The American Dream
In all of Iraq, Jumana Hanna was the bravest witness to the horror of Saddam’s regime, telling the Americans of torture, rape, and mass murder. In Washington, Hanna became a potent symbol of Iraqi liberation, and the Bush administration brought Hanna and her children to the United States for their protection. Then the author discovered the really horrible truth.
Jumana Mikhail Hanna sits on the edge of an overstuffed floral-patterned love seat, digging excitedly into the black leather handbag she once carried into a meeting with Uday Hussein. The meeting had been scheduled at her request, and by the time it was over—two years, three months, and seven days of imprisonment later—the strap of her handbag was broken and the bag had become a repository of memories and talismans arising from that fateful encounter.
“You must see this,” she says, her voice as soft and confiding as Marilyn Monroe’s. She is clasping a worn shred of green fabric between her fingers as if it were some kind of holy relic. “This belonged to Fatma. Do you remember I told you about Fatma?”
How could I forget? Fatma was the young girl who had been beaten to death, the one who spit in her jailer’s face and became, in that fatal act of defiance, a real-life saint to Hanna and the fifteen other women in Loose Dogs Prison in Baghdad.
She digs a little deeper into the bag and draws out a torn piece of paper with this message from two Shiite sisters: “We need help desperately. Thank you for carrying this letter.” Another search produces a tiny prayer bag of holy sand from Karbala and Najaf, a gift from Sindus, a sixteen-year-old girl killed by electric torture; a black-and-white photograph of a heavy-featured woman named Lila Shah, buried alive; a little envelope with six passport-sized photographs of a debonair-looking man, eaten alive by dogs; the ID card of a Christian woman named Amira who passed it to Hanna with these last words: “I’m going to torture now. Hide and keep it for me.”
Silently, without explanation, Hanna then presses a laminated card into my hands. I stare, not sure what I’m looking at: a picture of a wide-faced girl in braids that reminds me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. “Me,” Hanna says, almost shyly. “Please. I want you to have it.”
I am deeply touched because now I know exactly what I am looking at: a childhood ID card that is one of Hanna’s last remaining mementos from her life before prison. I think I will keep it with me always.
Of all the poor souls locked inside Loose Dogs Prison, Hanna was the only woman to come out alive. Today, she is seven thousand miles removed from Baghdad, yet when she opens her window in northern California, the smell of honeysuckle reminds her of the scent of flowers carried on Iraq’s west wind. Freed from jail nearly nine years ago, she relives her torture and imprisonment—even while enjoying the good life in a two-bedroom condo that’s been stuffed to the gills with all the accoutrements of Silicon Valley: a computer with a DSL line, satellite and cable TV, two phone lines, and a steady supply of Belgian chocolate.
It’s been two years since she arrived like the Angel Gabriel in Baghdad’s Green Zone: the bearer of revelations. Like thousands of Iraqi men and women, the forty-year-old mother had been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the Baathist regime. But Hanna, unlike anyone else before or since, had the courage to come forward and name her attackers. In July 2003, three months after the formation of the coalition government, she led U. S. officials to the overgrown prison yard where, she declared, scores of bodies lay buried. She showed them the dead tree trunk where she was tied like a dog, sodomized, and prodded with electric shocks. There was the cell in which she was hung from a rod and mercilessly beaten during her imprisonment. Here was where her husband was murdered and his brutally tortured corpse handed through a steel gate like a piece of butcher’s meat. She identified her jailers with such point-blank accuracy that occupation forces ultimately arrested nine Iraqi officers, including a brigadier general, on her word alone.
In July 2003, The Washington Post published a heartrending front-page story about Hanna under the headline A LONE WOMAN TESTIFIES TO IRAQ’S ORDER OF TERROR. Post reporter Peter Finn had accompanied her on a tour of Al Kelab al Sayba, Loose Dogs Prison, and his piece turned her into a bona fide hero. Fearful that her outspokenness had put her life in jeopardy, U. S. authorities moved Hanna, her seventy-two-year-old mother, and her two young children out of a homeless shelter and into a trailer in the Green Zone. There, for the next three months, they lived under twenty-four-hour guard, just a few feet from the office of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, in one of Saddam’s palaces. Everybody in the palace knew Hanna. The soldiers photographed her in one of Saddam’s golden thrones, her seven-year-old daughter, Sabr, and five-year-old son, Ayyub, perched on its gilded arms. In their free time, the Americans taught the kids how to swim in Saddam’s Olympic-sized pool, and in the evenings, a couple of the young women, including Bremer’s assistant, snuggled up in bed beside the kids to allay their fears and help them fall asleep.
Hanna became a symbol of survival, of the indomitability of the human spirit in one of the most repressive states in modern history. “I’ve been in seventy countries and taken testimony about many atrocities—including right after My Lai,” said Donald Campbell, a New Jersey superior court judge who served as the coalition’s top judicial advisor. “And I have to tell you that I found her story to be the most compelling and tragic I’ve ever heard.”
Her case was given top priority by Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was in Iraq as senior policy advisor at the interior ministry; he assigned two military investigators to look into her claims. Their investigation lasted four months. Having heard her description of the prison concealed behind the Baghdad Police Academy, with its dead tree stumps still trussed with barbed wire for yoking and raping women prisoners, Kerik went to see for himself. “To be physically there, to look at the barbed wire that was hooked into the trees, to think about the stories she told and then actually see the devices they used…” He paused. “It was sickening.”
Her memory for details was superb, and unlike most Iraqi women, Hanna seemed fully at ease with American men—even while recounting the most graphic events. She told them that she was the only daughter of a prominent Assyrian Christian family from Arassat al-Hindya, a part of Baghdad frequently compared to Beverly Hills. Following the death of her much-loved father, Mikhail Hanna, a pharmacist, when she was eleven, Hanna traveled throughout the world with her mother, Jeanne d’Arc Bihnam. She went on to attend Oxford University, where she received a master’s degree in accounting. Later, she opened a fashionable boutique in Baghdad, catering to the city’s wealthiest women.
Because of her wealthy and privileged background, suitors clamored for her hand. But Hanna was determined to marry for love, and in 1993, at the age of thirty, she began a courtship with a wood-carver, the son of Indian immigrants who had come to Iraq along with thousands of Indians during the British occupation of 1919 to 1932. Haytham Jamil Anwar was uneducated, poor, and—despite being born in Iraq—not deemed an Iraqi. In a country where tribal bonds trump citizenship and genealogy defines identity, Hanna’s choice was considered shameful. Her mother opposed the marriage.
That was just the start of her problems. As Hanna later explained, Saddam had made it illegal for Iraqi citizens to marry non-nationals. By marrying Anwar, she would be breaking the law and risking state backlash. But Hanna was a risk taker, and on August 15, 1993, she and Anwar found a sympathetic priest to perform the ceremony. Afterward, anxious to make it right with the state, she considered applying for an exemption to Saddam’s dictate. Instead, anticipating a bureaucratic logjam, she decided to use her family and business connections and go straight to the top.
She asked for an appointment with Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam and Sajida. Why not? Hussein’s first wife was a backward peasant who shopped at Hanna’s boutique and came to rely on the young woman’s consummate fashion sense—from how to dress to how to cross her legs like a lady. After Sajida confided that Saddam, her first cousin from Tikrit, no longer showed any interest in the marital bed, Hanna showed her how to create romance with candles and designed her a set of sexy black pajamas. The way Hanna saw it, Sajida’s son owed her a debt of gratitude. He granted her an appointment, and at 10:00 a.m. on November 15, 1993, she arrived at his office at the Olympic Committee, was shown to a reception room, and instructed to wait. Hours passed. Her cigarette lighter wasn’t working, and as she waited, she grew increasingly anxious. Finally, three men entered the room, slipped a black hood over her head, tied her hands behind her back, and steered her down a narrow corridor, into an elevator, and out into a garden, where her high heels sank into the sand. They half carried, half dragged her into another building, pushed her into a room, and tied her, spread-eagle, to a bed. “Please,” she begged. “I’m like your sister.” “If our sister married an Indian, we would kill her,” they responded.
She was raped for days. A virgin when she entered, she heard the guards ask “Master Uday” what he wanted to do with her blood. He ordered them to sprinkle it around the rim of his whiskey glass like salt on a margarita. “I called out to Jesus, to Mary, and to Muhammad,” she said. “They damned them all.”
On the fifth day, a commander entered the room, accused Hanna of spying for the British, and applied electric shocks through a rod inserted in her vagina. She lost consciousness and, when she awoke, found herself in Loose Dogs Prison, where the daily regimen comprised torture, rape, and a diet of green soup and one slice of bread.
Her mother assumed that Hanna had eloped with Anwar. But he, too, had been arrested and was being held in the men’s cellblock—no farther than a football field away from his wife. After seven months, three men appeared at Jeanne d’Arc’s mansion with a handwritten letter from Hanna, asking her mother to sign over her house in order to secure her release. Jeanne d’Arc agreed, eventually signing away two houses. Still, Hanna wasn’t returned. For nineteen months, the men drained Jeanne d’Arc of all her remaining wealth until, homeless, she was forced to lodge with a poor Muslim man who opened his door in an act of charity. By the time Hanna was released in 1996, her head shaved, Jeanne d’Arc didn’t even recognize her.
Anwar, too, was a changed man. He had been sodomized and beaten, his nose had been broken, and he walked with a heavy limp. He had become a heavy drinker who now beat his wife regularly. For the next seven years, Hanna walked the streets of Baghdad, begging for food and drink. The couple had two children, but because the marriage remained unsanctioned by the state, they were considered illegal aliens. In January 2001, Hanna sent her husband to the Ministry of the Interior to obtain the documentation required for Sabr and Ayyub to attend school. It was a bad idea. Once again, Anwar was arrested and returned to the very cellblock where he was previously held. This time, he never came home.
THE STORY OF HANNA’S sufferings won the hearts and minds of the Americans in Baghdad. Grateful for her cooperation in identifying her attackers—several of whom were then being considered for important positions in the new government—the Coalition Provisional Authority bestowed medallions of honor on Hanna. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz toured Loose Dogs Prison and testified about her before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Her courage in coming forward to offer U. S. officials what is very likely credible information,” he said, would help the coalition “root out” Baathist killers. Her story became a defining parable in Washington of a world gone mad, in which dictators had been given license to terrorize their people without consequence. But all that was changing now, as strongmen always fall, and Hanna was left standing to write the history of the horror. Her story became a favorite in particular among conservatives. The blogs spread the word; one, Townhall.com, proclaimed it “justification alone for Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
I met Hanna on August 24, 2004, eleven months after she, her mother, and her children were airlifted by U. S. military transport out of Baghdad to California. She had just signed a book contract with a literary agent in New York, having been referred by her psychiatrist, Paul R. Linde, who wrote Of Spirits and Madness, about his experiences working in Zimbabwe. It is a measure of Hanna’s warmth and engaging personality—as well as the power of The Washington Post—that Linde immediately saw the importance and commercial potential of her story and tipped off his agent. Hanna needed a writer, and someone mentioned my name. Was I interested? As soon as I read the Post article, there was no question: I thought it was one of the most powerful stories I’d ever heard. The image of this woman in black “walking hurriedly, as if in a trance, oblivious to the weakness in her legs” as she led horrified Americans on a tour of the prison moved me deeply. I signed a contract to coauthor a book about her life and went to her house, happy to meet a modern-day hero.
She was a heavyset woman with mournful eyes and an expressive face that didn’t hold anything back. Her tears could come on fast and hard, and she occasionally showed her contempt with loud clicks of the tongue. But she had an openhearted, ingratiating smile. Her e-mails always arrived with the same distinctive subject line: “Big Love.” I liked her.
“You are my voice, you are my candle,” she told me many times, her voice aching with love and gratitude. “I think you are not my writer; you are myself now. Because I don’t have the language, you are my mouth.” She filled my head with cinematic stories, and when I pressed for details, provided them effortlessly. It wasn’t so much her harrowing accounts of torture that seduced me as her stories of growing up privileged in the Middle East. Like the one about her graduation from high school, when Jeanne d’Arc arranged an elaborate party at the Christian Hindya Club. The school principal was paid to deliver Hanna’s diploma in person. But the climax of the evening came as Hanna mounted a platform of stairs to reach her monstrous cake, which hung suspended by cables from the ceiling so that she could cut it into slices with a bedouin sword.
We met two or three times a week, sometimes at her house, where her mother would prepare a traditional Iraqi lunch: kubba, a meat-filled pastry with raisins, nuts, and spices; quozi, fried minced lamb; and jajeek, yogurt made with mint, dill, and garlic. Other times, we met at a café, where Hanna struggled to comply with the no-smoking law. I brought a tape recorder for her to talk into, and a translator typed her words into English, which I then used to question her more deeply: Who were her friends growing up, and what happened to them? What were Uday’s mother and sisters like? And what was she thinking when she walked into the lion’s den of his Olympic Committee office? I began calling dozens of people: distant relatives in Detroit; high-ranking coalition authorities and their secretaries, aides, and interpreters; the American cops who originally debriefed her in Baghdad; her military investigators, now back in the States; women’s-rights advocates in Iraq; therapists, volunteers, acquaintances, and friends in California.
Despite my enthusiasm, I had one immediate misgiving. Hanna claimed to have attended Oxford University from 1982 to 1984, graduating with a master’s degree in accounting. That seemed unlikely: Her spoken English was limited, her written language literally indecipherable. I fought back my doubts. It is widely accepted that torture, complicated by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, can affect a person in complicated ways. It might distort memory or sense of time. It could lead to a dissociation between mind and body. Perhaps, I told myself, it could even expunge the memory of a second language.
In my readings about Iraq, I had come across a passage by Primo Levi about a recurring dream that many Holocaust survivors recounted: “They had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved one, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and cruelest) form, the interlocutor turned and left in silence.”
I did not want to be that cruel interlocutor.
AT OUR SECOND MEETING, I told Hanna that I would be confirming every aspect of her story. I mentioned a recent scandal involving a book called Forbidden Love, about the honor killing of a young Muslim woman in Jordan who had fallen in love with a Catholic army officer. Their relationship crossed religious and societal barriers and, uncannily, seemed to prefigure Hanna and Anwar’s own star-crossed marriage. In Forbidden Love, the Jordanian couple’s relationship was discovered by the young woman’s father, who slashed her throat for dishonoring the family name. The book was a runaway best-seller in Australia until July, just a few weeks before I met Hanna, when it was revealed that the author had fabricated the entire story, and the publisher, Random House, withdrew it from stores.
I stressed to Hanna that we couldn’t risk any inaccuracy. I hoped she wouldn’t be insulted if I double-checked her claims; ultimately, such care would be in both our interests. She looked at me soulfully, clasped her hands together in a kind of prayer, and smiled at me as if I were her guru. “Oh, yes, thank you,” she said.
She gave me a copy of a medical report by a California doctor who worked for a local center for torture victims. The report described faint circular scars on her forearms that matched the diameter of a cigarette and linear scars on her wrists “suggestive of tight restraints.” A scar at the elbow was “consistent with, though not diagnostic of, a dog bite.” There was no mention of the word traitor, which Hanna told me had been branded, in Arabic, across her left breast. Instead, the doctor described two five-millimeter scars that were “consistent with injury from a sharp pointed object such as heated pincers” but that “could conceivably be produced accidentally, e.g., by falling on sharp stones.” The report was hardly confirmation of the odious torture that Hanna had described, but that didn’t mean her account wasn’t true. Torture practices have become increasingly sophisticated, and it is possible to inflict great pain while leaving little physical evidence. Indeed, one Iraqi dossier discovered after the Gulf war suggested that torture should be “artistic.”
While still in Baghdad, Hanna had also undergone a medical examination by a respected gynecologist. The American lawyers who were preparing her case for prosecution had sought a doctor’s verification for her claims of rape and abuse; to their disappointment, Dr. Said Hakki discounted her story and all but accused Hanna of lying. Hanna countered that she recognized him as the very man who had signed the death certificates of her fellow inmates, writing that they had died of natural causes when they had obviously been executed or tortured to death. Though no one took her accusation seriously, the doctor’s failure to endorse her claims infuriated the two American investigators, who dismissed him as incompetent.
Specialists Daniel Dryden and Luis Mejia were both members of the Alabama National Guard, and they became close friends while working on this case. Dryden, who was activated two days before his service with the guard was due to end, had been a detective in the Montgomery Police Department. In the time he spent on Hanna’s investigation, he fell in love with an Iraqi interpreter, whom he now plans to marry.
Mejia, a patrolman with the Sylacauga, Alabama, Police Department, grew up in El Salvador. Being in Iraq reminded him of his own war-torn homeland, while Hanna, he said, reminded him of one of his aunts back in the old country—a woman who “worked hard all her whole life, was always tired, but still had time to care about people.” Last summer, when Mejia drove out to visit his parents in Las Vegas, he made a special trip to California just to see Hanna.
The two young men were ill-prepared for the job in many ways. “I was overwhelmed,” says Dryden. “I was so misinformed about what the crimes were. I was told it was a rape case, but I never imagined it would be rape, sodomy, physical and sexual torture. I never imagined so many suspects and so many victims. When I met her and heard her story directly, I couldn’t believe she was in front of me. But she always smiled. I think the only thing she cared about was whether we were comfortable.”
The logistics of the investigation were also a nightmare. “They all told me how high-profile and important this case was,” Dryden said. “Paul Bremer, he wanted something done. Bernie Kerik, he tells me how important the job is: ‘Get it done.’ ”
They were given few resources—not even a shovel or a backhoe with which to exhume the bodies that Hanna said lay buried in the prison yard. Frustrated, the two men started digging up the ground with a metal bowl. By the time they finally rounded up an excavation team, the water and sewer mains had burst, flooding the area and making further excavation difficult.
One day, however, Mejia struck gold: He unearthed a number of large bones. “I was very happy,” he recalled. “I called Daniel and said, ‘Man, I scored!’ I took the bones to the experts and they told me, ‘No, they’re not human bones; they’re cow bones.’ It was so disappointing.”
Hanna had told me—not just once but many times—that 120 bodies had been unearthed based on her testimony. I repeated that to Mejia, who now chuckled. “Well, maybe she didn’t understand. We didn’t really want to tell her about all the problems we were having.”
Was it a language problem? Or perhaps a simple misunderstanding, exacerbated by a young soldier’s well-intentioned desire to protect a woman who not only touched his heart but also happened to remind him of a beloved aunt?
Whatever the reason, the discrepancy troubled me. In a country dotted with mass graves, the one this new American hero—Jumana Mikhail Hanna—described in such harrowing detail did not exist. What else in her story was not true?
I didn’t know what to think, and then one day in the middle of September, Hanna seized upon a series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle about an Iraqi man and his nine-year-old son. The boy had been severely injured in an explosion back in his impoverished village: His abdomen was ripped open, his left eye was gone, both hands were blown off. Somehow he’d survived and was being treated by doctors at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
“I know that man!” Hanna cried, thrusting the newspaper at me. “He is a very bad man.” She tapped away at the front-page photograph, an unnerving image of a man and boy in sunny California, clutching at each other with something that seemed more akin to despair than love. “He is a bad man!” Hanna repeated. “I will never forget that man. On the day my friend Sindus was killed, they brought a new electric machine to the jail. They give her big shock and she died; her whole body turned black. He was the boss of this decision. How,” she asked plaintively, “could the Americans bring him here?”
How rich, I thought; yet another example of history repeating itself. Just as the American government had once turned a blind eye to the immigration of former Nazi prison guards to the U. S., it was now allowing in the worst Iraqi violators of human rights. I thought it was outrageous and, admittedly, somewhat exciting—though a little part of me wondered how it was that coincidence seemed to follow Hanna wherever she went.
She had a plan. She would go to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office and file a formal complaint against this prison guard who was masquerading as a devoted father and demand that he be arrested. She would bring a copy of the Washington Post story, as well as the medallions that the coalition government had given her. That would surely convince the DA’s office.
Wait, I insisted, this had to be confirmed. Who else would recognize this man? Hanna didn’t hesitate for a second: Her investigators would know him at once. They had a picture of him in their files. “General Ahmed will also know him!” she insisted.
Currently deputy ambassador to the Iraqi mission to the United Nations, Ahmed Ibrahim had been deputy minister of the interior while the CPA governed Iraq. It was in that role that he arrested Salah Mahmoud Kadhem, the highest-ranking officer among the nine men implicated by Hanna. Ahmed was himself imprisoned under Saddam Hussein’s regime for denouncing the dictator in a private conversation. If anyone would recognize this man, said Hanna, it would be Ahmed.
But Ahmed didn’t recognize the face in the Chronicle. Neither did Dryden. Ahmed, however, was very upset, having just learned that all nine of the men identified by Hanna in Baghdad had been released. They had been set free months earlier for lack of evidence—and financially compensated for wrongful imprisonment. Some had been reinstated in their old jobs.
According to Hanna, most had been low-level prison guards who raped her and sicced dogs on her. But a couple of the men ranked high in the chain of command. One was an officer named Hussain Fathel, whom Hanna identified as Major Khaldun, the sadist who ran the prison and loved to torture, “especially in the sensitive spot.” Hussain disputed all of Hanna’s charges, said he’d never even met her, and certainly wasn’t “the Major.” Based on his statements, however, military investigators inferred that he had been a member of the Iraqi secret police and had him arrested. Salah had been one of three candidates for Baghdad police chief before being implicated by Hanna. Out of all the men she implicated, he was the big catch.
Could Salah have been innocent? “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Olivia Troye, Bremer’s assistant, who had snuggled Hanna’s children, told me grimly. “The odds are that he was one of her torturers. But we just don’t know. The thing about Iraq is you could put a hundred men in a room and the odds are that all of them tortured somebody at one point or another.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she fabricated,” Troye added. “There were some problems. She was a key witness, and she’d point people out and then realize later that she didn’t know who she was pointing to. She was very accurate when she was in the prison, where things happened, but as time went on I think her stories became embellished.”
What had at first been a nagging suspicion that Hanna was capable of exaggeration had become, after a month spent with her and reporting her story, a crippling doubt. Iraq, the context for her amazing story, was an astonishment of human cruelty. That is why her story was so terribly believable. She was telling a larger truth. And the American government, out of sincere altruism or rank political opportunism, responded to this truth. Even if it wasn’t her truth. Even if it was, in fact, a mirage. Even if she was, after all, a liar.
THE MOMENT I WAS DREADING had arrived. It was time to call Oxford, though by now, of course, I knew what the answer would be: Hanna had never graduated or attended the school, which didn’t even offer a degree in accounting. The significance of this falsehood was immediately obvious: It opened her entire story to doubt. If she lied about Oxford, a claim that could be so easily refuted, what else was she lying about?
Jeanne d’Arc would certainly know the truth of Jumana’s story. She was home alone when my translator arrived. Had her daughter ever lived in England and attended Oxford? he asked. Jeanne d’Arc, sheepishly, said she hadn’t. She was terrified of Hanna. That’s why she had never said anything.
Now Hanna walked in the door. She looked at her mother and, sensing the mood in the room, asked what was wrong. Jeanne d’Arc said something, and Hanna shrieked, “I did go to Oxford! I did! I did go to Oxford!” Her pupils shot straight up into her head. “I will write to them,” she announced, and sat down at the computer. She tried typing a few words, but her agitation was too great. Enraged, she gave the computer mouse a few good thwacks against the table, then flung it at the ceiling.
“I will call!” she cried, running into the kitchen. The recorded message informing her that she had misdialed played—one, two, three times—until, in frustration, she threw the phone hard against the kitchen wall.
“You ruined my life!” she screamed at her mother, who sat shaking in her favorite chair. “I will never forgive you. You betrayed me once, and now this is the second time!”
Jeanne d’Arc’s face had turned blue. “No, no,” she protested. “I didn’t say you never went to Oxford. All I said was that I forgot where you went exactly.”
But Hanna had already begun throwing things: a crystal ashtray, a brass candleholder, a greeting card welcoming her to America, several framed photographs, an almost full cup of coffee. She made a clean sweep of everything on the coffee table, hurling the objects straight at her mother.
The book was finished, she said. She wanted nothing more to do with me.
Her recklessness shocked me. I’d been a reporter for twenty-five years and considered myself a professional skeptic, yet I’d been duped. I consoled myself with the thought that I was in good company. If I’d been duped, so had the Pentagon, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and one of the nation’s most esteemed newspapers. On the other hand, I understand that the relationship between a journalist and a source is based on trust. I’d never met anyone who played with that relationship as cynically as Hanna. She could coolly size up her audience, calculate what they wanted to hear, and work it to her advantage.
“She was very poised, very credible,” recalled Gerald Burke, a retired Massachusetts State Police major who met Hanna soon after he arrived in Iraq as advisor to the Baghdad police chief. “For just coming in country, it was a perfect case: someone coming forward with our worst expectations of what the regime was like.” He, too, believed Hanna, though a part of him wondered whether her story seemed a little too perfect. “Occasionally, we would even say to ourselves, If this is a con job, then she deserves to go to the United States, or even Hollywood.”
Far from being a story about the indomitability of the human spirit, Hanna’s tale now seemed to open a window on the coalition’s naivete—the willingness of its leaders to believe almost anything that fit their agenda.
I began cataloging the details that once sounded so rich but now seemed improbable, then started a new round of phone calls.
Was it true that two of her four bodyguards had been killed while protecting her?
No, Dryden said, never heard that one. And by the way, she didn’t have four bodyguards. Only one.
Was it true that her old prison had been turned into a museum, which was then named in her honor? No on both counts. The prison was bulldozed and excavated to make way for a new addition to the Baghdad Police Academy.
Was it true that she was physically unable to stand (and therefore work) for long periods of time because her uterus leaked as a consequence of horrific torture? Hardly. An ultrasound had shown that she was merely going through early menopause. And according to one Iraqi friend, she could stand for hours if it entailed a shopping trip.
She told one therapist that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, met her plane on the tarmac and presented her with a $20,000 check—which Catholic Charities, her initial sponsor in California, promptly confiscated. As always, she was so compelling that the therapist called the governor’s office to confirm the story. It was pure fiction.
SEVERAL THERAPISTS, speaking off the record, have concluded that she is delusional—and very smart. On at least two occasions, she was prescribed Seroquel, an antipsychotic medication. She has refused to take it. “I have many misgivings about her stability and, therefore, the accuracy of her claims,” one therapist told me. “But I think the Americans in Baghdad believed it 200 percent.”
Her behavior puzzled another therapist, who said it contradicted that of most torture victims, who cannot bear to relive the horror of their experience. Hanna seemed to revel in it. Yet another therapist got fed up with her manipulations. “She knows that charity income can’t legally affect her welfare status, so she seeks out every church she sees,” he said. “She shows them the Washington Post article, weeps, and says, ‘I’m a refugee from Iraq, a widow raising two orphans and supporting a disabled mother.’ I know of at least eight churches she’s gone to, and they always help her. One even appointed a council of volunteers to ensure that her needs were being met. Then, when they find out she’s already getting services and they question her, she disappears and cuts ties.”
Several Iraqi exiles have expressed discomfort with her story. A Shiite dissident questioned how she could have known the names of her attackers in prison. “I was imprisoned many, many times,” he told me, “but I never learned the names of my guards. They didn’t want you to know them. I don’t want to question the lady; many strange things happened in Iraq. But this doesn’t make sense to me. Still,” he added, “you could believe anything in Iraq while Saddam was in power.”
Shortly before this article went to press, I received information about her husband, Haytham Jamil Anwar—whose corpse had been handed through the prison gate like a “piece of butcher’s meat,” as the Post put it. Family members in Iraq insist that he is alive and well—though destitute—in Baghdad. Indeed, his two children, Sabr and Ayyub, on several occasions told their teachers in California that they had seen their father right before they moved into the Green Zone. The teachers had assumed that the kids were in denial and arranged a service on a sunny day in which balloons were released into the sky so that Sabr and Ayyub could say goodbye to their father up in heaven.
If anything in Iraq was believable, then Hanna could say anything. All her evidence was in that big black bag full of photographs, mementos, and hastily scribbled pleas. After she left prison, she said, she tried contacting each of the families of her fellow prisoners. Every attempt was met with rebuff, some families offering bags of money in return for her silence, some threatening her with death. Many of the families denied that their daughters and sisters had ever existed.
This in itself didn’t sound improbable. Hanna had defied cultural norms by talking about rape in a world where family honor is fixed in a woman’s body. Of course people would be angry with her. But she wasn’t content to stop there. She went further, claiming that one of her murdered compatriots was a young woman named Shukriya, the sister of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose militia has been waging an insurgency against U. S. forces in the city of Najaf. When al-Sadr discovered what Hanna was saying about his sister, he issued a fatwa against her. Hundreds, no thousands, of angry Shiites marched outside the CPA’s palace walls, chanting for Hanna to be put to death. The demonstrations were broadcast on Al-Jazeera.
I checked. There were no such protests.
She urged me to call Manal Omar, an American women’s-rights activist working in Baghdad as director of Iraq’s Women for Women International. Omar had sat right beside her as she called the families; she could confirm everything Hanna was now saying. I reached Omar, who did not confirm a single thing.
“Jumana has a lot of issues,” Omar said. “We were getting many different stories, not only about her past but about her present and her future. That’s the way things are in Iraq. It’s hard, it’s virtually impossible, to tell fact from fiction. So Jumana—she’s part of that.”
Hanna no longer speaks to many of the Iraqi émigrés who befriended her when she arrived in the U. S. She has also alienated many Californians. She has threatened to sue several acquaintances, including an old friend who begged her to stop soliciting money from a Greek Orthodox priest who was in the midst of losing his house to foreclosure. One after another, Hanna has enlisted and driven away five different charitable agencies. Volunteers have been irritated by her high-spending ways, including the fact that she thinks nothing of taking a seventy-dollar cab ride instead of riding the bus.
“I want the same treatment I had in the Green Zone,” Hanna told me. “It was such a good life. They treated me like a queen.”
In many ways, she still lives like one. Her monthly phone bill is astronomical, often topping $1,000—mostly because she spends hours on the phone with her boyfriend in Baghdad. On more than one occasion, she has wired him large sums of money—as much as $1,200 every few weeks, according to two sources. His name is Mohamed Jiwad, which is also the name of the prison guard who confirmed her story about her husband to the military investigators nearly two years ago. They never suspected that Jiwad may have been her boyfriend. She’d told them that they had met only once—on that day back in 2001 when she received her husband’s body through the prison fence.
Dryden wasn’t troubled by this latest revelation. “If she told me today that she lied to me, I wouldn’t even care,” he said. “It got me four months out of the combat zone. It got me four months in the palace, where I had a lot of fun, in an air-conditioned building with e-mail and a phone line home. And I met a fantastic woman who I’m going to marry. So it wouldn’t bother me one bit if Jumana told me she’d made it all up. I’d say okay.”
He sounded amused.
I felt stupid and gullible. The artfulness of her deceptions took a few days to sink in, and then I went to see her again. She gave me a big hug. Her mother sat facing us on the overstuffed chair, her face bland and unperturbed as I informed Hanna that I wouldn’t be writing the book after all.
“No!” she screamed. “This is my story! Not anybody else’s story! All America say Jumana Hanna is right! I had investigation by CIA, by Pentagon. If I am not right, why do they put me on army airplane and bring me to America? Because I have pretty eyes?”
She grabbed her cell phone and began punching in numbers. “Pakeza!” she screamed into the phone. “Tell Sara how you came with me to the jail where your cousin died! Remember when you came with me and Luis and Daniel, you cried for your cousin Fatma!” She thrust the phone in my face, and I heard an irritated Pakeza Alexander, who is the president of a Kurdish humanitarian organization, saying that she was in the middle of a meeting and did not appreciate the interruption.
“Just answer this question,” I said. “Was your cousin in Jumana’s prison?”
“I am sure you are a very intelligent young woman,” she said witheringly. “So you know that in Iraq, the name Fatma is as common as the name Joe Smith is here in the United States.”
Hanna grabbed the phone and punched in another number. “Give me Luis,” she commanded. “Wake him up and tell him that this is Jumana Hanna!” Then I heard Mejia’s voice, slow and raspy, on the other end. “Luis, this is very important. Please! Stay awake! Five minutes only. You must tell Sara . . .”
For the next half hour, she screamed while her mother sat unruffled, smiled sympathetically, and occasionally urged Hanna to lower her voice.
“Why do these people lie?” Hanna demanded. “We will fly to Washington, look them in the eye, and make them tell the truth!” I wasn’t going anywhere, I said. “I will find a good writer and you will read my story everywhere,” she said with a contemptuous click of her tongue. “Everywhere!”
“Just tell me one thing,” I said. “Why did you lie about Oxford?” For a second, she looked confused, and I thought, yes, finally, she was going to come clean.
“I went to Oxford!” she screamed. “Oxford College of Accounting on Oxford Street in London. It is right next to Louis the Five Hotel. I’ll take you there!”
I shook my head.
“Leave before I start throwing things,” she ordered, and as I walked out the door, her mother nodded graciously, like a real lady, and clasped her hands in a Buddhist-like way of thanks.
It was over, I assured myself as I started the car. And then, halfway home, I started to wonder: Could she possibly be telling the truth? Maybe there was a school called Oxford College of Accounting. On a hairpin turn in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I suddenly had to know. I called a colleague and asked her to quickly search in London for any listing at all for Oxford College of Accounting on Oxford Street.
It took only a few moments. I had my answer.
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