Fred Faust, principal of The Edge Group, Inc., a real estate consulting firm, previously was an assistant to U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas. He shares the following essay:
This is another entry in a series about people in the Greater Lowell area who have taken initiative and achieved special things including Peter Aucella and the Lowell Summer Music Series; Sovanna Pouv; Lydia Sisson and Francey Slater of Mill City Grows; George Duncan and Enterprise Bank; and Dr. Arthur Gonsalves. Feel free to suggest others who should be so recognized and have interesting stories to tell.
Mehmed Ali has a restless soul. As a young man, he travelled to Turkey to try to find his family roots. On the long flight over, the passenger next to him asked what he was doing with his life. Ali wasn’t sure. “Hey,” the anonymous traveler said, “you’d do well to join the service.” Upon his return to the United States, where he was living in Jamaica, Queens, Mehmed Ali went downtown to look for the Air Force recruiter. He ended up in the Marines. The Air Force recruiter had gone to lunch.
Born Jim Bernard in Lowell, Massachusetts, he remembers being curious and sensitive to his grandparent’s cultural background. “I got very interested in who my grandfather was and what it meant to be Turkish and a Moslem,” Ali recounts. His parents divorced and he struggled at times growing up. He took the name Mehmed Ali in 1987 after his grandfather’s family name. The search for identity had also culminated in a conversion of faith. He had also adopted Islam.
Exiting the military after six years in Hawaii and having finished college during that time, Ali took a job as a letter carrier in Cambridge and then later in Lowell. He recalls that he met a lot of people. He had gotten his first professional position with the Lowell National Historical Park. From 2001 to 2008 he managed the Mogan Cultural Center and assisted with the Summer Music Series. Interested in political and civil affairs, he ran for City Council in 2007, finishing just 217 votes out of ninth position, one slot out from what would have been an unusual rookie victory. From there, prompted by the disappointment of the race and hearing that he would not get the job promotion he was seeking, he went online several days later to look for other opportunities. Ali saw and applied for a cultural position at the State Department. To his amazement and without even an interview, he found himself appointed as cultural advisor in Baghdad, Iraq.
Life in Iraq
Mehmed’s successful application with the State Department, he later realized, had a direct connection to his religion and name. He arrived in Iraq in May, 2008. He did his best to use his name and religion as advantage to advance dialogue and projects within Iraq. He wrote grants and managed historic preservation projects and dealt with emergency management issues.
“I don’t remember being scared or nervous. In some ways, it was an adventure,” according to Ali. “But it was completely different being in a war zone. We were based in the Green Zone (the U.S. secured base area), but did a lot of travelling to other military bases. We were on a provincial reconstruction team. The war had been going on for some time. Later I was the project coordinator and money man. We were in charge of quality control, administration and technical assistance. It was the largest and most flexible spending program in Iraq.”
“We went out to field a lot. We were accompanied by and provided security by the Army. We traveled in big militarized vehicles. It varied. We’d see projects that Iraqis had completed with tribal sheiks. We pushed for real people to be more involved. We went from small cultural events to larger projects. By the time I landed, much of the civil strife had happened. Neighborhoods were cut off and populations changed. Through this period, there was a lot of indiscriminate killing. I was very conscious of trying to work with all parties. This meant Shia, Sunni and Christian. It was easier because I was Moslem and people respected that. But we had things happen. A local advisor working for me was kidnapped and we were lucky to be able to get him back alive.”
One day in the Green Zone, Ali was walking outside when rockets were fired overhead, hitting a nearby roof. He remembers “shrapnel all around.” Ali guesses that if the rocket had hit the base of the building, the results would have been more lethal. One morning, he was asked by a colleague about a large overnight attack. He had slept right through the attack. “You just get used to it.”
While Ali says he witnessed waste, lack of motivation and some early strategic miscalculations; he believes the civilian mission was well intended. “We tried to demonstrate by example,” he says. That meant fairness too. In the deterioration of civil society, majority Shias, who had been punished by the Sadam Hussein regime, took revenge on Sunnis. Christians were also subject to discrimination and neighborhood purges. Ali instructed his staff as well to try to be evenhanded in the field. Success of this nature was limited due to larger historical factors. Some of the acts against the Sunnis, which the Americans initially condoned, gave rise to a bloody civil war, and some theorize, planted the seeds for the spawning of the terrorist group, ISIS.
The Future of Iraq
Based in his experience in Iraq, Ali was asked about his conclusions as to motivation and results. “I actually protested against the war before the invasion,” he explains. “We did get ourselves into a big mess. A couple of years later I grappled with this personally,” when considering the State Department position, “but the opportunity came around and I said let’s see if we can do something about this.” By ‘this’ he meant something good and meaningful. He looks at it differently today. “There are forces there that are larger than any individual’s efforts. There are conflicts and customs that were decades, generations old. I do think in the end there has been horrendous bloodshed. But there were a lot of good things that the military and State Department did. This includes opening the population and world to Iraq.”
Ali does not believe that America has an obligation to stay in Iraq for additional decades. He does however, worry about what may happen next. “There could be genocide,” he says. “There could be a massive disaster. I take the long view that societies have instability. Several of the projects I was involved with are in the hands of ISIS right now. There is a winner take all sort of attitude in this area. I think Iran is going to make sure that most of Iraq stays stable. Yes, it’s totally ironic. Unfortunately, the Middle East as a whole is a seed of instability and inconsistencies. I don’t see any resolution because it’s got to be from the people. People have to wake up one day and say, ‘I’m sick of war.’ With Syria, it’s another example of people and sects being pitted against each other. Sunnis were excluded there for decades. Now there’s a civil war. Power sharing is not so easy. And there’s Iran. They say, our neighbors have nuclear weapons. So why wouldn’t you want to have them? There’s not much of a reward for not having these weapons.”
On to Afghanistan
As if four years in Baghdad was not nerve wracking enough, Mehmed Ali’s succeeding job as a U.S. advisor in Afghanistan took place largely in the mountainous region of Khost. His Iraq superior officer scratched his head and questioned Ali’s decision to go to a nation that struggles to maintain even a third world status. He found himself headquartered in remote Khost, a mountainous region near the Pakistani border known for Taliban infiltration and a reported hiding place for Bin Laden allies. He arrived in June, 2012. Because of the danger, most trips had to be made by helicopter. While Ali was in the area, three sergeants were killed in a suicide attack while setting up a perimeter for visits being made for a meeting with Afghanis of which Ali was part. In 2010, before he arrived, the CIA suffered its worst casualties ever when a Jordanian doctor and double agent drove a car bomb into Camp Chapman. Seven CIA officers were killed. The camp according to newspaper reports operated drone attacks and other intelligence operations. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the plot and killings.
“From Khost in the mountains, you could see Pakistan,” says Ali. “There were a lot of attacks. Right before I got there they attached the base again. U.S. soldiers were killed and wounded. It was a hot zone. I’d gotten a promotion. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to go back home. The email came in that I was going to Khost. That was a tough day. I knew enough about Afghanistan to understand where I was going.”
Ali describes Afghanistan as a very basic society. “A lot of the population had no running water, no services. There were tribal villages and no real economy.” In fact, the country’s per capital income is $800 per year, not much more than $2.00 per day. “We went out but we did fewer projects. We were really closing out projects, closing down. There was less funding. We did do a lot of meetings with civil society groups. We tried to work on women’s rights, with the governing councils. One good thing we did was to set up home schooling for girls.” That avoided setting up targets for those who resented education for women. Progress was painstaking because many locals were very conservative and we’d get pushback about what was being taught to women. “The duty was dangerous,” recalls Ali. “We had people killed. We had attacks, right in downtown Khost.”
“Iraq and Afghanistan are two different worlds,” according to Ali. “Iran was modern. Afghanistan was not. The goals were different. Afghanistan is not going to invade Pakistan, so it’s a different situation.”
What prospective did he gain from his State Department assignments in these countries? “You deal with the realities. Some people in the US think we should conquer the world. You know what? That’s a pretty expensive proposition.”
“I do believe there’s a system of universal human rights that is worth defending. The rights of women, children, and access to education and health care. But then again, there is reality.” Part of the reality, he believes, is choosing battles after taking the time to understand history. Ali also comments that counting on the military to resolve complex political and religious differences is too great a burden in many cases.
Back to the Future
Mehmed Ali completed his service in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2013. He is back in Lowell as the new Program and Project Coordinator for the UMass Lowell library system. He has an ambitious program for cataloguing, updating as well as utilizing new technologies. He is also teaching courses for international students at the University.
Ali wants to be sure that he has properly complimented military personnel with whom he worked and to recognize their substantial sacrifices.
“This really registered in Afghanistan, because I was working as a diplomat. I got up at, say, 6:00 am. The soldiers, they’d been prepping since 4:00 am doing all the checks, preparing vehicles, security, etc. They were warm hearted guys and gals. The last group I was with was from Texas. Their views were different than mine. But they treated me very respectfully. I did my best to help the younger people. I tried to encourage them to get the most out of the service and to tell them what I did when I got out. I told them about getting my college degree and training. I became engaged in building a career.”
Now that he is home, Ali is glad to be able to spend time in person with his daughter, now 14 years old. He smiles and reports that “she is in the inevitable teen stage” in school in Lowell. “Skype was a savior,” he says. But reflecting, he states, “Sometimes I think I should have done less time in Iraq.”
Ali goes back to his time in Iraq. His connections were personal and meaningful. “The ambassador or senior officer would say, as we were meeting local people or council leaders, this is Mehmed Ali. They would say, ‘Oh, you’re Moslem.’ I would get a big hug. We had an Irish guy from Ohio who grew out his beard. We had a Jewish guy from DC. He had a beard too. And they would say, ‘Aren’t you going to grow out your beard?’ I would tell them as a Moslem convert, that’s not something I need to do! I had a great rapport,” he smiles. “I could make a quicker connection. I think that helped. There’s a bond. That was part of my job.”
Mehmed Ali, back home in Lowell, has come a long way in his search for roots and identity.