Oftentimes the most complex circumstances catch you by surprise, leaving you in a myriad of thoughts with a feeling of utter perplexity. Frail are the human mind and spirit, unable to surrender themselves to the reality of pain and suffering, giving way to such notions as revenge and cruelty.
Fascinating how the mouth, at times a symbol of love and affection, is a gateway for the harshest verbal expression. Perhaps it is these mental and verbal constructions which have allowed the state of human nature to reach the devastating point it has today. A Freudian or Hobbesian mindset may be able to answer why humans are so hasty to react in such spiteful means. Yet, perhaps the state of nature has reached this point as there has been limited attempts to reach ‘perpetual peace.’ However only until change comes from the normal citizen, can anyone even claim to spread peace rather than war and hate to the worldwide community.
Upon my visit in summer 2004, my pride and love of Iraq summoned me to buy a map of Iraq as a 24 karat gold necklace. The goldsmith in Al-Adthmiya, Baghdad inquired why I would want such a necklace, if I am indeed American. The answer is simple; I am an Iraqi-American woman, a product of two nations, cultures, and backgrounds. Born and raised in the United States with an Iraqi heritage, my identity is composed of all my life experiences and connections- without any obligation to renounce any part of who I am. Essentially, this necklace has become my trademark, and I never take it off.
Since the summer of 2004, I have worn this necklace and have not faced any problems or issues. Several times people cannot decipher what it is, other times people chose to stay away from the hot and tense topic of the war. Though, last week I was faced with one of the most intense and difficult situations in my life. It would be an exaggeration to say it was life changing- yet in a way it truly was.
“Are you from Iraq?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Your fucking country killed my son!”
And hence the beginning of a twenty minute conversation, that had no solid or foreseeable end. Perhaps the script of the conversation will give it more justice, than just a simple summarization. Forgive the informality, yet understand the significance.
“I am sorry for the death of your son, I am sure it is not easy for you. As I have had several people in my family die,” I replied.
“It doesn’t matter if your people get killed, we are in there for a reason, to give liberation and democracy to the Iraqis, and this is how you treat us?” he replied in the cruelest of ways.
At this point, I had a choice. Do I become confrontational with him and argue and fight on behalf of the Iraqi people who are suffering on an hourly basis? Or do I grieve with him, in the realization that he and I are in the same situation? How far was he in the grieving process? All these thoughts were streaming in my mind, but I knew that if he was not so upset and hurt, he would not have spoken to me, a university student, much younger than he. In his pain and torment he wanted to release his anger, and vent he would.
“Sir,” I said. “I hardly believe that the utter destruction of a country, the restriction of any sense of normalcy, the lack of water and electricity, a life characterized by war, suffering, chaos and disorder, a bombed out and annihilated country occupied with foreign tanks, and the continuous death of people, is liberation and democracy.”
“We are just trying to bring democracy to your country. But they are terrorists, and this is how they treat our kids who go over there to give them a good life.”
“Sir, this type of war is what fuels terrorism and is one of the main reasons why the reactions we are witnessing today are happening. Once again, I am really sorry for the death of your son, I know the pain you and your family must be facing now, my family too has gone through it several times in the past couple of years.”
“These people are just so uncivilized.”
“No sir. It is unjust to label anyone as uncivilized or not. In every country, there are good people, there are bad people; people who are ready to kill, and yet others who completely object to it. Once again, I am sorry for your pain.”
“You are just a sweet talker.”
“No, I am not. I sincerely do mean everything I say with all my heart. And right now, we are both going to a final destination, with something to do. Yet, both of us have so much heart ache, and we will never be able to live our life the same way, for we have both lost something so dear and so close to our hearts, that we can never regain. This war has done nothing but bring so much sadness in our lives, and it may just show what a bad move it really was.”
The gentleman was growing calmer, yet he still appeared to be quite anguished, and did not react in the way I was hoping he would.
“Well if you are Iraqi, why do you even live here?”
“I am American. I was born and raised here. I attribute so much of who I am to both countries, and want what is best for both. I am so sorry you had to go through this.”
After my final remark, the conversation ended. The gentleman was silent and did not say anything to me afterwards. Perhaps it was a sign that he was reflecting on what was said, maybe he had vented and finished saying what he wanted to say, or perhaps there was not much more that could be said.
Maybe it would have been easier to argue with the gentleman, instead of attempting to stay calm and allow insults to be thrown at me. However, then I would be selling myself short and permitting myself to fall to the flaw of humankind. What we often forget in the midst of war and dispute is that on both sides innocent people are being killed, while selfish leaders are gaining more political prowess. Instead of becoming a conflict of the government who imposed the inhumane policies of war and destruction and their angry citizenry, it turns into nation versus nation, most of the times unaware of the inner politics of the foreign policies that are running their countries. Essentially, both nations are victims of a war that is based on nothing but a false premise.
Thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, while the American soldier death toll is continuously rising. How is one life more important than another? How could I argue with a man who is hurt due to the loss of his son? Have we both not been deceived and lied to in the same way? Do we both not grieve a similar loss? Before any other label, we are human beings. All other words to describe us are human constructions that have developed over time, as a result of war, territorial disputes, and the need for humanity to differentiate itself from others. Why must we allow ourselves to live by these, and create more hatred amongst ourselves than what already exists due to the constant brainwashing of power-seeking governments?
It is just that- the labeling of the “uncivilized other,” “the terrorists,” amongst many others that is fueling hatred in this world. Rather than finding the root cause of terrorism, superficial and false means have been taken to eradicate it in every part of the globe- by creating such notions as the “Axis of Evil.” Yet, the terrorism I see- is the policies which fuel the anger and resentment in people. The terrorism of words and the effect it has on the human spirit and mind. Can a claim not be made that the ignorant and ruthless words of this gentleman were terrorist? It seems as though terrorism has become such an abstract word- that yes it very well could be. Moreover, it would have been so easy to respond by the George W. Bush method- throwing back verbal bombs that would only anger him and create more resentment in him, to react in an even stronger way; a cycle we have been witnessing in Iraq over the past couple years.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once remarked and asked, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” In the name of justice, defend what is right, defend the truth, and do it in such a way not to achieve personal motives, but to help your fellow human being.
MARWA ALKHAIRO is a 21 year old Iraqi American student, attending George Mason University in Virginia. She was born in the United States, and visited Iraq almost every summer of her life.