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Story of the scarf still waits to be told

Stained with the blood of a journalist killed in Iraq, it bonds two women -- the widow who loved him and the translator who served him.

December 19, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Iraqi woman with bone-thin hands and a beauty mark on her right cheek holds secrets in her scarf.

It is yellow and stained with blood, and it made the journey with Nour Khal from a dark road in Basra to an airy bedroom in Manhattan. Now it is hidden in this East Village apartment that she shares with the widow.

The widow with sad, dark eyes and wisps of gray in her thick black hair doesn't want to know the secrets of the scarf. Lisa Ramaci looked at it once, touched it, and cried until the sun rose.

It is evening, and the rice pot is popping, the tea kettle steaming.

Khal helps herself to a bowl of saffron rice, taking big bites.

"Is it good?" Ramaci asks.

Khal nods. "I wouldn't exchange it for a man."

They laugh.

But they know that is not true. There is one man both would give anything to have with them again. His name was Steven Vincent, an American journalist. He is the man whose blood the scarf holds. Khal, 33, was his translator in Iraq. Ramaci, 51, was his wife.

He is why they are here now, sharing. He is why they find themselves on many nights in the kitchen, talking of dating, or family, or Iraq, until their talk suddenly turns to tears. Why did this happen? Why us? Why him?

The women feel indebted to each other, and so Ramaci takes Khal to doctor's appointments, teaches her about American culture, lets her borrow clothes, lets her live rent-free, and Khal cleans the place, brings Ramaci water when she coughs, leaves on weekends to give her space, promises she will move out when she finds a job.

Khal feels she owes Ramaci more.

When she arrived in New York six months ago, she was prepared to tell Ramaci everything about that day. But Ramaci could not listen and left the room whenever the topic came up.

Khal let it go, telling herself she would wait for the day Ramaci was ready.

But her flashbacks come strong and often, even in the coziness of this borrowed apartment overlooking 11th Street. She cannot shake the smell of gunpowder, the taste of her blood, the sound of his scream.

On the day the death car came, Khal left her family's home in southern Basra, Iraq, wearing a long jeans skirt and long-sleeved shirt, her head and neck cloaked in the yellow scarf.

Carrying a purse and black leather briefcase, she made her way to meet Vincent. All afternoon, she felt uneasy. They had been receiving threats for weeks. Once on the street, Khal heard a man's voice behind her: Why do you work for an American journalist asking critical questions? She turned around, and he was gone. Mysterious people called her cellphone asking the same.Khal had watched Basra, Iraq's second largest city about 350 miles from Baghdad, transform in two years from a lively city of open-air cafes, fashion boutiques, hair salons and bars into a neglected, fearful place overrun by religious radicals, where anyone could be kidnapped or killed for any reason. Khal and Vincent had decided it was too dangerous and planned to leave Iraq in 10 days.

It was Aug. 2, 2005, just after 6 p.m. Dusk began to blanket the city, but the temperature still felt like 100 degrees. On their way to an interview, Khal and Vincent walked along Dinar Street, a main thoroughfare thriving with fruit markets, a currency exchange and computer centers. They passed people hurrying to shop or run errands before nightfall.

A white car sat parked across the street. Both recognized it. Vincent had mentioned a similar vehicle in an op-ed piece he wrote, published in the New York Times three days earlier, about Shiite militias infiltrating the Basra police force and how the British military had done little to stop them. He quoted an Iraqi police lieutenant describing the "death car," and he wrote: "A white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment."

Four men in police uniforms jumped out. They surrounded Khal and Vincent, pointing guns at their faces. Passersby shouted at them to stop.

"We are police!" the men yelled, shifting their guns to the bystanders. "We know what to do!"

"What do you want from us?" Vincent asked, as Khal translated.

The men ordered them into the car.

Khal knew the danger they risked by surrendering. Vincent tried to pull away from a gunman's grip. Khal wrestled with another. She broke free, running to hide in an electrician's shop on the other side of the two-lane street. A gunman followed. He threatened to kill the shop owner if she did not come outside.

She gave in, but continued struggling in the street. Near the car, she saw Vincent fighting, pleading. One man struck him in the head with his gun. They shoved Vincent into the left side of the back seat. When he resisted, one bit his leg.

Khal clutched her briefcase, containing notes from Vincent's interviews, money and her passport. When the gunmen looked away, she dropped it in the street.

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