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Living Differently in Iraq


Najaf, Iraq

For the past three days I have been trying to get news of the situation in our houses on the lower East side of Manhattan, where the flooding from hurricane Sandy was especially heavy.  I pictured the worst.  As a good portion of Maryhouse is subterranean—the whole dining area and kitchen for example– I imagined the cellar and ground floor underwater!  We have folks who are elderly and infirm, even an older frail resident who speaks no English.  I pictured them frightened and in darkness!  On internet news I read “Don’t think if you boil the water it is safe to drink it.”

This morning, Wednesday, I am getting the first news from home.  The electricity is down, but there was no flooding!  Moreover, they were even able to serve a meal, albeit in a somewhat darkened house, to a handful of women who came to us.  I can’t tell you how grateful and relieved I am for this news!

I was in Baghdad last Sunday, the 28th of October, and hadn’t even heard of hurricane Sandy until I opened email on Monday morning to read that a couple of friends were going to stay at our home because of the impending storm!  What storm I asked myself.

The lack of news and the anxiety it caused me these last days, took me back to the time we were in Baghdad during “Shock and Awe.”  What must it have been like for those back home with little to no information about our well-being?  One always imagines the worst.  In many ways I think it was harder for those far away.

I know I was alarmed, thousands of miles away, by the pictures I saw in the news. I wonder what the thoughts were in people’s minds and hearts as the water levels began to rise, and they didn’t know what would happen.

As you might have heard, the explosions and bombings, in Baghdad especially, continue.  Last Saturday fifty-three persons were killed, and on Sunday another twenty four people died.  I would wager to say that when they arose that morning they didn’t know it would be their last day.

It is almost ten years since the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The electricity keeps going off here and all throughout the country.   Sami, whose family is hosting me in Najaf, remarked yesterday with no ill intent, “Maybe we could send them some of our electricity!”  We had to laugh.

I read another email this morning from an Iraqi friend of Sami’s whom we were unable to see in Basra.  He spoke about the lack of electricity and the high humidity in Basra, where temperatures reached almost 50 degrees Centigrade last summer (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit), and this was during the fasting month of Ramadan when no water, or food, is taken from dawn to dusk.  “How is it” this friend asks “that the U.S. has poured billions of dollars into Iraq and yet there was no project for a [national] electrical power station to help cool temperatures and calm temperaments that went along with the political instability, the insecurity and the sectarian killings…?”

The oppressive heat has eased now in Basra, Baghdad and Najaf.  Winter is around the corner.  The waters have subsided in New Jersey, Coney Island and Manhattan.  Will we live differently today than we did yesterday?  Will we be more mindful of our own mortality and fragility?  More mindful of our interconnectedness with the larger human family?   Mindful that even our smallest act has far-reaching consequences.  For some reason we have been granted another day.

Cathy Breen ( co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence. ( She will be writing about her visits to several communities in Iraq during the next several weeks.

Cathy Breen is a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

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