Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Mutaz Al Mudaris, April 6, 2019

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:01:30 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: Good afternoon, this is Mutaz Al Mudaris, we're in Philadelphia.

Segment Synopsis: Mutaz Al Mudaris states his name. Charles Hardy explains that the interview is part of the Philadelphia Immigration Project and part two of an oral history.

Keywords: Free Library of Philadelphia; Mutaz Al Mudaris; Northeast Regional Library; West Chester University Library

00:02:25 - Al Mudaris' childhood

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Partial Transcript: What I'd like to do is, sort of, if you can, run us through your life from your childhood through, um, what Iraq was like when you were young.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris speaks of his birth in Baghdad, Iraq, in the upscale Al Karrada district to Malka Al Saadi and her husband in 1973. He was born in a hospital called "Avicenna" or Abu Ali Sina, named after a famous Arabic doctor during the Islamic Golden Age. Al Mudaris came to take pride in being born in this hospital since becoming a medical interpreter. Although Al Mudaris cannot remember his first three years in Baghdad, he does remember his childhood in the United Kingdom, where the family moved in 1976. As a child, Al Mudaris never understood his parents' struggles with balancing their finances, studies, and family time with their four children. However, with time, Al Mudaris, alongside his siblings, learned more about his parents and their life struggles.

Keywords: Abu Ali Sina; Baghdad, Iraq; Child's perspective; Ibn Sina Hospital; Islamic Golden Age (7th-14th cent.); United Kingdom

Subjects: Baghdad (Iraq); Childhood

GPS: Ibn Sina Hospital, where Al Mudaris was born
Map Coordinates: 33.312846, 44.406524
00:04:32 - The move from the United Kingdom to Iraq

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Partial Transcript: So, I remember we moved, uh, in--from U.K. to Iraq in 1981. That was like one year after the Iraq-Iran war broke.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris recounts his family's move from the United Kingdom to Iraq. There, his father tried to make the move appealing by playing on Al Mudaris' passion for animals and aspiration to become a zookeeper by explaining that Iraq had a plethora of animals and plants, including fish and water buffalo. Al Mudaris had trouble understanding Iraqi housing and that, because roofs are flat, it was customary for the family to sleep on the roof at night under the stars and cool breeze. Because of this, he had a dream in which he was sleeping and slipped on the sloped roof of a British style house. They first lived in Kut, in the Wasit Governate.

Keywords: Baghdad, Iraq; Child's perspective; Iran-Iraq war; United Kingdom; Zoology

Subjects: Baghdad (Iraq); Childhood; Kut (Iraq)

GPS: Kut, Iraq, where Al Mudaris's family lived.
Map Coordinates: 32.519389, 45.814423
00:07:45 - Life in the city of Kut, Iraq, and its "gift culture"

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Partial Transcript: And so, life was very different over there, because, uh, uh, um, it's more like people were--they had the rural--

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris comments on the rural setting of Kut, Iraq, and its non-metropolitan customs and cultures, such as the city's gift giving culture. When one of his parents conducted a successful surgery, they received livestock from the client or client's family to express their appreciation. So Al Mudaris' household had sheep named after fruits, two dogs, and nine roosters, ducks, and hens. Looking back, he shares how kindness, generosity, and transparency unified the community.

Keywords: Animals; Culture; Customs; Gifts; Kut, Iraq; Livestock; Rural; Surgery; Wasit Governate

Subjects: Childhood; Kut (Iraq)

00:09:50 - His struggles to learn Arabic in Kut

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Partial Transcript: And then came the, the time when, when my brother moved to, uh, Baghdad College.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris talks about how he struggled to learn Arabic, how neighbors advised watching Arabic Sesame Street to help him, how a teacher who mistook his poor language skills as arrogance hit him, and how he then learned Arabic under a teacher who was a strict disciplinarian.

Keywords: Arabic; Baghdad, Iraq; Education; Kut, Iraq; Languages; Moving; Sesame Street (Television program); University of Baghdad

Subjects: Baghdad (Iraq); Childhood; Kut (Iraq)

GPS: Kut, Iraq.
Map Coordinates: 32.519449, 45.815312
00:14:47 - Moving to Baghdad and education at the elite University of Baghdad

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Partial Transcript: I remember then my brother had to move to Baghdad, um, to my grandparents'.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris talks about moving to Baghdad and finding a new, fast-paced lifestyle in the city. When attending the University of Baghdad, he maintained a low profile among the elite sons of ministers and other political officials and excelled in his studies. Al Mudaris recalls how often one classmate showed off his wealth by arriving in the family limo in front of the class. During the first Gulf War in 1991, he took the national exam. Because his classmates achieved high scores from their access to a stolen exam, Al Mudaris did not score high enough to get into medical school, so he could not become a dentist like his father and instead went into agricultural engineering.

Keywords: Alumni; Ba'athism; Elites; Gulf War; Kut, Iraq; Life pacing; Mannerisms; National Exams; Uday Hussein; University of Baghdad

Subjects: Baghdad (Iraq); Education, Higher; Higher education; Kut (Iraq)

00:19:19 - Attitudes towards Americans before the Gulf War

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Partial Transcript: I've got a question for you before we get to the college of agriculture.

Segment Synopsis: Leading up to the Gulf War, Al Mudaris knew the United States may be invading from hearing reports on the BBC. Initially, he felt fine and somewhat excited with the war before experiencing the death, destruction, and chaos it wrought. He shares that a majority of Iraqis respected Americans, although the Baathist Party did not like Americans. He comments on how Iraqis perceived British and American accents. Al Mudaris recounts visiting the Baghdad International Fair with his family where they saw photos of American products. Reflecting now, he sees that the United States has pros and cons, and is not the perfect place he imagined during his youth and pictured in Hollywood movies.

Keywords: Awareness; Baathist Party; Baghdad International Fair; Beliefs; Consumerism; Foreign perspective of the United States; President George H.W. Bush; Products; The Gulf War; United States; Wars

Subjects: Bush, George, 1924-2018.; Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:28:21 - Experiencing the Gulf War--Part I

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so let's get back then to, um, uh, '90, '90-'91.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris remembers fortifying the family's house before the U.S. led coalition forces invaded Iraq to avoid broken glass during the attack. During the night, Al Mudaris listened to the bombardments, realizing the imminent danger they faced. He remembers watching an interview conducted with six American prisoners of war. During the broadcast, Al Mudaris came to respect one soldier's composure during the questioning.

Keywords: Adulthood; High school graduation; Prisoners of War; Teenage years; The Gulf War; Wars; Wartime

Subjects: Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:32:34 - Experiencing the Gulf War--Part II

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Partial Transcript: And the bombing didn't stop. Like it was nonstop on that day.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris explains that, due to living next to the Muhammara intelligence agency across the Tigris river, the family was worried that a bombardment may accidentally miss the building, hit their home, and kill them. Similarly, in the 2003 Iraq War, a nearby neighbor, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a doctor who worked on the Iraqi biological weapons program known also by the name "Mrs. Anthrax" was also a target that may lead to the family's demise. Al Mudaris remembers that, during the waning months of the Gulf War, looters started to steal and destroy things while Iraqi and foreign rebels rose to contest with Saddam Hussein's regime. Worried that paratroopers may take Baghdad, Al Mudaris' family left to Karbala to stay at their aunt's father's hotel until the end of the war alongside other escapees on a packed highway. After some time, the family returned to their home, only to learn the hotel was destroyed the same day they left the hotel, and later living off of dried foods like fruits and legumes.

Keywords: Adamiyah, Iraq; Anthrax; Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash; Iraq War; Iraqi Biological Weapons Program; Kadhimiya, Iraq; Karbala, Iraq; Shi'a; Sunni; The Gulf War; Wars; Wartime

Subjects: Adamiyah (Iraq); Iraq War, 2003-2011.; Kadhimiya (Iraq); Karbala (Iraq); Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:39:29 - On state control of the media coverage of the war

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Partial Transcript: But y'all recovered from the war?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris recounts how the Iraqi media presented homages to Saddam Hussein and patriotic songs, but provided no coverage of civilian casualties or damage to the nation's infrastructure. He shares how he had to study for the national exams by candlelight, since there was no electricity.

Keywords: Casualties; Education; News media; Patriotism; Post-war; Propaganda; Saddam Hussein

Subjects: Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:41:39 - Mosquito bites and the blockade of foreign products

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Partial Transcript: Just as a quick aside...

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris remembers applying a German brand bug spray called "Kicks" when his family slept on the roof. However, after the United Nations placed sanctions on foreign trade into Iraq after the First Gulf War, foreign products were no longer available, so Al Mudaris and his family got lots of bug bites. Despite this, he still preferred to sleep on the roof with the cool breeze and night sky.

Keywords: Bug repellant; Cy-Kicks; Domestic products; Mosquitoes; Sanctions on Iraq; Sleep

Subjects: Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:43:08 - On studying agricultural engineering

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Partial Transcript: So, you go to agricultural--you don't get into dental school?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris shares how he did poorly during his first semester in agricultural engineering school due to the shame he felt for not getting into medical school, which was expected of children of doctors. He applied himself to his studies, however, after he recognized the importance of plant pathology, the disease vectors of insects, and the life cycles of cows. He felt pride in what he was learning as it was close to his parents' professions in medicine as they had to study the life cycle of an insect-born disease.

Keywords: Agricultural engineering; Colleges; Culture; Education; Etymology; Family traditions; Medicine

Subjects: Education, Higher; Higher education

00:46:06 - Exemption from military service and work at the Iraqi Federation of Industries

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Partial Transcript: So, you graduate from school and you got a job--what's your, your profession?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris talks about the impact that post-war corruption had upon his life after the first Gulf War. After he graduated from college, his parents paid one million dinar as a bribe to exempt him from military service, and he got a job through the intercession of a powerful uncle at the Iraqi Federation of Industries as an agricultural engineer. There, he soon got in trouble when he voiced his concerns about corruption in the Purchasing Committee.

Keywords: Corruption; Iraqi Federation of Industries; Military exemption; Post-college; Preliminary Military Exercise; Professions; Purchasing Committee

Subjects: Persian Gulf War, 1991.; Politics and government

00:49:45 - Religious and ethnic diversity and intolerance

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Partial Transcript: So, um, where--how do we get there from--from there to, um, to the, uh, the second Iraq War?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris recalls going to inspect machines at the Bobi chewing gum factory, a famous chewing gum with a black and white dog as a logo. Al Mudaris saw that one of the chewing gum wrappers, imported from Germany, featured a Star of David. The Iraqi "Economic Police" told the factory owner to destroy the wrappers and packaging. The German company understood the situation, and agreed to compensate the owner for the destroyed wrappers. Al Mudaris notes that he grew up in a very diverse Iraq, in which divisions among religious groups were not significant, but the differences became more prominent as the government promoted religious division, especially against Jews. He reflects on how he learned to appreciate diversity from his own experiences, despite the growing religious intolerance.

Keywords: Bobi; Chewing gum; Diversity; Engineering; Inspections; Islam; Jobs; Judaism; Machinery; Religious and ethnic divisions; Religious freedom; United States

Subjects: Politics and government; Religion

00:58:05 - Increased religious intolerance after the Iraq War

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Partial Transcript: But, back to your question when, when--the significance that happened was after the two thou--2003 war, not after the 1991.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris talks about how after the Iraq War, religious parties twisted religion to hate others and used their power over their believers to scramble for control of the nation. As a result, the government of Iraq was divided among the religion of the parties and individuals rather than Iraqis' honesty, patriotism, and education. He says that these religious parties which have nothing to do with religion, were driven by a thirst for power and played upon the ignorance of people. He notes that much of this intolerance came from increased Iranian influence.

Keywords: Ethnicity; Iranian influence; Iraq War; Kurdish; Lebanon; Religious and ethnicity divisions; Religious political parties; Saddam Hussein; Secular government; Secularism; Shia Islam; Sunni Islam; Theocracy

Subjects: Iraq War, 2003-2011.; Politics and government; Religion

01:01:51 - Job instability / Finding work as a translator at the U.S. Embassy

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Partial Transcript: So, when did you first consider leaving Iraq?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris and his family enjoyed a stable life following the Gulf War, and avoided getting tied up in political conflict, until eventually their values were compromised. He shares that tensions between Shi'a and Sunni workers increased at the Iraqi Federation of Industries, leading him to leave this toxic environment despite his parents' disapproval. He also lost his job as a translator at the Ministry of Mass Communication when Paul Bremer dismantled the organization. Eventually he found a job as an interpreter for the U.S. Embassy.

Keywords: Corruption; Employment; Honesty; Immigration; Interpretation; Jobs; Lewis Paul Bremer III; Medical issues; Medicine; Ministry of Mass Communication; Moral obligations; Police academy; Saddam Hussein; Shi'a; Sunni; U.S. Embassy

Subjects: Occupations.; Politics and government; Professions.; Work.

01:10:50 - Work as an interpreter for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office

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Partial Transcript: So, you work your way up from, from a, a series of interpretive jobs until you're, you're working in the Embassy?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris talks about his work as a senior interpreter/translator for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office, which renovated and re-established sports facilities destroyed during the war, and used Iraqi star athletes to bring people together. For IRMO he 'felt like a superstar' interpreting for the athletes and also translating proposals, wish lists, and formal letters. He then was an interpreter during the first free elections held in 35 years.

Keywords: Elections; Football (soccer); Interpreters; Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office; National Olympic Committee of Iraq; Translators; U.S. Embassy

Subjects: Occupations.; Politics and government; Professions.; Work.

01:13:07 - On working for the U.S. to bring about a better Iraq

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Partial Transcript: So, now you're working, um, you're working closely with Americans, you're doing work you enjoy...

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris recounts how the Ministry of Mass Communication, run by Uday Hussein, had refused to let him resign. He notes that he chose to work for the U.S. to help his home country recover. He hoped that the reconstruction of Iraqi into a strong, democratic nation could have led the nation into prosperity similar to that experienced by Japan and Germany after the end of World War II.

Keywords: Resignation; Saddam Hussein; Uday Hussein; Youth T.V.

Subjects: Occupations.; Politics and government; Professions.; Work.

01:15:27 - On the similarities between Baghdad and Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Last time, you were very eloquent about talking about, um, um, getting from Iraq to Jordan and then how you actually got to the United States and your struggle to find work.

Segment Synopsis: When Al Mudaris arrived in Philadelphia, he did not expect the immense amount of diversity, including women wearing head scarves and hearing a variety of languages. Al Mudaris missed seeing the "immortal" Tigris River, but considers the Delaware River even more beautiful. Whenever he disembarks the train in University City, he takes a moment to appreciate the beautiful mix of old and new architecture lining the streets of Philadelphia. In contrast to New York City, Philadelphia doesn't suffocate Al Mudaris with its overpopulation and expense, allowing him and his family to enjoy the city, with its mosques, synagogues, and churches, coexisting as they did during his childhood.

Keywords: Amman, Jordan; Architecture; Australia; Churches; Delaware River; Diversity; Euphrates River; Halal; History; Mosques; New York City; Slow-paced living; Synagogues; Tigris River; United Kingdom; University City (Philadelphia neighborhood)

Subjects: Amman (Jordan); Childhood; Philadelphia (Pa.); Religion

01:19:47 - On his love of the Tigris and Delaware Rivers

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Partial Transcript: So I got a question. How does the Tigris?--Compare the Tigris to the Delaware for me.

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris shares how he views the Tigris River as a symbol of everything that is beautiful and strong, and as a symbol of motherhood; a motherly body of water open to re-embrace him home whenever he returns to Iraq. He shares how he fell in love with the Delaware River the first time he saw it, and how he felt at home in Philadelphia because the Delaware, like the Tigris, is filled with abundance and beauty. Al Mudaris explains that there is a strong personal and cultural connection to bodies of water in the Middle East, and that the Tigris River divides the city like an artery through a person. The rivers represent a uniting, common force that the diverse populations in Iraq used to connect with each other and maintain harmony within the region.

Keywords: Delaware River; Motherhood; Symbolism; Tigris River

Subjects: Philadelphia (Pa.); Rivers.

01:24:18 - Thoughts on returning to Iraq

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Partial Transcript: If, if, um, if the, uh, the politics and, uh, the, the cultural tensions were to stabilize in the Middle East and Iraq...

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris shares that he has never returned to Iraq, but he would do so if the religious and ethnic tensions and conflicts were to stabilize. He doubts, however, this will take place because of the danger of religious and ethnic groups kidnapping or killing his family or him. After the war many scientists and doctors were targeted. Relatives on his father’s side who returned home and were killed or kidnapped, so it is too risky.

Keywords: Iraq; Iraqi Reconstruction; Returning; Stability

Subjects: Iraq War, 2003-2011.

01:26:43 - Adjusting to the fast pace of American life

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Partial Transcript: Um, so as an Iraqi in Philadelphia, um, what have been, um--

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris recounts when he first arrived in the United States that, despite his language skills, he felt a complete sense of loss. The hardest adjustment was to the fast pace of life in the United States. He does not want to replace the American pace of life but does wish for the more relaxed approach he grew up with. He reflects on the nature of productivity among various cultures, noting that a leisurely pace with breaks for tea does not prevent productivity.

Keywords: Adjustments; Collectivism; Enjoying life; Immigration; Individualism; Life pacing; Lost

Subjects: Occupations.; Professions.; Work.

01:31:24 - On the value of diversity and religious tolerance

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Partial Transcript: I always like to leave some time at the end of interviews, um, to provide, you, the opportunity to say--

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris says that differences should be celebrated, that diversity makes a great nation, and that people should learn to forgive and teach each other to forgive. He encourages Americans to travel and learn by experiencing other cultures. He remembers growing up in a household that taught him religion and encouraged him to adopt values and practices from the religions around him to choose his own path. He takes pride in being a Muslim but does not define himself as one. Instead, he sees himself as a human being praying for all.

Keywords: Advice; Differences; Diversity; Education; Forgiveness; Non-domination; Secularism

Subjects: Freedom of religion; Religion

01:37:18 - Final thoughts on pretzels, Children's Hospital, and other Philadelphia bragging rights

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Partial Transcript: Have you learned to drink beer in Philadelphia?

Segment Synopsis: Al Mudaris shares what he loves about Philadelphia, including its pretzels, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he works as an interpreter. There, he has seen how Saudi children playing with Orthodox Jewish children as their families watched and interacted with each other, can overcome religious teachings and tensions to a point where a Saudi man donated to a Jewish organization. He shares his love of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and its vast array of exhibits from all over the world, including objects from Iraq.

Keywords: Beer; Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Delaware River; Delegations; Interactions; Orthodox Jews; Penn Museum; Philly cheese steaks; Pretzels; Saudi; Wahhabi Theocracy

Subjects: Freedom of religion; Philadelphia (Pa.); Religion

GPS: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Map Coordinates: 39.948949, -75.193822