Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Streets of Baghdad

On arrival to beautiful Baghdad i felt a surge of happiness, driving through the streets on the way to my grandparents house from the airport i felt like i was home. It is always nice to unite with family after spending a year apart. That same evening Iraq's Mesopotamian Lions played Kuwait's soccer team but unfortunately lost, had it been any other country other than Kuwait it might have been okay. But none the less Iraqi's were still out on the streets cheering and dancing, the same streets where death lurks amongst the rubble and inbetween the cars. Our soccer team may have lost that night but the peoples spirits were lifted, you could see it in their eyes, even if it was just for that night. Iraqi's could forget the sectarianism that has bled us dry and unite for once, unite for the love of Iraq, for the love of a land long lost, a land we yearn for.

Intact Iraqi families are now a rarity, at the airport mum ran into some old aquantances and we heard yet another story of a broken Iraqi family, half here, half there. These stories always remind me of Eid, when people call up the TV channels and send their eid wishes, the calls from outside were flooding in and every person had a story to tell and a family back in Iraq to wish a happy eid. As long as the government refuses to form or forms along ethno-sectarian divisons, sectarian violence will grow, and the Iraqi diaspora will continue to grow also. Long live the days where people of occupied war torn lands could share a meal with their entire family. Now families of the oppressed are characterised by long distance phone calls and emails.

Initially i had thought things in Iraq were better than last year, i told myself that things were better because people were smiling. Things were better because there were more shops and more people on the streets, the city felt more alive. Things must be better, right? Wrong. On a superficial level things may have improved, yes there are some new houses being built and yes there are a couple of new shops here and there that have opened since i was last here but the streets of Iraq are filled with stories of broken families and faces full of despair, faces that lack hope.

Driving around within Bagdad you will see that people are tried, their faces full of sorrow and sadness. From the man who sits outside his house all day selling bits and pieces hoping to make a bit of income to get him through the day or to be able to have dinner that night, to the women who sit outside the mosque with no place to go, hoping that those who have just come out of Friday prayers can spare them some change so they too can eat that night. As for the streets, rubbish is scattered everywhere, just like the broken hopes dreams of Iraqis. Old cars are left to rust on the streets, some left burnt after explosives placed in them, burnt like the hearts of Iraqis.

In Baghdad a ten minute journey turns into an hour long journey waiting at checkpoints (which are to prevent explosions but are essentially pointless), weaving in and out of cars and giving what you can to the man who stands in the middle of the road without a leg selling tissues or the woman with no place to go but to sell chewing gum on the street, whatever she can get her hands on. Checkpoints are supposed to provide safety and security but more often than not the soliders or police officers are not even checking the cars that go in and out so the wait in traffic is for nothing. And so we must then always expect the unexpected, at any moment a roadside bomb or a bomb stuck under a car can go off and kill dozens, leaving families waiting wondering, most of which goes unreported in Western media. People try and lead normal lives, but their hands on their hearts each time they leave the house, hoping they will return.

The streets of Baghdad are filled with stories of the fallen and the forgotten. The brother kidnapped and tortured, his family unaware of his whereabouts. The uncle that was assassinated for his name. The mother who died giving birth to a baby born with deformities, a baby barely able to breathe and dies soon after its mother. The father whose car blew up on his way to work, his family left to pick up the pieces. The sister who was kidnapped, raped, and left to rot in an old cell.  The boy who went to buy some groceries but never returned. The little girl in the yellow dress, shot dead by occupation forces driving by for no reason at all. Every person you encounter in Iraq will have a story of a fallen family member or a forgotten friend. There are also stories of the brave. The hundreds of widowed women who keep their families going. The young men who are studying and keeping out of trouble, praying and hoping they will be able to find jobs when they graduate. Family men who work the entire day in order to put food on the table. As it stands, the stories of the fallen and the forgotten triumph over the brave, but i hope that one day the stories of the brave will overwhelm the stories of the fallen and forgotten. One day.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What will become of us?...

Dubai is a place that always gets me thinking. Thinking about Arabs, thinking about Muslims and the Ummah, and thinking about what we have all become. This place always opens my eyes up to the depressing realities we are faced with. I made a few observations in Dubai that spoke to a bigger picture, the last being particularly disheartening.

After an extremely long and uncomfortable flight we arrive in Dubai and are about to line up to get our visas/passports stamped. My mother and I were, in a strong Iraqi accent, discussing which line to go and stand in when one of the men working at the airport approaches us and asks what kind of passports we have. He was obviously expecting us to tell him we have Iraqi passports and was quite surprised when I told him our passports were foreign. By foreign, I mean Western. Now, this little occurrence is very telling, it speaks to a broader theme of treatment in airports depending on the type of passport you have, ultimately the nationality you are recognised with. In the Arab world Western passports are privelleged, if you have a Western passport you are treated like a star. Had I told the man we had Iraqi passports and were using these to enter Dubai, it would have been a very different story, our treatment would have been VERY different. There is a huge social stigma around Iraqi's and Iraqi passports at airports. We would have had to wait in a different line and apply for a visa or have had this previously organised, whereas with a Western passport visas are granted on the spot along with a complementary smile and welcome. Now, isn’t it odd for states to treat their fellow muslim or arab brothers and sisters with such disregard, well, you would think so but it happens all too often in most countries in the Middle East. What angers me is the double standard here. Why should I be treated any better than another Iraqi who does not hold a foreign or Western passport, I mean essentially we are the same. We have had this happen in many other countries all over the Middle East, we are treated like stars while other Iraqi's are treated like dirt, but what makes me any better? The flashing of a passport should in no way determine your treatment. If anything Iraqi's who lived through the war should be treated better, those of us who have foreign passports grew up outside and never saw the atrocities they saw.  This, in my opinion, speaks to the bigger issue that the Muslim Ummah is divided and remains to be. We treat those who have othered us and looked down on us with the respect we really should be treating our brothers and sisters with. Not only that, but we try to speak the language of the Empire - the language of violence and exclusion, and this ultimately leads to the othering of our own people. 

Another quick observation which I always make as soon as I touch down in the Middle East, is the way they treat the workers and maids etc. I mean, the men who load your bags into the car at the airport, could you not just be nice to them? Why do Arabs have to put themselves above these people? Is it because the West has looked down on us for so long that we need to look down and ‘other’ others to make up for our treatment? Two wrongs certainly don’t make a right. People don’t realise that God could have easily put them in the other position but he didn’t because he is testing them with the privilege they have been given. The general lifestyle of people in Dubai is very luxurious, way too over the top in my opinion. Am I the only arab that doesn’t like the luxuries of Dubai? Possibly. I really don’t understand why it is so hard for people to understand that I would rather sit and read and write (or even stare at the walls!!) than go out and consume overpriced food, sit in overly fancy restaurants, buy unnecessary things and engage in meaningless conversations when my brothers and sisters all around the world have almost nothing. I am just not interested. Don’t get me wrong, its not that I am anti-social, I would prefer to call myself ‘selectively-social’. Take me to a museum or a good book shop or take me to sit in a park and talk politics and I am so there. But when it’s unnecessary and extravagant - count me out.

During one of these moments in Dubai where we were sitting in a overpriced fancy restaurant engaging in quite pointless small talk, something bigger came up, the issue of boycotting Israel and Starbucks in particular. Now you'd think that people being aware of the issue having grown up on this side of the world wouldnt be so blatant in their indifference. Actually, it was more than indifference, it was almost supportive of starbucks. So obviously I am the one who is going on about the boycotting and Israel and Palestine etc and the most of the adults on the table, after some arguing, were able to acknowledge that starbucks is something to be boycotted but had excuses like 'but their tea is so good' and 'I tried to boycott but I couldn't', you know, typical stuff that people come up with. So the discussion that follwed was what left me dumbfounded. A girl, about 16 years old, said she didnt care where her money was going as long as she gets a good coffee, she expressingly said she didnt care what they used the money for and that she had no part to play because she was buying coffee and only that. Now, not only did this enrage me, but it also worried me, worried me for the future. If we have youth with this sort of mindset now, what will things be like later? The youth are the adults of tomorrow. What will things be like in 10 years time, what will become of us? I really hope the snowball effect is not what we are heading towards, however, sometimes I do get the felling we are heading down that path after having spoken to youth and seen the huge gaps in their knowledge regarding the Palestinian cause. Never in my life have I heard anyone say somethig of such content and with such confidence, I mean there is a huge difference between finding it hard to stop buying coffee from starbucks and straight up not caring about what the money you paid for starbucks is used for. If we let them control our minds and let them convince us that the tea is too good to stop buying or if we start to think that we cant do anything by boycotting then we have lost the battle before its even begun.

I dont know. Right now I am angry, I cant stop sneezing and I haven't slept for a very long time. I dont feel like I am making much sense either. So, with that, I will end here. But in the mean time though we need to encourage people to treat their fellow brothers and sisters with respect no matter what their passport and we need to start treating our workers (if any) with moral respect. Lastly we need to figure out how to open up a coffee place called "Intifada-bucks" and make it just as successful as Zion-bucks, or something...