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Armand Nassery is an Iraqi-American author and independent filmmaker who was born in a remote rural area near the marshes of the province of Dhi-Qar. He is the middle child of eleven siblings. His father chose to live in the outskirts away from other people due to his extreme independent nature. Armand grew up in a setting that is close to many of his depictions in his novel. He recalls that period as, “… a detached parallel universe between realty and myth.”
As a young boy, Armand grew up listening to the stories of his grandmother and his mother about jinnee’s and ghost people of the other side; stories of love and death and bravery of the Iraqi and Arabic folkloric heritage.
“I talked an dreamed of the characters of these stories every night, and found their world more interesting than my real world. “
Due to economic hardship, the family had to move to the capitol, Baghdad, in search of a better life. The family spent the first three days sleeping in the main train station in Baghdad. After that Armand’s father found a one bedroom semi apartment in the slum of Al Fadhl in Baghdad, where his father struggled to feed the family. As he recalls this period of his life, Armand remembers two things about it, one was that it was near the busy square of Medan where hundreds of busses transported people every day and second it was his first time to watch television and see the American show ‘Rawhide’. Since then Armand developed the love for an outside world that he was not able to reach but was able to escape to whenever reality was unbearable.
In elementary school, he was not an achieving student. He spent many hours reading literature, poetry and history and was fascinated with the English language class. In his last year of elementary school, he read the communist literature that he found hidden by his oldest brother and at the same time he found two novels, ‘Weathering Heights’, ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.
“That was when I really started to live in a different world other that my reality.”
At the start of his middle school, Armand met a classmate who was like him infatuated with American films.
The two skipped classes twice or three times a week to go to the dingy and deteriorating theaters where movies are shown. “It was mainly spaghetti western and Indian movies, but sometimes we were lucky to watch such classics as the ‘Godfather’. Because we had little money, we had to go to the cheap and dangerous movie theaters in Baghdad where we were surrounded by petty criminals, army deserters and homeless people who sleep in the movie theater to avoid Baghdad scorching afternoon sun,” he recalls.
The two friends read the books of Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’, and on television they watched the series of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and tried to imitate it, but almost drowned as the raft they made from reeds broke apart in the middle of the Tigress River.
“It was the time of testing freedom in its most basic and barbaric level.”
In early eighties, the family had to move back to the south because of being tagged as disloyal to the Ba’ath party and because his oldest brothers had gotten involved in political life, which was a forbidden thing to do by the Ba’athist standards.
In the south the family settled in a small town, which is the setting of the novel. Armand calls it Balluria and describes it as the town of mirages. He experienced his first love and also his first encounter with a real gypsy who told the future. Also he joined group of boys and formed a soccer team.
High school was different and had a deep effect on his personality and his look at life. He joined the theater group in the school and with the help of his older brother they wrote and directed most of the theater plays. Also he met a female classmate who introduced him to the most precious things, the music of Lebanese diva Fairuz and the poetry of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al Sayab.
“The two icons changed me deeply and shaped my senses to the point I became a resentful stranger to my surroundings. The only things that kept me in realty were my close friends
and the Euphrates River which oozed with mysteries. I used to tell myself that the Euphrates is connected to the oceans and beyond the oceans there is another world, a world that is better than mine and that imagination kept me hoping and dreaming.”
In college, Armand started to realize the ugly world of complete repression and totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein as he found that the Baghdad that he loved and left had turned to a huge temple of worshipers of the insane dictator.
“Iraq was like a big prison and there was no way out,” Armand Nassery
The Iraq-Iran war was at its peak and its effect was felt in everyday life.
Nevertheless he met a group of students who shared the dormitory and most of them carried the same resentment toward the regime, and some of them were actual members of the communist party and the Da’wa Islamic party. To a certain degree, Armand, as a student, participated in the underground meetings of the small cells of the forbidden parties but never really joined any of them.
“In the cheap alcohol of the dingy bars of Baghdad, in the corners where you can meet spirits of lost poets and in the beautiful black eyes of the thousands of female studenst, a young man could find more than revolutionary satisfaction.”
But he was not spared from the wrath of the sadistic regime; he knew he was being watched.
“Some of my friends had disappeared suddenly. And some were imprisoned. Others were executed, I knew it was only a matter of time until they came to arrest me; I had nothing to do about it but wait.”
In the last day of his final exams of his last year the fearsome Iraqi secret political police Al-Amen arrested Armand.
“As the car sped in the streets of Baghdad, I knew, it could be the end .But I was more mesmerized by how beautiful the sun was in the streets of Baghdad and how oblivious the people in the streets were to what could be my near gruesome fate.”
Armand was arrested on the charge of writing poetry that deemed disrespectful to the dictator Saddam Hussein; a charge that could land him the death penalty.
In the dark dungeons of Al-Amen, Armand endured two months of torture, interrogation and inhumane treatment that left him with inner scars and changed personality.
“As I saw first-hand how mean and evil humans could be, instead of being angry and hateful, on the contrary, it made me more careless about my political views and more pacifistic and chronically sarcastic about political life and revolutions.”
He was released with the conditions that he would never join any forbidden party and never write poetry again. He spent the next year avoiding to be arrested again. He lived in rented rooms in poor neighborhoods in Baghdad or on the streets with the homeless.
“It is sad when you live on the streets where you feel that everyone around you is either homeless people or a secret police watching your every move” Armand Nassery.
In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait and the embargo enforced on the Iraqi people and so started the beginning of hunger, despair and destruction campaign that lasted for more than twelve years.
After the gulf war, in March of 1991 the spark of the armed public uprising against the Saddam Hussein regime in south and north of Iraq had started. Armand joined his brothers and his friends in a month long armed struggle against the regime and its republican guards forces where he faced certain death many times.
“It was amazing how a person could feel joyous in a battle and could live with death every minute of his day and then fight again the next day. It was only when I saw the body of a dead young woman in the city of Nasseriya and saw what a bullet could do to a beautiful woman’s face that I decided not to fight in a war again for the rest of my life” Armand Nassery.
Armand fled Iraq when the last town in the south failed to the brutal suppression of ruthless Saddam’s forces. While his comrades were being captured and executed, for his role Armand was sentenced to death in absentia.
After three days in the Iraqi desert Armand was able to flee to Saudi Arabia with the help of the American soldiers of the 82nd airborne division.
Arriving in Saudi Arabia the Americans had no choice but to hand him over to the Saudis. He was imprisoned and tortured again for six months for illegally crossing the borders. Later, he was released and sent to the refugees’ camps where he stayed for a year avoiding being captured by the secret agents of the Saddam regime who were waging a wave of fear, assassinations and kidnapping in the Refugee camp.
Armand migrated to the United States in 1992 and has lived in the Midwest and California for the past two decades. He uses his own life experiences in the historical fiction novel ‘Where Wolves Dream’