The Man from Baghdad

Thirty years later, friends and colleagues are still trying to understand a scholarâ's charismatic life and enigmatic death

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Photo with no caption

Feature Story

by Jack Neely

On a Sunday afternoon 30 years ago this summer, at the angular, aeronautically modernistic Unitarian Church below Kingston Pike, several dozen Knoxvillians gathered to mourn the sudden death of a professor of law at the University of Baghdad. Five speakers, including the dean of Knoxville College, a UT professor of political science, and a representative from the Muslim Student Association, offered their memories and tributes. Performing for the occasion was violinist William J. Starr, concertmaster of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by his wife on piano. The selection was Vittorio Monti's â“Csardas,â” a demanding Hungarian piece with multiple variations in tempo. It may have seemed befitting of a complicated life.

There were few details about the fate of Dr. Younis Al-Azzawi, a healthy, athletic man of only 42, who considered himself a candidate to be dean of the college, if not a higher official in the Iraqi government.

â“The cause of death is unknownâ” reported the daily. â“Friendsâare looking into reports that he was killedâ.â” The word was that he'd been murdered or, more specifically, assassinated.

The crowd was diverse in age, ethnicity, and background, ranging from university scholars to a mentally handicapped man who sold newspapers from a sack. The deceased had lived in Knoxville for more than a decade, had made hundreds of friends here, had taught at both the high school and college level, and had been informally engaged to be married to a local woman. He had left Knoxville unexpectedly, three and a half years earlier, to attend to some family obligations, fully expecting to return to his post as a professor at Knoxville College, to his friends, and to his fiancée. He had, until recently, stayed closely in touch with several Knoxville friends.

And then, with sudden violence, he was gone. Thirty years later, none of his friends or colleagues are certain what happened to him.

The man from Baghdad was a 25-year-old scholar of international law when he moved, in the early '60s, to this beaten-down formerly industrial city. Knoxville was then declining in population as its state university grew. The city had just built its Civic Coliseum, but was still groggy from its mid-20th century stupor, and still contending with desegregation, a project which was awkwardly incomplete. UT and downtown lunch counters were desegregated; movie theaters and public schools were not. The hue of Younis Al-Azzawi's skin might have perplexed those who were in the habit of classifying people by color.

But most seem to have been awed by the sight of him. You get the impression that Knoxvillians stood up a little straighter when Al-Azzawi walked into the room. He was slender, dapper, and more intense, perhaps more earnest than the average grad student. When he first arrived, he wore a pencil-thin mustache. Some people talk about him as if he was the single most striking man in town.

He may well have been the most ambitious. Some believe he aspired to be a world leader.

Al-Azzawi had grown up in modest circumstances in downtown Baghdad; his father, a newspaperman, died when Younis was about 6. An athlete, the boy reportedly held the Iraqi record for the mile run, back in the days when the four-minute British mile was a universal quest. A childhood friend says when Younis was about 12, he was selected to represent Iraq in the Arab Youth Olympics in Alexandria, Egypt, where he earned a medal for the 440.

He'd graduated from the Teachers Institute in Baghdad, then the University of Baghdad's law school. By the time he was 25 he had worked both as a high-school teacher and as a Baghdad attorney, while serving as a lieutenant in the Iraqi Reserves. He would later tell some close friends that he was one of the 200 officers responsible for the ouster and assassination of King Faisal II in 1958. Succeeding Faisal's kingdom was a pan-Arab republic, led by general Qasim, a leftist state admired by some American academics, especially for its liberality, at least in comparison to its neighbors, its defiance of Western imperialism, and especially its devotion to education. Iraq offered generous scholarships for graduate degrees to those who promised to return to Iraq to teach.

In the background was a new political party known as Ba'ath. It had emerged in the 1940s, originally with the idealistic goal of Arabic unity, a secular collaboration between Arab Muslims and Christians combined with socialistic principals intended to rise above the tribalism and religious disputes that had torn the region for centuries. â“Arabism is love,â” proclaimed the party's founders. â“Unity, Freedom, and Socialismâ” was its motto. It was secular in intent, but some devout Muslims were attracted to the fact that, unlike Soviet Communism, the Ba'ath Party was a socialist system that did not demand atheism.

In 1959, a contingent of Baathists including a very young Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate Iraq's socialistic leader, General Qasim.

It may have seemed a good time to get out of town. Al-Azzawi earned scholarships to study in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Around 1960, he went to Boston attending, very briefly, an unremembered college there, studying international law. He reportedly hated the cold.

Tennessee, roughly the same latitude as Iraq, was warmer than Boston. He already had a cousin living here, Hikmat Al-Azzawi, a sometime draftsman. He may also have been attracted to UT's offerings. UT was not famous for its young political-science department, but it did employ one remarkable scholar named Salo Engel. An Austrian-born Jew of middle age, Engel had studied at the University of Frankfurt and graduated just as the Nazis rose to power, and moved to Geneva. By World War II, he had attached himself to the Permanent Court of International Justiceâ"the World Courtâ"before he came to UT, where he earned a reputation as an expert on the United Nations.

In any case, Al-Azzawi moved to Knoxville, and into an apartment at 1309 Highland Ave., a house long since demolished, in a section of Fort Sanders that was known for its concentration of Arab students. Some remember it, fondly,   as a neighborhood that smelled of cumin and garlic. Knoxville in the early '60s had a small but visible Arab population, including perhaps 40 Iraqis. Though there were no strictly Arabic groceries or restaurants, Harb's on Randolph Street, at the northeastern corner of downtown, served some Arabic dishes like Steak in a Sack. Al-Azzawi was a regular there.

Al-Azzawi spoke English, but not very fluently at first. An early reference to him in the Knoxville City Directory may reflect his struggle to communicate with a clerical assistant: He's listed as â“Wounis Alazz.â”

He was a quick study, though. He turned heads when he walked around UT campus in the early 1960s, a dapper, confident graduate student who could have been taken for a professor. Even men found themselves enthralled with the heroic figure. He lost his slightly sinister-looking mustache soon after his arrival in Knoxville. Clean-shaven, he looked more approachable, more American.

He made friends almost instantly. Among the first was was Salo Engle. The fact that Engel was a Jew, and Al-Azzawi a Sunni Muslim, didn't matter much. Al-Azzawi's doctor, back in Baghdad, had been Jewish. Engel was, however, a staunch partisan of the Israeli state. Al-Azzawi sympathized with the Palestinians. In their discussions of the intricacies of international law, the two agreed not to discuss their greatest difference.

Al-Azzawi would soon have an ally on the faculty, Kamel Abu Jaber, a Jordanian scholar who also supported the Palestinian cause.

While in Knoxville, Abu Jaber published The Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party , which has been called the first thorough English-language history of that phenomenon, then ascendant in Syria and making a major impact in Iraq. In the book, Abu Jaber expressed skepticism of the Ba'ath Party, and of near-term prospects for Arab unity. He would write more books after that; many years later, this UT prof who lived in a small house on Taliluna Drive, in Sequoyah Hills, would be Foreign Minister of Jordan. In Knoxville, he and Younis Al-Azzawi became especially close. Al-Azzawi was said to share Abu Jaber's doubts about the Ba'ath movement.

Al-Azzawi's masters' thesis, â“Political Theory in Islamic Thought,â” submitted in 1962, reads much differently from most of the dry, and for the most part, dull theses lined up neatly in uniform black bindings on the sixth floor of Hodges Library. It opens with an emotional dedication to his mother: â“It was very hard for me to leave you with the tears in yours eyes, but I felt I had to achieve my ambition. Please Mother understand and ask God to help me in my struggle for a better future. May the time be short until I return to you.â”

Much of the thesis itself might surprise friends who knew Al-Azzawi, just a little later, as a secular and mostly non-observant Muslim, and as a partisan of democratic ideals. In stilted English, the 27-year-old espouses something like Islamic nationalism with fervor unusual for an academic thesis.

â“Islam does not accept the notion of the absolute right of private property,â” he wrote in 1962. â“Social justice is the first aspiration of the Islamic stateâ. â‘Democracy' means different things to different people. Ultimately, it must even be admitted that there is no scientific way of demonstrating that â‘democracy,' however it may be defined, is the best form of government.â”

He closes with a conclusion that must have startled the thesis committee: â“History will repeat itself! Islam will emerge from its inertia. It will again be a living political force in world history, as it was in its glorious past.â”

It might seem to be daring the thesis committee, which included at least one partisan of the Israeli cause, to challenge him. But it was approved, and in 1962, Al-Azzawi earned his UT masters in political science.

Despite his ambitions, Al-Azzawi had few pretensions. The attorney with graduate degrees from both Iraq and the U.S. spent two summers in Indiana, selling Encyclopedia Britannica .

Today, Colene Siler McCord, a retired TVA librarian who knew Younis Al-Azzawi better than any other American, lives in an unpretentiously comfortable old bungalow set behind a lush garden on the fringe of Sequoyah Hills. As she remembers Younis in soft Southern tones, her features convey warmth, humor, puzzlement, inspiration, and obvious grief.

She was Colene Siler, 45 years ago, when she worked in the reserve book room at Hoskins Library on Cumberland Avenue, then UT's main library. A college graduate, she still lived at home on Lake Avenue, and walked to and from work.

Her brother George also worked there as a page, and met Al-Azzawi before she did, and came home raving about an astonishing Middle-Easterner everyone was talking about, a well-dressed, charismatic, athletic scholar from Iraq.  

Colene took the description with a grain of salt. â“To be honest,â” she admits, â“I had avoided the Middle-Eastern men I'd met in the library, because they'd seemed disdainful of women.â”

â“But one day, I saw him, and thought, â‘Oh, my goodness, that's Younis.' I could tell from his bearing, he was totally self-assured, good-looking, an athlete, beautifully groomed, everything my brother said.â”

He made her acquaintance. One day not long after they'd met, he approached her at work in the library. â“I want you to go to lunch with me,â” he said. â“How about tomorrow?â”

She accepted, casually, as anyone might accept a lunch invitation. â“You know, I assumed he would take me to a cafeteria or something,â” she recalls. â“But he picks me up, and we go to his house in Fort Sanders!â” She worried just walking in the broad daylight, especially when she realized it was next door to the home of a woman her family knew at First Baptist. It was a one-room apartment: the kitchen, the dining area, and the bed were all right there. â“I thought, gosh, I'm in really big trouble. And he'd prepared a complete meal, with tablecloth, flowersâ"that's impressive. And it was really good!â”

â“I kept thinking, I hope Mrs. Southern isn't at home . She was, and she called my mother.â”

Her parents were initially skeptical about her consorting with this foreigner, but Colene and Younis began an extended courtship. Their early days as a couple coincided with the desegregation of Knoxville. She remembers being at a large bi-racial party on Riverside Drive, which was raided by the police, perhaps because it was deemed a disturbance of the peace. Several were arrested, and she and Younis felt lucky to get away.

Working on his graduate degrees at UT, Al-Azzawi shared a carrel in the upper lofts of the Hoskins Library with maverick history professor and novelist Richard Marius. â“They talked a lot, and became great friends,â” Colene says.

Al-Azzawi, who also spoke French and German, was fascinated by the oddities of the English language. Some words made him laugh. â“ Hanky panky ,â” laughs Colene. â“He thought that was the funniest word.â”

â“The Beatles were just coming into their own, and he liked them.â” He found â“I Wanna Hold Your Handâ” especially amusing. â“He didn't sing much, but he tried to sing that song,â” Colene says.

He liked movies. Dr. Zhivago hit him hard, especially the lovers' near-miss at the train station at the end of the film.   â“It really bothered him, really affected him,â” she says.

They saw A Man For All Seasons at the Tennessee. Younis seemed fascinated by the scene in the Tower of London, when Sir Thomas More's daughter tries to convince her father to recant to save his own life. â“When a man takes an oath,â” More responds, â“He's holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers, thenâ"he needn't hope to find himself again.â”

The idea of staying true to what he believed seemed to have a powerful effect on her date.

Colene was a fan of James Bond movies, and talked Younis into going to see Goldfinger . He didn't like it. â“He was upset. He said, â‘This is ridiculous! It's just not like that! People don't do things like that!â”

Thinking back, she wonders about the context of his reactions to those movies.

Other diversions were simpler: Swimming, soccer, hikes in the mountains, horseback riding. He'd been fond of horses since his youth in Iraq. He was always up for a game of pick-up soccer with friends at school.

Though not originally a great cook, she says, he learned quickly of necessity, due to the dearth of Arabic-style restaurants. Knoxville stores in the '60s didn't offer pita bread. He ordered it by the box, and went to the railroad station to pick it up. Ever generous, he'd then dole it out to friends. â“Very unusual for an Arab man,â” Colene says, â“he really learned to cook these things well.â” He liked to browse the produce markets that then thrived on the western end of Forest Avenue, a few blocks from his apartment, shopping for tomatoes or onions.

Once, she recalls, a pesky pot salesman came to her door. Colene firmly sent him away, but Younis caught him, and said, â“That's a perfect pot to do stuffed vegetables.â” Ever after that, he was famous for his stuffed grape leaves, cooked in layers beneath tomatoes, onions, squash, and other vegetables.

For a whole range of academics and random Knoxvillians of all classes, Younis seems to have become Our Arab Friend. He seems to have enjoyed his role as perhaps the city's most articulate commentator on Middle-Eastern politics in a decisive era: Al-Azzawi's time in Knoxville encompassed the time of the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Arab Oil Embargo. He gave frequent lectures in Knoxville and Oak Ridge. Though his sympathies were decidedly on the side of the Palestinian Arabs, he impressed Israel supporters with his willingness to listen.

His obvious charisma impressed everyone he encountered, and he seemed to rise to leadership roles in most of the groups he joined.

He was elected president of the Arab Students Association, whose meetings sometimes drew more than 20 participants, and the large International Students Association, which represented almost 500 students. In 1965 he founded UT's Arab Students Journal , in which he published thoughtful essays, many of them sharing a theme of cross-cultural cooperation: â“Positive Neutralism: A Major Principle of Arab Politicsâ”; â“A New Peace Corps for America.â” He touted Arab unity. â“The ideology of Arab nationalism is advancing a new history for the Middle East.â” UT President Andy Holt wrote an admiring column in the first issue.  

Al-Azzawi's essay, â“A Message to Newcomers to Americaâ” was directed at incoming Arab students. â“You may be asked, as I have been strange questions,â” he wrote, like, â“Do you know how to drive a camel?â” He implored them not to take it personally. â“The American people are people of good will and curious to know about your countryâ.â”

â“You will be surprised to see the American people, especially in the South, are generous, sincere, friendly, fair, and truth-seeking people. They have a sincere desire to learn more about your country and culture. Do not ever hesitate to inform your American friends about the truthâ.â”

â“The American newspapers, just like ours, do not tell the people everything. It is you that may correct the misinformed peopleâ.â”

â“Let me assure you, my fellow Arab students, that the American foreign policy which has been constantly against the Arab world, which you and I do not likeâdoes not reflect the opinions of the American people. American politics is highly influenced by pressure groupsâ” including Zionists and the old colonial powers. â“We sincerely hope that the time will come when American foreign policy in the Arab world will be motivated by one reason, and one reason only, and that is the American interest, not that of France, England, or Israel.â”

Though several Arab students contributed to the journal, records in UT   Library's special collections seem to suggest the highly specialized journal existed only when Al-Azzawi was its editor in chief.

He coordinated events for the International Visitors Center, on behalf of foreign students of all races and creeds, as well as others in the community. Though many of those involved were UT students, it was located downtown, on the fourth floor of the Farragut Hotel on Gay Street.

From 1965 to '67, while working on his Ph.D., Al-Azzawi taught economics and civics at South Knoxville's old Young High. There, his teenage students knew him fondly as â“Mr. Al.â” In September, 1965, the News-Sentinel ran a short feature about him. He offered the usual small talk: He said he was a football fan, and claimed he hadn't missed a Vols home game since he'd been in town. But he also admitted his frustration with American students, who, he said, seemed unmotivated to learn, and seemed to know and care little about their own political process. â“Politics is so touchy a subject in Iraq,â” he said, â“political instability causes the students to be more aware. Here the government is so stable, they take it for granted.â”

He led international students' participation in the Dogwood Arts Festival. He organized an exhibit on Market Square, and represented international students to the East Tennessee public. One photo shows him standing proudly in front of an array of international flags beside the exhibit, which included information, crafts, and foods of various countries. Colene was impressed with how well Younis meshed with the Junior League ladies who planned the festival.

E ven more surprising was that he was closely involved in the Knox County Grange, an association of farmers that met in a modest clubhouse off Chapman Highway. He was not a farmer, or an American, but they had a pool out there, and Al-Azzawi, an accomplished swimmer, found plenty of use for it. He taught the children at the Grange how to swim and dive. His enthusiasms often surprised his girlfriend. â“He was interested in grassroots organizations that taught democracy and consensus,â” says Colene. â“At home, everything was tribal and patriarchal. A sheik was the head of the group, and everybody submitted to what he wanted.â”

Douglas Carlisle, who was on Al-Azzawi's Ph.D. committee, recalls a telling anecdote concerning his love of speaking to community groups. One of his most admiring audiences were the men of the Masonic Temple on 16th Street. â“They all wanted to know all about Baghdad,â” he says. â“They wanted to know about the ancient temples that have some relation to Masonry.â” Much of their symbology is Eastern and even Islamic in origin.

Carlisle had agreed to meet Al-Azzawi after his talk, but when he got there, Al-Azzawi was standing in the door, talking to about two dozen entranced Masons. â“I was supposed to meet him for dinner, but by then, he was still holding forth.â”

He was even known at downtown's First Baptist Church. Colene was a longtime member, and invited Younis to come speak to a youth group of girls about Islam. â“Guess what they were serving for supper that night? Ham!â” Younis took the cultural faux pas in good spirits, but remarked on where life had brought this Sunni Muslim from Baghdad: â“I can't believe I'm in a Baptist church, eating ham, about to talk to young girls about Islam.â”

Later, even Mayor Leonard Rogers, another member of the church who met Younis through Colene, was impressed with the young man from Iraq. â“As he got to know him, he thought he was a really unique character. When Younis left for Iraq, Rogers said, â‘I'll tell you what, if you come back, I'll be your campaign manager, and you can be mayor.' He was serious!â”

â“Younis was the best politician I ever met, or ever witnessed. He evaluated people, understood people, knew what they expected from him.â” She adds, â“Very few people knew the whole person he was. They all thought they knew him. But they only knew a little bit.â”  

He earned his Ph.D. in 1967, with the dissertation, â“Criminal Responsibility of Individuals under International Law.â” It's on file at the UT Library. At 228 pages, it's much thicker and more sophisticated than his master's thesis, but retains some of its idealism. Using the Nuremberg Charter as a subtext, it's a lawyerly argument for expanding the concept of World Law. â“If every state would accept the supremacy of international law and recognize international criminal jurisdiction, world peace will no longer be merely a dream, but would become a reality.â”

On the acknowledgements page of this dissertation, his mother is unmentioned, but he thanks â“my friend Miss Colene Siler for her valuable, extensive help, and sincere cooperation so willingly and pleasantly given throughout the development of this research.â”

It was the year of the Six-Day War, the massive Israeli surprise attack that resulted in acquisitions of land from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It strained relations on UT's campus, as the political science department moved onto the 10th floor of brand-new McClung Tower. Some observed that it chilled relationships between Jew and Arab, that Engle and Abu Jaber were never quite as easy around each other after that.

Younis went back to Iraq that summer to satisfy his teaching requirement. He taught international law, international relations, and a course called â“Public Opinion and Propaganda.â” While in Baghdad, he published articles on current events and made TV appearances. One, in September, 1967, considered the subject, â“The Misunderstood Arab Viewpoint in the United States.â”

While he was there, in July, 1968, Baathists finally took over in Iraq, when their tanks converged on the government, instituting a more authoritarian regime than Iraq had known in years. Saddam Hussein, slightly younger than Al-Azzawi but already a suspected murderer, was rapidly rising to power as the strongman of the Ba'ath Party, the head of its secret police.

According to Al-Azzawi's résumé, he got work soon after the coup, at the University of Baghdad, as an assistant to the dean of the college of Economics and Political Science.

Al-Azzawi gave a series of lectures on international relations and on propaganda. He was chief editor of the Journal of Economics and Political Science at the University of Baghdad. And he was public relations director of the Arab League Convention on Law and Political Science, held in Baghdad in January, 1969. At that convention, he offered a presentation arguing for an â“International Criminal Court.â”

Abu Jaber visited Al-Azzawi in Baghdad. When he returned to Knoxville, he told Colene, â“I owe you a bracelet.â” Al-Azzawi had given him one to pass to his Knoxville girlfriend, but Abu Jaber had lost it when he was arrested, briefly, for suspected complicity in a coup.

Unlike most foreign students who leave Knoxville after earning a graduate degree, Al-Azzawi came back.

It was surprising to some that he did return to Knoxville. Thomas Ungs, who was a professor in political science at UT, knew Al-Azzawi then. â“I asked him why he stayed in Knoxville after he got his Ph.D. He had a girlfriend, of course. But he said he just liked the atmosphere. He said Knoxville was much more cosmopolitan than people gave it credit for. I thought that was interesting. I always thought of it as a place where the conservatism came down all around you.â”

Knoxville did get more cosmopolitan in one way. The Bahou, perhaps Knoxville's first fully Middle Eastern restaurant, opened on Forest Avenue in Fort Sanders, near the old Arabic section of the neighborhood, in 1971. Al-Azzawi was a big fan of it, and Colene recalls they went there often.

He taught at UT some, returned to his leadership role in international students' organizations, then coalesced in an International House, on Cumberland. He wrote some, and spoke a great deal. Invited to speak at a seminar in Nashville, he rode over with fellow political-science scholar Birt Waite. â“He was then a strong Arab nationalist. He thought the West's biggest mistake was their unconditional funding of Israel.â” He says Younis gave a strong talk. â“He was powerful and committed and passionate.â”

He asked Colene to marry him. She said yes, but when they began talking about specifics, about the ability of their trans-oceanic families to attend, and the details of the ceremony itselfâ"she wanted a big church wedding at First Baptist, he wanted a small party at UTâ"negotiations broke down. As the details of a wedding stretched into months, Colene says, â“I think he finally got cold feet.â”   When he mentioned he wanted to put it off another year, Colene broke it off, moved to Georgia, where she taught in a junior college. She told Al-Azzawi she'd be dating other men, and gave him firm instructions not to contact her unless he was serious.

Meanwhile, Al-Azzawi taught at Knoxville College, and was, officially, chairman of the struggling college's political science department.

Lois Russell, a fellow professor who shared an office in McKee Hall at KC, remembers him fondly. â“He was always very formal in class. He dressed very well.â” She says KC in the early '70s was a jeans and shirtsleeves sort of place, but Younis was always wearing a jacket and tie.

She recalls, as many do, his stuffed grape leaves. â“When he knew I was coming over, he always doubled the recipe.â”

He got me interested in the Middle East. â“I remember him explaining to me what Ramadan was about, and the five points of Islam.â” He talked about his mother explaining why they fast during the holiday: â“We do this to show you what poor people go through.â”

â“It was during the period when the black Muslim movement was taking hold. One student began wearing full robes and turban, and he asked Younis if he could be 10 minutes late for class. â“Why?â” Younis asked. â“For prayers, of course,â” the student answered.

â“Younis rolled his eyesâ"but permitted him to be late.â”

He was frustrated with the Palestinian-Israeli situation, Russell recalls. The Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria's partly successful joint assault on Israel, occurred near the end of Al-Azzawi's tenure at KC. â“He said that for centuries, Arabs and Jews had gotten along. He said his family doctor in Baghdad was Jewish. They got along very well.â”

But by the early '70s, she says, â“He saw nothing but warâ” in the future in the Middle East, and in the future of his native country. â“He used to say Iraq has too much oilâ"and not enough water.â”

In 1972, Knoxville College Press published his short book, The Roles of the United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations . He opens it with a Dag Hammarskjold quote: â“Never, for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience or convictions.â”

Like both of his theses, the text is not just scholarship, but an impassioned plea: The book concludes, â“It is possible to make progress toward international peace through the U.N. before another major war takes place which will bring nothing but disaster to this beautiful world.â”

In the book, he expressed his gratitude to Salo Engel; Professor Engel died later that year.

Back at Hoskins Library in early 1973, he turned a corner too fast and literally ran into Colene Siler. It happened to be Valentine's Day, and they went out, and almost unintentionally, resumed their relationship.

Layla Abdelrazek, an Egyptian who came to Knoxville with her husband, who worked at ORNL, remembers Al-Azzawi in his last year in Knoxville, and the galvanizing influence on the city's close-knit Arab community of perhaps 65 people. â“You feel you know him a long time. You feel you are his friend.â” She was, at the time, a 25-year-old aspiring graduate student in information science.

â“He was our professor, our teacher, our philosopher,â” she says. â“He was like our godfather. He was very smart, intelligent. He was a noble person.â”

In 1973, he often met with Arab students at the International House, then in an old house on Cumberland Avenue. She misses the place, demolished in the '90s for the law-school addition, and calls it â“their family's home.â” He would speak to them, always in Arabic. She remembers one of his favorite phrases: â“Honor the past, create the future.â”

The key to the future, he said, was establishing friendship between Americans and Arabs. â“This is a very rough road, but we have to smooth it,â” he told them. â“We have to pave this road, the Friendship Road of American and Arab.â”

â“He never told us to be aggressive,â” she recalls. â“He said say the truth, smooth the road, let everybody walk on it.â”

She was new to town, in an unfamiliar culture, but says Al-Azzawi convinced her that Knoxville was her second home. â“This is our second home. Let us live together.â”

Russell remembers the day vividly in 1973, when Younis got word that his younger brother had acquired acute leukemia, and that he had to go back to Baghdad to help care for their mother, who was also ill.

Younis resisted the news, insisted that the Baghdad doctors send a blood slide to America to double-check it. â“I remember him on the phone at my desk, shouting in Arabic, to be sure it was leukemia. Then he was sitting on my desk, sobbing, a Bible on one side of the desk, a Koran on the other. He knew then he would have to go back.â”

â“It was the first time in his life that he confronted things he couldn't control,â” Colene remarks. â“It takes something like that for men to realize that life does not always go the way they want.â”

At the end of 1973, he left, again, for Baghdad. Most expected him to return.

â“I was waiting for him to come back,â” says Abdelrazek. â“I waited, I waited, I waited.â”

Younis stayed closely in touch with Colene Siler, Lois Russell, other Knoxville friends, and gave several of them the impression that he expected to return when he could.

He sent Colene both letters and audio tapes of his voice. â“He knew I'd be miserable there,â” she says. â“So dry, nothing greenââ”

â“Now I'm almost a man without a country,â” he wrote to a friend of Colene's. â“I go home, and see sewage in the streets, and I know Colene wouldn't like this.â”

He apparently had hoped to return to KC by the fall of '74, but wrote to Russell that July that it would be impossible, and that he was worried about losing his permit to teach in the U.S.

His brother did die, within his first couple of years back, then his mother. He was ostensibly free to return. But by then, Al-Azzawi had gotten more involved in Baghdad politics. By his own account, and not surprisingly, given his record in Knoxville, he sat on 11 Iraqi committees, made TV appearances, and had a column in the newspaper. The Iraqi minister of foreign affairs sent him to a human-rights conference in Yugoslavia. Ironically, he used the opportunity to send some letters back to Knoxville; when he sent mail from Baghdad, he sometimes complained, it was subject to censorship.

His UT colleague Thomas Ungs says, â“I don't think he anticipated the situation in Iraq when he left here. I don't think he thought the regime had reduced Iraq to the extent that it had.â” He adds, â“He could be an outspoken guy. I suspect his experience in America dulled his instincts to watch what he said and did.â”

He was getting warnings from all over. Douglas Carlisle was concerned that Al-Azzawi had the temerity to propose changing daily prayer times to better suit the academic schedule. â“He was what some would call â‘Westernized.'â”

Mac Simpson, a UT professor who had known Al-Azzawi, and stayed in touch with him when he was in Iraq, had always been impressed with his affect. â“He was hard to forget, an extremely impressive young man,â” he says. Simpson believes Al-Azzawi saw a high-flying future for himself in his native country. â“What he really wanted was a career in the foreign service,â” perhaps a post of foreign minister: â“Nothing short of world leadership.â”

â“What he could have foreseen about what's happened in the Middle East, I have no idea.â”

Louay Bahry has a rare perspective on Younis. Now a consultant in Washington, DC, and a lead writer for Encyclopedia Britannica's updates on the Iraq region, he's married to Phebe Marr, a prominent Iraq expert who's occasionally featured on NBC.

Bahry grew up with Al-Azzawi in Baghdad; they studied law together. â“He was a very ambitious young man, a very bright man,â” Bahry says. â“He made friends like nobody else. He established friendships very quickly. He made associations, very important, but at the same time very dangerous.

â“One was Barzan al-Tikriti,â” a hunting and fishing buddy, with whom Al-Azzawi spent much of his free time.   â“He was the half-brother of Saddam,â” Bahry says. â“He was the head of Mukhabarat,â” the secret police.  

Several of his old Knoxville associates remember that Al-Azzawi distrusted or disliked the Ba'ath Party, However, in Iraq, Bahry says Al-Azzawi got involved in Ba'ath Party politics. Bahry doesn't know for certain, but thinks that Younis became a member of the Ba'ath Party, himself.

â“He was taking it as a game, a tool,â” says Bahry. â“He was a very ambitious young man. Everybody who became something, at that time, was in the Party.â”

Al-Azzawi had access to the presidential palace, Bahry says, and was a frequent visitor. The president of Iraq at the time was Ahmad Hasran al-Bakr. His son was a student, but didn't like to go to class. â“Al-Bakr chose Younis to go tutor him at the presidential palace.â”

â“I cautioned him several times. These people are very dangerous, very aggressive,â” says Bahry. â“But he wanted to be a minister, or the dean.â”

Al-Azzawi had been dean of the law school of al-Mustnansrya University in Baghdad. That college was closed in early 1977, but the professor was able to land a job at the University of Baghdad, and had reason to believe he might soon make dean there, too.

Bahry talked to him regularly. He was building onto his house, he says, but always kept the idea of coming back to Knoxville in his mind. â“If he did not make dean, he might return to Knoxville, and rent that house for a higher price to an embassy; it was in a very desirable neighborhood.â”

It was a strange time, even by Baghdad standards. Younis drove a Mercedes Benz, which was stolen that February when he'd driven it to a store. It was later found, completely burned, destroyed by fire.

Bahry suspected that Younis worried about the thicket he'd gotten into. Middle-aged Americans are used to the formality of a will, but Al-Azzawi went a step further, and gave a list of his debts to the old woman he lived with. â“It was probably because he was afraid,â” says Bahry. â“Why else would he do that? He was 42 years old, a very young man.â”

Bahry was with Al-Azzawi only a day before he disappeared. On Sunday, May 22, Al-Azzawi was supervising final exams. He went home, and was expected back at the college at 4:00, but didn't return.

Bahry didn't know what had become of him until Younis's elderly cousin telephoned. She explained that the day of his disappearance, he'd been at home when he got a call. He told her, â“That was the presidential palace. They're sending a car to pick me up. I'll wait for them outside.â” Someone picked him up. No one ever saw Younis Al-Azzawi again.

Almost two weeks later, on June 3, Bahry learned that a body had been discovered, dismembered, â“chopped into pieces in a sackâ” in a palm-tree garden on the outskirts of Baghdad. Identification cards, a Baghdad University ID and driver's license, with the name of Younis Al-Azzawi, lay next to the bag.

Douglas Carlisle, who was in touch with others in Baghdad at the time, has heard the keys to Younis's burned-out Mercedes were left there, too.

Colene, his fiancée, found out only about a month later. It was around the 4th of July, Colene recalls, that she received a letter from a relative of Younis's in Baghdad. After a few pages of small talk, she had written, â“Oh, by the way, Younis died.â”

â“She gave me no details. I found that to be extremely odd, and I didn't believe it.â”

The late-arriving news shocked Knoxville. â“I couldn't comprehend it,â” says Abdelrazek. She compares it to the death of John F. Kennedy, felt even in the Egypt of her youth.

Over the next several weeks, one official line, given by the police, was that a vengeful student had shot Al-Azzawi to death. That version still survives in Knoxville; one local acquaintance we spoke with this summer reported that as Al-Azzawi's fate.

A Baghdad newspaper, al-Thourah, reported, â“At the early age of 42, Dr. Younis Jameel Al-Azzawi, a professor of the Baghdad Universityâhas diedâ. We ask God to lift his soul into heaven. Allah created us and we will return again to Allah.â” There was nothing in the short article to suggest his death had not been natural and expected.

â“The police started an investigation,â” Bahry says. â“They called me to answer to the investigative judge, whether I had any idea who might have done it. But he did not have any enemies.â” At least none that his childhood friend Bahry knew about.

â“Everybody knew the police and Mukhabarat had something to do with it,â” says Bahry.

About two months after the discovery of the body, Bahry says he encountered a cousin of Al-Azzawi's. He said, â“the body that was handed to us was not the body of Younis Al-Azzawi. You could not recognize the face, but the skin was not the color of skin of Younis. Also the hair was too long. Younis had a haircut two or three days before his death. The body had longer hair, two or three months' worth.â”

More doubts grew later, soon after the obituary appeared in the Knoxville papers, when Dr. Douglas Carlisle invited Colene to lunch at Pero's, the large, dimly lit steakhouse on Kingston Pike. â“It was the weirdest thing, straight out of some strange CIA movie,â” she recalls. â“We sat in the very back, where nobody could see us.â” He brought up a letter he'd received. â“He said, â‘I don't think he's dead. I think this is a ruse.'â”

When she got home from the lunch, she found that her apartment at Kingston Square had been ransacked. Nothing was taken, and all that was disturbed were her effects having to do with Younis. â“Somebody, somewhere, thought I knew something I didn't know.â”

She later moved to a house off Forest Heights, and was ransacked again. And again, nothing was taken, and the only things disturbed were her souvenirs of Younis.

She tried to call Baghdad, talking to people she knew had known her former fiancé. â“All of them assured me he was dead. But each person told me an extremely different circumstance.â” She heard the disappointed-student story. She heard he'd been killed by an angry husband. She heard he'd had an â“accident.â”

She kept calling, talking to several nameless officials. She was alarmed when one of them answered, â“Are you Colene?â” She responded, in some astonishment, that she was. The man answered something to the effect of, â“We have a lot of things from you. We know who you are.â”

Then he asked, â“Are you married to Younis?â” When she responded no, the man answered, â“I'm not at liberty to talk to you.â”

The mystery always gnawed at Layla Abdelrazek, who finally intended to go to Baghdad herself and learn the truth behind Al-Azzawi's death, but she says the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War intervened. â“They said it wasn't safe.â”

Contacted at his home in Columbia, SC, Douglas Carlisle acknowledges that he was long involved in U.S. intelligence services, though not necessarily the CIA. Much of it, he says, he still can't talk about. Asked whether he knew anything about his friend and former student Al-Azzawi via his intelligence work, he answers, â“I don't think there would be anything you'd be interested in.â” He pauses, and adds, â“He was very supportive of the United States.â”

Carlisle is a confessed eccentric, and enjoys intrigue. He peppers his conversation with surprising discursions, concerning barely-related revelations about subjects as disparate as the Mafia and Lee Atwater. â“Perhaps you think I'm strange,â” he says. â“My students think so, too. That's all right.â”

But he does remember the lunch with Colene at Pero's, 30 years ago. â“That was a very strange thing,â” he says. He did get a letterâ"he doesn't remember who from; he apparently had several contacts in the Middle East. â“They said they had talked to Younis at a particular time, several months after his assassination.â”

He now says he thinks the information he got that Al-Azzawi was still alive in the summer of 1977 was in error. â“I think they were confused,â” he says. â“I read that letter several times. I think that he had received the news after he wrote it.â”

Although he had used the word assassination to describe Al-Azzawi's murder, later in the conversation Carlisle says he suspects Al-Azzawi was the victim of a love-triangle slaying. â“A woman was involved,â” he says.

There are almost as many motives as there are those who speculate about them. Colene suspects his murder was prompted by the fact that Al-Azzawi had been openly critical of the Iraqi government of the months before his disappearance. Some wonder about Al-Azzawi's vague connections with the Soviet Union, which was active in Iraq at the timeâ"he was known to be learning Russian, late in his careerâ"as well as the possibility of CIA connections. Perhaps he was meant to be a plant in the Ba'ath Party.

Perhaps it was much simpler. As one local attorney who was then married to an Iraqi man remarks, any Iraqi man with obvious leadership potential in the '70s was in some danger; Saddam and his cronies were intent to remove potential rivals for power before they rose to prominence. Some Iraqi parents sent their educated, accomplished sons away just to protect them.

Colene has learned that the FBI made a file on Al-Azzawi; she wants to find out what's in it. â“Saddam had a very long reach,â” she says. â“Strange things could happen, even here.â” The ransackings were one thing. A few months after the news of Al-Azzawi's apparent death, she encountered an old friend she and Younis had known and participated together in Arab-community functions, at the grocery. Colene approached her friend without hesitation. â“Oh, so nice to see you,â” she said.

â“She started backing up, fear and horror on her face. She was literally afraid to talk to me. In Knoxville, Tennessee! In Kroger!â”

Carlisle remarks that many Knoxville Arabs seemed reluctant to discuss Al-Azzawi in the years after his death. â“I don't know why,â” he says.

Two years after Al-Azzawi's murder, Saddam Hussein, who had been a figure to reckon with in Iraq politics for 20 years, seized absolute power, and promptly instituted a purge of the Ba'ath Party, imprisoning some, executing others.

Records apparently aren't easy to come by. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander has been vocal in his support for the Iraq occupation, and is intimately associated with UT, but his staff reports they have no access to information on Al-Azzawi and his fate.

Bahry wants the U.S. to use look into the case. â“This is a very good time to reopen the investigation. I think probably Barzan was involved in the killing.â” Saddam's half-brother Barzan was executed earlier this year, decapitated during a hanging gone awry. â“Americans, they have access to all the files, and can ask the Iraqis. Younis was practically an American citizen, taught here, lived here.â”

Colene married 15 years ago, and lives in a modest house with a lush garden in Sequoyah Hills. She still wears, on her right hand, a ring with a turquoise setting that Al-Azzawi sent her from Iraq, many years ago. She warned her husband, an easygoing TVA engineer, â“If I outlive Saddam, I'm going to have a great party celebrating his death. You might be embarrassed, but I'm going to do that.â”

While she is no fan of the Bush administration, and the invasion of Iraq, she's pleased with one result of it.

â“I'm so disgusted with him. I hate what's been done in the Middle East. For me, to blame 9/11 on Iraq is just disgraceful. It makes me sick. That's me, I'm sorry.â” When word came back, just after Christmas, that Saddam Hussein had been executed, she didn't have the promised party. â“Under the circumstances of an ongoing war, it didn't seem appropriate,â” she says. But she hung a professionally printed, seven-foot-long banner in front of her house: â“Thanks Be to God. In Memory of Dr. Younis Al-Azzawi and Those Killed By Saddam.â”


All content © 2007 Metropulse .

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