Saturday, February 27, 2010

Faiza Al-Araji

May Allah bless this woman, her family and her work.

Listen to Baghdad bloggers.

How wide is the gap between Americans and Iraqis? In the twelfth of our Letters to Americans series, Iraqi blogger and mother of three sons, Faiza Al-Araji, writes to Anthony Swofford, ex-US marine and author of the 1991 Gulf war memoir, “Jarhead”.

Dear Anthony Swofford,

First of all, I salute you, because you have changed from a United States marines sniper into a writer who thinks, meditates, and reconsiders his views in a meaningful way.

A sniper? What life is possible for a man who is trained to become a professional sniper at the age of 19? Such a young man, training to be a professional killer! Such a profession demands a person to freeze his mind, annul his thoughts and pull the trigger, without thinking that the person in front of him is also human –with a name, a profession, and a family that loves him.

But the profession of the writer you became means loving man, and praising him as a creature who deserves to live. Such a difference!

I regret that I have not been able to get hold of your book, Jarhead, but I have read interviews with you on the internet. As I understand, you didn’t want to start your life in the conventional way: studying, looking for a job, getting married. You chose to enlist in the US marines as a way of looking for the unfamiliar; as an experiment in life, or a manner of dealing with it.

That is exactly what I have done too, since I graduated in engineering from the University of Baghdad in 1976. I was then engaged to be married, and I had to choose between two worlds. I could either get married in the traditional way, like all my friends and relatives; or I could go as a volunteer to Lebanon, where there was a civil war whose victims were Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

Against all advice, my husband, a Palestinian, and I, an Iraqi, chose to go to Lebanon.

Why? Everyone I knew asked me this, but I was convinced it was the right thing to do. I didn’t tell my family; I knew they would have stopped me. I had to tell them I was going to Basra to work in an engineering company. When I said goodbye my heart was breaking, because I was a liar. But my wish to face the experience was stronger than my feeble emotions.

We were sent to al-Damour, a Christian suburb south of Beirut. It was destroyed, abandoned, the houses looted. We started by forming an engineering committee, to rehabilitate the suburb, populated now by the survivors of the bombing and destruction of Palestinian refugee camps.

We restored the houses and repaired the water pipelines, so water was accessible to all houses. Then we worked to reconnect the power, so the lights shone once more. We helped establish a school, kindergarten, sewing workshop, medical centre, and a bakery. After a few months’ work, the suburb had a life, activity, and commercial shops. We left, sure that our presence was no longer needed.

I remember this experience when I receive letters from American soldiers who came to Iraq to fight in the war, trying to convince me of the bright face of their work here. An example of this is a recent anonymous letter by an American woman soldier, describing her unit’s campaign to provide school bags for children in rural areas, and asking her friend to buy her some pencils, erasers, sharpeners and rulers for twenty-five children. She says she feels happy when their military convoy passes through villages. She throws candies to the barefoot children, and she sees happiness on their faces. She tells her friend she thinks they are doing a good job here.

How does this woman think? Her government bombed these villages, killing men, women, and children. Then she arrives, distributing candy to salve her conscience, and America’s. If I were in her shoes, surely I would have thought: to make these children happy, we should repair the water, electricity and sewage services. We should re-equip the school. The children’s future will not be brightened by driving past in a military vehicle and throwing candy!

How wide is the gap between we Iraqis and America? For me, one of the benefits of this war is that it has brought American people here. We used to imagine the American through the movies: a superhuman, devoid of faults. But the war revealed the American to be simply an ordinary person, like all of us. He could be kind-hearted, peaceful and polite, or he could be vicious, aggressive and brutish. He could be intelligent and witty, or he could be unintelligent or average.

Yet in my own personal experience here, I can truthfully say I have never encountered or heard of noble attitudes from American soldiers towards Iraqi people. I am sorry: I have wished to meet an understanding, tender soldier. I would have written something nice about him. But I never have.

At the roadblocks, American soldiers deal with us all in the same rough way, devoid of feelings. They never show us their human face. One evening I was stopped by a soldier who wanted to search my car, and for me to go to another street to stand in line and wait. I asked him to search me now, in my street. It was night, and I was working late; I was a woman, so couldn’t he make an exception in this case? He said, roughly: I don’t care.

I went where I was told, and stood in line. Later he approached me and said he was sorry, but those were his orders. I felt there was a caring human inside him, but that he was making an effort to keep “him” away from me. It seems that these are the American soldiers’ orders: do not use your humanity and emotions with Iraqis. These soldiers are nice creatures filled with passion when they go home, carrying love to their families, wives and children. But they couldn’t give some of it to Iraqis. This is what we see every day.

The big questions remain. How true were the reasons for this war in the first place? Were they really for the welfare of the Iraqis, and their future? Or for the American government’s material and political benefit? These questions are connected …as must be the answers.

How much of it is true?
And how much is false?
I do not know.
Maybe the American people know.

Faiza Al-Araji.


Dear Faiza Al-Araji,

I appreciate that you salute my prior service to my country. I’d prefer that that salute be reserved for the people from both of our countries who are currently risking their lives in Iraq. My time as a soldier is over.

My movement from sniper to writer is not so incredible as you might imagine. In all civilisations there exists a tradition of men putting down the sword and picking up the pen in order to articulate the horror and depravity of warfare. There are also those who try to depict war as a celebration of all that is good and great in man, but you and I know better.

You’re correct –candy thrown from trucks toward young children is not a rehabilitative act. It’s actually demeaning and inhuman. If I had a child in Iraq I would tell her to refuse tokens from the occupying forces until they performed substantive repairs to our ruined infrastructure, as promised.

Your time in al-Damour, Lebanon is evidence that swift reconstruction is possible. Of course, this requires cooperation by all involved parties.

I’m sorry that your experiences with American soldiers have generally been sour. Mostly they are very young men who fear for their lives. By now, many of them question their mission and the original reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq. I assure you that most of them would rather be in America than patrolling the dangerous streets and alleys of Iraq. Yes, if they hadn’t invaded in the first place they wouldn’t now be living with such dangers.

You didn’t mention the insurgency in your letter. I have very gentle and liberal friends who concede that if another country attempted to force its will on America, they would gather arms and fight. This doesn’t really solve the problem in Iraq now, but it does point to the fact that insurgencies are populist and idealist, not elitist, they don’t emanate from a central power. My fear is that this is true in Iraq and that any reserve of goodwill the American forces once owned in the neighbourhoods of Iraq is gone. I suspect that your country has become a shooting-gallery because of poor planning on the part of the American forces and a lack of cooperation on the part of some Iraqis. Iraqis must also take responsibility for the state of their country.

The story of Iraq over the last eighteen months is one of missed opportunities and failed diplomacy. The biggest mistake was disbanding the Iraqi army. The young men in the military should have been reprocessed, given new uniforms, new training, and a good wage. If that had happened, I believe we would currently not have an insurgency.

Iraqis should also look at their neighbours and ask serious questions about their lack of involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. A strong Iraq might cause trouble for nearby leaders who don’t allow their people the most basic of human rights. Hasn’t Iraq been called the jewel of the middle east? I’m certain your country will regain its splendour.

I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and still am. But it’s difficult to remain opposed to an act that has already passed. Now we must attempt to create an atmosphere of stability. With the Iraqi people in the lead, America must assist the creation of a modern state. The democracy on offer may not be perfect, but it does propose a working model for representative governance that must certainly be more appealing than tyrannical rule.

The deaths on all sides in this conflict are unfortunate and maddening. Mothers in Arkansas weep the same tears that mothers in Fallujah weep. Indeed, I believe the gap between Iraqis and Americans is rather small. Here in America people work hard in order to raise families, educate themselves and their children, enjoy leisure with friends and loved ones. I have no doubt that Iraqis live similar lives. Love and work and play are the essentials of well-being, as the great psychoanalysts have said.

The soldier who tracked you down and apologised for his aggressive behaviour –he is the face of America. Americans of good conscience apologise for the aggressive behaviour of their government. Americans of good conscience recognise that the war was waged on pretence. Americans of good conscience are as invested in the swift and peaceful resolution of this conflict as you and your fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

I appreciate the clear view of Iraq you offered me. I hope that we are able to continue this correspondence.

Anthony Swofford


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