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April 3rd 2008
Published: April 4th 2008
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It was the begining of the semester and I showed up for my Turkish class. The professor had not arrived yet and there were only two other students waiting in the room: a young woman from Baghdad, and a young man from Basra. Never before have I felt so ashamed to admit that I am an American. It was a brand new experience for me, a very unexpected and emotional surprise. What exactly does one say in this situation?...

Thankfully, the teacher showed up before too much time had passed, coming to my rescue, sort of. I learned that the young man had come to Turkey four years earlier and that is all I found out about him. He left during the break and didn't come back - must've dropped the course.

Zainep, I've since grown more comfortable around now that we've had some time to talk and get to know each other a bit. The first day was very difficult though. "My family and I came three years ago. We would like to return to Baghdad, but the situation is very bad there..."

I actually tried to put into words something of an awkward apology that first day, but as the words were stumbling out of my mouth I realized that there is no right to say "I'm sorry that my country has repeatedly destroyed your country..." Furthermore, the response to that is definitely not "no worries, it's no big deal..."

Another thing that struck me at first was seeing an Iraqi in a normal setting. The typical images that I have of Iraqis are of yelling men in crowds or of weeping women in black robes next to explosions; images of war. A healthy, attractive young woman, dressed in European clothes for some reason does not fit into my idea of what an Iraqi looks like. Have I unknowingly bought somewhat into the dehumanization of Iraqis promulgated by the Western media and the Bush administration?

Conversing with Zainep (her English is pristine and her Turkish is quite fluent too) is heartbreaking. Baghdad was, centuries ago, the intellectual center of the world. Zainep radiates that brilliance though her young eyes have no doubt seen the worst of human sadness... all for the sake of power and oil.

Even though Zainep clearly understands that my anger with the Bush administration is shared by many other outraged Americans, there is still this terrible feeling of guilt that overwhelms me whenever we are together. She is a refugee here because of MY government's shameful, greedy, and inhumane actions.

After graduation, she would like to return to Baghdad, but she does not know if she'll be able to find any work. She's considering a visit there this summer, which sounds unimaginable to me. Even though it is very dangerous, because of one of Bush's terrible wars, it is her HOME.


Please share with me your thoughts on this.


4th April 2008

As weird as this sounds, I would say, cheer up, you really have no part in the actions of the American state. Probably you and I have about as much to do with what the American military does as we have to do with what the Chinese military does. I'm not just talking about the vote, either; I'm not saying that you (or anyone) is not responsible for what the Bush administration does, just because you didn't vote for him. Maybe you did for all I know, although judging from this entry I would say the likelihood of this is "low." I guess I would say that the vote itself is more of a token or an illusion that we usually think it is. We are sort of put in a situation where, under duress, we must choose between two very bad alternatives. It's like when Batman is forced to choose between saving his girlfriend or saving his sidekick. This never happens, but if hypothetically Batman was only able to save Robin, we would probably say that it was not Batman who killed his girlfriend, it was the villain who set up the whole demented situation. We are told from a very young age that the state is the people, that we are all joint participants in self-rule, cogs in a grand democratic machine. This is in some small way sort of true, but I think it's more accurate to say that we are subjects of our government than co-rulers of our government. Another way of looking at this is to see that no action you could have taken before March 2003 would have prevented the American military from entering Iraq. You seem to be self-identifying as an "American;" "Americans" invaded Iraq, you're an "American," and so you're responsible in some way. My thought is, you and I are part of the American people but not the American state. I hope I do not sound like too much of a conspiracy theorist when I say that the state (pretty much every state, around the world) makes an enormous effort to propogate a grand lie, namely that "I, the state, am the people." States come and go, often quickly and violently; what endures after such a coup is the people. I would not hold yourself any more responsible for the war, than I hold my Chinese friends responsible for their government's actions in Tibet, or than you hold Zainep responsible for what Saddam did to the Kurds. Much more appropriate than shame here are simply compassion and empathy. I always prefer to relate to people on the human level, and compassion (in the Latin the word literally means "suffering-with") is a more profound and even sacred force I think than anything to with guilt or responsibility.
4th April 2008

My Arabic prof is from Iraq. He told us how before he came here he and his family, along with other Shiites in some town (whose name he wouldn't mention) were part of an underground rebel group who fought against Saddam and his troops - his house was the headquarters where they stored weapons and fed the fighters. Apparently during one of the uprisings, when he was just in HS, he was shot in the leg by one of the government troops. A little later Saddam attacked the city full force and he was forced to run with his family and drive a car-full of people and stuff even though he didn't even have his license yet... They only took his mom's pocketbook and a few bags of flour because they were so sure they'd come back, but every time they would move the government forces would advance on them so that they could only go further away from home - part of the problem with this, though, was that during the uprising 2 of his brothers disappeared so that they farther they went the less likely finding them became. They traveled in the desert for 3 months and finally came to the border with Saudi Arabia where they found a bunch of American troops who sent them to a refugee camp. Unfortunately the Saudis who helped 'guard' the camp were Sunnis so they weren't too friendly. For some strange reason a few months later the Americans just up and left, deserting the refugees in the hands of these guards who constantly abused them and randomly killed people. They had to build houses out of mud and go to school under a huge tent where they would get laughed at because 'there was no point in studying if they were all going to die anyway'. Somehow 3 years later he managed to immigrate to the US and luckily his 2 lost brothers somehow turned up too (his story got a little fuzzy at this point). It was completely insane and mouth-dropping for us to hear this because looking at him you would NEVER imagine that this is what he came from - not only does he look like a 10 year old with a bunch of out of place wrinkles but he's always smiling and laughing about everything. I guess Jima, I understand your guilt and you know that I hate what this country is doing/has done over there as much as you... But you have to remember that their own government has hurt them pretty badly too, along with other Arabs in the area. Unfortunately Iraq got a really crappy deal left and right by some really strange turns of fate. While your guilt is understandable, just remember that it isn't ALL on your American back.
10th April 2008

ani says...
i have many thoughts on this but i tend to think ani difranco says them better than me... i thought of this part of her song "animal" as i was thinking about this: And there's this brutal imperial power That my passport says I represent But it will never represent where my heart lives Only vaguely where it went Cause I know when you grow up surrounded By willful ignorance You learn that mercy has its own country And that it's round and borderless And then you just grow wings And rise above it all it's a bit idealistic, i realize, but i think there's truth in the need to think of ourselves outside of the labels that others might use to define us. so you're american. that can mean whatever you want it to mean.
15th April 2008

compassion and empathy
Cheers for your comments. Batman and Ani, right on. I'm not shocked to discover that I am on the same page with you guys. I've certainly come to realize over the years that people in all corners of the globe do not judge Americans using the American government and its policies as a yardstick. This situation is of course no different. I think it is the fact that the war is still very much a defining part of everyday life in Iraq that made me percieve this situation as more intense, more personal. Zainep has family there now, including her mother who went back and got stranded because the Baghdad aiport regularly shuts down. Some American friends of mine were there not long ago, as soldiers. With thoughts like this in mind, when all Zainep and I knew about one another were each others' nationalities, it was hard for me to feel comfortable. And Masha, I'm sure you understand that my criticism of the war is in no way meant to forgive any of Saddam's atrocities. It is incomprehesible that such a monster was able to sieze power for so many decades. His sins are vast and unforgivable. Still, our world is ruled by monsters. It is hard to argue that Iraq is better off now than it was before this war. As the newspaper reports progress and improvements in Iraq, it seems to me that things are shifting from very, very horrible to perhaps only very horrible. We've taken a country f1lled w1th people l1v1ng under an oppressed system and somehow made life there much, much worse. The shame is not mine, but it remains a shameful situation.

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