What We Don’t Know
On September 11th 2001, I was 9 years old and in third grade. My parents’ whispers and worried faces were all that affected me that day. I did not know that my life, our world, would be forever changed; wars would commence, scrutiny of all things and people who had dark eyes, dark hair and looked Arab would begin and, the word Allah would not be considered another name for God, like Dios, but a synonym for terror. When the Iraq war began in March, 2002, I was only “against” the U.S. occupation because my mother attended peace protests and placed a peace sticker on her car. I was both too young to study 9/11 as history or to remember the newspaper articles written during that time. As I study the current situation of the world, this has always been a span of time that lacked clarity. This year I embarked on a path to understand why there was a war in Iraq after 9/11, and what is happening now in that ancient Arab state. I picked up Anthony Shadid’s book, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, not knowing of his renown. His writing helped me synthesize the standard facts with Iraqi voices and realities. His insight sheds light on the subtle nuances that only a speaker of Arabic could unveil.
Like a resident of Thulayah, “a lush-oasis like town about a ninety minute drive north from Baghdad” who noted the message painted on an American Humvee, “We Remember 9/11,” I have always been perplexed about the connection between the attack on New York and the American war in Iraq. Through the study of articles, books and conversations I have come to the conclusion that without 9/11 the U.S. public would never have allowed for the invasion of the country. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom played into the emotions of fearful Americans who saw great benefits in spreading western ideals, ideas of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Shadid writes on his surprise that the word freedom is infrequently used by Iraqis, “Time and time again, I am struck by how seldom I hear the word hurriyah, ‘freedom,’ in conversation about politics in the Arab world. It does appear, but often in translation or in self-conscious comparisons to the west, where the word is omnipresent. Much more common among Arabs is the word adil, ‘justice,’ a concept that frames attitudes from Israel to Iraq.” Shadid exposes the disconnect between American intentions and Iraqi desires. As the two do not align, it seems to me that the United States had no prior knowledge of Iraqi sentiment and therefore should not have interfered in a country where concepts, common to us, were not held with the same regard.
On May 22nd when the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0, with Syria abstaining, on a bill that gave the U.S. formal rights and power as the occupying authority in Iraq, the Americans did not understand the repercussions of being the occupier in an Arab country where the word occupation, ihtilal, means something different from our western definition. “For many Americans, even Europeans, the term ‘occupation’ probably evokes the aftermath of World War II and an American-led vision of cooperation with like-minded people forging a common destiny. But for Iraqis, and most Arabs, the term, seared into the collective memory, brings to mind Israel’s record in the Middle East. Some recall Lebanon and the Israeli occupation that endured there, in one fashion or another, from 1978 until May 2000, when the last Israeli soldiers departed from the Fatima Gate on the Israeli-Lebanese border. More spectacularly, the term calls to mind the region’s most incendiary issue: Palestine.” Approaching the situation with totally dissimilar views about a foreign presence on Iraqi soil, how could the U.S. ever come out on top? We see now that America definitely has not, and in playing the role of occupier the military has created even more strife. Throughout the book, many Iraqi’s repeated that at least Saddam was one of them, though ruthless as he was. At least their former ruler knew the culture, the norms, and the religious differences. At least Saddam knew the soil and the heart of Iraq.
Another central divergence between the Iraqi and American perspective relates to sense of time. Iraqis and Americans measure progress and improvement in different ways. For an Iraqi, a time in which they remembered having power throughout most of the day was a better time than when they were completely left in the literal dark under American occupation. For the Americans, the comparison began when Saddam fell. L. Paul Bremer, the American Consul in Iraq, wrote, “Day by day, conditions in Iraq continue to improve, freedom becomes more and more entrenched.” Amal, a poor Iraqi middle school student wrote the contrary and concise Iraqi view in her diary, “What are we going to do with democracy when we don’t have anything? What do we do with freedom?” (343) The reality, for many under the Americans, was a life lacking electricity and running water, a lack of jobs for those who did not speak English, and thus hungry mouths of children to feed at home. The idea of freedom does not mean anything if the basic necessities are not met. As Amal’s mother put it, “It’s like we’re part of a play on a stage.” Due to the diverse interpretations and translations of words, from English to Arabic and back, and with a deficiency of able translators, how could the war have ever brought peace and human understanding? At the most basic level words did not carry the same meanings.
At the end of Night Draws Near, Shadid writes about Baghdad, “The city I knew would always be ghamida.” And as such, I ask, if it would always be mysterious and unknown to a journalist of his caliber, who had spent a lifetime in the region and country, why would the United State and NATO, who lack those qualities, ever think they could have success in a land so foreign?
Anthony Shadid passed away February 16th, 2012 Syria, of an asthma attack provoked by smugglers’ horses. But he has left behind a book that will help build understanding and, as history, we may hopefully take pause before the repeated and thoughtless exercise of power.