Even the sound of my teeth crunching through the romaine lettuce in my sandwich seems loud in this quiet room. Ahmed Fadaam has a soft voice, but a very strong presence.
He has come to share his story with us students - the story of an Iraqi man living as a stranger in America, awaiting a reunion with his wife and two young children.
He starts by recounting the history of Iraq: Mesopotamia, "The Great Civilization", and the endless list of "firsts": Wheels, writing, numbers.
In Iraq, Ahmed was employed as a fine arts professor at a university in Baghdad until the war, after which he served as a New York Times and WUNC correspondent, and the voice of American Public Radio's "The Story" series entitled Ahmed's Diary.
He shares with us slides of his art as a sort of introduction to his life. At first, he says, he escaped memories of Iraq in his art. His first pieces done here in America were lively, and youthful. But after a while, his art betrays his feelings: the last of his larger pieces are powerful portrayals of a grieving woman, a grandmother with her orphaned grandchildren and a quickly running form of a woman which he will plaster with newspapers: "Media".
After the coalition enters Baghdad, he is asked by a journalist what he finds most upsetting about the war. He answers that he is most upset about the senseless looting and the destruction of the museums in Baghdad. The journalist scoffs and says, "In the midst of chaos, with the lack of electricity, basic needs and safety, you are worried about silly artifacts?". He responds simply, "I can find what I need. The chaos will subside. But the history that is lost can never be replaced. This is not only my history, this is your history too".
Our history too.
I sit patiently in my chair, hoping that he will talk about the every-day Iraqi's position on the war. Even though I'm embarrassed to ask, he reads my mind. He begins with a comparison of the before to the after, to paint a picture of what life in Iraq was like pre- and post-war. He quickly describes his life from a young age: elementary education, secondary education, college, a masters degree and a Ph.D. completely free of cost. Surgery as a young man, free of cost. A position as an art professor at a university in Baghdad, and the accompanying pension, a plot of land for him to build a home on and two new suits for each season he teaches. A gallon of gasoline for under 1 cent. All paid for by oil, all arranged by Sadaam.
"The expense?", Ahmed continues. "Freedom of speech. Sadaam's dictatorship asked only one thing, and that was that you didn't speak badly of him. If you did? You would be killed, as well as your family, and possibly your neighbors."
He admits to having hated Sadaam, and wanting to see him hanged. The promise of freedom from the coalition was therefore very appealing at first. And the troops went in.
After one year of chaos, the Iraqis said to themselves, "It's only been a year".
After two years of chaos, the Iraqis said to themselves, "Well look! It's only been two years..."
After nearly six years of chaos, Iraq is at war with itself, women have fewer rights than ever before (as religious extremists have taken over the government), and I get the feeling that dictatorship doesn't seem so bad to him after all.
"Now you can say whatever you want", Ahmed shrugs. "You can even take a gun into the street and kill someone if you want to".
My friend sitting in the chair next to mine asks, "But how did they do this?". "The oldest trick in the book" he says intently. "Divide and conquer." Ahmed tells a heavy joke about how Iraqis did not used to consider themselves in terms of Shiite and Sunni, but through the manipulation of the coalition (he is always careful not to use the word "Americans" out of respect) the tribes started to see each other as enemies, and are now at war with each other. Before the war there were only Iraqis. Now, there are Shiites, Sunni, Arabs, Turkmen, and the list goes on. Before, Shiites married Sunnis and nobody cared. Now, there are 12 foot cement walls around the neighborhoods in Baghdad, to keep everyone in their place. A small smile crosses his face as he tells us about the high quality of the farmer's market in the neighborhood one over from his home in Baghdad, which became off limits for him as the tribes were suddenly reminded of their differences and historical beefs with one another. His smile fades as quickly as it came.
Someone asks, "What would need to happen for peace to be restored?". He responds that the politicians would need to be taken out of the picture. Iraq currently has 350 political parties, each vying for its share of the funds allocated to support new political powers. But divided, Iraqis will never have the power to subdue the chaos.
Ahmed shares some concluding thoughts. "Now two bad leaders are gone - Sadaam and Bush - but you are still here and we are still here". The only exposure most Iraqis have had to Americans is through the invasion of Baghdad, and he tells us that Iraqi hatred of the coalition countries is powerful. The students in our group are riveted, and a few ideas are thrown out - ideas of how students like us can build bridges of peace.
Ahmed admits at the end of his presentation that he was nervous on the plane ride over to New York, after escaping Baghdad and a phone call threatening his life. What will it be like to live in America as an Iraqi? He had wondered.
At first, he says, it was difficult to introduce his nationality, but slowly he noticed a pattern. When he would tell Americans that he was from Iraq, he found that many people would pause quietly and respond by saying, "Oh. I'm sorry". He seems surprised by the humanity he has found here.
"It is difficult" he says finally, "to talk about this. It is difficult for me to think about the horrible things that have happened. But I am a stranger in this country, and I must speak politely when I am a guest. I must have a smile on my face even though my heart hurts".
For me, being proud to be an American comes easier on some days than others.