Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lisa Ramaci, widow of Steven Vincent, interview

The more I think about it the more it pisses me off. I put this post together yesterday resporting on an interview that Fayrouz Hancock published at her blog from Dallas. It was powerful and compelling material from the hand of Stephen Vuincent's widow recounting the circumstances of his murder and affirming her love and concern for both him and his wounded translator who survived and as of this writing is still being held incommunicado by the authorities. That would be the same authorities that the US officially recognizes as legitimate in Iraq.

This is what remained of my post after deleting the key content at the request of both Fayrouz and Lisa Ramaci. (See the comments thread):

Fayrouz at Iraqi in America publishes a revealing interview worth reading. Stephen Vincent was a journalist killed within forty-eight hours after his story examining corruption in the Iraqi Security forces was published in the NY Times. I blogged about it at the time.

Because he had been working closely with a young woman who was his translator, the story immediately took on a tawdry spin which distracted from the content of his reportage. This interview puts that spin to rest and raises questions about why the authorities continue, nearly four and a half months later, to stonewall followups on his death and work.

[At Fayrouz' request I have deleted the interview comments. See comments below. I can understand how this is a very sensitive issue.]

Apparently the original post inspired a couple of trolls to leave ugly remarks in the comments thread so mean that Lisa Ramaci said she didn't want anything further to do with the discussion. The interview that originally appeared in Fayrouz' blog is now replaced with the following:

Well, forget that...It looks like the entire post has now disappeared. Before it was deleted there appeared an anguished letter from Lisa to Fayrouz pouring out her pain and frustration at the whole incident. I have the feeling that the anguish and grief of August came roiling back to her emotional surface and proved to be more wrenching than she could endure. This is a bleeding tragedy...compounding the murder of her husband that savage and irresponsible commentators, abusing the free and open world of the internet, would subject anyone to a level of verbal and emotional abuse that the victim decided to drop the matter rather than challenge the assault. It is the jouralistic equivalent of rape.

I hope Faurouz will forgive me, but I cannot let the matter drop as easily as that. What has happened to both her and her guest in the last twenty-four hours is savage and inexcusable. It does not rise to the level of the murder of Stephen Vincent, but in the aftermath of that event, now only four months past, it reveals an irresponsible emptiness of spirit on the part of a few individuals that I can only compare with the behavior of a drunk driver who cares nothing about the lives or safety of others on the road. Only yesterday I heard yet another story about a drunk driver who killed a young man on a motor cycle, taking him out in his twenties, leaving nothing but painful memories in his family that still bring his mother to tears with the memory, twenty-plus years later.

I did not read the comments left at her blog. All I recall of the now-gone message is something to the effect of I hope you are satisfied, lowlife scum, that by your mean-spirited comments you have destroyed in a moment the careful work of several weeks. There was some reference to what I referred to as the "tawdry spin" in my original post, so I have the feeling it derived from the unjustified, shooting-from-the hip reaction of Juan Cole less than a week after the report of Vincent's murder.

Was American journalist Steve Vincent killed in Basra as part of an honor killing? He was romantically involved with his Iraqi interpreter, who was shot 4 times. If her clan thought she was shaming them by appearing to be having an affair outside wedlock with an American male, they might well have decided to end it. In Mediterranean culture, a man's honor tends to be wrought up with his ability to protect his womenfolk from seduction by strange men. Where a woman of the family sleeps around, it brings enormous shame on her father, brothers and cousins, and it is not unknown for them to kill her. These sentiments and this sort of behavior tend to be rural and to hold among the uneducated, but are not unknown in urban areas. Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface, and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner.

Apparently this snip, still part of the Informed Comment (Cole's blog) archives, is a cleaned up version of his original text which was even more suggestive of an affair between Stephen Vincent and his translator, a lewd and unfounded inferrence that his widow clarified and explained to be false. The more I read about this couple, the more impressed I am with the level of trust and fidelity they had for one another. Such faithfulness stands in sharp contrast with the breezy, morally bankrupt, criminally indifferent behavior of hundreds of men that I saw first-hand when I was in the Army.

Cole addressed the subject at some length August 24. He pointed out that he was not the source of the rumors about Vincent and his translator, and he remained aloof to the matter, preferring to come across as an erudite and (as the name of his blog so modestly boasts) well-informed academic more interested in other matters.

But there remains in the record a statement by Lisa Ramaci which appears in the Murdock Online archive. There is a good deal of give and take, and a raft of commentary that has now died down. Anyone who wants to dig around can spend a day or two sifting through it all. But this letter stands out as a fine example of what it means for a widow to stand up for her lately murdered husband. I am capturing it here in order to give her the last word.

Mr. Cole -

(I refuse to call you professor, because that would ennoble you. And please change the name of your blog to "Uninformed Comment", because that is precisely what the above paragraph is.)
I would like to refute this shameful post against a dead man who can no longer defend himself against your scurrilous accusations, a dead man who also happened to be my husband. Steven Vincent and I were together for 23 years, married for 13 of them, and I think I know him a wee bit better than you do.

For starters, Steven and Nour were not "romantically involved". If you knew anything at all about the Middle East, as you seem to think you do, then you would know that there is no physical way that he and she could have ever been alone together. Nour (who always made sure to get home before dark, so they were never together at night) could not go to his room; he could not go to her house; there was no hot-sheet motel for them to go to for a couple of hours. They met in public, they went about together in public, they parted in public. They were never alone. She would not let him touch her arm, pay her a compliment, buy her a banana on the street, hyper-aware of how such gestures might be interpreted by the misogynistic cretins who surrounded her daily. So for you brazenly claim that she was "sleeping around," when there is no earthly way you could possibly know that, suggests to me that you are quite the misogynist as well. Cheap shot, Mr. Cole, against a remarkable woman who does not in any wise deserve it.

This is not to say that Steven did not love Nour - he did. And he was quite upfront about it to me. But it was not sexual love - he loved her for her courage, her bravery, her indomitable spirit in the face of the Muslim thugs who have oppressed their women for years. To him she represented a free and democratic Iraq, and all of the hopes he had for that still-elusive creature. And he loved her for the help she gave him - endangering herself by affiliating with him because she wanted the truth to come out about what was happening in her native city of Basra and the surrounding area. Perhaps you are unaware of the fact that it is possible to love someone in a strictly platonic way, but I assure you, it can happen - even between men and women.

And yes, he was planning to to convert to Islam and marry Nour, but only to take her out of the country to England, where she had a standing job offer, set her up with the friends she had over there, divorce her, and come back to New York. He had gotten her family's permission to do so (thereby debunking the "honor killing" theory), but more importantly, he had gotten mine. He called one night to say that it had been intimated to him that Nour's life was essentially going to be worthless after he left; since he was an honorable man (a breed you might want to familiarize yourself with), he then asked what I thought he might do to help her. I told him to get her out of the country and bring her here to New York. However, the only way she could have left Iraq was with a family member or husband. Since her family had no intention of going anywhere, Steven was her only recourse, and it would have been perfectly legal for him to convert, marry her, then take her out of Iraq to give her a chance at a real life. (Now that that avenue is closed to her, I have made inquiries to the State Department about the possibility of my sponsoring her in America.* Do you perhaps labor under the misapprehension I am such a spineless cuckold that I would put myself out thusly for the woman you believe my husband was traducing me with? If so, I'm guessing you don't know much about the Sicilian female temperament.)

As to your claim that "In Mediterranean culture, a man's honor tends to be wrought up with his ability to protect his womenfolk from seduction by strange men", it may perhaps have escaped your notice that Iraq does not abut, in any way, shape or form, the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is a Mediterranean culture, as are Spain, Greece, Southern France. In none of them is "honor killing" an accepted form of "protecting womanhood". As to the southerly lands like Morocco and Algeria, they are not, in the general scheme of things, considered Mediterranean cultures - they are considered Arabic, a whole different beast. For you to seemingly be unaware of this, and then to say that my husband "did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture" again begs the question, just where do you get off? If you cannot differentiate between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, how is it you feel qualified to pontificate so pompously?

How often have you been to the Middle East, Mr. Cole? In 2000 Steven and I spent almost a month in Iran on vacation. In 2003 we spent 10 days over Christmas in Jordan. In the last 2 years he had made not one, not two, but three trips to Iraq, and at the time of his death had about 7 months of daily living there under his belt. Can you offer comparables?

How much Arabic do you speak, Mr. Cole? Steven had been learning Arabic for the last two years, and was able to converse simply but effectively with the people he came into contact with. He had many expatriate friends in the Muslim world from whom he was always learning. As I sit here writing this at what was his desk, I can look at the literally dozens of books he devoured about Islam and the Middle East - each one thick with Post-It notes and personal observations he made in the pages - as he sought to comprehend and absorb the complexities of the culture and the religion he felt, and cared, so deeply about. If you would like a list of them, please email me back and I will be happy to send you a comprehensive accounting.

Yes, Steven was aggressive in criticizing what he saw around him and did not like. It's called courage, and it happens to be a tradition in the history of this country. Without this tradition there would have been no Revolutionary War, no Civil War, no civil rights movement, no a lot of things that America can be proud of. He had made many friends in Iraq, and was afraid for them if the religious fundamentalists were given the country to run under shari'a. You may dismiss that as naive, simplistic, foolish, but I say to you, as you sit safely in your ivory tower in Michigan with nothing threatening your comfy, tenured existence, that you should be ashamed at the depths to which you have sunk by libeling Steven and Nour. They were on the front lines, risking all, in an attempt to call attention to the growing storm threatening to overwhelm a fragile and fledgling experiment in democracy, trying to get the world to see that all was not right in Iraq. And for their efforts, Steven is dead and Nour is recuperating with three bullet wound in her back. Yes, that's right - the "honorable" men who abducted them, after binding them, holding them captive and beating them, set them free, told them to run - and then shot them both in the back. I've seen the autopsy report.

You did not know him - you did not have that honor, and you will never have the chance, thanks to the murderous goons for whom you have appointed yourself an apologist. He was a brilliant, erudite, witty, charming, kind, generous, silly, funny, decent, honorable and complex man, who loved a good cigar, Bombay Sapphire gin martinis, Marvel Silver Age comic books, Frank Sinatra, opera and grossing me out with bathroom humor. And if he was acting in a dangerous manner, he had a very good excuse - he was utterly exhausted. He had been in Basra for 3 months under incredibly stressful conditions, working every day, and towards the end enduring heat of 135 degrees, often without air conditioning, which could not have helped his mental condition or judgment. He was yearning to come home, as his emails to me made crystal clear. But on August 2nd, two days before my birthday, he made the fatal mistake of walking one block - one - from his hotel to the money exchange, rather than take a cab, and now will never come back to me. I got a bouquet of flowers from him on August 4th, which he had ordered before he died, and the card said he was sorry to miss my birthday, but the flowers would stand in his stead until he made it home. They are drying now in the kitchen, the final gift from my soulmate.

I did not see your blog until tonight. I was busy doing other things - fighting the government to get Steven's body returned from Basra days after I was told he would be sent home, planning the funeral, buying a cemetery plot, choosing the clothes to bury him in, writing the prayer card, fending off the media, dealing with his aging parents, waking and then burying him - but I could not let the calumnies you posted so freely against two total strangers go unchallenged.
You strike me as a typical professor - self-opinionated, arrogant, so sure of the rightness of your position that you won't even begin to consider someone else's. I would suggest that you ought to be ashamed of yourself for your breathtaking presumption in eviscerating Steven in death and disparaging Nour in life, but, like any typical professor, I have no doubt that you are utterly shameless.

Lisa Ramaci-Vincent

Stephen Vincent was killed The first of August.
This letter was published by the end of Ausust.
Now, over four months later, Lisa Ramaci has not changed her story.
And the death of Stephen Vincent, very likely at the hands of Iraqi Security, looms large as a symbol of the consequences of this ugly war ongoing in Iraq.

There is a tawdry affair going on, alright. But it isn't between a journalist and his translator. It's between and among politicians who prate about democracy but cannot face what it means when the will of a majority is clear.

I'm just one old guy blogging. But I would like to know if Nour, the translator, is able to talk? I would like to know, if she is, why she is not permitted to do so? If not, then what happened? I would like to know why Lisa Ramaci is being ignored? Maybe I am missing something, but I would like to know why no one of any consequence seems to be looking into this case? According to her letter, Lisa Ramaci has * offered to sponsor Nour to come to the safety of the US! Something is wrong with this picture. I can't put it all together, but something is definitely wrong.

Update, June 29, 2007

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Lisa, Nour is now in New York.


Fayrouz said...


Please remove the interview section form the post. I don't want more troubles with Lisa. I already caused her enough grief.
She requested the interview to be removed from my blog because of the comments left on my blog.

Thank you.

Hoots said...

Done. I hope Lisa Ramaci is not in any danger.
Thank you for sharing, anyway. Her assessment of what happened seems credible to me.

Fayrouz said...

Thank you Hoots. I really appreciate it.

She's fine. She was disturbed by some of the comments left by the readers.

Fayrouz said...

We sorted out the misunderstanding. The interview is up again and you can quote Lisa in your post :-)

I sent her a link to this post and she was very happy to read your thoughts.

lisa ramaci said...

thank you so much for your wonderful post, i appreciate it so very much. i am touched by your kindness and concern, and will not soon forget it.