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Home, but Unsettled, in America

Dr. Khadar Hussein has never been more aware of his bewildering array of allegiances: the U.S., Palestinians, a brother in Iraq's army.

March 28, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY — Dr. Khadar K. Hussein has been running since 5 a.m., scribbling on medical charts and scurrying from one patient to the next. All the while, he leans at the waist as though he's headed somewhere important, although he's come so far already.

Dusk is falling now, and as Hussein glides his BMW into the driveway, a poodle and a mutt howl their greetings from the backyard. "There's my girls," he says.

Inside, there is hummus on the table, a meat pie in the oven and mother-of-pearl inlaid Egyptian furniture in the den. But this is an American life now. There also are soap-on-a-rope in the bathroom, officially licensed by the Dallas Cowboys; a handsome son who is a lieutenant in the National Guard; a rotisserie grill in the backyard. Hussein wets his lips with a dash of Beaujolais.

"We're Okies. We just have funny names," he says. "This is our home now."

It's not that simple, though, and he knows it. Hussein is a man with a bewildering array of allegiances: the United States; the Palestinian cause; his brothers and sisters in the West Bank, Jordan and even in Saddam Hussein's army in Baghdad. He has never been more keenly aware of it all than he is today.

Hussein, 61, voted for George H.W. Bush and for George W. Bush. He believes the Iraqi leader, no relation, is a thug, an emblem of Middle East extremists who have destroyed his dream of a united Arab state. He says the Iraqi leader should be hung from a tree, not by his neck but by a more sensitive part of the male anatomy.

He also believes that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was wrong -- a criminal and cynical attempt to subvert the Middle East and hand control of its land and its oil to Israel. Bush has deceived America by linking the Iraqi regime to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, revealing his ignorance of the Middle East, Hussein said. Iraq's president does not yearn for martyrdom, he yearns for money and power -- and that means staying alive, the doctor said.

"This is not a war of self-defense. We are too great a country to be doing this with this kind of pitiful justification," he said, his hands balling into tight fists. "I voted for Bush, for the father and the son. I will never forgive myself."

Although Saddam Hussein's troops have been able to inflict casualties on U.S. troops, the war has made it clear that the Iraqis are not the menace Bush claimed they were to justify the invasion, Hussein said. Many surrendering Iraqis are hungry, untrained conscripts in T-shirts, he said, and Iraq is a devastated country that can barely defend itself, much less threaten the United States.

"Where is this monstrous army they have been talking about?" Hussein asked. "I saw the fireworks, what they call 'shock and awe.' This is a charade."

The "reluctant warrior" is a regular character in the sepia-tinted dramas of war. Here is a character for a modern drama: the reluctant peacenik. To understand him, one also must understand that Hussein has led a life tortured and charmed.

Born April 10, 1941, to a police officer father and a mother who had been plucked from a nomadic band for an arranged marriage, Hussein's first years were spent in the Palestinian village of Artouf, in what is now Israel.

He is not sure how many generations lived in Artouf before him, but by the time he arrived, the village was changing. Palestine still was under British rule. But for decades, European Jews had been migrating there, drawn by the Zionist dream of reestablishing a Jewish homeland.

A few hundred Jews and the same number of Muslims lived in distinct camps separated by a wheat field. Those were relatively peaceful days, separate but equal, and Hussein remembers horseback rides and fireworks shows.

That changed in 1948, when Israel declared its independence. Arab states invaded, and the Haganah, Israel's de facto army, fought Palestinian Muslims, some of whom had declared a holy war. Haganah fighters charged toward his village from the west, and instead of celebrating a feast to mark the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Hussein's family fled. "We ran outside and a mortar hit this fig tree on the side of the road," he recalled. "I don't remember much, but that is very distinct in my mind. We hit the ground, and my sister, Hude, she told my father how sour the smoke smelled. He could not answer. He just told her to run."

For weeks, they lived in the caves outside Artouf. When it became clear they could not return safely, they ran to a town where there was not enough water to survive, then to a mosque, where they slept on the floor.

They landed at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It would be Hussein's home for 10 years. The United Nations handed out rations once a month -- half a bar of soap per person, three kilograms of flour, some lentils and rice. They lived in tents. Blindness was commonplace among children because of Vitamin A deficiency.

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