January 8, 2006
The thirteen-year-old American born Iraqi, who knew America was her friend, turned from love and trust to bitterness in just months.
Bush's speech reminded me of an incident in Jordan way before 9/11, but when Britain and America had been bombing Iraq on an often daily basis, year in, year out during the embargo years (embargo enforced in August 1990, lifted in 2003 and replaced by occupation's decimation) a hidden, illegal, forgotten war - but not in the Middle East and Islamic world. Or indeed for many elsewhere - east and west.
Walking with my camera, as dusk fell, I spotted a group of children playing a board game, in a hallway, huddled on an ancient floor with the light falling a way only Monet could have replicated. Usually I would have asked to take a picture, but desperate not to lose the moment I hastily set my camera and aimed it. One child looked up, saw me - froze with terror - and screamed. The others followed suit. I was utterly mortified. Hearing their cries, an uncle ran down the road. I stammered my apologies, asking: 'They thought the camera was a gun?'
'No, no, Madam', he said : ' They thought you were an American.'
America, it seems has never truthfully addressed or cared for the suffering of this super-complex, warm, generous region, but simply directly, or by proxy, heaped misery up on misery - as elsewhere over decades - in the name of the now dreaded words ' freedom and democracy.'
Listening to Bush's speech, memories of the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war came flooding back. Wondering whether westerners would be welcome in what the UN had described as 'apocalyptic' destruction, I heard a constant refrain, just months after the war, which became familiar over the years: 'You are not your government' - and I heard and saw the realities of 'surgical strikes' and 'pin point accuracy.' And one unforgettable night encapsulated the mirage that was Iraq, the beauty, the courage and the suffering.
On a sweltering Baghdad evening, I was invited to the opening of a gallery, part of a complex of artists' studios, galleries, shops selling ancient manuscripts and rare volumes, the all, evocative, ancient buildings set round an enclosed courtyard, dotted with citrus trees sweetly scenting the night air, mingling with the vapor from the cardomum flavored coffee being offered in tiny glasses Exquisite hand-woven carpets were hung on outside walls, covered the courtyard, even graced trees in a riot of subtle reds, ochres, soft tangerines - and from every twig and branch hung fairy lights, seemingly tens of thousands of twinkling white crystals, illuminating the soft, warm dark. 'Arabian nights' revisited.
Through open, ancient, latticed wooden shutters on an upper floor a pianist was playing Chopin with such haunting beauty, feeling, it brought a lump to the throat as it floated through the air. Who was this undoubted genius? 'He plays day and night, it is his way of escaping the dark - he lost his sight in the Iraq-Iran war', was the answer to my question.
Later Jabar Ibrahim Jabar, an artist and sculpture, invited me to his home, where his truly sublime creations covered walls, shelves, plinths. To touch, to stare, was to be transported to where there was only beauty, soul. He led me to another inner courtyard of turquoise, cream and primrose mosaic, breaking only for more citrus trees. We sat on a mosaic wall, under a riot now of stars. How did someone who's life was about beauty, creativity, survive the ugliness and destruction of the relentless forty two day carpet bombing by a thirty two nation coalition?
'Just before the war, I bought my five year old grandson a Walkman' he said. 'Each time the bombing started, I borrowed it back and I used to sit here and listen to Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Elgar, Souza ..... and look up the missiles, the tracers and convince myself that nations that could create such beauty, could not be all bad.'
'Write to me', he said as I left, 'and I will write back.' I did, but there were no replies. Back in Baghdad on another visit I inquired about him from a mutual friend. ' He died', she said. Many Iraqis were dying as he, doctors said, for seemingly no reason except perhaps the unbearable pain of their memories and a total lack of hope that the embargo's subsequent degrading misery would ever end.
I met thirteen year old Nihal Al Shagra at the gallery evening. Born in Minnesota of Iraqi parents, an architect and an engineer, they had been expelled back to Iraq just before the war simply for being Iraqi. She and her eight year old brother thought their return a wonderful adventure, they moved in to a new home and her mother gave birth to a new brother days before the bombs started falling. Nihal knew with total belief that there would be no war. Americans were her friends, she was born an American, her school friends were Americans, America would never attack her. When the bombing started her shock was so total that she was completely paralyzed for three weeks and had to be carried to the inner bathroom where the family survived the war under duvets on the floor, deemed the safest place because it had no windows, whose shards become lethal missiles if blast shattered.
Another day, another Iraq. Driving through a small, residential Baghdad district, in front of a near miniature local Mosque, its turquoise and gold, glinting in the sun, was a pile of sand colored rubble, bedsteads, cooking utensils visible or flung out from the blast. Four families in the little complex of destroyed houses had died, twenty three in all and many children, a neighbor said.
I clambered over the rubble, noting the small remaining norms, shoes - there always seem be shoes, that walked to make the breakfast, mind the kids, earn the living, buy sustenance at the market, take the family to a treat ice cream evening – to haunt those who try to walk in the shoes of others. They always haunt. Dusty toys, broken crockery, a piece of tablecloth somehow liberated from the horror normality, life, love, laughter became.
As I clambered down the graves of homes, I slipped and slithered down the rubble, to land unceremoniously in the street on my back, just as a group of children, the youngest about three, ran to see who the strangers in the neighborhood were. In spite of my lying supine, temporarily semi-stunned, the terror on their faces was total, including the tiny one. I represented the horror of the attack, the deaths of their friends and their parents. The bombs. As in Amman years later. Those children are now young adults whose entire life has been only fear of the West, in a formerly outward looking - and indeed allied -country. American and UK inspired efforts to win hearts and minds by holding an entire country hostage, imprisoning it's inhabitants, threatening its neighbors or shooting through hearts and heads, will never catch on. Those children are probably now the resistance.
Nihal will now be twenty-seven. When we met, she said her pain - and anger – was relieved by writing poetry. I asked if she would show me some. One poem was written at Christmas 1991, her first in Baghdad:
Rejoice, dear world, Rejoice!
Ignore that weak, helpless voice.
For who is he but an Iraqi child,
Even if his hunger is great,
his pain is mild.
No gifts for him under the tree this year,
But don't you shed a single tear!
For who is he? And who will care,
If it is right, wrong, or even fair?!
Eat your pudding and slice the pie,
don't give a second thought
to that whimpering cry.
The thirteen-year-old American born Iraqi, who knew America was her friend, turned from love and trust to bitterness in just months. As, arguably, an entire generation of bombed, embargoed, re-bombed, now occupied, tortured, tormented, shot youth.
'Why are we hated?' Because the west has lost the ridiculous, illegal invasions for oil, gas pipelines and water for its friends, dubbed: 'war on terror' - and shot itself in the foot.
-Felicity Arbuthnot lives in London. She has written and broadcast widely on Iraq, one of the few journalists to cover Iraq extensively even in the mid-1990’s during the sanctions. She with Denis Halliday was senior researcher for John Pilger’s Award winning documentary: Paying the Price - Killing the Children of Iraq.