In the current focus on the sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, it's easy to forget that the country was once a more cosmopolitan place, with Jews and Christians living among the Muslims. Few are left, but small communities hang on, including about 20,000 Armenian Christians. Shant Kenderian's prosperous, well-educated family was once among them, but his mother didn't want to stay. After her marriage broke up, she took Shant and his brother to Chicago. Shant, at 15, found himself the lucky possessor of a green card legal U.S. residency.
But he missed his father and, at 17, made what turned out to be a serious error. He went back to Baghdad in 1980, just as Iraq's war with Iran began. The borders shut down. What happened next is the subject of 1001 Nights in Iraq, Kenderian's stirring memoir of his forced service in the Iraqi navy, his capture by the Americans during the First Gulf War in 1990-1991 and his ceaseless quest to return to the U.S.
Kenderian brings a rare perspective to his experiences that of an Armenian who can see both the Iraqi Muslims and the Americans with an outsider's objectivity. He describes the Iraqi military as an institution of brutality and incompetence, filled with clueless draftees understandably terrified of their government. The book's most exciting and tragic scenes come as Kenderian's patrol boat is blown up by an Iraqi mine a friendly fire disaster made even worse when the wounded crew is abandoned by a Red Crescent vessel.
The Americans come off somewhat better, but Kenderian runs into as much stubborn ignorance as kindness during his weeks as a prisoner of war. A faction among his interrogators believe he must be a spy because he speaks English. But other Americans are decent and curious, and Kenderian even finds romance with a female truck driver.
Throughout, Kenderian is sustained by his belief in God and his faith that the Americans will finally see reason. Today, as we again struggle in Iraq, his story can remind all sides of their common humanity.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.