Kassem lives at the Al Monzer Hotel in Amman, where he is treated always with affection and respect. I feel puzzled now, not to know many details about him, though I’ve known him for years. Every time we’d enter the hotel, coming or going from Iraq, often in a great hurry, we took it for granted that this huge giant, a former Iraqi professor recovering from an illness that impairs his speech, this delightful character with deep pouches beneath his large, beautiful eyes, would take us into the slow motion of his life, pronouncing carefully each syllable of welcome. Last week, he radiated familiar child like happiness when Cathy Breen and I returned from Iraq. But his first words were, “Where is Madame Cynthia?”
“She’s in Baghdad,” I said. “They love her so much. How can she leave?”
“Of course,” he said, moving his head up and down twice. “She must stay. Good.”
Cynthia, a 72 year old librarian from Vernon, New York, has spent decades working for peace. Her work has taken her to beleaguered communities in Central America and Haiti. With Voices in the Wilderness she has joined forty day fasts, spent many nights in New York City jails, and helped lead delegations to break the economic sanctions. This was her first time living in a war zone. Without fail, she flinched at each explosion. “What are we going to do?” I whispered to Cathy after the first day of the war. “Cynthia’s liable to have a heart attack.” Cynthia’s heartbeat is strong as ever, but yes, each blast struck her in the deep heart’s core. Mortars, anti-aircraft, cluster bombs, land mines, cruise missiles, Massive Ordnance Air Bombs, the roar of C-130 transports, JDAMs, Rocket Propelled Grenades, --each and every one of the murderous, ugly attacks on human decency ripped into her mind and heart and she visibly cringed. She is the bravest woman I know.
When the US troops arrived, outside the Al Fanar Hotel, Cynthia quickly scooped up banners for us to hold, stating “Courage for Peace, Not War” and “War = Terror.” We stared at the Marines, young men laden with many pounds of gear and weapons. They were sweaty, tired, thirsty, and, well, friendly. “Where are you from?” they shouted to us. “Are you a Red Sox fan?” “They’re just kids,” Cynthia observed, and within minutes she was walking toward an Armored Personnel Carrier, carrying a six pack of bottled water.
Two days later, Cynthia approached the kid soldiers again, carrying a sign that quoted the Geneva Accords which state that an Occupying Force is responsible to maintain law and order. Ever the librarian, she had the exact document at her fingertips.
When Cathy Breen and I packed our bags to leave Iraq, Cynthia had planned to go with us, but I wasn’t surprised when she changed her mind. Raad, a young and brilliant professor of architecture and engineering, had come to tell her about a special project for which he needed her help. Before the war began, he had set April 24th as the due date for students to turn in model bridges. “They can learn a so much that is useful,” he told Cynthia, “constructing these models. It requires creativity. They use spaghetti noodles, scraps of cardboard, twine…but they will begin to understand many things about stresses and tensions, about the importance of details, about solving problems. And they need to care about such things now more than ever.” Raad decided that he would somehow notify his students that as far as he was concerned their projects were still due. He had already visited a poor neighborhood where many of his students could pass the message through word of mouth. “Tell everyone you can,” he said, finding one student, “that they should bring their projects to me. He planned to make a radio announcement in hopes of reaching more students. And he especially wanted Cynthia to witness and welcome their efforts.
Hisham Sharaf, of the Iraqi National Orchestra, also encouraged Cynthia to stay. Months ago, she had marked April 21st on our calendar: Spring concert, Iraq National Orchestra. She wouldn’t miss it for the world. We often sighed, looking at that calendar as the war raged. No spring concert this year. Hisham Sharaf came to us, after the war, with daily updates of new destruction that had wrecked his hopes of ever again creating music with his colleagues. Like so many Iraqis I know, it seemed that his bright, gleaming, dark eyes had a changed hue, akin to the soft brown of deerskin. An ineffable sadness had set in as he told us that he was too tired to attempt rebuilding his dreams again. He’d seen too much destruction following too many battles. On the afternoon of the day Cynthia had packed her bags, Hisham came back to tell her that he’d changed his mind. The concert was postponed, not canceled. Could Cynthia plan to attend?
At 7:30 each morning, throughout the bombing, we gathered for reflection, taking turns to offer a prayer, a story, a favorite poem or reading, and, often, music. Cynthia loves music as she loves life. Neville had come equipped with marvelous tapes. Frequently, we listened to a song from Les Miserables. “Take my hand and point me to tomorrow…To love another person is to see the face of God.” Cynthia would close her eyes, a soft smile on her face. Almost inevitably, a blast would startle her.
Here in Chicago, we’re working to produce new literature defining our future campaign efforts. We want to continue voicing cares and concerns of ordinary Iraqi people. We feel sure that preventing a “next” war requires effectively countering the present war propaganda. Honestly, I’m not sure how to answer the question “Where is the peace movement?” But as we hold fast to the fact that the critical mass needed to prevent a war before it starts was almost attained, let’s also be confident that answers will come if we join Kassem, our beloved Iraqi refugee at the Al Monzer Hotel, and simply ask, “Where is Madame Cynthia?” Iraqis begged Cynthia to stay. I believe that she’ll return, but not before she raises her voice, here, to insist that war and occupation are not the answer.
Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness and the Iraq Peace Team . She has lived continuously in Iraq since January 2003. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at: email@example.com