Interview: MANAL OMAR

Manal Omar is Iraq’s Country Director for Women for Women International (WMWI). She previously served in Afghanistan and arrived in Baghdad in July 2003 and has been there ever since. WMWI is the only international NGO in Iraq that is devoted exclusively to serving the most marginalized women and as a critical force in the struggle to guarantee women’s active involvement in the reconstruction process. Manal discusses with ISLAMICA the obstacles and hopes facing the Iraqi people and also on the alleged murder of Margaret Hassan, a fellow aid worker in Iraq

ISLAMICA | So when did you arrive in Jordan?

MANAL OMAR | I arrived last Saturday, September nth – security was high.

ISLAMICA | High everywhere?

MANAL | At the airport mainly. The airport road is the most dangerous road, often referred to as Death Road.

ISLAMICA | How do you feel about being in Iraq over the last several months?

MANAL | Iraq is a very different country now than it was at the beginning of the occupation. Now I feel very frustrated, because for the first eight months we were able to move, we were able to build programs, we were able to help the women-you felt there were tangible results from the work. Being in Iraq is a sacrifice, especially when I think of the stress my parents go through every day. I promised myself to keep doing an ego check, because being in this field it is easy for a person to develop an ego trip because you are in a position of power helping vulnerable people. The main way to avoid this is to work on the ground directly with the grassroots, then you know that they are doing it for yourself and that there is very little you are doing. In the beginning I was on the ground daily but since January things started to spiral downwards and now contact on the ground is very difficult It makes you wonder what you are sacrificing for. I know for me I can’t accept living in a hotel or in the green zone where it is heavily guarded and both physical and psychological walls are built between you and the people you are there to work with.

ISLAMICA | What’s the biggest interference you face right now?

MANAL | The biggest interference is security – the number one problem is security.

ISLAMICA | Being secured by, or secured for whom?

MANAL | All over, it’s not just a problem for me personally, although it’s definitely a problem for me as a foreigner. Our program targets women, and we work with hundreds of women in three governates. From the beginning women listed security as their top challenge. Of course men complain of security, but women are more vulnerable to the security problems. This has been a consistent complaint from last summer when I entered the country, but now the security problems have taken on an even more devastating level. Of course, security translates into other sectors as well-primarily economics and education-which basically translates into women having to pull their girls out of school because they’re worried about them; and also economically, as the older girls can’t go to work.

ISLAMICA | You wrote something a while ago about schools. How is the school situation, the ones that are open now? Your first description on Beliefnet was extremely bleak.

MANAL | I dealt with schools in my last job as a Reports Officer with UNESCO under the oil for food program. In my current position, we don’t do schools so it’s hard for me to make a judgment. The complaints again from the women directly is that the schools haven’t been rehabilitated, it’s been paint jobs, and we hear that a lot from the women. But the positive side is that there is the airconditioning. One of the things that has happened in the schools and virtually everything in Iraq is a lot of focus on physical reconstruction, very little investment in people, and capacity building, and the curriculum, the substance…

ISLAMICA | Something we had started briefly talking about . . . this is kind of a double-edged question … how do they (the Iraqis) see you? You mentioned that there is the belief that any help they’re getting actually is theirs in the first place from the oil money, and that may not be the case because the oil money is still in Washington. What’s the situation now?

MANAL | Although the people were welcoming when we entered the country, when it came to humanitarian groups it’s a completely new concept … even ‘political parties’ is a new concept and so there’s an overall very strong distrust Most of the people we talked to automatically assumed that our money is oil money. This is a logical assumption, because of the precedent before, when the humanitarian aid was “oil for food”. So that has stayed with people. When I was in Afghanistan women would come up to me and say “thank you for being here” and “it’s so good to see a Muslim woman here” there was a lot of gratitude. In Iraq the overall feeling was very different. Most people assumed I was here for a large salary that was being paid by the oil, so they looked at me with suspicion and some Iraqi women even felt that I was taking the job of an Iraqi. It took many months before they realized that our NGO is mainly funded through private donations. The people who work directly with us understand that but until today they’re still confused as to what is an NGO, and I don’t blame them, and not just from the UN oil for food program. Even in the past year, the lines between development contractors, private companies, local contracts, and NGOs have been blurred. A lot of strong NGOs that existed underground are now taking their space in the public sphere, and I believe this will be the real difference, when good and legitimate Iraqi NGOs are supported and Iraqi citizens see a tangible benefit from the existence of such groups.

ISLAMICA | Where are you working?

MANAL | Mainly in Baghdad, Hilla and Kerbala.

ISLAMICA | What specific areas?

MANAL | In Hilla and Kerbala we work around the city so we don’t hit the city itself and the reason is that we want to target the more economically and socially excluded women, so a lot of times that means getting out of the city. Personally, I did not expect to do work in Baghdad because it is an amazing city with great infrastructure, so I did not expect to find impoverished areas. However, once I hit the ground I knew I had been wrong. Saddam implemented a policy of ghettoization where people who were not part of the Baathist party were punished through institutionalized poverty. So we were able to work in many areas throughout Baghdad.

ISLAMICA | In the Sadr city area?

MANAL | We’re in the Sadr city area but that’s not where our base is, it’s right on the border, in the Rusafah district so we have offices in Rusafah and Karkh.

ISLAMICA | Could you compare the areas you work in for security reasons) to other places you’ve been?

MANAL | It’s very similar to refugee camps because it’s, to a certain extent illegal housing – some houses are the size of a grave. What’s interesting for me is that my employees are mostly women from Baghdad and they were shocked – they’d lived in Baghdad all their lives, they’d never left Baghdad, but they never knew these places existed. That’s the other myth we’ve been struggling with – a lot of people assume Iraq is very educated, very rich, and it’s true to a certain extent but that schism that was created has left a lot of illiterate poor women whose husbands were killed, so they’re the single head of a household. It’s been a challenge to get people to see this other side of Iraq, which only needs a little bit of push to get back to the way it once was.

ISLAMICA | Just demographically speaking, I found in areas I’d been to – I mean it was very much a Saddam policy -that it’s a mixed community? If there’s a husband he might be a Sunni Kurd, the wife a Shi’a … do you find that all over pretty much?

MANAL | Mainly in Baghdad you’ll find it and up in the north – but generally I have always heard a lot of unity between the Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds as a population.

ISLAMICA | In the south then, you were there during the siege of Najaf?

MANAL | Yes.

ISLAMICA | How did that affect your work?

MANAL | We’re all holding our breath, because as we all know Najaf is a holy city for the Shi’as, and most of the areas we work in are Shi’a. The situation in Najaf directly affected all the areas we were working with in Baghdad, Hillah and Kerbala. The idea of having a battle in Najaf was unbelievable to me, and like many others, I prayed it would pass without a major confrontation that would set southern Iraq on fire.

ISLAMICA | You were there probably another week after I was. What I was seeing, you probably saw in Baghdad where you were, was that even when Sadr said, okay, lay your arms (after reaching an agreement with Sayyid Sistani) that nobody was listening. Is this true?

MANAL | Yes, to a certain extent, in the beginning we had a lot of people similar to Sayyid Sistani. In the beginning people, and still till now, would listen to him, but eventually it grew out of control. It’s poverty, it’s frustration, it’s resentment, the same women that were running towards tanks are now running away from tanks. When it reaches this point, it’s hard for the mass population to really listen to anyone. From the beginning, there was a strong love-hate relationship with the American forces. But now there is a sense of betrayal, that all the promises that were made have been broken. Because of this many of the Iraqis are resentful. So many citizens have been killed in the crossfire, whether by American troops or by suicide bombings. The situation has got to the point where people who survived Saddam cannot survive the current security situation, and are moving outside Iraq. Many compare the current time when there is still no electricity and security is non-existent to the previous regime …

ISLAMICA | … remembering him fondly?

MANAL | No one’s remembering him fondly, I’d never heard that apart from in Falluja, but for the majority of the people it’s very rare. Maybe other Arab nationals will remember him fondly, but very few Iraqis.

ISLAMICA | They don’t miss him personally, they miss food, electricity, lights?

MANAL | Yes, security, even the most hostile towards Saddam will say that, at the very least, there was security. And when you’ve gotten to that point, a community that’s been so suppressed by their dictator (and its common, we see this sometimes, but not to the degree in Iraq), and so quickly to start missing that dictator, it shows something’s gone wrong.

ISLAMICA | Do you see it going down exponentially, that you may have left for a week, but the situation has deteriorated as though it’s more than a week?

MANAL | Definitely, we got out before the main things got heated … because you know every day I have phone calls to Baghdad, to my office, and things are definitely spiralling downwards, and they will continue until January, or elections. I mean, coming out here was to develop a new strategy because the security situation is not something that will be a hase and pass, I think that this is something that’s going to stay.

ISLAMICA | Before moving onto any specific work that you’re doing … you had written some pieces, how is all this affecting you personally, moving there, going back, coming back?

MANAL | Personally it’s been very difficult. The other day I went to visit my aunt in Jordan, and firecrackers went off and I nearly had a heart attack. In Iraq it doesn’t faze me but over here I was beginning to experience some shellshock, even the sound of the generators when I fall asleep, I was just getting used to all of the noises, and then emotionally … I guess all the countries I’ve worked in, I’m left with that feeling … you just become very conservative with water, with electricity, things that you take for granted, suddenly start to have new meaning. I never knew Iraq, I was raised in the United States, Iraq and Iran were exchangeable for me, and I always thought it was a Sunni versus Shi’a war with Iran and Iraq, so it was very interesting for me to see the Shi’a culture, to see how strong the presence was in Iraq, and to realize that it had nothing to do with religion. So in that sense it has been great. I’ve learned a lot from the women I work with. In the beginning a lot of Iraqis criticized me, because they said focus on the women’s leadership, don’t focus on these poor illiterate women, but these women are living the political situation, they’re living everything that’s happening in Iraq now and Subhanallah, they have so much courage, so much grace and I think that I probably learned a lot more than I gave them, because they’re always thankful, they’re always persevering. We’ve given them a little, and they’ve picked it up and ran with it they’ve grown exponentially in terms of what they can do and that’s great to see. At one point I lost two friends, and that was very difficult for me, and I had to make that decision . . . what exactly ami doing, if I were to sacrifice my life, what am I sacrificing my life for, am I feeding the American propaganda by working with women, and they get to use our project? Alhamdullilah, they gave me the answers. The small work we were doing helped them stand on their own feet and give them a new chance at life – for me that seemed worth risking my life for.

ISLAMICA | How would you describe the people you work with in an adjective or two?

MANAL | Tenacious, very tenacious and very dedicated. But they have to be convinced first and that takes a long time to do. For the first 3 months every employee was positive our program would fail, and I told them “humor me” and try it and if it fails then you get your salaries, I go home, everyone’s happy.

ISLAMICA | On a person to person basis, the women who come in for help, the children who aren’t able to go to school, the men that you meet … how would you describe them?

MANAL | Suspicious. The first time they meet it’s very suspicious, especially the men, and that’s generally what we do, we don’t go into these communities just start talking, we’re not there for shock therapy, we’re not a women empowerment group, or a women’s rights group. We’re economic, we want these women to be able to support their families, and be self-sustainable so we go to meet the men, especially in areas like Ba’quba and Falluja, all my meetings are with men, and they grill me personally, professionally, everything, and then they allow me to see their women.

ISLAMICA | Have they been an obstacle to your work with women?

MANAL | No actually. If you take that time, and take that courtesy to explain your program, we’ve had in the heart of Falluja, heart of Ba’quba, the heart of Sadr City, we’ve had men actually much more excited than women. A lot of times the people paving the path in these neighborhoods and giving us protection are men, and there’s a very fine line there because we are areligious, and apolitical … so we want to make sure that no one group starts monopolizing … and they can do that indirectly … they’re very, very smart and indirectly just be leading us to their women, and their women are indebted to them and whatever political party or religious party. Our office visits every single woman that’s enrolled in the program and does an interview with her to make sure she knows the organization is independent and what her commitment to the program is. In the beginning I did the household visits myself but now usually one of our staff does it … so we’re positive that they’re socially and economically excluded women that we are taking, and not some relative or neighbor of someone important.

ISLAMICA | What I’ve seen, and I could’ve only seen a certain sector … but it seems to me in contrast to much of the Arab world that today’s young Muslims, in Iraq, are marrying very young compared to the rest of the Arab world. They seem to be saying “I’m not going to wait till I’m 30 and I have a house.” Do you see that family grouping happening at this point?

MANAL | I didn’t see it too much. If anything we see a lot of unmarried women, and the trend in the Middle East is that first time marriages are later, 27, 28 is the average, which is actually pretty high . . . and a lot of westerners celebrate that because it’s seen to be a rise in education, or difference in fertility rates. But when you actually look at the social-economic causes, it’s negative, people can’t afford to get married, a lot of men are migrating to the Gulf, so they’re leaving their women behind. It’s a negative trend. In refugee camps what you see is that when you marry you get access to a house of your own, you can’t really call it a house, more like a compartment and maybe what you were seeing in Iraq is that – they get access to a food basket of their own. So that might have been one of the instances.

ISLAMICA | I just saw a lot of people in their 20s saying “I’m going to get married in 3 months”.

MANAL | It also depends on the areas. The poorer areas . . .

ISLAMICA | -because there’s nothing to really wait for …

MANAL | True.

ISLAMICA | So they get married, try to arrange something. You mentioned the women’s problem primarily they’re facing is security. Since it’s a general, national problem, could you be more specific as to security.

MANAL | The top three problems are facing are all national problems. But they’re particularly more vulnerable to it, especially security, and the reason is that in the beginning, not so much now, we had a lot of rape cases, we had a lot of girls being kidnapped. Also the fact that women are a lot more vulnerable, a lot of the crooks break into the homes, grab the girl and say “you have ten minutes to give us everything we want before we leave her. If we’re not satisfied, we take her.” So they’re using it as a weakness in the household.

ISLAMICA | There were news rumors that there was trafficking in women, and at one point it became young boys as well …

MANAL | A lot of rumors are directed at Kuwait and the UAE about trafficking of young boys. In terms of the women, it’s not a situation like Bosnia or Kosovo where you had a mass number and you were able to see the trend. In Iraq I heard about mass rapes, and I was surprised because both the military police and the Iraqi police tend to call me if there’s a rape Baghdad, and I had about ten, so it was nothing like what we saw in other conflict countries, like Rwanda and some other countries. Some of the we got, alhamdullilah, two young girls were able to run away because the got into a fight because they didn’t know whether to use her or to sell her, because the price goes down if they her, and they shot each other. So that was an indication that there is trafficking to a certain extent. And it’s not only physical kidnapping, a lot of girls are economically forced into that line of work. One of the cases that I had – a 16 year old girl had been a prostitute for 4 years – audhubillah, think of when she started, and so she wanted out, and she was married, and that’s how she was able to ply her profession. Then an Iraqi policeman almost convinced her to run away to Dubai and continue under his guidance. She was just 12 years old and from a middle class family, but socially they’re very vulnerable.

ISLAMICA | How have your dealings been, and your organization’s dealings been, with the Iraqi police?

MANAL | The new Iraqi police are different than the old Iraqi police when I first came into the country. The old Iraqi police preferred to deal with us directly rather than with the military police, when it comes to women, I think, and this is a coincidence that I’m Muslim and I’m Arab. I think in Iraq it was a huge advantage, automatically the police knew that I’d understand where they’re coming from, whereas the military police – a lot of them very young – and it was very frustrating because at one point I ended up helping the women, and they know that I’d help the women, but I wanted to prove a point . . . they’d pick up girls straight off . . . they don’t think it through. So they’d think, you know, they’d seen one too many movies and … let’s save this girl who’s 12 … but it’s not always rape cases … in one case, three 12 year old girls wanted to become American soldiers …! So the Iraqi police tend to prefer to work with somebody like me because they know my background.

ISLAMICA | By military police I assume you mean the occupation forces, or is it this new army that’s been developed?

MANAL | The military police, they’re army soldiers, but they’re stationed in police stations. Their job is to police. They’re Americans.

ISLAMICA | There seems to be a new irregular army, partly American uniformed, partly black t-shirts, but they’re Iraqi, the number of AK-47S makes me a little nervous because they’re kids. They’re not the coalition, they’re just an army …

MANAL | I know what you’re talking about actually. I’ve seen them at the check points.

ISLAMICA | How do Iraqi women and Iraqi girls respond to you … and let me ask a personal question if I may, your background is what?

MANAL | I’m originally Palestinian.

ISLAMICA | How do the Iraqi women respond to you, knowing you’re Arab, they also know you’re western, and you start counseling in a rape case, for example. Are they familiar with the idea of being counseled at all?

MANAL | Unfortunately we’re not equipped for violence against women, so we don’t counsel and most of the cases we get are honor killings, even if the girl is raped, the girl is going to be killed, as young as 9 and as old as 25, and so what we try to do is negotiate with the family. Our aim is reconciliation, and even though it’s hard to reconcile with honor, and with killings, it’s not an easy thing to do. What we found is that most families want to move on but are worried about the community. One time in one situation where the girl was unfortunately killed, her husband was ok with it, he was a man of good, strong faith, and he said “this is what Allah has written for you and it’s not your fault” … But then her brother killed her. That’s really our main goal, to reconcile, and if we can’t reconcile we relocate. The experience in the north in terms of honor killings is very good, so we provide the local groups there to provide the counseling and to provide the skill training, so that she doesn’t become dependent on the shelter.

ISLAMICA | Would you say there is a gap, a void, where the girls aren’t really able to integrate what’s happening to them. One, culturally it’s not a thing to do to get counseling, and two, there’s no infrastructure set up, so what do you see these women do, surviving, dealing with these things?

MANAL | One of the things our program does is not targeted necessarily to rape victims, or any victims, is that we have women in groups of 20 and they’re required twice a month to come to a meeting, and the facilitator is an Iraqi woman and they discuss their problems and they find solutions, and that’s group counseling at its best. What we saw the first month was just unbelievable tears, weeping, crying, and again this is something we see in all post-conflict countries, it’s very typical that they get it out But in Iraq women weren’t allowed to mourn for their dead, they weren’t even allowed to ask, if your son was taken at night, you couldn’t go looking for him, you’d be killed. We had women who went looking for their husbands and they were tortured, so this was their chance, and I think that it really released a lot from them, and you see them, and they’re amazing. One woman in Kerbala is running for political office, another woman in Hilla took up the water company, and made them drill water pipes into her neighborhood, she went through the Americans, she went through the Iraqis, she’s just phenomenal, you see the women made progress. But overall, counseling psychologically for the men as much for the women. Currently we’re trying to build a project for women’s rights awareness for men, and calling it leadership training . . . but for the men as much as the women, so much that they’ve suffered, they were very manipulated. Saddam took more of their public freedom and gave a lot of their private freedom in the shape of tribalism and culture, and so a man’s only outlet was to take control of the family. So you have a lot of minidictators throughout the country, and if your wife or sister is raped, which is very common, a question of honor for the man is an issue psychologically, and none of them have had a venue to deal with that Not only the dictatorship but also the post-traumatic stress, there’s just so many … a kind of schizophrenia because you had to be one thing in the house and another thing in the public.

ISLAMICA | What I saw, and I hate to say it and I mean it in the best possible way, is that this time when I went back to Iraq I’d just say to myself, everybody’s gone mad, everybody’s just gone over that edge.

MANAL | Yes definitely. And you can’t blame them. The environment itself breeds a sense of running in a hamster wheel. This makes you angry and frustrated, you want to see change but you are just spinning in your place. Add to that the security situation, and not knowing if you will return when you leave your house in the morning, and you have an unbelievable amount of suppressed stress in your body that is most cases you are not even aware of. This happened to me for only one year – imagine people who have been living in such an environment for a decade. Ifindmyselfgettingangryalot and that’s one of the reasons why I decided to leave because it was never part of my character, but you’re living in a vacuum. I don’t feel the danger when I’m inside, I don’t realize how tense, or angry or agitated I am because everything that’s happened, nothing is in your control …

ISLAMICA | How do you diffuse, how do you vent cope with it when it fills up like that?

MANAL | Two things I do, obviously I try to do a lot of du’a and dhikr. In the beginning, I was very good about keeping my personal time at night to do this and diffuse, but over time it became more difficult because you develop a general lethargy and depression as the situation deteriorates. Also, I read the letters from the women. The women write letters, and that’s very helpful for me and sometimes 1 go and sit in on the classes, and the women make tons of dua [orme. It’s funny because at one point I was supporting them and now towards the end of my mission, they’re supporting me because they can see the emotional toll the last months have taken on me … and they can see that everyone has left and I’m still there. So I think those are the two main things I’m able to draw on.

ISLAMICA | Out of all the places you’ve been, and they’re considerable, could you fit Iraq into a position in terms of the sheer overwhelmingness of the task, in terms of your worst hotspots?

MANAL | I meet with a lot of the NGOs, we have a lot of inter-coordination meetings with the NGOs and across the board Iraq is the worst it’s not the worst situation, it’s not a development issue, it’s not really even a humanitarian issue . . . if we all left Iraq no one would starve, it doesn’t fit into either one, and it’s not development because there’s no security, so in Iraq, it’s that shadiness which makes it one of the most difficult countries. The security situation in Afghanistan was bad, we had bombs, I was in Afghanistan when the war in Iraq happened we went under lockdown. It was bad, but we were never targeted, but now you’re being targeted.

ISLAMICA | Have you been personally targeted?

MANAL | Alhamdullilah no, our work has been targeted, but I’ve never received a personal threat, which is to say a lot. A lot of people have received personal threats. But now the latest trend is economic so it doesn’t matter, so many Iraqi families have had their children kidnapped, fathers kidnapped, it’s no longer a political thing, it’s a money making thing.

ISLAMICA | The reports were previously saying that this always went on . . .

MANAL | No, before this year it’s never gone on, and I would say it started January . . . everywhere you turn, you hear faraway stories, you hear them in Jordan, stories about this and that, but in January, people I knew … ? Every fifth person I knew had someone kidnapped, I mean that’s not normal, and I’m not Iraqi. Imagine Iraqis who know people…

ISLAMICA | What’s your opinion right now, as to this occupation? Stay? Go? Stay, fix it up and then go?

MANAL | I think it’s fix it up and then go. It’s too easy to just leave and leave the country in chaos, and it would be in chaos. A system to a responsible withdrawal over the next few years should be put in place.

ISLAMICA | What could they (the Coalition) do to start fixing it up, so that they can get out soon?

MANAL | I don’t know why they still can’t figure out electricity.

ISLAMICA | Do you get the feeling that the electricity is a security issue from day one? That it’s to keep the people off balance? And that whenever there’s shooting in the street it goes off at odd times?

MANAL | I never got that feeling. No, I never got that feeling, it works so much in their disfavor, so although a lot of people say that it’s intentional, unless they want chaos, which they could . . .

ISLAMICA | Orpowerlessness?

MANAL | But it’s going to turn the people against them. I mean there were people who were running with flowers out to the tanks. I was in the United States at the time. I said no way, this is lies, this is propaganda, but when I got there, there were. Every now and then I would try to tell them, “Look, ten years ago look at what Bosnia said, look at Latin America, El Salvador. But generally I don’t see why they would do that with electricity and water and the phone lines.

ISLAMICA | Just from personal observation, what I saw was that at 10 o’clock there’s a lights out, and if there’s a fire fight, the lights go out 22 minutes before. Over the days before ‘Ashura, last March or February, there were 20 hours a day of electricity because people were doing latam in the street, getting ready and gearing up for this religious holy day, and there was electricity almost around the clock.

MANAL | February is a light month, you’re not running air conditioners.

ISLAMICA | That’s true.

MANAL | And that’s the main thing that affects in the summer. I haven’t measured the pattern. I think that there’s a lot of cowboys who are setting up the system, and I can see them playing those games, but there’s a lot of really genuine people who are development experts that are in there too, that are part of the American embassy under CPA, and there’s people and I’ve seen them wage many internal wars to defend the Iraqi people, so I find it a very complicated situation. I mean, it’s hard to grasp – something went wrong and I don’t know what went wrong – I can’t pinpoint it but in a very simplistic way it’s management at all levels, on the Iraqi government level, on the elections.

ISLAMICA | Your experiences in Iraq . . . the best memory you can take from Iraq with you, the best success story there, the best moment there, that’s going to stay with you in your time so far?

MANAL | That’s a hard question with all that’s happened recently. We were in an area called Shawaka and a lot of the women talked about typhoid and other diseases from the sewages outside, similar to refugee camps, so I brought up to my trainers – let’s do a clean Shawaka campaign and invite all the women to come and clean the street and they were like “sweetpea, you don’t know Iraqi pride, this is fine for Afghanistan, but Iraqis won’t come and clean the street.” I said “Humor me, I’m going to go out and clean the street, even if it’s just me, let’s do it”. And alhamdullilah, over a hundred women showed up and we were all just cleaning up the streets, and the municipality heard about it so they were embarrassed and they sent a truck over to come and pick up what we had collected, and the women also told the municipality that there is no trash bin next to the river, and women were climbing on the wall and cleaning the river. So it was in a situation in which people were excited, I saw that the women began to understand that they need to own the problem, and the solution it was just wonderful.

ISLAMICA | And the worst memory?

MANAL | My worst memory is when I found out that my friend Fern Holland had died. That was very hard. Since then I have lost many other collegues, many strong Iraqi women have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their work in the last few months.

ISLAMICA | Do people acknowledge this interim government now? It seems, when you mention Allawi for example, that most people put very little stock in this new government.

MANAL | One person explained to me best, “we’ve been suffocated – we haven’t had a breath of air for so long and that grip was lifted and we now know what air tastes like. We’re never going to go back to being suffocated again,” and that’s what the Americans keep asking, “well they’ve been under for 35 years, why aren’t they giving us another 5 years?” I’m like “no”, it doesn’t work that way. And they would have given them 5 years, they would have given them 10 years, if a plan had been in front of them, but they just saw things getting worse and worse and worse, so I think people won’t accept having a government imposed on them.

ISLAMICA | Which is happening now in a sense?

MANAL | Yes, and that’s why you’re now seeing the violence. If they had maintained the pro-U.S., pro-war stance, all this violence would’ve been eliminated because you would’ve gotten tip offs, but now people are torn.

ISLAMICA | Pretty much what happened in Najaf, where British control seemed to be keeping things kind of quiet. It was easy to go to Basra, it was easy to go to Najaf. Suddenly this assault on Najaf seemed to turn the country.

MANAL | I have no idea what they did, even in the first incident when they closed the newspaper. Why? I mean, why? And from what I heard a lot of analysts saying, they wanted to pick fights before the transition so the government wouldn’t have to pick those fights, and so they identified Falluja and Najaf as a fight, which I don’t know if they gambled and placed the wrong bet, because it created a much larger problem. I think the primary problem is arrogance, there’s a lot of arrogance. It’s the biggest vice to be aware of in our field, so add in soldiers, and add in guns, and add in an embassy that’s really a palace, contractors, development mercenaries, and you’ve got a lot of arrogance, and you can’t work in that country, anywhere, you can’t work like that.

ISLAMICA | In terms of you, yourself, you’re going to be going back in a few days, you’re going to be there for another period of time. Is there a toll you could calculate it’s taking? Or do you put that aside?

MANAL | This is one of the ways I convinced my parents. I think people in this job, they have to have the experience, they have to have the opportunity, and to a certain extent they have to have the background and intention, and I think the fact that I’m Palestinian and my parents really raised me on that, allowed me to. You can never empathize, I can’t survive this one year, and they’ve survived 35 years of similar situations, but I have that combination of three things, so I feel that to a certain extent I’m going to be able to do, to be qualified for what I was doing with that combination.

ISLAMICA | You mentioned in the article that you couldn’t survive that year how would you translate “couldn’t survive”?

MANAL | Yes, that was sanctions. I think I was more disgusted with the oil for food program than anything in Iraq. I mean the oil for food program was just disgusting, I mean I was like 21, I had a land cruiser and some ridiculous salary, and for me that was oil money, that was Iraqi money, and I just took it for blood money. And after awhile when I started understanding the system I said “I don’t want to be here.” But I never gotto Iraqis on the streets, we were office hotel/office hotel and everyone had a mukhabarat that was assigned to them, so I came out of Iraq being really paranoid. I think I whispered a whole year in 1998 after leaving, it was very much an Orwellian society. But I knew nothing of Iraq.

ISLAMICA | In terms of Muslim countries, their treatment of women, where would you rank Iraq in terms of “enlightened” religious views, in terms of dealing with women as part of the din, as in giving them their rights?

MANAL | See that’s what’s scary in the sense of this one year, Iraq would probably have been among the best, it had done a very nice job of marrying the Shari’a with the civil law, so that it was a good marriage between the two, and it gave the freedom because the combination of the Shi’a and the Sunni gave them the freedom to implement that. The way the new system might set it up can possibly send women a hundred years back, because it’s going to allow a narrowminded Shari’a to become the law. They don’t understand the depth of Islamic law.

ISLAMICA | If you could take a second to say something to the people of Iraq, what would you say?

MANAL | I would say that they’ve survived much more difficulties, and they’ll survive this but they need to unite under one voice, to be careful not to ignore the large portions of the population, the women, the Kurds, the Shi’a. Their strength is in unity, they always have worked together, and don’t allow the little forces to divide them.

ISLAMICA | Finally, what are your feelings about the alleged murder of Margaret Hassan, whom you knew during your time in Iraq?

MANAL | For the past eighteen months I have had my ears close to the pit waiting to hear the rock hit the bottom. Each time I am convinced this has happened, something worse than I could ever imagine occurs and makes me realize that things can, and will, get progressively worse. Writing about the death of Margaret has been probably one of the most difficult tasks I have had to do in my life. Mainly because there is still a part of me that doesn’t believe it. I daily check the internet for some clue that they could have been wrong. I imagine they have let Margaret go under the condition that she does not tell anyone, because I cannot comprehend that they actually brutally murdered her. Who are they? Of course I have no idea and wonder if they too are a figment of the imagination.

The kidnapping of Margaret in itself was hard forme to comprehend. For me, Margaret represented the one international face that had adopted a local identity. She truly understood and lived for the Iraqi people. The fact that she herself was an Iraqi woman was not why I did not believe the news for so many Iraqi women have been brutally murdered in the last months. But Margaret was the face of the humanitarian world in Iraq – the last woman standing to make sure that Iraqi people knew they were not forgotten. She represented to me a woman who was willing to deliver the message that the humanitarian community would stand side by side with the Iraqis no matter what the cost – Iran-Iraq war, sanctions, U.S. bombings, brink of civil war – whatever it was, Margaret would not leave. I heard the news of Margaret by email when the BBC was looking for a comment, and the next few days I was searching every website, watching any network that would tell me it was a lie. For the first time in my time in Iraq, I was overwhelmed with a sense of defeat. The deaths before had mobilized me to work in their memory, but with a legacy such as Margaret I could not imagine there was anything more we could do. I have managed to move passed these doubts, and to reaffirm my commitment to Iraqi women, but with Margaret I believe the humanitarian face of Iraq has died. And with it, a part of my own idealism will be buried.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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