Thursday, September 02, 2010

Barefoot in Baghdad

If only

A Story of Identity—My Own and What it Means to Be a Woman in Chaos

By Manal M. Omar
237 pp. Sourcebooks $14.99

Reviewed by Marty Carlock

She speaks American English, but she also wears a headscarf, is fluent in Arabic and can quote the Koran. It’s right after the 2003 American invasion, and she says she’s in Iraq on a humanitarian mission. Neither side trusts her.

But she’s not a spy, a journalist, nor an agent of the CIA. Manal Omar is a Palestinian-American, who comes to Baghdad after the U. S. invasion as regional coordinator of Women for Women International, an organization struggling for women’s rights. Her memoirs from this period, 2003 to 2005, shed considerable light on our nation’s problems in Iraq.

Fearing she might be seen as a tool of the American occupation, Omar at first refuses to enter the Green Zone or attend meetings run by the military. Thus pro-war Iraqis are suspicious of her. Because her headscarf bespeaks religious conservatism, Baghdad women accuse Omar of being Iranian and insidiously bent on rolling back the freedoms they have won. They deny there are pockets of poverty in the city and irately reject any idea Iraqi women need help. She finds it difficult to add a woman to her staff, because educated women are loath to go into the poor areas, as she does.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have entered the country have little clue about what’s needed. Because Omar has the courage—and the contacts—to talk to all classes of Iraqi women, she is able to persuade representatives of other NGOs that the basic needs—food, shelter, health care, electricity—must be met before they can think about larger issues like women’s rights and teaching money-making skills to women.

Initially, Iraqis welcomed the allied armies and celebrated the end of Hussein’s rule. But as time goes on, slowness in meeting those needs alienates the people from the temporary government of the occupiers. The situation sours—aid money goes to crooked contractors who deliver shoddy work and pocket huge profits. Powerful clans resent loss of their power and property and turn to murder. Civil strife erupts.
Omar’s friend Fern Holland expressed this pessimism:

...the window of opportunities to create a new Iraq was rapidly closing...the people to pay the price were going to be the women of Iraq...These women are unbelievably strong. And I am afraid we are setting them up for failure. We are giving them nothing but bricks and fancy equipment.

In an epilogue, Omar says,

I have worked in other war-torn countries, but my time in Iraq haunts me more than any place I have been... It maddens me that so many of the mistakes that pushed Iraq into chaos were avoidable. From the outset of the U.S. invasion, those in power repeatedly betrayed the people of Iraq by standing on the sidelines as the society crumbled and making promises they could not keep.

Because she still adheres to her culture’s family values, “The decision to go to Iraq was not mine alone. It was a family affair. ” The author had worked for the UN, Oxfam, and then for World Bank, and her Arabic-American family couldn’t understand why she would leave an enviable job to go into a dangerous situation. Omar felt she had a perspective few others did—she was right—and after a long campaign received her father’s permission.

For my Palestinian family, the Iraq war hit a raw nerve. It was a reminder of what had happened to the Palestinians in 1948...another humiliation of the Arab world at the hands of the West. And as far as they could tell, I wanted to be part of it — and I was on the wrong side.

When she is introduced to her staff—all men, she is shocked to discover—she gets a chilly reception. It takes some time for her to find out what the problem is: having been told they would have a female American boss, they had entertained visions of the blond, blue-eyed Barbie starlet type they had seen on television. They were crushed to find they would be working for a scarf-wearing Arabic woman instead.
The author makes many of her points anecdotally, recounting the stories of individual women she helped—or was unable to help. Patriarchal customs hampered her time and again, and U. S. military rules often imposed other obstacles.

She makes good friends in Iraq and finds a husband—but they are forced to flee by extremists. One of her staff is murdered. Some of the others flee to the U. S. But Muna, the woman Omar recruited to her staff, courageously remained in Iraq carrying forward the work of Women for Women, pushing the program to help the most vulnerable.

Despite the retrogression in Iraqi life in the past six years, Omar remains optimistic that the strength and resilience of the Iraqi people will win out and make the country the great nation it could be. If only. 

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