They were both looking for a fishing buddy.
Mohaned Al-Obaidi had recently arrived in Philadelphia after fleeing the violence in his native Iraq, leaving Baqubah — the city north of Baghdad that he called home, located on the Diyala River — for Syria and then waiting six years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to be resettled in the States with his brothers.
Gin McGill-Prather had moved to Philadelphia with her wife two years earlier, for a new start. It had been a decade since she served as a combat medic at Camp Bucca, an American detention facility in the south of Iraq, and she had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression ever since.
When Obaidi and McGill-Prather met at an Iraqi restaurant in North Philly at a dinner bringing together military veterans and Iraqis who were contributing to the same performance, the conversation was simple.
“Tomorrow, I will go fishing,” Obaidi shared with the group. “Anyone like it?”
“You fish?” McGill-Prather said. “Me, too."
The next morning, they headed to the Schuylkill, a river that reminded Obaidi of the one in his hometown. Soon, they were texting every weekend, inviting each other to new spots they had found. Obaidi knew his new friend fished for trout and bass, and she knew he favored carp.
Now, two years later, Obaidi, 37, and McGill-Prather, 39, are part of an unexpected community of artists and storytellers linked by war, and trauma, in the Middle East who have found each other in Philadelphia.
Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago-based Iraqi American artist, invited local military veterans (via a Philly-based writing program called Warrior Writers) and Iraqis who had resettled in Philadelphia to write and perform stories about Iraq for the show. Before the performance that summer, he orchestrated a meeting of the two groups at Amasi, the city’s only Iraqi restaurant.
For some of the veterans, many who had served in Iraq, the prospect of the dinner was nerve-racking. They felt guilty about their time in Iraq. They feared the Iraqis might be angry with them for things that had happened back home. It didn’t help that there was a misunderstanding on timing. The veterans came early, while the Iraqis showed up late, allowing the veterans’ anxiety to build.
But when the Iraqis arrived, the two groups found it wasn’t so hard to connect.
Obaidi’s older brother, Yaroub, discovered that he and one of the veterans, Lawrence Davidson, had been in Baqubah at the same time. Davidson had helped rebuild a bridge in the brothers’ city. It felt like a perfect metaphor to Yarub, who used to teach art at the University of Baghdad: a bridge between them.
Yarub, who hasn’t seen his parents since he fled Iraq in 2007, later learned of the veterans’ apprehension but said he didn’t want to dwell on the past.
“What happened [has] happened,” he said, “but what we can do is to build a friendship.”
The dinner was more difficult for McGill-Prather, who found herself haunted by a revelation she had after meeting one of the younger Iraqis, Khudhur “Tee” Altaan. As Altaan talked about growing up in Iraq during the time that she served there, McGill-Prather realized he could have been one of the kids at the detention facility where she was stationed.
That’s when it hit her: When she was in Iraq, she hadn’t thought of the Iraqis as human.
“It was us versus them," she said.
For the Iraqis, too, there were surprises. Most of them had interacted with American soldiers only at checkpoints.
Altaan’s sister, Nashwa Altaan, laughed as she remembered how she always thought soldiers were very serious but soon learned, after meeting the veterans, they could be jokesters, too. Nashwa, who’s studying to get her second degree, a bachelor’s in psychology, was lonely when she arrived in Philadelphia and was happy to make American friends — who just so happened to be veterans — and happy to be invited to their houses for barbecues, to share with them Iraqi tea and food.
Since their first meeting and performance together, the Iraqis and veterans have performed together twice more in events organized by Warrior Writers: Once last summer in Burholme Park in the Northeast, a storytelling performance and kite-making workshop called “Two Rivers: Letters from the Tigris to the Schuylkill"; and another this fall at PhillyCAM and the Friends Center — a screening of personal stories paired with videos they made.
They’ve also gone ice-skating together, bowling, and of course, fishing.
Sometimes Mohaned Obaidi, who works as an auto mechanic, will pick up McGill-Prather in his SUV, the one with all the fishing equipment in the back and the “Iraq Afghanistan Veteran” camouflage baseball cap on the dash (“I also become veteran because all my friends veteran,” he said).
Even if she flakes on plans, Obaidi and his brothers still call and text McGill-Prather without fail. Veterans like her, she said, can be “wishy-washy." It’s hard to plan because they can’t foresee how they’ll feel on a certain day.
“You lose a lot of friendships that way,” she said.
But not the Obaidi brothers. They never hold it against her.
When Mohaned Al-Obaidi talks about Gin McGill-Prather, he doesn’t mention her “wishy-washiness” but her tendency to give him thoughtful gifts, like a golden-handled Buck knife, and how she’s seemed to open up over the two years they’ve known each other.
“She knows how my mind works,” he said. “This family knows Gin.”