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Times Herald (Port Huron, MI), July 21, 2002 p1D
Bakko: Saddam has changed Iraq for the worse. (Living)
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co. Inc. by the Gale Group, Inc.
`People just don't understand the differences of the REGION'
Issam "Sam" Bakko is living the American dream. He has a home in middle-class Marysville, a wife and four children, and is active in his family's business.
His future likely would have taken a significantly different course if his family had remained in his native Iraq, especially under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
"He changed the whole country," Bakko said. "Before him, the people, they were alive and vibrant in every way. Baghdad used to be like the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
"Not today. As soon as he came to power, that changed; he closed everything."
Iraq is an Arab-dominated country, and while Bakko's English carries an accent, he isn't Arab. He is Chaldean, one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the region.
Once known as Mesopotamia, this was the land of such Biblical places as the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
"We are Roman Catholics who can trace their heritage back to a time before Christ," Bakko, 37, said. "But we're definitely a minority over there."
Iraq is at the head of the Persian Gulf in southwestern Asia. It is larger than California but with about three-fifths as many people. The temperatures are hot; little rain falls in most of Iraq.
"It's so hot that nobody does anything but nap between 1 and 6 p.m. every day," Bakko said. "At night, we would go and sleep up on the roof. It was amazing. There were so many stars in the sky, you could almost reach out and touch them."
Three-fourths of Iraq's population live in cities. Business people, craftworkers, government workers, professionals and technicians make up the middle class. Bakko's father owned restaurants in Baghdad.
"Most Chaldeans are in some kind of retail food business," said Bakko, whose family once owned the Marysville Food Market and the former Rainbow Foods. Today, they own Wolverine markets in downtown Port Huron and Marysville.
Arabic is the main language of Iraq, but Chaldeans also have their own language - Aramaic - which more closely resembles Hebrew. "We have to learn Arabic because Arabs can't understand Aramaic," he said.
Cultural boundaries are blurred when it comes to other things.
Some wear Western-style clothing, but most Arab men and women wear long cotton gowns that reach their ankles. Men cover their heads with a square cloth folded in half and held in place with a rope band.
Women wear a long cloak when they leave home; some cover their faces with a veil.
Rice is a staple in the Arab and Chaldean diets. Popular foods also include stuffed grape leaves, hummus and a dish that is made with hamburger, onion and other spices rolled in bread crumbs and cooked on a skewer. "Sort of like shish kebabs without vegetables," he said.
Bakko was 12 when, in 1976, he and his six siblings immigrated to the United States with their parents, a move that followed other family members who had moved to the U.S. in the early 1900s. "We've had family here a long time," he said.
The transition still had its problems. The family's grocery store was picketed during the Iranian hostage crisis two decades ago. They also received harassing phone calls during Operation Desert Storm.
"People just don't understand the differences of the region," he said.
"I've even been called a camel jockey. I never even saw a camel until I left Iraq and went to Egypt on my way to the United States."
A U.S. citizen since 1983, Bakko has no plans or desire to return to Iraq. "This is home," he said.
ISSAM BAKKO: "Sam" is a Chaldean, a minority Christian group in Iraq. His family owns several local markets, including the Wolverine Market in Marysville.
By MARK R. RUMMEL, Times Herald
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