Popular Posts

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.