Views of Iraq and the USA from an independent reporter and others.
“In violence we forget who we are” — Mary McCarthy, novelist and critic
1. Statistically Speaking
Having spent a fair amount of time in occupied Iraq, I now find living in the United States nothing short of a schizophrenic experience. Life in Iraq was traumatizing. It was impossible to be there and not be affected by apocalyptic levels of violence and suffering, unimaginable in this country.
But here’s the weird thing: One long, comfortable plane ride later and you’re in Disneyland, or so it feels on returning to the United States. Sometimes it seems as if I’m in a bubble here that’s only moments away from popping. I find myself perpetually amazed at the heights of consumerism and the vigorous pursuit of creature comforts that are the essence of everyday life in this country — and once defined my own life as well.
The longer the occupation of Iraq continues, the more conscious I grow of the disparity, the utter disjuncture, between our two worlds.
In January 2004, I traveled through villages and cities south of Baghdad investigating the Bechtel Corporation’s performance in fulfilling contractual obligations to restore the water supply in the region. In one village outside of Najaf, I looked on in disbelief as women and children collected water from the bottom of a dirt hole. I was told that, during the daily two-hour period when the power supply was on, a broken pipe at the bottom of the hole brought in “water.” This was, in fact, the primary water source for the whole village. Eight village children, I learned, had died trying to cross a nearby highway to obtain potable water from a local factory.
In Iraq things have grown exponentially worse since then. Recently, the World Health Organization announced that 70% of Iraqis do not have access to clean water and 80% “lack effective sanitation.”
In the United States I step away from my desk, walk into the kitchen, turn on the tap, and watch as clear, cool water fills my glass. I drink it without once thinking about whether it contains a waterborne disease or will cause kidney stones, diarrhea, cholera, or nausea. But there’s no way I can stop myself from thinking about what was — and probably still is — in that literal water hole near Najaf.
I open my pantry and then my refrigerator to make my lunch. I have enough food to last a family several days, and then I remember that there is a 21% rate of chronic malnutrition among children in Iraq, and that, according to UNICEF, about one in 10 Iraqi children under five years of age is underweight.
I have a checking account with money in it; 54% of Iraqis now live on less than $1 a day.
I can travel safely on my bicycle whenever I choose — to the grocery store or a nearby city center. Many Iraqis can travel nowhere without fear of harm. Iraq now ranks as the planet’s second most unstable country, according to the 2007 Failed States Index.
These are now my two worlds, my two simultaneous realities. They inhabit the same space inside my head in desperately uncomfortable fashion. Sometimes, I almost settle back into this bubble world of ours, but then another email arrives — either directly from friends and contacts in Iraq or forwarded by friends who have spent time in Iraq — and I remember that I’m an incurably schizophrenic journalist living on some kind of borrowed time in both America and Iraq all at once.
Here is a fairly typical example of the sorts of anguished letters that suddenly appear in my in-box. (With the exception of the odd comma, I’ve left the examples that follow just as they arrived. They reflect the stressful conditions under which they were written.) This one was sent to my friend Gerri Haynes from an Iraqi friend of hers:
Yet he was no admirer of imperialism. Last summer in Syria, he and I visited the sprawling Roman ruins of Palmyra. One evening, as we stood together overlooking the vast landscape of crumbling columns and sun-bleached walls in the setting sun, he turned to me and said, “Mr. Dahr, please do not be offended by what I want to say, but it makes me happy to see these ruins and remember that empires always fall because empires are never good for most people.”
After several weeks when I received no reply to repeated emails, I wrote to “M,” a mutual friend, and received the following response:
3. Murderously Speaking
In McClatchy News’ July 5th roundup of daily violence for Diyala, I read:
“A source in the morgue of Baquba general hospital said that the morgue received today a head of a civilian that was thrown near the iron bridge in Baquba Al Jadida neighborhood today morning.
A medical source in Al Miqdadiyah town northeast [of] Baquba city said that 2 bodies of civilians were moved to the hospital of Miqdadiyah. The source said that the first body was of a man who was killed in an IED explosion near his house in Al Mu’alimeen neighborhood in downtown Baquba city while the second body was of a man who was shot dead near his house in Al Ballor neighborhood in downtown Baquba city.”
The data for Baghdad that day read:
“24 anonymous bodies were found in Baghdad today. 16 bodies were found in Karkh, the western side of Baghdad in the following neighborhoods (7 bodies in Amil, 3 bodies in Doura, 2 bodies in Ghazaliyah, 1 body in Jihad, 1 body in Amiriyah, 1 body in Khadhraa and 1 body in Mahmoudiyah). 8 bodies were found in Rusafa, the eastern side of Baghdad in the following neighborhoods (6 bodies in Sadr city, 1 body in Husseiniyah and 1 body in Sleikh.)”
What could I possibly hope to find in nameless reports like these, especially when I know that most of the Iraqi dead never make it anywhere near these reports. That is the way it has been throughout the occupation.
On July 8th, M sent me this email:
Now, that passage might be read as his epitaph.
4. Subjectively Speaking
The morning I receive the latest news from M, I crawl back into bed and lie staring at the ceiling, wondering what will become of H’s wife and young children, if he is truly dead. Barring a miracle, I assume that will turn out to be the case.
Later, I go for a walk. It’s California sunny and the air is pleasantly cool on my skin. I’m aware — as I often am — that I never even consider looking over my shoulder here. I’m also aware that those I pass on my walk don’t know that they aren’t even considering looking over their shoulders.
The American Heritage Dictionary’s second definition of schizophrenia is:
A situation or condition that results from the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities, or activities: the national schizophrenia that results from carrying out an unpopular war [italics theirs].
That’s what I’m experiencing — a national schizophrenia that results from our government carrying out an unpopular war. It’s what I continue to experience with never lessening sharpness two years after my last trip to Iraq. The hardest thing, in the California sun with that cool breeze on my face, is to know that two realities in two grimly linked countries coexist, and most people in my own country are barely conscious of this.
In Iraq, of course, there is nothing disparate, no disjuncture, only a constant, relentless grinding and suffering, a pervasive condition of tragic hopelessness and despair with no end in sight.
We are the people of the city and we know the truth. They overwhelmingly dominate the streets and are even stronger than the government. So, there is no doubt about whether this was al-Qaeda or another group. You may ask how people stay away from these very bad people. People never go in places like the central market of Baquba. For this reason, all, and I mean all, the shops are closed; some people have left Diyala, some have been killed, while most are kept in their homes.
If someone wants to go the market, this means a bad adventure. He may be at last found in the morgue. Al-Qaeda fought every group that are called resistance who work against coalition [U.S.] forces or the government (policemen or Iraqi National Guards). Nowadays, there is fighting between al-Qaeda and other [Iraqi resistance] groups like Qataib who are known here as the honest resistance in the streets. By the way, I forgot, when al-Qaeda kidnaps someone, they also take his car in order that the car shall be used by them. So, they took his car, along with him. In case he is released, he comes without his car. I will tell you more later on.
I soon slipped into the frantic routine all too familiar by now to countless Iraqis — scanning the horrible reports of daily violence in Iraq looking for the faintest clue to the whereabouts of my missing friend
Conveying my sadness, I asked him if there was anything I could possibly do to ease his suffering. As a reporter in that besieged country, he is constantly exhausted and overworked. I hesitantly suggested that perhaps he should take a little time to rest. He promptly replied:
I have also been corresponding with “H,” who lives in the volatile Diyala province and has been a dear friend since my first trip to Iraq. He would visit me in Baghdad, bringing with him delicious home-cooked meals from his wife, insisting always that I be the one to eat the first morsel.
A deeply religious man, his unfailing greeting, accompanied by a big hug, would always be: “You are my brother.”
Can anybody answer my cousin why she and her poor family are going through this?? Can you Gerri? Because I sure can’t.
In recent weeks I had been attempting to get in touch with one of my friends, a journalist in Baghdad. I’ll call him Aziz for his safety. Beginning to worry when I didn’t receive his usual prompt response, I sent him a second email and this is what finally came back: