Traveling with as light a load as possible is something I long for during long stretches away from home. I routinely discard paperwork and periodicals, “recycle” gifts and give away clothing. But, here in Amman, Jordan, when a ten year-old Iraqi girl named Nauras gave me a camera, I quickly put it in the envelope where I keep my money, confident it would survive my next purge.
The camera consists of two pieces of drawing paper, cleverly folded so that the parts slide past each other, opening up a tiny square “shutter.” I think of Nauras peering through the shutter and pretending to snap my picture, then gleefully posing for imaginary snapshots as I take my turn as photographer. I remember her fetching her only other toy, a bedraggled baby doll with long white hair and eyes of aqua blue, and placing it in my arms.
Fortunately, Nauras is playful and inventive; for the time being, she seems somewhat oblivious to the desperate insecurity she and her family face. But Nauras, though she seems to register it but little, is no stranger to tragedy. Growing up she daily saw her father’s fingerless right hand, a brutal message from Saddam Hussein’s government which left Nauras’ mother the family’s sole breadwinner, and for which, following the U.S. invasion, Nauras’ parents had hoped to obtain overseas medical care, traveling here to Jordan seeking a German visa. But a series of catastrophes have ensured that, barring a miracle, they will never complete this journey.
First their travel money, kept in their Amman apartment, was stolen in a burglary. Then they discovered their desperate need of it, as word arrived from Baghdad that their oldest daughter, staying behind like Naurus with relatives there, was to be abducted and slain by a group of the kidnappers so horribly active then and now in the city, if they didn’t quickly produce as ransom the money they had just lost. When Nauras’ father rushed back to Baghdad to rescue his daughter and his other children, he never arrived. His family has heard nothing; he has disappeared. An uncle brought two of Nauras’ sisters here to Jordan, and then Nauras and a third. She hasn’t seen her father, or her only brother whom she left behind in Baghdad, since she was seven, a third of her life ago.
Since 2004, Nauras’s mother has tried to manage in Jordan, living in a humble dwelling with no furniture apart from a few cushions that line the walls and four beds shared by her and her four daughters. Her only son, age 18, is still in Baghdad, living with relatives. She hasn’t seen him for three years. He called the night before I visited her, distressed because he has no money and no job and no one to whom he can turn. Jordanian authorities won’t allow him to cross the border and join his family.
Here in Jordan, a judge recently decreed that Nauras’s mother is now divorced, since she hasn’t seen her husband for three years and doesn’t know if he is alive or dead. Her new legal status as a single mother may entitle her to some assistance, but so far the support that charities can provide has dramatically lessened. More cutbacks are predicted at the beginning of next year, and prices for food and fuel are rising steadily.
Already in debt to someone who is charging 15% interest, she wondered how she could manage to procure a heater and fuel for the cold months ahead. She showed me the inside of her empty refrigerator, shut off to save costly power and infested with large bugs. The smell of sewage fills the second of their two rented rooms as paint peels from the drab and dismally bare walls.
When I said goodbye to Nauras’s mother, I urged her to try to stay strong. With her face turned from little Nauras, her eyes filled with tears. She must somehow hide her misery and fear from Nauras, who still delights in make believe snapshots of friendly faces.
Nauras’s camera is a keeper. It will join three other items so important to me I try to carry them with me wherever I go. The first is a picture of an old Russian man, beggared and homeless, stooped in a street in Moscow, covered with a layer of frost. It reminds me of the awful misery even the preparation for war brings – in this case to the poor that the U.S. and Soviet Union failed to support in favor of a mad and wasteful race to best each other at acquiring the means for global destruction. The second item is a photo, quite famous, of a starving child standing in desert sands, alongside an expectant vulture.
The third item is a printed speech by Muriel Lester, delivered at one of the many nonviolence trainings she pioneered in her decades of tireless activism at the start of the twentieth century. Though I’m keeping these items to travel with, along with Nauras’ camera, I’d nevertheless like to “re-gift” Ms. Lester’s wordsto you here; a paper gift like Nauras’, but maybe one which offers an imaginary picture of ourselves “traveling light:”
“Remember that the possession of a healthy, free and unoppressed mind can be ours if we are willing to observe the necessary discipline… The golden rule to keep unswervingly, unflinchingly, is to never grow slack. Whatever the form of discipline you adopt as your own, let it be as beautifully balanced, as poised, as the supple body of a ballerina…
To disarm — not only our bodies by refusing to kill, or make killing instruments in munitions factories — but also to disarm our minds of anger, pride, envy, hate and malice…
Sometime in the cold light before dawn, in an unexpected moment of solitude, we suddenly find ourselves facing stark reality — our future, the world’s future, war, pain, hunger.
We feel almost intimidated as we consider the condition of men and things. ‘One half the world is sick, fat with excess. The other half, like that poor beggar past us even now, who thanked us for a crust with tears.’ The issue becomes clear and urgent:
Are we going to spend our lives struggling and fighting for a place in the fat half? Or shall we tilt against the old spectres of war and inequality, unmasking them, stripping them of their glamour, revealing them as old fashioned imposters and tyrants we can no longer tolerate in a world that might be full of common sense, plenty and goodwill?”
Just up the street from where I’m staying in Amman, Jordan, several dozen Iraqis traveled from all parts of their country to participate in a week of nonviolence training carried out in the spirit of Muriel Lester. The sessions were organized by an Iraqi human rights group, Al Massalla in collaboration with Un Ponte Per, an Italian Non Governmental Organization, n based in Amman. The group concluded the first part of their training with a resolve to organize, in 2008, a weeklong action next year throughout Iraq, a public demonstration of nonviolent determination in a country where political action can be horribly dangerous.
They laughed and applauded as they exchanged certificates for the training and then posed for photos, already a remarkably courageous act for what are planning soon to do, and for where they’re planning to do it. Over the next several days, representatives from this, the third gathering in their untiring campaign, will strategize with representatives of similar networks developing all around the region.
Do they with their certificates have as little chance of producing a happy picture in Iraq as Nauras with her paper camera? This is a harsh, harsh world to journey in – and if we travel at all we’re going to have to travel light. We can each choose small things to strengthen us in the journey – here in Jordan endangered Naurus is surviving on imagination, a small item which nevertheless gives her a better world to look at than the one she’s stranded in. And for their journey my friends from the training have chosen hope, and their determination born of hope, to be themselves a “make-believe picture” of the justice and kindness which, if and only if we join them, may yet come to be the world we walk through.