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“We should not give our native population cause to complain that when they had asked for bread, we had offered them a vote” – Lord Haiely (1941)
Disclaimer: I am representing the political mentality of Assyrians of Iraq. However, the mentality, in general, is the same across other ethnic group of Iraq: Assyrians, Kurds, and Arabs…
There is a nice desert breeze and a clear sky above Basrah. Looking up at the deep dark sky resembling unknowing future, I am wondering if my story could be one of those One Thousand and One Nights stories. It is such a fitting metaphor for my life. I am sitting outside my room at the U.S. Consulate writing the following blog. I have been relocated from Baghdad as part of U.S. Embassy staff. Here in the land of Sinbad the Sailor, I was born as an Assyrian Christian minority. I am reminiscing about how my life started 37 years ago here in Basrah and ended up full circle back in Basrah with the American Embassy staff.
I am pondering on the history of this nation and my life. Since I was 13 or 14 years old, I remember my father saying “things will get better”. And in the land of the fifth largest oil reserves, about 24 years ago, I used to stand in line to get gasoline, kerosene oil, and food staples. As for electricity, I remember we suffered from frequent power shutdowns.
In present day Iraq (2014), people park their cars in line for days to get gas. My relative was cursing heaven and earth for waiting 3 days to get gas in Duhok. As for electricity, some Iraqi people hope it will be fixed in the next 1000 years or so. Fixing the national electricity infrastructure is “mission impossible” in Iraq.
Political topics have become one of the main fibers of social life in Iraq due to wars, scarcity of resources, and life under a dictatorship. It is an “obsession” of the general public dialogue. Neither my father nor I were immune to this obsession. Under Saddam’s regime, Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrians lived in a stable united Iraq – stability worked under the magic of “fear”. People dealt with each other with a clear set of unwritten Ba’athist protocols like: “don’t talk against the government”, “serve the military duty”, and “join the Ba’ath party”. Following these protocols resulted in being under a “you are ok” status with the government. Things appeared in stable equilibrium!
Events that were thought to be temporary, ended up lasting years in Iraq. The Iraq-Iran war was expected to last but a few months; it lasted eight years. After a long war, we thought the Iraq war era would end and Iraq would start to prosper, but Iraq became involved in another war with Kuwait. After that ended, Iraq faced 10 years of sanctions. The 10 years of sanctions ended with another 10 years of war/liberation, started by Americans and continued on by sectarian violence. In all this, I witnessed my father echoing the voice of most Iraqi people saying, “Things will get better, Inshalla – God willing”. But again, their false “positive hope”, believing that Iraq will get better was proven wrong. A few years after the American withdrew from Iraq, in 2014 Iraqi is AGAIN in turmoil, caused by members of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A few Sunni provinces have collapsed. It seems Iraq is on a 10-year-problem cycle.
I am now pondering on questions like: what happened in all these high political government meetings? As if all these high political meetings, briefs, presidential and prime minister’s press conferences, and speeches never happened. Were they all just for public consumption?…Pure rhetoric?
Just as Russians, Cubans, Iranian, and Lebanese migrated to America after their counties’ major disastrous events, Iraqi Assyrians migrated to many cities around the world. The exodus of Assyrian Christians increased during the last years to cities like Gothenburg, Sydney, Wiesbaden, Marseille, Toronto, but mostly Chicago. The number of educated people dropped below a critical level in Iraq. The brain drain from Iraq is extremely hard to reverse. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons Iraq will never get better again!
The emigrant personality has been injected with so many hyphenated complex parts like Iraqi-Assyrian-American-Christian complicated further by wars, religious beliefs, religious wars, and values of a Christian minority in an Islamic-Arab-country society of Iraq – I sometimes wonder how I am still normal!
Coffee shop politics
On the north side of Chicago, there is an Assyrian coffee shop for soccer fans. It is one of those “members only” coffee shop you see in Italian movies, but it has an Assyrian style cozy feeling. Iraq’s political events are part of the social dialogue. People in this coffee shop, and others, are some of the best consumers and producers of conspiracies. Hollywood, take note of this. So many movies could be made from their conspiracy theories. Allow me to echo the words of the philosopher Nassim Talab; the exile’s roots penetrated their personalities a bit too deeply. They have become prisoners of their memory of idyllic Iraq. They sit together with other prisoners talking about the “old days”. They eat traditional food, play cards, talk about money, payments and bills, who bought what business, while listening to Assyrian music playing in the background.
For many people, Iraq still appears more Elysian in their memory than it actually is. They keep talking about the “old days”. I never tasted pleasure in this place!
These Assyrians like almost all Iraqis everywhere talk about politics continuously running what-if scenarios. What if Saddam did not enter Kuwait? What if Saddam cooperated with Americans? What if Saddam did not threaten Israel? Some also believe that the CIA is causing all this chaos. American know everything; they plan for 30 years from now. And, everything happens in the world because of the CIA. They generate an endless stream of what-if alternative scenarios. As if the historical events could have been averted or changed if it wasn’t for this or that event. They are so well-rounded in political events to the point they keep track the tone of the politicians; who said what and in what tone. I can tell that every one of these people with their broken English sounds like a presidential adviser sitting at the White House!
High Government Politics
On the other hand, I have had the experience to meet many high officials and be part of many meetings in Iraq. Being a translator in Iraq for many years for the U.S. Army and U.S. Embassy, I was part of many meetings at various levels. I translated meetings with PM Nouri al-Maliki, former PM of England Tony Blair, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Iraqi Minister of Defense, Iraqi Minister of Interior, and many U.S. Army Generals. I translated many historical decisions. I was in the midst of it. If you would’ve asked anyone of them, “What will happen next?”, his reply was always in a form of: “I don’t know what is going to happen.”
I hold firm to my opinion that from high government politicians to coffee shop theorists, nobody knows anything or what will happen. The only difference between a government politician and a coffee shop politician is that the government politician will give the listener the same story in more polished words. In reality, none of these Iraqi or American politicians know anything. Common people find that hard to believe.
Bad things happen and will continue to happen because of randomness or because of political decisions. Many people fail to understand this “history generator” machine, which compiles complex current events and produces history, extremely difficult to reverse engineer. Events don’t happen based on a script – predicting the outcome based on a few events. They try to retrospectively understand and assign value of importance to a few decisions here and there. “was it because of the open borders in Iraq?”, “was it because Americans marginalized some elements of the Iraqi people?” “was it because Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army?”
As a result from my work experience and past 30 years of following Iraq news, this is my opinion…Nobody knows what will happen next, but we know for sure, Iraq will be going in downward spiral for many long years.
The problem with this new democracy in Iraq (or other Arab nations) is not the fault of Americans passing along the fancy illusion of “Democracy” in nation-building, but those long years of Saddam’s autocracy that preceded for generations. I remember former Iraqi National Adviser Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie made a public statement saying “Saddam did not only destroy Iraq, but destroyed the human side of the Iraqi people”.
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P.S.: Currently, reading Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo