As an author and journalist, I am always looking for the next big story. In May 2010, I was approached by the parents of a 34-year-old woman who was serving a six-year sentence in federal prison for conspiring to sell telecom equipment to Iraq when U.S. sanctions forbid such transactions. They told me that Dawn Hanna, their daughter, who was from Rochester, was innocent; that her rights were violated, and that she did not receive a fair trial. They wanted me to write a book about Dawn’s case in hopes of putting pressure on the government to release her from prison. Initially, I did not want to write the story. It was too political and dealt with a topic I wanted to stay far away from — Iraq, my birth country.
I was born in 1970 in Baghdad to an ancient lineage of Chaldeans, Neo-Babylonians who embraced Christianity in ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Two years prior, in 1968, the Ba’ath Party had solidified its power through a bloodless coup in which Saddam Hussein played a role. The Ba’ath Party advocated for the formation of a single socialist Arab nation when in reality, it was in the hands of a limited elite, united by family and tribal ties.
Those who didn’t join the Ba’ath Party, like my father, were ostracized. In the early 1970s, when my father — the head of the accounting department at Baghdad Central Station — expressed certain political views, his boss, who was a Ba’athist, gave him notice to leave our government-owned house. My father, who had a wife and nine children living at home, didn’t comply, so they cut off our electricity and water for a month, forcing us to leave. They then demoted him by relocating him to Samawah, nearly 175 miles southeast of Baghdad. Not having a car to drive the three hours each way, he visited us by train weekly, sometimes biweekly. All this broke my father’s spirit.
When Hussein became president in 1979, he injected more fear into his people. Any gesture that portrayed a lack of reverence toward him received a harsh treatment in return. He executed hundreds of his rivals or forced them into retirement.
In elementary school, even I felt Hussein’s power. The day after I’d missed a parade that celebrated his presidency, the principal called me in front of all the students that lined up in the courtyard after singing the national anthem. Her face full of wrath, she slapped me so hard, I passed out. I’d never before been hit at home or in school. I quickly learned, this was just the start of a traumatic time for me.
Feeling the dictator’s iron fist, my father decided it was time to leave the country for political and, as minority Christians, religious freedoms. Our family had to do everything hush-hush for fear that, if the government found out, we’d be prohibited from ever leaving Iraq. My parents didn’t tell our neighbors or relatives, nor me and my younger brother, so we didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. We quietly fled in 1980, missing the Iraq-Iran war by a matter of months and moved to Amman, Jordan — a friendly country, which borders Iraq. We lived there for nearly a year as we waited for our visas to be approved to relocate to the United States. We finally set foot on Michigan soil in February 1981.
For a long time, I struggled to fit into two worlds, my birth country of Iraq and my new home, America. The dual identity made me feel like a yo-yo. I was 10 years old when I arrived in Michigan. My education, various jobs, and writing career had western elements to it while my family life was quite tribal. It was especially difficult when I witnessed the wars on Iraq, the sanctions, the suffering that these political acts created: thousands of senseless killings on both sides; the slow extinction of the Christian Iraqis and other natives of that land; and the lies that started it all.
“We came to America for its freedom, where the job of the media was to tell the truth…”
When Dawn’s family approached me to tell her story, I first declined. However, when they explained that after her trial, her so-called co-conspirator revealed he was a CIA operative and that their daughter was in fact innocent, I had a change of heart. They went on to say the CIA operative swore in an affidavit that Hanna did not know the equipment was going to Iraq because it was a top-secret operation intended to allow authorities to listen in on Hussein, who was still president of Iraq.
The Dawn Hanna case had a humanitarian aspect that I could not ignore. It was about government abuse, the sanctions, and post-9/11 sensationalism in the U.S. against the Arab American community — all subjects I lived through. The story followed my conscience for months until I cultivated the courage to write a book about it. Simultaneously, I decided to produce and direct a documentary film on her story, hoping it would help bring awareness to the case.
What I witnessed in producing the film made me uneasy. Two film crews in England who’d initially enthusiastically agreed to film an interview with the CIA operative, soon backed out of the project. One crew was of Middle Eastern background. They said they worried they’d be placed on the No-Fly List, preventing them from using commercial airlines for travel into, or out of the U.S. Another crew worried that their involvement would be considered espionage — attorneys assured us this wouldn’t be the case. They said court records were in public domain and that we were simply recording an interview, but the crew insisted the story was “unsafe” and backed out.
Filmmakers afraid to tell a story in a democracy where we have freedom of speech seemed foreign and bizarre. We came to America for its freedom, where the job of the media was to tell the truth without consequence. What I experienced instead reminded me of the days in Iraq when, even with the house doors locked shut, no one dared criticize Hussein or his government, dreading the harsh repercussions. As an immigrant, I began to doubt my own participation. I didn’t want to bring harm to my husband, our two young children, or even myself. Soon, I started to see through the Dawn Hanna case how we are losing the very things we came to America for.
In the end, I made the decision to see the story through. I interviewed the CIA operative over Skype and with the help of private funding and my own finances, both the book and film became a reality.
I come from a country where creativity and responsibility went hand-in-hand. From a society that dates back to Prophet Abraham’s traditional and tribal ways, where people do not act as individuals but as members of a larger group. As an author and journalist, I felt
it was my responsibility to tell this story — and to serve by telling it. Because among other things, I did not want my children to ever have to endure in the United States, the same political climate my parents endured in Iraq and lose the very freedoms we came here for.
It took six years to complete the book The Great American Family, which in 2017 won an Eric Hoffer book award, and eight years to complete the documentary with the same title, which earlier this year won two international awards. While this project did not shorten Dawn’s prison term, it is valuable because it serves as a cautionary tale. Through the lens of a single case, the story touches on a number of issues that are robbing families of the American dream.
About the Author
Weam Namou, a Sterling Heights resident, is the author of 13 books and an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, poet, and lecturer. She is the executive director at the Chaldean Cultural Center and an ambassador for the Detroit chapter of the Authors Guild of America. Namou graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications. She went on to study poetry in Prague through a summer program at the University of New Orleans, screenwriting at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and writing through various correspondence schools. Her essays, poetry, and articles have been published by various national and international publications. Namou is also the founder of the Path of Consciousness, an annual spiritual and writing retreat based in rural Clarkston, and Unique Voices in Films, a nonprofit organization intended to support inspiring storytelling through film.
See the Film: The Great American Family
Catch Namou’s award-winning documentary this month at the 14th annual Kotha Arab World Film Festival. Nov. 29–Dec. 1. Arab American National Museum, 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2266; arabamericanmuseum.org.