The Meaning of Personalization

June 20, 2009

People have been asking for details about my own personal experience here.  So I will talk about that.

Everything you have read is personal to me.  When I describe refugees’ sense of futurelessness, it’s personal.  When I describe disorientation, restless sleeping, increased mistrust, frustration with the UNHCR, it’s all personal.

How is it here? It sucks.  If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this right.

My goal in coming here was to bare witness to the suffering of Iraqi people, and to bear what I witnessed as part of the reconciliation process between Americans and Iraqis.  Part of the baring and the bearing is sharing the burden of refugeeness.  And it sucks.  It really does.

Sharing in Time Distortion:

Some hours last days, some days last 2 hours.  Time is not linear, and my own disorientation in the space-time continuum is complete.

I forget things.  I walk into the grocery store and forget what I came to buy.  I look up and realize it is 2 am and I can’t remember what I have been doing for the past six hours.  My mind is muddled.

I am always late to meetings with NGO officials, in part because they chronically underestimate the travel time, and in part because I have no personal sense of time.  There are three clocks in our flat; 2 are broken.  I don’t trust the other one, because no matter what time it says, it doesn’t feel like the right time.

(Timelessness can make a person very passive, which certainly benefits agencies and NGOs who need to keep track of the movements and activities of refugees— their institutional success relies on the passiveness of their clients.  It is hard to overcome the urge to sit and watch TV nonstop.)

Sharing in Mis-sleep:

When I close my eyes to sleep, I see faces, and I am constantly bothered by what I can’t do.  The faces always ask for something, or worse, they don’t, but I see what they need anyway. 

There is Mohammed with his spine curved up the wrong way because of the Depleted Uranium that also poisoned the Tigris river Jamila loves so much.  His spine is bent grotesquely, and there are his big eyes smiling smartly.
Oh, and then there is the Jordanian hag who finds food in the trash—I leave things for her behind the dumpster.  No NGO is serving her—she’s not Iraqi.

The General who I tried to bake a cake for?  He’s gone.  When I brought my cake to his house, he had left, probably couldn’t afford it, or he got sick or returned to Iraq.  You never know.

I haven’t had a “normal” dream in months.  Instead I toss around like a fish in the sheets, between dreaming and thinking, that restlessness you have when you had an unpleasant conversation or did badly on a test for no good reason; you should have done something differently…

Sharing the -isms:

The most painful experience we’ve had here is a repeated one.  We meet a family.  They have the wrong cash assistance or their file has the wrong last name… something simple.  They’ve been calling UNHCR for the past 2 years to fix the error.  They have written letters, dropped by, scheduled appointments…  all to no avail.

My mom accompanies them on day to a visit with UNHCR.  The family is asked to wait in line.  My mom is offered a comfortable air-conditioned room for waiting.  The family she came with is offered a hot, sweaty tent just outside the white building.  (Of course my mom chooses to wait with the family).  My mom never sees the UNHCR officer who finally meets with the family, but the family mentions that their American friend, Debra, is waiting downstairs.

The next day their file is fixed and they are visited by two NGOs who promise to meet their medical needs.  Instant gratification.

Two years they waited, and it took my mom’s general American aura (no one even saw her) and a few hours of sitting in a tent to get things fixed for this family.

When you become family with people, when they call themselves your brother or mother, and you have to leave them on the other side of a wall because someone you’ve never met sees some apparent difference between you…  it is the most alarming feeling in the world.

This is not a one-time thing.  It is institutionalized racism and institutionalized classism:

You’re a refugee?  Go wait in the tent.

You’re an American?  Please come in.

You’re black?  You drink out of this fountain…

I am reminded that my own mother was in the 9th grade (1974) when her high school was finally integrated.  Even then, her black friends sat in the back of the room.  (A different kind of time distortion…) 

What’s this nonsense about “restoring human dignity” that sits at the top of UNHCR’s statement of purpose?

I’m so angry.

Sharing in Diaspora:

First, I am Diaspora, the very meaning of it.  I am the single spore that was blown off the pod—dia-spor-a.  The American with Iraqi blood, the loophole in identity.  One who is, but really isn’t.  And so I am accepted and not accepted, I am the future and the past of Iraq in the eyes of my neighbors. 

Am I proof that you can raise a well-mannered girl even in the Wild West?  Or proof that blood is meaningless and that ‘place’ takes over? 

Whatever people think of me here, we share Diaspora together.  I am the end of it and they are the beginning.  If they see the second and third generation in me, I hope they see a Future.

“Flats change faster than the season,” my mom says.  People move.  The General left, who knows where.  Two families have switched flats in the city in just 2 months.  People get resettled, addresses change, phones expire, there are rarely email addresses.  I am anxious about how I will keep track of the families I know.  They can’t tell me their plans, since they can’t make any:

Ahmed was packing up and ready to fly on the 15th of this month.  But he learned two weeks before leaving that his sponsor is on vacation.  He’ll have to wait until September now.  Cancelled his lease and everything.  Said goodbye to friends.  Had all his last suppers.  And then, like always, things change.

“Inshalla” takes on a new meaning here.  I never use the future tense without qualifying it with an emphatic “Inshalla” —God willing. 

I love the people I love.  Inshalla I will sustain some form of communication with them, whether they are stuck here for 10 more years or are resettled tomorrow morning. 

Where will you be in relation to me?  Far away or close?  Inshalla I will see you again before I die.

Goodbye, goodbye.  Maybe…

The unknown is killing me.  It drives me crazy.

So, there is something about personalizing a refugee crisis.


The Meaning of Cholera: Social Pressure in the Middle East

May 27, 2009

In the US, if you ask someone to point to their soul, they go for the chest—somewhere inside the body.  If you ask someone here, they will wave their hand around and say, “It’s the space between people.”

I am not one to succumb to peer pressure and never have been.

Anyone who knows me knows I have never smoked a cigarette, never tried smoking pot, never had a beer…  I usually have no problem offending just about anyone.

So it’s hard to believe that sheer social pressure dictated my actions as directly as it did last week.

There was a moment, just after the glass touched my lips, that it hit me: This glass is not clean. It has been used before, was rinsed with unfiltered tap water, and will be used again after me.

Not only that, I was in Syria, a country with endemic Cholera: you know, Cholera– the one where you have diarrhea until you die of dehydration?

So there I was drinking from a communal glass, “cleaned” with Cholera-water.  And there was our new companion, beaming with pride over this special date juice that had been made in his own country, in his own streets.

“It’s just very, very good!  A very special drink!” he explained as he paid for three drinks despite my mother’s attempts to pay first.

The moment my mom and I realized what we had gotten into, we made eye contact, acknowledged the risks, and kept drinking.  What were we to do?

Well, stop.

Well, how?  If you have been in the Middle East, you might understand how incredibly powerful social constraints are.  Social graces determine the prices you pay at the grocery store, the chances someone will save you if you are screaming for help, the degree of love and trust you receive from friends, the quality of your neighborhood safety net, etc.

Dr. Ziad (name changed) comes to our apartment almost daily.  I would never offend him by handing him a glass that was less-than-overflowing, a full glass is a sign of respect.

I would also never smile at the grocer in our supermarket, lest he think I am flirtatious.

I would never show someone the bottom of my foot–even by accident, I would never point with my index finger, I would never refuse offered food, I eat with my left hand (almost never)…

Symbols matter.  If I point at you with my index finger, I will cast the Evil Eye.  If I refuse your food, I might be holding a grudge against your race and consider you an unclean person.  In other words, I can communicate a lot more without words than with them.

A world with such powerful, communicative symbols indicates such a well-structured social system that the most subtle cues mean the beginning or end of a relationship.  And in this world, relationship is everything.

In the US, if you ask someone to point to their soul, they go for the chest—somewhere inside the body.

If you ask someone here, they will wave their hand around and say, “It’s the space between people.”

If the soul exists in the space between people, then the interactions between people must be designed to sustain a holy space, worthy of the soul. Social graciousness is the mechanism for carving out a soul-bearing vessel from this space, and thus social pressure becomes integral to existence itself.

Where biological pressure or physical need may seem like the bottom line to my friends at home, social pressure and spiritual need are by far more pressing issues among my friends and neighbors here.

There is evidence of this everywhere.  An example: I interviewed the project head of International Medical Corp in Amman.  He said, “We came in with a budget for meeting medical needs, but now psycho-social support and community building are our biggest projects.  People were just more interested in having those needs met first.”

Biological and physical needs are not the bottom line here.  That space between two people, the space that cocoons the soul… that is the bottom line, and the social graces to sustain this space are as necessary as they are intricate.

The point of all this is that, now that I am sitting in my bed with Cholera, 20 pounds lighter and very weak, I can honestly say I had no choice.

It was simply not an option to do anything but take the glass, thank our friend, and swallow the most delicious juice I ever tasted in the most gracious company I ever known.

(Note: Cholera is treatable with antibiotics, which I am taking.)