Friday, February 20, 2004

Click for photos of our trip.
Reflections on Baghdad...

I am back and trying to fall into my routine and start working on this documentary. I have urges to compare and contrast what I have seen in Baghdad in comparison to living in America. But you get into murky territory when you begin to hold up 'Western' vs. 'Eastern' cultural differences. K has elaborated on some of these. And since she is 100% All-America born and raised in Kansas I think her perspective is enlightening.

I've been asked by some friends and co-workers the same question: so what was it like?

Well, it's a hard question to answer and I'm not sure if I have just one answer for you. One thing for sure is that Baghdad is not your typical Middle Eastern city. It's one of the oldest cities in the world and you can feel and see a direct lineage to it's ancient past. Many of the customs, culture, food and music pre-date Islam. 12 years of harsh sanctions (thanks Bill Clinton for your slow death) and constant war had it's toll on Iraqis and the landscape. And yes you can blame Saddam for most of the damage. While Iraqis were suffering Saddam built extravagant mosques for millions of dollars. But the recent US occupation and bombings have had the most physical impact. For example, the Iraqi National Museum, was left unguarded and looters stole many priceless artifacts. And it got a giant missile hole right in the front of the entrance, go look at it. This pissed many Iraqis off. That US soldiers did nothing about the looting until a few days later.

There is very little in terms of law or regional policing. I mean there is really no established government yet. All you have left is people self-governing themselves. And I must say it is uplifting to see a whole society rely on itself to maintain order and harmony. True, there are many gripes and an endless list of complaints that deal with everyday life. But folks are managing and there is a friendly approach to conflict, even when things get heated. We laughed every night. People really do help one another out. They watch out for their neighbor and look out for each other. Something we can all learn from. The West must have seemed like a cold place to some Iraqis visiting here for the first time.

Is Iraq dangerous?

Yes it is. Although whenever I interviewed my Father about the state of Iraq he would elaborate in great length on how everything was 'normal' and that we never had any problems (true). But almost everyplace we visited had some form of an attack and even the open markets, like the 'thieves market' there was a robbery of someone my cousin knew. But my Father is correct in that Kristie and I were able to walk around and shop on our own with ease. The only thing that would freak me out is when there were US troops with their military vehicles and such.

But while we were in Baghdad we heard many bombs and we were near some of the places that got hit:

--Jan. 31: At least nine killed, 45 wounded by car bomb outside police station in the northern city of Mosul.

--Feb. 1: Two bombs explodes in a house occupied by many Palestinians. I believe two people died. (This is one of the first bombs we heard. It woke K up and freaked her out. The circumstances for the bombs are questionable. The next day there were a couple of car bombs aimed at Iraqis police officers in the neighborhood that my parents lived, no injuries.)

--Feb. 10: A suicide bomber explodes a truckload of explosives outside a police station in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing 53 people. (We were there, this was near the open Market where K was a celebrity)

--Feb. 11: A suicide attacker blows up a car packed with explosives in a crowd of Iraqis waiting outside an army recruiting center in Baghdad, killing 47 people. (This made us jump out of bed. The sound and thunder of the explosion was so intense. You knew it killed many people, it had this dark residual silence after the blast...evil and meaningless.)

--Feb. 18: Two bomb-laden trucks blow up outside a Polish-run base in Hillah, killing at least 10 people, including the two drivers. Some 65 people are wounded, including Iraqis, Filipinos, Poles, Hungarians and an American. (this happened right after we left)*

(*Source: associate press)

I miss the rituals. When I would wake-up in the morning I could smell the tea brewing and the bread being warmed up. Maybe some eggs would be frying but we would always have 'gammar' (a type of cream) and 'dibbis' (date syrup) to spread on our bread. There would be cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and fruit. Breakfast would last maybe an hour or even longer since we may be talking about politics or religion. There is always talking and sounds from the many vendors on their carriages selling things on the street. You may hear one of the many stray cats outside the door meowing for scraps of food that my aunt would hand to them. Most of the cats are sick and look horrible. My aunt says all the cats after the war started getting ill and dying.

I do miss all my family in Iraq and the warmth that comes from that. Everyone is always ready to help you, take care of you and especially feed you! It's a whole side of my family that has been so far away from me. My cousin T is like my older brother, and my Uncle K is very much like a grandfather figure to me and Auntie S and the Luma's were always ready to feed me.

Bye sweet Baghdad.

I do encourage American citizens to travel to Iraq and to see for themselves what our foreign policy is doing. Go spend some time in Iraq but avoid the restrooms at the border of Jordan (yuck).

Iraqis are so generous and kind...

End of broadcast from a fever head-dream.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Okay. So. Having flaunted my ignorance, and shamelessly exposed being stuck in my Western mindset, as well as venting my pet peeves about my trip to Baghdad, I thought it would be a good time to list the things I liked and saw as advanced, positive, amazing things about Iraq.

1.) Healthcare: when I was sick, doctors were friendly, knowlegable, and accessible (they even made housecalls). When I needed any kind of medication I needed only visit a pharmacy and list my symptoms. High quality perscription medicines were extremely cheap (as I said, they were as little as two cents U.S. per pill), and hassle free. I was able to treat my acne which has been bothering me for over a year (it's all gone by the way!), as well as get Valium to help me sleep, and an antibiotic for my broncile infection. This is a million lightyears beyond healthcare in America, where, if I need a doctor, I have to assess whether I would rather pay my rent or get a check-up. Yes, it's that bad here. And a sipmle bottle of topical antibiotic for acne can cost up to $100.

2.) Childhood: Kids are very important in Iraq. As I mentioned, they are one of the reasons for living. And to top it off, they get the undivided attention of both parents, since divorce rates in the Middle East are very low. Family is important, and that can only be an advantage to a young child. But, as a side note, I do have to mention that I saw some child labor. It was usually children working in their parents shops. To be honest, I did the same as a child in my parent's store. It's a simple side-effect of entrepreneurship, and kids learn a lot from it, so it's not so terrible.

3.) No such thing as lonely: If you need someone, you will always find a cousin, friend, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, or neighbor to keep you company. For people who love people, it's a fantastic place to be.

4.) History: There is an awareness of history unlike I've ever recognized elsewhere. It's the cradle of civilization so they say, and you can feel it, see it, smell it. The place itself remembers and in some cases remains unchanged. Even the contemporary pop music is based upon long standing tradtions, styles, beats, melodies, instruments... Even in downtown Jordan I saw an ancient Roman amphitheater.

5.) Global Awareness: Along with common knowledge of history, there is also an awareness of woldwide current events. There are 125 newspapers in Iraq now!

6.) Dance: Iraqi's love to dance! From bellydancing to Chobie in a big circle, music and dance is everywhere! I got pulled into a celebratory boogie down at least once.

7.) Persistence: Even in the face of crisis, Iraqi's are determined to go one with their lives. Through three wars in a single generation, they just won't stop moving on. And there is a positivity which I see everywhere - a hope for what comes next. They have a great sense of humor about things. I will never forget how U's cousin would laugh and say "it's a nice bomb. When I hear a bomb I sleep better at night." But even more amazing is that even though the electricity is going off every three hours, and communication lines go down regularly, many internet cafes are springing up, and setting up shop. They can't wait around for things to be perfect. They just jump in and start advancing.

8.) Frankness: If there's a problem, Iraqi's perfer to get it out in the open and face it head on. They may discuss it and argue for hours, but their passion about a subject never dimishes their love for one another. Especially among family. Blood, as they say, is definitely thicker than water there.

9.) Satelite TV: 700 channels, and all you need is a $100 dish and reciever. No monthly service charges. It's as easy to set up as a simple antenae. Here i pay about $40 to rent a DirecTV dish and get around 500 channels. And if I want all the avialble channels it costs a ton more.

10.) Work days: A typical work day for someone who works in a bank for example is like this. Start work at 8:00 or 9:00. Come home at 2:00 PM. Have the rest of the day and night for family, friends, or whatever the heck you want to do. Other scenarios include working from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, coming home for two hours for lunch and a nap, and then going back to work from say 4:00 to 6:00. Oh, and Thursdays are halfdays and Fridays you get off... If only the US would follow such a model, I'm sure we'd be every bit as productive as we are now, if not more. And for proferssors... 12 hour work weeks are considered full-time. Now that's a life!

11.) Food: When you buy a chicken, they kill it right there and clean it for you. That is fricking fresh! Plus you're more connected to what it is you're eating. If you see it there clucking around, and see the process of how it becomes food, it seems to me that you're not so detatched. People in America think chicken comes from the grocery store, if you know what I mean. They are out of touch with what they are putting in their bodies. That's why people can get away with such inhumane practices toward livestock. Plus, there's far fewer processed foods, which we all know are not good for you, anyway.

12.) Lack of materialism: People are ten billion times more important than things. I don't know how many times someone said to me "if you like it, you can take it," offering me some item that belongs to them. Iraqi's aren't greedy, and are generally very generous with what they do have. I feel an Iraqi would give you the shirt off his back to make you more comfortable.

13.) Moral stability: Even with no laws in place, the Iraqi people function respectfully toward one another. I'm afraid that in the same situation, Americans would rob, rape, and kill each other without regard. Even with no consequences, Iraqi's have a good moral fiber.

14.) Architecture: I have never seen buildings as beautiful as some of Iraq's mosques. Truly fantastic to behold! Words have no power to desribe them!

15.) Tolerence: For the most part, I saw little predjudice among everyday Iraqi's toward other religions. When I told people I was Wiccan, they were more curious than condemnatory. I never felt that religion was pushed on me, though it is such a big part of everyday life.

Okay... I'm sure there are more... but you get the idea...

So, despite my bad, and slightly ignorant, attitude I did see the good things.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

U. had an interesting conversation with his father on our last day in Amman. It was about Shari'a Islamic law. According to my father-in-law it is normal and acceptable for a man to see a prostitute if he's single, however if a woman lives with a man whom she is about to marry and has sex with him it is a punishable sin. She can be arrested. His wife agreed that this is normal and ok, and that women are basically responsible for being sexually moral and chaste outside of marriage, wheras men are not. I was surprised to hear this from a woman.

This morning I was reading a spoof on the argument against gay marriage found here. It's critical of the antiquated notions of marriage in Christanity.

Now, hold on, because these two are connected. It made me wonder. Is there any scathing self criticism of Islam by Muslims? Is there anyone who says, "hey these things may have made sense in Muhhamad's time, but they don't work now?" Is there progressive Islam?

I remember Uncle K., the religious scholar, mentioning that in his studies he has found certain "holes" in the Quran, but that he would never write about them, since he would lose his status as an acedemic, and may even be persecuted. Or perhaps it was his brother who mentioned this about him.

I also remember someone telling me that the job of the clerics is to make suggestions and sort of "ammendments" to fit the times. Kinda like the pope in Catholicism, I guess. So I'm just curious if it is possible for Islam to shift with the needs and circumstances of a contemporizing culture?

You see I had done some research on the Vodoun religion. The thing I love best about it is that it's constantly in flux. It shifts, changes, adapts. Since the rituals are based upon everyday things, of course it has to. It is a flexible religion, based solidly in African traditions, but always progressing. And then there's my religion, Wicca. It seems suited for the times. The doctrine of live-and-let-live seems to harmonize with post-modern America. It fits. And it's ecologically/earth conscious, which is a much needed awareness in our contemporary society.

It just seems to me that a religion which is incapable of flexibility, reinterpretation, ammendment, or which has no awareness of comtemporary issues that may never have been a concern in the past, can only clash with a changing society. I think that religion can hold on to the power of it's roots, the wisdom of it's longevity, the traditions that people hold dear. However, it has to remain alive. It can't stagnate, or it will become irrelevant, or worse yet force people backwards in human spiritual evolution.

So if anyone has any information regarding a "progressive" Islam, I'd be very interested.

You have to understand, being in the Middle East, it was strange for me to see religion woven so tighly into the fabric of everyday life. It was facsinating, but also a little like a sci-fi novel. It seemed like a persistent sort of conditioning of the mind, to always, no matter what, be aware that you are in a Muslim country. From the call to prayer echoing off houses, to abiyas in the streets, there was a certain in-your-faceness of something that I regard as personal and private. I respect it, but that kind of conformity always unsettles me and my powerful need for individuality.

I can't get over my amazement of this clash of cultures between East and West. I don't know what I expected. Did I expect Europe with a different alphabet and better food? I think I did. It's was something I needed to experience. I know this. One can never fully have a feel for something until one is inside it.

I am now painfully aware of my Westerness. It's almost embarrassing. And yet I'm sort of embracing it.

Today, I am wrestling with a strange sort of at-home-ness whilst my existensialist angst reemerges. I feel I need more education, while wondering why I need anything at all.

Maybe it's time to apply for that PhD program now... I need to occupy my brain with things outside myself again.


Monday, February 16, 2004

Yes we are back home in Chicago. I am discombobulated and exhausted. Part of me is scattered in Baghdad and near the border of Jordan. I'm not fully here yet.

Okay, now some tea would be a good idea.

I called my sister S and tried to explain the intrict details of the situation in Iraq. She said I should write all this down.

I'll try.

Dear Iraq, thank you for your warmth, your morning alarm bombs and traffic magic-madness car rides.

Stay well and goodbye.

Love, U

Ah HOME! Superhighfastspeed internet access, and damn I forgot how nice our place is! How "us" it is with all the art on the walls and the clean and best of all - RATS! Yes I got to snuggle buggle my little rattie pets as soon as I got in!

Let's see. I've been sick. For a day and a half I suffered from vomitosis. Everything that went in - even water - came right back out. It was vile. I was driven to the home of the doctor who first helped me with the mosquito bites. Driving late at night in Baghdad is kinda cool and spooky. Anyway I dragged my self onto one of his divans and he took my blood pressure (which was very low), and gave me a medication to stop the vomitting. He ten gave me cumcumbers with salt, and my appetite returned. I sucked cucumber juice all the way home.

Everyone speculated about what I may have. Everything from strange food to sitting outside in the cool air. I knew what it was. U.'s little brother's had had the flu for several days before. And it began with vomitting.

Anyway, I threw up one last time before collapsing into sleep, and then waking up with a nose full of goo and a cough. I still have the cough.

Over two days I got two housecalls from two doctors, both friends of the family. Yes there is still such a thing as a housecall in this world. How cool is that?

I was perscribed an antibiotic. I don't think I need it, but I've been taking it anyway. Nobody really told me how long to take it, so I got enough for ten days. What is a little disturbing, is that anyone can go in to the pharmacist and ask for an antibiotic, and get it. I know from various articles I've read that if you overuse antibiotics the bacteria becomes resistant, and the medication ineffective. Mutated super germs begin to breed and then they have to create new drugs to kill them.

The lack of real solid health eduacation is a bit of a problem in Iraq. No one seems to make the connection between the rampant diabetis and the incredibly large amounts of sugar everyone is pressured to injest, for example. And I noticed a tendency to leave food out in the open for long periods of time (overnight even) and then serve it again the next day. Whereas here there are things on the local news about how long is safe to leave food out before it can grow harmful microbes. And young children are given caffeine and candy as if it's a necessary staple in their diets. It would be a big benefit I think if there were some required course in school that taught proper nutrition and such. Especially to the girls, who seem to grow up to be the ones in charge of what people eat. And why does everyone still seem to think that cold air can cause a cold? Doesn't anyone know about how viruses work?

But I suppose when things are actually stable and they have essential things like electricity and trash pick-up again, there will be more time and energy to spend on such things.

So it felt nice spending some time in Jordan before coming home. Amman is gorgeous! Especially covered in snow. It came hard and fast and melted just a quickly. I joked that it only came to cheer me up. Truly the landscape was breathtaking in places. They call it the white city, because every single building is white like sand. It is the most dreamlike environment I've ever seen.

Spending time with children also has been an excellent contraceptive. Sitting here in our quiet calm apartment we both know we're not anxious to change our lifestyle by adding a dependent being to the mix. Don't get me wrong, U's little brothers (age 2 and 4), are cute, wonderful kids. But they are also normal kids which bring a whirlwind of cries, spills, and chaos into any room they inhabit.

U and I spoke reflectively of our trip on the way home. We highlighted the positives, the negatives... We spoke briefly with a man who just came back from Palestine. An interesting conversation, which perhaps my husband will expand upon later...

As I remember my trip, I think I will write more... But now, I am simply delighted to be home.