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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Lifetime of War Trauma

Last Tuesday I was asked to participate in an event about living with war trauma. My participation was supposed to be an account of living a lifetime with war. I wanted to talk about what does it mean to pass through days and nights, waiting for my father to come back from the battlefield in the 1980s. The war was mainly on the borders. In Babel or in Baghdad, I didn't hear then the horrific sound of bombs or missiles falling on the border villages in the southern and northern borders withe Iran. The only terrifying memory I had of that war was waiting for my father to come back and the fear that I would lose him like many of my friends in school who were referred to as "daughter of the martyr". I didn't want to be one of the children who had to stand in front of all school on the first of December of every year, so that I receive petty gifts that were supposed to compensate me for losing my father. I wanted my father instead. I didn't want him to be a mere picture on the wall. I wanted my father to come home. My mother was happier when he was around; we all were happier. Waiting for him to come home was the worst times of my childhood.

But in Iraq war was the reality of the last four decades. I hit my teen years with gulf war in 1991, when more than 36 country decided to punish one man by destroying and terrorizing a whole country. My father was home with us; all of us, five girls and one boy, all slept in his room. He was there but he couldn't even say "don't worry, it is far away, we are safe". The sound of bombs falling around Baghdad was louder than any assuring words my father would say. He himself was terrified that he asked us all to be in one room. If we would die, we would all die together. He couldn't make my 2 years old brother feel safe, when the siren started the nightmare. My dad wished that they would bomb without this awful sound, which rendered the little child speechless, frozen in his place covering his ears with his hands. My brother would playing in the street during the day, laughing and having a good time. When the siren set off he would stand still, look ahead with expressionless look, pale and frightened, he would cover his ears. He hated and feared the siren more than the bombing.

My brother barely recovered this when 2003 war started. This time the war was more intense, for Bush Jr intended to finish his father's job. He didn't want a long war, but shock and awe that could end it once and forever. I was adult, had just submitted my MA thesis, but the bombing was something I saw in Hollywood movies. However, this time it was above our heads. The Americans were everywhere in the country, they were inside my city. We had to leave, my dad decided to take his family away from war zone. With the few families remaining in the neighborhood, we all headed northeast to Dyala. We stayed in tents in open lands or Palm-tree orchards. We were displaced for days and weeks and nobody believed that they would go back home at any time soon. It was freezing cold at night, the water had to be boiled before we drink and we took a shower once a week. I tried to read the book I brought with me then, Gone withe the Winds, but my father warned not to do that. The others would make fun of me.

The story of war did not end with the fall of Baghdad, did not end when Saddam was hanged, and definitely did not end with American-made democracy. Till the time I left Iraq, 30 July 2015, my city was a war zone: political parties stepping down on our heads to achieve power, armed groups using our destitution to gain whatever selfish goals they have and desperate rebels sacrificing their fellows in the hope of changing what they reject. Meanwhile, the peaceful world I have dreamed of since early childhood has continued to be far-fetched, a non-existent reality for far-away lands, but not for ours.

Apparently the horror is chasing us everywhere

Nadia F Mohammed        

Friday, September 1, 2017

Obituary of the Aunt Who Walked Away

Happy Eid,

I just knew that my (parental) aunt had died. Years ago, when she lost her husband, my aunt decided to walk away from family and tribe and live on her own to look after a house of another wealthy Iraqi woman in Karbala, which serves passing by pilgrims to the Shrines of Hussein and Abbas. 

All blamed my aunt for her decision. It was not because her family needed her. All were grownups and already married and had their own families. She was a grandmother in her sixties when she took the decision. They just found her decision and choice in life disgracing their tribal honor, that she was walking away from her lawful male guardians after becoming a widow. They expected her to stay with one of her sons to the end of her life. She rejected this fate, and decided to lead a different life, free from family ties and tribal traditions. 

When I heard about my aunt new life style, I felt ashamed that her children and her brothers (my dad included) let her do this. I thought she did this because she felt abandoned and none of her children agreed to look after her. My eldest sister, who lived with her husband in the tribe home-town in Kut and was more informed of our relatives latest updates, told me that this was not the case. She chose to this because she wanted to be on her own. In fact, I sensed a tone of envy in my sister's voice when she was saying that my aunt was now free to go wherever she wanted without the need to ask one of her sons, that she no longer tied to family responsibilities. After a sigh my sister looked at me and said that I was the only one who said no to this fate! 

At that time I didn't understand my sister's position, or why the envy. Isn't every woman's wish to be married and have a family of her own? 

My aunt had this; yet at one point in her life, when she was badly in need of the support of that family she devoted all her life to look after, she decided to walk away, and live free, even this meant abandoning a life of comfort for one that required hard work. 

Today I understand my aunt better. I can feel why she had did that, living far away from her own people and community. She must have found in the new life she led during the last decade of her life a freedom she had missed in her old life. She probably didn't care how hard and exhausting to live on her own after living a life-time supported by family members. 

Loneliness is bitter, my mom used to say. She always warned me against ending up on my own. She told me that I would grew up old one day and would need a companion, I would be in need of my own family to be around me in my old age. My aunt proved my mother was wrong. She had this but chose to walk away. She chose to live estranged from her sons and daughters, who wanted her to abide by tribal traditions. My mother felt sorry for my aunt, but I feel that it was my aunt who felt sorry for my mom, and all other women who would spend their lives in the prison of traditions till they perish. 

Nadia Fayidh Mohammed 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Two Years in London

 Two years have passed since my arrival to the UK.  Every time I see my reflection in a mirror or a glass, I remember how I was like when I first arrived here. Not  only my looks have changed, but also the way I defined myself. I look at my reflection and think that I finally dress like I would like to, without having tens of voices dictating what outfit I need to put on. However, the change runs deeper than that.

Feminists from the Middle East often talk about their expatriate experiences as liberating and how such experiences in the free west have untangled them from restrictions imposed by their cultures to set them free in the wide world. One feminist from Iran, Mahnaz Afkhami, who were exiled from her country after the revolution for being outspoken feminist, says in her book on Women and Exile, that exile in the stories of women collected in the book has been or can be perceived as liberating experience for women to step out of their cultural restrictions.

Her words did not ring a bell with me, as I didn't come to the UK to be free from my culture's patriarchy, nor I was interested then in experimenting with personal freedom, European-style. One the contrary, I deemed gender expectations as perceived by European men as demeaning to women as the ones we have in Iraq. Each try to pull women to one extreme version of what men wanted women to be and do, but neither are democratic enough to consider and accept what women really want.

The personal space, privacy and independence I have enjoyed in London since my arrival, went unnoticed and unappreciated because I did not leave my country to enjoy these. They were not among the list of things I wanted to achieve here. I wanted and sought for something else, related to my career as academic, rather than aimed at having a breathing space from my suffocating culture. Such perspective I know was shared by many of my colleagues, who came to the UK seeking an advanced degree in a UK university, but not a UK life-style.

In the name of preserving our cultural identity, resisting western thinking influence and resisting racial and cultural patronizing, I didn't appreciate, or I was not aware of the value of the personal freedoms, which have become available to me, as single woman moving to London on her own. I did not appreciate the freedom of movement which I had never access to back in Iraq. The fact that I didn't to take permission from my parents, nor I needed a brother to go shopping or having no curfew was not part of the things that I valued the most in London, though it was worth fighting for at home.

The available freedom, being unsought for, went unnoticed by me for most of the first year of my staying in London. The only change I had in my looks was to replace the overcoat, we call in Iraq 'juba', dressed by conservative Muslims, with jeans. It was more convenient and easy to move around with jeans rather than in the overcoat. I was at home before it got dark, even when the daylight continued till 9 pm. I did not make any effort to socialize or hang around. London for me was day-time city, where I can visit museums and libraries, but it did not exit after 7 pm.

Living as such how could my exile be a liberating experience? At the beginning of June 2016, I visited one Iraqi woman, who moved to the UK after 2003. She was not many years older, but her experience was much bigger and deeper than mine. We knew each other through mutual contact and we met once few months after my arrival when our mutual contact invited us to attend an event for Iraqi diaspora in the Arab British Center. I was lost and she showed me the way. I introduced myself and because we shared the same name, we hit off. It turned to be she was the person who helped in getting me my first part-time job. We friended each other on Facebook and started a friendship based on nostalgia for everything that is genuinely Iraqi, and missed in the UK. Then she invited me to her house.

She was not the first Iraqi living in the UK to invite me over. When I first came, a contact in Iraq asked his friends in London to invite me over and look after me. They paid their obligations by one lunch or dinner invitation and asking me to contact if I needed something, but such pleasantries were always preceded by the advise of relying on myself only to survive in London. Such invitations were heavy on my heart, as Iraqis would say, and I knew they were not enthusiastic about it either. However, Nadia's invitation was different. I was waiting for it. I was badly in need of a friend with whom I could connect with and Nadia's Facebook profile suggested that she could be what I was looking for.

In her house in St. Albans I met her two kids and her English husband. We shared fried tomato the Iraqi way and chatted a lot about our experiences. The few things she mentioned about her experience enlightened me, and made me aware of the freedoms that were denied to women at home but were available here. Such freedoms are taken for granted by Europeans, and I failed to recognize them and make use of them, but there were valuable and worth fighting for in our part of the world.

Starting from that time, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked myself how I wanted look like, with or without headscarf, in a dress, jeans, bare-shouldered top, or long-sleeve. I asked myself if I was to keep the headscarf, why I was doing it? Is it because I believe in it, or I was keeping it for my family? I questioned every definition I gave to myself in terms of religion, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, and whether I was who I claimed myself to be.

One result came of my questioning, that every definition I had given myself before was taught, imposed by outside power, be it religion, family, school, society, or political system. I realized I could not change the last 37 years of my life, nor the identity I had assumed under those influences, but I could refashion an identity of my own now. Then I understood the words of Mahnaz Afkhamy: exile could be liberating, when we realize we no longer belonged to the old world we left, nor did we belong to the new one, we just moved to. We has parted with our past, and our future was yet to be written, the only certainty we had was an open landscape of now moments.

My questioning and redefinition has not resolved yet. After two years I am negotiating what I am and what I want to be, but I know now that I am no longer the same woman who landed in London two years ago. I know I am no longer in a maze, and no matter how foggy the near future, I am definitely heading somewhere, where I can be who I truly am!

Nadia F Mohammed 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Searching for light

You were about to tell me your story
How you crossed the world to land safe;
But I stopped before you shape the words
And went on relating your story and mine:
How we left homelands for better lives;
Struggling through dark woods and caves
Searching for the light...

Fellow traveler, we both lost & found
We both had to shed away old dreams
Open space for new ones and more;
Don't stop, ours journeys do not end here
We have just crossed roads
But in a moment we both again depart
Follow the unknown, searching for light..

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Woman from Iraq

In the last 20 months I have lived in London, I had the chance to meet many first-generation Iraqis, who settled in the UK during different stages of the trouble contemporary history of Iraq. Their diversity in matters of cultural adaptation and Iraqi identity, can only be explained by the diverse backgrounds they have back home. The first Iraqi I met was Tara, almost my age, came to the UK when she was 11. Because of some Turkish origin, I guessed she might be an Iraqi from her last name which sounded Iraqi; otherwise nothing about her looks was Iraqi. However, once I got to know her, hear her Iraqi Arabic and the use of Iraqi slangs that I had heard from my brothers once, I realized how Iraqi she was. Tara represents for me many first-generation Iraqi women, whether they grew up here or immigrated in their adulthood, who adapted to the surrounding culture, or they belonged to the secular-educated Iraqis who passed uninfluenced by the religious waves that hit Iraq in the early 80s or 90s.

When she invitd me to Chew & Glew event in the Arab British Center, where she gathered group of the Iraqi diaspora she knew, I met more exmaples who were more or less like her. Iraqi women and young girls who gave me a glimpse of what Iraq could have looked like if the Shia or Sunni hardliners didn't take over its cultural landscape. There I met Aysha and Nazili, young Iraqi girls in the prime of their youth, so involved and committed to their roots that they were keen to do anything to help. With modern (or European) outfits, they sounded so smart, so lively, but above all so free. The more I knew them, the more I felt sorry for my sister, Batool, who was almost their age, and my female students, whose potential and freedoms suppressed by the dominant religiously patriarchial cutlture. If my sister was raised in a free atmosphere, where she could dress what she wants, and express herself the way she wants, maybe she would have been happier than she is now, and more importantly, more creative and committed to make something of herself, instead of submitting to the dominant culture that defines her existence within the traditional framewrok of marriage and child bearing.

In the same event, a girl with hadscarf, wrapped in contradiction to her jeans and long boots, stepped up to thr front and talked about her dilemma as an Iraqi girl from religious family, but born and raised in the west. It happened that I knew her mother, who was working in an Iraqi charity that was active among the Shia community. That 20 years old girl's talk inspired me to do my research on the Arab and Muslim women sense of identity. Till now I haven't read writing so genuine as the words of that girl, who told group of strangers what she was going through as devout Shia muslim girl in multicutural society. Her words shattered away the ideal of tolerance and accepting the other, as well as giving voice to th dilemma which Muslim communities in the west dismiss and would like to keep it suppressed.

The headscrafed girl told us she was born in Holland for Iraqi parents, who were devout Shia Muslims. They moved when she was couple of years old to England, where her parents reconnected with the large Shia Iraqi community living in the UK. However, as a second-generation Iraqi born and raised in the west, she felt different from the rest of the Shia community in London, as the latter mostly consisted of first-generation Iraqis who left Iraq end of the 80s and 90s. The mixed cultural influences that shaped her identity made her fell between two worlds: she was neither the reserved Shia Iraqi girl nor she was European girl. Her appearance expressed that perfectly.

Straangely I felt she was talking about me though I never left Iraq till I was 2015, when I was already 37 years old. As far as my memory can go to my early childhood, sense of being different, unable to fit in, dominated my sense of being. I had asked myself many times why I was different from my other sisters, why I always wished for something different from what my mother wished me to have? Sometimes I blamed myself, believing that I was different for the sake of getting attention, or just to annoy my mother. When I grew older, the sense I wanted something different became stronger, but I just couldn't understand what was that I wanted. I had no more options to make me realize what I really wanted. As I had other 5 sisters, who mostly subscribe to the dominant culture, I often felt out of place among them. When one after the other followed what the surrounding world wanted and wished for a girl, I moved further away from them, and felt that I would end up the strange sister which no one would want to hang on with.

Once I finished my PhD, I tried to fit it, but my own way, but after 5 years of struggling to find my place in a world that I deeply rejected, it was apparent that I was not cut for that role, nor I belonge to that world. I was thrown out of it though I tried my best to fit in.

Couple of months later, I found myself in London, a world that I thought I belonged to, but after almost two years here, I still feel I don't belong to this world either. Now I remember the words of that girl: I don't belong to the world I was born and raised in, nor I belong to the new world I was so keen to join.

I tried my best to fit in here as well, but all my attempts didn't have satisfactory results. It is maybe too soon to judge, and perhaps in the future, when I further settle down, I would feel different. For now, I am falling between those two worlds: neither I can't go back to where I started, for I know I don't belong there, not any more at least; nor I belong to this world I live in now.

Iraqi women, whether they were raised here, or came later when they were adults, they managed to follow the path they knew would make them happy: stick to the religious conservative Iraqi life they left at home, or follow the westren style of living. I am standing between the two, unable to walk into either of them.

No doubt I envy those first-generation Iraqi women who managed to find their ways in the multicutural life in London. But, I know as well that I can't follow either road, or at least I won't be happy with either. I need to discover, or start my own. Till now I have no example to follow, no map to guide me through. I have my own sense of comfort that I am trying to test its limits every now and then. Once I feel discomfort, I retreat back to the usual zone.

Friday, March 24, 2017

2003: ‘Bombing Us to Democracy’

I frequently face questions about 2003 and what happened then. When people here in London knew that I witnessed that war, they often ask me describe, give opinion, analyze the experience of war. 
Their questions came with expected answers. Pro-war interrogators expect me to confirm that war needed to happen. They wanted me to satisfy their belief that their uniform boys saved the primitive Iraq from its demonic dictatorship. They saluted their troops as saviors of the world and they wanted me to concur.
On the other hand, there was the anti-war activists, who stormed the streets one month before the war, calling their politicians to stop the war, not to push their pretty boys into a war they did not need to fight. They wanted me to assure them that before the war, Iraqis were fine and had everything under control.
Both camps seek simple answers to validate what they think is right. For me, no answer can sound right.
By the time of the war, Iraqis had suffered 13 years of sanctions, barely surviving after the destruction of the country’s infrastructure in the first Gulf war 1991. Appalled by Saddam’s overnight invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the international community in the form of the UN security council decided to punish Saddam for his recklessness by depriving his people from their daily-life necessities. 
Even after storming the country with barrage of bombs, and destroying every aspect of life in it, even after withdrawing from Kuwait, the international community still thought Iraqis were dangerous and should be kept in check and starve.
While we were hardly living, the world woke up into the terror of the 9/11. For some reason, Saddam was to blame, and Iraqis should pay. George W Bush’s administration started its move to topple Saddam and “liberate” Iraqis.
The world decided what was needed in Iraq was democracy, American flavored democracy. They prepared their bull, and directed it toward our china shop. Operation Democracy started.   
During the first hours of Thursday, March 20th 2003, I woke up to distant bombing approaching slowly but steadily. I went downstairs. One of the civil defense tips we learner in 1991 war was not to stay in the upper floors. But security procedures aside, i wanted to seek refuge in my parents room, the way I did in 1991. With every step down the sound of  bombing grew stronger. My mom had just finished praying and dad was awake as well. I asked him for assurance that it was war again but he dismissed the bombing as far away, and wouldn’t continue. Was he trying to brush off my fear or he did thought that these would be just like Clinton's brief efforts in 1998? Against the evidence of the growing roars, I believed my dad, and tried to get outside and see what was happening. Naively I thought that I would be able to see colorful glares in the sky like fireworks. My mom panicked and  shouted at me to stay in. My mother was less calm than my father. 
I waited the sounds to get lower and die away but they didn't. I thought like 1998 when the daylight would come, the bombing would stop but it only get stronger. Finally the siren was set off warning us into doomsday. (I always hated this sound; since the first time I heard it in 1986. Couldn't they come up with better sign of warning than this frightening sound that trumpets the apocalypse more than the barrage of bombs falling on our heads). 
The siren asserted the situation of war. The US decided to bomb us to democracy. Apparently many of us did not to be ‘liberated’. Iraqis were resisting the ‘liberation’ drive of US and its allies.
Few days later, the liberation fa├žade was pulled down, to allow the face of invasion and destruction to show its real spots. Infrastructure was targeted: no electricity, no clean water, and civilians were randomly shot. The US-led coalition probably thought that Iraqis would simply welcome them into their country, but were surprised when they found, instead, that Iraqis were ready to die for their own country. We might have hated Saddam, we might have wished him to leave, but definitely we didn’t want foreign occupation. It was too complicated for the Americans to understand.
When they started to approach Baghdad, ahead of them spread the news of the atrocities their bull committed in every place they democratized. Most people started to leave Baghdad to protect their the vulnerable members of their families from the coming horrors. We left one week before the fall of Baghdad, when rumors of the approaching tanks warned the families in our street of what might happen if these tanks invaded the place.
I remember that day we left our house, heading east toward the unknown. I thought I would never come back again. That morning before we left, I saw airplanes bombing the surrounding areas. I was mesmerized in the garden watching the glare of rockets hitting somewhere nearby. For me this was the end of times. I left all my books, my diaries, everything I liked in the house knowing that I was not to see them again.
We spent a week displaced, in palm tree orchard in Dyala, east of Baghdad. I thought this was going to be my life till we heard the news of the fall of my city, the fall of Baghdad. The liberation process was complete. Iraqis should go home. We were squeezed again in my father’s small car and headed back toward home. In the way I saw the first glimpses of American democracy: people looting their own country. The American marines stationed at checkpoints watched smiling: operation democracy was complete.

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!