Home, but Unsettled, in America
Dr. Khadar K. Hussein has been running since 5 a.m., scribbling on medical charts and scurrying from one patient to the next. All the while, he leans at the waist as though he’s headed somewhere important, although he’s come so far already.
Dusk is falling now, and as Hussein glides his BMW into the driveway, a poodle and a mutt howl their greetings from the backyard. “There’s my girls,” he says.
Inside, there is hummus on the table, a meat pie in the oven and mother-of-pearl inlaid Egyptian furniture in the den. But this is an American life now. There also are soap-on-a-rope in the bathroom, officially licensed by the Dallas Cowboys; a handsome son who is a lieutenant in the National Guard; a rotisserie grill in the backyard. Hussein wets his lips with a dash of Beaujolais.
“We’re Okies. We just have funny names,” he says. “This is our home now.”
It’s not that simple, though, and he knows it. Hussein is a man with a bewildering array of allegiances: the United States; the Palestinian cause; his brothers and sisters in the West Bank, Jordan and even in Saddam Hussein’s army in Baghdad. He has never been more keenly aware of it all than he is today.
Hussein, 61, voted for George H.W. Bush and for George W. Bush. He believes the Iraqi leader, no relation, is a thug, an emblem of Middle East extremists who have destroyed his dream of a united Arab state. He says the Iraqi leader should be hung from a tree, not by his neck but by a more sensitive part of the male anatomy.
He also believes that President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was wrong -- a criminal and cynical attempt to subvert the Middle East and hand control of its land and its oil to Israel. Bush has deceived America by linking the Iraqi regime to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, revealing his ignorance of the Middle East, Hussein said. Iraq’s president does not yearn for martyrdom, he yearns for money and power -- and that means staying alive, the doctor said.
“This is not a war of self-defense. We are too great a country to be doing this with this kind of pitiful justification,” he said, his hands balling into tight fists. “I voted for Bush, for the father and the son. I will never forgive myself.”
Although Saddam Hussein’s troops have been able to inflict casualties on U.S. troops, the war has made it clear that the Iraqis are not the menace Bush claimed they were to justify the invasion, Hussein said. Many surrendering Iraqis are hungry, untrained conscripts in T-shirts, he said, and Iraq is a devastated country that can barely defend itself, much less threaten the United States.
“Where is this monstrous army they have been talking about?” Hussein asked. “I saw the fireworks, what they call ‘shock and awe.’ This is a charade.”
The “reluctant warrior” is a regular character in the sepia-tinted dramas of war. Here is a character for a modern drama: the reluctant peacenik. To understand him, one also must understand that Hussein has led a life tortured and charmed.
Born April 10, 1941, to a police officer father and a mother who had been plucked from a nomadic band for an arranged marriage, Hussein’s first years were spent in the Palestinian village of Artouf, in what is now Israel.
He is not sure how many generations lived in Artouf before him, but by the time he arrived, the village was changing. Palestine still was under British rule. But for decades, European Jews had been migrating there, drawn by the Zionist dream of reestablishing a Jewish homeland.
A few hundred Jews and the same number of Muslims lived in distinct camps separated by a wheat field. Those were relatively peaceful days, separate but equal, and Hussein remembers horseback rides and fireworks shows.
That changed in 1948, when Israel declared its independence. Arab states invaded, and the Haganah, Israel’s de facto army, fought Palestinian Muslims, some of whom had declared a holy war. Haganah fighters charged toward his village from the west, and instead of celebrating a feast to mark the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Hussein’s family fled. “We ran outside and a mortar hit this fig tree on the side of the road,” he recalled. “I don’t remember much, but that is very distinct in my mind. We hit the ground, and my sister, Hude, she told my father how sour the smoke smelled. He could not answer. He just told her to run.”
For weeks, they lived in the caves outside Artouf. When it became clear they could not return safely, they ran to a town where there was not enough water to survive, then to a mosque, where they slept on the floor.
They landed at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It would be Hussein’s home for 10 years. The United Nations handed out rations once a month -- half a bar of soap per person, three kilograms of flour, some lentils and rice. They lived in tents. Blindness was commonplace among children because of Vitamin A deficiency.
He started school: sitting on a rock in a field listening to lectures delivered by adults with third- or fourth-grade educations. He was given a khaki uniform, but no shoes.
“There were no roads,” he said. “You just walked in the mud, even in the winter....The teachers didn’t know much more than we did, but they were older than we were and tough. They had a stick, and they would beat you up. And if your parents came to complain, they would beat them up too.”
Studying hard, repeating lectures to his family at night from memory, Hussein graduated from high school. In 1958, he was sent to Bethlehem to take a standardized test, which measured skills in Arabic, English, religion and history. He scored 17th out of more than 5,000 students. The U.N. had 30 college scholarships, and Hussein was more than an easy choice. He became a symbol of the refugee camps. Every time a dignitary visited from Europe or the U.S., Hussein would be trotted out. Sometimes, he was told to give a speech about his education.
He was told, in no uncertain terms, that he would go to the American University in Beirut, to study medicine. He graduated in 1967 -- just in time for the Six Day Middle East war.
Although his family survived that conflict, the refugee camp where they still lived was now in the hands of the Israelis, who had captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Hussein wasn’t allowed to come home. As Arabs came to grips with the costs of the war, the dream of a united Arab state with common markets died. Hussein has never been back to the West Bank.
Hussein insists he is not anti-Semitic. He believes that in different circumstances, well-educated Jews could have sparked an intellectual renaissance throughout the Middle East. Instead, he said, by leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip in Israeli hands, the 1967 war led the Arab world to focus on the Palestine issue and eventually opened the door for Islamic extremists, such as Osama bin Laden, and “pitiful dynasties” led by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi.
Hussein moved to Saudi Arabia, where he worked at a hospital run by Aramco -- the Arabian American Oil Co. -- and met his future wife, Cecilia, a midwife from the southern shores of Ireland.
In June 1971, shortly before the birth of their first son, Khalid, Hussein landed at the University of Oklahoma. A second son, James, came three years later. Hussein developed a specialty in oncology, went into private practice in 1980 -- the same year he proudly became a U.S. citizen -- and three years ago became a director of Cancer Care Associates, a group of Oklahoma physicians.
He is known as a skilled doctor, sought after for advice throughout the adjacent Southwest Medical Center. He recently bought medical books with money from his own pocket to start a small library, and added clocks and calendars in every hospital room, a seemingly small gesture that nurses say gave a sense of hope and purpose to terminally ill patients.
“I can’t say enough good things about the man,” said Mary Rottler, a case manager at the medical center. “Many of us have been here for 15 and 20 years, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because of him.”
A thriving career, a loving wife. Two kids, two dogs, two cats, two houses in Oklahoma City, two swanky cars in the garage. A swimming pool. Underneath a veneer of simplicity and success, however, dark fires of anxiety are burning. Years of turmoil have splintered his family. His father and four siblings are in Jordan; one brother lives in BethlehemIn Iraq, his youngest brother, Ahmed, now 50, is a major general in Saddam Hussein’s Jerusalem Brigades. Eight of his nieces and nephews, including Ahmed’s five children, are in Baghdad as well.
His older son, meanwhile, is a first lieutenant in an Oklahoma National Guard infantry unit, and may soon be sent overseas to fight. Two parallel divisions already have been sent to the Middle East.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” Hussein said. “There is so much apprehension. We just don’t know when it could happen. This hits home in many ways. In every way.”
The son, Khalid, said he could get the call any day.
“I’ve known my uncles since I was a little kid. This is my family, and it’s tough,” he said. “But I wear the uniform of the United States. And that’s where my loyalty lies.”
Hussein finishes his glass of wine and munches on a handful of pistachios. The effect of the war on his family already is building.
On a recent trip to Jordan, Hussein was able to get a supply of antidepressants for one of his nieces in Baghdad. But the prescription has run out and in wartime is unlikely to be refilled.
In keeping with the tradition of large Middle Eastern families, Hussein, as the oldest sibling, is considered the guardian of his nieces and nephews. He expects that some of them will become his children soon because he fears brother Ahmed, the Iraqi general, will almost certainly die in the war.
Ahmed was “just a kid” when Hussein went off to college. Hussein hasn’t seen him since a wedding in Jordan in 1990, shortly before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Hussein does not agree with his brother’s decision to serve in the Iraqi army, even though he believes that Ahmed has remained uncorrupted by the Iraqi regime and serves more as a matter of circumstance than conviction.
But at this point, none of that really matters.
“Family is family,” he said. “Blood is blood. It is not water. And I do not believe he can survive once they march to Baghdad.”
Acutely aware of world affairs, though, he is careful to point out that his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq is not founded on threats to his family’s safety. Both of his worlds -- the Western world, the Arab world -- face greater threats than that, he said.
A registered Democrat, he said he voted for both Bushes because he believed their pledges of “humility” and believed that they would bring stability to foreign affairs. He was wrong, he said.
But he is quick to point out that his regrets are not for reasons of personal gain. Although he is far from the Middle East, Hussein still is moved by Palestinian suffering, and he also feels his vote for the first President Bush makes him partly responsible for what happened to the Iraqi people after the 1991 war.
By casting his vote in 2000 for someone he thought would be a strong protector of U.S. interests, he feels responsible for putting a leader in the White House who he believes instead is giving Israel carte blanche to rule the Middle East.
The invasion is a war on his people and a war that he helped to start. “As a U.S. citizen, I had a hand in this,” he said. “How can we face an Iraqi mother whose child has died from malnutrition and tell her, ‘This is your government’s fault, we had nothing to do with it’? Would I like to see a secular, multiethnic, democratic Iraq? Of course. But this is not a just war. My opposition is not about self-interest or selfishness. That would be too easy.”