Category Archives: Personal Reflection

Continuing Through Bitter Days

By Banen Al-Sheemary, University of Michigan alumna
Follow Banen on Twitter @balsheem

 

Ten years ago today, I remember sitting in front of the television watching the sky turn bright yellow from the massive blasts. Slowly, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction: absolute silence.

 

That was the first time I had seen my parents watch the TV news without voicing an opinion. I only saw their sullen silence as they watched their beloved country explode into flames.

 

My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the quintessentially American good guy / bad guy mentality, to which many unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had we done wrong? Why is it America’s right to invade and change it? I looked over at my parents again and I could tell their hearts were reeling.

 

“Believe it. Liberation is coming,” said an arrogant George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn, a city in Michigan with the largest Iraqi diaspora community in the United States. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon be gone. But what I didn’t know was what would become of Iraq.

 

Soon I would find the answer: under the guise of cynically named Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the Iraq I knew would be completely destroyed.

 

March 20, 2003 marked the day I was able to return to the country from which my family fled as refugees in the early nineties. It was the day “Shock and Awe” began (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8OkP5yHArM). CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything as severe as the attack on Baghdad. With no concern for civilian life, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s genocidal “shock and awe” bombardment on the people of Iraq was America’s quick and easy solution to its imperialist intent for the country.

 

In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. Now, it is a nation of 4.5 million orphans, 2 million widows, over 4 million refugees, with over half the total population in the country living in slums.

 

This is the new Iraq.

 

As the Bush Administration boasted about its murderous accomplishments, all I could see was the rising Iraqi body count. The post-2003 Iraq is not the country my parents longed for.

 

Barred from returning to Iraq until 2003, I will never know the country in which I was born. I was too young to remember my family fleeing during the first invasion of Iraq. Before we fled, we got rid of all our belongings. My baby pictures were burned to ensure that when Saddam’s thugs checked, there would be no proof of my existence. It was as if my identity was erased, and until March 20th, 2003, I was locked from the this part of my life.

        

 

From Operation Desert Storm, to the sanctions of the Clinton Administration and the 2003 occupation, I still couldn’t decipher the US Government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was consistently sure of was the jingoistic attitude that pervaded every American administration and that shaped a foreign policy meant to degrade human life.

 

Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions to date. Iraq was broken and denied any ability to thrive, even in the most basic of ways. These brutal sanctions led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. My older sister recalls Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine K Albright’s infamous interview in which she was asked if the price of half a million Iraqi children was worth it. She simply said: “We think the price is worth it.”  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PgpbQfxgo).

 

It was an easy decision for the Clinton Administration to make on behalf of all Iraqis, because Iraq was forced to pay. As young as I was, I understood that people of different religions and backgrounds weren’t treated as equals. The dangerous underlying notion that certain people are more worthy of life than others heavily shapes American foreign policy and is upheld from one administration to the next.

 

In retrospect, the amount of propaganda that fueled and attempted to legitimize the war is staggering. I recall watching the news and being angry at the distorted images of Iraq and its people. I now understand how the media engineered public opinion to justify the invasion. Maintaining the “us versus them” binary was crucial in validating the administration’s agenda and furthering the so-called War on Terror. Soon enough, I heard my classmates echo these falsities and other absurd made-for-CNN headlines. I’ll hold back on the silly names I’ve been called as a result of this.

 

Hearing my parents’ stories about Iraq helped me put the pieces together. The story starts in their young adult years.

 

My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, the country was a powerhouse of academia with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. As was required by the state, my mother enjoyed free transportation to work and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world resulted in economic and social reform.

 

My family resides in southern Iraq and we, amongst others, have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades. Many of the conversations I have about post-Saddam Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” However, the sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation all left millions of Iraqis with broken homes, empty fridges and bleak prospects for the future. Whether under totalitarian rule or a foreign occupation, millions of Iraqis are still suffering. The meaningless discussion of which regime Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.

 

Ten years passed. In my University of Michigan classes, discussions about Iraq still revolve around that same foolish debate. The outright denial of the claim that oil played a decisive role in the invasion is still somehow considered a legitimate stance.

 

It was time for me to return and experience the Iraq of today.

 

January 2012 marked my first return to Iraq. Before my flight, I sat in the airport reading as the time passed. Hundreds of American soldiers returning from Iraq were received by family and friends, applause, and even a news crew. I shook my head because of what the soldiers represented to me. For many, they symbolize freedom, nobility, and honor. To Iraqis, they are the physical embodiment of terror, supremacism and occupation.  

 

I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my criticisms of American policies in Iraq and refusal to support the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. Most Americans equated support for the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, with a complete disregard for the consequences of war and foreign occupation.

 

Iraq has become fragmented and pieced. I think of how long it will take to assemble the pieces back together, and to try to bring together those shards of glass that once made a beautiful piece of work.

 

Nowadays, the occupation dictates every aspect of Iraqi life. The remnants of the brutal invasion manifest themselves on the faces of the people that continue to live and struggle there everyday. Suicide and car bombings, fighting between armed militias, kidnappings, and snipers result in a feeling of despair and no sense of security. Simple everyday tasks like walking to a local market or sending children off to school became impossible.

 

On my first day back in Iraq, massive explosions rocked Baghdad. I was awakened to the realities of this so-called newly democratic country. Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. They could not even fulfill this basic necessity.  Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day. Birth defects will continue for decades because of the depleted uranium weaponry used by American soldiers (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/2013312175857532741.html).

 

This was Iraq.

 

“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history” stated Barack Obama, in an address marking the supposed end of the occupation of Iraq. America will remember it as history, but Iraqis live through it every day.

 

I shy away from reading articles on the commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, written by journalists who don’t understand. I become frustrated and always stop after reading just the headline. I laugh at every mention of the ‘lessons to be learned’ so that America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of sorrow, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profit off of an occupation that cut Iraq from any lifeline it had. The fortress called the U.S. embassy, staffed by thousands of foreign soldiers, stands as a permanent reminder of the occupation. America is able to move forward and rebuild its economy, but Iraq and its people must endure the harsh realities of the unwelcoming decades to come.

 

A lesson to learn from Iraqis is one of human dignity and perseverance through trying times. Have we learned? In a new documentary covering Dick Cheney’s legacy, he mentions, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” And today, mainstream media outlets and the government aggressively continue to build a case against Iran, eerily reminiscent of what we saw ten years ago.

 

We will never learn until they stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, as means to an end, as valueless unknowns.

 

My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation had made it too dangerous to travel there in earlier years. One afternoon, my uncle and I drove through Hilla. I forced him to speak about the occupation. After an hour of hearing horrendous stories of crimes committed by American soldiers, he tiredly says, “We are nothing to them. To America, we are simply strategic. Through their eyes, our lives aren’t worth anything.” That was the end of the conversation.

 

I noticed that Iraqis never speak of the occupation. It was like a faint, unthinkable memory. I sensed that Iraqis have perseverance built within them because of the decades of unrest that they have lived through; they keep on living every day as they can. These are the Iraqis that are reconstructing what is rightfully theirs.

   

Everyday Iraqis have been partaking in reconstructing Iraq after a destructive occupation in which they were robbed of their agency, future and country. Iraqis create and expand projects as the current government continues to neglect the citizen’s needs. Upper class Iraqi citizens and expatriates living in the West play a role in funding these projects. Many social service facilities are being rebuilt, with a focus on widows, orphans, the elderly, and disabled.  Whether it is building bridges or starting up a water filter company, these projects are opening doorways for job opportunities and steadily decreasing unemployment rates. Despite the lack of security and political and economic turmoil, the hardships that Iraqis face are slowly easing and will be ultimately resolved by the resilient Iraqis that continue to resist and struggle for a better life. Iraqis are forging a path of their own to recreate their Iraq: one away from the government’s corrupted plans and free from the American occupation’s stifling grasp.

 

Ten long and painful years have passed. The orphan Mustafa from Baghdad says “I feel like a bird in a cage here. I wish there was someone to listen to us.”

 

Iraqis are listening. I see the same resilience and perseverance in Iraqis that I see in my parents. Years will pass before Iraq will prosper, but I see a future for Iraq because of the millions who are working for it.

 

When I visit Iraq I smile and blink the tears away. The anger from my heart dissipates when I see shops open for business, human rights organizations assisting widows and orphans, and college students organizing an event for Iraqis. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it- and they will succeed. This is Iraq.

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Why Some Caged Birds Don’t Sing

By Rima Fadlallah, LSA junior at the University of Michigan

“Signs like this are seen all over the South of Lebanon, reminding civilians that their beautiful neighboring country is Palestine indeed.” -Fadlallah

Athens, Greece. Sitting on the lobby couch, typing away at some old laptop that we borrowed from a friend at the hostel, we try contacting anyone who can possibly help us get our bags back (not relevant, but really fun back-storynevertheless). Next to me, my friend Angela is laying down, staring blankly at the wall, irritable because we had been in the same outfit for two days.Meanwhile, this older man who’d been lingering around the Athens Backpackers hostel for a few days was snoring on the other couch. He always looked like he was intoxicated; he’d been wearing the same blue and red striped polo for those few days that I saw him, and he didn’t seem to fit in at a hostel filled with young travelers who want to conquer the world.

With a fit of coughs that told me he’s a chain smoker, Mister Stripes jolts up from his slumber. I pay him no attention, still absorbed in the computer screen. He, on the other hand, seems to be very intrigued by his new company: “Where are you from?”

Angela isn’t going to answer. Without looking up from the screen I mumble: “America.”

“I’m from Israel,” he says enthusiastically. Continue reading

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“Existence is Resistance!” Why this Queer Supports Palestine and Opposes Zionism

By Joseph Varilone, LSA Senior at the University of Michigan

I know what it’s like to be harassed because of how you look. Whether I’m riding my bike down a busy road on Ann Arbor’s south side, walking down the street I live on, or talking on the phone in front of the campus library; if I’m wearing clothing that marks me, a male-identified and male-presenting individual, as “feminine,” I am immediately subject to staring, taunting, and harassment.

I embrace my femininity. So-called women’s clothing has been a part of my wardrobe since I was 18, and I have come to love skirts, leggings, hair clips, and some other traditionally feminine things. I would probably wear dresses if I felt more comfortable in them. The labels genderqueer and hard femme describe me well; and although I don’t really identify with the labels gay, bisexual, or pansexual, heterosexual doesn’t seem to fit my experiences either. Regardless, sexuality is fluid and subject to change, but however I choose to label my experiences, I feel undeniably, unapologetically, irrevocably queer.

I think of queerness as not something limited to sexual orientation, but as taking on the realm of any significant departure from norms regarding gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Queerness is fluid and dynamic. Queerness does not look like one particular thing, and means different things for different people. Queerness questions compulsory serial monogamy and marriage. Queerness questions binaries, especially the gender binary of woman/man, female/male.  Queerness is fierce, confrontational, uncompromising, and political. Queerness creates space for transgender experiences and narratives. Queerness questions the little boxes that gender norms make people fit into. Queerness is not hostile to heterosexuals or people that otherwise fall within gender norms, but only to those that seek to delegitimize those who don’t. Queers ally themselves with other struggles against oppression, recognizing the intersectionality and inter-connectedness of our struggles. Queerness is anti-assimilationist—we make no apologies and don’t try to legitimize ourselves based on supposed similarity to mainstream lifestyles. And we surely don’t apologize for being “born this way” (if that even describes a particular individuals experience)–as if alternative sexual orientations or gender expressions constitute some sort of disease. Continue reading

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“I Walk and my Heart is in Damascus, I Walk”

By Yazan Kherallah, LSA Junior at the University of Michigan.

:A friend of mine told me of this verse recently

“أسير و قلبي في دمشق أسير”

.It means “I walk and my heart is in Damascus, I walk”. I’ve always loved and cherished Damascus. I love its food, its history, its people, and its weather. There’s a comfort of sorts you get when you’re in Damascus. The lazy afternoons on the baranda (house terrace) eating fruits and playing cards, the crowded Souq al-Hamadiyeh (street market), the view from Jabal Qasioun, and the sense of kindred and affection you feel over there all left a strong impression on me. But fate has its ways and since life was hard in Syria, my family decided to move away.

We left fooling ourselves, thinking that going back every summer and break that we could make up for the time we lost. My dad would work to save money, thinking that at some point, he could retire and go back to the life he loved. Jobs and opportunities took us to Chicago, Detroit, Jeddah, and Riyadh.  People always commented on how unsettled our lives were. However, it was just the opposite, because although we walked all across the world, our hearts never really left Damascus.

A year into the Syrian Revolution and that poetic verse rings more true than ever, “I walk and my heart is in Damascus, I walk”. I haven’t been back in a year, but my mind is more engaged in what is happening back home in Syria than with anything at hand in the States. My studies are second priority to calling my family, seeing how they’re doing. I often waste hours without noticing going from one article and YouTube video to another.  I think of all the time and effort I put into such pity work; how if I could take all the time I spend reading foreign policy articles and joining seemingly pointless rallies thousands of miles away and putting it into actual work helping those inside Syria, how much help I could be.

Continue reading

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Dear Iraq

By Banen Al-Sheemary, LSA Senior at the University of Michigan

Dear Iraq,

You think I have forgotten you, but I carry you everywhere. When I watch the world through my eyes, I see you. I can’t help but think of you with my every move and action. I always tie the struggle of the Iraqi people to my life. At least I try. I really do.

Driving on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq.

You know what God hates the most? Hypocrites. I feel guilty that I can walk into my house and turn the lights on whenever I want to. There is always an abundance of food in the fridge and clean running water available. I can sleep at night, safe and sound. After morning prayer, I watch the sun rise and say alhamdillah. The rays of light are from the same sun rising in the same sky, but you don’t get the feeling that I get from it. To you, it’s another hard day. Your days are tense and rigid because of car bombings and snipers. You have many days of uncertainty. Yet you still say alhamdillah. I get to hear birds chirping and the world beginning to wake. You are accustomed to the sounds of military warplanes hovering above you or tanks strolling down the roads. I never had to worry about military jets buzzing overhead ready to drop death and destruction. In stark contrast to what you suffer through, I see life here. This is why I feel like a hypocrite. If I don’t struggle with you, then I am a stranger to you. Continue reading

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An Apology

By Suha Najjar, Sophomore at the University of Michigan

I finally came home last night from my weeks long trip to Gaza. Descending into Detroit and seeing all the lights, the cars, the vast neighborhoods, I began to think that the people below are probably thinking about what bar they will be spending St. Patrick’s Day at, while in the meantime, people in Gaza are wondering what they are going to do in the next 15 hours without any electricity or gas in their home. That a college student may be mourning the loss of the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA tournament, while a mother in Gaza mourns the death of her 12 year old child trying to understand what her son had done to have his life taken away. While a father is mowing his green lawn here, a father in Gaza struggles to keep rain out of his house as it gets flooded because the roofs aren’t really roofs, but rather scraps of wood and metal tied together (besides why did anyone need to build roofs, they were only supposed to be in this refugee camp for a short while before they could finally go back to their own home). Continue reading

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Dear Women of the World: A Letter on Gender Inequity, Palestine, & Empowerment

By Bayan Founas, LSA Sophomore at the University of Michigan

Dear women of the world,

I write to you today as a plea for help. You see I have a friend that needs our help as fellow sisters. Her name is Palestine. An oppressor has occupied her for 64 years now. His name is Israel. Now let me tell you about the awfully familiar relationship between these two.

Palestine calls me everyday to recount the abuses she is suffering. She’s too scared to live in her own home in fear of the constant domestic violence she faces from Israel everyday. Someone told me she always wears long sleeves to cover the bruises on her arms, but we all know Israel is the perpetrator in tearing out her olive trees. Continue reading

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Back To Baghdad

By Farah Erzouki, Sophomore at the University of Michigan

Between 105,718 and 115,471. With an extra 13,750 on the side; added on from War Logs Wikileaks (via Iraq Body Count). The number of people who have been killed in my Iraq. The only time I have hated numbers more than in Calculus class is now, when it has contributed to the dehumanization of my people. Nothing angers me more than the world seeing my brothers and sisters as numbers. Nothing angers me more than the propaganda machine we call mainstream media, that so cleverly and brilliantly masks the realities behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If the implications were not so devastating, I would commend these television networks for how perfectly they portrayed Operation “Iraqi Freedom” to favor the United States, the benevolent supreme. Continue reading

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I Smell Discrimination

By Rima Fadlallah, LSA Sophomore at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

I wrote this piece to expose the injustices I faced as an Arab-American attending Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan, where much of the staff truly believed as Arab Muslims, we (because “we” made up over 95% of the school) were inferior.  Many members of my community endure these same injustices today, and what is most problematic to me is the lack of awareness that I still see in many of my peers.  As a high-schooler, I was naïve in the same ways—I did not want to believe people could be so hateful and ignorant.  Since then, I’ve embarked on a journey of enlightenment, and I’d only hope that by telling my story, I can enlighten others in the same way. 

I’ve always had a sixth sense—I like to call it “intuition.”  It seems almost unfair for someone like me to develop yet another sharp sense when I have 20/20 vision. I can overhear practically every secret you sneakily whisper in your friend’s ear, and I can almost always accurately name the random scents lingering in the streets.  But it’s not unfair.  Actually, it’s only right.  What’s unfair is the fact that until today, I did not understand my intuition, that I was never able to explain or justify my suspicions of people and their intentions.  It’s unfair that for a period of time, I’ve allowed my desire to see the good in everyone eclipse these intense inclinations that I was having.

Now what’s really unfair is that I feel like I have to defend myself; it’s why I acquired this sense to begin with.  Like a deer whose eyes are set on the sides of her head, it’s only fair that I see more than you do. You, whose binocular vision allows you to focus in on my every cell and dissect my every organ, to you, I’m prey.  And so I pray that this sixth sense, this intuition can reveal to me your evil drive, just to keep me alive.  But like a deer in headlights, there are times when I didn’t want to see your truck driving 70 miles per hour straight at me.  I wanted to believe that we could stay on this same road forever and that you’d never, never end me.  So for a while I froze.  Teeth shattering, shivering because I refuse to move; I’d rather freeze than believe that you could be that cold.  And so for a while I just froze.  Like a deer in headlights, I froze.

I’ve always had a sixth sense—I like to call it “intuition.”  It’s fair because with this sense, I don’t just see you look at me.  I watch you glaring at my dark skin, my thick hair.  It’s fair because I don’t just hear you utter my name, I listen to how your voice loathingly chokes on each syllable, how confidently you seem to mispronounce my last name, as if you own it, as if it has some sort of obscene suggestion that I should be ashamed of.  Well shame on you because you reek.  Can I name this odor?  Oh yes, it smells like hatred. I gag—disgusted I am at the slightest whiff of their ignorance.

Today, I understand my intuition.  When they’re close enough to finally blind me completely, I see the light.  Once frozen, now I’m melting—they can’t break me I am liquid.  Petal to the metal now; “they love me not.”  As the petal makes it’s way to the ground, full throttle, they run right through me but now I’m gas—I rise up.  I’m suddenly everywhere and everything is clearer than ever.  It’s not them whom I trust, so blinded they slip and they crash.  They won’t leave me frozen ever again.  Today, I trust my sixth sense—my intuition.  It’s only fair!

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