Published on Sunday, September 2, 2001
40 Days Without Food:
A Fast for Good Americans
by Ramzi Kysia
"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security
and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot
straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I
write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it,
and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it; and then the
warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied; and it is all
--M. F. K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
I once read an essay about the Holocaust that really struck me: in it the author made the point that when the Nazis came to power some people worried, some people protested, but for the majority of the German people life went on as before. When Kristallnacht happened – some people worried, some protested, but for the majority – life went on as before. And when the Camps opened, when the Holocaust began, the German people clung fast to their willful ignorance and indifference. They went to work or to school or into the military. They came home to spend time with their families. They went to the movies and played sports. They had picnics and barbecues – they sat around their tables every night sharing food and fellowship. What did they talk about over dinner? In the midst of Genocide, of terrible violence being committed all around them and in their names – they laughed and cried, kissed their children, made love to their husbands and wives, and simply went on with life. And as much as this essay struck me when I read it, I never understood it until I began to work on Iraq.
What did you talk about over dinner last night?
August 6th, 2001 was the 11th anniversary of the U.S.-led, international sanctions against Iraq. In commemoration and protest of the ongoing blockade, myself and 12 others began an action called, “Breaking Ranks: A Fast to End the Siege of Iraq.” The fast is being sponsored by Voices in the Wilderness, the same organization I illegally traveled to Iraq with two years ago, taking medicine and toys to hospitals there in direct violation of U.S. law. We are fasting from food for 40 days, from August 6th until September 14th, and demonstrating every day in front of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Kathy Kelly, co- founder of Voices, and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, explains our purpose well, “We are trying to encourage the member states of the UN to ‘break ranks’ with the U.S. in its insistence on endless sanctions for Iraq. The more ‘smart’ they try to make the sanctions, the more adept they are at killing the Iraqi people.” And to that I would add that I am trying to encourage my fellow Americans to break ranks with our government as well, and to begin seeing the Iraqi people as we see ourselves. Gandhi once said that “whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.” So I am fasting and praying: for the people of Iraq, for the people of America, and for myself.
I am so sick of this war, as I am sick of all the excuses made by all of the people responsible for keeping it going. I am sick of having to explain how a country two-thirds the size of Texas with a GDP of roughly 6 billion dollars a year is not a threat to the United States of America. In fact, quite the opposite – we have bombed Iraq at will and with absolute impunity for over a decade. Our “defense” budget alone is 50 times larger than Iraq’s entire economy. I am sick of having to repeat over and over again the findings of reports repeatedly issued by OIP, or UNICEF, or the FAO, or the WHO, or the International Red Cross – all documenting the numerous ways sanctions have ravaged and continue to ravage the Iraqi people. I am sick of having to explain, as if to small children, that collective punishment is illegal and immoral, and that the forcible impoverishment of an entire nation, leading to the excess deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens is itself a crime against humanity – and, more than that, a crime against God.
Most of all, I’m tired of the cynical way our government continues to posture itself for short-term political gain to the total disregard, and at the total expense, of the Iraqi people. Such as with this recent nonsense over “smart” sanctions. “Smart” sanctions may make it easier for suppliers outside of Iraq to ship consumer goods there, but who in Iraq will be able to afford them? Sanctions have already devastated Iraq’s economy, causing hyperinflation, chronic unemployment, and the collapse of critical civilian infrastructures – including the public health care and educational systems – resulting in the virtual destruction of Iraq’s once prosperous middle class; resulting in the excess deaths of perhaps well over 1,000,000 people in all. Until we lift sanctions, once and for all, Iraq cannot even begin the process of rebuilding its economy.
When the Allied forces won WW II, and liberated Belson, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and all the Camps – the world was horrified. We asked ourselves, “how could this have happened?” We asked ourselves, “where were the good Germans?” Today I am fasting in solidarity with the people of Iraq, who have suffered so much in this ongoing war of bombings and blockade, and I am asking, “how could this have happened?” I am fasting in atonement for my failure to stop their slaughter, and for my sins as a citizen of the nation that is killing them. And I am fasting for my fellow Americans, for our failure to recognize the spirit of God present in all the peoples of Iraq. I am fasting for our failure to see that their humanity is equal to our humanity. I am fasting for our failure to feel the injustice of their suffering, or the offense of our role in creating and maintaining that suffering. I am fasting for the good Americans who refuse to see the evil they commit; for the good Americans who refuse to see the evil they permit – and for those who having seen it refuse to do much of anything to end it.
God, I am so hungry for peace.
In Arabic, when we see a table filled with sumptuous food, or an exceptionally pretty face, we say “ma’shallah,” which means “what God has willed.” We also say it when someone dies. It’s an exclamation that God’s Will is bountiful, and that His Creation is beautiful, even in death.
I look at our country today and wonder that we have been granted so much wealth, so much material bounty, privilege, and power. I look at our country and wonder that we can create so much pain, kill with such casual and cynical disregard, and remain so seemingly untouched by it – untouched within ourselves as within our common lives with one another. And all I can think is, ma’shallah, and wonder what it will take to make us see the bounty of God in the children we’ll kill today by allowing this war to continue. Is it really so much to demand that our government allow the children of Iraq a chance to live?
Ramzi Kysia is a member of Voices in the Wilderness, and serves on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. He traveled to Iraq in August 1999.