Farewell to Iraq, Day 12

Farewell to My Friends in Iraq: Day 12 by Steve Clemens

We deliberately left the last day fairly unscheduled so we could begin the process of packing – especially all the gifts we were given by the Iraqis we met. We’ve been given pens, keychains, a mirror, a crystalline sculpture, books, jewelry, prayer beads and holy Karbala mud-stones. I purchased an Iraqi flag for the student we help support at Augsburg College as well as a wall map of Iraq – labeled all in Arabic. I’ve gotten a few other small gifts but I’d rather leave any extra money I have for the work of the Muslim Peacemaker Team.

I tell my friends before another Iraqi delegation comes to Minneapolis, I will have to take a convoy driving class and practice lurching forward, slamming on the brakes, blowing the car horn, nosing out other vehicles and totally ignoring all traffic lanes – all to make our Iraqi visitors feel at home once they are in the Twin Cities. This trip has been very instructive to those of us on the IARP Board to realize how over-structured we’ve scheduled our guests when they are in Minnesota. After feeling we had little time to catch our breath here, we now have a much better understanding of the rigors we’ve put others through, especially after the recovery period from jet-lag.

It will take me some time to reflect and collect my thoughts about this experience. We’ve witnessed both some of the challenges our friends encounter as well as the myriad harbingers of hope. Najaf is both very conservative and relatively safe so it is difficult to see it as the same as the entire country. Certainly listening to Cathy Breen’s stories of visiting friends she made before the war or as refugees who have now returned has been quite sobering. Yet despite those obstacles, she still has been overwhelmed by her gracious acceptance into many homes and workplaces. The fact that she has been able to travel alone (with the help of MPT) is testament to both her fortitude, courage, and determination. Her Catholic Worker experience in New York City has helped her cope in a multitude of situations.

We’ve benefited by being an eclectic delegation for this trial run. Fletcher and Joan Hinds from Duluth brought both their experience with Kurdish delegations but also Fletcher’s high energy and ability to connect with others, especially some of the young male drivers we’ve had these 12 days. David Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge of world religions as well as Biblical history has helped all of us get a better picture from the times of Nebuchadnezzar  and Ezekiel, the Tower of Babel and early Jewish and Christian history here to couple what we are learning of Islamic and Arabic history. Joan Haan has been a godsend in connecting with new people and Deborah Kalin’s passion for the empowerment of women and her determination to help document this delegation’s experience on video are valuable additions. And Kathy McKay, the organizer, spokesperson, and leader of our group has been freeing for all of us. But none of this could have happened without the planning and commitment of Sami Rasouli and his colleagues from MPT.

We will all bring back our unique perspectives and interpretations of what we experienced here. An obvious next step is to help nurture the budding partnerships with educational intuitions both here and there as well as new business ventures and potential NGO collaborations. People in Najaf are ready to move on from the Saddam era as well as the disastrous wars and sanctions. Highway intersections are under construction, new hotels, restaurants, housing, and other developments are evident all over - yet there still is the deficit of reliable electricity, potable water, trash pick-up and disposal, … Questions about corruption in the government linger as many fear a culture of favoritism continues – only with new faces replacing Saddam or tribal sheiks. At least from our perspective, the challenges for women in the culture are significant if not monumental.

But what sticks out most for me are the broad, genuine smiles, the hugs, the kissing on the cheeks (although strictly along same gender lines!) when we connect with those who had the courage to visit us first. We have been welcomed, honored, and appreciated –so, whatever the challenges, the human spirit is rising to the occasion. I hope it will not be another 10 years before I am able to return to further experience this land and her people. If we are “sisters” as cities, we need to continue to deepen the relationship. Maybe next Spring, another delegation will come? 

Day 11: Moving From Generosity to Abundance

Abundance Beyond Generosity: On The Road to Babylon on Day 11 by Steve Clemens

It was raining this morning as we left for the city of Hilla and the nearby ruins of Babylon. We were riding in a 20+ passenger bus with members of the Muslim Peacemaker Team as we headed about 45 minutes north of Najaf. Deborah, a delegate from Boston had asked Sami Rasouli a question about the structure of the Arabic language in comparison to English. Sami was explaining the difference between a “request” and an “order” when someone is asking another to do something and the conversation flowed into a discussion about our differing cultures. Because of his long-time experience both as an American and an Iraqi, Sami has been an ideal guide in helping us navigate between the two cultures on this journey of reconciliation.

Sami started talking about the culture of generosity in Iraq and gave this illustration: many individuals have approached him about hosting our American delegation. Some want generously want to take us to a restaurant and buy us a meal. The restaurant might be even a five-star rated establishment but you will still order only one meal each when you are there. Other Iraqis have asked to host us in their homes. Even though our delegation is only 7 foreigners and are accompanied by as many as 7 additional MPT members, one host had made enough food to serve 100 people! That is abundance. The host not only has welcomed us into his home, already a gesture of honor and respect, but in providing so much food so no one could possibly go hungry communicates a measure of abundance which flows out of his hospitality.

The host and his family did not eat with us – they waited until his honored guests had their fill and only then, as we gathered in another room for fruit, sweets, and tea, did the family members eat. Sami tells us that other Iraqis are vying for the opportunity to host us, outdoing one another. Here in a land without reliable energy from the national grid or clean enough water from the local treatment plant one might expect a culture of scarcity and protecting what you’ve gotten already. Of course there is some of that; Iraqis are humans and humans often fall short of the goals set by themselves and others.

We witnessed the flip side to abundance as we stopped to visit the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel of Hebrew Bible fame. It is located in a small town between Hilla and Najaf. The grab for power and the use of authority to exercise that power over others depends on scarcity rather than abundance. After walking through the souk to get to the path to get to the site where the bones of the Old Testament prophet, exiled to Babylon, were buried, our group was halted by an Iraqi policeman who told us we couldn’t enter. After an animated back and forth between Sami, Ishan (an MPT member) and the three policeman who gathered, Sami tells us we must leave for our own security.

After returning to the bus, Sami tells us the policeman noted there were foreigners in our group and this local policeman wanted to exercise his authority by being able to tell us “No!” The excuse given was that the tomb was under repair and they were afraid we’d take pictures and make it look like the Iraqis weren’t preserving this historical site properly. Sami speculated however that the real reason might be because he saw foreigners and we might be Jews because many of the foreigners visiting are Jews. Despite all the deference given to “People of the Book” by those promoting inter-faith dialog, many ordinary Iraqis, just like typical Americans, are often influenced by negative stereotypes promoted by the media or politicians.

Another classic example of power rather than generosity/abundance was very evident at the ruins of Babylon. Across the Euphrates River, on a hill overlooking the partially excavated site of one of the most famous cities in the world, is a palace constructed by Saddam Hussein. That megalomaniac fancied himself as the new Nebuchadnezzar, and he promoted himself as the Lion of Babylon. After all, he had much of the wall of the city rebuilt during his reign to the dismay and scorn of real archeologists who wrote off the work as inauthentic. Even some of the bricks are inscribed with Saddam’s handwriting in a way to mimic the real bricks that have writing dating back to Nebuchadnezzar’s age. For Saddam, ruling a country with an iron fist wasn’t enough – he imagined himself as an historical figure. Maybe he is correct: he’s now viewed historically as someone who produced great and lasting danger and destruction to his own country.  

But let us return to abundance. Sami is a great storyteller. He regaled us with an account of a US soldier and a Najafi civilian resident. After an encounter at a checkpoint, the man from Najaf invited the American soldier to visit him in his home – provided he came without his uniform or his gun. When the American arrived, the Najafi invited others of his friends to come meet the American. They clambered to invite him into their own homes – again with the same conditions, no weapons, no uniform. He was feted with tea and the Iraqi hospitality and he left realizing that “the enemy” was just like himself. When the soldier returned to his barracks, he told his fellow troops about his experience and he was quickly disciplined and removed from that base. If you question who is the enemy, you can no longer be trusted to follow orders is the presumption made by officers in charge. After all, if the enemy is one you can break bread with, they actually become human rather than stereotypes. Thus abundance, generosity acted upon becomes the heart and soul of nonviolence.

Generosity. Day 10 in Iraq

Generosity: Iraq Day 10 by Steve Clemens

The dinner was held in one of Najaf’s best restaurants according to the former owner of Sinbad’s in south Minneapolis who sold his business to return to help his home nation rebuild during the war. Sami Rasouli and another member of his Muslim Peacemaker Team escorted us to the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, about an hours drive north of Najaf if one doesn’t allow for the 4-5 checkpoints we must encounter on the 80 kilometer trip. After returning to Najaf and seated at the restaurant, Joan and I were chatting with Mohammed across the table. Mohammed mentioned to me that he had liked what I had written in my blogs which he found cross-posted on my Facebook page and then asked Joan if the “Joan Haan” on his Facebook search was her page. After she affirmed that she was, he sent her a “friend request” and they were connected on Facebook.

Joan, in her direct manner, looked at Mohammed and asked him why his name appeared as “Eng Mohammed” on her screen, commenting that it was a name she hadn’t heard before in Arabic. I said I thought it stood for “engineer” and Mohammed laughed and said, “Yes, I’m an engineer”. With so many Mohammeds, Alis, Ahmeds, etc here, other abbreviations are in order - just like one of my other new friends, Ahmed, who has tacked “Pre” on to his Facebook name because he is a Petrochemical Resources Engineer in his paying job. Then Joan suggested we talk face-to-face rather than text each other across the table. Light-hearted conversation continued through the meal and it wasn’t until the tea was served that conversation for us got serious very quickly.

Our host, a very successful contractor who has made a significant amount of money recently in helping rebuild Najaf since 2004, stood up as Sami translated. The first words were quite shocking to me: “Before you came here, the US was known as the #1 killer of Iraqis. But you came in peace. And today you did the most difficult thing in taking the time and effort to visit the Shrine of Imam Hussein. It shows that you come as friends and God is bringing us all closer together. Now children and adults [here in Najaf] can see a new face of Americans. You came and provided water filters with Sami under the Water For Peace, you sent letters to schoolchildren. Now reconciliation is happening.”

Joan leaned over the table to have better eye contact with our host. “Actually you, with your words to us have initiated this reconciliation with us. And we are so very grateful for your kind words.” All of us in the delegation are acutely aware of how dangerous this reconciling work can be – for both sides. There are those who want to keep us apart, who profit by our animosity and the weapons produced to “protect” ourselves from the other. For Iraqis, they risk being seen as collaborators with the nation whose “Shock and Awe” campaign was designed to force an immediate cowering surrender. For American peacemakers, we risk getting identified with “Muslims”, “terrorists”, and the “other”.

Only as we reach out and offer the olive branch to each other, to look across the table and see the other as our sister, our brother can that healing salve of reconciliation be allowed to help relieve the festering boil of resentment and retaliation. “Reconciliation is now happening”, our host continued. “You’ve come here to help us [with water filters, letters for peace, …], now that Sami has helped me secure a visa [for travel to the US], maybe I can come to your country and help you.” He continued, remarking about people losing homes to foreclosure and other ills in the US.

And then he gave us the invitation: next time, don’t wait for the Governor’s invitation. You don’t even need to contact the Governor – I’m inviting you, I’ll put you up. I want you to return –soon!

It was a long day. The trip to Karbala dusty. I was tired, full, ready to stretch out on my bed and think about what I could write for my blog today. In those brief minutes, with those heartfelt words, I/we were revived. Sami said in his translation, “His heart is full of love and he just keeps repeating how glad he is to be here with you.” This is what the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project is all about: getting on with the business of healing peoples whose heart has been broken and now want to be whole again. Thank you Hussein for opening your heart to us. May we always be ready to reciprocate in kind.     

Planting Peace on Day 9

Planting Peace on Day 9 in Najaf, Iraq by Steve Clemens

The interpreter called me aside saying, “Mr. Steve, this man would like to ask you a question”, after we had just planted 70 trees in the street median of the Salam District of Najaf, Iraq’s Sister City to Minneapolis. The young man in his 20s, the left side of his face obviously indented and scarred, looked at me and asked through the interpreter, “Do you know a humanitarian organization that can help me [fix my facial injuries]? I was injured by the Americans while I was a student at the University.” I told him I was sorry for his injury and I would ask others when I returned to the US.

This happened after a busy morning and afternoon. The session in the morning was held at a women’s development organization (NGO) led by Dr. Batool, one of the 25% of the Iraqi Parliament who were elected as women. (The Constitution of Iraq mandates a minimum of 25% females in the legislature.) The women among our Minnesota delegation were hoping for a more intimate conversation about women’s concerns in both Iraq and especially the conservative area of Najaf. However all the interpreters were male and the program was moderated by a man. It was my hope to give the women the space they needed for this important dialog, much of which happened out of my hearing during lunch.

Many of us felt the conversation was cut short in order to leave for our next appointment and then we waited for the trees and the Plant A Tree Team to arrive. But it was worth the wait. When the young people arrived with the 70 Iraqi-type of locust trees (raised in Kuwait), we quickly sprang into action. One man dug a hole in the sandy soil of the median strip between at least 3 lanes of traffic on each side (as if traffic actually stayed in designated lanes!). The holes were at least a meter from the last or next plant. A seedling tree about 12-15” high was removed from the plastic bag which protected the root ball. Then either an American or an Iraqi gently placed the young tree into the hole while the other scooped damp sandy soil around the roots.

Cameras clicked to capture the moment; traffic slowed to see what was happening; the Plant a Tree members held a sign: “Plant a Tree … harvest peace”. The city manager who helps provide the trees came by to greet us and have his photo taken alongside us and the Team.

After we finished and posed for a group photo, I asked Ahmed, the group’s coordinator and obvious animator if there were any young women who were part of this organization. He smiled a little sheepishly at first and then pointed to the 2-year old daughter of one of his Team who had indeed helped us push sand into the hole and said, “One”. I encouraged him to recruit more. He inquired if there were any NGOs in the US that might partner with them, I told him there are many environmental groups in the US and we should look for them together with our Facebook connections.

I’ve read numerous accounts of US troops bulldozing down hundreds of date palm trees here in their rush to control the landscape and people in 2003. Our 70 trees are just a small symbolic part of our repentance and a beginning journey of reparations coupled with a genuine desire for partnership as we move forward toward a greener and more peaceful world. 

A New Year in Iraq: Day 8

Ashura: Beginning the Arabic New Year and National Holiday on Day 8 by Steve Clemens

The Islamic calendar starts when the Prophet Mohammed travels from Mecca to Medina and is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. The month of Muharram marks the beginning of the New Year and is a time for celebration - yet it is muted here because 10 days later, a time called Ashura, Imam Hussein, son of Imam Ali, was killed so a time of mourning coincides with the New Year, especially for Shia Muslims who revere Ali and Hussein in a special way. The 10 days leading up to Ashura, which occurs on November 24th this year are days of mourning. Because he was killed in Karbala, there will be a pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala starting soon and many people on the streets are wearing black and black flags decorate much of the twin cities of Najaf and Kufa here. One of our Iraqi friends tells Joan and I how to appropriately greet others when it is both a New Year and a time of mourning. He translates the Arabic into: “May Allah be pleased with your sorrow”.

One of the delegation members noted on the internet this morning that there had been some car bombings north of Baghdad and we notice right away as we step out of the Governor’s guest house that security has been increased as we see three military personnel waiting outside before we drive off for today’s adventures. We have not requested the security but it is evident that the Governor wants to insure the safety of his guests even though reports show the homicide rate of Najaf is significantly lower than in the US as a whole – by a factor of four!  

Today is also Friday, the traditional day of worship for Muslims so we are essentially taking the day off as a delegation and have instead been invited to spend the holiday in the homes of two key Muslim Peacemaker Team members, Dr. Azar Maluki, the dermatologist, and Zuhair Sharba, the Chamber of Commerce head with their families. It is a wonderful and energy-giving experience – especially to engage with children in their homes. Dr. Azar and his wife Shema have three children in a beautiful new home just blocks from the University where he teaches and practices. The home took several years to complete and it is stunning, most notably the ornate ceiling designs using mirrors.

After introductions, we sit and talk and eat – tea is served, a cake was made by Shema with the inscription of “Minnesota and Najaf” as well as other sweets and fruit are passed among us. Several delegation members played games with the children and Shema beamed throughout, obviously pleased to host these guests in her home. A tour of the home by an obviously proud Iraqi professional concluded our 2-hour visit and we left with gratitude for this glimpse of Iraqi home life. Dr. Azar has his own small generator outside his back door but tells us the national government usually increases the amount and duration of electricity from the national government to this area during Ashura because of the large increase of religious visitors present. We transferred into an 11 passenger van (made in Korea) and headed across town to Zuhair’s abode.

Just before entering Zuhair’s house, across the street was a neighborhood generator with multitudes of wires entering and exiting the mud brick structure. Maybe it was a portend for the future? The Sharba residence was built in the 1980s before economic sanctions crippled most of Iraq if you weren’t related to Saddam Hussein or his Baath Party. He, too, seems proud to have us as honored guests in his home. Two of his four daughters and his son are there to greet us but later we are told it was a third sister, a married adult, who cooked the entire meal – and what a meal it was. None of us can get over the huge amounts of delicious foods are placed before us with a seldom-ending plea for us to take more. Today’s New Years  feast was preceded with fruit, candied nuts and tea before we moved to the dining room table almost 3 hours later. There we encountered two types of rice, a traditional bowl of a stew-like combination of hummus, meat, and tomato, a beautiful plate of vegetables and olives, and a huge platter of chicken, lamb, and beef and chicken sharwma. There was that much for every 4-5 of us and after sitting down, we are handed a bowl of soup in addition. Sodas, water, and yogurt drinks also were included in the feast that seemed to engulf the entire table. It made many American Thanksgiving meals look anemic.

Our host relished the opportunity to begin serving us by providing huge portions of the one type of rice on our plates and each of us knew we might never go hungry again after seeing what lay ahead. After more than enough, we retired back into the original sitting area to enjoy fresh melon fruit, chocolate candy and nuts, and coffee or tea. Fortunately the 3-4 power outages didn’t begin until after we had finished the meal and had also concluded the giving of gifts to one another. David had thoughtfully brought some balloons which the grand children and adults enjoyed. After more than 5 hours with this second Iraqi family, we were ready to give them the rest of the evening together as we returned to the guest house.

The generosity and hospitality of these friends and this culture are lessons we can take to heart as we complete our first full week here. We hope to travel some in the days ahead but our schedule always seems to need some adjusting so we are learning to go with the flow.