Wednesday, 19 February 2014

"Barefoot in Baghdad" by Manal M Omar

There is an Iraqi-Turkmen proverb that goes "Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you" and is often used as a warning to those who challenge societal norms.

That proverb was the inspiration for the title of " Barefoot in Baghdad" (SourceBooks), an account by Manal M Omar of her year spent in Iraq as a humanitarian aid worker.

This post is based on Manal's comments in the book, together with some additional information, linkage and images from parts of Baghdad.

Born in Saudi Arabia of Palestinian parents who then moved to the US, Manal was one of the first humanitarian aid workers to enter Iraq following the US invasion in 2003, entering with a small team from "Women for Women International", including founder Zainab Salbi. Manals mix of identities allowed her almost unique access to both the US military structures and the homes of ordinary Iraqis.

She comments in the introduction to "Barefoot in Baghdad" that, at the time of the US invasion, "International journalists marvelled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange coloured hair and wearing tight jeans…the mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful"

For the previous 30 years, any form of organisation had been banned in Iraq, with membership often being punishable by death. This had left the focus of life being the home and "trust had completely disappeared"

Mutanabi Street, 2009

Working in some of the most impoverished parts of Baghdad, Manal found that many Iraqis openly blamed Saddam for the state of their country, and felt their Arab neighbours had been complicit by their silence. Indeed "many Iraqis went so far as to see the Americans as liberators and defenders of freedom" – in contrast to Manals view that the US military was an occupying force.

Indeed, Manal comments that she interviewed many Iraqi women who "believed the end of the dictatorship symbolised a new beginning for them, an end to the hopelessness that had enveloped most Iraqis under Saddam. I met women from all walks of life who lives began to blossom after the war."

Manals experience of the introduction of Resolution 137 (which threated to curtail womens rights, and which was later repealed) was that "although all women were against Resolution 137, the rhetoric of defending women's rights became divisive. International women's groups began to attack core Islamic values. The secular elite from within Iraq joined their voices…

…At the same time, women in conservative areas believed they were being pushed into a defensive position. They believed firmly in Islamic law , and they were confident that Islamic Law was the best vehicle to protect their rights…and called for all personal status laws to be rooted in Islamic Law.

Manal commented that both of the above views were in the minority and that the majority of Iraqi women were torn on the issue. One effect of this was that, increasingly, the diverse range of people in the women rights movement began to attack each other based on their attire (as a proxy for their perceived religiosity / support for Western values).Manal also comments that a big problem was that the specific Sharia laws that would be applicable were not defined.

[A very different view of Resolution 137, penned by Haifa Zangana, can be found here.]

Things changed further in 2004, the first wave of US troops, who had initially been well received by the local population, and with whom Manal had made many contacts, were rotated out and replaced by fresh faced replacements. These new soldiers did not arrive to a welcoming public, but to a population demanding to know when they would get water, jobs, electricity. The US army was beginning to be viewed not as liberators but as occupiers.

The Insurgents knew that electricity generation was a key part of providing security, so they targeted the electrical generating and transmission infrastructure weekly, thus undermining confidence in the CPA and Iraqi government.

Al-Rasheed Street, 2008

By this time Manals project was progressing well, with some 500 participants in its skills training programme. In order to engage with women in any particular neighbourhood, Manal first had to meet with the senior male elders, who would question Manal about her background and the project. Manal invariably found that basing her responses on Islamic principles and examples would reassure the male elders.

But just as the programme was gathering momentum, the security situation was becoming worse. Manal had to move to a safer home and was transported around by a variety of drivers and cars, for security reasons. Other NGO's were leaving and Women for Women wanted Manal to move to Jordan.

April 2004 was a particularly bad month, with the US siege of Fallujah and the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures. The images had a bad effect on the morale of US forces, to the extent that Capt Anne Murphy, a key contact for Manal, began to wear civilian clothes as she had become ashamed of the military uniform.

Surprisingly, security considerations resulted in Manal sharing a (large) house with four male members of her team, with the blessing of their and her families! Relatives of the team members would often drop by with food and Manal described the situation as a "G-rated Iraqi version of MTV's "Real World" – only in a war zone"

But the security situation continued to deteriorate and Manal had to leave for Jordan – she was on the last flight out before the airport closed for three weeks.

Manal returned a few weeks later but commented that "by the end of the summer of 2004…a hundred international aid workers, contractors and journalists had been kidnapped and 23 had been killed. And countless Iraqis had died… A couple of years later 2004 would be labelled as a stable time with the years between2005 and 2007 deemed as Iraq's dark ages."

Families around Manal were being torn apart. The Mayor in Shawaka dead, along with his two sons, a friend had her son kidnapped for ransom, a neighbour widowed.

Sadr City 2005

By September 2004, the kidnappings had become more brazen, and Manal left again for a few weeks before returning, but by now the security precautions that Manal had to work to meant that there was very little that she could usefully do for the project, and aid workers such as Margaret Hasan from Care International were still being kidnapped.

When the Government announced that Baghdad airport and all roads into Iraq were to be closed, Manal realised that she needed to leave, perhaps for good. On the day of her flight, on a US military plane, she was the only covered Muslim woman amongst the uniformed military, and had to field questions such as Why do they hate us? Why won't they let us help them? Why are they protecting Al-Zarqawi?

Manal then learnt that Margaret Hasan had been killed. A Jordanian friend "chastised me for crying over a foreigner while so many Iraqis were dying…Like so many others her ability to empathise with human loss had been replaced with political zeal"

The book continues with a description of what happened after Manal left Iraq, which almost left tears in BFTF's eyes.

Barefoot in Baghdad also contains stories of some of the women who Manal helped during her time in Iraq. It was moving to read about the relentless way Manal worked to help those in dire need , despite tight time contraints, poor infrastructure and many cultural restrictions that limited the options for helping women.

Some more information about Manal, and some of the other strong, brave people mentioned in the book is shown below:

Fern Holland(Assassinated with assistant Salwa Ourmashi and others)
Khanim Latif (founder of Asuda)
Salama Al-Khafaji
Ashraf al-khalidi

Al-Khadiman Mosque, pre2006

Image Sources Mutanabi Street, Al-Rasheed Street, Sadr City, Kadhimayn Mosque