London -- April 25, 2006
Three years on, Iraq has become a nation of missed deadlines
By Betool Khedairi
Read also Betool's brilliantly witty political fiction "Ghayeb/Absent"
I was struggling with ideas for my third novel about the so-called "New Iraq" when my publicist/cousin suggested I write an article for the third anniversary of my country's invasion. "Your deadline is in two days" - she knows my pen freezes upon hearing a set date. To break the block, I shifted the laptop into the kitchen and used a bamboo cutting board for a mouse pad.
Incoming text message: "K's mother - kidnapped!" The day Saddam was deposed, my friend K said: "Thank you America! Girls, get your suntan lotion - we're free! I'm going back to Baghdad." Luckily, her mum was released for a ransom. Over 2,000 women have disappeared since March 2003.
The last news report I read stated: "100,000 Iraqis are estimated to have been killed during this war," topped with Ayad Allawi's despair about the average of 50-60 people dying daily in Iraq: "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is." I miss the old Iraq, the days when my Scottish mother and Iraqi father enrolled me in Muslim and Christian schools. I celebrated Christmas with foreigners and visited Muslims during Eid. I joined clubs to go swimming and would sit with students wearing the hijab. I spoke English to my mother and Arabic to my father. I danced in Armenian and Kurdish folk styles. I learned Jewish traditions from our neighbours, who played with my black, Inuit and Iraqi costume dolls. It was considered "aib" (shameful) to ask someone if they were Sunni or Shia.
As a teenager in Baghdad I witnessed the Iraq-Iran war. In England as an adult, it was devastating to see my western half attack my eastern half during the first Gulf war through the lens of the western media. In Amman I watched the second Gulf war on both western and Arabic satellite channels. I could not believe this was happening all over again.
I protested the war with millions who tried to stop it but nothing could. The wheel of fire just rolled on.
It was a very confusing time of dichotomies. Liberation and occupation. De-Ba'athification and re-employing past regime members after the ensuing chaos. The thought of welcoming the coalition forces with flowers and the resistance. The plan to give Iraqis sovereignty but not full authority. Human rights and revelations of abuses by American and British soldiers. Eradicating a dictator and the American administration saying they are sorry for their mistakes. Even for a writer, the situation is beyond description.
If my mother were alive I could envisage her gathering us and the neighbours' children in our home, painting our flat rooftop with the union jack and saying: "I'm not having the wee ones killed by my own people." She would have entertained us during the bombing with make-believe games and wordplay to pass time. We'd dip our fingers in purple food colouring, queue up, play "elections" with the teddy bears and spell democracy: Demo-Ikhrass-y ("Ikhrass" in Arabic means "shut up").
Yet I continue writing trying to find meaning. My novel, Absent, is about Iraqi families struggling to survive during the sanctions in Baghdad. The events take place in one building; the floors represent the diverse layers of Iraqi society. As so many men died due to war and unstable circumstances, most of the characters are women, who unveil the story through dialogue, chit-chat and gossip. The fortune reader takes over the destiny of the inhabitants, a sort of psychoanalyst for the distressed women. Absent spans from the 70s until 2003 and shows the effects of the economic and infrastructure collapse on the social and moral structure of day-to-day Iraqi lives.
Iraqi fathers are traditionally named after their firstborn child. A childless man is called the "father of the absent one". For 35 years Saddam remained the father of the absent Iraqi people. Now we have many fathers!
I was hoping that literature could bring cultures together. But how do you narrow the gap between barefooted Iraqi children that are dying of disease and malnutrition, and Gordon Brown's statement that the 2006 UK budget will not tax children when buying their shoes?
Deadlines: Will I finish this article in time? When will we have a caring government? When will the troops leave? When will my country recover from the pre-industrial stage it suffers? If human beings knew when exactly they were going to die, would that mark a deadline for us to stop fighting?
A friend recently visited me in Amman. She looked exhausted. We went shopping; she had only one item in her basket: Scotch tape. When asked what it was for, she explained: "We can't afford Botox in Baghdad. I stick cello tape between my eyebrows to prevent me from frowning." She pointed at her forehead, "Scientifically, they're called age wrinkles; in Iraq we call them dead-lines."