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Muhaned

11/12/03 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff joins us today with some reflections about his personal connection with Iraq.

(Daniloff) Whenever I see footage from Baghdad showing Iraqi men on the streets - clamoring for medical supplies or chatting up an American GI, cradling a grenade launcher or dead on the sidewalk - I think of Michael Jackson.

In my early teens, I was good friends with an Iraqi boy named Muhaned. We lived in the same apartment building in 1980s Moscow where my parents were stationed as American journalists, and his with the Iraqi embassy.

Saddam Hussein's portrait hung on his family's living room wall. But surrounding it were numerous posters and magazine cutouts - all of Michael Jackson. The King of Pop bejeweled, the Gloved One twinkling, the Thriller grimacing in artistic ecstasy.

A good-looking kid with thick black hair and liquid brown eyes, Muhaned knew Jackson's every lyric and yelp, and more impressively his every dance move. Wearing a single winter glove, Muhaned moonwalked across the grimy tiles of our stairwell, rolled onto his toes, kicked out his leg, spun, snapped his fingers, and ended his routine by tossing an imaginary hat into an imaginary audience.

Muhaned and I spoke in Russian and sneaked cigarettes in the courtyard. He taught me to shoot smoke rings. I showed him how to light a match off his jeans. At the time, the Soviet Union was the entire axis of evil. But we hardly noticed.

We hung out with Russian kids in a neighboring courtyard, played hockey and soccer. Muhaned s Syrian friends sometimes joined us. We sat in overheated stairwells smoking and boasting about our luck with the ladies. Muhaned was seeing a German girl. Asaad, a French girl. And I had a Finnish girlfriend.

My family returned to the United States in 1986. Muhaned's family had unexpectedly left for Baghdad while I was at boarding school the year before. We d never said goodbye.

After high school, I settled in Burlington, a student at the University of Vermont. I later worked for a few local newspapers, went to grad school in New York, got married, and am now a writer here in Vermont. I never knew what became of Muhaned. He and Moscow had, for the most part, become prologue.

I still think of him from time to time. During the first Gulf War when we were both of fighting age, I imagined scenarios of us meeting on the battlefield, a terrible recognition coming only after we'd plunged bayonets into each other. I wonder what he thinks of me now, whether he thinks of me at all. And what he thinks of all those Americans on his streets.

These days, with much murky about the situation in Iraq - the reasons for going in, our length of stay, the guerrilla attacks, the casualty counts, the spin, the cost - a boy named Muhaned seems the one true thing I know about Iraq.

And still I am curious: how Muhaned has aged, if his house has electricity, whether he has children, or sits in a wheelchair. Or whether, just maybe,
he's gliding across another dance floor.

This is Caleb Daniloff from Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a writer and book reviewer.
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