Two remarkable Iraqi women concluded an eight-week speaking tour of the US with a Monday-evening appearance in Tacoma. Here's a report on what they had to say.


By Mark Jensen

** Two Iraqi women conclude an eight-week tour of the US with an appearance in Tacoma **

December 23, 2003

Two Iraqi women, one a well-known journalist and the other the founder of a cultural center in Baghdad, were in Tacoma Monday evening, Dec. 22, on a mission to tell Americans about conditions in Iraq. It was the concluding event of the Women of Iraq Tour 2003.

Nermin Al-Mufti is a well known journalist in Iraq, the author of five books and a frequent correspondent for Al-Ahram, the oldest and most venerable daily in the Arab world. Amal Al-Khedairy is the founder and director of Iraqi House, a cultural center in Baghdad twice destroyed by war. Both women are experts on the art and archaeology of the Middle East. Both are well-educated, articulate, and cosmopolitan. Both speak several languages fluently. And, as they emphasized several times, both are mothers.

Their visit to Tacoma was the last event in an extraordinary eight-week visit to the United States. The two women traveled tirelessly, giving about 280 presentations to audiences large and small. The tour, which was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), concluded with several days of appearances in western Washington.

On Monday night, about forty Pierce County residents, including many members of United for Peace of Pierce County, were on hand at the Society of Friends Meeting House (formerly the Hillside Community Church) on the hilltop behind Borders Books and Music to hear the women's first-hand testimony about life in Iraq under US occupation in the aftermath of the US invasion.

Amal Al-Khedairy and Nermin Al-Mufti were introduced by Mike Yarrow, a staff member of Western Washington FOR. Amal Al-Khedairy (pronounced 'uh-MAL all kuh-DAHR-ee') spoke first.

A sophisticated woman with the confidence, authoritative air, and obvious intelligence of a Madeleine Albright, elegantly dressed and possessed of a piercingly alert glance, Ms. Al-Khedairy reflected on her visit to the US, now drawing to an end. "Early tomorrow morning we'll fly back to Iraq. It's been a long trip. It began with a drive across the desert to Amman, Jordan, and a flight to New York. The trip has brought me catharsis after all the bitterness of the occupation. I want to thank all those who organized the tour. They've been wonderful. It's a great privilege to visit your country, and to conclude this tour in your beautiful city on this side of the world.

"But what is happening on the other side of the world is pressing on us, and we will be glad to return to Iraq tomorrow.

"In 1988 I founded an arts and crafts center in my father's house in Baghdad. I called it Al-Beit Al-Iraqi, which means 'Iraqi House.' There were many galleries and museums in Iraq, but crafts were ignored. Crafts are an important part of Iraqi culture, however. Iraqi House gave us a chance to feature them, and also to provide a link to the towns in the surrounding area where many artisans live.

"This was the first arts and crafts center in Baghdad, and an intellectual center as well, but it is too much to say what was said in the publicity for the Women of Iraq Tour, that this was 'the only intellectual center in Baghdad throughout the 90's.'

"Iraqi House was destroyed in 1991 in the Gulf War, when the second floor of our house was ruined. We rebuilt it. What followed was a very difficult time. It was the period of the embargo. During this time Iraq was being bombarded almost every day, and the people suffered horribly, especially young people.

"Still, there was some stability. With the war in 2003, conditions became almost unbearable. There was destruction everywhere. We were the targets of powerful new weapons. So much was destroyed.

"What happened to the museums of Iraq is an epitome of what happened in all of Iraq. The National Museum was looted. About 40,000 pieces of art were stolen. This was the work of what can only be called an organized mafia. Similar things happened around the country. Babylon is also occupied by American forces; archaeologists can no longer go there. A famous archaeological museum in Tikrit was also looted.

"Universities suffered even more. Departments were unable to carry on their work. All post-graduate work stopped.

"I am not exaggerating the extent of the destruction in Iraq. When I left my house in Baghdad two months ago, it still had broken windows. This is the situation. There is no sovereign government. Our petrol -- you call it oil, we call it 'petrol' -- is being sold abroad by a company that had contracts given to it even before our cities surrendered. Yet we have to import our gasoline from abroad, and wait for hours in queues after queues after queues.

"Iraq is rich in petrol, and rich in agricultural areas as well. This is what helped us survive the embargo. Now agricultural areas are also being destroyed. Families are being killed and villages destroyed in the name of the struggle against terrorism.

"The situation is very dire. Iraqis appreciate liberation, but not for a new form oppression.

"Let me read to you from an e-mail message from Iraq that I received only today. A friend writes: 'Things here are getting worse. We have electricity only two hours out of every six, often not even that. Salaries are not paid, there is no security, movement around Baghdad is very difficult, and now there's a bad flu going around.'"

Nermin Al-Mufti (pronounced 'nehr-MEEN all MOOF-tee') spoke next. A professional journalist, the author of five books, and a Turkmen (about 1% of the population of Iraq are Turkmens), she spoke quickly and directly, drawing on an intimate knowledge of the history and politics of the Middle East:

"I'm happy this is the last of our presentations. I miss my son, and Iraq. But I'm happy to have made this trip. In the last two months, I've met many generous Americans. Unfortunately, they know nothing of what is going on beyond their ocean shores. During the embargo of Iraq -- which was really a total blockade -- two million Iraqis died, mostly young people.

"Now this period is over, and Iraq is occupied by US forces. The wealthiest parts of our society are supporting the occupation and cooperating with the US.

"My country was invaded on the pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but as a journalist I know this claim was not credible.

"Baghdad was destroyed on April 9. I don't know if the US chose that date deliberately, but Iraqis know that this is a significant date. It was on April 9, 1258, that the Mongols sacked Baghdad.

"The first place the US destroyed was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the records of Saddam Hussein's relations with the United States were housed.

"Museums were also destroyed. The US is not living up to its responsibilities as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which makes it responsible for assuring security. It is not unusual for women to be kidnapped and raped.

"Iraq is a country that has been destroyed. In the 1980s Iraq was a wealthy country. It was a country that ranked no. 14 on a list of richest countries. The embargo reduced it to no. 156.

"Americans do not know what their country is doing. There is a recent book that every American should read: The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, by Frances Saunders [London: Granta Books, 1999; New York: The New Press, 2000]. Americans have been brainwashed to think there are no people in the world but them. In the US illegal immigrants who become soldiers are promised citizenship." [According to a CBS News article in July 2003, "Of the 1.4 million service members, 37,000 active-duty members are not citizens," and in July 2002, "President Bush signed an executive order to eliminate the three-year waiting period and made service personnel immediately eligible for citizenship."]

Nermin Al-Mufti continued: "Another good book is The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, by Zbigniew Brzezinski [Basic Books, 1997]. But it's too late to read these books, Iraq is already occupied! And I've discovered Americans don't read."

Asked about how Iraqis regard the UN, Nermin Al-Mufti said that because of the embargo, and because of the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 endorsing the Coalition Authority in Iraq, the United Nations has low credibility in Iraq. Amal Al-Khedairy, however, said that while Iraqis had many criticisms of the UN and the need for major reforms of the structure and powers of the Security Council was clear, there is support nevertheless in Iraq for replacing the US occupation troops with UN peacekeepers during the period of the writing of a constitution for Iraq.

One listener mused that the US military's tolerance of the looting of Iraqi museums might be an expression of a Bush administration policy to encourage the "privitazing" of works of art. This led to an interesting exchange about the ownership of works of art. Told that many US museums display privately owned works, Amal Al-Khedairy quipped: "So Americans steal art from other countries so that they can lend it to museums for display?"

Another listener rose to offer an apology for the barbaric way the US government had displayed Saddam Hussein's humiliation. Nermin Al-Mufti seemed a bit exasperated by this, exclaiming: "It's not apologies we need from Americans. We need Americans to use their democratic power to change this regime." Amal Al-Khedairy's attitude was somewhat different. She graciously thanked the speaker, saying: "I thank you for this human expression. It is the first time I have heard such an apology. Degrading a human being is always a sacrilege. When I saw this, or when I saw how Usay or Quday Hussein's bodies were displayed, I responded to this as a mother. I always think of how the mother of these individuals would feel, seeing this." Both Nermin Al-Mufti and Amal Al-Khedairy are mothers.

Another listener said she was so frustrated by the manipulation of public opinion in the media that she had given up reading the news. "I read the headlines, so I know what happened, but I don't read the rest, because I think it's just what they want me to think. Are there sources that you think are reliable?" Journalist Nermin Al-Mufti offered a number of suggestions. "Alternet is good. So is Middle East Online. Another good source is Al-Ahram Weekly, the English-language version of Al-Ahram. And your Democracy Now (a weekday radio broadcast also available on-line) is very good." [Nermin Al-Mufti also mentioned Iraqpatrol.com, an English-language version of which I've been unable to locate. For other alternative sources of news about Iraq, see a good list of alternative news sources about Iraq.]

The women were asked to comment about divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, often the object of political analyses in the Western media these days. Nermin Al-Mufti gave a brief historical account of the complicated origin and history of this division of Islam into different sects, and compared it to the difference in Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. Amal Al-Khedairy said that one problem in post-invasion Iraq is that the Shia are seeking a religious government, whereas Iraq had been founded on the notion of a secular government, something that was instituted in Iraq's first constitution (1921).

One member of People for Peace, Justice, and Healing, a Tacoma-based group, expressed the hope that direct exchanges between American children and Iraqi children could be organized in the future, and the two women from Iraq said that it was precisely to encourage such initiatives that they had come to the US. There was an agreement to exchange e-mail addresses.

Amal Al-Khedairy and Nermin Al-Mufti received a standing ovation at the end of this, the concluding presentation in what can only be described as an heroic effort to speak directly to the American people. After 280 presentations in about 50 days, they must have been feeling exhausted. Yet they lingered a little while longer for personal exchanges with their Pierce County interlocutors, even as their FOR hosts tugged at their sleeves in hopes of allowing the two women some rest before their early-a.m. Tuesday morning departure from Sea-Tac airport.