BAGHDAD, Iraq—When her fiance left Iraq for Germany, Nayzak al Jassm gave him a Quran for good luck. Rafael Velez asked her to remember him with a tiny cross that dangles on a gold chain around her neck.
Faith, they said, is the only force strong enough to protect them from the disapproving whispers of people who don't believe in love between a Muslim Iraqi woman and a Roman Catholic U.S. Army sergeant.
Their relationship—they plan to wed in December—is forbidden by both local custom and military orders. It unfolds amid daily attacks on American troops, car bombings of civilian targets and massive demonstrations by residents demanding that foreign troops leave their country. But the letters Jassm and Velez have written each other since May describe a vastly different relationship between the occupier and the occupied.
"The way we met and fell in love is better than any movie I've ever seen," Velez wrote to Jassm last month. "Wait till we tell our kids how it all started."
They met at a checkpoint outside a Baghdad bank in May, a month after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein. Jassm, 26, was hired as an Arabic translator for soldiers at the site and brought them home-cooked breakfasts of flat bread stuffed with meat and cheese. On long shifts, Velez, 38, comforted Jassm when passing residents threatened her life for working with the Americans.
Jassm teased Velez that the dark features he inherited from his Mexican parents made him look Iraqi. Velez taught her a few words of Spanish and in May confided that he liked her, but was "a little bit afraid." Apart from their cultural and religious differences, Velez told her, he was divorced with two young boys back in Georgia. Jassm shushed his concerns and fell for his bright smile and promises of a future far from turmoil.
"We won't have to worry about what people say and we sure won't have to worry about getting shot at," Velez wrote in a letter describing the Sunday drives and barbecues he planned for them in America. "Just think what our love would be like without all these restraints."
By June, they realized that their relationship was raising suspicions. They were careful not to stand too close together or laugh too loudly. A tug on the ear substituted for "I love you" when other soldiers or Iraqis were around. Velez gave Jassm a sealed letter to take to her parents, who opened it to read his apologies that security concerns prevented him from asking for their daughter's hand in person.
"My intentions with Nayzak are serious and of great respect for her as well as her entire family," Velez wrote.
The engagement was sealed when Velez sneaked a visit to Jassm's parents, who served him and another uniformed soldier Turkish coffee in a sitting room decorated with Islamic art. When her parents consented, Jassm jumped around the house in excitement. Although her father still has reservations, Jassm's mother said, they agreed to the marriage as an opportunity for their daughter to experience life outside a country ravaged by three decades of conflict.
"I don't ask for assurances—it's her life," said Samira Amees, Jassm's mother. "There is only one God, one judge. You can see good people from the Muslims, from the Christians, from the Jews. And you can see bad people from all of those groups. My daughter doesn't have a future here. These are the best years of her life and she has seen nothing but war. I am happy for her."
But other U.S. soldiers were jealous of the engagement, Jassm said, and one of them apparently reported the couple to a commanding officer. Within days, they were separated for fraternizing while Velez was on duty. Velez was moved to another checkpoint and Jassm barely managed to keep her job. A sympathetic soldier loaned Velez his cell phone so he could talk to Jassm without risking his life for a visit.
"I really do miss you so much," Velez wrote to Jassm from his new station on the other side of Baghdad. "My heart aches for your presence, my stomach is in knots because we are apart and my eyes itch to see you again."
Velez was transferred last month to a base in Germany, where he's sifting through visa applications and Islamic marriage laws to plan their December wedding.
The U.S. consul in Baghdad held a meeting Saturday for a handful of other soldiers facing similar roadblocks in bringing Iraqi spouses to America. The event was closed to the public, but coalition officials who were there said an Army chaplain and a U.S. soldier married to an Iranian woman spoke about the hardships and benefits of crossing cultural lines for love.
Coalition officials refused to discuss relationships between soldiers and Iraqis on the record. A military officer who didn't want her name published said such romances distracted soldiers and jeopardized the lives of the women, who could be branded as traitors by their fellow Iraqis. A military order threatens soldiers with disciplinary action if they socialize with Iraqi nationals while on duty.
"There are people out there who want information on us and they will go to any length to get it," the military officer said. "We're here for a reason, and this isn't a place where you can go on dates. I understand that soldiers are away from home, they're lonely and they're scared. But what might look good in these circumstances might not be what they want in the States."
At night, Jassm worries about life away from her father, a dentist, and her mother, a former flight attendant who shows her the world through old photos of her travels to Europe, South America and Asia. Jassm is worried that Americans think Iraqi women are covered, meek and unable to speak English.
"You just don't know what's waiting for you, whether they will accept you," Jassm said, looking at a photo of Velez pasted on her closet door. "People think I don't love him, that I just want to leave here and go to the States. But we'll prove them wrong."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+MARRIAGE