Posted on Mon, Feb. 09, 2004 - Monterey County Herald
DLI instructor worked as translator under Saddam
By KEVIN HOWE
Next time you're worried about your annual employee evaluation, picture working nine years at 16-hour days for a boss who uses torture, prison and death as motivators.
Esho Joseph, an instructor at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, had that job. He was a translator for the Iraqi Ministry of Information and Culture under Saddam Hussein's regime.
He translated from Arabic to English for most of the senior figures of the regime, including Saddam himself, from 1982 until he escaped from Iraq by making a deal with one of his torturers in 1991.
Joseph was one of six finalists sent to London in 1979 to learn to be simultaneous translators for the Iraqi government.
One of his brothers had to sign a voucher for him, guaranteeing his return from England, Joseph said. If he didn't, his brother went to prison.
Iraq was preparing to host the 1982 Non-Aligned Nations Summit, and similar groups of translator trainees were also sent abroad three years ahead of time to learn Russian, Spanish and French.
Joseph found himself translating for nearly every cabinet member of the government, high officials of the ruling Baath Party, and Saddam's speeches to foreigners.
A translator's duties also involved publishing a government-run English language daily newspaper, the Baghdad Observer, and translating daily summaries of foreign news stories for Saddam and his cabinet.
Working in the presence of a man who once fired one of his ministers for glancing at his wristwatch during a meeting while Saddam was speaking and another because the man picked up his teacup before Saddam did, "is very nervous work," Joseph said.
A translator didn't dare forget or fumble a word, even when tired or distracted.
At a meeting with a Japanese delegation with Saddam's son Uday, who headed Iraq's Olympic commission, shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Uday learned one of the visitors was head of Japan's Olympic commission and began a tirade about how powerful Iraq was and how Iraq had pilots willing to fly to Paris, London, New York or Washington to bomb those cities and not come back.
"I used the word 'kamikaze' to describe what he was saying," Joseph said. "Uday wanted to know where I got that word and decided his father must have first uttered it. He didn't even know it was a Japanese word.
"I thought for a moment that that was the end for me."
One bizarre assignment for the translation team was to render, from English to Arabic, Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses."
There were to be only two copies; one for the government vault, one for Saddam's personal library, Joseph said. Saddam had heard of the book when the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini ordered Rushdie's death because of it.
"He wanted it in one week. We were to do it in addition to our daily jobs.
"One of us said that was impossible, and we were told, 'There is no word of impossible in a world controlled by Saddam Hussein.'"
The team divided up the 600-plus book's chapters among themselves and each worked on some, resulting, Joseph said, in a confusing, disjointed version written in several styles.
During the Gulf War, Joseph said, he and others were tasked to accompany foreign journalists in Baghdad as guides and translators, taking them to places where bombs or missiles had hit.
One place "came to be known as the baby milk factory," he said. "It was a biochemical factory."
He and the others could tell by the structure and the warning signs, in Arabic, around it that it was a military target, Joseph said, but didn't dare tell the reporters that was what they were looking at.
"I kept deceiving them, deceiving myself," he said. "I wondered, 'When can I be myself and say something truthful?'"
In answer to a reporter's question whether or not it was a factory for making baby formula, Joseph said, he replied, "I don't know. That left it possible for some of them to report maybe it wasn't a baby milk factory."
Those reports brought the wrath of Saddam down on Joseph and the others.
For several days he was beaten and interrogated but was able to truthfully say he didn't tell any reporter what the factory was.
"I told myself that this was one of the moments when I could just be shot by someone."
With the defeat of Saddam's army, Joseph said, the government began looking for scapegoats to take the blame, who could be "hanged or shot to teach a lesson.
"I decided it would be better to protect my head and my family."
Some generals and high Baath Party officials started worrying the regime might fall and began making plans and gathering money, Joseph said.
His own interrogator called him in and commented, "You hate me, don't you?"
Joseph said he told the man he didn't hate him. "I said, 'No, you're doing your duty. Someone above you would punish you if you did not.'"
The man then warned him that he was on an execution list, Joseph said, and his interrogator helped him, his wife and two-year-old son flee for the Jordanian border.
Joseph's wife, Tanya, was pregnant at the time, and gave birth to a second son when they sought and got asylum in the United States.
He and his wife both teach Arabic at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where Joseph also teaches Kurdish.
He returned to Iraq in November, accompanied by National Public Radio reporter Jacki Lyden, who had met him in Baghdad in 1991.
Joseph said he found his brothers, one of whom had been a prisoner of war in Iran for eight years during the Iran-Iraq War, and who had been interrogated and watched by authorities after Joseph fled in 1991.
"He had to report once a week to Baath Party headquarters."
A brother-in-law lost his job "because of me and because his cousin deserted from the Iraqi army," Joseph said.
"In the Saddam regime, when one member of the family is labeled as a traitor, the rest pay the price, even the children."
A member of the Aramaic-speaking Christian Chaldean ethnic minority, Joseph discovered on his return last fall that many of his fellow Chaldeans had left Iraq to escape the simmering Islamic fundamentalism "boiling" in their homeland.
One of his brothers lives in France, a sister in Australia, and brothers-in-law have moved to Sweden and Iran.
Despite the hardships of a recent war, Iraq's situation is not as grim as it's being portrayed in the news, Joseph said.
He visited elementary schools where he found children happy to be learning lessons other than studying the life and wisdom of Saddam Hussein.
Driving from his hometown of Zarko in Kurdistan to Basra, "I could see satellite dishes on the poor mud huts in remote villages, an indication of how the people are really hungry to get out of their shackles and see the rest of the world."
There was a sense of insecurity, Joseph said, as people faced the reality that bombs could go off at any time. Many were seizing the chance to settle long-simmering blood feuds, and people do express anti-American and anti-Western sentiments.
But, he said, "people of all ethnicities, education and background, driver to university professor, streetsweeper to civil servant, there is almost a consensus that if U.S. troops withdraw it would a catastrophe -- civil war."
Commenting on the current controversy over the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Joseph remarked, "I believe the United States did something great, not only for the Iraqi people, but for the entire region.
"Saddam was a weapon of mass destruction. Look at all these mass graves."
The alternative to making war on him for ignoring the United Nations' demands for weapons inspections, Joseph said, was to lift the sanctions against Iraq.
"Imagine that money pouring into the hands of Saddam. Would he use it to help his people, or to acquire weapons to harm America? I absolutely agree he was a threat to world peace. He had all the means in his hands: a country, an army and the support of others."
National Public Radio will air a segment on its program "All Things Considered" Feb. 16, featuring interviews with Joseph when he was in Iraq.