IRAQ Under a Different Microscope

by Wafaa' Al-Natheema
January-February 1999

This article covers some of the details of my trip to Iraq in January/February, 1999, which was published in the winter 1999 issue of INEAS News.


Before the Trip to Iraq
In 1991, as part of my book's acknowledgment, I wrote: "By the time February arrived, the pain was too thick to pass away, too deep to shovel, too heavy to carry on, and therefore, it became part of the system and joyously danced with every single blood cell. And when pain becomes part of your system, the last thing you want to do is to feel it. In my case, the busy schedule I already had was not enough, so I had to create more, and much more, work. I started writing this book in February and completed all ten chapters in June, during which I enjoyed the feedback, the sustained and sustaining support of four individuals."

That was my feeling during the Gulf War while writing Standard Arabic for Beginners. Now, eight years later, I wonder about my blood cells!! Will they stay healthy longer and dance with pain, or be eaten by cancer, especially considering what I have gone through since 1991. I could produce volumes of anecdotes. However, since this report is intended to primarily cover my recent trip to Iraq, I shall avoid addressing details that occurred before 1998, but will focus on what happened in 1998 as that led to my visit to Iraq in 1999. This report will also highlight aspects of the daily lives of Iraqis that have not been tackled by the media or by reporters and activists returning from Iraq.

In 1998, I worked full-time, for the first time in ten years, at the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel project as a field engineer. The second filthiest political environment after the White House. I realized after my project ended, that had I lingered longer, I would have developed an acute and unique case of depression or cancer. Naseer Shemma's concert on April 2, 1998, which I organized and had been working on for a year before April, despite being a great success, added layers of agony, disappointment with our community, lack of sleep, and physical dehydration and stress. All this was followed by a devastating car accident on May 6th. This accident was followed by nine months of physical therapy while I continued to work on the Central Artery/Tunnel project and while I was giving and organizing many lectures and events. Between April and June,1998, I organized a lecture series, "Cultural Episodes on the East and Africa" with the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS). I was invited to give about twelve lectures throughout the year, many of which required serious and lengthy research. Around the end of September, my brother came from London for an eight-day visit and brought with him the fragrance of family, a visit that teased and made me long for home.

Then came October and INEAS became involved in the International Festival of Boston for five days, including a stage performance that required several rehearsals, much time and energy, not to mention the daily work of educating and entertaining hundreds of students who attended the festival. Two days later, on October 26, I left for Tunisia, the first time since 1987 that I traveled to an Arab country for only one week. It was extremely tiring, and another teaser that made me long for home. Two weeks after my trip to Tunisia, my work at the Central Artery/Tunnel project was completed. I was so tense and exhausted by then, that a long break became mandatory. My longing to go home reached such an intense level that around the middle of November, I resisted no more and began working on my British visa and airline reservation to Iraq via England and Jordan. When the visa was delayed beyond my endurance, I decided on a different route via Amsterdam, rushing, physically and mentally numb, to meet my loved ones in IRAQ.

The Air and Bus Road to Iraq
After collecting seven large and two medium suitcases of gifts, used and new clothing, health products and medicine to take to family members, relatives, friends, the needy and the poor, I flew with Northwest Airlines to Amsterdam. The flight was very tiring. American ticket tellers and flight attendants have rusty manners compared with the rest of the world, and need serious discipline. This made the flight more unpleasant. At Amsterdam airport, I had to wait for ten hours before taking the KLM flight to Jordan. My arrival time at 2:30 a.m. in Jordan was very inconvenient. It was a miracle to find, within two days, the suitable and somewhat reasonable driver with a van to drive me to Iraq with my kind of luggage and conditions. This time, I did not take the bus (which is referred to as a "jet") with other passengers. I had the whole van with nine pieces of baggage to myself, all with non-smoking and other conditions that are unavailable on any bus service between Arab cities. The trip to Baghdad took thirteen hours. Seeing my father, now five years older and much thinner, cannot be described in words.

In Glorious Baghdad
It is as if I was injected with a volcanic fluid that has, in one instant, the effect of an electric shock, a dip in ice, a blow of fire, a vicious push by a hurricane and an ultimately exciting roller-coaster ride -- a mixture of hope and hopelessness, joy and sadness, courage and fear, endurance and defeat and of an outstanding survival and death. It felt like the zero charge in physics, the positive cancels the negative. The injection's name is IRAQ and the volcanic fluid is Life in IRAQ.

I arrived on Sunday, January 24, 1999 at 7:15 p.m. at the Qahtan Samarra'i Square where my father was waiting patiently. We drove home, speaking about everything, except how we longed to be with one another. It was such an awkward subject to tackle, my having been away from Iraq for five years, that we completely avoided the topic. Maybe this is one of our (Iraqis) problems, the inability to express our love and longing for each other even as family members. So, we go in circles talking about everything and anything except our love and longing for one another.

This is certainly true of Iraqis in general, when dealing with each other. It is easier for them to express their fear, admiration or love with non-Iraqis than with their own. This inability to express themselves comfortably and openly is due to political restraints and social customs.

I analyzed it psychologically: They respect each other so much that they take each other too seriously. Iraqis' words and behavior matter so much to them that when they are disliked by someone, they agonize and suffer; and when they long for or love someone, they fear that they may not deliver their words well and thus cause discomfort and misunderstanding, so they lose touch with their vocabulary. This is exactly what happened with me and my father as we were driving to home. The one thing we both comfortably expressed as we reached our house is that we were hungry. "Let's eat."

The following day, Monday January 25, my two uncles, my father's cousin, and our office accountant all came for lunch to see me. It felt wonderful. Such a change, from being isolated in the US, trapped in the continuous work-machine, to sitting with my father and four other men having lunch and teasing one another. I laughed so much I think they noticed it; I was thirsty for laughter. I was even laughing at things that were not funny to them. From Monday through Friday, I was visited by nearly all immediate family members and some distant relatives and friends.

On Saturday, January 30th, I began distributing money, health products and medicine to relatives and people I didn't know. What made my trip so productive was the fact that I was able to complete many missions and set some others in motion to be completed later this year, as I am planning to go again in the fall. Giving money to the needy and helping family members and relatives with what they need, or initiating small projects to keep them occupied was the most productive and rewarding of all.

We helped one another wrapping gifts and making donations to others. We exchanged health tips and advice as well as medicine, as needed. We taught one another weaving and sewing, shopped for others, put henna on our hair, went to the tailor, opened bank accounts for minor girls and gave money to women in need. We accompanied relatives and friends to fun places, theaters and picnics. Four weeks in Baghdad were filled with a balance of work and pleasure, something I and people, in general, are not accustomed to in the U.S.

Food, Dates and Palm Trees
Iraqi cuisine is rich in protein and iron, all because of the large presence of red meat. With the exception of a few recipes, regular daily dishes are usually based on red meat. Such dependence has been radically challenged by the embargo, which was imposed in 1990.

A majority of Iraqis cannot afford to buy red meat, but an alternative source of protein exists in chicken and grains at more affordable prices. Many are now cooking stews without meat. Fruits and vegetables are available all year round, something I don't recall witnessing as I was growing up in the '60s, '70s and '80s because certain fruits and vegetables such as oranges, cucumbers and tomatoes are seasonal and, therefore, were unavailable all year round. Everything tasted so delicious. Living in the USA for a long time, the difference is huge. I enjoyed the real taste of carrots, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, all the citrus fruits, chicken, eggs and milk. Organic is the only form of food available in Iraq.

Seafood in Iraq is mainly fish. The country's famous dish, masgoof, is extremely expensive. Therefore, it is only eaten by some people on special occasions. Masgoof is simply barbecued fish on wooden or metallic sticks cooked in front of a large flame and spiced with salt, pepper and tamarind. It is typically eaten with red rice (made with tomato paste or sauce) or yellow saffron rice, salad and pickles.

The country is famous for its excellent-quality dates. The largest crops of dates in the world are grown in Egypt and Iraq. The latter, until the Gulf War, was the largest exporting source of dates and date syrup for two decades. Because of the large population in Egypt (more than 75 million), the dates grown in Egypt are mostly consumed domestically. More varieties of dates are grown in Iraq than anywhere else in the world. There are 450 kinds of dates in Iraq. The most popular amongst them are the Khistawi, Barhee, Zahdee, Ashrasee, Berben, AzraQ, Meerhaj, Maktoom, Makkawi, Shwaithee and Dairee.

Dates are rich in potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium. The combination of yogurt and dates has been considered to be one of the healthiest in Arab pre-Islamic culture and especially during the time of the Prophet Mohammed. The combination is a meal by itself and preferred by many Muslims to be the first to eat when breaking the fast during the month of Ramadhan.

The landscape of palm trees is like a wedding procession of beauty. They survived one of the most vicious bombings in the history of world wars, standing tall with dignity and endurance providing dates, shade and protection.

Iraqi Art
No other country in the world has the quality and quantity of art and artists (considering both size and population) as Iraq and yet has such a low profile. Iraqis are very inexperienced in marketing and promotion. In addition, despite serious commitment and financial encouragement by the Iraqi government since the 1950s, art in Iraq is not respected and encouraged by society. All these reasons combined made Iraqi art more or less unknown worldwide.

Since my childhood, art in general and that of Iraq in particular has been an important element in my life. Whenever I visit Iraq, I make sure to attend as many art-related events as I can. During my recent trip (from January 20-February 24), I saw three comedies and attended a (western) classical performance by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. What a treat!. The first comedy that I attended was performed by unknown actors and actresses who were mostly Kuwaitis, with few Iraqis. The play, although containing some propaganda, tackled the political situation of some Kuwaitis who were discriminated against in Kuwait. These Kuwaitis had not been granted citizenship and had been put in prisons because they were not considered Kuwaitis for political and ethnic reasons. The play featured some of the most talented Arab actors I have ever seen, disappointingly unknown! It had a well- written scenario and dialogue.

The second comedy that I saw was a criticism of the Iraqi system in general and that of the ministries in particular. Shee Mayishbah Shee was the title of the play starring Mohammed Hussein Abdel Rahim, a famous Iraqi actor and comedian who is of Palestinian origin. He did a marvelous job acting, as usual. What a talent! Unfortunately, overall the play did not have a well-written story line, but the acting and funny punch lines of Abdel Rahim were superb. He should pursue stand-up comedy.

The third comedy reminded me of many of the noisy and commercial Egyptian plays. Although I did not quite like it, I noticed again the talent of the main actor, Mohammed Imam, and actress Mays Gumar. She did not just act, but danced as well. Her dancing was even better than her acting. Ms. Gumar has a black-belt in karate. In this play, there was another Iraqi gypsy dancer, known in the Iraqi colloquial as Kawaliyya. Her dancing performance in that play was outstanding, something I had never seen while growing-up (before leaving Iraq in 1980.)

All three plays featured singing and dancing. In the '60s, '70s and part of '80s, unless they were musical operettas, Iraqi plays did not feature singing and dancing. This new dimension in the theater can be viewed as away to release the tension and daily suffering of Iraqi lives. Serious and dramatic stage performances have no place in the lives of boredom and depressed Iraqis.

I also enjoyed a real treat, the classical performance of the National Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. The evening featured three western classical pieces composed by three Iraqi musicians from the Orchestra, violinist Zaid Othman (b. 1972), violinist Abdallah Jamal (b.1968) and conductor Mohammed Amin Izzat (b. 1961). The orchestra, comprised of 40 musicians, performed splendidly. I took ten photos of the orchestra and of the beautifully decorated stage. All photos will appear in a more detailed article on Iraqi art, including more information about the orchestra, the comedies and the lives and careers of four Iraqi female musicians living in Iraq and Jordan, to appear in the Winter issue (1999) of Al-Wafaa News.

The trip affected me tremendously. When I arrived back in Boston, although my body was exhausted, my mind was at rest. I have never felt so calm, peaceful, unhurried and in control before. Finally, I learned to listen to my body's agony and needs. A Great lesson to learn from an extremely patient society under siege and calamity.

© Copyright by Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 1999