I lay down at the end of my first day in Baghdad in the deep darkness of a night with a beautiful summer breeze, the sound of crickets, and the smell of the Tigers River. There is no electricity in the house, though everyone is happy with the improvements in the number of hours they are getting electricity which amounts to about 12 hours a day, give or take one or two hours, depending on the neighborhood. Much has changed since I was last here in February of 2008. The airport looks more organized, the staff are polite, doctors check passengers for any fever, something that looked more silly than cool, but it was still a change to a more professional airport, and nice, uniformed taxis are waiting at the airport door. The streets are pale and dusty but there is something about the sand of the desert contrasted with the green of the palm trees that brings a soft breeze to the heart…a combination of sadness, nostalgia, and hope for the future.
Life seems to have relaxed a bit in Baghdad. As I pass by the University of Baghdad, its doors are full of students, women and men, chatting, mingling, and flirting with each other; women drive in their cars, walk without a headscarf in the streets; scenes that were common throughout my life in Iraq but have become rare in the last few years before the security situation deteriorated in Baghdad. But that calmness is not without the presence of military, with the tanks driving through the city, men at the top with a machine gun that rotate as the soldier check out the streets. Check points are still all over but with soldiers who are getting more of the people’s respect than ever in the last few years. People are more willing to visit different neighborhoods where they were not willing to take such risk the year before, though the question of who controls that neighborhood is still asked.
On the way from the airport, I ask my colleague Ali to stop at a local bakery so I can get Samoon, a kind of bread that is a specialty in Iraq and many other parts of the world that was once controlled by the Ottomon empire. I find the taste of home in it and it brings back my childhood memories. More than that, there is a an Iraqi saying that when two people share a piece of bread together they are to be friends forever. I no longer know how much is left of such a concept of generosity and kindness in the country. People here have gone through more 30 years of wars and some have not seen life other than in a war zone. How much the people have changed, I no longer know.
By the time I finish eating my piece of bread, I enter our office. Three security guards who staff our office, along with every house and office in the city, open the door for us. That’s when I meet my colleagues who have been working with Women for Women International since 2003. They have endured so much danger and insecurity. They have seen bombs and explosions and continued to do work despite all odds in a country that that has terrorized half of its population. Despite this, they have persevered, serving a total of 3,274 women since Women for Women International started its work in Iraq. We all get emotional, crying and embracing when we see each other. They, like all Iraqis who have stayed in the country, need a witness to their pain and to their work and determination and I am the only witness who can come and see that first hand from the HQ office as it is dangerous for others to visit.
I go around, hug and talk with all of our staff, and see the reports of our expansions in Baghdad and our work with socially excluded women here. I am told of a woman who lives in a small room under the stairs of a building with her four daughters and how she is petrified by anybody around her. As a single mother with four single teenage daughters, they are all vulnerable to various kinds of abuse. So she hides in her hole, cleans some houses for money, and is too afraid to even join an organization that is trying to give her assistance. The staff have been visiting her for weeks until she can trust them and join the group. In a country where there have been so many killings, so many kidnappings, so many bombings and suicide bombings, and so much corruption, it is not easy to get the trust of anybody and it takes quite a lot of work just to convince vulnerable women to trust that there is someone out there who indeed wants to help and not hurt them.
I finally head to my family’s home, a ride that ends up being about two hours, as opposed to no more than twenty minutes six years ago. When I arrive there, I feel I am in a safe haven. There is the Tigers, with fisherman calmly hoping to catch some fish to feed their family and maybe sell, there is the beautiful garden with flowers, and, yes, there is even a pool. I sit with my family by the river, smoking Sheesha with fruit flavored tobacco, my uncle drinks his whiskey, a friend of the family sits with her headscarf and black robe as she mourns her deceased husband, and my cousins and their wives. Just a small family and friends gathering in a summer evening in Baghdad includes Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and not one of us talked about this issue that seems to consume more attention from the outside world than in our own internal world. The debate was anywhere from Bush’s policy towards Iraq and how some liked it and some didn’t, to how much Iraqis love President Obama, to Malaki and how Sunnis and Shia’as alike are starting to be comfortable with his policies, regardless of his own personal sect.
In the midst of our political discussion, there was a sound of a huge explosion. There was a silence for only less than a second. We wondered where this bomb could be coming from and we resumed the conversation as of nothing happened. My mother’s friend picked up her cell, called her family to check if they are alright and continued to join us in the conversation. “We are used to that,” she said. “We rarely stop life because of a bomb. Often activities resume, windows are replaced and the stores are reopened within no more than 20 minutes from any bomb [going off]”, she continued. “The only exception”, she explained, “is when my brother saw dead bodies in the last bombing in Al Kademmya where 60 people were killed. He saw many parts of people’s bodies and he was really affected and couldn’t eat anything for two days”.
It is amazing how life resumes back so fast, I comment. My cousin, who never left the country, looks at me and says, “It never stopped Zainab throughout all these years”. In all of the discussions of the Iraq war, we have mainly discussed things from a front line perspective. I wish more efforts were taken to understand the back line discussion of what war is and what peace means for Iraqis. Perhaps things would not be as destroyed as they are today. I go to bed knowing there is hope in people’s hearts and I pray that we don’t lose one more opportunity of transferring hope to tangible improvements in people’s lives.