Khalah, Give me a pen Khalah
by A Sister
A sister from our group went to iraq on behalf of our newly-formed org, free iraq foundation www.freeiraq.org and wrote her reflections. it is a very beautiful peice. if you like it, please post it on your site, and share with others as well.
Bismallah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
“Khalah, give me a pen khalah.” Words that continually echo in my head every day and every night. Every time I see a child now, I am reminded of those children running by the side of our suburbans, plastering their faces on the windows of our cars asking for one simple thing…a pen.
It has been almost a month since I left Iraq, as part of a Muslim/Arab delegation. The goal of the delegation; assess the current situation in Iraq and report back to your respective organizations. So with butterflies in my stomach I did just that. Fervently trying to prepare myself for what I was about to see, I read as much as I could about the stats and the percentages, the never-ending resolutions and policies of the UN, the daily crimes committed by the US, and most importantly, of the kids who every minute are paying the price for the greed of the “international community.” Yet these words could never prepare me for what I was about to see. A people and a country isolated from the rest of the world because of nothing more than their possession of oil.
After a 15-hour drive from Amman to Iraq, I thought I was ready. Ask me about Resolution 687, I could tell you all about it. How about Resolution 661, no problem, piece of cake. But upon entering the borders of Baghdad at 4 a.m., my eyes spoke differently than my intellect. Where I had expected to see a demolished city, with sewage spilling into the streets, I saw quite the contrary. Baghdad actually looked really really nice and clean!?! I was confused. Yet the initial confusion wouldn’t last very long.
As we entered the Palestine Hotel, previously a four-star hotel, I began to understand. The hotel had a weird odor to it and as the orange blinds indicated, it seemed as if it had been untouched by renovations or improvements since the 70’s. The pool and the tennis courts were abandoned and the gardens were empty. It was a bit humid because there was no fans or air-conditioning, and the one or two “fashionable” styles displayed on the mini-store fronts within the hotel were clothes that we would wear to 80’s parties, not clothes that we would display in one of the best hotels in the country. The employees of the hotel, with shoes falling apart and saddened reserved looks welcomed us and carried out their duties as if the hotel was in full-gear. It didn’t matter that half of them didn’t really have anything to do but had to maintain their spot as the doorman or the bellhop just in case someone was to come in. It didn’t matter that the janitor spent an hour cleaning an already impeccably clean spot. It didn’t matter that it was 4:30 in the morning and they had been working since 5:00 in the afternoon and would not be off for another three or four hours, only to get seven hours of free time before their seventeen and eighteen hour shifts would begin again. It didn’t matter that their objective in life was merely to make it through the day just to be able to put food on the table, because one missed day would mean one day of hunger.
Entering the hotel, I felt like I had entered the twilight zone, a what had previously been (for lack of a better word) jumpin’ institution way back when was now frozen in time, quietly crumbling at the seams. If this hotel represented one of the best places in Baghdad and probably all of Iraq, what silenced tales did the hospitals, schools, and towns speak of. It didn’t take too long before my question was answered.
The next day, our stay in the country that poses one of the largest threats to the US officially began. Driving through the streets, we saw that the demons we have been brain-washed to believe inhabit Iraq are no more than bare-footed children selling pieces of bread for less than 15 cents a roll and men with Ph.D. degrees driving their 15- year old cars as taxi drivers for a living. Our first destination was the al-Amariyya shelter. In order to get to the shelter, we drove through street after street of homes; needless to say the area surrounding the shelter was completely residential. The al-Amariyya shelter was built before the Gulf War. It was state of the art, composed of extremely thick walls made of layers of pure cement and steel with 5-ton steel doors that sealed it from the potential threat of the outside world. This shelter was what the Iraqi women and children needed to protect them from the radiation of nuclear bombs. But instead of being a safe haven for the women and children it housed, it became a mass grave.
The woman leading the tour of the shelter had indubitably told the story of the shelter hundreds of times in both English and Arabic. Yet as we began our tour, she told it as if it was the first time, her eyes glistening with the moisture of tears.
It was February 12, 1991, 4 a.m. The US was playing its role as the “protector” of the free world by bombing Iraq out of existence during the Gulf War. Once again planes flew overhead as 1000 women and children slept in the al-Amariyya shelter through the perpetual sirens warning the country of the continual bombing. Yet this time it was their turn to pay for the cost of the one-sided war. Two smart bombs (the same smart bombs that hit hospitals, schools, villages, food factories, and homes…just about as smart as Columbus when he thought he had landed in India) targeted the shelter and blasted through the walls of cement and steel to greet the dreaming women and children with a message of death. The electricity automatically turned off causing the 5-ton doors to shut close. The heat and pressure from the bombs and the destroyed ventilation system resulted in the temperature rising to over 450*C and all the inhabitants that were only a few moments ago sleeping were incinerated, becoming nothing more than ashes and a collage of shadows on the walls of the shelter. After it was bombed, the shelter remained untouched and was turned into a museum with pictures of the victims and their stories of sorrow and remorse displayed on the walls. Even the burnt hands of the kids that were stuck to the ceiling from the pressure of the bombs are still there for generation upon generation to wonder at what crime these children ever did to deserve such a fate. Walking through the shelter, I wondered the same thing. What did the Iraqis do to deserve such a fate?
As we got back on the bus, I could smell the jasmine growing outside of the shelter, flowers mourning the lost Ali’s and Maryam’s. It was eerily quiet as we drove away from the shelter. Another silenced tale that the world denies. While the al-Amariyya shelter spoke of dead children and women, the streets spoke of the living ones, zombies living their lives day-in and day-out wondering when their misery will end. Many of the stores that we passed by were closed indicating the shattered economy and non-existent markets of the country. What do you expect when a schoolteacher makes approximately $3 a month, the cost of 4 eggs. How about the engineer and the doctor that make no more than $25 a month, a salary reduced by almost 1000% within a ten year period. If these professionals can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes or a school uniform for their kids unless they sum up their savings for months on end, then who is going to maintain the economy and keep it rolling? As we continued to drive through Baghdad we could see makeshift stores in the form of large mats with people’s possessions spread all over them. For those who couldn’t afford to have a store, they sold their used clothes or personal belongings on the sidewalk, only to make a few extra dinars a day to buy the bare minimum to keep their bodies ticking. And the children that stood outside of the mosques and the hotels and the restaurants, begging for whatever a passer-by could spare. Children, who if had only been living a decade earlier would have been playing with their toys care-free and eating their three meals a day without a worry in the world. But instead of their lives being defined by imaginative super-heroes and princesses, they were stained by the reality of hunger, poverty, and fear. Wherever we drove, these kids faces would stare at our bus in complete awe and wonderment probably wondering what it is like to be us or to be more exact, what it is like to have food and money.
On the second day of the delegation we went to al-Mansour Hospital. No place in Iraq speaks of the sorrows of the sanctions more than the hospitals. The tales are many, yet those who hear them are few. Al-Mansour Hospital is the best hospital in Baghdad, if not the best in the country. When we walked in we were met by Dr. Sa’id, a young doctor whose eyes spoke of the grief and misery within the hospital wards. The smell of gas was apparent and extremely disturbing as we walked through the hospital, and as Dr. Sa’id explained, gas was used to sterilize the metallic equipment because all other means of sterilizing the equipment was sanctioned. The use of gas as a sterilizing tool reminded me of an old lady I had met at the Abu Hanifa Mosque. She was a grandmother taking care of her three grandchildren, whose mother had also died in a hospital much like al-Mansour when she was having her third and last child. Due to the lack of sterile equipment used during her operation and the shortage of antibiotics as a result of the sanctions, the woman’s blood was infected and she died shortly after giving her final gift to the world, her daughter.
The smell of the gas was giving me a bit of a headache. Wherever we walked in the hospital, we could see the effects of the sanctions. Barely any lights were working, medicines were not available, beds were torn and old, blood and urine stained the floor, and the sound of children crying was non-stop. The hospital rooms were old and rickety. Each room had six beds with six children lying on them and six moms watching their child anxiously. These children came in all shapes and sizes, as did their diseases. I had read about malnourishment and deformation as a result of the depleted uranium. Yet there they were in front of me. Infants born prematurely with their intestines on the wrong side of their body. A stunted girl whose skin and bones showed her lack of sustenance. A baby dying from nothing more than diarrhea because of the contaminated water. And a, oh my gosh…subhan’Allah. We had walked into another room but I wasn’t prepared to see what I just saw. Ok one two three…go back in. He was a boy…I think. He didn’t look like anything human. Bulging out of his mouth was a big black bloody ball. I was feeling really nauseous now. I had to leave again. Outside most of the members of the delegation stood with looks of utter horror and teary eyes. They couldn’t go back in but I needed to know what, how, why? His name was Abbas Adnan and in a few months he’d be four, yet you’d never guess from his size. Then again I don’t think I ever got over the bulging ball coming out of his mouth to really consider how old he looked. Abbas, much like Frankenstein, was the result of people’s desire to toil with human life and tweak it to their liking. Where Frankenstein was the actual product of one man’s desire to create another live being, Abbas was the product of a superpower nation’s desire to destroy another nation no matter what the cost may be, Abbas or no Abbas. In a “war” (more like a one-sided bombing campaign) that lasted less than a month, the US dropped 88,500 tons of bombs, the equivalent of seven and a half atomic bombs of the size that fell upon Hiroshima during WWII. And all the depleted uranium and radiation from those bombs resulted in Abbas and many others much like him to look the way they do. His diagnosis; the invasion of a malignant disease upon his body causing his mucous membranes to bulge. Nice big words to hide the reality of Abbas’ real “disease,” his disease as a lesser human being, as an Iraqi, a nobody whose life and pain and quiet suffering wouldn’t be worth a fraction of a penny for the oil that his hospital bed rested upon. Isn’t that reason enough to not even acknowledge Abbas’ existence as a victim of the war and a victim of the sanctions, while the whole time pointing one’s finger at one single man to justify a nation’s silent demise.
As his mom explained Abbas’ reality to us, I looked away in utter shame. What do you say to her, what do you say to all the moms standing around their dying children. We walk in and out of their lives with our cameras and tape recorders and notepads. They hold their babies so we can capture them in their misery and they thank us for coming. Oh by the way, they ask, why did you come? How are you different than the hundreds of other delegations that came before you? Are you here to help my kid, look that’s him dying in that bed over there. The doctors say he’s lucky if he’ll last a week. So is that why you’re here, to help my son? No book could have ever prepared me for the feeling of ultimate disgust and utter disgrace. What do I say…I’m sorry, may Allah strengthen you, you are always in my du’as. They smile and look away, probably wondering since when did their son or daughter become part of a circus act. Come one, come all and see the baby with a tumor growing out of his back…
We left the hospital, away from the cries of the babies, and the smell of gas and urine, away from the baby that died seconds before we entered the room, and the crying mothers, and away from Abbas who would never know what it is like to breath normally and have air rush through your lungs with the utmost ease. As we walked away from the hospital we passed by the only ambulance car in all of Baghdad. I couldn’t help but wonder what this ambulance car was rushing the patients to…another place to die? Like al-Mansour, the Basra Hospital for Children and Births was another place to die. Yet in the Basra Hospital patients don’t even bother going because they’d much rather die at home amongst people they know.
Basra, a town in Southern Iraq was an experience all its own. We flew from Baghdad to Basra early in the morning because only one plane left each day. Walking through the airport, I was amazed at how nice it was. If I hadn’t known that I was in Iraq, I would have thought I was in some European or American airport. But how could I forget, this was Iraq, the target of international damnation. All the airport terminals were closed except for Iraqi Airlines, the fountains were turned off, and the orange and yellow seats once again made me think I was stuck in some twilight zone episode where I was frozen in time. We were given our $6 tickets to fly the hour flight through the no-fly zone. We went through three security terminals and our bags were checked like we were entering some top security prison where even the batteries in our cameras were confiscated. We were finally ready. We boarded the empty plane and much like the employees in the hotel, the stewardesses carried out their duties as if the plane was filled to the brink with passengers. I read my prayers over and over again, not knowing if this was the last day I’d be alive. Man, I’m a convict. I’m flying in the no-fly zone and if a UN plane wishes to bomb our plane they have complete rights to do so in the eyes of the “international community.” In the hour flight we were served orange colored sugar water and sweet bread. The stewardesses also whisked by with a cart that displayed three or four items to be sold, not even looking at the passengers, knowing that nobody was really going to buy the bright red lipstick or the florescent green eye-shadow that they were selling…form without function.
And so we landed, on one of the worst hit areas in all of Iraq, Basra. Not only was it the location of the eight year Iraq-Iran War back in the 80’s, not only did it “host” the Kurdish rebellion in the 90’s, not only was it the center stage for the Gulf War, but it is also presently the target of more than a decade of ongoing sanctions. And ironically after the more than twenty years of direct physical aggression, everyone we asked in Basra agreed that the worst thing to have hit them was the sanctions. Unlike Baghdad that externally looked very nice, Basra didn’t even have that initial appeal. It was dirty, it was barren, it was empty and overwhelmingly depressing, it was, I am convinced T.S. Elliot’s inspiration for writing “The Wasteland.” A city with cars parked every five feet fanning out their overheated engines, a city with sky the color of soot due to the extremely high levels of pollution, a city with sewage spilling into the streets, a city with garbage dumps rather than gardens, a city with a 70% unemployment rate, a city with three times the normal atmospheric radiation level and ironically a city with an ocean of oil right beneath the dirt surface, enough oil that if Iraq was to start pumping 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the oil would be able to maintain the world for 50 years no problem. Basra is probably the richest wasteland in the world.
Leaving the airport we came across about a hundred girls sitting near the exit of the airport. Today they were on a fieldtrip, the aim of the fieldtrip, not even the teacher knew. Maybe they just ran out of things to teach, maybe they realized that there is no point in teaching because a degree would be of more use helping to light a fire than being framed on a wall. The girls looked at us in awe as they took turns taking pictures with us. What is it like to live in Basra? Oh, the usual, they bomb us almost every other day but we’re used to it. Alhamdulillah…by the way can we get a copy of that picture? A psychologist would have a field day with these girls, their realities defined by deprivation and war.
Like I said, Basra was an experience all its own. In the Basra Hospital, a research hospital mind you, we walked into complete chaos. Women were on top of each other fighting to get their prescription from the hospital pharmacy before the medicine ran out. The second we walked in three women came up to me and showed me their babies and pleaded for me to get them medicine. They had been waiting and fighting for two hours. But I’m not a doctor, I told them. They looked at me in disbelief; surely I was lying. Why else would I be in the hospital, with nice shoes on my feet and no sign of sickness unless I was a doctor? No, I’m part of a delegation I explained. They turned away and left, she’s not a doctor they kept telling whoever asked.
Next stop was a primary and secondary school. It was completely surrounded by palm trees and if the driver didn’t stop I would have guessed it was some abandoned shack. But it wasn’t, about 200 boys came in two shifts every school day, one shift in the morning and one shift in the afternoon. The school was empty; apparently the boys were on a field trip, maybe they too had also gone to the airport. It was hot (over 90*F) and the school had no air conditioning, not even a fan. The windows were broken and doors and walls were falling apart. The playground was dirt with one pole in the middle. The only sign of life was a nicely framed picture of Saddam Hussein reading a book on top of the chalkboard in each classroom. No books, no shelves, no posters, no decoration, no nothing. In fact, we were told this school was lucky because they had some desks that looked like they were installed during the stone ages.
But there was no time to sit and wonder at the state of the school. We had to keep on moving. And so we did, straight into the heart of darkness itself, a small village where no words could describe the deprivation of these kids. There were hundreds of them. Infants, toddlers, teenagers, wherever you looked they were staring at you. Bare-foot, dirty, and skinny, these kids used the three or four words of English they knew to amuse us. Thank you, please, bicycle. I loved them, I couldn’t help it. I just wanted to give them something to make them smile and that was my fatal flaw. Another brother on the delegation began to give out pens but when he was almost trampled, he stopped. It didn’t register in my head. I just wanted to make them smile, bring some joy into their lives. I took out my bag of lollipops but before I could open it, kids came out of nowhere and began grabbing at the bag, grabbing at my jilbab, and grabbing at my arms. Lollipops, what were lollipops, what were pens, yet anything and everything was like gold when you’ve lived a life as poor as dirt. I couldn’t handle the kids anymore, I felt like they were going to tear the clothes off my back. One of the Iraqi men that went everywhere we went began hitting the kids and yelling at them to back off. He told me to get in the car and as I got in the car the kids kept following me. “Khalah, give us a pen khalah,” they begged as we drove away. They’d follow our cars and plaster their faces to the windows every time we stopped, “Khalah one pen please, just one pen.” I looked down in shame. I had about ten pens in my bag but all I could say is I’m sorry…I don’t have any. The kids kept running after the cars even though every time they got near the cars, they were beat by that man. They were not only paying for the price of my stupidity in thinking I could fix their lives by giving them lollipops, but they were also paying the price for the world’s apathy and disregard for the true victims of the sanctions.
This is the price of the sanctions that will soon “celebrate” its eleventh anniversary. It is jeither Saddam Hussein nor the Iraqi government that the US is hurting. To them the sanctions are another political game, with the Iraqi citizens playing their part as the pawns. No, those who are paying the price are the children and the youth. It is three-year old Abbas who was born and who will die in the hospital, his only means of nourishment are the tubes that are permanently glued to his arms. It is eleven year old Isra’ who was walking home from school with her three friends when a smart bomb fell upon them, killing her friends and resulting in her arm being amputated and her body being permanently scarred. It is 22-year old Hala, who is an architect student at the University of Baghdad, whose life is meaningless because her education and degree will mean nothing, getting married is a lost luxury where only the rich can afford it, having children is the object of her nightmares for God only knows what deformed beast will come out of her stomach, and remaining hopeful is a daily battle that more often than not she loses. These are the victims of the sanctions and the war against Iraq. But to say that the world does not know of the price these kids are paying is to forget Madeline Albright’s infamous words, “It’s a difficult choice to make, but we think the price is worth it.”
Like I said it, has been almost a month since I’ve left Iraq. While my stay in Iraq lasted about eight days, those eight days taught me what nineteen years had not. Reflecting upon those eight days, I have seen many of my faults and shortcomings magnified. Where I had previously spoken about wanting to change the world, I had quite often forgotten that all change comes from Allah subhana wa ta’ala. Where I had wanted to revolutionize the state of the ummah, I had never bothered revolutionizing the state of myself. Yet now when I look back upon those eight days and the images of what I saw flash through my head, I cannot help but reflect upon the importance of that Qur’anic ayah, “Surely Allah will not change the conditions of a people until they change the condition of themselves.” (13:11). Our struggle to end the sanctions and uplift the Iraqis from their state of oppression will not be successful no matter how many rallies we do or how much money we fundraise or how many people we educate. We are not the ones who will end the sanctions, only Allah can do so. And only when we realize this and begin to change ourselves as Islam guides us to do so, live our lives like the Prophet (may the peace and blessings be showered upon him) did and have complete faith and reliance upon Allah, will Allah answer our prayers insha’Allah and bless our actions whether it is in ending the sanctions in Iraq or helping to free our brothers and sisters in Occupied Palestine or in any other place that the Muslims are being oppressed. So often we secularize Islam, separating activism from spirituality, but only when our activism is an extension of our spirituality will our activism mean anything insha’Allah. May Allah purify our hearts and our intentions and help us change the condition of ourselves so that He can change the condition of our ummah. May He increase us in our iman and taqwah and may He allow us to exemplify our lives after that of the Prophet (pbuh). May He guide and bless the Muslims in Iraq and may He uplift them from their state of oppression and may He never let them fall into a state of despair. May He enter each and everyone of those who die as a result of the sanctions and the war into al-firdos and may He allow us to continue in the struggle to fight for our Muslim brothers and sisters who are dying around the world…amin.