The Meaning of Personalization II

June 24, 2009
Necklace from Nadia

Necklace from Nadia

The other day I got a call on the landline in our flat. Someone had taken great pains to look up the hotel, call the front desk and track us down.

Broken English—it’s Nadia. We need to see you!
Nadia? From the English class or somewhere else—which Nadia?
Confusion.
In Arabic: We must see you immediately!
Is something wrong?
Fast complicated Arabic…
Okay, can you call Dr. Fadhil (name changed?) to speak with him in Arabic?
No no, we want to see you, only you.
Okay. We will come tomorrow, inshalla.
Okay.
I worry all night.

The following day we visited one of our most beloved families: Two beautiful daughters, the father who was brutally tortured for being a gardener for the US military (see previous blog, The Intranslateability of Experience). The mother who makes the best coffee in the world…
They were eating pigeons when we found them, living on almost nothing, but luckily they are now on the proper cash assistance… They are still in a bad way, but there is a lighter mood in the house.
A little turtle I have never met before crept up to me to say hi. The father, Mohammed (name changed), insisted that I take the little turtle with me.
Please take him– I want to give you a gift!
We can’t, my mom says, they’ll think there’s a bomb in his shell…

Oh. Well alright.  –He grins the toothless grin of a man who has been tortured.

Mohammed seems a little disappointed, but I know the girls would also be sad to see their family creature leave.
What is the emergency? We ask.
The emergency is that we must give you something before you leave and we heard you were leaving soon!
Nadia, shy, pretty Nadia, comes creeping out of the back room, just like her pet turtle, with a little pink bag.
She hands it to me and I open it— a beautiful red necklace, I tell her—you know this is my favorite color?
Yes, she says, pointing to my red hijab.
She must have studied my clothing closely in order to so accurately note my sense of style…
She was beaming.
I feel close to you, like a true friend, she said in Arabic.
A gift.

She must have been terrified to go out and buy the necklace—her family has been horribly harassed by the Jordanian police, who threaten them and frighten them. They attacked her father just a few days before our visit.
She must have also saved money for a long time. Even a 2 or 3 dinar gift is a huge expense for this family.
And more moving to me than anything else was her ability and will to track down our hotel, call us up, and brave the English language.
I will always wear this necklace, like a big red beating heart.
What love she gave me.
It’s personal.

So that’s the other side of personalizing a refugee crisis.

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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 Corruption

June 13, 2009
Corruption

Corruption

Hanna (name changed) sent 100 dollars to Dana (name changed) for her hourly services as a delivery person.  Hanna sent the money to Dana through Abu Ali (name changes), but somehow the money went missing.

Did Hanna never send it?  Did Dana receive it and lie?  Or did Abu Ali steal it in the transition?  Regardless, the missing funds are clearly evidence of corruption.

But corruption lies on a sliding scale, and its meaning is hard to capture.

A group of volunteers are sorting through used clothes to give away to some families.  They find a dress they like very much.  One friend says to another, “You should keep it!  It looks good on you.”  The volunteer tries the dress on and decides to keep it for herself.

None of the families would ever know about it anyway.  The clothes were donated by someone who probably just wanted to be rid of them.  And the dress was so pretty!

But the clothes were allocated for Iraqi refugees, and some young woman probably needed it more than the volunteer did because of her bleak environment.  The argument that she wouldn’t miss it having never seen it is also faulty— without even seeing the pretty dress, she already misses and wants it, because she never had it or anything like it.

Was the volunteer’s choice an act of corruption?

How about this: you are working for a small nonprofit.  People work hard and donate a little money to this nonprofit online.  Some of the money goes to your travel expenses, most to Iraqi refugees.  When you are in the store, you have to choose a brand of body soap, paid for by the nonprofit funds.

If you choose the most expensive soap, something you’d never buy at home, that’s corruption.

What if you choose the second most expensive brand, which you do use at home?
What if you choose the second cheapest brand?

Is anything but the cheapest brand really a moral option, given the slipperiness of the Corruption Slope?

I bring these individual quandaries to your attention because in all three cases, the missing money, the dress, and the soap, the answer is based on individual decision-making.

But what happens when an entire system functions on a norm of one-way gain?

“The workers at Caritas were normal people, even poor.  It’s been two years, and now the same people are driving nice cars and wearing gold watches.  And still, we are hardly receiving services from them.  Why does Caritas exist—for their salaries?”  Um Khalid (name changed) asks a legitimate question.

If a nonprofit has an overhead of say, 95 percent, one might say it merely exists to pay salaries to its employees.
Is that corruption?

It is very disturbing to interview NGO workers and discover that they not only make a very fine salary, but that they also never speak with, visit, or even know much about the Iraqi refugees they supposedly serve.

While some of the smaller NGOs are doing excellent work, I often leave meetings still repeating the same question: “I’m sorry, but what do you actually do?”

And I am not alone in asking this question.  In speaking with my Iraqi neighbors, I am forced to understand corruption as a collective rather than individual act, as a systematic process that has in fact become the acceptable “standard operating procedures”:

“Theses NGOs are all corrupt.  You can just look at Iraq from a helicopter—you’ll see a war zone, and then up at the top where it’s pretty safe, you’ll see NGO fortresses coming in to sweep up the mess for pay.  The longer the mess lasts, the more money they make.  Why would they really solve the problem?  The problem is their livelihood.”  Dr. Heba (name changed) articulated what Naomi Klein would call Disaster Capitalism.

This doesn’t mean that NGO vultures are swarming over the carcass of Iraq…

In my interfaces with NGO workers, they are well intended and as frustrated by the system as are Iraqis.

But this may be the crux of the issue: is it corruption to be paid for having good intentions alone?

Without effect, what weight do one’s good intentions have, and are they worth a yearly salary?

Intent doesn’t really matter to Iraqi refugees (in part because NGO workers rarely spend any time or space with the refugees in order to communicate their personal intentions, in the first place.)

Iraqi refugees whom I have talked to don’t hesitate for a second when asked about the meaning of corruption:
When your good intentions offer no effect, that is corruption.

…In which case the “business of doing good,” is as morally hazardous as any other sector.  The only difference is that in this business, people’s entire lives hang in the balance between one’s good intentions and the salary that comes with them.


The Meaning of Diaspora

June 5, 2009

Jamila is gone.  She left for Australia a few weeks ago.

We talk online sometimes, and she graciously translated a survey for me via email.  But things are irreversibly different.  I will probably never see her again.

Before she left, Jamila told me, tears welling up, “When I was in school in Iraq, I would read on the bus, always.  But when we crossed the Tigris, I would put my books down and say, ‘Good Morning, Tigris!’”  I’ll never forget Jamila’s face, two tears running down like Iraq’s two rivers.

As a Mandeaen, and follower of John the Baptist, Jamila’s relationship with water is vital.  Her baptism, marriage, and all life transitions should be blessed by immersion in river water.  Jamila’s daily greetings to the Tigris are as much as part of her religion as they are part of her childlike personality, and Iraq is the final bedrock of her people.  I’ve read articles titled “Will the Mandeaens survive Diaspora?” or “Mandeaens at Risk of ‘Exstinction.’”  But the Grand Scheme is hardly on Jamila’s mind.

She is preoccupied with something more immediate.  She whispered about the Tigris, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Remember in Beauty and the Beast when Belle gives herself to the Beast in place of her father?  Belle is angry, upset, crying, not because she is doomed to be a prisoner to the Beast forever, or because she might never see her father again, but because the Beast “never let [her] say goodbye.”

As a little girl I always hated that part of the movie– I could barely relate to the idea of permanently losing my mommy and daddy, but the lack of closure for poor Belle was still agonizing.

“We left our house the way it was when we fled.  The door is unlocked, the dishes are still in the sink, and our dear dog was left in the yard…  we had to leave him behind without even kissing him goodbye.” said Dr. Zina, an Iraqi refugee now running an NGO here in Amman.

Watching a woman in a suit sitting behind an executive-style desk crumple into tears is disheartening.  “I love that silly dog so much!”

What survives in Diaspora?

Our English class ends late every week, and tonight after class we talked with Um Ali (name changed) and she cried and cried.

Iraqis here have described many things to me:

—the doctor that was machine gunned down in his living room, blood spraying all over the ceiling and dripping down on people heads for hours afterwards–

—the daughter whose attempted kidnap left her completely regressed and distraught–

— the two sons who were killed in simultaneous car bombs and the father who found out when ones body appeared on the news (he immediately had a stroke and has never walked since)—

–the children who are beaten at school because they are either ostracized or psychologically disturbed–

But what seems to cut deepest is “Diaspora.”

And, now, weeping like a neglected little girl, here is Um Ali, pouring her loneliness into words.  “All I want, in the whole world, is to be in the same place as my son and daughter.  My daughter is in Germany, my son is in Baghdad, and I’m alone here.  I can’t see my own children!  We are spread apart.  I want to see my babies…”

And then it struck me.  I’ve never seen an Iraqi cry unless they were describing Diaspora.  That one, cutting word, the final knife of many knives that hits a nerve.

Diaspora is not the spreading of a culture or ethnic group across the globe as articulated in its technical definition; rather it is the father who cannot see his child’s elementary school graduation because of a little paper called a visa.  It is Um Ali who has never met her grandchildren.  It is Jamila who cannot marry in her Tigris River.

Or it is Dr. Mehdi, who came to Jordan from the US for a conference on stem cell research, and was not allowed to return home.  His wife and children were alone in the US and had to sell their belongings and join him here in Amman to be together…  because of what was later deemed “a human error.”

Diaspora might have a sweeping historical significance, but here and now, its meaning lies in those moments, those days or years of anxiety within which the unknown takes place without you…

Your children become adults in your absence, or they are killed in your absence, or your parents die alone without your ability to bury them, or you are 2 days from graduating and your school is bombed and you have to start all over again earning a diploma you already earned, because your original diploma is meaningless across the border.

Stop.  You can never go home again.

You will know your parents through Skype calls at 3 am.

Your children will start calling your sister “Mom.”

Your hard work and grades—erased from the record.

You are an infant today, a dead one.  You lost yourself somewhere between the abandoned house and the Tigris river.

So, we move on, crying rivers, strangers to our own family.

Um Ali is closer to this American girl who can hug her as she cries when what she really wants is to hug her son, because he is still in Baghdad and God will never forgive her if he is killed, because then, like Jamila, she’ll say, “I never got to say goodbye.”

Or “hello” for that matter.


The Meaning of Gathering

May 31, 2009

Today was long.

We spent the morning, afternoon, and evening with a ______ of people.  I say ________ because it wasn’t a crowd, wasn’t a family, and not a group…

What do you call this kind of gathering?

Dr. Muna, a little overweight, very kind and warmhearted; her 50’s-ish husband who is wild, talks with his mouth full, and wears a gold chain on his gangly arms; Mahmud, a stout, chain smoker gentleman who pays for everything and loves his mother; Muna’s two beautiful daughters, quiet, well-preened, and gentle; Mahmud’s mother, very old, religious, insistent, perplexed by our habits and opinions; the youngest boy (age 8), socially awkward, his first boy-party running through the hall in masks…

It is not a family, but there is something like familial warmth.  It is more intimate than a crowd, but there are so many people in and out.  It is not a group, because it does not remain cohesive, but shifts from moment to moment—besides we hardly know each other.  One thing, though, is that all of these people, expect for my mom and me, are Iraqi refugees finding solace in their unity.

So, this ______ of people ate and talked and passed the whole day together.

Of all ages, classes, religions, genders, and political views, we talked over four kinds of meat, three salads, and three rounds of desert.  There was argilla (hooka) wafting across the women’s faces, and a big, winged bug that twilighted around us for awhile before one of the men stomped him out.

There was “Why do you eat with you left hand?” and “I hate the Iranian government” and “What is the rent in Oakland?” …and then the stories of Iraq.  Always the evenings are washed in Iraq.

The stories come out just when you think you will leave, but when they start, you know the evening has only begun.  We had lunch, you know, not dinner, but we didn’t leave until 10:30 pm, and only then because I was very sick and sleepy.  Pictures, cell phones, tea and after tea after tea.
Homesickness, cigarettes, homesickness… it laps at our ankles like the mosquitoes.

A debate about the name of a thing, then tea and tea after tea.

“Dr. Muna, you should lose weight!”

“Oh yeah,” I say to Mahmud,” When is YOUR baby do, fatty?”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  Iraqis joke all the time, even about death.  How can they not?

“I am very much afraid that in the US they burn the bodies, they don’t bury!  I want to be buried on Arab soil, but I am up for resettlement,” says Mahmud’s mother.

“Don’t worry,” my mom responds, “We can put you on icepacks and fly you back here to be buried.”

Everybody laughs and laughs.  “It’s true though, I mean it!”

Okay, okay.  So you will freeze me not burn me?

Laughter.

Out comes another story.  The militias, the slaughter…  “my uncle was killed last year, you know,“ someone whispers before putting the argilla to his lips.

“They came in and cut him up—just like this fish!  He says, pointing with a carving knife.  (We are eating a big fish.)

Hahaha… we laugh, “Like a fish!”

“Here, take this.”  The old woman gestures to my mom…  “You are obviously Arab underneath, you are my daughter.  Take this Koran and learn to read it!  And here, I will show you this: prayer beads—you say, ‘One for Allah, one for Mohammed, one for Allah, one for Mohamed.’”

‘Thank you.  An honor.”

“No daughter…  you know, when I was in America—my husband was a very famous writer and we traveled the world—I saw all the sites on the East Coast!  The statue of Liberty has almost no clothes on!”

I say, “She is not the statue of chastity— she’s liberated…”

“Like Iraq!” says Dr. Muna.

Hahaha.  Laughter.

And so the evening goes, darkening, homesickness, a pause as we argue over the direction of Mecca while someone steps off the pray.  Space is essential.  North South East West.  Where are you now, do you know?  Mahmud knows.  He is praying.

Shall we go inside now?  Yes, lets go.

Okay, we say, but we sit and sit.  No one moves for three hours more.  That’s “going inside.”

“Oh Muna, not another desert!  You bring them out an hour apart so I can’t say no!”

“These are special Iraqi deserts.  We call them Lady’s arms, because they are shaped like the upper arm of a fat woman, and rolled in cheese!”

“There is another name I can’t say,” grins Mahmud.

“I can guess!”  Girls giggle.

Pause.  “Before 2003 we had no Sunni Shiite nonsense.  We were all the same, Iraqi, and I had many friends from all different religions, Mandean, Catholic, Sunni, Shia, even Jews!  Now though, Iran and Saudi are pulling in both directions, dividing people to take the resource, the oil and the social political power.  At least with the US, it’s a known enemy, I can say: What do you want?”  But with Iran, it’s ME they want…  I can’t negotiate my own self…”

“Oh this war this war—another war, and this time we are not rebuilding like before…”  mutters Dr. Muna.

Yah Allah!

Quiet, gargling argilla; warm, sweet smoke on my face.

“Wow, Kali, you are very thin!”   “I am sick… “

“Why are you sick?”    “I don’t know, germs.”

“No no, you are too thin!  It must be homesickness.”

“But she is close to home here, next to Iraq!”

“No, she is apart form her friends, her familiar country…”

“No, she is home here—she is thin because she is anxious.”

“Maybe the heat.  Hm.  I think it is ghareeb…  tisk, tisk— home-sick-ness!”

“…Well, we can send her back to Iraq and see— if she comes out fat, then we know she is home!”

Hahaha— laughing, laughing, laughing…

Home-sick-ness, we all sigh together.

And so the night rolls on, and even as we are truly leaving, it takes 30 minutes to kiss everyone three times goodbye …and then we took a taxi back with Mahmud and his mother, who paid the whole trip even though they got off before us …and then the taxi driver tried to teach us as much Arabic as he could …and then we were home trying to haggle a working refrigerator into our hotel flat with the Egyptian brothers downstairs.  And then we are borrowing their fridge, and then we were…

Alone, the two of us, as alone as we can ever be from that warm ________ of people, and only then did I feel at all homesick.

That, I think, is what Gathering means.


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.)