Interviewing Lisa Ramaci
© Lisa Ramaci
I have some good news for y'all. Lisa and Zan privately solved the misunderstanding over the original post's comments. Lisa kindly gave me permission to republish the interview.
After the murder of American journalist Steven Vincent in Basra last August, I exchanged e-mails with his wife Lisa Ramaci. Lisa agreed to be interviewed on my blog to tell us her side of the story that most media and blogs ignored. This interview shows us the hidden side of Steven that we didn't see while he reported from Basra. The interview felt like a love story when I read it.
I'm going to watch the comments section carefully for this post. I wish to see your supporting messages to Lisa. I'm going to delete the old comments so we can start afresh this time. And yes, I'll delete any comments I feel they might hurt Lisa's feelings.
- Q: How are you doing?
A: Thank you for asking. This is a very difficult time for me – Steven and I had been together since 1982, and were married for 13 years, so to have him so suddenly and permanently wrenched out of my life is incredibly hard to deal with. I just spent my first Thanksgiving in 24 years without him; coming up in December is our wedding anniversary (the 19th), Christmas, of course, which was his favorite holiday so we always had a major Christmas Day dinner for family and friends, and his birthday, which happens to be December 31st. Yes, my husband was born on New Year’s Eve. Maybe you can understand why I am very much looking forward to January.
- Q: Did you have any memorial tributes to Steven?
A: Yes – I had the East Coast memorial to him in New York on October 1, and his parents had one on the West Coast a week later, on October 9. Mine had cocktails and lots of food, then a procession of Steven’s friends spoke. Through it all a slide show of pictures of Steven from the time he was a baby until several months before he died played on a screen behind the podium, and some of his favorite music (Frank Sinatra, the Grateful Dead, opera, classical, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison, etc.) played. The wake and funeral were very mournful, but I wanted this to be a great party – a loving tribute to him, and a way for people to say farewell in a happy way. And they did – we had about 350 people, and the speakers part of the memorial, which was supposed to run for 2 hours, went for almost 3 ½, because so many people wanted to get up and talk about him.
- Q: What are your best memories with Steven?
A: Oh, that’s tough. We did so many things together and traveled so many places, my head is full of wonderful memories. We went all over the world – Iran, Jordan, Hong Kong, Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia (twice], Laos, Thailand, and of course the United States – and we took lots of weekend trips. We went to the theater, opera, movies, concerts, museum exhibitions, new restaurants, all the things New York City has to offer in abundance. And Steven always made things fun, even if all we did was take a train into another borough of New York and explore a new neighborhood, or take a walk across to the west side of Manhattan from our home on the east side. He had the rare combination of intelligence, curiosity and an openness to new experiences that made him the perfect companion. On the other hand, there are the smaller memories, like our Sunday dinner and movie nights – he or I would rent a movie, I would make a nice dinner, and at 9 PM on the dot, we would turn off the phone, and sit down to eat and watch the film. We did this for almost 20 years, so now, every Sunday night, I have a very hard time of it. The truth is, Fayrouz, there are too many wonderful memories to pick one – life with Steven, made up as it was of both small things and large, was a rare mosaic that is utterly irreplaceable.
- Q: What was the most unique thing about Steven?
A: Truthfully? Himself. He was such a unique blend of intelligence, humor, compassion, bravery, honesty, morality, integrity and courage, and had such an incredibly wide range of loves and interests - history, military history, Marvel comics, Frank Sinatra/the Rat Pack, the Grateful Dead, theater, art, country-western music, wearing snappy suits with vintage ties with fedoras, playing war games, the opera, beagles - I could go on and on. As cliched as it sounds, I know with absolute certainty I will never meet anyone even remotely like him again, because he was an absolutely singular individual.
- Q: Did you get Steven's laptop back? If yes, are you going to publish his project about Basra?
A: I have not yet gotten it back, nor have I gotten his notebooks. They are being held by the FBI as evidence in his murder case. However, I have asked for copies of everything in both the computer and the books, and once I have access to them, then yes, I will try and write the book in his stead. I want to call it “Basra: The Final Journey of Steven Vincent.”
- Q: Have you heard from Nour after she left the hospital? If yes, how she's doing?
A: Nour is still incommunicado. Despite my repeated requests to speak to her, the FBI and military are not allowing her to talk to anyone except the investigators trying to determine the facts of what happened the night of August 2, when she and Steven were abducted and shot. I have asked them to relay messages to her, such as that I hope she is doing better, and that if she wants asylum in the United States to get word to me, so I can sponsor her or get her a visa.
- Q: How is Steven's murder investigation going?
A: Unfortunately, I have no indication as to how it’s going, if it’s going, where it’s going. I am not in the loop as far as the information process is concerned.
- Q: Who do you believe killed Steven and why?
A: I believe radical Shia militiamen, possibly with Iranian influence, killed Steven and shot Nour. This was not a random killing, nor, as has been suggested, an “honor” killing. Steven was targeted for what he had written. The men who abducted him did not even want Nour, but she kept trying to prevent them from taking Steven, so they threw her in the truck with him. They wanted Steven, and they wanted him so they could kill him and thus turn off the spotlight he was shining into too many dark corners. There is a link your readers may want to click on, it’s a very short piece that came up on Yahoo Alerts on November 25, mentioning who may have killed him:
IRAQ: IRANIAN INFILTRATORS REPORTED IN BASRA
Actually, I will go further, and state publicly and for the record that I believe members of SCIRI, under the direction of Bayad Jabr, the Interior Minister, were responsible for Steven's execution and Nour's near-death. An eyewitness to their abduction has been quoted as saying that he recognized at least one of the men who grabbed them as being a member of the Ministry of the Interior, and more and more articles are being written suggesting that uniformed men from the Interior Ministry are responsible for the current wave of abductions, tortures, imprisonment and murders of Sunni Iraqis.
At one point about halfway through his final trip, Steven interviewed some of the local SCIRI goons in Basra, and told me in an email that the whole time he was there he felt very uneasy due to a real sense of menace he felt from them, and he thought the only thing which had saved him was the fact that for the moment he was their guest, and ironbound rules of Arab hospitality kept him, for the moment, safe. Once he was no longer their guest, of course, it was a different story altogether, as the world saw on August 2nd.
- Q: Could you clarify the nature of the relationship between Nour and Steven? I ask this because of the rumors on the internet and news reports.
A: Steven loved Nour. Please note that I did not say Steven was IN love with Nour. There is a big difference there semantically. He loved her as a good friend, as an intrepid translator, as someone who made it possible for him to meet and interview the people he needed to, and who could take him into places that otherwise he would not have gotten into. Given that he wanted to go to all sorts of weird locales in order to make his second book as interesting and as varied as possible, she was of vital importance to his goal. And she took him everywhere, both in 2004, thus adding several chapters to his book 'In the Red Zone', and in 2005, while he researched 'Basra'.
And Nour was a symbol to Steven. To him she represented the Iraq that he hoped would be put into place after Saddam fell - curious, opinionated, independent, courageous, secular, Westernized. As he himself said in 'Red Zone', if you could have taken a thousand Nours and set them loose across Iraq, the country would have been transformed overnight.
He was also hyper-aware of how much he owed her. One time, when she and Steven were first working together during his 2004 trip, two men came to the hotel he was staying in and, without identifying themselves, ordered them to come with him. Nour confronted them, demanding to know who they were and what they wanted, and telling Steven under no circumstances to go with them. She then brought the hotel manager over to stand with them for further reinforcement. To this day there is no way of knowing what would have happened had she not been there. This trip, when Steven began investigating the rise of Shia fundamentalism in the south, and the growing influence of the Iranians, she went with him fearlessly wherever he asked to go, to the point where someone walked up to her on the street one day and asked her why she was 'helping that American who was asking all those questions'.
And then came the day Steven was approached by a man who told him bluntly that, once he left Basra, Nour's life would be worthless, so he knew he had put her in such jeopardy that she might actually be killed. That was the day he called me at 3 AM in a panic, asking me what I thought he should do, knowing he could not leave her behind to face her fate. Between the two of us we came up with the idea of him converting to Islam, marrying her after getting her family's okay, and then taking her to England so she could take a job at The Guardian that she'd been offered. Nour's family is extremely traditional, and would not let her leave Iraq as an unmarried woman; however, they agreed to Steven's plan to convert, marry her and take her to London. He was a week away from converting and marrying when he was killed.
But he was not going to marry her because he loved her romantically (I doubt he and I would have co-planned their marriage had that been the case), he was going to do so so he could get her out of Iraq, take her to a country where she could start a new life, and last but certainly not least, probably save her life as well. There have been snide insinuations in some blog comments about the situation, but those who snigger and suggest that I was about to be dumped so Steven could run off with Nour are, quite simply, wrong. The truth is, Steven's intentions were strictly honorable. My husband was nothing if not a gentleman; he had put his translator, fixer, helper and most importantly friend, in a dangerous situation and, not knowing how else to extricate her from it, tried to do what he thought was right. It obviously was not the perfect answer, but given the circumstances, it was the only one we could come up with. If any of the snide commenters (all total strangers to me) had a better idea, they never bothered to mention it; they were too busy making slimy remarks about Steven, my intelligence (or lack thereof), a situation they knew nothing about, and/or the state of my and Steven's 23-year relationship.
So to reiterate what I said in an earlier answer, this was not an honor killing. Nour's family had no problem with her marrying Steven, and they were the ones whose honor we're talking about here. Again, the men who abducted him did not even want her initially, but just like in the hotel incident in 2004, she came to Steven's defense and was swept up with him. She was not killed; in honor killings it is the woman who dies, not the man. No, this was an execution carried out by men who had the brazenness and ability, in broad daylight, while wearing police uniforms and driving a marked police truck, to snatch two people off the street, two people who fought and screamed to no avail, throw them in a truck, bind and gag them, hold them for 5 hours while people in surrounding houses heard them being screamed at and threatened, throw them back in the truck, drive them to the outskirts of town, throw them out of the truck, tell them to run, and then shoot them at almost point-blank range. They obviously had no fear of exposure, of pursuit, of capture, of punishment - which suggests to me that they were in positions of power and status, and knew nothing was going to happen to them as a result of their killing an American journalist and attempting to kill his translator and friend.
- Q: In September, another Iraqi reporter was killed in Basra. What message do you have for the freelance reporters who work in Basra and their families?
A: I want to thank them, on behalf of the Westerners for whom they are working, and to pay tribute to and salute them for their bravery in trying to bring us the truth half a world away. Many of them will forever remain unknown to us, unless something dreadful happens to them, in which case they may get mentioned in an article or two before being swept away in the constant changing tide of world events. Their lives are just as precious to them and to their families as ours and our loved ones are to us, and we must do a better job of acknowledging the debt we owe to them, especially if their lives are lost in the effort. I would also ask them to please be careful. Today is December 1; as I type this, a new Yahoo alert has flashed on my screen about an interpreter working for the British who was just shot and killed by unknown gunmen.
- Q: What would you like to tell the people who murdered Steven?
A: There are many things I would like to tell them, and even more things I would like to do to them, but I will keep it family-friendly and leave it at this:
You monsters may have thought, by killing my husband, that you had silenced him, and stilled the message he was trying to bring to the world. But you did not take into account that he had a wife who is going to pick up his fallen standard and continue the fight he began. So I say to you thugs, this is my vow - I will see to it that somehow, someday, you are brought to justice, if I have to go to Iraq myself to see that it is done. And you can count on that.
- Q: What message would you like to tell the American people -- especially the ones who accused Steven of having a political agenda and thought he deserved his fate?
A: The reality is, those who accuse Steven of having had a political agenda knew nothing of him, nothing of what he believed, nothing of what he wrote, and I have no time for them. If they are going to accuse him of something, they should most definitely know whereof they speak, but such is not the case.
As far as those (censored) who think he deserved what he got, let's just say they had better hope I never run into them in a deserted location, because they will not be happy to see me. My blood pressure skyrockets just thinking about what I would like to do to those miserable cretins, so please allow me to leave it at that.
However, I know the majority of the American people who knew Steven, or who knew of him, understood what he was trying to do, and honored him for his efforts. After his murder, I got condolence cards and flowers from total strangers expressing their admiration for Steven and, in many cases, their regret that they had never had the opportunity to meet him. At his funeral, which was literally standing room only in the church we got married in, people flew in from California, Idaho, Virginia, Boston, Colorado, even London, to say a final farewell. A number of the people attending did not even know him personally, but made the effort to be there for him, wanting to pay tribute to his life and his death. And in the final moments of the ceremony, when his casket was wheeled down the aisle to be placed in the hearse, the 500-strong crowd gave him a standing ovation. That is what I choose to remember, not the gutless little pipsqueaks who, safe in their houses, offices, classrooms, criticize him and dare to say that my husband, a man of courage and conviction who never did anything to them, but who challenged their petrified and unyielding mindsets, deserved to be set upon by a gang of killers, bound, gagged, beaten, and then shot in the back from a distance of 3 to 5 feet away. They will take no chances with their miserable lives, hence will get no standing ovations when they die, and their passings will, in all likelihood, fade unremarked into the grey mists of history. This is as it should be.
- Q: What message would you like to tell the Iraqi people?
A: I would like to ask the Iraqi people to please not forget Steven, and what he was trying to do for them. Steven loved Iraq, and he loved the people he met there, and he wanted more than anything for that country to finally know peace and prosperity in a democratic state. I would like them to remember that, and to also remember that he gave his life in an effort, as small as it may have been in the overall picture, to try and make it happen. I would hope someday he would be written about in Iraqi history books, so the children of Iraq can learn about him and about the difference one person can make.
- Q: What were your dreams as a couple upon his safe return to New York?
A: We would have resumed our daily lives together, doing all of the things that couples who have been together for a long time, and who are comfortable around each other thanks to years of interaction, do. We loved, early on nice Sunday mornings. to go to a local park with coffee, peanuts and bread, feed the squirrels and the pigeons, and just sit there for hours talking, before going to get some breakfast. We would have spent time with our many friends, and had lots of dinner parties. We had planned more weird vacations - our next trip was going to be three weeks in Libya, right around Christmas. We would have gone out to California to spend time with his family, and taken my mom on a trip down Highway 1 so she could finally see Hearst Castle. We would have gone back to living our lives, which were very tightly entwined. (One friend who is a fan of the original Star Trek TV series, another love of Steven's, used to joke that Steven and I were so closely linked in words and thoughts that we were like a living Vulcan mind-meld.)
- Q: If you could go back in time, would you let him go to Basra?
A: No, I would ask him to please not go. It's as simple as that.
I know what Steven was trying to do was noble, generous and vital, but the reality is, my life, his life, our futures together, have been shattered - ended - forever. And I am selfish - the 23 years I had with him were not enough; I wanted 23 more. I wanted us to take more trips to strange places together, play more games of gin rummy and cribbage together, go to more movies together, eat in more nice restaurants together, have more arguments together, laugh more together, take more walks together, grow old together. But none of that will happen now, and I am angry that it ended so suddenly and so brutally. The truth is, I don't think his death was worth it - at least, it was not for me. And I think if he could answer, he would say it was not for him, either. Steven loved life in all its incarnations - its joys and sadnesses, its boredom and thrills. He also loved his family, his friends, and yes, his wife. And I know he was not yet ready to leave life, and us, behind for another world.
- Q: What would you like to add?
A: I would like to thank you for giving me an opportunity to give your readers a bit more information about Steven than they got from the newspapers and news reports. I know there are a number of misconceptions, misunderstandings and blatant falsehoods surrounding this whole wretched event and its aftermath, and I hope I was able to clear up some of the confusion or ambivalence about what Steven was trying to do that some of your readers may have felt.
I would like to end by wishing you, your family, and all those brave souls who patiently slogged through my lengthy answers a very happy holiday season, and a wonderful 2006. And if I may, I would like to ask those of you who believe in the power of such things to please, pray for Steven.
Thank you so much. God bless.
In my next post, I'll talk about Steven Vincent's Foundation. I hope you can wait for the details :-)
In The Red Zone
A Journey Into The Soul Of Iraq