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Pining for His Homeland and Beset by Doubt

An Iraqi man living in Upland since the '70s returns after the war, eager to resettle with his family. But the disorder proves too much.

September 19, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Mosadek al Attar was a teenager when he was compelled to leave Iraq in the 1970s to start a new life in the United States, getting out just weeks before Baath Party secret police knocked at his parents' door looking for him.

The exit of the rest of his family was not as well timed. His older brother and uncle were scooped up by authorities a few years later and deposited at the Iranian border, where they walked six days to a refugee camp.

His father was refused reentry to Iraq after a brief visit to the U.S. Upon hearing the news, Attar's mother and sister jumped into a car and raced to the Jordanian border, leaving behind the family's furniture, artwork, photos and a beloved five-bedroom dream house they had spent two years designing and building.

More than two decades later, as U.S. troops marched toward Baghdad, Attar, 49, lay awake in his Upland home, pondering a nagging question: whether he should reclaim the family home and resettle in Baghdad with his wife and two children, ages 12 and 14.

Though he relished his new U.S. citizenship, Attar, a Shiite Muslim, says he never fully adapted to life in America. He's director of an Islamic private school in Pomona, which he cofounded in part to help provide his children with a more religious environment.

"Iraq is my home," Attar said. "I have a lot of memories here."

Attar arrived in June in his old neighborhood along the Tigris River to repair the family's abandoned house, which, like much of his native country, was in shambles.

He has spent the summer sorting through years of debris and coping with a flood of memories and emotions. Despite all the work, he's having serious doubts about returning, in light of the car bombings, rising crime and lack of reliable phone service and electricity since the U.S.-led invasion in late March.

"I had a beautiful life here," he said. "I think my kids could too, but maybe it's too soon."

For the Attar family, 1968 was a landmark year. It was the year the Baath Party seized control of the government in Iraq. But more important in their household, that was the year they moved into the custom-built, two-story home that quickly became the talk of the neighborhood.

The mid-century-modern home stood out in the capital for its low-pitched, tapered roof and a wall with geometric windows stained in bright reds, greens and blues. The second level extended over the frontyard, supported by columns, an architectural element seldom seen in Baghdad at the time.

In the entry hall, lovebirds nested in an atrium designed by Attar's mother. Mosaic tile portraits of Greek ports decorated the kitchen and bathroom walls. Up the marble staircase was a terrace large enough to hold beds for the entire family on hot summer nights.

"This house was really the highlight of my mother's life," Attar said.

He said the family lived a charmed life for several years. Slumber parties. Neighborhood soccer matches in the frontyard. Meanwhile, his father's fabric import business thrived, serving the wives of high-ranking members of the Baath Party.

But when he was in high school, pressure mounted on Attar to join the party's youth group.

"Getting to the youth was a big thing back then," he said. "People didn't worry at first about the older people, figuring you can't teach an old dog new tricks. They wanted the young."

Those who joined the group received special privileges, including spots on sports teams and test questions in advance.

Attar and his brother resisted. He said his Muslim beliefs made it impossible for him to pledge the kind of allegiance the party demanded. But mostly he attributed his stance to simple teenage rebelliousness, not political activism.

"Looking back, it was probably pretty foolish," he said. When friends encouraged him to join the youth group, Attar loudly dismissed the Baath Party. "It created a huge gap with my friends," he said.

For a while, his father's wealth seemed to protect the family, but eventually the Attars became social outcasts, suspected of supporting the Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite-dominated opposition group. Later the family was the target of anti-Iranian sentiment because of their name, even though their ancestors had lived in Iraq for generations.

The soccer team disbanded. Friends no longer visited. The family watched anxiously as others who refused to support the government simply disappeared. "One day they'd be in class, the next they were gone," Attar recalled.

His father began making plans to sneak Attar and his brother out of the country. "My father was always telling us to be quiet, but we were always showing off. We had big mouths."

After high school, Attar agreed to leave. "I thought I would never be coming back," he said. "It turned out that the secret police came looking for me shortly after I left."

Six years later, with the Iraq-Iran war imminent, Attar's father visited California, where Attar was beginning a career as an electrical engineer.

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