Memories of the UN Iraq Embargo

Once upon a night, once upon a wound, once a dream, I still remember the sufferings of the economic sanctions, the burns of war, the stabs of exile, and everything that happened in between. Once upon a time I was born, raised, and educated in Iraq from 1980s until I left it in 2005, two years after its devastating occupation. Today I want to share with you stories of my experiences with Iraqi teachers and professors between the city of my childhood, Kirkuk, and the capital Baghdad where I did my undergraduate degree in English language and literature (2000-2004). I want to bring to life voices that have been erased and silenced before, during, and after the occupation of Iraq in the two gulf wars, because such voices carry the danger of humanizing the Iraqi people, a thing that has to be avoided at all costs by warmongers and war profiteers. When I was in primary school, a teacher was considered not only a person with “knowledge” and “power”, but also someone close to being sacred—just a few ranks below gods. Most students were frightened upon seeing their teachers approach from a distance, whether at school or outside. Students would do anything and everything to avoid seeing teachers in public, because we never wanted them to see us in a context of “living” not “studying”. As I grew older, I discovered that the two are inseparable—to study, we need to live, and vice versa.

My first encounter with a teacher that shattered that “sacred” image occurred in fifth grade. My Science teacher then lived on our street. One day I was walking home from school as he was walking ahead of me. He didn’t notice me. Shortly before he entered his house, he dropped his pen from the stack of papers he was carrying. I picked it up and knocked on the door to hand it to him. As soon as he opened the front door, I saw like a quick flash light: a messy entrance, dirty children playing in the garden; his wife was in her jammies screaming at the children to come inside, and a few colorful chickens and a rooster roaming near the kitchen door. I handed him the pen, he thanked me, and I continued walking home. Little did he know that what I saw from behind the front door had forever shattered my world, but in a good way. “Shattering” is a good thing when illusions and misconceptions are what gets shattered. On that day, I discovered that the teacher whom we regard as “sacred”, in the most ritualistic sense, is just as human with flesh and blood as the rest of us. That encounter affected me profoundly as a child. It made me not to be afraid of my teachers (and later professors) anymore. Instead, I learned how to simply love and honor them, to accept them as humans with all their virtues and vices. It made me less hesitant in reaching out to them to know their world as a friend, to understand their lives, and to aspire to be like them one day.

In high school, from mid 1990s to 2000, during the harshest years of the UN sanctions, I became close to most of my teachers. Many allowed me to get closer to their lives, introduced me to their families, and taught me outside the classroom as much as they did inside the class. I will never forget our young female History teacher who once complained to me about how hard it was for her to be teaching in an all-male high school with high levels of hormones that at times get out of control. I will never forget the daily walks with my Biology teacher, originally from the southern city of Basra, who taught me so much about biology, medicine, animals, and plants, and the life cycles of many creatures that can only be seen through a microscope. I still remember the joy that filled my heart the first time she invited me to come inside her house to introduce me to her husband and two boys, and to show me the plants and flowers in her garden, and the goldfish in her living room. The cheap-quality of the orange juice she offered me that day still lingers deliciously in my palate, not for nostalgic reasons, but because it meant a lot to me that she offered me the best from the little she had at home during those harsh years when Iraqi teachers—like most average people then—were severely affected with their low salaries under the sanctions. My Biology teacher even told me her story of how she had wanted to become a medical doctor, but her grades were slightly lower than the required average to go to medical school, and so she was rejected by the automated admissions system. I learned from her not to give up when I am rejected by automated and inhumane systems designed for excluding, or even worse, as Michel Foucault observes, excluding through including many people. She remains one of the most intelligent women I have ever known in my life.

I will never forget my Turkmen Geography teacher, also the assistant of the headmaster at the time, who taught me to love Turkish classical music, as he once advised: “If you really love Turkish classical music, you must listen to Muazzez Ersoy!” Ersoy remains one of the most inspirational voices my ears have ever heard. The lyrics of some of her songs still ring over and over again in my head as she sings about life as a permanent autumn: “I have never lived any springs…Either I didn’t learn how to love, or love has passed by without noticing me,” or in another song when the singer expresses how she has become like a deserted grave on which nobody will ever lay any flowers. Her voice is warm and powerful, without being overbearing–it reminds me of Desmond Tutu’s line: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

I still remember the Math teacher who used to scream in the classroom every time a student misbehaved or didn’t prepare their homework: “You all should stop making our lives harder than they already are. Do you realize that our monthly salary is barely enough to buy two kilos of tomatoes?” I will never forget when I was returning home on one cold winter evening from visiting a friend when I noticed a small kiosk annexed to a house and wanted to find an excuse to warm myself up there for even a few minutes. I had to pretend that I was there to buy a piece of gum. To my surprise, I was shocked and saddened to see that the owner of the little kiosk was my Math teacher whose circumstances have inconveniently forced him to sell gum, cigarettes, and a few other “convenience items” to sustain himself during those years. He was at first embarrassed to see me, but then immediately smiled and gave me a piece of gum for free. Since then, I have been chewing on the permanent gum of pain, displacement, and exile as I travel from one lonely place to another, from one alienated city to another on our lonely planet.

I still remember the Arabic language teacher who slapped me once for mispronouncing an Arabic word. I responded to the slap by writing a “dissident” piece for his composition class in which I noted that “we must beware of those who have a great desire to punish others.” He graded my work with a comment on the top of the page: “Are you referring to me?” We became much closer after that. I still remember another blind Arabic teacher who memorized hundreds of poems and thousands of lines from Arabic literature by heart. I had the most beautiful and poetic conversations with him after school as I held his hand and walked him home for almost half an hour. I wasn’t the only student who walked him home, but he always recognized me as soon as I held his hand, before I uttered a single word. He confirmed to me the old saying that the blind who can see are better than the seeing who are blind.

When I finished high school and was accepted at the College of Languages, University of Baghdad, these teachers, including the headmaster, wrote me “good luck” letters with the most beautiful and touching wishes. I still wonder what had “luck” done to them after all the destruction Iraq was put through since. I still wonder where their misfortune has taken them today. I still preserve all their notes as social and historical documents of their time.

These stories and connections continued through my undergraduate years in Baghdad. I still remember becoming a good friend with my Speech Practice professor at the English department, currently living in exile. She and I exchanged handwritten letters through her brother, who was also a student at our department. We continued exchanging letters even after she left our department to work for the UN in Baghdad. I still remember when she introduced me to then her fiancé and later asked me on the side what I thought of him. I responded: “it is too early to tell, but I can surely tell you that the cologne he wears is expensive!” Our handwritten letters discontinued when her brother, our beloved messenger, was assassinated with multiple bullets in his chest, by an armed militia after the 2003 occupation. They literally killed our messenger!

I also remember the Grammar professor in my first year at College of Languages who spoke flawless English very fast and expected us students to learn to catch up with her as a way to improve our listening skills. The way words came out of her mouth in the classroom resembled endless bullets shot from a revolver gun. I used to walk with her and chat after class. Her steady and fast steps were no different than the way she uttered her words. Since the UN sanctions and the international blockade imposed upon Iraqi people had made it impossible for us to get new books, magazine, literary journals, and newspapers from abroad, the Grammar professor used to lend me her old 1980s copies of the American magazine, Reader’s Digest, to practice reading American English, learning vocabulary, and idioms beyond the textbooks we read by Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth, and other English literature classic and canonized writers. She told me once: “We used to get copies of all types of English magazines and literary journals from different English-speaking countries before the embargo. They were very helpful for reading modern English and staying up-to-date with what is happening in the literary world. Though these are old Reader’s Digest copies, you can still learn from the vocabulary and the modern forms of writing in them. Please do return them when you are done reading them.” By the end of my second year at the University, She shared with me that she had accepted a new teaching post at another university in Baghdad, but she would make sure to come visit me whenever she is on our campus in the future. As soon as the war erupted in 2003, I lost all contact of her.

Today I am in touch with few of these teachers and professors who are now scattered like pomegranate seeds in different directions and parts of Iraq and the world. Sadly, however, I have lost touch with most of them and I don’t know what has happened to them, their lives, their dreams, their existence, and their dignity. And so, I want to dedicate these words to them. I want to tell them that their faces, their voices, and their kind words come to visit me every night as I lay my head on the pillow to sleep. Every night before I sleep, I wish them well. I hope their energy, their stories, their passion, their dedication, and the seeds of love they have planted in the fields of many human souls are still alive and promising new Iraqi generations who will put aside their superficial differences manufactured by colonizers, occupiers, and war profiteers from inside and outside of Iraq to focus instead on the real enemy. Who is the real enemy, you may ask me. If there is anything I have learned from my life in Iraq it is this: there is no enemy.  It is impossible to genuinely understand any human being and still consider them enemies. Enemies are a myth created to keep us killing each other, to distract us from what matters in this world. If there is an enemy, it is perhaps those who try to convince us that we have one.

Louis Yako is an Iraqi-American poet, writer, and a PhD candidate of cultural anthropology researching Iraqi higher education and intellectuals at Duke University.


Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.