It’s Nov. 17 and I am sitting in a cafe in downtown Erbil, across from the American Consulate. All I can see from my red leather booth are blast walls, 12 or 15 feet high, and a couple of Peshmerga soldiers huddled around a fire under a tarp, their AK-47s carelessly leaned against their chairs. It starts to rain and the fire almost goes out. One throws in a handful of crumpled-up newspaper and the fire surges out of what looks like an old wheelbarrow. They laugh and one claps happily. The fire goes out again, they do nothing, they watch. The embers blow in brilliant orange against the grey walls.
Where I am sitting was the site of a car bomb explosion just a few months ago, in April — a targeted attack on the U.S. Consulate.
Inside the cafe CNN drones on in the background. The horror of Paris just a few days ago is now a piece of bloody meat that has been thrown to a pack of wild dogs. News anchors, politicians and law makers are all baring their teeth, digging in their claws — who can claim the biggest, juiciest piece? Sound bytes of terror and freedom rhetoric. And what will we do about all those refugees?
The morning of Nov. 14 I was sitting in Amsterdam airport heading back to Iraq; my flight had been delayed due to wind and I hadn’t been able to check my email or the news since the evening before. I took advantage of the delay, and the free wi-fi, and switched on my iPad. I glanced at the daily New York Times update in my inbox and skimmed the words, “Paris Attacks”. Maybe it’s a symptom of living in the Middle East, but these days anytime I see the word “attacks” in headlines, I just know it’s coming from my part of the world.
I opened the news page and started reading.
Oh my god.
I immediately wrote my friend who works with me in Iraq and asked, “What the hell is going on in Paris?!”
“I donno dude, but I can tell you it’s not good,” she wrote back.
I kept reading, my head shaking in disbelief.
When I finally landed at Erbil airport later that day it took longer than usual to weave through the city into my neighbourhood in the Christian district of Ankawa. While getting in and out of the airport is usually its own song and dance of hardened faces, hardened weapons, lifting trunks and arms, I noticed the city streets were lined with many more check points than usual.
Paris flickered through my mind.
When I finally got to my apartment, another message from my friend: “Be careful coming from airport — they stopped a bomber at a checkpoint today. Security is crazy right now.”
I had a thought that I’ve often had over the past two years of working on and off in the Middle East: Maria, what are you doing here? As usual, I shook it off.
Fear is the oxygen that feeds the flame of terror, and by now we are so afraid … that we can’t even have the conversations that need to be had.
But I couldn’t shake the thought of Paris. I thought of the concert-goers, the restaurant patrons, many of whom probably wouldn’t dare leave their country to come to a place like Iraq. People who just wanted their quiet life, in their quiet neighbourhood, and to enjoy good music and good food.
Then I thought of the people in Beirut, the people in Baghdad, who are graciously sharing their country with me, and I thought of how they don’t have a choice. The people who have been born in countries that only have one way out — and lately, that way is death. Death by violence, or death by a journey taken to another place that doesn’t even want you — a place that will beat you down, spit on you, treat you like a criminal. A place that will label you, segregate you, marginalize you and strip you of all your dignity. A place that thinks your very existence is a policy debate. So what if it’s not a physical death? People in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq will tell you that there are many things worse than death.
In an earlier column I wrote about Syrian refugees, I said there is nothing that separates you or I from a Syrian refugee except the grace by which we were born in a peaceful and free country.
And now I find myself asking, what grace? It is a thin, cruel grace from where I am standing. There is no sense in grace, and there is no justice in religion.
Societies like Iraq and Syria are broken, in some cases far beyond repair. Terrorism only goes so far in a broken society before it craves something else to break — to spread like a virus, an unquenchable flame.
The day after I arrived back in Iraq I was sitting in my apartment talking to my mom, who was excitedly heading to her first football game in New York.
“Are you excited to finally see the Giants?” I asked her
“I am, but I am terrified to go to the stadium.”
Fear is the oxygen that feeds the flame of terror, and by now we are so afraid. We are so afraid that we can’t even have the conversations that need to be had. We are so afraid that we turn our fellow human beings—in desperate need of shelter from the storm—into monsters. We are so afraid that we close our borders, doors, minds and hearts. We are so afraid that we don’t even know who our enemy is. We are so afraid we turn our backs on our friends.
And so they are winning. Can’t you see that? They are winning. When we let fear rule our lives, they have won. It doesn’t matter where the bombs go off, it doesn’t matter what atrocity you pay more attention to, it doesn’t matter what you say or share on Facebook. You’re fighting the fire with fear.
And so I don’t know what to say to the people of Paris, the people of Baghdad or the people of Beirut. I don’t know what to say because words aren’t enough, and because it seems the world is not ready to act. But I do have something to say to those who are spreading this fear, this disease, this fire. This inconsequential percentage of people, in a population of 1.6 billion Muslims, who seem to be constantly leaving us with unbearable consequences. A weight on the backs of those who are already carrying so much. I have to say this:
Dear “Islamic” fundamentalists,
I write it in quotations because you’re not Islamic. Nothing you do or say even remotely resembles the peaceful, compassionate and loving religion that so many of my friends and family call their own. Just like there is nothing spiritually justified about the acts of fundamentalists who claim other faiths. I hate you. You ruin lives. You disrupt progress and vision — you take homes, you separate families and you destroy faith. You breed distrust and corruption. My life has been forever touched and changed by your sordid reach that seems to know no boundaries. The impact on my life is nothing compared to the devastation you will wreak on the people I love and the devastation you have already caused those in every corner of the world. The ones who don’t get to walk away. You have given yourselves completely to evil. You can’t even hear your God, a voice that surely loves you and is calling you back. I have looked in the faces of his children who bare pain and fear and persevere in spite of your torture, but you don’t care. And now we are stuck — because of your bombs, your guns, your road blocks, your hate. Your hate has caused me to hate, which might make you think you’ve won, but you haven’t, and no matter where I am, I will not stop working against you. Because I have seen the power of love, vision and progress and it is stronger than you. I promise. It is stronger than you.
Sitting in the cafe, writing this column, this letter, I realized I kind of feel like those Peshmerga soldiers sitting across the street. When the fire goes out I try and keep it going — for the love of this part of the world, and the people I’ve met. Then something like Paris, or Beirut, or Baghdad happens, and the fire goes out again. I do nothing, I watch. The embers blow in brilliant orange against the grey walls.