Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Imagine

Last week Maxine Nash and I visited a friend of the team at his home. Nuir (not his real name) invited us for dinner and to spend the night. A number of things related to that visit seemed quite “normal” for life here in Baghdad. But trying to put in the context of what is normal in North America really strained my imagination.

Visiting their home: Nuir picked us up after dark to minimize the possibility of our being seen going into his house. Maxine and I wore Iraqi head coverings again to minimize the likelihood that someone might see him bringing Westerners to his home, since that would make Nuir a potential target for insurgent retaliation. Imagine: You live in North America and you invite some friends who are visiting from Japan over to your home. You tell them not to arrive until after dark and to please wear the caps and jerseys of the local high school football team to help them blend in.

Getting around: On the way to and from their home we saw lines of cars, some stretching for several miles, waiting to get gas. There is a major fuel crisis in the country with the price of fuel going up dramatically in the past month. The price has increased as much as 500% on the regular market and 2-3000% on the black market. Imagine: You get up in the middle of the night or even spend the night parked in a line waiting for the gas station to open. If you don’t have the time to do that, you pay twenty times more than what you have been paying, knowing that it will affect the amount of food and other necessities you can purchase that week.

In their home: Nuir lives with his wife and two children, ages six and eleven. We spent most of the night with kerosene lamps for light because their neighborhood is getting only about two hours of electricity per day. He has a battery-powered converter that gives the family enough power to run a couple of lights and the television for an additional three to four hours. Imagine: You have to structure your home life around two hours of electric power a day. That will limit your ability to do things like use a computer, play music, listen to television or use any electric appliances you might have like a washer and dryer.

Children: Their son doesn’t live with them. He lives with a grandmother. One reason for this is security. The grandmother lives very close to his school so he stays with her to avoid walking home through areas that have had numerous instances of kidnapping and robbery. The family lives in a second story apartment and their daughter can’t play outside in their neighborhood due to the lack of security. She can only play outside at the grandmother’s because she has an enclosed backyard. Imagine: Your children are confined inside your home at all times. The only outside activity they have is when you visit a relative who has a walled enclosure around his or her backyard.

Business: Nuir has a small shop selling stationery items and business is suffering. Many of his customers come from outside the Baghdad area. They are not able to come to his shop because it is extremely dangerous to drive on the roads leading into the city. Bandits force cars off the road to rob the passengers. Religious extremists do the same looking for foreigners or people from religious sects other than their own to either assault or kill them. Imagine: The customers for your business can’t reach you for fear of being robbed or killed traveling on the main highways into your town.

You might imagine that this family’s circumstances are much worse that those of other friends, contacts and partners of CPT in Iraq. Actually their circumstances are better that most. Imagine.





Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Pressure Cooker

“People’s homes are like the cells of a prison. And Iraq is the prison.” A friend of CPT here in Baghdad gave this assessment of his country during a recent visit. His neighborhood is adjacent to an area that has been the scene of daily clashes between insurgents and Iraqi National Guard troops.

“Things are such in my country that we can’t trust anybody. We don’t know if we are with a friend or an enemy.” Another friend used these words to describe how it feels to travel the roads outside of Baghdad.

Those of us here on the ground see a different picture of Iraq than the one being painted by the American government and some American media. It is also a different picture than the one being painted by some Arabic media and governments. It seems as if both Western and Middle Eastern governments and media are using broad brushstrokes to try and paint over each other’s vision of events in this troubled land.

One analogy that seems relevant is that of a pressure cooker. For decades, the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein kept a lid on all the religious, ethnic and cultural tensions that exist in Iraq. Sunni and Shi’a have issues of trust that stretch back for centuries. Many of the Kurdish people of the north feel a need to create a separate country. There are tribal cultural issues that create tension within the country as well. Saddam and his henchmen repressed all of these tensions without doing anything to work on solutions. The lid of the pressure cooker was put on so tightly that when the Coalition forces blew the lid off in March of 2003 everything spewed all over the “kitchen”. What seems to be happening right now is that the Interim Government of Iraq and the Multinational Forces are trying to scoop up the mess, throw it back into the pot and push another lid on it. They are recreating the same unresolved issues of conflict that have plagued the country for more than twenty years.

Our friends, partners and contacts here in Iraq are very pessimistic about the future of their country. It is my sense that the level of optimism and hope for the future is at a lower level than at any time since my arrival here in the middle of September. Even people deeply involved and committed to the electoral process here have told us that they are worried about the possibility of fair and open elections taking place in all parts of the country.

Building a decision making process built on consensus is a foundation of the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Building such a consensus process does not seem to be a foundation of the work of the Iraqi Interim Government or of the US led Multinational Forces. I pray that people both here and in North America can reach beyond ego driven confrontation and arrive at a place of spirit led consensus. We should resolve not to use the pressure cooker method of governing and instead use the method suggested by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “Governing a country is like cooking a small fish.” (translation by John Heider from “The Tao of Leadership”)

Monday, November 15, 2004

Remembering Margaret Hassan

“Giving material goods can help people. If food is needed and we can give it, we do that. If shelter is needed, or books or medicine is needed, and we can give them, we do that. As best we can, we can care for whoever needs our care. Nevertheless, the real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachments and give away what we think we can’t.”
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron pg. 102

Margaret Hassan lived a life of giving away what we think we can’t. She came to Iraq more than thirty years ago, a foreigner in a land that has been manipulated and oppressed by foreigners for much of the last millennium. Yet she came and lived with the people and grew to love them so much that she became a citizen.

She lived a life of giving away the human need for security. She worked tirelessly for the people of Iraq coping with governments whose human rights record varied from somewhat intolerant to outright oppressive. She lived a life with the people of Iraq, not a life spent behind gates and walls.

Finally it seems as if she gave away her life. Individuals who resort to any means in order to justify their ends appear to have taken it from her. The Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Iraq prays that these individuals can reconnect with their humanity. We pray for healing for her family, friends and co-workers. We understand that the Qu’ran teaches that an innocent person who is killed travels as quickly as does light to the gates of Paradise.

While Margaret’s light may now be in Paradise her physical presence is no longer with the people of Iraq. We ask all people who have lived in her light and all who seek the light to resolve to continue the work she began. She lived a life of courage in the midst of fear. We are called to do the same, no matter what the consequences.

CPT has had the privilege of knowing Margaret during the two years that CPT has been in Iraq. She met with a number of visiting delegations and shared with them her vision for the future of her country. One CPT member reflected on his experiences with her, “Margaret and her staff placed their energies into building the future for the people of Iraq. When attackers bombed their warehouse last year, they moved the operation, but continued their efforts with other Iraqis to improving life in this country. Margaret modeled an extravagant way of living for others.”

The Iraq Christian Peacemaker Team

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

One Cool October Night in Baghdad

Sunday night mass at St. Raphael’s
The cool evening breeze of Baghdad in late October
Windows open letting the sounds at twilight enter in

The tenth day of Ramadan
The muazzin begins his call to prayer from the minaret
Sound travels for blocks over the speaker system

Mass begins as the first chants of the azan sound out
God is greater, God is greater
God have mercy, God have mercy

Sitting near the window the volume from the altar
Matches exactly the volume from the minaret
The sounds of both faiths each going into one of my ears

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth
The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world
Rush to prayer, rush to prayer/ Our Father who art in heaven

Songs of the eight-note scale merge with the chanting of twenty-four
Blending together in my ears to form a beautiful bireligionality
Chant and song forming sounds sent to Heaven.

The God of Abraham listening to the sounds of the evening
Might think that all is well with creation here on earth
The children of Abraham are singing my praises in their own voice

Later that cool October night in Baghdad
The roar of F-16’s returning from another night of missile attacks
The rumble of a car bomb exploding on Karrada Street

I declare that there is no god but God
The Peace of God be with you, the Peace of God be with you
I declare that there is no god but God


Writer’s note: For the sake of transparency, I admit while I am trying to learn Arabic, I don’t have a clue what part of the Qur’an was being recited that night. I was having a lot of images of light, both physical and spiritual. Later I opened up a translation from the 24th surah of the Qur’an titled, “The Light” and wrote down the first line my eyes fell upon. I used a translation of the call to prayer, the azhan, by Yahiya Emerick.