came and kicked in the doors and took everything of value.  This repeated occurrence over the years ended with Assyrian neighborhoods in Baghdad, Mosul, and Arbil becoming little more than slums.  Mike and I really enjoyed discussing the history of Iraq and the Assyrian community with the Hanani Brothers, who were usually posted to Baghdad at the same time (their request).  But when it came time for work, the Hanani's were first in line and ready to go.  I recall many times that an unscheduled meeting was triggered, and a Hanani Brother happily got out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to come translate a meeting.  During a conversation with Mike and I, the two older brothers, Lucas and Luther, announced that their father had ordered them to find their relatives in Baghdad while they were here on duty. If we had made a formal request to go cruising around the slums of Baghdad looking for Assyrians, no doubt we would have been denied.  But Mike and I were convinced that if we didn't get involved, these old farts were going to just walk out of the Green Zone and head for downtown Baghdad one afternoon.  Lucas told me that he spoke Arabic and had no fear of Muslims.  I needed more assurances that that.  Mike and I told the boys to sit tight, and went to work.  We reached out to our local contacts, and also hit the internet.  before long we had a good idea of the last known location of an Assyrian community.  That night Mike and I did a RECON, in order to confirm the existence of a church, a relatively safe place to park, and an open flow of bottlenecks.  The next day, December 23, we told the three brothers that we had located an Assyrian Church and possibly the remnants of an Assyrian community in the Ad Dora neighborhood of Baghdad (south bank of the Tigris).  We informed them that on Christmas Eve, we would take them out to the Church at noon, and leave them long enough to enjoy a Mass; they could call us when they were ready for a pickup.  They were ecstatic; it may not have been the family reunion that their patriarch has requested, but at least it was something.  Mike and I also went in to talk to our Chief, whose response was, if something goes wrong, call, but I don't know a thing.  We will pull your ass out, only to hang it out to dry later.

The next morning at 1100 am, we picked up the three Hanani boys (age or no age, I can't help but think of them as boys, because together they were always laughing and playing jokes on each other), who were showered, combed, and dressed as nice as they could be (no one brings a suit to Baghdad).  We had no problems getting to Dora, but we were depending on parking relatively close to the Church.  This wasn't possible because of the number of cars already taking up all available space.  We had no choice but to park in front of this one large, nondescript house about five hundred yards from the Church, and two hundred yards from the end of the street.  The boys would not listen or wait; as soon as the car was parked in front of this house, they were on the street.  I hopped out quickly as well, and thank goodness for my speed because I was able to see the first glimpse of recognition.  Someone from inside the house had come outside to see what big, obviously not-local vehicle had parked in front of their house.  The old man and woman that came outside were the Hanani Brother's Aunt and Uncle.  By chance (and because of the traffic), we had parked directly in front of the Hanani-Baghdad home.  Once the shouting and hugging began, people started appearing from everywhere.  I was so amazed at how many of these people recognized each other, after fifty, maybe sixty years.  The commotion in the street soon moved into the house, and Mike and I were dragged inside virtually against our will.  When I complained to a younger, French-speaking Hanani that I had safety concerns, he laughed as said that the "truck" and its occupants were completely safe.  We had to meet everyone, and had to eat food...lots of food.  I don't particularly like food from this part of the world, but everything was sweet on that day. The tears never stopped.  After roughly an hour, the group prepared to leave for the first Christmas Mass.  Mike and I took the opportunity to say our goodbyes, and confirm our contact arrangements with the boys.  When they were ready for pickup, they would call, and we would be there.

They didn't call until the next morning, but we weren't concerned.  We could have called them, but we chose to leave them in peace.  Mike and I were petrified that a shortage of linguists would create a "where's the Hanani's?" contagion ,but it never happened.  After picking up the brothers on Christmas Day, they never included Mike and I in their family meeting arrangements again.  They knew that Mike and I had jeopardized our careers by taking three older U.S. citizens "off campus" and into the heart of Slumville, Baghdad. They made arrangements to meet their newly discovered family in the Green Zone, which was the safest option to begin with.  Its my understanding that our efforts were instrumental in reconnecting a family that had not spoken in decades, and all the newly discovered young members of the Hanani clan now had the opportunity to learn the entire history of their heritage. For the rest of my life, I will remember the look on Lucas' face when he recognized his was instantaneous, and it was beautiful, and a moment of pure love.  Who could ask for more from a Christmas miracle?

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