The following text is a draft that needs further work. It was written in 1995 and sent for reading to a friend, Julie Ann (Jewelz) in Minnesota. Jewelz and I had started a project of writing our autobiographies. The idea was that we read and comment on each others autobiographies. Circumstances didn't allow the completion of the project.


Here is the outline. I hope you will not be disappointed as you start discovering the "angel" and the "monster". Don't blame me later for what you will be reading. No genuine autobiography without the plain truth. It is an exercise in self-discovery.

Here are only the main bare facts with little or no explanation. Many "main bare facts" and themes are omitted because of space considerations. For instance, I left out a theme of extreme importance in my life, that of my relation to women. I don't mean only love and intimate relations, but also relations with women who played a major role in forming my person, starting with my mother and ending with my lifelong friend Sonja Brie (Berlin).

But, well, this is only an outline. Please excuse my terrible English. I am working with a limited vocabulary.

I'll respond to your recent messages soon. If you have trouble in retrieving this file just delete it and let me know. I can divide it in smaller portions and re-send it. Take time in commenting. There is no hurry. Just let me know if you have received the file.

As to your autobio, I will soon start asking you questions.

Well then, fasten your belt! Here we go....

Anwar Al-Ghassani

An Autobiographical Outline


I was born on February 12, 1937 in the town of Khalat Saleh in the southern Iraqi province of Al-Umara.

My mother Munira Sayyed Tahir (1915-1973) came from a family of craftsmen, carpenters, and shoemakers in Al-Umara. Her mother, my grandmother, was a remarkable woman. I developed a strong emotional relation to her. She was a tattooed and illiterate woman. She had a strong character. Her Tattoo, manners, her dark blue and black clothes make me believe that her family was not very old in Al-Umara. It seems to me that they immigrated from some village or a tribe. She had the traditional appearance of tribeswomen in the south. My mother, her sister and brother were different. They were, so to speak, westernized.

My maternal grandfather, was a Turk, an employee in the Turkish administration. He had another wife and children back in Diyarbeker in Turkey. He died shortly after the British occupation of Iraq in 1917. My mother's relatives still live in Al-Umara.
My mother was the eldest, followed by my aunt Badria and my uncle Ahmed. My aunt and uncle were sent to school, my mother not. I ignore the reason. She was to remain illiterate all her life.


When I was four years old our family moved from Khalat Saleh to Kifri, a small town in the east of the province of Kirkuk in the north. Along with us came also my grandmother, my aunt, who was now a school teacher, and my uncle. I don't know why they moved with us. My uncle went first to Baghdad were he worked as a policeman, then as a collector in public transport. In the years to come many of our relatives would visit us in Kirkuk, but none of us went back to Al-Umara. However, when I was twenty years old, I went to Al-Umara. Once I made a trip to the Marshes in the south with a relative from Al-Umara and some friends from Baghdad. Later, my sister Naira would marry that relative. She lives in Al-Umara since more than twenty years.
But that was much later. Meanwhile, in Kifri, we all lived together during the first couple of years. Life was not easy with my father's moods and quarrels. So, when my aunt got married, she took my grandmother with her and they went to live in another house. That separation was to last for all times. My aunt's husband was a police officer, a far relative of my father. My aunt was his second wife. He had three children who lived with their mother in a separate house in Kirkuk. Few years later, my aunt's family left Kifri and settled definitively in the city of Kirkuk. But my aunt's marriage didn't last for long. Her husband died around 1950 (tuberculosis, probably lung cancer). She became a widow at the age of thirty. She had two girls. She never married again. My aunt is now over seventy. She still lives in Kirkuk. Her eldest daughter died of cancer few years ago.
At the time when my aunt's husband died my uncle returned from Baghdad to live with her and my grandmother. He remained unemployed for sometime. I remember him drawing and reading. Later he joined The Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC, one of three multinationals exploiting petroleum in Iraq. The oil industry was nationalized in 1972). Later, he was sent to England for training and made a successful engineering career with the company. He
married and they all, he, his wife their children, my aunt, her daughters and my grandmother lived together. They always lived together and were harmonious and quiet people.

Our family remained on the move because of my fathers continuous transfer from one town to another as a result of his quarrels with his bosses. This moving from one place to another would remain a feature of our life for sometime. It has been the main feature of my life so far. Once I calculated the number of countries, cities, towns, villages, houses, apartments, rented rooms, boardinghouses and other places where I had lived. The number was around thirty.

During the Second World War and the following years we lived in four towns. We finally settled in Kirkuk after my father's early retirement in 1953. We rented a house not far away from where my aunt and the others were living. With the exception of my father, we always maintained a close relation with them.

In 1955 when our youngest, my brother Jamal was born, we became a family of nine persons: father, mother, four boys and three girls, and we were very poor.

I went to the primary school in the towns were we happened to be living during the years of our wandering. I was the favorite of my aunt and remained so even after she married and had children. My first school experience was with her. She registered me in her school, which was for girls only, one year earlier than the legal age. I also remember her teaching me the English alphabet before I had learned the Arabic alphabet. When I passed to the second year I was transferred to a school for boys.

I went to secondary school in Kirkuk. During the first two years when my family was still wandering in the province, I lived by my aunt, uncle and grandmother. But even after my family settled in Kirkuk, I used to go and live with them for extended periods of time. I "run away" from the sad and tense environment at our home and from my father's quarrels with my mother.

During my secondary school years I started writing and publishing short stories. I also did some translations. Those were the years in which my friendship with various would-be writers, poets and artists started. Years later, we will be known as the Kirkuk Group. We were of different nationalities and religions, a reflection of the multinational composition of Kirkuk, and indeed of Iraq as a whole. Almost all of us had sympathies with the left. Later, we would suffer a lot because of that.
The fact that Kirkuk was becoming a centre for literary and artistic activity was not a pure coincidence. The city is the old Arapcha of the Mesopotamian era. It had a diverse and rich multicultural character. It was also a centre for oil industry. Oil was discovered in Iraq for the first time in 1927 at the outskirts of Kirkuk. This made its economy more dynamic and opened its semi-medieval society to the world. Perhaps only Baghdad and Basrah, among all other Iraqi cities, could have competed with Kirkuk of that time.
In 1954, I participated with some friends in the formation of the first theatre group in Kirkuk. It was remarkable for that time that we had one girl, an Assyrian, among us. But before we could apply for a licence we were arrested by the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigations Police (the secret political police of the monarchy of that time which dealt with political dissent.)

After three weeks in custody we were brought to court accused of forming an illegal organization. Friendly leftist lawyers achieved our release for lack of evidence. From that time on I would have a record as a leftist in the archives of the Special Branch.
I graduated from the secondary school in 1955. My average was too low to get a government grant to study at the only university at that time in Baghdad. My family had no resources to pay for my education. The economic situation of the family was getting worse. I decided to find a job and got it with the IPC. I worked in a hilly arid region drilling for oil some 30 km to the south east of Kirkuk. That job is the only one I truly loved among all the jobs I had later. It had a profound impact on forming my character and preferences.

I quitted the job after one year and joined a night course for teachers training. The next year I became a rural teacher in one of the remotest villages in the south of the Kirkuk province, almost bordering the province of Baghdad. That lasted only for one year and was rich in experience, travels with trains, horse riding, and hunting.

I was transferred to teach art in a secondary school in Kirkuk. Before I started my new work in September 1958, an important event took place: on July 14 the army supported by the people and opposition parties toppled the monarchy and proclaimed Iraq a republic. This event is known as the July 14 Revolution. From that day on, Iraq would experience instability and repression which would culminate in the establishment of the present dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
In 1962, the Academy of Fine Arts was created at the University of Baghdad. It was open for students who were not older than twenty-five and would pass an exam. I was twenty-five on that year but had no grant. That was my last chance to join the university. I would not study Arabic literature or English, as I previously wished, but painting, a second among my creative interests. I had to move fast and find a way to sustain myself in Baghdad. I passed the exam at the Academy and was accepted. Now I had to take the difficult decision of resigning my job as a teacher. My family still needed my support. In that critical time, my uncle, who was now a well-paid engineer at the IPC, offered to take over supporting the family.
I resigned and went to Baghdad and started studying. I opened a small advertising shop, but I didn't get much work, so I went to work with graphics agencies. I lived in rented rooms with Christian families at the centre of Baghdad. I also gave private English lessons to primary school children and to soldiers.

I was happy and satisfied but that didn't last long. On February 8, 1963, a bloody military coup led by the Arab Socialist Baath Party (ASBP), overthrew the military regime of General Abdulkarim Kassim, leader of the July 14 Revolution. The General and his closest men were executed. A terror campaign was unleashed against all those who did not sympathize with the ASBP. Thousands of people were killed, executed, tortured and imprisoned. This lasted until November of that year when another coup toppled the Baath government and brought some relative calm to Iraq. That was the start of a semi-liberal military regime which would last until 1968 when the ASBP would return and remain in power until now.

I was among the victims of that campaign. I was arrested in March 1963 and tortured in The Olympic Club in Baghdad which became a
detention centre.

Later, I was sent to Kirkuk. Arriving at the police headquarters I found my eldest sister Amal detained. In the period after the July 14, 1958, she joined the Popular Militia to defend what we then called the Revolution. She was set free on bail, brought later to the Fourth Military Tribunal in Kirkuk, and finally released. (Amal died in 1988?). I also learned that my brother Farouk has fled to the mountains of Kurdistan.
I remained eight months in detention. The Fourth Military Tribunal released me for lack of evidence after a distant relative, an officer, intervened on my behalf with the head of the tribunal. That officer, now a general, is at present one of the main military figures of the Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussein. He is now in the northern region of Kurdistan, in the safe haven of the UNO.
I returned to Baghdad as soon I as I was released but never resumed my studies again. I worked first with the display department of a supermarket, then started to work in the press, first as a translator, then as a journalist.
I rented an apartment overlooking Tigris in the center of Baghdad. Then, one by one, my friends of the Kirkuk Group started arriving in Baghdad. Some had lost their jobs, some came back from hiding in the mountains, others were released from jails. That was the start of Kirkuk Group's activities in Baghdad which would bring about the so-called literary movement of the sixties, a movement which would last until the core of the Group leaves Iraq between 1966-1977.
I worked in Al-Jumhuriya (The Republic), the semiofficial paper of the government. In 1966 I was invited with other journalists to visit the Leipzig Fair in Germany. I was exited to be able to travel abroad for the first time in my life. I had to get a passport. That was not an easy task, in spite of the fact that the regime of those days was far less repressive than its predecessor. I had a record with the Security Police (SP, the old Special Branch, renamed after the July 14 Revolution).

Nevertheless, I was stubborn and persistent enough to brush shoulders again with those monsters and make a try. All applications for passports had to be approved by the SP. So I went there with my application. I was a bit afraid but I never imagined what was awaiting me. While revising my file, the officer processing my application discovered a court sentence in the file. A court in the northern city of Sulaimania had sentenced to death in absence a man for killing someone. The first and father's names of the fugitive Kurdish fellow where exactly as mine. I was kept in solitary confinement for one week and endured two nights of interrogations (The hours of the night were the preferred working hours of the SP). Meanwhile, telegrams were sent to Sulaimania to inquire about the grandfather's name of the wanted man. After a week, they received the answer and the name was not the same as my grandfather's name. I was taken to the office of the Director General, offered tea, the permission I was seeking, and a lot of apologies (Journalists still enjoyed some prestige at that time). I don't know what would have happened had the names of the grandfathers coincided. That was the most horrible experience I had in my life so far. Only the fear and loneliness I would experience later in 1984 in Costa Rica (mentioned later in this outline) would surpass this experience.
So, I was released and had the permission but I was in no mood to go to Leipzig. I gave up the attempt to get a passport.
Few months later, the paper wanted me to participate in a
training course in Germany. This time I engaged a friend, a writer, in my attempt for getting a passport. His uncle was a police general and head of the General Directorate of Migration and Naturalization. We went to his office and in a matter of hours I was in possession of a passport, the first in my life.

In January 1967 I traveled to Berlin to participate in a training course at the International Institute of Journalism in Berlin (IIJB) in the ex-German Democratic Republic (GDR) -East Germany. Iraq had at that time well-developed relations with the then socialist countries of Eastern Europe and with the ex-USSR. I stayed for some months more after the course doing press photography training, and returned to Iraq in December 1967.

On September 28, 1968 I left Baghdad to Germany with a grant from The Journalists Syndicates in Iraq and GDR to study journalism at the Faculty of Journalism at the Karl-Marx-Universitaet in Leipzig (KMU) - the old University of Leipzig, now renamed again Universitaet Leipzig.

In 1973 I concluded my studies and joined for two years the IIJB as a lecturer on practical journalism. In 1975 I quitted my job and went back to Leipzig to do my doctoral dissertation on the function of the press in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. I concluded it in september 1979 with the Doctor Rerum Politicarum in political science and journalism.

In summer 1977 I met my wife Ana Mercedes Rodriguez, who was studying Psychology at the same university, during a students trip to the USSR. We married in 1978 and came to Costa Rica in December 1979. I got work at the National University. But the change was drastic. I could not stand living in Costa Rica. I returned to GDR in January 1980, Ana followed six months later.
We both worked as translators at Intertext in Berlin. I submitted my papers to the Algerian Ministry for Higher Education seeking an appointment at the University of Algiers. I was accepted. My attempt to enter Algeria on October 17, 1981, failed. Upon reaching Algiers Dar El-Beida airport I was returned back to Berlin on the same plane because I had no work contract with me, something I still didn't possess. On September 5, 1982, I went again and was allowed in. I arranged my appointment at the Institute of Political Science and Information at the University of Algiers and returned on September 8 to Berlin.

On September 29 our daughter Munira Cristina was born. I decided not to go back to Algeria. Again, a fresh attempt in 1983. I went
there on March 27 and worked for one semester and returned to Berlin on July 6 for the summer vacations. I was supposed to take Ana and Munira and return to Algeria at the beginning of the academic year in September. But my decision was different. I told Ana that we will be returning to Costa Rica. When we arrived in Costa Rica in late December of that year, I realized that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I wanted to go back to Algeria, or at least to GDR. But alas, there was no way back. My boat was burned. I realized that I have finally reached my voluntary prison.

I got work at the University of Costa Rica. I was expected to start lecturing in March 1984. My Spanish was still very poor and I had to work hard in preparing my lectures writing everything I would say. I had no friends around, no help from anyone.

That year, 1984, became the most difficult year in my life. I was in a depressive mood, more lost, hopeless, and lonely than I was during my first stay in Costa Rica.
I started lecturing in March and things went smoother than
expected. My almost absolute self-confidence that I can manage anything was still alive.
On April 3, 1984 our son Manuel Salam was born. The money I saved during my months in Algeria helped us in that transitional period.
Sometime during that year I hit the bottom of my misery and suffering, the deepest point I had ever reached in my life. At that very time, an energy emerged from somewhere in me, I remembered all those who have been good to me, who have loved me, those whom I had forgotten or never cared about out of innocent negligence. I remembered my mother, her lifelong suffering and early death. I remembered her following me from one detention place to another in Kirkuk and Baghdad, not giving up and trying to get me out. I remembered my father, his suffering, a man of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence whose inner weakness destroyed his life and almost that of the family. I remembered his absolute confidence in my abilities and intelligence. Two dear persons I was still immature to appreciate their love and sacrifice when I was in Iraq. All that made me discover, with a sense of shock, how much beauty and goodness was accumulated in me. I realized that I was reaching that blessing moment of anger which had always helped me overcome difficulties. I needed that anger, and I was now angry with myself and the damned world, and I faced myself with this challenge: Damn it, if you still
have a rest of self-respect and dignity then stop this misery. Do something about it, or go to hell.
That was not the start of my "happiness" and the end of my suffering. My unresolved problem, now and then, is: I don't want to remain here all my life. No, that was the point when I halted my drifting into misery, began to dominate my circumstances, and stopped to be a sufferer without a will.

Anwar Al-Ghassani
San Jose, June 8, 1995