BAGHDAD, Iraq – In Esam Pasha's (search) painting, a coffin flies out of a hellish inferno, heading toward blue skies. Stretching out from it are 10 hands serving as wings.
"Dreams in a War Zone," (search) said Pasha, symbolizes the spirit of the few Baghdadis who have stayed positive despite the violence tearing their city apart.
Pasha, a 29-year-old Sunni and native of Baghdad, uses his art to shelter him emotionally from the death and devastation.
"Our thoughts and dreams during times of war are stored in coffins," he said, explaining the painting he made last year. "But your dreams and ideas could free you. It's like rebelling against a grim reality."
In a series of interviews and brief encounters dating back to January 2003, Pasha often seemed cheerful, something rare in the Baghdad of the past 14 years of sanctions and war. He celebrated life and was thankful for even its humblest rewards.
"I now work as a translator with the Americans," he announced one day in the summer of 2003, without much concern for the danger in which he placed himself by serving the U.S. military. "They are a nice bunch and I have a lot of fun."
A few weeks later, he was giving Arabic lessons to foreign reporters in Baghdad to augment his $10 a day wage as an interpreter, first with the 101st Airborne Division (search) and later with a Florida National Guard unit.
"Guess what? I am a journalist now and a member of the journalists union," came another announcement from Pasha last fall. He wrote articles for a U.N. publication, and now has an interpreting job with a Western embassy — its nationality withheld for his safety.
And he kept on painting.
He finally got his break when an American art dealer, Peter Hastings Falk, bought "Tears of Wax," a collection of 27 abstracts made of melted wax crayons on the sleeves of classical music LPs.
"He was very resourceful," said Falk by phone from his office in Madison, Conn. "He did not know it, but using melted wax to paint is a Babylonian encaustic technique."
Pasha made them while holed up in his Baghdad apartment during the 2003 war. Now he's with Falk in the United States, hoping to exhibit in a New York City gallery. It's the first time he has ever been overseas. "I want to be here for as long as I can. And when I leave, I will come back next year," he said by phone from a train taking him to Manhattan from Falk's office.
According to some more experienced artists, Pasha's art lacks maturity, but they agree he shows great promise.
Falk plans to exhibit Pasha's work along with that of other Iraqi artists around the United States. The exhibition will be called "Ashes To Art — The Iraqi Phoenix."
The bird in "Freedom" is part eagle, part phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. Its head and neck stretch skyward as if struggling to break free. Painted in 1999, the bird symbolizes a creature emerging from under water, gasping for air after going too long without breathing, Pasha said. "I painted it to look gracious and proud."
Like most of his work, "Freedom" mirrors Pasha's life in Iraq: the devastation of the 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf war, the sanctions, the 2003 Iraq war, the U.S.-led occupation and now the Sunni-dominated insurgency wracking the country.
As a teenager, Pasha worked as a house decorator, on construction sites and in other jobs to make ends meet, while attending school and judo classes.
His parents divorced in the 1980s, and his mother, who remarried, died in childbirth in 1997.
Two months before the U.S. invaded, Pasha told The Associated Press: "We in Iraq no longer care if America attacks us or not. For me, I just have to carry on painting."
Such ambivalence was rare in Saddam Hussein's (search) Iraq. Until Baghdad's fall on April 9, 2003, everyone from children to the elderly stuck to the official line: hatred of America and promises of painful death for its troops.
But Pasha was by no means reckless.
"I sometimes worried in those days that I might be thinking too much of Saddam. I kept telling myself that if I kept thinking of him negatively I may have a slip of the tongue and that would be the end of me," he said recently.
But he had to take risks. He needed to contact foreigners who could afford to buy his paintings, without attracting the attention of Saddam's security agents.
"I would sell one painting for $150 and I could live on the money for several months," he recalled. "There were days in the 1990s when I went without food."
The winged figure is a woman in a red Arab robe. Her face is blank, her fair and slender hands are as gentle as a pianist's. Again, the backdrop is a hell of hot colors. "Baghdad" was completed by Pasha on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell.
"Baghdad is a city of dreams and everyone interprets the city differently, hence the blank face. The red is for the blood that has been shed in Baghdad over the centuries," he explained.
Like most other Baghdadis, Pasha has taught himself skills to survive the daily suicide attacks, bombings, assassinations and kidnappings: avoiding dangerous neighborhoods, sleeping through gunfire and escaping the notice of insurgents on the way to and from work.
But Pasha's job as an interpreter in the Green Zone, the fortified area of Baghdad that houses the Iraqi government and Western embassies, requires him to be extra careful.
Insurgents have killed dozens of Iraqi men and women who worked for the American military or foreign contractors. They view them as collaborators, and Pasha understands the danger.
He suspects that lookouts, some working inside the Green Zone as construction workers or cleaners, are tipping off the insurgents about Iraqis working there. Some, he said, use mobile phones with cameras to snap the faces of Iraqi employees.
"I take taxis to and from work, which is better than using a private car. I change the Green Zone entrances I use and I never go or leave work at the same time."
Pasha tries to keep his job secret, but when he worked with the U.S. military in 2003 and 2004 his neighbors found out.
"They would come to me and say: 'We don't want any trouble here,' which in today's Baghdad parlance means 'quit your job or else,'" he said.
"They kill translators, no? But if I think of the danger and nothing else then I will never leave my home. And even that is not a 100 percent safe option."
When he would go out with the U.S. troops, Pasha refused to wear a mask.
"If it's my destiny to be killed, then nothing will stop it. So, I did not have to hide my face like a thief. Thieves do that, but not me."
His arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport June 4, and his encounter with the realities of a post-9/11 world, could be described as a Pasha painting waiting to be done; he was held up for five hours of security checks, with frequent apologies from immigration officials and pleas for more patience.
They eventually let him through, after making him raise his right hand and swear to respect U.S. laws. "I did not understand a lot of what was being said to me," he says, "but I just kept saying 'I do.'"
Pasha has many friends in America. He went to Florida to visit National Guard troops for whom he translated in Baghdad. He also visited friends in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
He spends his days in New York City wandering the streets, and his nights dining with yet more friends. He plans to return home to Baghdad in early August.
"No one smiles in Baghdad anymore. It's so barren," he said. "Only the police and the American troops are on the streets in the evening."
And here, 6,000 miles from home?
"America is not the paradise they say it is," Pasha said. Then, ever alert for a silver lining, he added: "Here the lights are on and everyone is safe."