BAGHDAD, February 8 - “Its only a matter of time. There is nothing we can do.” Ahmed’s fatalism was getting to me. At 28, the single, Western-minded and self-described “bad Muslim” (he drinks substantially) wouldn’t offer me one ounce of hope. He berated me at length for even having come to Iraq to relate stories back to Americans. “For thirteen years people have said ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ but nothing has changed.” He took a long drag from his cigarette and stared me down. “But nothing here has changed. What’s the point?”
In the past week, since rhetoric against Iraq has picked up at the White House and in the UN, the citizens of Baghdad have become antsier. While for weeks now I grew accustomed to being told that people would go on living their normal lives because they had no choice, fear finally has begun to permeate across society. Soldiers posted around key buildings (and protecting foreigners at hotels) don’t seem to smile as much. Average people on the street glare at me with suspicion rather than stand aglow in smiles.
Most Iraqis are still incredibly hospitable and warm, and all have different methods of dealing with their anxiety. At the home of Karima Umm Zawa, the family was overjoyed to have company. While Karima, whose husband died in a car accident and now raises eight children alone, should have been concerned with two sons in the military, she happily served tea and laughter. One of her younger daughters, Heesa, insisted on practicing her belly dancing across the chipped concrete floor of their home. Yet Ahmed, Karima’s brother-in-law and presumably sole bread-earner for the large family, wore great concern on his face.
“When will the American soldiers come?” he insisted, over the laughter of the playing children. His eyes either demonstrated deep fear or anger, I couldn’t tell which. “How long do we have?” I couldn’t give a straight answer, and tried to say that the UN still had some time. I didn’t want to nurse the fear of a unilateral attack by the American government, which would most likely come without warning.
While I had been playing thumb-wrestling games with Karima’s youngest boy, Mahmud, and showing him my Arab-English flash cards, he picked up on the conversation around him. The five year-old boy ran across the room and giggled something in Arabic to his sister. They laughed. I pressed them to explain to me what Mahmud was saying. Amal, the best English speaker of the children, pieced it together for me. “Maybe Bush will bomb the school.” Mahmud laughed and clapped his hands.
A new short play was showing over the weekend at the Al-Rasheed Theater called “Oxygen”. All plays of political nature are given state funding - and ample censorship to be sure. Nevertheless, Oxygen, proved to be a dramatic mix of interpretive dance and symbolic reflection of Iraqi attitudes. It features a couple in Baghdad (chain-smokers, of course) coping with life after the first Gulf War and struggling to remain together through the present period of sanctions. Dreams haunt them where “the West” entices them to abandon their nation. Their hardships are reflections of the limitations imposed by sanctions, and they threaten to divorce each other.
Finally, as writer/director Hassan Mani’ explained, “they work to change themselves and to control their lives by seeing what is good in life.” They strive to breathe. Then in the final scene, the dreams return with “the West” plotting a new attack on their lives. “The common people,” Mani’ concluded, “are always the first to suffer in these situations.”
While creative culture still manages to thrive in these difficult times, it was the pleas of an Iraqi-American that proved the most permeating. Amira Atakamoto, who left Iraq years ago for Lebanon and finally America where she married a Japanese man, returned to Baghdad for a week to meet with her family. She came with a group of American women on a campaign for peace called “Code Pink” and spoke up at their final press conference. With tears in her eyes, she related how the night before she had a final visit with her Iraqi relatives, unsure if she would ever see them again.
“War will be a disaster here. A disaster.” The room of mainly European reporters fell dead silent as Amira emphatically spoke in a soft, quivering tone. Her eyes fell to the floor. “This will be a disaster that lasts for a hundred years.” She looked up again, shook her head and concluded, “Iraqis and Americans will never be able to be friends again.”
Ben Granby is a Middle East activist from Madison, Wisconsin currently working with the Iraq Peace Team (www.iraqpeaceteam.org) in Baghdad, Iraq