Letters from Iraq- Dec. 10. The Other Faces of Iraq
Iraq Dec 10, 2002
The Other Faces of Iraq
We went and got our visas extended today. That part of the process went smoothly but instead of leaving with Peter, David, and John, I went back to wait for Nathan and Dean. While waiting outside the building for them, I saw a fascinating billboard-sized painting of Saddam leading his people into battle. I took my camera out of my pocket and almost immediately a guard came rushing at me, waving others to join him, asking to see my camera and asking if I took a photo of the building. I hadn't taken a photo of that building they pointed to but they took the camera and asked how many exposures were on the film. I told them it was a digital one so they took it and escorted me inside the building and told me to wait. After about 5 minutes, they asked me if I was an American. I said yes. After another 5 minutes, I decided to show them the "magic sheet", a 1-page paper in English and Arabic describing what the Iraq Peace Team is about. As soon as the guard read the paper, he called upstairs and then carried the letter up there. I felt for sure that I might be kicked out of the country during the next 20 minute wait, but then an official came down with my camera and the magic sheet and apologized to me. I apologized back, we shook hands, and feeling quite chastened and humbled, I quickly walked back to our hotel. Upon arriving, I checked the camera and the compact flash card was still there so I didn't lose any of my photos.
When I walked into the Al Fanar, several team members were waiting, all dressed up. They asked me where Peter was. He was upstairs resting after getting sick the previous evening. I was told if Peter was unable to go, I should return downstairs immediately, ready to go to a hastily-scheduled meeting with the #2 man in the nation, Deputy Prime Minister, Tarik Aziz. Mr. Wadah, our "minder" from the Foreign Ministry Office, and the person we use to be the liaison between VITW and the government of Iraq, joined Kathy, Bitta, Cynthia, Neville, Cliff, David Swann, and me for the visit at a beautiful building hidden from sight off a main highway. We were first ushered into a room to meet the former Ambassador to the UN from Iraq, and then he escorted us to meet with Mr. Aziz.
Mr. Aziz was dressed what appeared to be a casual military uniform and was warm and gracious to us. We were served mineral water and "chi", the traditional small glass of hot, sweetened tea. He talked to us about his concerns over the continued threat of war and asked us questions about our perspectives on the political realities in the US. He wanted to know why our nation had elected so many Republicans in November, despite the weakened economy and the scandals affecting some of our large corporations. He was aware of the recent declaration of bankruptcy of United Airlines and displayed insightful analysis of American life.
When one of our group asked his assessment of whether war would come, he said reluctantly that he felt President Bush was determined to do so. However, in face of the widespread opposition to any war around the globe, he was hopeful that a "miracle" might happen and war might be adverted. He said he had "1,000 and one reasons to reject the new UN Resolution" but accepted it on behalf of Iraq to show he world that they wanted to find a peaceful solution. He continued that they have given free access to the UN Weapons Inspectors and stated that our group was welcome to accompany the media in going to the sites to verify their compliance with the UN. He said that every day that passes without a US attack gives more time for the public movement to grow against the war. He mentioned Hollywood celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon who have spoken out for peace. When we mentioned that actor Sean Penn was interested in coming to Baghdad, he welcomed his visit and showed he knew more about American pop culture than Kathy Kelly, when, after we explained that Penn used to be married to Madonna, he remarked that she is now married to that British or Scottish film director. He wished Kathy a happy birthday and our 45 minute visit ended and he graciously allowed us to take photos with him.
As we traveled back through the halls from the meeting, a group member asked the former Ambassador how he felt about the potential of war. "I wish I too could believe in such a miracle [that war could be averted], but I feel the US has already invested so much money into doing this that it won't be able to stop." On that somber note, we took our cab ride back to our hotel.
Amal and the daytime visitors
The name Amal reminds me of the Christmas story of a young Arab boy who welcomes the Magi on the way to visit the Christ child. This Amal, however, is a warm, engaging mother of three who paints wonderful oil paintings after the children have gone to bed. She welcomed both Davids, Cathy, and myself to her home right next door to the Al Dar Hotel where the other 3 team members are living. Her 3 children, boys 4 (Ali) and 6 (Omar) and a daughter, 9 (Abeer), are well behaved and offer us Pepsi to drink. As we talk to Amal about her art, the children get pencils and work on some drawings themselves. Amal explains that she has relatives who are Bedouin so many of her paintings have camels and tents. When I ask her if the paintings on her walls are of scenes from Basrah, she says no, they are of Baghdad. As late as the early 50's many of Baghdad’s buildings came right up to the waters edge. When I asked about flooding, she stated that this house, where she was born and raised and is over 100 years old, had 2 meters of water in it after a flood in 1954 or '55. As we were talking about the house, she said when the US planes bombed nearby, because a Presidential Palace is located across the nearby Tigris River, the percussion from the blast caused the roof in her house to collapse. She hopes to sell some of her paintings to be able to purchase a computer so she can teach others how to use it. Besides her fluency in English, she also speaks Russian and German because there were a number of business people from those countries as well as England in the years prior to the Gulf War.
Tuesday night we were hosted, as a team, by Al-Beit Al-Iraqi, an arts and crafts gallery run by some extraordinary women who graduated together from an American missionary school here in Baghdad, probably 50 years ago. After looking at the magnificent ancient architecture of the building, complete with an open courtyard with date palm trees, we sat around a large room to have a conversation about Iraq and the possibility of the coming war.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr. Qassab, an accomplished cancer surgeon and landscape artist who received his medical training, in part, in England, New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester, MN. We talked for about 1/2 hour when our hostess quieted everyone down and asked all of us to introduce ourselves, starting with the foreign guests. When we got to the local guests, all of the men and several of the woman made eloquent statements. It was obvious they had done this before with other gatherings. Dr. Qassab talked about what it was like to be "on the receiving end" of US rockets, missiles, and bombs.
A civil engineer whose daughter is a physician in England talked about being glad to see in us the "beautiful face of America." The America that is caring, compassionate, generous. But too often he sees the ugly face of America that hides behind walls and wars. America has the opportunity to be the leader of the world but is presently on course to be the most hated nation instead.
The group included a biologist trained in the US and England, a physician who is also a concert violinist, a supervisor of English teachers, and a retired army officer who also served 2 years in the US Army in the mid-60s. Here are some of their comments:
-The west values individual freedom while Iraqis value the freedom of the group.
-It is up to American mothers to stop this war. Mothers are the ones who understand the true costs of war.
-America is the world's #1 bully. If there is a terrorist country, it is the US. They bomb us on average, every 3 days.
-How quickly could we solve problem like cancer if the US would use the money and resources for good instead of weapons?
- [In American missionary schools] we learned all about democracy. How could your Congress give the right to wage war on the whole world to one man?
-Why are not all the children killed on the street in Palestine [by Israeli troops] not shown on TV in America?
- We [Iraqis] have been here for 5-6,000 years- who is the US to say you will come over here and place a military governor in charge?
-America has a wonderful constitution. I hope your people will be able to share their best with the rest of the world rather than destroying it.
Needless to say, I think the evening allowed these beautiful Iraqi friends and opportunity to both vent their frustrations with our government while also giving us a chance to see the wonderful gifts they have to offer the world. Not that we needed any more excuses not to bomb here. ...