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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Gaining Back What is Lost: Back to Teaching

When my father asked me to follow my sister lead and become a teacher, I firmly said no. I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to end up like the teachers I encountered in my school. 

As a student, I had good teachers and bad ones, but the latter were the dominant type. They were not only bad in the way they treat students, but they were also uninformed, superficial and not quite the role model I wanted to follow. 

I tried to resist my father, but being at that time the good girl I was raised to be, I eventually followed my father's orders and joined the College of Education for women, to become a teacher, like my sister. 

When I was asked what department I wanted to join, I chose English. In school I loved this subject that opened the doors and expanded the limited conservative world I was chained to. I always excelled in it and to continue studying it, even for the purpose of teaching it, gave me some sense of freedom.  

I was good enough during the first two years of the university. Being excellent student did not make a sense for me at that time, when I knew I would end up teaching in secondary schools. My level of English was far better than what my teachers had. I didn't bother attending most of the lectures, especially those that aimed at training students to become secondary-school teachers. However, I loved literature and language modules. I was very good in them. By the end of the second year, when I realized that I could pursue different careers with my study, like translation, I decided to take my studies seriously. In  the last two of my undergraduate years, I was the top student.  

As I excelled in the department,  when I graduated, I had the chance of joining Baghdad Observer, Iraqi newspaper published in English. However,  as the top student, everyone, including my professors, advised me to pursue master degree in English literature. By that time I was deeply in love with the subject of literature. Between the lines of a poem, story or play, I found a hidden meaning of life, a lost passion I always looked for. I convinced myself that I would join Baghdad Observer when I obtain master degree, and then I would probably have the chance to become a writer in the newspaper, rather than just a translator. 

Before the time I submitted my master degree, life changed in Iraq and post-2003 era started, after wiping off the life we knew in Iraq. Baghdad Observer was shut down, and the media landscape in Baghdad started to take different and unfamiliar shapes. By the time I received my master degree, I missed another chance to work in another newspaper, which was published in English, because it was not safe to join the field. My dream to become a writer, a columnist perhaps, who share her knowledge and experience with the world, was killed in the bud. Lacking the companionship of a listening ear or understanding mind at that time made me eager to communicate with the wide world through my words, and what was better than a newspaper that published in English, a language that most of the world can speak? 

Because of the security situation after 2003, I was left with no other career option but teaching. There was a need for lecturers in English and after searching for few weeks, I landed on teaching jobs in two different colleges. During the following years, I finished my PhD in contemporary American poetry, and established myself as lecturer of English and American literature in a university in Baghdad. 

However, deep inside I continued to hate the job. It felt like a wall separating me from what I really wanted to be, which was not a teacher. I felt conflicted. I knew what a huge responsibility it was to stand in front of a class waiting for me to enlighten their minds with the knowledge I acquired, while in fact I didn't want to do that. I felt that I was fraud. I felt that I was bad teacher, even when there were students who admired me and considered me as a role-model. 

This even affected my relationships with my colleagues. I despised many of them for being fraud as well, being as bad and less informed as my teachers in the secondary school. Every year, my frustration with the job and disappointment with academia in Iraq grew deeper. I tried to resist but the system established in Iraq after 2003 was bigger and stronger than individual attempts of helpless academics like me. 

When I came here, I was surprisingly disappointed to know that my fellowship terms did not include teaching. I tried to cheer myself up by repeating the thought that I cherished for many years: I hated teaching. But that was futile. I felt sad, because in spite of the fact that I hated this job, it was the only thing I had been doing since 2003 till I left Iraq in 2015. It was my career for 12 years. To stop doing it all of sudden left me impaired, not knowing what to do. Without teaching, I felt there was no purpose behind my research, which I did not give enough attention during the last two years. 

For two years, I wrote and published articles related to my research, I participated in conferences, seminars and workshops as expected from any academic serious and passionate about their fields. However, nothing satisfied that urge to stand in front of a class and share with them a book I loved to read, or knowledge about literature I recently acquired. 

I did several desk jobs in London, mostly research, translation and content editing. However, the urge for teaching again grew bigger, that I felt there would be no career satisfaction unless I was a teacher again.  Finally, I decided to apply for teaching jobs, even if would be outside the university. 

Last month, I was accepted in a part-time teaching job in Essex. For some reason, I felt extremely happy. Not because the job paid well, or  will change my financial situation drastically. On the contrary, the job proved to be a burden on my budget. Yet, I felt excited to go back to teaching. 

I went to my first lesson feeling proud of myself, excited to stand again in front of a class and share with them the knowledge I had been accumulating for years, but above all eager to regain that part of me I lost when I left Iraq. Teaching was the bigger part of my life in Iraq, it was my self-defining reality, which I lived for most of the day. When I stopped doing it, I felt that I stopped to exist, that I was no longer visible to the world. This was how I felt when I was in my way from London to Essex to start my first class. Though I had a long-day work in London, I was happy to start my class in the evening. 

I walked to my first class, introduced myself to the new students and asked them to introduce themselves. I started teaching and tasted back that familiar air of teaching! First lesson was successful. I gained back what I lost. But, was that what I really wanted?

That night I couldn't sleep. I stayed awake in bed thinking and processing what had happened. The joy of victory, that I was doing something that was denied to me since I came here, no longer felt, but was replaced by exhaustion and disappointment. I realized that the urge to teach was an urge to gain back a lost life; a life that in exile grew ideal, simply because I was forced to leave it, rather was ready to end it. 

Nadia F Mohammed 

Thursday, September 28, 2017


In few weeks, London will celebrate Halloween, then the decoration will be put down for Christmas. Premature Christmas decorations, though annoys some people who are saying no to these commercial and marketing strategies, I find them to help in setting the mood for the holidays season and add some warmth to the cold city. 
When the Christmas lights brightens London's Oxford St or the Piccadilly, I often think of my home town and a comparison becomes inevitable. London does not waste any occasion to celebrate joy, life and love, starting with Halloween, Christmas and Valentine. Baghdad, and most of Iraq, wastes no occasion to celebrate death. 
As if the daily bombings and constant conflicts on the Iraqi soil are not enough to remind Iraqis of their inescapable fate to die; as if it is not enough that a new black sign is added to announce the death of a beloved. Iraqis dig for more to mourn, more reasons to add more black flags in the streets. In this time of the year, all Baghdad would be wrapped in black flag to commemorate the death of Hussein. 
After 2003, when Shia, who appeared to be the majority of Iraqis living in the middle and south of Iraq, started to enjoy the freedom of self-expression denied to them by the Baathist regime, Ashura started to feel and look different from what it used to be in the 1980s and 90s. It simply became politicized and identity marker that was unnecessarily emphasized.  
I belong to Shia family. I spent 6 years in Babel before we moved permanently to Baghdad. in Both places, our neighbours were mixture of Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds. But again, at that time these ethno-sectarian identities were not part of any conversation. 
Before I realized that my family were Shia, we used to observe Ashura, but so all our neighbours in Babel and Baghdad. Ashura at the time was simple and warm. Families would cook large amounts of food and distributed to around the neighbourhood. Some would cook harisa  

Or they cook qeema and rice

Which is my favorite.
I used to spend the 9th day of Muharam carrying a small pot, searching which house in the street would be cooking. I wanted to be the first of my friends to get a share of the newly cooked food.
My favourite Ashura ritual was staying awake from 12 am till next morning between 9-10 of Muharam, which we used to call ‘hija’, pilgrimage. In this context, it used to mean pilgrimage of the night. The exciting thing was that my sisters and I would be staying in the street playing with other kids, while our mothers would gather around one house and drink tea and cookies. The one who served them the tea and cookies had vowed to serve this simple meal because she prayed for something, either the return of a beloved safely from the battlefield, which was a common prayer during the Iraq-Iran war, or a woman deprived of the joy of motherhood would pray for Al Abas to have a baby.

It was the only night around the year where it was safe to go around. My mother would not ask us even to be careful. She was pretty sure that we were safe.
I never associated Ashura with mourning, or sad event. For me Ashura was the time to be free, too much playing and tasty food that we didn’t cook in any other occasion.
Today this joy does not exist anymore. Ashura rituals start immediately after the celebrating the New Islamic year. Black flags would shroud Baghdad; tents serving tea and lemon tea would play poems recited through loud speakers for everyone to hear, even if they don’t want to listen to; streets would be blocked because apparently Shia like to march on foot to Karbala, where the Martyrdom took place fourteen century ago. Life is disrupted during that week, and the only activity to be done is mourning.
Today few people do ‘hija’, few children would stay awake all night playing and exchanging stories the way we used to do. Food is abundant, but it is no longer as tasty. Ashura has become those days of continuous mourning and wailing. They are those days which heavily pass that they seem to linger weeks and months, rather than just days.
In London, today, no one knows why they are celebrating Halloween, Christmas or Valentine, but these celebrations become part of their cultures; celebrating them has nothing to do with being devout Christian, but part of giving oneself the time to enjoy the festivities. However, big companies profit from these celebrations and thus they need to support and increase their investments in these occasions. Every store in Oxford St has to hang on Christmas lights to attract customers, or exhibit red teddies and flowers. It has become commercial and politicized, but at least it is still joyful and warm.
Ashura also has its own patrons, who like to keep the newly developed rituals continue, and to have it as marker of identity. Politicians, Shia clerics in Najaf, and even businessmen need to keep these rituals going and expanding. However, these rituals have become shrouded with death and mourning.   

Nadia Fayidh Mohammed

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!

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.