Unexpected epilogues to a couple of summer stories
by Jack Neely
In August I wrote a long piece about Younis Al-Azzawi, the popular but sometimes mysterious Iraqi law and political-science scholar who lived in Knoxville for more than a decade. During a lengthy return to his hometown of Baghdad, he disappeared. He was declared dead in 1977, presumably a victim of the Baâ’athist political violence that attended Saddamâ’s rise to power.
My story left a few loose ends, especially the whereabouts of one person I was never able to reach. Some remembered Al-Azzawiâ’s only kin in town, a first cousin named Hikmat who lived with Younis in the apartment on Highland Avenue for a time in the early â’60s. Hikmat married a local girl, but after a divorce in the â’70s, left town. One source told me heâ’d moved to California, another that heâ’d gone to Jordan or maybe Egypt. I didnâ’t find anyone whoâ’d been in touch with him recently and didnâ’t hold any great hope of getting in touch.
In the weeks after the article came out, I heard from dozens of people who knew Younis Al-Azzawi: fellow faculty members, people whoâ’d met him at Arabic parties, former students at Young High. A few weeks after the story appeared, I got an e-mail from Hikmat Alazawi. (He prefers the one-z Anglicization.) Heâ’s working with U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, trying to rebuild water-treatment systems there. â“We are in Baghdad, the City of Peace,â” he writes, â“where there is no peace.â”
He offers his understanding of his cousinâ’s fate in 1977: â“He was ambitious and wanted to be on top. He wanted to win, like a typical athlete, and thatâ’s what inspired him to go back to Baghdad. There was a hidden conflict between Saddam Hussein and Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr.â” The latter, then in his 60s, was the Baâ’athist president of Iraq, but eventually no match for his aggressive cousin, Saddam, al-Bakrâ’s strongman who eventually forced the president out of power. â“Younis bet on Al-Bakr and lost,â” says Hikmat. After Younisâ’s disappearance, Hikmat says his sister got through to Saddam by telephone to ask him about the fate of Younis. He said he didnâ’t want to talk about it, and hung up on her.
I also learned that Younis has some blood kin still in town. Iâ’m a regular at WDVXâ’s live-radio shows at the tourist center on Gay Street. Itâ’s just three blocks from my office, a rare place to drop in for a dose of bluegrass, Scottish punk, or, on occasion, Tuvan throat singers. Our tourist center is unlike any other in the world.
Last week I got a call from the tourist centerâ’s senior manager of visitor services. She called in response to my complaint, earlier in the summer, about the dearth of good Knoxville postcards. She wanted to tell me she had about 20 new ones, from pictures mostly taken by their house photographer, Robert Goodwin, who takes the photos of the Blue Plate performers that hang on blue plates on the wall. She wanted to show some to me. There are some very nice ones, of Knoxvilleâ’s skyline at night, of the Gay Street Bridge, of the bronze Alex Haley with his hands full of squirming kids. â“Weâ’re already selling them, quite a bit,â” she says.
The senior manager is a personable, persuasively jovial woman, a born host, the sort of person I would have picked for the job she has. Sheâ’s married to a mandolinist who runs a tackle shop, and she sometimes sings in a bluegrass gospel band. She has blondish-brown hair and light brown eyes. Her name is Gina Alazawi. Sheâ’s Hikmatâ’s daughter; Younis was her charismatic older cousin.
She grew up on Emoriland, off Broadway, and in West Knoxville. â“A lot of people donâ’t know Iâ’m Arabic,â” she says. â“I donâ’t look Arabic. My momâ’s a good old Knoxville, blonde-haired, blue-eyed gal. But I was in grade school when I first saw white bread. I said, â‘What is that?â’ Iâ’d eaten pita bread all my life.â” She speaks only a little Arabic. â“I know â‘I love you,â’ and some curse words,â” she laughs.
She doesnâ’t quite seem old enough to remember someone who left town in the mid-â’70s, but she does remember Younis Al-Azzawi well. â“He was just a cut-up,â” she recalls. â“I remember the games we used to play, like Husker Du. And we made baklava together. Iâ’ll never forget that.â” She never learned the recipe, and misses Younisâ’s. She also remembers Younisâ’s feasts of samakh, an Arabic whole-fish dish, served in a traditional style. â“We sat on the floor and went at it with our hands,â” she recalls.
She once experimented with spelling her name like Younis did, Al-Azzawi. â“People always thought Al was my middle name,â” she says. Following her dadâ’s lead, she spells it as one word.
Her dad hasnâ’t been in town since he walked her down the aisle at her wedding at Grassy Valley Baptist in 2004, but stays close in touch, by phone and e-mail. â“His accentâ’s coming back, getting really strong,â” she says. â“Sometimes I can hardly understand him.â” She says Hikmat follows the Vols closely. â“Heâ’ll call from Iraq, yelling about UT football,â” she says. â“He calls himself an Arab hillbilly.â”
She admires her dadâ’s efforts, but says, â“Iâ’m a good olâ’ East Tennessee gal. I donâ’t plan on going anywhere.â” She says she likes to â“play tourist,â” but in her hometown. â“My husband and I like to stay at hotels, like weâ’re visiting. We stay at the St. Oliver, then eat breakfast on Market Square. It was like I was visiting a friend. On the Fourth of July, we stayed at the Cumberland House,â” the hotel in Fort Sanders. â“On the top floor, there was a beautiful view of the fireworks. I wake up and feel like Iâ’m in a different city.â”
â“But I like to read everything I can about Iraq. I love the music, I love the food.â” She doesnâ’t cook much of it, herself, but makes do. She likes Mirage, the Arabic restaurant and hookah bar, a few blocks down Gay Street. She may be its only Baptist, bluegrass-singing regular.
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