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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump Bars Iraqis from Entering the US

During the first week of January, I travelled to Philadelphia, US, to participate in the MLA 2017 Convention. I was happy and excited to take part in this international activity that decided to celebrate this year the theme of ‘Crossing Borders’.

It was not my first visit to the US. I visited New York, Boston and Iowa in 2013, flying from Baghdad to Amman, then directly to JFK airport in New York, while in March 2016, I flew from London to Virginia. Applying for a visa for each visit was a piece of cake for me, and every time I tell my Iraqi colleagues about the positive experience I had in the application process and the interview at the embassy, they felt amazed that getting a visa to the US sounded so simple! But this was a fact, rather than mere optimistic exaggeration on my part. Every time I applied, my interview would end by being informed that I was granted one-year tourist visa and I would have my passport back within ten days.

When I applied the third time, last November, nothing changed. However, the interview took longer time than usual, and the interviewer asked me more questions about my educational background, which I had never been asked before, even when I applied from Baghdad in 2013. I answered all questions and was finally granted the visa, so I thought nothing really changed, and having Trump a president would not really change how the US treat citizens from Iraq.

Once I got to Philadelphia airport in the 4th of January, I was proved wrong. Something did change. When I arrived to the immigration office, the officer looked at my passport, asked me why I was there. He did not show a friendly face, like he did to the people before me. He was particularly serious. I showed him the invitation from MLA to attend the convention, which lists the activity I was to present there. However, the visa on my passport (which was the third visa I got to the US), the invitation letter  from MLA and employment letter from KCL in London were not enough to convince the officer that I had the right to enter the US. With stern silent face, he put my passport in red plastic envelop and took to secondary inspection room. I found four young men waiting for secondary inspection as well. All looked Arabs: not very dark or brown skin, black hair and black eyes. I sat waiting for my turn to be asked more questions, wondering what was wrong with my visa, passport, to trigger suspicion on the part of the US immigration authorities?!  The only change between my visits in 2013, March 2016, and now January 2017 was that Trump was the president of the US! However, I dismissed this explanation as Trump didn’t start his office yet, so he didn’t change any policies at that time.

Finally I was called to the desk and the immigration officer was extremely friendly, as if not convinced why all of us he had to further investigate their right to enter were there. He asked me the same questions about the purpose of my visit, but with a smile that gave me a bit of relief. I told him about MLA and told him he could check my name on the website of the convention, which he immediately checked. He gave me back my passport with smile and “welcome to Philadelphia” greeting.

I tried to forget this little incident as being random, but the decision of Trump to ban people from my country to enter the US, even if they have visa reminded me of it. Something has changed in America to require second inspection of my visa. The reaction  of the second inspection officer, his facial expression and his friendliness , in comparison of the serious face of the first immigration officer tells me that it was personal decision on the part of the first to send me to the other room. Nothing was wrong in my visa or passport, but that officer was not comfortable letting in Iraqi woman with hijab to enter the US without double check. The fact that she was academic in a UK university, with proper invitation to attend a conference was not convincing enough. The Iraqi passport triggered his caution and he needed double checking.

Trump’s barring Iraqis is only a response to this groundless fear growing in Americans’ minds about Iraqis. It is groundless because no Iraqi has ever been involved in any terrorist action against the US or even the world! Yes Iraq is a war zone, where different factions are fighting against each other, but we haven’t imported any terrorism to the world. Actually none of the countries that Trump intend to bar did that. The terrorists who attacked the US in different ways were from countries Trump didn’t bar, which provokes the question: why the Americans, why Trump fear Iraqis?

From political perspective, since 2003, Iraq is in friendly relationship with the US. Our politicians, who are weirdly silent about the bar, have arrived to power through the support of the US government. Most of them still actually express their gratitude to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and quite dependent on the continuous support of the US in suppressing any attempt to undermine their authority in the country. So, why Trump all of sudden decides that people from Iraq can be of threat to the US home security? Is it a precaution step to a future initiative on the part of Trump, which can make Iraq enemy of the US?

Trump’s decision has no justification and it is quite groundless. But again, Trump is not really interested in explaining his decision, is he? But, it seems to be welcomed by those Americans who find Trump the protector of their security!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How can we end the suffering of the homeless

I am not a socialist, nor have left-wing vision of world economy. I don't subscribe to any communist, Marxist or liberal economic views. I simply lack the education to qualify me to involve myself in any conversation in that field. The only conversation I was part of was when a friend of mine, who was doing his PhD project on labor market, and we used to discuss labor market here and there in the world. I was much of listener actually, rather than active participant in the conversation.

However, it doesn't need an expert in economy, nor in politics, or any field in that matter, to realize the irony in having more than 15 people sleeping homeless in snowing night with freezing temp that went down to -9, under a tower that is worth billions of dollars. It doesn't even require any level of education to realize that there is something very wrong in this view.

I am not an idealist, but something tells me that it is wrong and quite beastly ironic to organize a convention that may have cost each of the more 500 scholar attending at least 500 dollars to attend (some have paid between 1000-1500), to take part and participate in a conversation about crossing borders, while tens of people live homeless in their own city under the blizzard of Philadelphia nights.

Last week I went to Philadelphia to attend the MLA convention 2017. When the taxi took me from the airport to the apartment I shared with my colleagues from Kings, I was impressed all the way with the tall buildings, the fancy lightening of the towers. It seemed to me a city for the rich. There was the Marriott, with at least 130 $ per night, and there was Macy's with its fancy prices. The convention center where most of the sessions took place was quite elegant and expensive place. But the night came, and in our way back to where we enjoyed the warmth of hot drinks in luxurious beds, the homeless retired to their usual spots under the tall buildings, the bridges and any structure with some shade to hide away from the snow storm. The scene was particularly disturbing. As a group of highly educated academics, most of us enjoy well-paid jobs, houses, and cars, we spent all day engaging in conversations about people who were dispersed in the city unnoticed, waiting for the night to fall, so they could retire back to their usual spots.

One of the panels made the irony more pressing. A panel that theorize on the suffering of refugees, while some of these homeless who sleep underneath the building were the refugees we were discussing their pain. How the panel helped? how our convention helped? We spent four days in that huge city, from Thursday to Sunday. By Monday, we all retreated back to our comfortable places in different cities and different worlds, unconcerned but about the papers we have presented, whether we made good impressions, whether our presentations would help us secure better-paid jobs! Many of us tried their best to challenge the presentations they attended, engaging in a game of "who is the smartest now!", unaware that the real challenge for whatever we do, say, or write, is those people who fell out of the ship, and we were too busy with our selfishness to notice their cries for help.

What is the use of ecocriticism, what is the use of a theory and discussion of empathy, and of finally naming our contemporary era as the anthropocene, what is the use of all the intellectual endeavors we engage in, starting from our graduate studies till each one of us enjoys being called a doctor, if our brains can't solve the problems of the homeless, of the fleeing refugees, and the millions of people who live under poverty lines?

We go about using every cell in our active brains to discover the history of humanity, past and future, horizontally and vertically. We killed all kinds of gods and made jokes of all the myths that defined our universe. However, even the best mind of minds failed to end the real problems of our existing reality, or probably we haven't been concerned enough about them?

Our words, our intellectual talents, turn hallow and useless for the homeless in these cold nights in Philadelphia as the thin sheets they were using to protect themselves from the snow storm. The sight of them surrendering to the snow storm, hoping to wake up alive the next day, mocked desperately whatever smartness we think we have.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Why we don't have healthy academic life in Iraq

2003 marks the end of my life as student and the beginning of my life as academic in the University of Mustanseryia, as teacher of English literature. It was unfortunate beginning for a hard journey through the rough route of Iraqi academia from 2003 to 2015.

As undergraduate and postgraduate student before 2003, I was eager to join the academic world, and follow the example of the amazing teachers who made me passionate about literature. For me, they were the elite, the true leaders of society, the ones who shaped our young minds and implanted in us plans for happy future. Even the bad teachers who didn't give much to our eager minds were kind and just enough to leave impression of their humanity in our hearts, if not in our minds. Under their impact I decided to do master degree, rather than just be satisfied with a bachelor degree. I wanted to join their wonderful world of insatiable quest for knowledge, the infinite world of books, and reach out to the stars with increased intellectual power.

My master thesis was accepted in August 2003, when the universities had just wrapped the academic year 2003 amid lots of chaos, and destruction. All assumed that the next academic year, the first in democratic Iraq, would be a beginning for a new prosperous era for academia in Iraq, after overthrowing the Baath regime and its censorship. The 2003-2004 was a new a beginning no doubt, but it was a new beginning to the ultimate end of academia in Iraq, to the quest for knowledge, and detour toward what proved the abyss of intellectual life in the 'new', 'liberated' Iraq, thanks to American democracy!

I started teaching in the university as instructor of English in 2003-2004. I was passionate about the subjects I would teach and took every opportunity to share what I had learned so far with the young minds, hoping to leave an impression and inspire students as much as my teachers inspired me. However, the environment had changed drastically from the one I knew before 2003. I came to the University of Mustanserya to find students had already decided to liberate themselves from the power of their lecturers and to become the power that should rule university affairs. It got to their minds that the academics who were teaching them were representatives of the Baath power that they hated so much. For some reason, the new Iraq created by American democracy meant lawlessness and no to all kinds of rules. The chaos in the streets were strongly expressed in the academia, where students were determined to be the controlling power in the world of knowledge.

Before 2003, students used to have their Union, which was one of the Baath organizations, but most students thought of it as means to control and spy on them, especially in such place as Mustanserya. After 2003, the students' Union was replaced by another organization. This time it was called Students Association, al-Rabita al-Tulabya. Most of the leaders of this organization were Sadrists, members of Mehdi Army, whose jobs was to make sure that no university teacher would practice any "repressive" power over students. If a student exceeded the limited absence days and was suspended, the association would interfere on their behalf to stop the suspension and return the student to their studies. If a student got a low mark in a class, they would interfere as well to change that mark. When I heard of this, I thought this was exaggeration and there was no way academics would yield to extortion and betray their ideals. But when this happened in my department, I realized that these were not rumors, but the new reality of academia in Iraq.

I learned from my professors and mentors when I was a student that work ethics should not be compromised, education should not fall in the trap of nepotism, and degrees should be earned by hard work. Thus, when I started teaching, I was "strict" as some students described me. They wanted me to take into consideration the chaos of the country when I assessed their papers and answers. I contended that I was assessing their English and knowledge rather than their person, I wanted them to understand that we were living hard times and in bad need for qualified youth to build our future, but my words fell on deaf ears. They had lend their ears and all their senses to another narrative, a narrative that turned them against hard work and study, against respecting the rules, promising them easily earned degrees in English, even if they would not be able to write or speak the language.

Soon, under the influence of the new reality, and the popularity of students' associations, which were facade for militia, universities in Iraq turned to be stores that provide degrees, all students had to do was to join! Soon evening classes expanded to become very profitable business for all and every year new private universities that subscribe to no ethics or ideals were acknowledged by the ministry of higher education, to become more fancy stores for degrees in different majors, even such critical disciplines like medicine!

Chaos and corruption were not limited to undergraduate studies; postgraduate studies had its share, as more professors either yield to the dominant culture of extortion or pay through the nose for resisting the widespread practice in the new-Iraq academia. Most of the good ones, who found it hard to adapt left the country, choosing to live retired refugees in foreign countries, rather than to compromise. Those who decided to stay and to resist soon discovered the futility of their efforts when one after another lost their lives, or the life of family member.

With the continuation of draining Iraq of its talented academia, there was a need for new academics to fill in the gaps in the expanding higher education institution. The new generation of academia were those who received their postgraduate degrees after 2003. I was one of them. I joined the PhD program in 2005, when I realized that sickness of the upper branches had already ruined the roots: even master and PhD degrees were completed under the influence of the same culture. It was the personal responsibility of the candidate to work toward deserving the title that came with the degree, or be satisfied that the degree was given to them, without any standards considered, as part of the gift American democracy decided to give to Iraqis.

Soon we all realized the change, when we, the new academics, realized the web were entangled in: religious militancy repressing free pursuit of knowledge, nepotism and extortion killing all efforts to build fair education environments, and corrupted administration preoccupied with their political rivalry to pay attention to higher education. The previous generation of good academics already left the country, or were pushed to early retirement and excluded from policy-making because of their membership in the Baath party, which all Iraqi knew was imposed on anyone wanted to have a career in the academia when the Baath ruled. Most of the senior academics were not those who worked in Iraqi universities prior to 2003, when Iraqi universities were top ranking in the region, but were those who fled the country in the 70s and early 80s. During their period of exile were detached from the academic world where they took refuge, to  resume it decades later in a country that had changed drastically from the one they had left. They came without updated knowledge, without developed tools of teaching, in the hope of teaching for couple of years so they would qualify for pension. None made a significant contribution, while most harmed the higher education institution.

Most of the laws passed by the parliament in relation to higher education in Iraq were just one nail after another hammered into the coffin of academia in Iraq, which lie today with dead brain, that no life support can revive its lost glory.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Reminiscing with new acquaintance

I was lucky to meet in London, an Iraqi with whom I can share all the memories, views and the life we lived in Iraq during the 80s and 90s. Most of the Iraqis I have met in London, either belong to the generation who left the country before 80s, or were second-generation immigrants, whose idea of Iraq is inherited from their parents. There was no shared memory to reminisce about, nor a shared experience to discuss. But this new acquaintance provided me with what I needed. Yesterday was our second meeting, and for the second time we spent hours talking about the life we lived in the 80s and 90s. We shared cultural references that other Iraqis in London would never have understood, or realized its significance. For the second-generation young Iraqi, who was with us, we were speaking a secret language, she was unable to decode its references.

But the real exciting factor for me was the space of freedom to discuss Iraqi politics since the 80s without fear of offending someone who was hard-core enemy of Saddam, or someone who thought Iraq was done when Saddam ascended to power in 1980. It was refreshing to be able to breathe out thoughts that nowadays are considered forbidden sentiments that betray the Iraqis who suffered under Saddam.

I grew up in a family that was not interested in politics, nor religion. I was one of millions of Shia Iraqis who lived unharmed under Saddam's rule. My only grievances against Saddam was the endless wars we lived, growing up to the sounds of bombing and women and orphans wailing the loss of their loved ones. I am not minimizing the significance of these, but through my readings I can't toss it all to the shoulders of Saddam and the Baath and blame them for the increased number of widows and orphans in the country. There were two countries fighting in the 80s, and Iran had a big share in the Iraqi blood shed for this war. I also remember very well how the Kuwaiti delegation was indifferent when Saddam gave his speech in the Arab Summit in May 1990, where he warned them against trespassing on Iraqi's bordering oil well. Was it right for him to invade the country and allow the army to commit all these atrocities? Definitely no. However there is another side for the story, in which the ugliness committed in Kuwait was not totally Saddam's fault, but had to do with individual human conscience.

When the Iraqi army controlled Kuwait, many Iraqis went their and robbed and blundered the country, Yes, there were not stopped, but they should have never done that. My uncle used to drive a lorry there to bring different second-hand goods and sell them, but my dad warned my mother not to buy one single thing coming from Kuwait. I still remember the fight when my dad became mad at my mother for accepting a gift from my aunt, which was Kuwaiti dresses. He told her she would not stay at home if she would bring another thing from Kuwait to the house.

During the 90s, all Iraqis suffered because of the sanctions, and Saddam's started a phase of self-adulation, considering himself as the hero of Arab Nationalism against western imperialism, a postcolonial rhetoric as a feminist from Iraq I refuse to subscribe to. However, the US determination to invade the country, and their dirty game with the so-called Iraqi political opposition give some credit to this rhetoric.

Millions of Iraqis have rediscovered their history after 2003, under the confusion of the hundreds of media outlets that give different accounts of the 80s and 90s, and draw different pictures of 2003 aftermath. We were told of how Saddam's tortured and killed Iraqis who were opposing him, or suspected for opposing him. His sons emerged as sadists enjoying the atrocities they committed against Iraqis. Horrifying stories started to spread asserting the beastly nature of Saddam and his family, that we no longer think of them as humans, but more of mythic monsters that could have existed only in ancient barbaric times. But these stories did not conform with the kind of life we used to live in the 80s and 90s. At least, they didn't match the life I have lived.

Do I want Saddam back? definitely no. Do I have nostalgic feelings toward his rule. Yes, to certain extent. Any one of my generation, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, can't escape comparing between Iraq then and now. Even if their comparison ends illogically in favor of contemporary Iraq, at least there is something that provokes their thoughts to compare.

After 13 years of new Iraq and democracy, Iraq is living in worse conditions than what it used to be during Saddam's times, and this is enough to change the balance to his side. The number of Iraqis killed in those 13 years can be compared to 8 years of war, 1991 bombing and the sanctions years.

If those who rule Iraq today were the opposition Saddam was fighting and tried to isolate his people from, then hats off to Saddam, for they proved him right. These people are too incompetent to be rulers, to be given the power keys to my country.

Those who rule Iraq today have no vision, no plan for the country they rule. They are inconsiderate of the sufferings of Iraqis. They have turned our country to an abyss we just want to escape. Their only achievement which they take pride in is the religious militancy, and the spread of religious Shia rituals. Yes, marching, chest beating and wailing the religious leader who died 1400 years ago is far more important that the hundreds of Iraqis dying every week just because they decided to go to work, study and live a normal life. Religious parades, and loud commemoration of the Taf battle that happened fourteen centuries ago are more important than the millions of displaced Iraqis living in destitute in and outside the country.

They claim to fight ISIS because they reject their militant Islamic state, but they end up banning whatever goes against Islam, forming Islamic armed forces, whose loyalty is torn between Iran and Iraq.

I admit that I miss that solid firm rule, when my country was safe, secular to a certain extent, and when education was rewarded. I miss having an identity, a culture. I miss having a life that doesn't involve wailing and mourning for almost third of the year.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Woman on a Journey

"Do you measure the extent of your struggle by whether you die or not?"
"In my country? yes we do. The living are accused; the dead are pure, innocent. Death liberates them from accusations, accountability and self-doubt"

Haifa Zangan, Women on a Journey (2001)

When I was in Iraq, I had no interest in Iraqi literature, nor in Arabic. My sole interest was literature written in English, whether British or American. Since I was young, I was eager to read anything that came from worlds unknown to me, giving my imagination the freedom I was longing for. However, when I arrived to London last year, my reading, and literary interest started to have different turns.

At the beginning I resisted people's expectations that I would be excerpt of Iraqi or Arabic literature, sparing no effort to prove that I am capable enough to read and scholarly investigate English or American literature. For some reason, it hurts my pride to have people asking me about Arabic literature, feeling that their inquiry came with the assumption that as an Arab, I would never be as good as the native English in reading their literature. Thus, during the first months, I resisted the demands to read or research Arabic or Iraqi literature. Due to some complications with my fellowships and a pressing of feeling of isolation, I worked hard to have my world acknowledge me as scholar of multi-ethnic American poetry, the genre that I focused on in my PhD, and the projected I proposed for my postdoctoral fellowship. After couple of seminars and conference presentations, my agitation calmed down, motivating me to think practically of my future.

As I started my second year in London, and a tick-tack sound in my mind keeps reminding me of how much time I had left before my visa expires, I urged myself to think of my next step. I needed a plan, I needed to become employable. Yes, I tried my best during the first year to fill in the research gap I had in my CV, signing up for couple of criticism projects that resulted in couple of forthcoming publications, besides establishing good networks with scholars. But, it would be years before I achieve what my peers have achieved so far. The fact I was from Iraq would not really help me to consolidate my CV, and I didn't want to play the victim in my application statements. I needed to offer potential employers much more than the victim scholar from Iraq. Thus, instead of a victim, I am a feminist from Iraq. But how can I claim to belong to that country, which nothing connects me to except for my passport?

I know the most important history of the country, the last four decades, because I have lived them. I knew the intellectual environment because I was university lecturer. All I needed was to find my game, the pitching offer, which came from that rich knowledge I had. I am a scholar of literature, why not bring my feminist interest into the Iraqi literary landscape?

I admit my interest started as academic venture that can change my credentials. I investigated and laid hand on Haifa Zangana's "Women on a Journey". Fortunately, I didn't struggle with Arabic, which was the main reason that drove me away from Arabic literature. I found a translated copy of the novel, which made it easier for me to read and work my scholarly way through its content.

The novel sets in London, tracing the present and past of five Iraqi women refugees as they navigate life in the foreign lands, away from the home they knew and left. All the characters speak to me in one or another. I found myself like Om Mohammed, who is always conscious of her foreignness. Back at home, I was pretty fluent and articulate in English. I used to give my lectures in English, making few mistakes. Students used to record my lectures and listen to them, admiring my fluency and always asking me how I have acquired this semi-native level of English. However, I came here and found myself incapable of producing sound sentences. I always use the wrong tense, the wrong verb and stutter when I speak as beginner learner of the language. In my mind, I am very fluent, but as if my mouth resists this fluency and prefer to interrupt the flow of words that come from the brain. When I speak to non-natives I recover my fluency, but against the staring eyes of the natives I lose my self-confidence which is replaced by overwhelming feeling of foreignness and alienation.

Because of the growing feeling of alienation, I find myself like Sahira and Majada, indulge in the past, that probably never existed to me. I spent many days retiring early to my room in the top floor of the house, contacting no one, and indulge in self-pity for what I lost in Iraq. suffocated by the sense of estrangement from everything around me, I recovered that lost relationship which brought me nothing but pain in the near past. I received that skype call when I was in the library, feeling lonely and incapable of making sense of what I was reading, as if I lost my English reading skills. I answered the call, and retrieved all the feelings that I had lived for the last five years in Iraq. I was familiar with these feelings, I knew how to navigate that world of desperate love. Instead of feeling guilty for abandoning the sinking ship in Iraq, now I can indulge again in self-pity for my broken heart.

The sense of guilt I continuously feel was common between me and Adiba. We both chose to survive, to live, than stay and die in the abyss of Iraq. But unlike Adiba, I didn't want to live in denial of my exile. and resurrect a dead past. I was reading Adiba's character, and can relate to her search for her husband, while she knows he is dead. She lives in denial of her trauma, denying the death of her husband, blocking herself from moving on. I did the same when I answered that call. I was abandoned, humiliated, deeply hurt, but instead chose to go back to the darkness so I wouldn't see the reality of my present situation: 38, alone, no future prospects in foreign land, cut off from everything familiar. This reality was too much to handle, and the past sounded more safe with its familiar darkness than the piercing sun of the present.  

Like Iqbal I tried to move on, and establish a life in London. I met people, outside the university and library. People less skilled in English, to redeem my self-confidence. I went out with men, became part of the social life in England, even if it was pretentious and unreal. But it was better than the state of self-pity and victimization. I went out with Portuguese man, Indian, Spanish, and Kurdish Iraqi. In a word, I lived.

By the time I finished the book, I realized that I was on a journey like these women, a journey of exile. Like them, my real journey in life started when I landed in London, a journey that is still going. I have no idea where I am going to land next, for I am on the move. However, like Om Mohammed, when I go back to my small room I have been living for the last 14 months, my little home; like Sahira and Iqbal I have decided to move on from my past and embrace my independence and freedom and be open to future adventures; unlike Majada I won't allow my past to compromise my sanity, gladly embrace my identity; unlike Adiba, I faced my trauma, and walked toward the light.

The Journey continues


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Boundaries of Intimacy

we meet, we talk
we start a connection so alien yet so at home,
extends beyond our estranged souls, yearning for the life we have left...

we meet, we chat
You push the boundaries of intimacy, neglecting the cries of my enclosed being,
taking a strong hold of my virgin soul...

we split to reconnect again,
I found myself drawn to you like a moth attracted to fire,
burning herself in a glow of ecstasy 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Away from Home

to ask yourself every day, how does it feel at home now, to check the weather page of London and Baghdad, though you are not going back, not any time soon! but something deeply rooted in fathomless thoughts tells you to check on your country: cold or hot at this time of the year..
to long for familiar breeze of cardamon tea and some white cheese, while smelling your fancy cappuccino; to miss the early morning noise of family waking each other up, while enjoying being left to your own thoughts in London quiet underground.

to look at the Thames and think, "How dijla is now? if they only add some colorful lights! if only we celebrate.." and then suddenly you become conscious of escaping tears, crying loud your alienation with a deeply exhaled sigh, "If only..."

to be divided between here and there, to split thoughts between London and Baghdad, observing "this is not the way we do it back home!", to yearn for some good old days that never existed at home, till you became an immigrant! 

to be conscious at the end of your day of how strange your bed feel, how alien was the air of the day; to fold yourself like embryo, wishing to crawl back home!