Crossing Borders, Christmas in Iraq

by KATHY KELLY

Nathan Musselman and I boarded the public bus that travels from Baghdad to Amman on Christmas Eve after an absurdly hurried packing job. Nathan had discovered, much to our dismay, that he unwittingly let his visa expire. "Sorry," said the Iraqi immigration official. "There is no chance. You must leave." Nathan’s only option for remaining in Iraq during a time when our team greatly needs his experience is to petition, from Amman, for a new visa. As for me, Chicago friends insist that I’m needed at home for a few weeks if we’re to form new "waves" of Iraq Peace Team participants. I’d just learned that the only flight from Amman to Chicago with an available seat departs on December 26.

Last night Nathan and I had given way, emotionally, to hapless uncertainty and near despair. We stood for hours, shivering helplessly during a seven hour ordeal of "border-crossing." It was a bone-chilling, damp, cold night. We cursed our stupidity in not dressing warmly enough to weather the long hours outdoors and in unheated "reception" rooms while waiting for officials at the Iraqi and then the Jordanian border to search luggage and check papers for each of the bus passengers.

I began shaking visibly, at which point Rabab, a kindly English teacher from Qut, came up and draped a warm blanket over my shoulders. Then an elderly fellow stripped off his long gold colored abaya and insisted that I wear it. Enfolded in their kindness I could only smile gratefully and wish that my limping Arabic could tell them how ironic it is that a US Christian has small chance to identify with the Christmas narrative of Jesus, Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inns when surrounded by unfailing Arab hospitality. Nor could I voice my sorrow over knowing that, bleak as the scene was, and really it couldn’t have been more stark, the Iraqi passengers crossing out of Iraq are no doubt envied by millions of Iraqis. As a fearful cold spell of impending war, upheaval and chaos locks in place, Iraqis dream of bundling their families into buses and taxis to reach safer terrain in any land other than Iraq.

Like many thousands of people worldwide who despise the sinister buildup of a killing machine that hides behind the transparently fanciful excuse of delivering and liberating Iraqis from the undeniable miseries they’ve suffered under the current regime, Nathan and I would give anything to be effective, compelling antiwar voices. Time is running out as the window of opportunity to avoid war seems weighted to slam shut. US people still don’t comprehend the complexities Iraqis have faced. If the antiwar movement could instill deeper understanding, perhaps ordinary US people might yet feel motivated to have compassion for ordinary Iraqis. Those who’ve succumbed to a belief that the war is wrong but unstoppable might yet be awakened into risk-taking resistance. Yet I fear there will be no room in the inn of US hearts for Iraqis bracing themselves for war. I can’t imagine more innocent and more defenseless people. When I return to Iraq in several weeks, as I hope to do, the psychological burden of agonizing expectation may well have intensified beyond what seem to be already unbearable limits.

Just now, it’s a gift to remember Rabab’s kindness, to feel the heavy blanket of warmth that she wrapped around me, and to stand aligned with the forgiveness that brings to life the Christmas message.

My return to the US is a gamble. Customs officials could confiscate my US passport upon arrival, making it difficult for me to return to Iraq. Normally that threat isn’t so worrisome as I have an Irish passport as well. But my Irish passport was water damaged last spring when I hastily stuffed a leaky water bottle in my pack while running down a mountain side in Palestine, hoping to evade Israeli surveillance planes and snipers. And I’ve learned that the New York authorities have bumped me up to fugitive status because I missed court dates for nonviolently vigiling on the steps to the US Mission to the UN during a 40 day fast in the summer of 2001. We had offered lentils, rice and untreated water to officials at the US Mission, once a week, occasioning five arrests on misdemeanor trespass charges for calmly remaining on the steps, even after we were asked to leave. A kindly lawyer thinks that if I’m detained he might be able to convince a judge that I didn’t act in contempt of court by missing the court dates. But if asked, I’ll probably tell a judge that I don’t believe any of my actions have been criminal and that I’ve had no time to appear in US courts because I’ve been too busy trying to appear before the court of US public opinion to plead for an end to criminal US warmaking against innocent and defenseless people in Iraq. I don’t expect a judge to let me off the hook, but I hope the dear and earnest lawyer will forgive me!

Good friends have urged me to look for hooks, when I write, with which ordinary people in the US can identify. Tonight my narrative might best be understood by deportees, homeless people, and detainees. But perhaps those who lit candles tonight and remembered the Christ child born in a manger, surrounded by cave dwellers, soon to be a fugitive, will hearken to a narrative begging for the light to shine in the darkness… and the darkness shall not overcome it.

KATHY KELLY is director of Voices in the Wilderness.

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