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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

That Morning 

It was morning. Webster had announced 'the word of the year' for 2016. A single word caught in a swift glance at my phone screen was to sum up what ensued in the early hours of that day; 'Surreal'. 

Sleep had been dodging my eyes like a vibrant fly, an ominous swatter in the sweaty hands of a frustrated insomniac. All I had captured since the second Mother informed me, in her usual neutral tone, that you were going to have your skull broken into at 8:00AM on Monday, were harrowing visions of a misguided neurosurgeon’s scalpel missing its mark. You are seated, as Mother described you would be, sedated, and an angry man with every intent on killing his time, is digging into the back of your brain to extract the source of his anxiety. 

Images of happy faces; your happy face, over a blurred Skype session reassuring me, “all went well” collided with darker scenes of relatives coming up with insane scenarios as to why I could not talk to you there and then. I guess the ghost of the condolence message on the answering machine from years ago when father passed still haunts me. The struggle for straws of truth in a sickly protective whirlpool of lies; a world that fails to recognize the right of knowing at the right time. 

My mind too, had sprinted from one annoying online Trump feature to the next, on Facebook and TV, anxiously trying to absorb what had gone wrong on this earth; a place where decency and civility had been bullied into oblivion. Then there was Aleppo and all the blood. Children hugging the remains of their infancy to their perforated chests; their last gaze fixated on the firmaments, awaiting the mercy that never arrived. 

In the midst of all this, you are smiling, hopeful and strong, only breaking down once in a while to express love. I question if my frustration sought these distractions or that the disgust of it all was a genuine deterrent. I somehow had managed to close my eyes for a few hours the night before. I had slept with one arm hugging Sophie, and the other Chocolates, squeezed into an uncomfortable position of my choice, pleading for the proximity of a warmer being, one that emits love like only a canine can. 

6:00AM and it is time to learn of your recovery. I may not hear your voice, but I would know that you are ‘alive and well’. I called Mother. I called our brother, and sister-in-law, Alya. I called your husband who had traveled to be with you. I called cousin Nada, and I even called your number. No one answered. When cousin Ayser picked-up, her voice was drained, muffled and highly congested. Had she been crying? In my confused questioning campaign, I learned that your surgery had been cancelled. She passed the phone to her husband, to give me more details, and the line disconnected. 

I sat still. Were they telling me the truth? Was this a temporary ‘cover-up’? I stared ahead and saw nothing, in my mind, one demand of the almighty; God, take my life and give her hers; it is an even swap -I think; I know she is the better person. It would stop the pain of my heart now pushing its way out of my mouth. It would put an end to this agony of trying to breathe, as I struggle to climb out of existence. I did not have evidence; but then, I did not have evidence when I got the voice message on the answering machine. I had to fight to obtain it. Silence. Inertia that is bred with the terror of pursuing futile interrogations. Lynn, my neighbor, had passed around Thanksgiving. I sought her spirit, “Help me!” 

The phone rang. Alya’s confidence had never served anyone better than it served me that morning. Her voice, firm and convincing, came through like a strong hand gripping and stabilizing a stumbling child. “The hospital staff are idiots! They don’t know how to handle insurance! Thank God Zinnah is not having the surgery there.” 

Finally, a semblance of peace; I know I will hear your voice again. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Where Does ISIS Get Its Recruits? 

Ever since the fall of Baghdad, and maybe a little before, my brother who shuttles between multiple cities to secure a business has enjoyed a deep-rooted relationship with a very loyal shipper.

Last week and perhaps for the first time, the shipper lost a tiny but important parcel. My brother, whose Iraqi civil status ID card, spells his name in full, called the shipper to bring the matter to his attention. "I don't have it yet; it's small, but significant; I was supposed to have gotten it last week." The shipper who usually addresses my brother by his first name was very apologetic. "I'm sorry this has happened. I will immediately investigate and get back to you!"

And investigate he did. The parcel was retrieved and my brother was called to pick it up at one of the lesser convenient Baghdad locations, a not so secure, busy downtown office, next to a crowded bus station known for its history of suicide bomber visitations. After standing for an extended period of time in the heat of the afternoon waiting for his name to be called, my brother was handed the parcel, neatly packaged. On every side of the square box that made up the parcel, there was a label with his first name, and phone number, handwritten in impressive Arabic calligraphy. Someone had taken the time to write his name clearly on each side and hand print the phone number next to the name. Each label seemed to conceal yet another one underneath. My brother peeled off each label, and sure enough, revealed four, more professional looking, laser printed labels with his full name (including family name) and phone number.  It suddenly occurred to him what had happened. The shipper had intentionally covered up the official labels (printed by the original overseas supplier) with his own 'hand-made' ones, omitting my brother's family name intentionally. His friend, the shipper had done that to protect my brother and his business.

Since the onset of the civil war, and increasingly under the sectarian authority of the Maliki government, Iraqi citizens had scrambled to obtain multiple identification cards; ones that contained just the first name and fathers' name, omitting the family name (a naming convention enforced in Saddam's days); and others that included their full family names. I must explain here that Arabic naming conventions are based on a long chain of names, representing your more direct and recent ancestry. Depending on where you were going to use the ID card, you were best off cherry-picking the more 'neutral' names in that chain to replace names that were obviously indicative of your sect. In Iraq, roughly 90% of family names identify sect. 

As much as he was grateful for the kindness of the gesture, my brother was very frustrated. "What's wrong with our family name anyway? Didn't we establish the first charter schools all over Iraq? Did we not contribute to the development of this country since its independence?" Independence, now that was one word that you could no longer associate with Iraq. Once a sovereign country, it is now made up of a conglomerate of client states to its warring sectarian neighbors. When my cousin, a sitting member of parliament attempted to intervene in the case of a direct relative, a retired physician over the age of seventy who had been detained indefinitely without charge, she was advised to knock on the doors of the Ministry building in Topkhaneh, Tehran. There she would find her answer, not in Baghdad. 

I recall vividly before the fall of Baghdad. I had gathered family here in Columbus, Ohio who were Shiite, for dinner. The father had lost a brother to sectarian persecution under Saddam's tyranny. His mother's dying wish to know the whereabouts of her son was never satisfied. We sat debating the on-setting war, arguing that the US had no business invading Iraq. In pain, the father said, "I would collaborate with the Devil if I had to, to bring that rogue down!"

The atrocities committed against the Shiite majority by the former regime were massive. The persecution against the Sunnis by both the Maliki government and Shiite militia in the predominantly Sunni parts of the country had been intensifying. Scores of young Sunnis were detained after suicide bombings and never released, even after the culprits had been identified and executed. Usually the cost to release any detainee, jailed without charge meant the confiscation of their family's entire life savings. That coupled with Mailiki's extreme exclusionist policy had led to the same sentiment I had personally heard years ago in Columbus, Ohio, "(We) would collaborate with the Devil, if we have to..!" And collaborate they did...and open the flood gates to ISIS, much to the detriment of the diverse population in those areas, especially the Iraqi Christian and Yazidi minorities that bore the brunt of the consequences. 

I and most Iraqis have always argued that a proxy war between the Jaffaari powers of Tehran and Damascus on the one hand, and the Wahhabi powers of Riyadh was being waged in Baghdad and all across Iraq. It amazes me when these regional powers pretend to 'unite' against a common front, a monster, they both contributed to creating, each in a different way. Assad's regime was more than happy to arm the Islamic extremists that splintered from the secular Free Syrian  Army, thus forming ISIS; he didn't want a secular competitor. With an extreme Islamic option, it would be much easier for the Syrian people to decide who they want to side with. 

As the world wonders where ISIS gets its recruits nowadays, last year when Mosul and large parts of Anbar Province were captured, areas where different flavors of Wahhabism had flared most people did not think twice where their allegiance would be! 

Monday, August 11, 2014

For Leena; In Memoriam 

They say pictures speak a thousand words…and they do. A Christmas family photo; in it, you seem to have persevered; Bashir gone, and you’re a single mother in your thirties, caring for three young girls and smiling, your contagious, one-of-a-kind Leena grin.  

I remember that Christmas like it was yesterday. Sixteen years ago, I came back after an absence of two years. I saw my father for the last time that year in Amman. You were welcoming. Your warmth, your words and a candlelit dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant, like I had only left a week before. At the end of our meal, you gave me this photo. ‘Our Christmas photo’, you said. I cherished it. Years later, and two years after you were gone, Tala would frown back at the frowning face of her 7 year-old-self, staring at her. It nonetheless amused her.

At times, walking my dog in the dark, I stare at the sky, and it almost seems like you can be near. I had stopped questioning. The interrogation had drained and probably angered an otherwise merciful God. I guess I just could not understand the mercy behind your departure; any more than I could the manner of how I learned of it. I had expectations. I had hope, and the small things that got in the way between me and your fate, just smothered them!

I remember the lines I wrote for Bashir, quoting Dylan Thomas, ‘Rage, Rage, against the dying of the light!’ For him and even more so for you, it was too soon; way too soon. If you can hear me now, I want you to know that I believed in my words. I believed you would persevere like you had the first time; I believed that you had grandchildren to raise and that you would be there for them. They were not mere words of encouragement. I believed you would live.

Over two years have passed, and I miss our conversations, health and keeping healthy, speeches and Toastmasters experiences, travel and wanderlust within our means, friends and how they fared and then some belated major life decisions, and whether we should have made them.

I still love and miss you, tremendously, but two years later I understand. You could never love after Bashir. You told me so, in our last car ride together. And you missed him. For the sixteen years it took to raise the girls and soldier on in life, there was not one single time when we spoke that you did not somehow mention his name, even if in passing. His presence in your mind was never ‘in passing’.

I remember the day he passed and after the funeral; I had a dream that night. In my dream he tossed a ball to Dana, and then passed it to Fadia and Tala in turn. I had walked into this ‘scene’, and he interrupted the game, and looked up and stared hard at me. In his eyes a plea that I could not comprehend. I had shared that dream with you, and you grasped the message immediately. ‘He was very worried about the girls, Zaineb. He was telling you about the girls. I told him I would raise them well, and I will.’

You accomplished that and so much more. Soon the girls would be leaving the nest one by one, and you would be once again alone. You had stayed to fulfill his dying wish, and now it was time to leave.

I thank a merciful God that you did not suffer more. I am happy that you got to hold your first grandchild, long enough to take pictures with him. We live such short lives, no matter how long the years seem to drag. And the little we can achieve should be a heartwarming blessing, and yet, we are constantly inconsiderate. In your short life, Leena, your achievements were gigantic, especially given the challenges we as women face in our societies. In my mind, your face shines. It always has, and always will.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Of Feline and Affinity 

When I first set eyes on you, you pushed your warm brow against my forehead, more forcefully than I ever expected. Your emerald eyes looked into mine and we spoke for the first time. Chien looked on amazed. 'ZZ, he adores you!'. I had already fallen in love.

I took you home, and you quickly chose to hide. When I feared that you would never speak to me again, you emerged, a crown of confidence as bright as your eyes, sparkling over your charcoal head.

Then came the ribbons, your fascination with everything purple, and your intentional 'dumbstruck' gaze that drew smiles from all onlookers. In your eyes, I could see the inner gleam of the delight that you gleaned from these human reactions. As Ranjini clicked away, you played all the purple into her photos, and loved the attention.

Intelligence defined your every movement. And whenever you chose to fly, you soared. The heights that you climbed stunned me. It stunned Bobby as he flicked your cat toy measuring the next level you could jump to. It stunned Tami, when we came home one day to discover, you had found your way to the catnip on top of the high refrigerator.

Your sharpness granted you all the territory and all the domestic distinction of a feline status that a cat could dream of in a household.

You liked to walk, and you walked a lot, with and without me. I never worried that you may get lost; you always found your way home. You could identify our dwelling in ways that amazed me. Some dark nights, you would speed towards the front door of our home before I could discern the path. And if you wanted a breath of fresh air, a closed screen door would not keep you confined; you found a way to slide it open.

Drinking water was always a spectacular event. The water had to come from a dripping faucet, and you picked which one. You would smell it first, and then decide if the taste was good enough to proceed to lap. Once, Cindy came to check on you, you ran up the stairs and led her to the bath tub. She understood what you were trying to show her, and that made her laugh; you made her laugh.

Hiding under rugs was your favorite game. Many times, friends could not make out your body outline for the blackness of your coat under the rug. You baffled Hend, when she came to visit. She could not tell where you were. And pens, you loved pens. You loved to roll them on my  desk, and swat the caps if I chose to make them peek from under. With a single paw you could pull the cap towards you, observe it come off and fall on the floor, and then proceed to roll it down there.

You had character; you have character. Even now, as you struggle to maintain normalcy for all the known face-saving reasons, your character surfaces. Now, as you brilliantly hide your pain, and try to compete with Chocolates as she devours her food, and you peck at yours. Now, as you attempt to climb the stairs and not look down, and haul yourself to the last step. Now, as you seek the sun in the backyard and contemplate the changes that your body is going through. Now, as you try to perch yourself on the sofa edge and stand still as the pain overcomes you. Now, as you're dying...You still have character, always and forever.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Speech at the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations Conference.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zaineb-alani/my-speech-at-the-national_b_237719.html

On July 4 of this year, Vice President Biden celebrated American Independence Day in occupied Iraq, in one of the presidential palaces of the former regime, now an integral part of the US-run 'Green Zone'. Four days earlier, PM Nouri Al-Maliki's US-installed puppet government declared a 'victory' signaled by the pullout of US troops from major Iraqi cities, and the beginning of the 'restoration of sovereignty'. Nothing could have been more hypocritical or comical.

When the late Robert McNamara paid a visit to the independent country of Vietnam that he had previously 'sought to conquer' and failed, he said to their foreign minister, "We wanted to give you Democracy." The reply was, "We wanted our independence first." Why do American policy-makers never learn from history?

I'm amazed by the number of Americans who are 'hurt' that the Iraqis are celebrating US troop withdrawal with no 'word of thanks.' The sad truth is that there is no withdrawal and there is nothing to thank for. For the Iraqis the list of war reparations is not one that the US can dream to even begin to fulfill. How can you bring 1.2 million people back to life? How can you render 2 million war widows married wives again? And how can you give back a lost parent to 5 million Iraqi orphans?

The celebrations of 'independence' in Iraq today are a circus where the primary clowns are the same thugs that count on US presence to survive. And how can anyone question the status of continued US military presence when the largest embassy in the world, the size of 80 football fields, lies in one of the most beautiful locations in the heart of Baghdad. The current troop level dispels the myth of the 'SOFA' agreement. Even after the June 30th deadline, 134,000 US soldiers will be left behind. This number is reminiscent of troop levels in 2003, when the invasion began and before the so-called 'Surge'. Further, and to take it straight from the horse's mouth, the first US military commander in Iraq openly announces 'a longer stay in Iraq for US troops'. In fact, General Odierno, insists "It's not going to end, OK? There'll always be some sort of low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next 5, 10, 15 years..." If so, then what are we celebrating? And what form of 'crystal ball' has General Odierno asserting that there will ALWAYS be a need for US troop presence? Unless, it's the world's second largest oil field.

To the average Iraqi citizen, and rightly so, the Americans are there for the oil, and the puppet-government with its 'no-bid' to 'selective-bid' oil contract policy is there to serve this very purpose. In fact, the common sentiment in Baghdad today is that we went from living under the rule of a tyrannical Ali Baba to that of 40 hundred ruling thieves. According to Transparency International, Iraq is among one of the top countries showing the highest levels of perceived corruption. Jabbar Al-Luaibi, former head of the South Oil company in Basrah, describes the process of the Iraqi's Oil Ministry of maintaining oil production records like 'driving a car without any indicators on the dashboard.'

In Iraq today, there is a detention nightmare, very much reminiscent of Abu-Ghraib under US authority, and very similar to the type of torture chambers that this very occupation claimed to wage war against! 300 Iraqi detainees went into a hunger strike at the Risafa prison in mid-June. The world did not hear them.

Never in the history of Iraq have there been elections established on sectarian and ethnic platforms, thus further reinforcing the birth and growth of 'militias', and paving the way to US-backed mercenary groups. The concept is 'foreign' in Iraq's modern history. Even when the people of Iraq voted, a large majority believed that by voting they were expediting the process of US troop withdrawal. Sadly not.

The recent escalation of bombings in Iraq is not due to the temporary US withdrawal from the major cities, but rather a statement against a continued foreign occupation. Bombings will continue as long as there is foreign presence on Iraqi soil. The foremost expert on the logic of suicide terrorism, Robert Pape, states that it is not primarily motivated by fundamentalism but by the occupation. This motivation is further aggravated when there is a fundamental difference in faith and culture between the occupier and occupied people.

Today, Iraq is a nation of 2 million war widows, 5 million orphans, 2 million internally displaced, and 4 million refugees surviving under the meanest living conditions in neighboring countries, topping the UNHCR World Refugee Statistics for the region. Today 80% of Iraqis civilians have witnessed shootings, kidnapping and killings (per UN statistics). Refugees who have relocated to the US find it extremely difficulty to adapt to 'normalcy'. I teach refugees English as a Second Language in Columbus, Ohio. The trauma these people have witnessed is unimaginable. There is not ONE family who has not suffered their child being kidnapped, or lost a loved one to sectarian 'revenge' killings. I have personally witnessed the struggle of a ten year old to adapt to a school system and the concept of normal life where people are not necessarily out there to 'kill him!' Jewad, whose soccer ball rolled onto a corpse in a Baghdad dumpster when he was 9, can never look at a soccerball the same way again. Needless to say, he now has no interest in any ball game.

In neighboring countries where there is a huge Iraqi refugee population, there also exists a thriving sex trade where the majority of the victims are female minors as young as 13 years old. The text book term for this tragic phenomenon is 'survival sex'. My cousin who is a refugee in Syria has been insulted time and time again, when the women in his family were referred to as 'refugee sluts' despite the fact neither he nor his family had set foot in the red light areas that the Syrian authorities have now turned into an 'unofficial' lucrative tourist attraction.

Unemployment rates in Iraq today fluctuates between 27-60% depending on the region and whether or not a curfew is in effect. 40% of Iraq's professionals and technocrats have left the country. 2000 + physicians have been murdered since 2005 and the health infrastructure is in tatters. Disease is rampant where approximately 10,000 are inflicted with cholera. AIDS which was not even a significant statistic prior to the invasion is now at 75,000 cases (WHO). Ten years ago, there were only 12 known cases.

Today Baghdad is a city of walls. Neighborhoods are segregated like never before and...Baghdad is finally 'ethnically segregated.' The 2 million internally displaced have learned to adapt to their new 'environment', but traveling from one neighborhood to another can still cost one his/her life if they do not carry an ID card. My mother's childhood friend who needed a kidney dialysis died on the way to hospital because the ambulance was stopped multiple times between neighborhood checkpoints with some delays amounting to over an hour. Even if he had made it to hospital, the possibility of his getting the appropriate treatment in a sanitary environment would have been negligible. Three months before the invasion my mother underwent an angioplasty and despite the imposition of sanctions then and the lack of non-expired materials, her surgery was successful. Early, this year, my brother's father-in-law had to be flown into neighboring Amman for the same treatment because the best Iraqi hospitals could not provide it. He could afford the flight; other Iraqis in his condition would just perish. My own uncle, only 6 months ago, was wheeled out of an operation room three times because the dying hospital generators could not take care of the recurrent power outages. Power outages are still very frequent with the population receiving only 50% of the power supply they used to have prior to the invasion. Water, which was not potable prior to the invasion, is still dangerously contaminated in a lot of areas where people are dependant on well-water because the pipes that connect them to the general water network that was bombed during 'shock and awe' have still not been repaired.

When I was growing up in Iraq, and up until the last day before the invasion, had I been able to visit, I would have been able to walk the streets dressed as I am now or drive my car in the streets of Baghdad. I went to school and completed my graduate degree there; I was one of 12 women who graduated from my department in 1991. Then, if I had wanted to pay a water bill, for instance, I would stand in a long line, but I would not have to bribe the clerk at the register to have my transaction completed. For every SINGLE government transaction today, you need to know somebody and that somebody is dependent on your money to survive. Otherwise, you can consider it lost in red tape for up to six months! When my mother ventured to renew her passport; she was given two choices; wait for 8 months, or pay $600.00 (US) to have it delivered in 2 weeks. When I used to drive in Baghdad, I was rarely required to carry an ID. Today, if I don't, and I fall in the hands of the wrong militia, I'm potentially looking at a death sentence.

What caused this nightmare 6 years ago, and continues to cause it has not and is not going away soon. The occupation seems to be there to stay, and the silence of the American people in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis has left them confused and misguided as to what has brought about all this, namely, America's foreign wars and imperialism.

The Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani people cannot win against the American war machine. On their own, they are helpless. They have only one hope, you. We need to build a movement so strong that our voices are heard as one, so loud that we force the occupiers to leave the Middle East and elsewhere where they impose their colonial occupations and plunder the natural resources and wealth of weaker nations. American, Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian peoples are paying a dear price in blood and treasure for the continuation of these wars and occupations.

My hope is that this movement unites, that our minor differences are diminished by our bigger cause, and that this conference will pave the way for agreement on united actions in the months ahead that will tell the whole world when we hit the streets this fall, that we are raising high the banners of "Out Now!" "Out Now! from Iraq." Out Now from Afghanistan!" "Out Now! for Israeli troops from Palestine!" The world needs to know that the U.S. antiwar movement is not only alive and kicking, but is determined to end the nightmares in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zaineb-alani/my-speech-at-the-national_b_237719.html

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Human Cost of War and American Indifference

Mohamed had a wide brow, knotted eyebrows and intense eyes. He always looked worried, but when you engaged him in conversation, he was the calmest individual you could have interacted with. We used to car pool to Baghdad International School in the summer. He would pull the seat back for me in his coupe, as I climbed into the back seat because our next stop would be at Ms. Suhaila’s the history teacher, and she would be filling the passenger seat with her slim figure, dimpled smile, and endless light chatter. He drove silently always, commenting only with the sharpest of wit when it was appropriate.
I recall Nadia too. The last image in my withering memory was of her carrying rolls of posters into the Business Office to have them laminated, the next theme for a future art lesson perhaps? She taught art. He ran the Business office at the same school. That’s how they met.
Three days ago, my mother called to tell me that Mohamed, Nadia and their two children had been abducted by the so called "Al-Qaida in Iraq". My first thought was, “What were they still doing in Baghdad?” Visiting family I later learned. Nadia was released, along with the two children shortly after to collect the ransom of 15,000.00 U.S. dollars. She delivered the money and waited. For two months there was no word. When they gave up, and decided to turn to the police, the officer at the police station in the Hai Al-Jamia district told them that they were no longer keeping the bodies in the morgue. They were arriving in hundreds each day, so the decision was made to take photos of the faces and then amass the bodies into mass graves –sometimes in remote areas. Nadia recognized Mohamed’s face among the first batch of pictures.
For two nights, I couldn’t sleep. His eyes would wake me up so often. “What did they do to you my friend?” my inner mind would scream, “How did you die?” The question to this day will remain unanswered.
I called Aabir a few days later. We went to school together. “There are no men left in the street where we live. They have all fled, including my brothers. Those, who did not, have been abducted. Remember the incident at the Ministry of Education? Well, one of the 55 kidnapped was Lejla’s brother, next door. He was working on this PhD. in Physics. He was never seen again!”
“How do you survive every day my friend?”
“I dodge bullets to work, Z. There is no one left in our office, except myself and another senior architect. He gets requests over the phone. I drive to the sites where the workers are carrying out the construction, give my directions and leave. The other day, I was caught in the cross-fire with Meriam, my eldest. We ran for shelter in the garage of a nearby house. The family let us in, and offered us food and tea. We waited until the shooting stopped; my car was bullet ridden when I next climbed into it, but it was still working. Meriam was still trembling even after we got home, and she was safe in her grandmother’s lap. We see bodies lying in the street, Z. We realize it’s ‘haram’ to just leave them there, and that as Muslims, they deserve a speedy and proper burial, but no one will approach them. They put explosives in them nowadays.”
I cannot fathom how my friend is surviving. I called my uncle. In his old age, he suffers from Parkinson, and has little access to medical assistance because of the security situation. He broke down crying over the phone. “I want to see you before I die…before they slaughter us!”
“Please don’t cry, I begged and have faith.” But the truth of the matter is…I do not anymore. I have faith in nothing and no one.
At work, I turn to a co-worker. “I lost a co-worker in Baghdad.” I confess. “We used to commute to work together; …” She turns an indifferent eye in my direction and asks about the storm outside the window. At the gym, I share with a ‘friend’, “my uncle in Baghdad broke down over the phone”. “Did you want a hair band?” she asks, “your hair will get in the way if you don’t wear one”.
I am amazed and hurt at this indifference. I wonder what it is that renders Americans in denial. Maybe it’s the fact that they do not want to be reminded? But why should they care. It is not their family; it is not their childhood friend.
I pick up a copy of Newsweek, the photos of 7 US army officers shot down in a Black Hawk stare back at me. The title reads, “The Human Cost of War”…I ask myself, “What about the 600,000 (Lancet, 2006) civilians who have perished as a result of flawed US foreign policy and military mismanagement. Were they not a human cost? Why is that fact constantly under-played in the media?”
Someone at work is sympathetic, “You know, we live in such a safe haven, not knowing what is going on in other parts of the world…It’s so sad.” I looked at her and said, “if you remove any security force after creating a huge power vacuum, the most civil of people will riot and break the law…even kill if pressed. The US military disbanded an entire army after the fall of the regime, but secured nothing. Remember what happened in Katrina when there was no police force to control anything anymore?” She looks away, and I wonder if she is making sense of what I am saying, if she is making sense of the fact that the American mistakes in Iraq are now completely irreversible, that the damage done will take generations to repair…if at all? I realize, I am asking for too much. If I push my argument, she will turn into another frigid co-worker with a listless gaze, wondering “Why the f___ is she talking to me about politics when she sure as h___ knows I don’t have a clue…!”

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

This letter was Published in the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday, May 20, 2006, under the title 'Give Iraqis a Chance to Fix Their Country on Their Own'.

Everybody Out!

My father's travels ended in 1980. We came back to live the Iran-Iraq war. Zinnah was a child of ten when she attended the Dijla (Tigress) Primary School. One day she returned to ask my mother, "Are we Sunni or Shooyouii (Arabic for Communist)?", a word she had most probably picked up in my father's endless political debates with friends and family and sometimes himself. "Who taught you these words?" my mother asked in curiosity. "Oh! This girl in school asked me if we were Sunni or Shooyouii?" Actually, the girl had asked Zinnah, if we were Sunni or Shiite, but Zinnah had never heard either of these words before. "These words will not be repeated in this household! You are Muslim!" came mother's stern reply. Now, almost thirty years later, and much to my mother's grief, these very same words are thrown in our faces in every newscast.

In 2003 a few months before the invasion of Iraq, my brother, a Sunni decided to take a Shiite wife. It was agreed that they would have a Sunni Sheik and a Shiite Imam present and hold both marriage ceremonies –the differences are subtle. The idea was to have both holy authorities present. Ahmed, a born procrastinator, only got through to the Sunni Sheik on the morning of that day. Of course, he was booked. My brother and his wife were eventually married by a Shiite Imam. It couldn't have been lovelier or more tear-inducing.

What has happened to Iraq? It started with a failing dictator whose only means of remaining in power was to divide and rule. The Islamic Shiite Revolution in Iran had its far-reaching effects in 1979 –in fact, it extended as far as Lebanon, where the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the South are Shiite. So is the case in Iraq, but was it necessary to wage a war against Iran to stop the 'Shiite Influence'? It achieved nothing but devastation for the Iraqi people, but it did protect the strategic interests of the 'Petro-Dollar' industry. After the first Gulf war, US/UN-imposed sanctions only helped further entrench the tyrant in his position, while the masses struggled to survive hunger. It was in the nineties, that he reared a generation, of starved youth whom he fed his sectarian agenda, which he managed to squeeze into very secular (Baathist) party principles. This, of course, gave birth to their extreme counterparts. Were Sunnis not persecuted under his rule? Of course they were! Thousands died…But more thousands of Shiite perished, and it was not a question of population ratio. If you were detained by Saddam's 'dogs', and depending on the severity of your 'crime', chances were if you were Shiite, you went to a mass grave, almost immediately. If you were Sunni, you languished for the longest time, and if you behaved, your life could be spared for a price, but not after you had undergone torture that perhaps made you envy those that died immediately.

Then came the neo-con agenda. An invasion followed by elections enhanced by sectarian and ethnic platforms thus furthering the divide, and today, we have 'Death Squads'. The accusations fly when you hear an Iraqi complaining about the status quo, but the pattern and methodology of lynching that is carried out against both sects is pretty identical. The Sunnis blame Iranian infiltrators, and so does the majority of nationalist Shiite. But Iran has the current ruling party 'in its pockets'. What would it gain from a civil strife? You would think it would want to promote the stability of the government that has its full backing.

I came across the answer pretty recently. I found the first string embedded in an article by Robert Fisk, where he interviews a Syrian "security source", who confirms to him, stories of Iraqi security forces trained by US forces and sent to detonate explosive cars without their knowing. He adds that "No one can account for the murder of 191 university teachers and professors since the 2003 invasion - nor the fact that more than 50 former Iraqi fighter-bomber pilots who attacked Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war have been assassinated in their home towns in Iraq in the past three years."

John Piljer goes further to insist that the CIA-controlled ministry of the interior in Baghdad, "directs the principal death squads" and that their operations are not unlike the "CIA's terror operations in central America in the 1980s, notably El Salvador". But then what are the parallels between El Salvador in the 1980s and Iraq in the 21 st century? Primarily the existence of para-military groups (militias as some like to refer to them), and as W. John Greene puts it "the disappearance of tens of thousands from their homes and communities and the marginalization of those too fearful to participate in their country's political future."

All this coincides with radical changes taking place in the CIA led by no other than the notorious John Negroponte well known for his history as US ambassador to Honduras in "play(ing) a key role in coordinating US covert aid to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and shoring up a CIA-backed death squad in Honduras", according to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.

As Iraqis, and like any other nation we have always had our differences. As a multi-sectarian, multi-religious and multi-ethnic group, we have not only co-existed, we have inter-married. I am a product of this tolerance. Kurdish and Turkumanian, as well as Arab blood runs strong in my veins. Since the establishment of the Independent State of Iraq in 1920, under a British Mandate, we have never been known to kill each other; I repeat never. Why are they forcing us now to kill each other? But then, who can guess what an occupier's agenda holds for the future of a victimized country.

The solution to the Iraqi quagmire is not further intervention by any foreign forces. Leave us alone! We can manage our own state of affairs; we have been doing so for almost a century now before dictators dictated their 'Petro-dollar dreams' on our future, and strangers with cruel agendas landed on our shores.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Letter to the Columbus Dispatch, published in the Editorial page on Monday, September 12, 2005

Bad planning hurt U.S. in Iraq, Gulf Coast

As an Iraqi living in the United States, watching the chaotic scenes in Louisiana and Mississippi really explains the mess in Iraq for me. The parallels are overwhelming. Policy-makers knew years ago that something like this would hit the southern coast of the United States. What did they do about it? Nothing. Countries like the Netherlands and Norway have much more technologically advanced levees and dikes that endure winds of 200 mph vs. the 150 mph caused by Hurricane Katrina. Why couldn't the United States, the most technologically advanced country in the world, enjoy the same? Likewise in Iraq, the planning that was supposed to take place before the invasion never happened. The army and police, the only resources for maintaining security in the country, were disbanded in the blink of an eye, without any consideration for the consequences. The result is a price the Iraqis and Americans are paying for with their blood. I cannot understand this lack of organization in what is supposed to be the most advanced Western country. It makes me question the existence of any accountability.
No one can tell a superpower that it mishandled a crisis at home any more than one can tell it that it has mishandled an invasion overseas. The reconstruction in Iraq will not happen anytime soon due to lack of planning. At home, relief came days late, after the hurricane struck, at the cost of thousands of lives.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Our Family Doctor in Baghdad

Dr. Ihsan or Amu Ihsan (Uncle Ihsan), as we liked to call him had had a tough life. He lost a beautiful wife to cancer, early in his marriage. He was left to raise two boys and a girl, alone. I remember, Ayman, his daughter, at Baghad High. She had inherited her mother’s looks and was as kind as she was pretty.
We had a number of ‘Family Doctors’. There was Dr. Khalid, who was also an impressionist artist, a member of the Pioneer Artist movement in Iraq that commenced in the early sixties. There was Dr. Badri, who was the first Iraqi to obtain an FRCS in Heart Surgery in the UK, in 1948. And there was Dr. Ihsan. He later married Aunty Sevem (her name meant ‘fair’ in Turkish), in the eighties. I was in high school then. People mispronounced her name, and often called her ‘Seven’, mistaking it for an English word. She would smile in her own sweet way at that.
The most vivid of my memories with Dr. Ihsan was when I overdosed on an anti-spasmodic, I perceived as vital to my recovery from what had then seemed a ‘lifelong’ condition of diarrhea. I had started with two of the pills, and when it did not help, followed with another. Suddenly, I discovered that I could not urinate. I somehow found my mother’s diuretic, and stupidly believing it would induce me to urinate –like it did her all the time, I took one. Instead, I was ‘inflating’ a ‘locked’ bladder, and writhing with agony. When Mama came home from school, she grabbed me, sat me on the toilet seat, turned on every single faucet in the bathroom, and ordered me to look at it, and ‘release’. She did leave the bathroom to offer me some privacy. It did not help. By evening, I had braced myself for a massive explosion. I had convinced myself that I was going to die of a burst bladder.
Mama decided Ahmed should take me to see Dr. Ihsan, and he would work his miracle, as always. Ahmed piled newspapers in the passenger seat of his car. ‘I don’t want you peeing in my car!’ he sneered –he was not too happy that he had been burdened with the task of taking me to Dr. Ihsan’s downtown office. ‘I can’t pee, you idiot! That’s why you’re taking me!’ I retorted. I cannot remember what Dr. Ihsan did, but it worked. I was more than eager to use the restroom at his office. It was the biggest relief I had experienced in my whole life. That was years ago.
Yesterday, Mama told me that, ‘insurgents’ had kidnapped Dr. Ihsan. He had been taking a ‘back street’ as he normally does back from his office to avoid the numerous ‘American’ checkpoints. The street had been somewhat busy. Suddenly, a car rear-ended him, another pulled up in front of his car, while two others pulled over on both sides, blocking it completely. Yet another five cars surrounded the scene. Traffic stopped, and vehicles started to flee in diverse directions regardless of the flow. Ten people jumped out of the cars. Two pointed a gun at his head. Within minutes, he had been pushed into one of the cars, blindfolded, and his wrists shackled. The butt of a gun forced his head down.
All along, his blindfold was never removed. Through the thin material, he could discern that their destination was an abandoned house in the countryside. His captors wasted no time in revealing their intentions. They wanted a ransom; 300 US thousand dollars.
Dr. Ihsan offered to give them the details of his bank accounts in the UK, Jordan and Iraq. ‘I do not have that amount of money. You can check the balances, and if you discover otherwise, it’s all yours’. ‘But you charge so much per visit!’ they insisted. Sadly, they did not know that Dr. Ihsan did not charge the poor in Baghdad, a single ‘fils’. And the poor were many in Baghdad, and formed the majority of his patients.
In the meantime, a call had been made to Aunty Sevem, and she had been able to raise 100 thousand US dollars. ‘He’s very sick,’ she pleaded, over the phone. ‘He’s under the best care,’ came the grim reply.
Eventually, Dr. Ihsan lost 100 thousand dollars, but he won his freedom. He used all the wisdom that was so familiar of his character. ‘I’m 75 years old’, he had impressed upon his captors. ‘I am not afraid to die. I have lived a long life. I do not fear death. I have faith’. ‘We’ll slaughter you like a sheep!’ they had screamed back at him, in anger at his defiance. In response, he had asked for water to perform his ablution before prayer. ‘I rarely miss my prayers, and I do not want to miss any prayers now’, he told them calmly. ‘You want what?’ one of them had exclaimed. The ridicule in the question surprised Dr. Ihsan. If his captors were members of the 'religiously extreme' insurgency, where had their ‘religious’ values gone? He soon came to find they did not have any. And if the money was going to support the resistance, as they claimed, why was he overhearing differently? He could hear them talk when they thought he wasn’t listening. Yet, Dr. Ihsan recognized the attitude, style, and ‘jargon’ of the ‘intelligence’ personnel of the ex-regime. He had been detained before by the ex-regime, so it was not difficult for him to recognize the type of people that were incarcerating him again, only in different circumstances.
‘I was summoned to Bremer’s office’ when the CPA took power, he said to Mama. ‘I didn’t go. I wasn’t going to talk to the occupation. His assistant then came to visit me. I remember asking him, “What have you done? What do you expect now that have dismantled the entire security system of a sovereign country?”…He looked me in the face and remained silent. He had nothing to say…’

Monday, May 02, 2005



It was the height of the summer season in Baghdad; what we normally referred to as ‘Aab Al-lahab’ or ‘Flaming August’. The dates had over-ripened and were dripping black spots on the patio in the larger villa next door. Some of it dripped off Dad’s favorite tree. It was that same tree, which fell to the ground, hours before he passed away in February,1999, or so says ‘Abu-Shaker’. It had fallen with a distinctly loud thud that had awoken the neighbors as well. No, it was not another American missile, they sighed with relief upon discovering. Besides, after the massive December bombings of 1998, when Aseel, my cousin’s wife, had given birth to her twins under an air raid, there had followed some kind of a lull in air raids.

But, this summer season was long before that. It was during the Iraq-Iran war, the war of attrition that should have never been. The dates dripped, and the Italians that were tenants at one of our larger houses, began complaining. Mama had started complaining long before that. “Othman, when are you going to call the date pickers?” He would stare right through her, as if she was another date palm in the room, significantly shorter and fuller in shape. “It’s high time, we picked those dates. I need to start giving out the portions I do every year. We will loose them if they over-ripen!” She was referring to eight tall date palms next door, and another five in our own back yard.

Anita was one of the sweetest Italians Mama had ever met. Her husband was a chancellor at the Italian embassy in Baghdad. We would go to her house for piano lessons. Zinnah, my sister, was quicker to pick up. I had been self-trained for too long to change my ways. She had wanted us to perform at the Italian embassy where other children from the Italian community in Baghdad of the mid-eighties were going to perform. She had been working hard at training these children. We were teenagers then. Dad’s response to that was, “We don’t want the security police knocking on our doors again. We had best stay away from these ‘public events’!”

Eventually, Dad called the date pickers. They were villagers that traveled to Baghdad at this time of the year, knowing that there were many Baghdadi gardens, where the date palms were too tall for their owners to pick. Not that they were any taller. Date pickers wrapped a large piece of strong burlap around their waists and hips. A thick rope bound the two loose ends of the burlap, forming a huge ‘purse-like’ swing, in which the picker sat. The rope was used for climbing the tree. The picker would haul himself upwards, sitting in the ‘sack’, and using the rope and his bare feet to support him. The date palm’s dead fronds would form the cleats onto which the picker would ‘latch’ his rope.

They arrived late as expected. Dad had already informed our Italian neighbors that the date pickers were going to come and pick the date palms and that they would get their portion. The pickers worked throughout the whole afternoon, and when they were done, they came to ring our door bell. Dad inspected the sacks of dates they managed to fill, and just as he was turning over the last one, Anita showed up at our door. ‘De patio issa dirty!’, she complained. Dad looked quizzically at the first picker (they were two of them), ‘Did you not clean up where the dates dropped?’. ‘No’, he replied, and added, ‘That’s a woman’s job! We don’t clean.’ Dad was firm, ‘But we agreed that I would pay you to pick the dates and that you would protect the patio by laying newspapers. I even gave you a whole bag of old newspapers.’ The man said nothing. Dad tried to get him to clean the mess, by offering him more money. It was useless. Finally, the man said, ‘I will pick up all the dead date palm leafs and the bits of fronds that are scattered around the date trees, but I will not clean the patio.” Anita waited patiently. Dad turned to her and calmly said, ‘We’ll take care of it. They’re going to come back and pick up the dead leaves.’

He walked into the living room, where the three of us had sat listening in to the dialogue. ‘You have heard everything...Which one of you will go to the house next door and clean the patio, since Jumhuriya (the cleaning lady) has left for the day?’ ‘That’s a woman’s job!’, insisted Ahmed. ‘But you are the oldest, and you’re a boy!’ argued Zinnah. It went on and on. I could see my father’s weary eyes begin to lose patience, and yet still he waited for us to reach an agreement. ‘I’ll go!’ I said.

It had been a while since I had ‘visited’ to take a piano lesson. I had memories in that house because we had lived there at one point, and these seemed to wave at me from behind the window panes. The pickers stopped working when they saw me approach. I was not a child, and yet I was not a ‘woman’. I was dressed in ‘weird-looking’ cut-off jeans (a little over the knees). Anita looked very disappointed. In her broken English, she managed, ‘You, clean it?’ ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Why?’ she asked. She obviously felt sorry for me. ‘It’s OK.’ I replied.

The pickers had been eyeing Anita, since she first appeared at our door. She looked different, and when she had spoken, she had certainly sounded different. In her nervousness, she turned to one of the pickers, and with all the courage she could muster, she chided him with a ‘You puttita dere now!’ He glared at me instead of her.

‘What did she say?’
‘She’s asking you to do your job.’ I replied.
‘What language was that?’
'That was English.’

At that, the terror in the date picker’s eyes and voice became pretty apparent. ‘Istimar! Istimar!’ he shouted back at Anita. He was calling her an imperialist and colonialist. I was shocked, at first. Given his villager’s education and the level of schooling that he might have achieved, I was amazed that he could mutter such a sophisticated word. But then, it was a word deeply embedded in Iraqi history and culture. ‘No, they’re not,’ I replied, trying to clam him down. ‘They are diplomats. They were invited into this country,’ I argued, in an attempt to explain their status as ‘strangers’. I smiled at Anita to assure her that I had some control of the situation. ‘Istimar!’ he insisted, and then fell silent.

I ignored him as I washed the patio with soap and water, and scrubbed the stubborn stains of bits and pieces of sticky dates off the marble. Later, I returned home to tell my story to Ahmed and Zinnah. Mama and Dad listened too. We could not stop laughing at the date picker’s remarks. Zinnah even attempted a mimic. ‘Istimar!’ she screamed in my face. ‘How simple and ignorant, they are,’ sighed Mama. ‘What if they knew she was our piano teacher?’ asked Zinnah. ‘We are being taught to play a Western instrument, by none other than the Istimar!’ Dad said nothing.

I look back at this incident now, and I do not think it is funny anymore. If the villager did not know better then, I know better now. Iraq is now filled with ‘Istimar’. Troops and forces from different nations have made their way in, UNINVITED, by the people of Iraq. To me, they are ALL ‘Istimar!’

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Letter in response to an 'optimistic' US Army Personnel:

----- Original Message -----
From: Morrow, James L.
To: Z. Alani
Sent: Tuesday, April 05, 2005 12:22
PMSubject: RE: Pictures from Iraq.
Date: 05, April 2005Attn: Z. Alani
Importance: High

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed these photos.I spent the summer in No. Iraq and, the bad press was constant.Here in Baghdad, I feel welcome. As an American I will be in this country for many many years, God Willing. I will do everything and nearly anything for these people. OIF must succeed, my new friends are counting on each of us. America will not fail here. Thanks again, Kindest Personal Regards Mr. L. James Morrow Jim GOD BLESS our Great Nations

-----Original Message-----
From: Z Alani
Sent: 06 April 2005 03:30
To: Morrow, James L.
Subject: Re: Pictures from Iraq.Importance: High

Mr. Morrow:

I have 40 extended family members in Iraq. They are NOT happy with the occupation, unfortunately. And they are NOT extremists; they are moderates who are trying to pursue a 'normal life'. After two years of US occupation, their phones don't work; their electricity supply has dwindled to 4 hours a day; their water supply is NOT potable (they can't drink it); their sewage system 'sucks', they cannot travel from point A to Z without the threat of being blown up on the way. It takes twice, sometimes 3 times the time to travel. My female family members are forced to wear a scarf on their heads whether they consent to the idea or not because they will be harassed on the street if they do not, not because their families impose that, but because security is so poor, extremists are rampant! My mother cannot drive her car unchaperoned. When our neighbor (senior lady), went into a coma there was NO ambulance to take her to the hospital. My brother, with the help of another neighbor had to take her to a 'nearby' hospital. It took them 2 hours to get to the hospital, mostly because of the security check points; the woman was pronounced dead upon arrival. No, my family in Iraq is NOT happy with the occupation. No nation under occupation would be. As an American citizen, would you be happy if China decided on a 'regime change' in the US, and 'landed' to dictate to you how you should run your life the 'Chinese' way? I don't think so.

I understand that your intentions are sincere. God bless you for that. But matters are not that simplistic. You should ask yourself, what role in a 'bigger plan' am I fulfilling? Why is the United States in Iraq? Why isn't it in Liberia? Iraq lies over the world's second largest oil reserve. The United States needs to control the world's second largest source of energy to control the world. This is NOT about the freedom of the Iraqi people. Even a seven year old Iraqi child will confirm the same to you. That is what happened when I last spoke to my family there.

The 'ex-regime' that the US removed was installed by none other than the US. Ask yourself, why when the Halabchans (Kurds in the North) were gassed, did the US turn a blind eye -during the war of attrition, where the US was supplying one regime with arms and the other with satellite surveillance services? I do not make up these facts; they are well-documented. Ask yourself why did the US, for 12 years, impose crippling draconian sanctions on the poor nation of Iraq, and observe as the country deteriorated and the people starved to death, while the regime thrived? Why did they not lift a finger to stop the slow genocide of more than a million Iraqi children -Unicef will attest to that (again this is well documented)? Was it humane to finally, 'shock and awe' the nation into total submission? Where there no other means to dismantle the regime? Of course there were, but the US had to maintain a military presence in Iraq, and had to find a reason to 'physically' control the energy resources, and that is exactly what is happening.

I do not mean to discourage you from what you are doing. Again, I'm sure that your intentions are altruistic, and I feel a little 'bad' because I come across as 'ungrateful', but the above, are well-established facts that need to be taken into consideration in a discussion as such. I am NOT ignorant, and neither are the 25 million Iraqi people who 'love' you.


Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Contemplations...before... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

"I know what that means!" he remarked, with a hint of excitment.
"It says 'Allah'. " I explained.
"Yeah! Aalaa!". I wasn't going to argue with a security guard at BWI over the correct pronounciation of the Arabic word. We were in the in the 'High Security' line.
"I know why they placed me here," said the lady before me. "It happens every time I don't check in any luggage"...
"Well," I replied, "It happens every time they read my name."
She gave me a quizzical look.
The New Zealanders behind me looked at me. "Do we really have to take off our shoes now?"...
"You're better off taking them off now than later." I felt I owed them more explanation. "This is for our security, you know. It's better to be safe than sorry"...I wanted to add, especially with the elections approaching...but I bit my tongue...
"So why do you wear it?"
I turned to the almost childlike innocence in the eyes of the African-American guard. I wanted to mutter something like..."Well, why would you wear a cross or the star of David?" Instead, I replied with all the calm I could muster.."For protection."
"There are other things that Muslims wear" I added. "They may wear tiny gilded boxes that look like a tiny Quran cover. They actually have a tiny little book with some verses, put in there, which means if you don't take it off every time you shower, you end up with book mold all over your cleavage!" He stared at me this time. "That of course was an exaggeration," I added, with a small smile. 'Did that really come out of my mouth?'
"What's this?", he digs into my 'carry-on', and produces one of my favorite books, 'The Cat Who Cried for Help'.
"Animal behavioral science", was my prompt reply.
"You have cats?"..."Two" I replied.
He smiled as he handed me my belongings. I was a 'different' muslim. I did not wear a head cover and I read about animals even though I still carried "Allah" around my neck.
One more person...perhaps, enlightened? I wished...

Monday, April 12, 2004

"Today, he was hung on a piece of wood," laments Fayrooz, "he who had hung the skies over the waters..." The music is brilliant, her voice lavish, yet soft. It was a Sad Friday, and Pollina had taken us to the Catholic church up the street, from our house in Al-Mansoor, to light candles. In the darkly painted manger outside, I lit a candle -I still light a candle every now and then. Inside the church, the Virgin Mary is covered in a black cloth. I cannot see her face. Pollina kneals. We watch on, my younger sister clutching my sweaty fingers.
The moans emerge from Nuha's living room. They mourn another martyr. His head was severed from his body, a starved and thirsty head, an adamant head, that vowed to die for the word...Allah's word. The main mourner's voice stems from the tape recorder. He sobs as he describes Al-Hussien's last moments. We have to keep our moans low. The police patrols of the regime outside can confiscate our recorder. They can order us to silence...sometimes forever. We mourn Al-Hussien quitely.
He died thirsty. So did Jesus...
At home, I sit to lament with Fayrooz...Her words tug at my tear glands..."My heart weeps for my people, they have slaughtered their Savior!", she sings.
In another room, the next day, everyone is in black. I am on the floor, listening to the mourning..."Curse the people that did that to you!"...He died for the word...Would he have wanted words of hate after his death?
"Anger, anger tumbling down...
Filling all the air with sound...!"
Anger at injustice.
Lamentation at injustice...And on those two days, in Falujah...another injustice...on Easter Sunday, on the fortieth annual memorial of the death of Al-Hussien, thousands mourned 600 more dead... Somewhere in the skies, the prophets weep, and God closes his eyes in pain...

Thursday, February 19, 2004

I don’t know…Well, we didn’t know until the lists came out...the published lists.
He was taken in 1981. My older brother had fled the country. So they came for him, for the younger brother…our youngest. He was a student at the University of Mousl.
My mother visited him when they would let her, for a year or so. He would grope at the dirty bars that separated them, and say, “I’m fine. It’s only a matter of time. They have nothing against me. They’ll let me go, eventually.” And they did let him go…The next time she visited, they told her he was no longer there.’
Eventually, his spirit was 'let go'…with many others, I think. They swam in the mass graves, surfaced at the pits of where the bodies had been strewn, spat back at their killers and subsided into peace down in the beds of the pits…collectively.
‘They don’t know what it means to be Shiite. They think it’s a sin. We are no more sinners than they are…Who is to say what God’s tolerance will know?…Ours is a way of mercy...a mercy that we have never grasped from this world...
I just cannot imagine…what his soul was sputtering, when they dragged them there…in hundreds and thousands. They must have held onto each other for strength…or maybe they cried in unity...clasped their sweating palms together and lifted their heads towards the sky. There’s comfort in going together. You’re not alone.’
She closes her large eyes for a moment. And the pain seeps through the tightly sealed lashes.
‘Then we were all thrown at the border. They didn’t want us, and the Iranians thought we were insurgents. As the trucks unloaded us, their burden, I observed my small years roll onto the desert floor. The heat came through our feet and our skin. I remember my father with tears in his eyes, helping my mother to the shade of a date palm. We, who had lived in palaces, were going to live in slums. It was our fate and we accepted it. God kept his merciful eyes upon us…always. And through the years we waited. We heard nothing.
Then they published those lists yesterday…and my mother’s lashes since have not fluttered…In her eyes, she is still waiting for my brother to come home.’

Sunday, February 01, 2004

It was 1964 and I had not been born yet. Ahmed was a year old as he sat in the passenger seat of my father’s dark diplomatic sedan in downtown Peking at the peak of the Cultural Revolution. A cigar dangled from my father’s intellectual lips. It caught the eye of a 'figure of authority' infused with xenophobia, ready to revolt! He halted the passage of the car, down the crowded street, totally ignoring the 'Corps Diplomatique' number plate it carried.

Faces pushed their tiny noses against the tinted glass of the black vehicle. As usual, my then little brother assumed it was the attention his big brown eyes had always managed to attract of so many baby lovers. The policeman spoke only in Mandarin; he waved at my father’s face, gesturing that he remove the cigar from his mouth. It was against the law in China, to drive and smoke. My father had not known. He removed the cigar from his mouth gently, then quietly pointed to the car fender where the number plate reared its prominent head. The 'figure of authority' had no authority over the Charges d'affaires of a foreign country, but he had not known. Something in the challenge of a large foreign vehicle had sparked curiosity in his large ego. It was not about the law…It was about a foreigner who would not heed an ‘authentic figure of authority’.

I was born in a remote monarchy. Then whisked off to a police state. Where I grew up in, 'figures of authority' flooded the streets. Their egos loomed like gigantic clouds over the river Tigress. The wrath of their rain, when thunder was provoked, could be felt by everyone walking the streets.

Down River Street, Zinnah’s white Volvo stationwagon went. A black Mercedes followed us; the ‘Palace’ number plate shining in its bronze frame. Mayada started crying. Zinnah kept a level head as she flicked her eyelashes towards the rear-view mirror and back at the road ahead. We would not be provoked!

Suddenly, shots were fired in the air. I turned around without thinking. The man in khaki had raised his hand out of the window, and was now lowering the gun back inside. He beamed at my panicked eyes. The steam of his ego had been released at last, in the face of three arrogant girls who had dared to totally ignore it!

Forty years after China, on a dimly-lit street in front of a huge church, in Columbus, Ohio, I was halted by an orange figure. His orange coat was surrounded by orange flares that lit up a circumference of a few inches around each, rendering him a stunning nightly spectacle.

It was dark and cold and late. A church usher had his duty to perform in front of God and society. I waited while he did. After a while and for a long while, there were no cars anymore. The figure briskly walked to the middle of the street and giving me his orange back completely; chatted up some figures in the dark. I needed to move away. It seemed as if he had wanted to forget me, and I did not want to be forgotten, so I moved.

I was suddenly stopped. The orange man turned into a ‘figure of authority’. The years flooded back.
“What did you think I was, an orange cone with a Sheriff’s hat?” –his orange nose glowed in the headlight.
I would not have recognized his ‘Sherrif’s hat’ as an emblem of authority ‘in a million American years!’

I tried to recover his shattered ego, scattered all over the road…burning with the flares...to no avail. After all…he was a ‘figure of authority’…and whether in Mandarin, Arabic or English…they really all spoke the same language…the language of the Ego.

Monday, January 19, 2004

They say that you are a Kurd. We’re going to turn you into Mr. Hyde! You are worth the honor! You should be proud to have been chosen.’
Sarbast looked away. He turned his eyes towards an invisible God, somewhere above the ceiling fan, who must be watching this happen, in this dingy office, behind a rusty metal desk. Who else could he turn to?
‘Sir, I cannot. Can you please not grant someone else this honor?’
‘No, you have been chosen.’
‘What if I refuse?’
‘Then you will be killed’
‘But, if I agree then I might die.’
‘Then you will be a national hero!’
In the glass room, Sarbast, tried hard to twist the knob of fate that had been turned on him. It was steadfastly locked. He started to cry. He called God's name, as he braced himself- ‘Ash hadu Ana La Illah Il Allah’…
The door opened. 'Why have you not poured the chemical into the glass of water yet?'. The voice was threatening.
‘I cannot. I do not know what will happen if I do.’
‘Well, you will know if you do. Do you want me to kill you with my own hands?’
Sarbast was again, confined in glass, a human guinea pig...
Suddenly, an Angle spoke into his right ear. “Pour the water into the chemical, you can make its impact less…”
At that, he fainted.
‘You are a hero! The experiment has succeeded.’ Sarbast opened his eyes to see the Commander’s shadow, towering over a side table fan. He observed his feet dangling from a hospital bed.
‘You have a week’s vacation. You can go home.’
Sarbast never returned to the Ministry of Military Poisoning.
Seven years later, Chra was born with little holes in her heart.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

'Falluuuuuuuuujaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!' Basil’s voice trailed as he attempted a not-so-philharmonic rendition of Eruption's, ‘Illusion’ –then, a chart hit, in the eighties.
We all sat there, in the rear of the Volvo station wagon; what my mother’s cousin used to refer to as the ‘Monkeys' Stall’. We sat like monkeys, our folded elbows resting on our bent knees, rocking vigorously, to the music, while our parents discussed politics, in lowered voice tones.
'Fallujah Kabab', the same old sign would read.
‘They have Kabab for breakfast, these people!’
‘Will you stop making fun of these poor people! At least they eat to their hearts content! What do you have for breakfast, anyway?’ My mother’s stern voice silenced the chatter, but not long enough. Before too long, Basil was again singing, 'Falluuujaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!'
Every time, we planned one of those trips to the Habaniya Lake Resort, we passed by that sign. For the 8 or 80 years of travel ban during the Iraq-Iran War, that was our vacation ‘refuge’.
Fallujah was the funny part of the journey. There was nothing comical about the town. Yet, for teenagers from the more affluent areas of Baghdad, the simple people, and their simplistic ways came across as amusing.
There was one main street, where people thronged in and out, Dishdashas, and Safari suits alike. A few women in Abbayas would try and cross the lanes, in the relatively heavy traffic. Like the rest of the small towns scattered around Baghdad, the inhabitants stared on, as the Baghdad number plates whizzed past. Slowly, their car repair shops would begin to thrive.
As we would pass more residential-looking areas, the garden walls rose high. This was all about Bedouin privacy...Children playing on the street would wave as we flew past. Some would point at our position in the back of the station wagon and it seemed they were almost giggling.
Habaniya Lake was more serene than the military base that had caused it to be, as quiet as the graves of the British soldiers, in the less-trodden part of the base, soldiers that had fought to their deaths before the country gained its independence. That is, until you arrived within proximity of the lake resort, and the noise of Baathist brats began to rise. They even had their own VIP quarters where no one dared linger. Nobody knew where the invisible red line lay, until you saw someone in a khaki Safari suit, threatening your very existence, behind antiquated coal-black sunglasses.
I remember singing to the lake's serenity with a group of friends, together, comfortably seated on the rocks by the lakeside. It was summer, it was cool, and it was beautiful. Then, they would want to hear me sing. ‘Sing, Zanooba, sing!’… And I opened my mouth, and a gnat dived in! That was the first time ever, that I choked on a gnat.
I wonder what category of ghost lake resorts, it has now fallen under. Fallen under...there were horror stories, about people who drowned in whirlpools. 'Don't swim in the lake waters!'.
Now, they whirl in silence, and nearby Fallujah, has become a stronghold of resistance. Fallujah? Resistance? Whoever thought, those simplistic people would have more guts than the 'big city' people!
Overseas, the ex-political asylee that had approached the British official with pleading eyes, had questioned, ‘How can you expect me to go back now? Just because the old slaughterers are no longer there, it does not mean that there will not be fresh bloodbaths!’
’Oh, just don’t go to Fallujah! You will be alright!’
He had stared back in disbelief; he had not thought about that small town at all! He did not know whether he should mock the attempt at reassurance or confirm the confident ignorance.
Thus is the fate of Fallujah. For now, it will be famed for bloodbaths, no more Kababs or car rides, just slaughtered children, alienated school gates, bullet pinched garden walls, and pools of crimson entrails left to dry, on that crowded main street, under the strong sun of Iraq…

Monday, January 12, 2004

Her eyebrows raised; her soft brown eyes, annoyed,
"Why do you keep feeding those American ducks, when none of your American neighbors do?"
"They are not American ducks mother; they are Canadian geese. They're not even Canadian; they're God's Geese! Some of my neighbors will feed them, but not everyday like I do...-it's part of the culture; everyone has to take care of himself. They don't like them because they can sometimes cause traffic to stop...They are as foreign as you and I; only, they don't require a visa to come here...They just fly in!"
"Yes, but you spend so much money on that bird seed!"
"They are God's creatures mother. I'm sure God will have someone spend money on my food when I'm starved...And he has, through people, just like my neighbors. Although, when our people starved through American-imposed sanctions, I don't think it's because they didn't feed the ducks...Maybe they didn't feed the right ducks...It's all about whom you feed..."
"So you're feeding the ducks so that you don't starve..."
"No, I'm feeding the ducks because they are hungry. Those Marasmus tummies looked hungry too...According to the average Mid-Western mentality, though... maybe 'over bloated'. Yes, that kid must have swallowed lotsa oil..After all, it's floating in pools all over the place, out there, isn't it?!"
"Are you delirious? I thought you had outgrown your senseless gibberish!"
"How else, can I attract your love and attention, mother?"
"Maybe I'm feeding the Canadian geese all the food those children over there, never got; all the food I could never get through to them...Maybe it's my guilt complex...But they do look happy mother...Lets enjoy their joy of sustenance, mother, before we are deprived of our own through some unknown future sanctions!"

Sunday, January 11, 2004

'I'm sick of hearing about this. I am hopeless.'
His Palestinian eyes glistened, a hazel gleam in them. He looked 'sick of this!'
He lived on Nuzha Street, in Ramallah. The long street knew Sunday walks to church every morning; people adorned in their 'haut-couture', according to the Greek Orthodox ritual.
This Armenian family made the best chocolate in town. Everyone could taste it at the mention of their name.
Across from their villa was a tall and lonely minaret that tried to be part of the Christian culture around, and was in turn warmly embraced as a 'half-equal'.
The fugitive was wantonly wanted.
The Israeli German Shepherd knew no mercy. Not that the dog did not like humans. It was taught to hate 'human or not so human-like' Arabs.
It bore its heavy cameras with an ostentatiousness worthy of only the best of its breed. It never questioned their purpose. Suicide Dog. Oblivious to the destiny it was trained for...It had to follow that scent! The scent of a human Arab, hiding in what looked like an ancient temple, ready to come down.
And he found him! The struggle was beginning to feel endless.
Suddenly, a shot was fired.
The minaret wheezed as it took its last breath. The dynamite was more overwhelming than the spears of the conqueror's centuries ago. In an glimpse, it had become a grave. The tomb of the unknown Arab.
The bricks of the ages of ages fell on the Armenian home. The glass shattered the childhood memories of all the shade that it once gave, in those afternoons of hide and seek, and peek-a-boo! The sky frowned back at the Armenians in their living room. Its clouds now formed a gigantic background poster behind the family couch. All the chocolates in the world could not bring back the sweetness of that shade...in the once cozy solarium.
His hazel eyes now in a haze...'I'm really sick of this!'

Saturday, January 10, 2004

'We want a State'...Her eyes were black and lonely...
They were also glistening with defiance. That was Nesreen for you. Born in Iran, raised in Iraq, married in the United Kingdom, trying to raise her children in Sweden.
'So does Palestine'...I stammered.
Years later, the sixteen year old boy that watched while the visiting Harvard Team asked that I wait outside while they spoke to Peshmergas...asked,
-'Are you from Baghdad?'
-'I work for the Red Cross...'
-'My Aunt, she was your age...somewhat close, when they took her. She was released seven years later...trailing behind her...seven unknown children. Why? ...Would they let someone do that to their sisters...?'
I could see him swallow...his adam apple's male pride finding a moment of relief in confinding, venting, reproaching and questioning...After all, I was a woman. I was a total stranger...and although his whole neighborhood probably knew...he could find no one to question there...It would remind him of the shame...
Was it a question? Would they do that to their sisters...
I stared ahead. I did not want my surfacing horror to further harden his placid eyes...They too, were black and lonely...
I saw his aunt...twenty or younger...her Kurdish vest ripped from her chest. Devils in khaki Safari suits swelling with the desire to breed bastards, all around her...
At home, my father was angry. My brother was furious.
-'Yes, but we have granted them autonomy!'
-' Yes, ...an autonomy where their daughters could be dragged into the unknown, to raise children from an unknown, to live unknown...'
But now, 10 years later, they want a real state...
I guess it remains to be seen, what the state of the "remains of a state" will be...
Will there be place for a state?
What happened behind concrete walls then, now happens in the streets, in the dark...and some days in daylight...
We all now need a safe haven...and soon...before more unknown children are bred to live unknown...

Friday, January 09, 2004

The words fly past me and above me...planes diving and crashing, and compensations...heavy compensations follow...
I want my compensation too...
I was stripped from the heart of my beloved father to continue down an unknown path of promised sweetness...there was no sweetness.
His bitter tears were all I tasted...they seemed mixed with the smog of the consecutive wars...the carbon bit my tongue...
He wants compensation.
In his grave, he wants to know why he was deprived of his childrens' warm proximity at older age...Why, in his grave, he yearns for a visit, and they will not come...
He wants compensations for the wars that scared them away...
My mother wants compensation too...The carbon in the air, almost stopped her heart...She is still breathing though. She wants compensation for the breaths she missed when she thought she was dead...
Ali wants compensation for his arms...They cannot bring them back to be like they used to. Ali hates the smell of plastic! Especially on his body. He especially wants compensation for all the smiles that his sisters were going to give him for the next 50 years of his growing up...Because that will not happen...

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