A true story: Amanda, a beautiful Navy intelligence analyst, and Fadi, her handsome Iraqi translator, fell in love in the midst of life-threatening combat situations. When they brought their love to light, they were treated like war criminals by the American military they both served with unceasing loyalty and commitment. Mandi now tells their story of heartbreak and courage in her book “A Foreign Affair.”
Mandy, thank you for doing this interview. I think your story is quite remarkable and should be shared. I personally think it would make a great segment on 60 Minutes, or even better, a movie. I hope Hollywood picks it up.
Tell me a little about what prompted you to join the navy, and what your job entailed?
I grew up in a rural Florida town (an hour and a half from the nearest shopping mall), and I wanted to travel and experience life to the fullest. I joined the Navy’s Delayed-Entry-Program at age 16 and was sworn into the U.S. Navy my Junior year of High School. After High School graduation, I was shipped off to boot camp, where I celebrated my 18th birthday. Our division leader announced that the Navy was in need of linguists. About 50 of us took the test. Two of us passed. I studied Russian, and was sent to work at the National Security Agency.
After five years in the military, with no overseas travel, I volunteered for a 4 month NSA deployment to Baghdad as a Foreign Affairs Liaison Officer. They were in need of individuals with security clearance and knowledge of basic intelligence operations to work as liaisons between the new Iraqi government and the U.S. military and coalition forces.
How did you meet your husband, and what attracted you to each other?
I arrived in Baghdad in May 2005 and was assigned to work at the new Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS). Due to the nature of the war – urban, guerrilla warfare – our troops lacked actionable intelligence out in the field. We were scrambling to build a functioning intelligence agency in Baghdad that could help U.S. and coalition forces on the ground, and could later function to assist the Iraqi government. The INIS was manned and run by the Iraqi government and we were there as “advisors.” Of course, the U.S. also provided a majority of the equipment and covered the expenses. I met Fadi just a couple of days after arriving in Iraq. Since I didn’t speak Arabic, Fadi was assigned to be my translator. It was “love at first site” for both of us. A few hours after we met, Fadi told a friend at work, he was “going to marry that girl.”
Tell us about the work your husband did.
When I arrived, Fadi had been working as a translator at the INIS, but prior to that, he worked with the U.S. Army and Marines on the ground throughout Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah for two years. He started out working for an Army unit in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. A U.S. convoy rolled into Fadi’s neighborhood to do house-to-house searches (they were still looking for the WMDs at the time) and the convoy had no translator. No one in Fadi’s neighborhood spoke English, so needless to say, American soldiers entering and searching private homes was building “tension. The Army Captain in charge of the Unit began walking down the middle of the street, desperately screaming, “Does anyone here speak English?” Fadi was in his senior year of college at the University of Baghdad, majoring in English. He knew that no one else in his neighborhood spoke English. Reluctantly, he offered to help the Captain. He knew if things continued the way they were, a bloody fight could erupt outside his front door.
After spending the day working with that Army unit to search the houses on Fadi’s street, the Army Captain offered Fadi a job and a salary of $15 a day. The economic situation in Baghdad at the time was grim, work was scarce, and $15 a day was BIG money. Fadi jumped at the opportunity. He worked for that unit for nine months, and was then sent to Ramadi. There, he translated for U.S. Army drill sergeants who were training new Iraqi Army recruits. He then went to work for a Marine Civil Affairs unit that operated near Fallujah. Fadi was present for the first Battle of Fallujah that followed on the heels of the gruesome murders of the Blackwater contractors. He worked side-by-side with Marines during raids and fire fights. He suffered several combat injuries, including being shot in the chest by an AK-47 (luckily he was wearing body armor but it still left a nasty injury) and he suffered a broken arm when a Humvee he was riding in was hit by an RPG. This battlefield experience (and his proven loyalty) helped him land the job in the Green Zone translating for our team.
How did the relationship evolve?
We worked side-by-side, six days a week, often round-the-clock. Over the course of several weeks, we did a lot of talking. We were fascinated with each other. Fadi was interested in learning about my life in the U.S., and I was captivated by his stories of growing up as an upper-middle-class Christian in Baghdad. About half-way into my deployment, a small group of us did a forward deployment to a remote Marine camp near the Syrian border. At the time, this was considered to be the front-line of the war due to the mass amount of foreign Al-Qaeda fighters flowing into Iraq from Syria. We spent three weeks in a pretty intense area. This, of course, strengthened our bond. By the time we returned to Baghdad we knew that what we felt for one another was more than a “fling” and that we were as close to soul-mates as you can get.
What conflicts did you face while still serving?
Due to the fact that I held a Top Secret security clearance, having a personal relationship with a foreign national (and an Iraqi at that) was going to be iffy. I knew I’d likely have to choose between Fadi and my career in the Navy, which I was prepared to do. However, our fight to be together turned out to be a lot more difficult. When I arrived back in the U.S. from Iraq, I was put through several days of intense interrogation by an NCIS investigator and an NSA Special Agent, who were convinced I had divulged classified information to Fadi during my deployment. In their estimation, there was no way our relationship was genuine. Either Fadi was affiliated with a terrorist organization and was pumping me for U.S. government secrets or, at best, he was using me for a Green Card. Apparently, I was too naïve and “emotionally attached” to realize this. My interrogators placed a trumped-up confession in front of me, in which I admitted to mishandling classified documents and compromising sensitive information as a result of my relationship. “Sign this and it’ll all be over. You’ll get to go home.” These overzealous investigators were looking for an easy win, hoping to make a name for themselves as heroes who foiled an espionage plot. But I wasn’t the oblivious little girl they assumed me to be. Basically, I told them to shove their confession “you-know-where.”
I promptly hired a civilian lawyer who was an expert in both defending active duty service members and handling national security cases. My lawyer managed to get the interrogations to cease, but I spent the next nine months in “limbo,” stripped of my clearance, and I spent my days cleaning toilets for the Navy. In the meantime, the NSA and NCIS continued pursuing their investigation into my “crimes.”
I was ordered by my Commanding Officer to sign a “No Contact Order” demanding I have no communication with Fadi. For the remainder of my time in the Navy, I had to deal with the reality that at any moment NCIS agents could show up and arrest me.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Fadi was also being subjected to daily interrogations and pressed to sign fake confessions. He too refused to sign anything, but he didn’t have the option of “lawyering up.” I was angered by their treatment of me, but their treatment of Fadi made my blood boil. All he’d done for our country—literally bleeding with our boys on the battlefields, and dealing with death threats from the insurgency for assisting the “infidels”—was overlooked and dismissed. Because he’d fallen in love with me, he was being treated as a terrorist! All he’d sacrificed and done for the U.S. counted for nothing. It was a huge betrayal.
After nine months of investigating me and looking under every rock from D.C. to Baghdad, the NCIS dropped their investigation. However, I was reduced in rank and sentenced to 45 days of on-base restriction for “disobeying a lawful order.” I was also subjected to a disciplinary review board where a room full of male upper enlisted members of my command looked at me with disgust, and asked questions like, “Why, out of millions of Americans you could choose from, did you have to pick an Iraqi?” I found this quite ironic, considering half the men in that room were married to foreign women. In the end, although the criminal case against me was dropped, my security clearance was irrevocably suspended, and my career was over. After serving my 45 days of restriction, with no legal validation to oust me, I was asked to “quietly” and willingly leave the Navy. This meant having to settle for a General Discharge and a forfeiture of my GI Bill and other benefits.
With two months remaining on my enlistment, I asked if I could finish my enlistment in an administrative position in order to exit with an Honorable Discharge and my benefits intact. But I was threatened by JAG. If I stayed in the Navy, NCIS could decide to reopen my case, and unless I wanted to risk prison again, I’d better get out while I could. This was nothing more than an intimidation tactic to screw me out of what I’d rightly earned, but it worked. My priority at the time was to work on getting Fadi out of Iraq. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that while I was under the Navy’s thumb. So on May 26, 2006, I said goodbye to the Navy.
When did you marry and move to the states? How did your family and friends accept your husband? What do you both do for careers?
Two weeks after I got out of the Navy I bought a one-way ticket to Amman, Jordan. Fadi and I had a tearful reunion. We decided to live there until his Visa came through and we could return to the U.S. While in Jordan, I landed a job at an English language magazine covering stories on refugees fleeing the July 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. However, after a couple of months, even Amman was no longer “safe” and suffered several terrorist attacks. Fearful for my safety, Fadi begged me to return to the U.S. Disheartened, I flew to Ohio and moved in with my mom in a small rural town. Fadi’s Visa interview at the U.S. embassy in Amman was scheduled for early October and we hoped that he’d be able to come to the U.S. soon after, but unfortunately he did not receive his Visa until April 2007.
When he arrived, we were both ecstatic. It was one of the happiest days of my life. We married as soon as possible in the mayor’s office on May 15, 2007.
My friends and family were fairly accepting of Fadi, but they had their doubts, and worried our different cultures stacked the odds against us. A few crazy great Aunts told stories of friends who married mid-eastern men and were beaten, kidnapped with their children, and never seen again. In the long run, I think the tremendous struggles Fadi and I endured forged an unbreakable bond between us. Twelve years later, we’ve been married for a decade and have two beautiful daughters, and we live in San Diego. Fadi’s mother, brother, and sister have also settled here, after fleeing Iraq as refugees in 2009. Fadi has his own real estate business and caters to the large Iraqi refugee population here.
Tell us a little about your writing background, and the books you now have in print.
I never really set out to be an “author.” I began writing about our situation a couple of months into the NCIS investigation, simply as stress relief. I felt like I was in this pressure-cooker, ready to explode. I had been railroaded, threatened with prison, and subjected to a gross miscarriage of justice. Plus, Fadi was in extreme danger in Iraq at the time. He was being hunted by the insurgency, and finding hand grenades on his doorstep by Al-Qaeda groups threatening to kill him and his family if he “didn’t stop working for the infidels.”
Over the next five years, as Fadi and I started our family, I dabbled with the book – sometimes letting it sit for months. It was very personal and basically my diary. Once completed, I found an agent fairly quickly. My agent landed me a publishing contract, but because of the nature of my job at the NSA the manuscript had to be sent off to be approved by both the NSA and CIA before it could be published. I got it back a few months later with entire chapters redacted that I had to “write around”. As luck would have it, it also happened to be the exact timeframe when the Edward Snowden scandal erupted. Out of fear, the publishing company dropped me. My agent me signed with another publisher, who was also a little leery and wanted to wait two years.
Finally, in October 2016, A Foreign Affair was released. I then decided that my husband’s story needed to be told, and Voicing the Eagle will hopefully be published by the end of the year. It’s basically a de-facto prequel to A Foreign Affair and tells Fadi’s story up to our meeting at the INIS building.
Excerpt from A Foreign Affair:
Baghdad, Iraq June 2005
We stood on the roof taking in the view. The night sky was a blanket of stars while below the city lights danced across the surface of the Tigris River as it snaked its way through Baghdad.
“If you look out to the East, you’ll see the giant mosque Saddam was building,” Fahdi said, leaning in close to show me where to look.
I felt his breath on my neck and could smell his cologne. My body went rigid at the exhilaration of being so close to him.
“It was to be the largest mosque in the Middle East,” Fahdi continued. “Saddam’s great testament of devotion to Islam.” At that point he must have noticed I was practically a breathing statue. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Am I boring you?”
“No, not at all,” I responded in little more than a whisper and turned to face him. Our eyes locked and we both knew what was coming next. My heart raced as our lips touched in a soft kiss. He then pulled back to study my reaction. The moonlight gave his face a surreal glow and highlighted the radiance of his green eyes.
“Is this okay?” He asked tenderly.
I simply nodded. He slid his hands down to my hips and pulled me in for another kiss. This one was deeper and longer.
A few seconds later a massive explosion erupted. I jumped at the sound and tried to get to the ground but Fahdi held me tight.
“Don’t worry,” he said calmly. “It’s your guys. They’re cleaning out a nearby neighborhood. They won’t meet much resistance. It should be over pretty quickly.”
The rush of anxiety combined with complete bliss made my body feel like it was on fire. It was as if we were suspended in our own world somewhere between heaven and war.
A Gripping True Love Story
“I couldn’t put this book down. What an amazing love story about two people who literally would not let anything stop them from being together. It reads like a movie (which I’m sure it will become), but the fact that it’s a true story makes it that much more compelling. Most of us will never experience a war environment, but Matti’s story takes us there with an openness and engaging authenticity that makes you feel like you’re right beside her–a young, American woman falling in love in the middle of a war zone. I highly recommend Amanda and Fahdi’s true story that proves love indeed does conquer all. I’ll be first in line at the theater!”
~ Pat Brown, Former ABC San Diego News Weather Anchor
Facebook: Author Amanda Matti