For Now, They Struggle (Part II), by Dahlia Wasfi

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No. 16

During the month of February, Writing for Peace  commemorates the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with Daily PAW Posts from a host of contributors.

*Parental Guidance Warning –The poets featured during our February Daily PAW Posts write of war and its effect on the human heart. Writing for Peace has not censored these poems, and we encourage parents to review the content before sharing them with children.

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The following excerpt is the second of two parts from Dr. Dahlia Wasfi’s upcoming book. To read part one, click here.

 For Now, They Struggle

By Dahlia Wasfi

(Part Two of Two)

In February and March of 2004, I made a 19-day journey to Iraq. The first memories of my life were from those early years in Iraq. My life would start over again there, too. With Baghdad International Airport controlled by American occupation forces, I flew to Jordan and made the 10-hour car ride to Baghdad. In Iraq’s capital, a year after the invasion, damage from bombing raids was omnipresent. Iraq had been liberated, all right—from sovereignty, security, electricity, and potable water. The new “democratic” Iraq modeled sewage in the streets, rolling blackouts, shootings, and explosions. After several days spent visiting my Baghdadi relatives, I needed to reach my father’s immediate family in the south. Ahmed [name changed],  one of my cousins from Basra, drove twelve hours round trip with a friend, to pick me up and bring me to visit the rest of the family. With numerous checkpoints and no security, their efforts were Herculean.

To my naïve foreign eyes, Basra’s condition appeared to be much the same as Baghdad’s, except that the damage seemed more extensive. This city had been destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, the 1991 Gulf War, bombings during the 1990’s, and the 2003 Shock and Awe invasion. Throughout that time, sanctions and neglect had thwarted the city’s—and her people’s—recovery. I expected to receive resentment during my visit. After all, my immediate family had left Iraq for America during the good days of the 1970s. So much destruction had been wrought against the Iraqi people by my government since then. Every destroyed building we passed, every sewage-flooded street, every child suffering in poverty, I despairingly thought to myself, “You’re welcome, Iraq. I helped do this to you.” I held resentment towards myself and deep shame as an American in this occupied land.

But I did not feel resentment from anyone else during my brief stay. When we arrived at my uncle’s (Ahmed’s father’s) house, I was welcomed with kisses and hugs, overwhelming love and affection. Though I was meeting my cousins for the very first time, they already knew me, far better than I knew them. My father was a legend in the family and in the neighborhoods of Basra where he had grown up and been both a teacher and a professor. My cousins had tracked his life—and the lives of his children, in turn—with fond attentiveness. They welcomed me as if they had known me their whole lives.

Despite the desperate conditions, the novelty of a visit from a long-lost cousin brought everyone joy, myself included. Getting to know each other for the first time, my cousins and I were like little kids, giggling and joking, whether the electricity was working or not. I was so struck by how thin they all were. “You have no idea what it was like [during the sanctions],” my cousins told me. “We are only alive today because your father helped us.” Even with his support during those years of starvation, my Iraqi family had sold furniture and other belongings to get money for food.

My cousins’ features were familiar to me, because they were similar to mine: olive skin; thick, curly hair (some of them); and a strong Semitic nose (also described as “large.”) But their cheeks were hollowed out, especially on Ahmed’s face. His clothes hung on him limply, like they did on their hanger. His physique was paper-thin and his face gaunt, revealing the faint outline of his skull. His appearance reflected years of starvation and war. To me, his emaciated body was a microcosm for the whole of Iraqi society. The people appeared as if they had been newly released from a strangling chokehold. They were laid out, exhausted, gasping to catch their collective breath. Ahmed’s weary, sunken, dark brown eyes held the fear, worry, and pain of all of that suffering, all of those years.

My father was one of ten children, so we have a lot of family in Iraq. Seemingly everywhere I was escorted during those six days in Basra, I met blood relatives or my father’s former students. Most Basrawis (pronounced “bas-RAO-weez,” meaning people of Basra) live their whole lives in their hometown. My father had traveled to the US and become successful. During my short stay, I heard so many wonderful accolades about him and his teaching. (When I returned home, I joked with my father about how all the images of Saddam Hussein, destroyed after the invasion, would soon be replaced with his picture, to honor his courage and success.)

I was experiencing joy with my cousins that I had not felt in as long as I could remember. My spirits were up, so much so that I stopped my anti-depressive medications. I felt cured. However, because of the unpredictability of a country without law and order, my stay was cut short. I had to return to Amman via Baghdad to make my flight home. But I promised my family that I would return for a longer stay—very soon, we hoped—when the situation in the new Iraq had improved. I left in early March, 2004. Though we looked toward the horizon for better days, conditions in Iraq went from bad to worse. Electricity and water became scarcer, as did jobs and security. But Iraqis’ pain and suffering did not stop there.

The lack of these basic necessities quickly became overshadowed by the monstrous obscenities of the American-led occupation. By April, 2004, the atrocities committed against Iraqis by occupation forces at Abu Ghraib prison (and many other prisons throughout the country) had come to light.  In addition, the indiscriminate slaughter of Iraqis continued unabated and even accelerated, as exemplified by the April, 2004 siege of the city of Fallujah, followed by the October 2004 bombings and November 2004 massacre of the people of that city. (That November, I had wanted to make my return visit to Iraq, but US Marines had blocked the route of the final leg of my trip, the road from Amman to Baghdad.)  Anti-American sentiment in Iraq was skyrocketing to new highs and with good reason.

In the final months of 2004, and through the start of 2005, kidnappings of Westerners became prominent news stories. Fearing for my safety, amidst ever-escalating anti-American feeling, my family advised me to stay safely at home. Thinking only of myself, I was undeterred from making another trip to see them. I selfishly gave little thought to the danger into which I was putting my family by asking them to “harbor” an American. The facts that my father was Iraqi and I was on vacation probably wouldn’t mean much to those desperate souls who might abduct me, whether seeking expensive ransoms to feed their families or sending a message to foreigners to get out of Iraq. But I was mostly oblivious to the risks. I figured that if I were kidnapped, I could use the few words of Arabic I’d learned growing up (from when my father was angry), in reference to the US government. Surely, I thought, with such skills of wit and a photo of my father, I could get myself out of any sticky situation. By the end of 2005, with no end to the chaos in sight, my family had agreed to host me once again, before the situation deteriorated even further.

Because the road from Amman to Baghdad was now exceedingly dangerous, my trip was planned to visit only Basra this time. Hostility still governed relations between Iraq and Kuwait, not only from the era of Gulf War I, but from the decades of territorial disputes, dating back to the early twentieth century. Even with an American passport, I knew my Iraqi background might be sufficient cause for Kuwaiti border officials to make my trip more difficult. But I didn’t see any other option. I bought tickets to fly via London to Kuwait International Airport in Kuwait City. This capital city sits about 82 miles (132 kilometers) from Basra, with the Iraq-Kuwait border about halfway in between.

I had a planned layover in London of two days, so that I could attend an anti-war conference on December 10, 2005, organized by a UK-based group, the Stop the War Coalition. My scheduled flight to Kuwait was for the following evening, December 11th. If Kuwait had been my final destination, I could have made the trip without a problem. However, four days before the scheduled December 15 elections, Iraq’s borders were sealed for “security” reasons (the few sections of the country’s boundaries that were secured, anyway). I had to postpone my trip out of London until the borders were reopened. With bitter sarcasm, I joked with my family that the new Iraq had so much freedom in it that occupation forces had to close the borders to contain it all.

Finally, two weeks later on Christmas Eve, I got a seat on a redeye flight out of London.  I landed in Kuwait City on Christmas morning. Though I was tired, my excitement prevented me from getting any sleep on the plane. Exhausted and jet-lagged, I struggled through airport customs and the Kuwait border-emigration process to get to Kuwait’s northern border and into Iraq. It was raining, and my kind taxi driver waited so I could have shelter, until the bus arrived to carry passengers across the several kilometers of no-man’s-land between the borders of Iraq and Kuwait.  I peered out my rain-streaked window to see a soldier (whom I remember as being British), standing over what looked like an old oil barrel and brushing his teeth using a small hand-held mirror. It was a bizarre sight, and I started to ask myself where the hell I was and what was I doing.

After what felt like a long wait, finally, the shuttle bus creaked into the makeshift parking area. Upon its arrival, numerous travelers emerged from the cars parked nearby, moving hurriedly with their boxes and bags to climb aboard and escape the desert rain. The bus was old and weather-battered, and in my sleep-deprived fog, I wondered if it was the same bus my parents had ridden when they made the commute in the early 1970s. There I was that day, alone, isolated, physically and emotionally drained, and unsure of what was coming next. Somewhere along that anonymous road, in the sands of a nameless desert, I burst into tears. I thought, “This was the stupidest plan I have ever come up with… why didn’t anyone try to stop me?!” Of course, many friends and family had tried to alert me to the dangers and difficulties of this trip. I had ignored them. Now there was no turning back.

I stepped off the rickety bus at the Iraqi border, along with my fellow passengers making the difficult journey into occupied land. I was so tired, from both the long trip and my recent crying. My eyes alternated between staring vaguely into the distance in an exhausted daze, and darting toward all angles of my belongings, making sure nothing got stolen. I was trying to put my thoughts together, to decide what to do next, when I believe I witnessed a divine intervention. My gaze moved up from my cart of belongings to find Ahmed standing right before me. I felt an unbelievable rush of relief and joy. The harrowing part of the journey was over. I believed then that everything would be all right.

Ahmed did all the paperwork for me; he had to since it was in Arabic. We meandered over to a car where another cousin, and their friend who had brought them to pick me up, were waiting. All that I’d brought was loaded into the trunk, and I relaxed into the back seat, feeling safe for the first time in what felt like days. When we arrived at my uncle’s house, I got the same, beautifully warm welcome from my family as I had before. It was early afternoon, which was early morning for me back home, and I was utterly spent. Though it was rude of me, while the family sat down to the big midday meal made in my honor, I curled up in my cousin’s bed and slipped into a deep, serene sleep.

On the following day, my first full day back in Basra, we lost electricity completely. On the second day, we ran out of water. On the third day, we lost telephone service. When we realized the phone lines were dead, Ahmed jokingly predicted, “I think tomorrow, we lose air!” We all laughed. Despite suffering the hardships of war, sanctions, and occupation for their entire lives, my cousins showed amazing resilience and tenacity. I was amazed by their intact sense of humor in unpredictable and dangerous conditions. But this spoiled American accustomed to the luxuries of electricity and running water thought worriedly, “What the hell did I get myself into for the next three months…?”

*  *  *

Iraqis are still suffering today under the grip of a new repressive regime that came to power during the American-led occupation. While the foreign military occupation of Iraq has officially ended, an economic occupation depriving Iraqis of their livelihoods and lives continues.  Life goes on in the hope that one day, circumstances will improve. Iraqis are taking to the streets today demanding an end to their repression.[9] For now, however, as it has been for decades, they struggle. Electricity, water, and jobs remain scarce. In my family, the destruction of Iraq’s healthcare system has contributed to the deaths of one aunt, one uncle, and one cousin since my 2006 trip. In August 2007, another cousin was killed in the violence we brought to his country. He left behind a wife; a young son; a heartbroken mother and brother; and an entire family devastated by grief, for whom life will never be the same. These precious souls are only four of the more than 1,000,000 lives (and counting) taken by the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.[10]

Every country around the world is made up of families. It is those families who either reap the benefits of their government’s actions, or pay the price. Our victims in Iraq (and elsewhere around the world) are dehumanized. Through media stereotypes, we have been programmed to dismiss the “other’s” humanity.[11]  That disconnection from humankind is why my college classmates could celebrate the 1991 Gulf War. That disconnection from humankind is why I had focused on my personal gain, even while my taxes brought suffering to millions. It was Rachel Corrie’s generous spirit—and the shocking loss of her life—which reconnected me to what is truly important.

If there are political differences between states, then whatever they may be, no resolution comes from targeting the innocent families of their respective societies. We should respect the humanity of women and children, who are the majority of any population. And if we respect their humanity in Iraq, can we respect their grief as they lose their brothers, fathers, husbands and sons, the same way we mourn with and share the pain of American military families? From Rachel, I learned that the answer is yes. Our human connection is all that we need to reach one another.

Before the Israeli military came to Rafah in armored bulldozers to level homes on March 16, 2003, Rachel Corrie literally stood up for what she believed. With her courageous stand, she equated her Western life with the lives of the Palestinian families behind her. Perhaps her actions were an affront to the occupation soldiers staring down from their sixty-ton vehicle, inspiring them to crush her to death. To me, her courage showed hope and strength. She inspired me to follow my heart and find my voice.

With Rachel’s example before me, my life has directed me to know my family. I’ve traveled thousands of miles to go see them and know them. But my work as an activist has also taught me that I don’t only have family in Iraq. My relatives are everywhere: in Afghanistan; in Pakistan; in Kashmir; in Vietnam; in Walter Reed Army Medical Center; in Arlington Cemetery; in every village and city around the globe. You have relatives there, too.

My medical career is on hold so that I can call for the immediate, unconditional end of war and occupation on behalf of all of my family.

What would you do for your family?

What will you do?

 

9 http://www.brussellstribunal.org/article_view.asp?id=683%23.UPV3KaX1Axd#.URq08WfjH9g
10(a)http://www.alternet.org/world/123818/iraq%27s_shocking_human_toll:_about_1_million_killed,_4.5_million_displaced,_1-2_million_widows,_5_million_orphans/;
(b) http://www.zcommunications.org/more-than-1-000-000-iraqis-murdered-since-2003-invasion-by-orb
11 Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs:  How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Olive Branch Press. New York, 2001.

 

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, Writing for Peace Adviser

About Dr. Dahlia Wasfi

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi was born in the United States in 1971 to an American Jewish mother and an Iraqi Muslim father. After graduating from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in Biology in 1993, she earned her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. Dr. Wasfi has made two trips to Iraq to visit her extended family since the 2003 “Shock and Awe” invasion, including a three month stay in Basrah in the spring of 2006. She is an activist in support of ending the US-led and US-funded occupations (military and economic) of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.

Her website is www.liberatethis.com.

 

February Writing for Peace News:

All during the month of February, Writing for Peace is commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with a Daily PAW Post. If you are interested in arranging a reading this month in honor of Poets Against the War, please contact us with the details at editor@writingforpeace.org, and we will be happy to share your information on our site.

2013 Young Writers Contest

Contest Deadline is March 1st! The Writing for Peace Young Writers Contest is in full swing, with entries coming in from all over the globe.  The contest is open to writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, for ages 13 to 19. Spread the word to young writers everywhere! You’ll find contest guidelines here.

DoveTales,  An International Journal of the Arts

The first issue of DoveTales will be released this month (knock on wood), featuring poets, writers, artists and photographers from all over the world.  We are also looking forward to seeing the winners of our 2012 Young Writers Contest in print. Watch our posts for news of the journal’s release. The new submission guidelines will go up on March 1st. Thank you for your support!

 

 

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