Pressed Together

Can an Iraqi immigrant build community with a newspaper?

Aqeel Mohialdeen
Photo by Sean Alonzo Harris

[dropcap letter=”I”]n 2003, Aqeel Mohialdeen papered flyers around Baghdad to protest the use of a popular park as a U.S. Army base. “I thought I was doing something crazy,” he recalls; he was certain the Americans would arrest him. Instead, they ignored him. “We couldn’t do something like this before,” he wondered. “How come we can do it in front of the most powerful military in the world?”

In the following years, Mohialdeen worked for newspapers, as a graphic designer and as a photographer embedded with U.S. troops. In 2007, he took a job with USAID. When sectarian violence escalated, he applied to immigrate with his wife and two daughters.

Living in Dallas, he worked as a truck driver. Then, in 2013, at a rest stop near the Mexican border, three men attacked him, apparently provoked by his ethnicity, breaking several bones in his face. Afterward, he looked up states with low violent crime rates. “Maine?” he remembers thinking. “I’d never heard of it.” So the family packed up the car and drove 2,000 miles to Portland. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.

Now, Mohialdeen publishes Maine’s only Arabic-language newspaper. One recent evening, he was waiting outside Ameera Bread, an Iraqi cafe in Back Cove, cold rain splashing off a faded blue awning overhead. He was eager to discuss story ideas. “In this little box,” he said, putting a finger to his temple, “there are a lot of thoughts.”

The first two issues of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, printed last year whenever time and money allowed, had everything from an election guide to a how-to on commercial trucking to a report about a local Iraqi teen meeting Michelle Obama. A history of Andre, Rockport’s famous harbor seal, might run in the next issue. The aim is to have a mix of news, practical advice, and cultural trivia, and Mohialdeen, who became a U.S. citizen last year, has a penchant for decorating pages with patriotic signifiers like American flags and Purple Hearts or portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

In recent years, thousands of Iraqis have settled around Portland, a trend that seems unlikely to continue under President Trump. Among those already here, however, Mohialdeen doesn’t yet sense a strong bond. “People weren’t just escaping a bad security situation, they were escaping each other,” he says. “Nobody knew who the enemy was.” The newspaper, he hopes, will “help people know and trust each other again” — let them relate their experiences and consider others’, start to recognize names and faces within the immigrant community, and have something shared to read and talk about.

Inside Ameera Bread, the cook leaned on the counter, watching an Ariana Grande music video on TV. Mohialdeen, a regular, went behind the counter to chat and order, and fresh falafel sizzled as they hit the fryer. He said he feels like family at Ameera and loves the familiar food — but when he tried to describe the unmatchable fragrance of lamb in Iraq, he sounded wistful, unsure if he’d ever experience it again.

“I always encourage people to remember why they left their own country: not only to be safe, but to live the way they want,” he says. “When I remember that reason, I feel strong again. It’s like a magic energy. The newspaper is part of that. It’s proof that we aren’t at risk anymore. Here, we can talk loudly and freely.”

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