It isn’t an accident that, after 11 weeks, only as I’m leaving again, do I find myself able to write about what it was like to come home — back to the United States after my latest several month stint in Iraq. Only now, with the U.S. growing ever smaller in my rearview mirror, with the strange distance that closeness to Iraq brings, do I find the needed space in which the words begin to flow.
For these last three months, I’ve been bound up inside, living two lives — my body walking the streets of my home country; my heart and mind so often still wandering war-ravaged Iraq.
Even now, on a train from Philadelphia to New York on my way to catch a plane overseas, my urge is to call Iraq; to call, to be exact, my interpreter and friend, Abu Talat in Baghdad. The papers this morning reported at least four car bombs detonating in the capital; so, to say I was concerned for him would be something of an understatement.
The connection wasn’t perfect. But when he heard my voice, still so far away, he shouted with his usual mirth, “How are you my friend?” I might as well be in another universe — the faultless irreconcilability of my world and his; everything, in fact, tied into this phone call, this friendship, our backgrounds… across these thousands of miles.
I breathe deeply before saying a bit too softly, “I just wanted to know that you’re all right, habibi.”
The direct translation for “habibi” in Arabic is “my dear.” It is used among close friends to express affection and deep trust.
It’s no fun having a beloved friend in a war zone. I’m all too aware now of what it must be like for loved ones and family members to have those close to them far away and in constant danger… It’s no way to live. Having spent so many months in Iraq myself, I finally have a taste of what my own loved ones have been living with.
While bloody Iraq stories are just part of the news salad here for most Americans — along with living and dead Popes, Michael Jackson, missing wives-to-be, and the various doings of our President — I remained glued to the horrifying tales streaming out of Baghdad and environs. I emailed Abu Talat and other friends constantly to check on their safety in that chaotic, dangerous land I’d stopped being any part of.
Trying to live life here with some of my heart and most of my mind in Iraq, which is endlessly in flames, has felt distinctly schizophrenic. It’s often seemed as if I were looking at my country through the wrong end of a telescope even as I walked down the streets of its well functioning cities, padded through a coffee shop where everyone was laughing, relaxed, or calmly computing away, or sat for hours in a room that possessed that miracle of all miracles — uninterrupted electricity.
I ask Abu Talat if the most recent car bombs were close to his home. “There have been 10 car bombs in Baghdad today, habibi, at least 30 people killed with over 70 wounded. Iraqis are suffering so much nowadays. It’s becoming unbearable, even for those of us who have known so much suffering for so long.”
This time I find, to my amazement, that I’m wiping back the tears and forcing back the crazy desire I’ve been unable to dodge all these months to return to Baghdad. Right now. This second. That old pull to plunge back into the fire, despite the obvious risk. To be with my close friend, in solidarity, in a place that, absurdly enough, seems more real to me now that this one somehow doesn’t. To be there on the front lines of empire, able to see, without blinking, without all the trimmings, the true face my country shows the world.
“Please stay safe habibi, and I will see you soon,” I tell him as my train approaches New York where I am to catch my flight.
“Insh’Allah — God willing — I will stay safe and will see you soon, habibi. Insh’Allah,” he replies.
Then he quickly tells me there’s gunfire nearby. He has to go. I wait for him to hang up first. It’s a kind of ritual. Only then do I push the button on my phone, set it down, and leave Iraq once again for this country of mine where I’ve never quite landed.
Just beyond the train window, trees and houses race past as we speed along. I watch the peaceful American countryside zip by, knowing Abu Talat, having just dropped his wife and children off at her father’s for safety, is trying to make his way home through streets filled with fighting and criminal gangs, the constant threat of more car bombs in the night, and a military cordon around his neighborhood. He is concerned that his home will be looted if he isn’t there, and feels it’s worth the risk to return to his neighborhood to guard his belongings, even though the area has been sealed off by American soldiers.
I’ll check in with him again later…obsessively… to see if he’s in one piece at the other end of the invisible phone line that still seems to connect us, along with all my other friends there. Of course, it’s just a regular day for him in Baghdad, and another irregular, out-of-body experience back here, where, with every long-distance chat, the duality in me seems to grow more extreme.
Questions of Identity
Coming home from the war in Iraq, I find another kind of duality. It seems to me that the war I’ve left is going on at home on many fronts — and yet most people seem almost blissfully unaware of it.
I was in Juneau, Alaska, when the Senate voted to take another step toward opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. So another, allied kind of war continues on the beautiful, precious land of my home state. I wonder how many of the proponents of drilling are aware that the oil drawn from ANWR won’t even be used domestically, but will be sold to Japan. I wonder how many Americans, whatever their positions, know this.
For 10 weeks now, I’ve traveled along each coast, giving Iraq War presentations, most of the time to large crowds hungry for information. It’s been heartening to see so many people so concerned, as well as angry, about what’s being done in their name — and with their tax money.
Upon returning from a presentation in Vancouver, Canada, I wait for a U.S. border agent to scan my passport. I watch him languidly flicking through my many pages of Jordanian/Iraqi/ Lebanese/Egyptian visas, staring at the Arabic script and stamps.
“What were you doing in the Middle East,” he asks. I feel a little spurt of anger and glance up at the signs all across this border station informing non-US citizens that they will have their photos taken upon entry and then place their index fingers on a scanner — solely for our safety and security, of course. I have that natural human urge to tell him it’s none of his damned business where I’ve been; after all, the United States is, at least in theory, a free country. Instead, of course, I simply say, “I’m a journalist.”
He looks at me, hands me my passport, and I come home yet again. As for the anger, it quickly dissipates. Such a small moment amid so many larger catastrophes. Besides, he’s just doing his job.
Not too long after, I get an email from a friend in Baghdad who’s just spoken with a friend of his, a teacher in Fallujah. She crossed another kind of “border” there, also guarded by Americans — a border around her own city. She had to undergo a retinal scan mandated by the Americans and had all ten fingers printed in order to obtain the necessary identification badge which, unfortunately, she then lost while shopping in a Baghdad market. When she tried to return to Fallujah without it, Iraqi National Guard soldiers wouldn’t let her back in.
“She told them she’d lost her ID in Baghdad at the market, that she wants to go home, that they have to let her in, but they refused,” my friend wrote. “A neighbor of hers inside Fallujah was there and told them she was his neighbor, but they refused. She called her husband with her neighbors’ mobile and he came to the checkpoint with her papers, showing that she is his wife and he lives in Fallujah but they still refused to let her in.”
She was crying, my colleague said, as she related her woes to him. She had lost 9 relatives during the American assault on the city in November, 2004. Then he wrote: “I want you to tell your friends and your audience about this. Please ask them what would happen if they were prevented from getting inside their city although the people inside knew they were a teacher who had to get to their school?”
My friend also wanted me to ask what Americans would do if our country were invaded and the only ID that was worth anything was that given by the invading forces — even though you had several of your regular forms of identification with you?
Being a Raving Lunatic and Other Confusions of War
Of course, most Americans back in this strange land know nothing about such doings in Iraq, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Bush administration and its faithful loudspeaker, the corporate media, which has done such a fantastic job of whitewashing the degrading situation in Iraq: Fallujah begins to resemble a concentration camp; the death toll of innocent Iraqis continues to escalate; the Iraqi resistance and foreign terrorist groups are now focusing heavily on the new Iraqi government and the new Iraqi security forces; the American troops continue their aggressive operations — and all that comes through here in this still peaceful-seeming land are flickering images of car-bomb carnage.
In 1968, in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, American troops massacred over 400 innocent civilians by far the majority of whom were women, children, and the elderly. In Fallujah during the November siege of the city, according to Iraqi medical personnel, well over 1,000 innocent civilians (the majority of whom were women, children and the elderly) were slaughtered. Over one thousand innocent civilians, people who, under the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power is required by law to protect, died in what was essentially a Vietnam-style “free-fire zone.”
In Conditions of Atrocity written for the Nation magazine, Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and well-known expert on humans in extreme moments, cited both My Lai and the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib as examples of what he called “atrocity-producing situations… so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities. In Vietnam that structure included ‘free-fire zones’ (areas in which soldiers were encouraged to fire at virtually anyone); ‘body counts’ (with a breakdown in the distinction between combatants and civilians, and competition among commanders for the best statistics); and the emotional state of US soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries and with a desperate need to identify some ‘enemy.’”
“This kind of atrocity-producing situation,” Lifton added, “…surely occurs in some degree in all wars, including World War II, our last ‘good war.’ But a counterinsurgency war in a hostile setting, especially when driven by profound ideological distortions, is particularly prone to sustained atrocity — all the more so when it becomes an occupation.”
As my thoughts are being calmed by the blur of trees and houses out the train window, I’m suddenly brought back with a jolt — as has happened over and over in these few weeks — to Iraq-in-America. Another passenger seats himself next to me, reads the paper, and then turns — I suppose simply because I’m there — and asks, “Did you see Bush’s press conference yesterday?”
I tell him I hadn’t.
“This damned guy! When are people going to wake up to his bullshit?”
I assure him I have no idea — and that’s true. I’ve been wondering just the same thing ever since I came home. But he doesn’t need much from me. As if he’d been reading my mind, he quickly lets loose with this: “I’m a Vietnam Vet. My son just got back from Iraq. He was in Fallujah in November. It’s all bad, man. My son, he’s like me, he won’t talk to many people about what happened over there…but he told me.”
He looks me in the eye intently and then points to the side of his head — that familiar kid’s gesture for insanity — and continues, “Now my son has problems upstairs. He told me they don’t have a plan, they don’t have a solution, they’re just trying to contain things over there.”
He rattles on, angrily, and I nod while I glance out the window from time to time, letting his information settle in on top of what Abu Talat has just told me. I finally indicate to him that I understand, because I’m a journalist who has spent a fair amount of time in Iraq recently.
But he’s not in need of encouragement. “Bush is a draft dodger and a deserter,” he continues. “He and all his cronies are thieves and should be in jail! If I keep talking about this I’m going to lose it. Have a good trip.”
He gets up and walks away. I take a deep breath. This isn’t the first time I’ve had folks unload on me about Iraq. I guess it’s in the air. I’ve had similar encounters with Iraq veterans from both our Gulf wars while traveling, as well as with civilians. Every encounter — the ones where no one mentions Iraq as well as the ones where it comes up — has its bruising aspects. I’ve had to go back to some of my family members and make amends for an outburst just after I returned. Feeling the desperation of the situation there and overwhelmed by the urge to bring Iraq home to people who truly have no idea what’s happening tends to put one in an awkward situation where it’s not too hard to come off as a raving lunatic.
Is There Anyone in the World…?
At least in these weeks, I’ve begun to understand what war veterans who have seen the bodies — as I have — get to deal with on returning home. Now that I’ve had a little time to get my head on straight, to process some of the atrocities I saw, and to take a little breath, I find myself, against my better judgment and everything I swore I wouldn’t do, heading back to the Middle East; back to chronicle more of what’s happening there. I keep wondering how long it can go on; how long so many people in my home country will continue to ignore it, to be complicit, whether they know it or not, in our brutal occupation — so long after it was proven beyond a shadow of a shadow of a doubt that this war was illegal and based on nothing but lies. I can’t help wondering as well how long they will be complicit as their tax dollars continue to be spent on a war machine that is eating their children and loved ones, along with innocent Iraqis; complicit as social programs and benefits, civil rights and liberties are stripped from them — a little more with each passing day.
Even a debate among anti-war groups about whether the United States should withdraw immediately or propose a phased withdrawal on a timetable was capable of sending me off the rails. All I could think was: Silly debate. As though either view of how “we” should proceed mattered, as though their opinions carry the slightest weight with the no-timetable Bush administration.
I kept wondering why the streets here weren’t filled with people every single day…
A couple of days ago, I forwarded an email to Abu Talat that had been sent to me by a man who attended one of my presentations. He had thanked me for telling and showing them the truth…the photos, the footage, the stories of Iraqis and of U.S. soldiers. He had written asking me to tell my Iraqi friends how horrified he was by what our country was doing in Iraq, that he was doing whatever he could to stop the occupation.
Abu Talat wrote back to him directly — the longest email I’d ever seen him send — and forwarded a copy to me. Here’s what he said in his eloquent, though hardly perfect English:
“Thank you Americans (those who believe that American troops are destroying Iraq). Those who believe that facts cannot be hidden with chicken mesh. Who believe they have no right to put ideas in the minds of people of a civilized country, a country in which civilization began before the United States existed. Those people who know that democracy is not given, it is obtained. Who know that Iraqis are people who have to live just like any nation. Who believe that we are no different in the ability of our minds because God made us all so you cannot force us to have the ideas of others unless we accept it after we are fully contented. Those people of the world who raise their voices against colonialism, control, force, the invading of other countries… I thank them, I encourage them, and I ask God to save them.
“Other people of the world who are not on these ethics, who don’t implement those ideas, I call them to look around themselves, to awaken themselves, to put themselves in our position. To face what we face, to remember that they don’t accept in any way to be insulted, nor to be threatened or killed like what is happening in my country by the invaders. I ask God to spare any difficulty from their country rather than being invaded.
“…Is there anyone in the world who can accept to be killed? Or detained for no reason? Is there any of you who can accept to be put in the situation we are facing, to see their houses crashed or demolished, ended, to see your people treated with no respect, to have guns aimed at them wherever they go, to live without electricity when you used to have it, to see roads closed… whether they will live until tomorrow under a normal life, these are, my friends, just a few things to be told.
“So please tell your friends and people to raise their voices to pull the troops out from invaded Iraq. Seeking that God helps Iraqis to bare the situation done by the troops of the invaders.”
From the window of my plane, I watch the lights of New York fade — and the internal duality quickly begins to fade with the glowing lights of the colossal city. Somewhat to my surprise, it encourages me to know I’m now moving ever closer to the place where so much of my heart turns out still to be. Unsure whether or not I’ll actually go into Iraq, at least I will be nearer to it, and to Abu Talat and my other friends who live the brutality of life there every day. At least I’m on my way back to a place where I feel I can do something…even if sometimes that only means providing moral support for habibis. At least I’m on my way back to a place where few can help but be aware of what is truly happening. At least I’m on my way, ever closer to occupied, inflamed Iraq.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist from Alaska who has spent 8 months reporting inside occupied Iraq. He writes regularly for the Sunday Herald, Inter Press Service and the Ester Republic among other outlets. He is a special correspondent for Flashpoints radio and appears on Democracy Now!, Air America, Radio South Africa, Radio Hong Kong and numerous other stations around the globe. He has recently returned to the Middle East to continue his reporting on the occupation of Iraq. Dahr Jamail’s latest pieces from the region can be read at his website.
Copyright 2005 Dahr Jamail
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]