I’ve been studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan for five weeks. When I stumble over a word that I can’t recognize, I often turn to young friends who work at the front desk of the small hotel where we stay. One night, after struggling with a difficult sentence, I headed downstairs. A minute of instant charades revealed that the sentence was about pigs at a trough. “Oh!” I laughed, “Like my country!” “Yes, yes!” they chorused. It was a good-natured exchange, typical of the gaiety and laughter that marks years of friendship with these young men.
Then I caught sight of Ruqayya, sitting at the far end of the room. Sometimes she’ll join in banter and jokes. But it always strikes me as a brave effort. At age 32, this mother of three, an exceptionally beautiful Iraqi woman, faces death. She has come to Amman seeking desperately needed cancer treatment. “Her sickness, it is caused by ‘the rays,'” her husband Ihsan solemnly told me. “Do you know what these are?”
Doctors in Amman confirm a dire diagnosis. She must get help “a.s.a.p.” if she is to live. But each round of treatment costs $4,000 USD and a bone marrow replacement operation would cost $35,000.
Together, several of us have sought options for free health care in Amman. The Italian Hospital doesn’t handle chemotherapy. The King Hussein Center for Cancer can’t accept her. The Basheer Hospital asks that patients pay for treatment and surgery. Each day, I correspond with a friend in the U.S. who can hold out a slim thread of hope.
Ruqayya faces her illness and the terror of death with an intense longing to live. When she first heard that two Americans lived in this hotel, she felt a surge of hope. She imagined survival. Americans might be able to help her. Words would have failed me in any language. Now the stumbling explanations of my inadequacy, the clumsy words of regret and dismay are understood. We sit together, Ruqayya and I, sometimes holding hands.
Within walking distance of the hotel, many people have been shaking hands over business deals. Entrepreneurs from every corner of the world were attracted to a “Rebuild Iraq” conference. Traders congregate under huge white tents in an open field, negotiating bids, contracts, and potential developments.
With so much of Iraq’s infrastructure destroyed by 15 years of economic and military warfare, opportunities abound for technicians, builders and developers. But any company planning to invest in Iraq faces severe problems regarding security. Will the risks be worth potential profits? How does Iraq fit into larger schemes of globalization? Suppose a company aims to replace an inefficient, dilapidated state-run food processing plant with a brand new one. The new plant might be more efficient, it might even be run with only thirty workers, but what will become of the 1,000 families dependent on the state-run plant if they are out of work.
Or consider a major growth industry in Iraq, the cement industry. When you make cement, harmful cement dust pollutes the air. Plants should install “precipitators” that help remove dust from the air. The three Iraqi state companies that produce cement operate 16 factories. The factories have 31 production lines, but of them only 16 are working and only five of the 16 have working precipitators. The cement factories are hazardous and unhealthy places in which to work. Suppose the industry becomes privatized. New plants could be built that are more efficient, less harmful to the environment, safer for workers. But the new companies would employ less people. Investment costs would drive the price of cement higher.
Here is a breakdown of Iraq’s state owned companies: 18 engineering companies, 7 construction companies, 8 textile companies, 6 food and drug companies and 12 chemical companies..
I don’t pretend to have even the slightest expertise regarding the economic quandaries posed by prospects of rebuilding Iraq But I have at least some awareness about an intimately related subject, one that doesn’t occasion a field of tents sheltering people from all over the world eager to profit from rebuilding Iraq. The subject is crucial, but overlooked: now that Iraqis try to survive the desperate wreckage wrought by military and economic warfare, much of it caused by U.S. interference and outright genocidal policy decisions, how do we rebuild ourselves? How do we rebuild U.S. values so that at least a minimum of fairness and a potential for friendship could characterize our relationships with Iraq.
U.S. foreign policy has punished Iraqi people mercilessly. The U.S. pulled the plug on Iraqi life support systems, ostensibly because Iraqis couldn’t dislodge the brutal dictator whom the U.S. helped install. U.S. weapon making companies salivated over the Shock and Awe bombardment, the chance to profit through using new weapons and then profit again through support of military invasion and occupation. Fair play? Friendship with Iraqis? Payment of reparations for suffering caused? Forgiveness of past Iraqi debts to creditors who cut business deals with Saddam Hussein? These concepts don’t figure into the equations of planners who serve the bottom line of profit.
One has to pay very close attention to news about economic developments in Iraq to realize that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have now instituted programs that require Iraq to begin paying back debts incurred by the former dictator, Saddam Hussein. To pay those debts, the interim government in Iraq has agreed to cut back on subsidies that enabled every family to purchase cooking oil and petrol at low prices. The prices have already risen threefold and a tenfold increase is expected by the end of the year. Another austerity measure involves “monetizing the ration basket,” which means that the meager distribution of lentils, rice, cooking oil and tea once available to Iraqi families is being cut back, causing the price of these goods in the market to soar beyond the means of many poor families.
Today’s news reported that one of four Iraqi children suffer from acute and chronic malnourishment. Like Ruqayya, they face dim prospects for survival.
David Dellinger, a peace activist passionately committed to fair and friendly relations with Vietnamese people, wrote ruefully, after the Vietnam War, about “the illness of victors.” Dellinger diagnosed an inherent illness in the overwhelming superiority of U.S. military and economic might. He believed that violent strategies intended to prop up U.S. economic security were sick and that eventually U.S. people would find themselves in an insecure predicament, unable to control the “social volcanoes” that could threaten U.S. well-being at home and road.
Long before the collapsing World Trade Center became the symbol for an unending war against myriad terrorist threats, Dellinger predicted that social volcanoes would erupt because people victimized by essentially unfair exchange relationships will not indefinitely accept these conditions.
I accept Dellinger’s diagnosis. A cure is needed just as urgently as Ruqayya needs treatment.
To mothers and fathers in the U.S., the challenge must be articulated: how can we rebuild our expectations about survival? War makers and war profiteers want us to expect that we get the lion’s share, the hog’s share, to take for granted an economic Darwinism that imagines we and our offspring are the most fit to survive. We must learn a new language refuting the malign notion that “war is the health of the state.” On the common ground of fair and friendly relations, we could collectively imagine survival, and rebuild.
KATHY KELLY is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago based campaign to end U.S. military and economic war against Iraq, www.vcnv.org She can be reached at: Kathy@vcnv.org