|For twenty years Lusine talked of leaving Iraq—since the onset of the Iran-Iraq war. But Armen thought they should hold out—that things would get better. He fought in the war and lost a brother in it. Finally things got so bad that they left.
They had lived for a time in England and are quite worldly—speaking excellent English as well as Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Assyrian. The girls all speak Armenian and Arabic and Naira and Nune speak English—Sophia is learning from the Spice Girls and online chat sessions.
They never mentioned the US bombings—I had to bring that up. The problem in Iraq as they described it was the influx of uneducated thugs from the rural south into the city. These people now controlled everything and coruption and extortion rule. They also blamed Sadam. And the American government—not because of the bombings or the embargo—but because they saw the American government as keeping Sadam in power—"If the Americans wanted it, he'd be out."
That they thought this, to me, was shocking. Also shocking was that they imagined Evelyn and I could and should visit Iraq as part of our travels. "You must," they would say, "it's such a wonderful country! So much history." They were surprised when we told them we couldn't, asking why not—telling us that Armenians from California would occassionally visit.
Once we had broached the topic of the bombings, Lusine and Armen spoke of their months in a bomb shelter. They could go out out occassionally to buy food but at any given time had canned goods to last two weeks. Because Armen had served in the war with Iran, relative to others they had it good—they had hot water.
So after 20 years of considering it, the Berberians sold off most everything—cars, houses—or put them in storage and left. A fifteen hour drive from Baghdad across the desert brought them to Amman. They had to pay extortionist amounts to do it but with money anything is possible. They took only a few prized possessions—only a few of the many books in their collection. None of the 19th century paintings that had been handed down through the generations. Taking anything of significant value out of the country is forbidden. Naira had to leave behind her violin, for instance. Their book collection—dictionaries, Lusine's medical journals, an Arabic bible—are following slowly, smuggled out a few at a time by friends who come to visit.
The Berberians are far from alone in their situation. Iraqis are pouring out of Iraq. The Iraqi population in Amman has skyrocketed—Lusine claims it's now at one million but I find this number hard to believe. In any case, Iraqis are everywhere in Amman and the Berberians have lots of friends. Evelyn and I walked into an Iraqi restaurant one evening. It was packed solid on two floors—all Iraqis, we were told.
Clearly, at one time, the Berberians were quite well off. Armen had a contracting business. But some years back, his machinery was taken from him and destroyed. Lusine is a doctor and had her own medical clinic. The clinic generated some income—good thing since her own salary as a doctor—translated to dollars—had dwindled to $5 a month.
Back in 1988, one Iraqi dinar equaled $3.00. Since then the value of the dinar has plummeted. Now, 2000 dinar equals one dollar. In other words, the equivalent to Lusine's $5 monthly salary, in 1988 would have been $30,000 per month. The Berberians had two houses and three or four cars—all of which were sold before they left. Did they incur such staggerring losses on these holdings as well? There are areas in which I didn't want to delve.