From Boston to Baghdad, Friends Stick Together

When I think of Baghdad, the first thing that comes to mind is not the dictator and his palaces, nor his suspected store of prohibited weapons, nor even the nefarious web of prisons and torture chambers that have brought so much suffering to the Iraqi people.

I have made nine trips to Iraq since 1997, and have traveled and worked there with various organizations including Voices in the Wilderness, American Friends Service Committee, and the Middle East Council of Churches. Initially, I wanted to witness the effects of sanctions on the lives of ordinary Iraqis in order to serve as a more credible advocate, in my own country, for the people of Iraq. But during my time in Iraq, I have created many deep and lasting ties with a number of families; you might say we are part of one quite large, extended family whose members live in Boston as well as in Baghdad.

No, when I think of Baghdad and Iraq, I see my sisters and brothers, and my ever-increasing flock of nephews and nieces. I hear my niece Sharook asking me over the phone about my father (who recently broke his hip) and assuring me in her sweet soft voice and trembling English that she along with her mother and aunts is praying for his recovery. I remember the day her cousin Yassir, a fifteen-year-old champion soccer player, pressed into my hand the blue-ribboned medal he received from his school for excellence on the soccer field. He insisted I keep it. Stunned by his desire to part with something so precious, I tried to give the medal back. Yassir would not hear of it. "I love you, George," he said in Arabic. "Please keep this gift and do not forget me, ever."

Just the other day his mother Suha and I were talking on the phone. Before we hung up, she asked me what I would like her to send me. She explained that a fellow American, working in Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness (a longtime anti-sanctions organization) would deliver her present to me. Earlier in our conversation, I had tried as best I could to alert the family to a likely timetable for a U.S. invasion and to urge them to evacuate Baghdad as soon as possible.

Suha understands the danger and is planning to move temporarily to a farming area south of the city. Nevertheless, she has decided to bake me a big batch of klege, a traditional Iraqi dessert that she knows I covet, and send it to my wife and me.

After we said our goodbyes, I happened upon an article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled "One Minute to Midnight, and the Deadly Baghdad Canyons Wait." The author, Paul McGeough, attempts to help readers understand the pitfalls of bringing U.S. forces into the city. Unconcerned with the suffering this will cause the already over-burdened, battle-scarred, and resource-depleted populace, McGeough sifts through the views of defense analysts and Army generals. One of them, Barry McCaffrey, says, "They're not going to believe what we do to them . . . This would be the 3rd Infantry Division/Mechanized. They're going to drive M1A2 tanks down the street with a 120mm gun and fire five rounds into a lower floor and bring the building down."

McCaffrey’s words speak for themselves. No gloss is necessary to bring out their glaring malice and callousness. Of course, what he fails to say is that families dwell in those buildings -- families like those of Suha and her four sons, and her husband Karim who can’t work because of severe heart problems. During a visit, he will invariably slip off to his garden and return bearing a prim yellow rose, which he entrusts to me as if it were a rare jewel he knows I will always treasure.

Suha’s is one of nine Iraqi families I am committed to helping through a trust fund I set up a few years ago. Sometime after my third visit to Iraq in 1998, I decided to provide monthly remittances to families I had befriended. At the time, these were Shia Muslim families in dire need of assistance.

I made their acquaintance through the good graces of our hotel receptionist, a young Chaldean Catholic woman who, though impoverished herself, reached out to those in even greater need. With the help of her parish church, she provided food and blankets to several Muslim and Christian families in Baghdad, and helped with finding jobs and homes for those who had migrated from northern Iraq.

The example of her faith, her good works, and her loving adherence to the Sermon on the Mount inspired me to undertake something similar on my own. Shortly after our friendship blossomed, she was forced to flee Iraq with her entire family, and now lives in Canada. I inherited, in a manner of speaking, six families whom she once assisted and took me to visit each time I came to Baghdad. I have since expanded our circle of care to include three more families.

I wish I were a rich man. But I am not. I earn my daily bread as a storyteller and artist-educator. Not much money in that. In the beginning, I put in extra weekend shifts at one of my jobs in order to keep the remittances flowing. I also cut back on expenses in order to meet my new responsibilities. Vacations were out of the question, as were weekends away. I had to keep driving the same old, rusted-out clunker and make do with an aging wardrobe as well. Books, records, meals out -- ancient history.

I should pause here for a disclaimer. Trust me that I am not a boastful man; my friends know me to be quite self-effacing. I tell you of my "sacrifices" to show what is possible.

After much tinkering with different ways to keep the trust fund solvent and to make sure the money got to the families in a timely fashion, I provide seventy-five dollars every three months in cash to each of the nine families. Either I personally deliver this assistance or send it over with a fellow activist.

The quarterly payments help the families purchase food that is more nutritious than what they receive from government rations. It also enables them to buy medicine at the local pharmacies. As in any family, emergencies or crises arise when extra funds are necessary. So far, I’ve been able to handle such occasions.

The first order of business when I arrive in Baghdad is to visit as many of the families as I can. In one of my covert identities as "Baba Noel" (Father Christmas), I have been known to pop in unannounced with a duffel bag stuffed with toys and other gifts, plus clothes, and a sizable cache of vitamins, aspirin, and other handy household medicines.

All in all, I’ve distributed about twenty-five thousand dollars to these families over a five-year period. The money has come from the sweat of my brow and the kind donations of my growing community of friends and supporters. Instead of launching cruise missiles on Iraqi cities or increasing people’s suffering by tightening the sanctions or threatening them with cataclysmic war, we have freely and joyfully given them direct material aid along with consistent spiritual support.

A few achievements I am especially proud of:

  • Making it possible for Najra, a teacher, artist, and mother of three, to afford a Caesarian section in a clean, well-staffed clinic; and recently, to receive treatment for an inflamed ulcer.

  • Paying for the reconstruction of two ceilings in Najra’s home damaged during a cruise missile attack in 1993.

  • Purchasing a refurbished sewing machine in Baghdad’s Arab suq so that she could start a new career making children’s clothes for friends and neighbors.

  • Obtaining and delivering a thousand dollars worth of chemotherapy drugs for a young mother with cancer in both breasts (the drugs are often not available, even in Baghdad, or are inferior to what we have in this country).

  • Enabling a twelve-year-old girl named Ghada to have a kidney stone removed at a private hospital.

  • Raising part of the money for a special evacuation fund for all nine families in the likely event of an American invasion.

  • In return for my efforts, I receive infinitely more than I give. And through this free and loving exchange, I have come to see, perhaps more clearly than at any other time in my life, the shabby immorality of people like George Bush and the mean little men who surround him -- men who speak about rescuing the Iraqi people from the clutches of an evil dictator and replacing tyranny with democracy while preparing to massacre hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis to achieve their stated aims.

    Something else I have come to understand more deeply: the wrongness of using violence or the threat of violence to create change, especially when the aggressor -- in this case the United States military and its political minders -- possesses all or most of the means of force. As an unofficial diplomat of sorts, I have built many bridges in Iraq -- between my self and the culture I represent, on the one hand, and the people and culture of Iraq.

    I like to think that when my friends and relatives in Iraq think of America, the first thing that comes to mind is not the bombast and war-lust of George Bush or the megatons of explosives he is prepared to use. No, I trust that what comes to mind for my friends and relatives are the times we have spent together and the love we have exchanged.

    Like the time Fatima and her sisters and I piled into a battered old orange and white taxi and traveled across town to a large but rather creaky amusement park. For the better part of a languid October evening, the children had the time of their lives. While I supervised, they rode the carousel, the Ferris wheel, and of course the bumper cars; picked off wisps of cotton candy I bought from a vendor; and paddled around a weedy lagoon while a young man sang on a boat that went by.

    Or the time I whipped up a real Italian dinner for Suha and her family. During the meal, she and her husband, who had never eaten spaghetti before, began playfully sucking on separate ends of the same strand until their lips touched and they gave each other a brief kiss. Their young sons were so embarrassed they didn’t know whether to cover their faces or leave the room.

    This past December I called on Najra and her husband Rahim, a six-foot-six Islamic scholar and a first-class wit. In one of his wickedly impish moods, he set his wife’s reading glasses on the tip of his nose, covered his head with the black and white kufiyah I had brought him from Amman, and impersonated Najra while I videotaped him "for all of my American fans," he said. Rahim discussed in a faux erudite tone the aesthetic theories behind "his" art, samples of which were displayed on the walls of their living room. He concluded his presentation with an unexpected twist by launching into a medley of Tom Jones’ hits, notably "It’s Not Unusual" in scratchy English. Najra and I scooted outside to catch our breath from laughing so hard.

    A few years ago Najra and Suha, who is her sister-in-law, baked a cake for me in honor of the Easter Eid. As we were drinking Pepsi and sharing the cake, Najra asked if I could provide any clothes for her husband, who had been wearing the same shirt for years. For some reason, I had an extra shirt in my book bag and gave it to her. Suha whispered something to Najra. The two then started chuckling while speaking to each other in Arabic.

    "Okay, what’s so funny?" I asked. Najra answered me in English. "Suha says that if you stay any longer in Iraq you will have no clothes left and when you step off the plane your wife will see a naked man. She also says you must call the President and tell him, ‘Please, no more sanctions on Iraq. The people need so much they are making me a poor man with no money and no clothes.’"

    An obvious question: How can my limited effort in providing minimal assistance to a handful of families serve the greater goal of dissolving the tension between Iraq and the United States and bringing relief to all the people? I recall a proverb I once heard from an Iraqi artist: When two elephants fight, he said, only the grass suffers. So it is that from the "grass," real change will come. The work I do in Iraq is quintessentially grassroots, person-to-person activism. Not only do I bring material aid; I also listen to people’s stories and share the truth of my own life experience. As far as possible, I witness and acknowledge what people are enduring under sanctions and the threat of war. Furthermore, I honor their culture, language, and customs, and try to create balanced relationships based on mutual respect.

    Given the complexity of the crisis that now exists, I do not for a moment believe that what I have done could be construed as a template for a large-scale, nonviolent solution. On the other hand, the spirit in which I have carried on this work is something I would most definitely put forward as an alternative to the current whoops and hollers for war.

    George Capaccio is a freelance writer and storyteller in Arlington, Mass. He has produced two videos and two books of poems and stories about his experiences in Iraq. His most recent trip to Iraq was in January 2003.

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