Driving with his brother and a friend in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq, in late autumn last year, 26-year-old Safa Ismael noticed something peculiar: A car in front of him was moving at an extraordinarily slow pace, holding up all traffic. Moments later, insurgents in a car going in the opposite direction pulled up next to Ismael's car and detonated the mass of explosives on board.
Ismael's car windshield shattered, glass and metal flew everywhere, and blood rushed from a gash between his eyes. A metal fragment became embedded in his brother's back, and glass fragments covered his friend's shoulder.
"I was expecting some people to come down and shoot us to make sure we were dead," said Ismael, who was able to continue driving and make it to a nearby hospital.
Ismael, a Sunni Arab, was the target of the coordinated suicide attack because of his work as a translator with the U.S. army. But for him, violence was nothing new, due to the nature of his job and the situation in Iraq. He had been shot at – but never hit – on numerous occasions. He also carried a pistol to university classes, and more than once was forced to spend weeks in hiding at his mother's house.
Two weeks ago, Ismael told his stories about life in Iraq in tandem with Army Maj. Jeffrey Voice, 46, who is Jewish, to about 100 people at Temple Beth Or in Spring House.
The car-bombing put a crimp in Ismael's plans, as he was only days away from beginning an extended stay in the United States. After some persistence, Voice – who used Ismael's services as an interpreter – recently opened up his Northeast Philadelphia home along with his wife Bonnie, to the Iraqi, who's now lived there since Thanksgiving.
Their friendship had been cemented in the war zone, as the two men escaped gunfire and mortar attacks launched by insurgents on multiple occasions.
"Special relationships develop when you're in austere conditions like that," said Voice.
During his mission in Mosul from January through November 2004, Voice, an army reservist, served in a civil-affairs brigade. With the help of interpreters like Ismael, his unit was able to help provide what Iraqis covet most – energy – by securing and repairing an aging dam, and rebuilding a power substation destroyed during the war.
"Kilowatts of electricity are like grains of rice in [Viet]nam," said the major after the event.
Not on the Radar Screen
He remarked that being Jewish in a hostile country was not really an issue because of more tangible concerns that he was forced to deal with on a daily basis.
"There's enough going on there. It's a dangerous enough place not to focus on the fact that you're one religion or another," he said. "Had I exposed it, I'm sure it would have had an impact – people would have been less inclined to speak freely with me. Had they asked, I don't think I would have told them. Why make life any more difficult or dangerous than it already was?"
Ismael also provided his take on how the average Iraqi feels about the American-led war.
"In the beginning, most Iraqis were happy that the Americans came to Iraq to free the country," said Ismael, who personally supports the military effort.
Now, however, "most of the people are not with the Americans," he said.
"Walking the street and going to work, many Iraqis get exposed to accidents and car bombs," he went on to explain. "They turned to hate the Americans because of that."
Still, Voice felt that staying the course in Iraq is necessary, for if coalition forces pull out, even more blood will spill.
"If we leave too soon, there will be a horrible civil war. There will be violence the likes of which we haven't seen since World War II," he proclaimed.
Voice is now situated here in America. After his stint in active duty, he won't be called to serve again for another three to five years.
Now working as a real estate agent, he stressed that he was not speaking in an official military capacity, but that he was attempting to give private citizens a firsthand look at the war.
"People get from news media what they think is spin," he said. "They want to talk to someone who was actually there. People are entitled to that. It's their tax dollars."
As for Ismael, he currently volunteers as an interpreter for the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, and is trying to obtain U.S. citizenship.
Beth Or's rabbi, Gregory S. Marx, appreciated that his congregants got the chance to hear these accounts of what's happening: "It was important because you got a personal perspective, as opposed to something impersonal from television."