Harper's produces a masterful longread on Iraqi rescuer of Christian hostages

There’s no lack of reporters running about Iraq these days getting some very gripping stories. Most are tracking the purported last gasps of revived Islamic caliphate in the country’s northwest quadrant as the battle for Mosul grinds on.

The story that your GetReligionistas passed around this week was something a bit different: A story in Harper's magazine of a Christian Iraqi who wheels and deals in Christian hostages held by those within ISIS who are willing to sell them back for the right price.

The man’s name is Matti, he is based in the mixed Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk and he’s part fixer, part Mafioso-style godfather and star of a lengthy article titled “Escape from the Caliphate.”

Emad Matti had not received a photograph of the hostages. Two months had passed, and several Iraqi Christian families that had been detained by the Islamic State in an old folks’ home in Mosul were still imprisoned. From Kirkuk, Matti had been transferring $500 each month to a bank to feed the families, and he was afraid that they were dead, or that his informant in Mosul, one of their captors, was planning to prolong their imprisonment and collect even more money before demanding an impossible sum to drop them at the Kurdish border. For now, though, Matti just wanted photographic proof that they were still alive.
He checked his watch, a gold Breitling made from the weapons of martyrs in the Iran–Iraq War. The phone rang. He put a finger to his lips.

What follows is a fascinating read about the ordinary world of Iraqis who deal with ISIS (or what they call ‘Daesh’) like the next-door neighbors they are.

Everyone knows each other in this tribal society of Sunnis, Shi’a, various groups of Christians, Yezedis and Kurds whose lives have been linked for centuries.  Everyone has their informants, friends and family members, just in the same way as long-time residents in any American state have reams of contacts, old school buddies and family members scattered about.

Matti is like a 21st –century Oskar Schindler, trying to save as many Christians as possible before the deluge. As far as I can tell online, this is the first profile of him in an American publication. He’s works with a Chaldean Catholic church that raises lots of money from abroad to help Christian refugees and ransom hostages. In the past, he was a member of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The reporter learned from him bizarre details like the following:

After the war, he trained Special Operations recruits. Part of the process was learning how to behead small animals. He taught the men to crack the spines with their teeth. Sometimes Matti would set a rabbit free, and whoever captured and ate it alive would get a week of free rent.

Matti was a survivor who managed to turn his military experience into a job as a combat photographer for the Associated Press once the Americans arrived in 2003. Years later, he began saving hostages.

Matti relied on a complex network of support and cooperation across political, ethnic, and religious divides to complete his tasks. Ethnic Kurds, he told me, made up a great number of Islamic State loyalists in Mosul, and Matti had known a lot of families there before the rise of the caliphate. For nine years he had sold antiques in Mosul and surrounding areas, during which time he expanded his network of local tribal leaders, many of them Baathists, loyalists to the Saddam regime, like Matti himself and like many caliphate leaders…
“Most Daesh don’t know I’m a Christian,” Matti told me. “I don’t even look like a Christian. If Daesh comes to Kirkuk, I’m totally safe. I’m Sunni with Sunni, Shia with Shia.”

It’s safe to think that Matti considers himself such a smooth talker, that he’d be safe with the devil as well.

It’s a long article, but there is a hole in it. The piece delves heavily into local politics and why even the magical Matti is losing his touch in getting hostages out. Maybe it seems obvious over there, but reading about him some 5,000 miles away makes me wonder what drives this man. Why does he take such enormous risks to save his fellow believers?

The bottom line: There's nothing in the piece to hint that Matti is all that devout as a Christian and we're not told whether he's Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic, Anglican or some other stripe of believer. That's a detail we'd like to know.

You get a better feel for his personality from his Facebook page. I got the feeling that it was more a hatred of ISIS than Christian ideals that motivates this man. Or it's a mixture of both.

What impressed me most about the piece was the use of dialogue in showing how in this society, everything is about relationships. The reporter would repeat long passages of dialogue where each speaker is swearing by Allah, by his mother, by his family’s honor he will keep a promise. It’s a way no one in West talks.

The first speaker is Matti and the second is an ISIS member who is supposedly helping Matti to get a photo of the hostages to certify they’re still alive.

“With God’s will we will be honest with you guys.”
“That’s all we want. To serve these people here. It’s a humanitarian thing.”
“And we will not let you down at all.”
“So I will be dealing with you on trust, because I will be expecting that, too.”
“Of course,” Matti said. “It’s always mutual trust. Can you just send me a photograph of the people in the old folks’ home, please?”
“If you betray me, Emad Matti, no matter what you do, I will never trust you or do business with you again. Even if you brought me the Prophet Mohammed, I would not trust you. Even if you brought me yogurt from a bird, it would not impress me enough to trust you again. Let’s be clear about that.”
“Ask about me in all of Iraq,” Matti said. “In the whole of Iraq.”
“I told you from the beginning I checked you out,” Abu Ibrahim said. “And I’m talking to you without a mediator. I’m sure if the mother of my family were trapped in Kirkuk you would do the same for me. Is this not right?”
“That’s right,” Matti said. “And if you refuse to send the families out of Mosul, then who will save them?”
“There is no one,” Abu Ibrahim said. “But don’t think we are doing this job because of money. I swear to Allah even if you pay me tens of thousands of dollars I wouldn’t do that.”

Of course one begins to suspect that Abu Ibrahim is one huge liar. We do see how Matti is entirely a man of his culture.

But at the end we see another side of him: That of a rescuer who knows that even his famed negotiating skills have limits and that those he cannot save will die. But Matti seems immortal in a way and, judging from the below Tweet, has quite a following.

We learn at the end of the piece that the reporter got a grant from The Nation Institute to help investigate this story. It meant spending about a month in Kirkuk, which was a dicey place to be when I was in Iraq 12 years ago and I don’t think it’s improved much. For this reporter, it was time and money well spent.

What I wish we’d also learned at the end if Matti ever got these particular hostages out. I found this Washington Post story dated Nov. 1 that told of yet another amazing rescue -- this time of some local female college students trapped in the same house as ISIS fighters -- staged by Matti.

The man is obviously a legend in Iraq. Fortunately, Harper's helped make him a legend here as well. We just needed the magazine to ask one more question.

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