From Pop to Politics

Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

BYE BYE BAGHDAD

In Popolitics on December 18, 2011 at 12:18 am

"The New Iraqi Flag" by Hala Alsalman (2005)

2011 is almost over. While many across the globe believe that Armageddon is just around the corner, the world ended many years ago in Iraq. Unjust bombings, unjust sanctions and an unjust 8 year occupation have resulted in unimaginable death tolls, disease (social and otherwise), and the destruction of hope for at least two generations of Iraqis. While the pretext for war was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the car bombings that have mangled and dismembered thousands upon thousands of Iraqi citizens are part of a culture of terrorism that never existed in Iraq before the invasion. Things that we in the West take for granted, like electricity and garbage management, are at atrocious levels.

And so, what was once a beacon of progress and intellectual thought in the Middle East, has now become one of the worst places to live on Earth. As the last of US troops pull out of Iraq this month, lest we forget what the US government has left behind: One of the greatest crimes against humanity of our time.

In 2004, a 23 year-old Egyptian-American filmmaker by the name of Wesam Nassar traveled across Iraq for two months distributing video cameras to Iraqis for a documentary film project. What he saw has marked him to this day. This is an article he wrote upon his return to the United States:

REFLECTIONS OF A WITNESS

What you see my son is America’s three O’s: Occupation, Oppression, Opportunity.”

Salman Al-Berman (Adthamia, Baghdad)

One month since my return from Baghdad, the dark cloud that loomed over the country still remains in the nightmarish messages of despair electronically sent to me by my now extended family. I have been repeatedly asked by friends, family, and colleagues, why I waited a month to recount the tales of my journey to what many Iraqi’s call a country of destruction? I don’t know why exactly. Except to say that from the moment I flew out of Baghdad into Amman till this very minute, I find myself at times weeping without apparent cause or reason. Where does one begin, when reflections of the past impose the very despair seen in Iraqi eyes upon you?

As I sit here on the computer, I know that the fact of the matter is I am not an expert on international political affairs, a war analyst, or a religious figure. I am just a human being that has witnessed the ramifications of war with every one of my senses, yes including my sense of smell, as the odor of rotting flesh rose from a rooftop in Fallujah one mid-May morning.

I was told they were the remains of a young student who joined the Fallujah brigade, A.K.A. pretty much every able bodied man in Fallujah, and died when a mortar destroyed the rooftop he was posted on. Most of the perished have similar epitaphs of simply defending their loved ones. The only great victory I saw in the destroyed city of Fallujah were the mothers that survived, many of whom lost sons in April and again today.

My last day in Fallujah I ate lunch at the most famous restaurant in all of Iraq, Hajji Hussein’s. Hajji Hussein’s is known from Mosul to Basra and everywhere in between. Some Baghdadi’s make the hour-long drive to Fallujah for lunch to experience the fine dining of Kofta and Kebab. As my guide Keiser and I sat silently eating the juiciest Kebab in the world, I paused to look around. Everyone, every single person in the place was staring at the television, watching Al-Jazeera. But this is normal. In Gaza, Palestinians would be glued to the television 24/7. It makes sense. The thing that made this moment in Iraq a profound one, was that most of the men were either handicapped in wheelchairs or strapped with Kalashnikov’s (Russian Guns). Leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, it was a scene that even the best kebab in all of Iraq couldn’t cure. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think, These men sacrificed their limbs and lives for their families and neighbors, with the only reward being life. I can learn a lot from them.

It was hard to enjoy simple pleasures, for violence penetrated almost every moment of life. In Adthamia, Baghdad, my driver Salman invited me out for ice cream on account of the heat. As we stood together leaning against the ice cream stand eating the Mota ice cream and enjoying the relief of the shade, the mental oasis was interrupted abruptly. A tank and two hummers pulled up across the street and without warning began firing rounds into a house. Salman and I dropped our ice cream, and ran toward the car. Most people were running away from the violence, but some were running towards it with weapons. As we jumped into the car, some kids (undoubtedly under the age of 15) began firing on the Coalition troops from rooftops and the ice cream shop. As we sped off, my side view mirror revealed a hummer on fire, and a firebombed house. Within an hour we found out that a soldier died in the skirmish, as they were looking for an insurgent hiding at home.

It was hard for me to adjust to the sounds I wasn’t accustom to hearing living in the US. In Iraq, about every 5 minutes one hears some form of gunfire, an aircraft overhead, a crash in the distance, or a siren. I became shocked at myself when by the fifth night in Baghdad, I was able to ignore and sleep through nearby firefights, and parade of bullets passing through the neighborhood (some gunmen perched on nearby rooftops within sight). The unbelievable irony of hearing the morning call to prayer over the sound of tanks driving through the streets, returning to their bases after long nights of fighting.

Or what about driving on the freeway listening to Freedom Radio with DJ Sergeant Jon Clark who decides to play Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ all the while Salman and I watch as a Black Hawk helicopter fires on a crowded neighborhood. We pulled off the road and sat in awkward silence. What speech do you utter at that point? Except what Salman turned to me and said, “It’s a celebration? Okay then, let me buy you some fish.” We both laughed uncontrollably, masking our tears.

As we drove to the restaurant, I noticed that it became increasingly hard for Salman to hide his frustration, and little did we know that the opportunity would come for him to let it all out. Driving along the street he began to reminisce about the restaurant he was taking me to, saying that he would take his family there all the time on Fridays. “The best seafood in Iraq.” Then HONK!!!! Our car is hit from behind and pushes us to the side of the road. We hear “get the fuck off the road!” as a hummer drives by leading an envoy of tanks and trucks with the label Halliburton emblazoned on the sides. We sat in silence. After a couple of minutes Salman finally turned and looked at me. He said, “You know, we built these roads.”

You felt the occupation in every touch, whether that was the touch of a handshake, a hug, or a shake down. In route to Basra from Baghdad, the Muktada Sadr militia stopped us at a checkpoint. After getting all the details of who we are, where we were going, and checking our car, they invited us for tea. We drank tea. In the short time we stood amongst them, I came to learn that the majority of the men were farmers/laborers and joined the militia simply to defend their family and land. No, this is not an oversimplification; their seemingly simple intentions were devoid of grand illusions of defending the Nation. The moment, Abdel Karim, a fighter in his late fifties shook my hand and hugged me close, I knew that all that these men wanted was a space to love and maintain their families.

Was the encounter with Abdel Karim any different than the one I had the following day with Private Marco, a Philipino American soldier who held me against a fence and searched me? He would proudly talk of his military record, of having served in Grenada, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He finished patting me down, and I asked him what makes Iraq different from those other places. He paused and with disdain said that the difference was that ‘I knew my objective everywhere else.’ “After nine months of getting shot at 24/7, we don’t know why we are here anymore. Honestly, all I want to do is get out of this country and get back to my family. Just get my check and get out.” He let my driver and me pass through after he told me he has two kids and a wife waiting for him in New Jersey, and Iraq this would be the last place he would serve.

After two weeks of life in Iraq my eyes were the most abused of all senses. I saw enough violence, destruction, and chaos for ten lifetimes in under a month. And what made it even harder to bear was the constant reminder of my passport: I had the option of leaving. For my new friends and new extended family, Iraq was life. This country that was considered the gem of the world for hundreds of years, where European philosophers, scientists and theologians would come to study, a nation on the verge of being considered a member of the first world, is now reduced to rubble. I was unable to bear the sight of the historic national library, that was rebuilt hundreds of years ago after the Tartars burned it to the ground, returned to ruins, firebombed, looted, and abandoned. More disheartening however, were the nihilistic remarks of hopelessness uttered by children and young adults about the hope of the future.

This is what I smelled, tasted, heard, felt, and saw.

Occupation, Oppression, Opportunity.

Wesam Nassar

November 2004

Advertisements

Stuck between Iraq and a Hard Place | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Published on GNN – Wed, 28 Mar 2007 12:32:31

Location: Dubai, U.A.E.

Ah Dubai with all its glitz and glam, looming cranes dance across the horizon and skyscrapers puncture the heavens with Babel-esque ambition. I’ve been living here for just over 4 years now and I’ve watched the population swell dramatically: The city is being developed so quickly that it can’t seem to keep up with all the young professionals and masses of Indian labor workers it’s luring in.  Educated Arabs and Westerners from across the globe are flocking to the Paris Hilton of the Middle East to build this desert dream and benefit from the lucrative opportunities and liberal lifestyle. While the foundations of many buildings are still setting, the Russian mafia have already bought out the penthouses. Almost anyone is invited to get a piece of the Dubai pie… But for Iraqi passport holders, it’s persona non-grata.

As you may know, there are no real career opportunities for the people of Iraq in their own country. The security situation is so fucked that people are fleeing in droves. We know by now that over a million have fled to Syria, and around 800 000 are in Jordan. Hundreds of thousands more have sought refuge in other countries. Just a few months ago the UN put out a startling statistic: 1 in every 8 Iraqis is now displaced, which has resulted in the largest population movement on Earth.

Gulf countries are taking a shameful stance: Saudi Arabia and Qatar refuse all Iraqi passport holders. The UAE is beginning to develop a stricter line  as well. And this is where it hit home.

My cousin Ahmed graduated university and fled Baghdad last year to Dubai to join his mother and sister in an attempt to build a future. Although he quickly found work at a local factory out here, he’s had to stay in nearby Oman for11 days waiting for a new visit visa to come through, granting him a legal two-month stay. Visit visas in Dubai last 2-3 months for everyone. Certain nationalities (North America and Europe) can just hit up any nearby border, get stamped and return to the UAE within a couple of hours. They call it the “visa hop”. For educated Iraqis trying to escape the chaos and to work in the UAE, it’s a drawn –out and nerve wracking process.

For reasons that are unclear, his company is having serious trouble sponsoring him to get residency status and so he’s been sent to the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Musandam, to wait for his visit visa application to be approved. Over the past 6 months, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and his waits in this picturesque province of Oman, are becoming longer and longer. After two visa rejections this time around, his mother – who has residency status here- was finally able to get him back in Dubai… For another two months that is. And the process repeats itself until one day, he might not be able to come back at all.

I’ve been hearing about this problem from family, friends and acquaintances for months now. Educated young Iraqis who are desperate for work are being rejected form entering the United Arab Emirates without explanation. Ahmed’s case, it seems, is one in thousands.

“I’m not the only one,” he told me on the phone from Oman last week “ There’s a group of 20 guys like me in my motel. Some of them have been waiting here for months…” I was told that there were almost 200 people with similar stories to Ahmed’s.

His sister and I drove for 3 hours to the border to see him and satisfy his craving for a Pizza Hut all-dressed thick cruster. I took my video camera along and intended to shoot interviews for a story with the other young men stranded there.

Upon our arrival, Ahmed tried to persuade the other guys to meet me. They were all understandably fearful of my videocamera (a lot of Iraqis avoid media for fear of reprisals on their relatives by fundies back home). In the end I was able to interview about 7 of them under anonymity. Their stories were utterly shocking. Here were a group of well-spoken and respectable young men between the ages of 25-30 who all had certified university degrees (one of them even had a Masters) suffering the same fate: although they had found work in Dubai within a matter of weeks, their companies could not sponsor them and their visit visas were getting increasingly difficult to approve because of their Iraqi passports. They are engineers, pharmacists, computer programmers and one architect. All of them have reached the end of the line; their visit visas to the UAE having been rejected after a period of waiting in this remote – albeit scenic- purgatory in Oman. All of them were left with no option but to pack up and go back to where they came from. The message is clear: Iraqis can (literally) ‘go to hell’.

“Dolfie”, 27, is a soft-spoken Basrawi with a Bachelors and a Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Basra. His latest ‘visa hop’ has had him stuck in Musandam for 50 days. He came to Dubai in September last year and soon found a job in his field. His company can’t find a way to sponsor him because of his Iraqi passport and although he was granted entry several times before, his visit visa is not being renewed, again, with no justification. The rejection has taken its toll: “I am so upset… I told my contacts in Dubai to not bother anymore. If they don’t want me or welcome me, I don’t want to live in their country either.” He’s being shipped back to Basra this week.

“Dolfie” and the other men had their degrees certified by the Iraqi foreign Ministry as well as the Iraqi Consulate in Dubai. He even showed me the documents. “Is this not enough?” he urged. Certified degrees are vital to granting residency in Dubai- or so the officials say- but for some strange reason, it didn’t help his case. “Do I have to get a PhD too?”

How is it that all of these young men- these educated young Iraqis- are being denied any sort of future in neighboring countries like the UAE? This is especially baffling to me when Dubai is still in the process of development and needs skilled labor in all sectors. The locals aren’t going to build the dream (they are a minority in the UAE), the expats are.

“Yazan” is an articulate 29 year-old with the same story. He was working at a pharmaceutical firm in Dubai for a few months, living in limbo between visas. He told me about his case, his tired blue eyes pleading for some kind of explanation: “We just don’t understand why this is happening. Is there some kind of official policy against us?” Yazan’s efforts to save his young family in Baghdad from living in constant fear and insecurity have been in vain. “I am so depressed. Sometimes I try to cry but I can’t… We are left with no solutions, no choices…” He has no choice but to return to Baghdad.

Are Iraqis being blacklisted? Is the US/puppet Iraqi government putting pressure on the UAE to deny these youth visas?  I went to the Interior Ministry of Dubai to try to get some answers. As I suspected, my investigation didn’t go very far. An Emirati lady in the PR department was kind enough to talk to me for a while. She told me that as far as she knew, the UAE government had issued a new law banning Iraqis who hadn’t entered the country prior to 2004. When I asked her why this was happening, she said she didn’t know and that they just followed orders. For more details I would have to talk to her director, who was conveniently out of the office and never available when I called to inquire afterwards.

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t handle anymore bad news about Iraq, more proof of how Iraqis not only get the short end of the stick, they get beaten into a bloody pulp with it.

“It’s like slow [social] asphyxiation,”  said Saad, a 29 year-old architecture graduate who’s also stuck between Iraq and a hard place in Oman, “ the Iraqi people are being strangled to death.”

“The Other Iraq” | Vintage Videocrat

In Vintage Videocrat on June 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Published on GNN – Mon, 18 Jun 2007 14:53:29

Location: Slemaniya, Iraq.

The terrain in Northern Iraq.

Beige mountains, colossal and sage, sit quietly on the horizon, their peaks sprinkled with pine trees and patches of green. Nevermind the Barzanis and Talabinis, Kurdistan’s mountains are in charge.

So here I am, 29 years of age and my feet firmly planted on Iraqi soil for the first time in my adult life- or are they? I flew from Dubai to Slemaniya’s modest ‘Porta-Potty’ style airport with anticipation. I’ve traveled across to Irbil and PKK strongholds in the Qandeel mountains over the past week. Car bombings aside, this doesn’t feel like Iraq. Most Kurds don’t speak Arabic, especially the younger generation of the 90s, and the men roam the streets in high-waist grey sherwals, bright worry beads in hand. Despite the relative stability in the northern provinces of Iraq, there’s still a lot to worry about. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) are acting up and sporadic violence is just a car ride way, in Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurdish government has succeeded in keeping extremists out thanks to their tremendous security apparatus and the Kurdish community’s deep sense of unity and cooperation. However, some of the locals I spoke to are still concerned about the influx of Arab refugees from the center and the south, and the violent fundy vibes they might bring with them. The internal refugee crisis in Iraq is visible, but more on that later…

I’m staying with a Christian family in Slemaniya and in typical Iraqi style, their home is inhabited by 4 generations, from a giggly newborn baby boy to his feisty 83 year-old great grandmother. The nucleus of the family are Mr. Jamal, a Christian man from Basra, and his wife Alya, a prominent architect in the Slemaniya community, who designed their home after she graduated from the University of Baghdad in the late 70s. The hallmarks of that era’s structural design is clear from the outside.

As soon as I finish unpacking we move into the kitchen and I watched her prepare lunch. Alya is a towering lady with piercing wide-set eyes. Her tough stance and sharp features conjured up images of a past life as a fierce warrior woman.  We talk politics (of course): “Even though I’m Kurdish and although I despised Saddam, I hate the Americans. They’ve destroyed Iraq”, she tells me sternly as the electricity goes out for the fourth time since the morning. “Khaled! The generator!” she yells to her son upstairs. She’s laboriously preparing a feast of ‘dolma’ (vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat and herbs) in her colorful overcrowded kitchen and she’s worried that the civil war will spill over to Kurdistan.

A common sight in Iraq: A technicolor tangled mess of cables wrapped around an electricity pole in a Kurdish neighborhood. Each wire leads to a different house.

Later, her youngest daughter, 25 year-old Dalia, joins me on the rooftop as I smoke a cigarette and we watch in the dusk sky blanket the mountains in the distance. “We used to go down to Baghdad all the time. It used to be the trip we’d all look forward to, Baghdad was the center of the world for us,” she tells me as she adjusts the rollers in her cherry red hair. “The shops, the restaurants, the scenery, the people. We’d take boat rides on the Tigris at night and all you’d see is the oil lamps from other boats floating by… music everywhere. We’re all so sad about what’s happening.”

Mr. Jamal is sitting on the couch watching the movie Gladiator, for the 5th time he says, on Dubai’s satellite channel. He changes the channel and we watch the news. The minarets of the Mosque in Samarra have been blown up. Another day in the new Iraq. We both shake our heads. He tells me about the good old days and how Iraqis were considered the most cultured people in the Middle East up to just a couple of decades ago- almost 95% literacy rate at one point. He pushes a sigh: “You know, there was a saying: ‘Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads’… Look at where we are now.”

After lunch, the family prepares to go to church for Sunday mass and I tag along. They introduce me to some of their friends there, many of them Christians who fled Baghdad. The priest begins his sermon in Arabic and everyone stands up. Although I was born Muslim, I bow my head down as the worshippers cross their hearts, and pray for peace… for my country to be free.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.

A nun I met at the Chaldean Church.