In the midst of a rock-star-style tour of American cities arranged by Code Pink organizer Medea Benjamin — who reached all the way up to Hillary Clinton to secure visas for a delegation of Iraqi women marking the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion at a series of anti-war protests — Faiza Al-Araji, a Baghdad water engineer and blogger (afamilyinbaghdad.blogspot.com), found herself on the beach in Santa Monica with hundreds of local protesters. Inside a frame of flag-draped coffins, with white crosses marking a grid on the sand, the crowd shaped itself into the symbol of a goddess and the words “Women Say No to War.” One woman suggested, for ceremony’s sake, that Al-Araji place a flower on a soldier’s coffin.
“Why should I do that?” Al-Araji asked. “They killed my people!”
Yes, she sympathized with the grief of a mother who spoke about losing her son, a Marine, but added, “You know what is the meaning of ‘Marine’ in Iraq? It means ‘murderer.’ ‘Murderer!’ ”
A vocal powerhouse of a woman with no shortage of hand gestures and facial expressions, Al-Araji tells how two compatriots, who had lost their children and husbands to American fire at a military checkpoint, were denied entry to the U.S. for the Code Pink tour on the basis that they had no compelling family reason to return to Iraq. In a recent blog entry she writes: “People are in grave pain and sadness, saying that these are the worst days since Baghdad fell. These are the most dangerous stages, and the darkest for us.”
The stories Al-Araji has heard, along with her own experiences of life at the most violent edge of U.S. foreign policy, have led her to develop certain impressions of Americans. When bombs started to rain down on Baghdad in March 2003, she remembers going to a flower shop to buy roses “because I wanted to be happy in the last moment of our lives.”
Yet the Americans she’s met stateside haven’t conformed to her expectations. She never thought the people who’d eventually help her would be mostly secular and mostly Jewish: Amy Goodman, Medea Benjamin and the Santa Monica Jewish ladies who have financially spearheaded the Westside anti-war movement. Al-Araji even refers to her host for the L.A. leg of her trip as her “Jewish mother.”
“There is something strange in this country,” she explains. “The people who have commitment to Christianity are aggressive, while the people who have no commitment to religion speak in humanity language. We believe, as Muslims, [that the] message of Jesus was peace. I can’t imagine there is a Christian who is war maker.”
After the war started, Al-Araji went through the trauma of having her son kidnapped by Iraqi authorities. He was released, but because of security concerns, she and her family recently migrated to Jordan, part of the brain drain that has been emptying Baghdad (the Arab capital of education before the war) of its scientists and professors, many of whom have been specifically targeted by death squads in what Al-Araji terms a “war of civilization.”
For Al-Araji, the contrast between the before and after of the war is particularly strong regarding women’s rights, one of the ideals America was to bring to Iraq. “The Iraqi woman had the right to study, to work, to drive, to choose her husband, to participate in politics,” she says, using up all her fingers as she makes the list. “What do you think you can bring me more than this?”
I’ve heard this line of discussion before — my mother often talks about how, during her teenage years under Nasser in Egypt, college enrollment was 50 percent female, even in the sciences, but when she went to university in England, her architecture class had a ratio of 300 men to just three women.
Al-Araji goes on to say that she is incensed at the pity expressed for Muslim women in heart-tugging oppression stories. “A Muslim woman has the right to keep her last name,” she points out. “If I take the name of my husband like in the West, it means I belong to him.”
She has special ire for the Iraqi feminists that President ?Bush has paraded around at speeches as his proof of Arab female liberation. Meeting Iraq’s former U.S. ambassador, Rend Al-Rahim Francke, was, Al-Araji says, “like putting poison on a knife in my heart.”
And while Al-Araji has been impressed with the verve and courage of female leaders like Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan, with whom she demonstrated in D.C., she says she feels sorry forthe women here. This, after she saw Sheehan and an Iraqi-American woman pushed up against a glass wall by security guards when the demonstrators went to pay a visit to, as she says with sarcasm, the “beautiful John Bolton.”
“In this culture, they don’t respect the women. In our culture the woman is like a piece of glass — the Prophet Muhammad said so. He said, ‘Take care of the vases.’ ”
Al-Araji knows talk like this won’t please many Western feminists accustomed to opening their own doors and paying for their own meals. “When I came to Vermont, nobody would help a woman with luggage. In Iraq they will rrrrrun!,” she exclaims with a twirl of her manicured finger. “In this country, because you have women’s rights, it’s ‘Go to the hell! Get your luggage alone!’ ”
And of course, as any Muslim woman here knows, Americans always bring up “the veil.” The college students Al-Araji spoke with in Los Angeles dwelled on it more than any political issue. She acknowledges that sometimes women don it in deference to men, or rather, in consideration of a certain neurotic trait belonging to Arab men: “We have this word, ‘ghira.’Translated poorly, it means ‘jealousy.’ But it’s not jealousy about women only: It’s about country, feelings for his land, his culture, his religion, his mother.”
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Al-Araji, who wore miniskirts in her college days, says she wears the hijab “to respect” herself. “I don’t like customers to look at my chest, my neck. No one told me to put it on.” Her decision fits into a larger phenomenon that has transformed the Middle East in the past decade: “I started wearing the hijab two months before the war, because I was scared someone in another culture [would] try to control my identity.”
As a water engineer, Al-Araji laments the way water, as an issue and an element, has been abused, manipulated or ignored. That heartwarming media story about refilling the Shi’i marshes that Saddam had drained? It’s now a story of rural exodus to Baghdad and wasted Japanese investment money. Saddam, for all his horrors, she says, had maintained a system for regulating water quality, but now hospitals and slaughterhouses discard their bloody dead in rivers. Poor Iraqis have taken to boiling all their water, while the rich just buy Evian. In the south, depleted uranium, chromium and lead — leftovers from the heavy fighting there — have contaminated the rivers and led to higher cancer rates, especially in children. But Al-Araji’s business selling water-treatment systems has flourished, perhaps as the flip side of this misery.
At the end of the evening, we discuss the Iraq-war headline that has dominated American newspapers since she’s come here: civil war. For Al-Araji it’s an inconceivable foreign idea and a hoax. Appearing earlier on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, she took offense when asked if she was Sunni or Shi’i. “I will never ask a woman or man what they are. But now they created this idea in society,” she says, pointing to a magazine headline (“Iraq at war with itself”). “What religious conflict? Between Muslims, how could you?”Mixed couples and mixed neighborhoods have always been common, especially in Baghdad: Al-Araji herself is in a mixed marriage. “We used to say, ‘If there ever is a civil war, it will start in the bedroom, because the husband and wife are Sunni and Shi’i!’ ”
In the car with Al-Araji, I passed with her by the Santa Monica offices of the RAND Corporation, which has led a pro-U.S. PR offensive in Iraq. She had attended a RAND conference in Jordan on women’s rights and finding alternatives to Sharia law, but then read some Noam Chomsky and became disillusioned. “RAND in the Middle East, they say: ‘We love you, we want to bring you liberation!’ But look at their dirty face here! I want to know their ugly face, because I will write about in my blog when I go home.”