My Friend the Imam

Imam Mohammed Sallah of the Firdos Square Mosque in Baghdad holding several Ramadan cards from Americans in 2001.

Imam Mohammed Sallah of the Firdos Square Mosque in Baghdad holding several Ramadan cards from Americans in 2001.

Most of the world knows Firdos Square in Baghdad as the site where the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But I remember Firdos Square because that is where I met the imam of the beautiful mosque just behind the statue.

I made six humanitarian trips to Iraq during the years 1998 to 2003 in the course of my work to end the debilitating economic sanctions which the United Nations, at the request of the U.S., had imposed on Iraq. During my trip to Baghdad in 2000 it occurred to me to ask how the Islamic community was reacting to the deadly sanctions which were killing thousands of Iraqi children. So I was very glad, one quiet summer day, for the opportunity to meet the imam of the mosque on Firdos Square.

Imam Mohamed Sallah was an elderly man with gentle eyes and a warm smile. His office was modest in comparison to the spectacularly beautiful mosque beside it and it had a relaxed, lived-in feel. I immediately felt welcome.

He described the size of his mosque by saying it “receives more than 1,000 prayers on Fridays.” Since the purpose of my visit to Iraq was to study the economic sanctions, I asked him about their effect on his congregation. I had already visited enough hospitals to see first-hand the way that malnutrition and lack of medicine was claiming the lives of several hundred thousand children in Iraq, according to UNICEF estimates.

Imam Mohamed Sallah in the library of his mosque on Firdos Square,  Baghdad, 2001.

Imam Mohamed Sallah in the library of his mosque on Firdos Square, Baghdad, 2001.

“The impact of the sanctions are very heavy on the shoulders” of the people at his mosque, the imam told me through a translator. “Children and old men, men and women, all are under the sanctions, and paying the price of the sanctions – the shortage of medicine, the shortage of food.” He added that “even animals in this country are suffering because of the sanctions.”

Sanctions caused not just a shortage of food and medicine but extended to a person’s “thinking and his psychology and to his behavior because when a person cannot eat well, cannot have proper medicine, when he is ill, then he cannot read well, he cannot think well,” the imam said.

I asked him what had given him and his congregation the spiritual strength to endure the sanctions. “In life today,” he told me, “you can see either the materialistic way of living or the spiritual way of living – somebody believes either this or that. We have to be patient and depend on our spiritual belief until we see an end to the sanctions and we are still optimistic that there could be one day an end to the sanctions. We are a part of humanity and we will never think one day that we will be isolated from humanity or that humanity will ever abandon us.”

I asked if he had any final comments. He said that in his “personal view towards the American people, I think that the American people are good people.” But he wanted to ask the American Administration that “while they want their country to be united and the American people to live in prosperity, why do they try to deprive this right from other people in the world?

“I wish you all the best and wish the American people as well all the best,” he told me. “The most close brothers and friends to us as Muslims are the Christians because this is in our holy book, the Qu’ran.” Like all the Iraqis I met, he had only kind words to me, even though I was a citizen of the country that was imposing the sanctions on Iraq.

My visit with the imam was one of the highlights of my trip so I decided to visit him again when I returned to Baghdad the following year. I took with me a handful of Ramadan greeting cards sent by Americans and a bag of oranges as a gift. A young man met me at the gate of the mosque and he told me that the imam was not feeling well; he could see me for only a few minutes.

When I met Imam Mohammed Sallah he indeed looked tired and I expressed my gratitude that he had taken the time to see me even though he wasn’t feeling well. “Now that you’re here I’m feeling better,” he said with a smile, and he thanked me for the cards and the oranges. What a truly kind man, I thought. He didn’t have to say such generous words to me. Even though he wasn’t feeling well, he still made an effort to make me feel genuinely welcome.

I still think of Imam Mohammed from time to time. It was good to have his reassuring welcome as I traveled alone in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He seemed old and fragile the last time I saw him in 2001. Because of the violence in Iraq I have not been able to return and visit him. I often wonder how he has survived all the bombings and the violence which began on the streets outside his mosque when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and has continued ever since.

Mel Lehman
March 20, 2016
(c) 2016 from book-in-progress “Love Your Enemies: A Christian Response to the War on Terror”
Photos by Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.