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The Translator's Tale

Esho Joseph at a hunting club in Basra, where he used to translate for regime officials. Now, a local branch of a pro-democracy party operates out of the club.
Jacki Lyden, NPR News /
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Esho Joseph at a hunting club in Basra, where he used to translate for regime officials. Now, a local branch of a pro-democracy party operates out of the club.

In the early 1980s, Iraq's Ministry of Information and Culture began educating selected men as simultaneous interpreters. Only a handful of men did this in English for the inner circle around Saddam Hussein and his top government officials. Esho Joseph was one of them. For eight years, he translated for Saddam and other high-ranking officials. Despite his status, he was a target of abuse and harassment by Saddam's security forces.

Not long after NPR's Jacki Lyden met Joseph in Baghdad in 1991, he fled the country. Joseph had been warned that he was marked for execution, so in August of that year, Joseph took his wife and drove over the border to defect to Jordan. He left behind his family, colleagues and country.

Since 1992, he's lived in the United States and teaches Arabic at the Defense Languages Institute in California. He had always hoped to return to an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein, and in November of last year, he did. Lyden accompanied him on his journey back. They visited sites of his torture in Baghdad, his birthplace in the north, and his family.

Stopping by his mother's grave in a Baghdad cemetery, Joseph fulfilled a vow he'd made when he left to confront the demons who gave him what he called a bitter life. Joseph says life is sweeter in the United States, but his children won't speak his native language -- Chaldean -- or grow up with their cousins speaking a common language. Joseph says the cost of his freedom was the loss of a culture. His most ardent hope is that his former countrymen won't have to make that choice.

Produced by Julia Buckley.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.