Who calls anyone civilized?

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet and professor of Creative Writing at Texas State. Her father was Palestinian and a refugee journalist.

In one of her poems after 9/11, entitled “Blood,” she writes:

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

I myself tried to write something for the 15-year “commemoration” of the US war against Iraq, but wasn’t able to complete it. It was too much for me. A couple of months ago, I was invited to go to the Northwest to speak about “Fifteen Years After the War.” It was too much for me emotionally, and somewhat shamefully I had to decline.

As I write, I have the phone next to me. I am texting a young Iraqi boy who is alone in Turkey. About ten months ago, he was kidnapped in Iraq. Through a chain of events, he ended up in Syria. About two months ago, his father was contacted and was able to get his son smuggled across the border into Turkey. Last month, his son turned 18 years of age and was eligible to register as a refugee with UNHCR. But he will not get an interview for many months to come.

Traumatized, missing family and without friends, he tells his family he wants to come home. But it is much too dangerous for him to return. Trying to draw him out of his boredom, I ask him to tell me how his day was. What did he eat? Did he get outside? What is the weather like? I ask him what words he has learned in Turkish. I tell him what I ate, about the soup I cooked or the rainy weather. By the length of time between our messages, I suspect that he is looking up some of the English words. Sometimes we speak by phone and get to see each other.

For some reason, I find our simple conversation today so tender. His family in Baghdad is grateful that we are in contact. They have another son who was also kidnapped. They do not know whether he is alive or not. The boys were separated after the kidnapping. The grief of this family seems to have no end. And this is just one family.

I was in Iraq for the month of October last year. One of the hardest things for me on that trip was the feeling I heard expressed that the country has become invisible. A doctor friend in Baghdad, his hurt palpable, told me he felt as though Iraq has been completely forgotten by the global community.

A friend from Baghdad sent me photos a couple of weeks ago, photos that he took from a bus window of the destruction in Mosul, and it was the side of the city that had suffered only “minimally.”

Building in Mosul decimated by bombing, March 2018. Photo: Abu Mohammed

Shop remains open in area of Mosul decimated by bombing, March, 2018. Photo: Abu Mohammed.

That same week Hunar Ahmed, writing for Kurdish media network “Rudaw News,” reported (“Bodies of Mosul Civilians Contaminate Water and Threaten Epidemic,” 3/17/18): “Heaps of bodies are being uncovered amongst the rubble of Mosul and in its river, threatening contamination and a public health emergency. Human remains are almost indistinguishable from the debris of ruined buildings.”

More than 2 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war against the Islamic State. According to a February 2018 Reuters report about interviews with refugee aid groups, “Iraqi authorities are forcing thousands of displaced people to return to their home areas too soon despite the risks. . . . In two of the five camps the aid groups collectively oversee, 84 percent of displaced Iraqis said they felt safer in the camp than in their area of origin. More than half said their houses were damaged or totally destroyed and only 1 percent said they knew for sure their houses were available for return.”

War rages on in Iraq. Naomi Shihab Nye’s words should help bring us back to ourselves, fifteen years after the onset of the 2003 US-led war against Iraq. “Who calls anyone civilized?

Cathy Breen (newsfromcathy@gmail.com) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org). She lived in Iraq throughout the 2003 “Shock and Awe” bombing. For the past 15 years she has regularly visited with and advocated for Iraqis who’ve been displaced within Iraq or seek refuge beyond Iraq.

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2 Responses to Who calls anyone civilized?

  1. This is a post I would love to share with my two cousins. I don’t dare. They would not understand it. Their Christian, Catholic, Trump supporting heart beats would reject the reading of this post. Muslems-go-home the beating of their hearts says … TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP …
    But it is not only theirs that sends out such a beating pulse. It is everyone else’s so terrified of Muslims, like my PCP, like in the place where I cut my hair … a customer was talking to the operator fixing her hair …
    “…and then they come here and they want to keep their way of life, not assimilate to ours … better stay where they are… I am for Trump. I am for Trump. I am for Trump. I watch FOX News all the time. People ought to give him a chance. They Have Been After Him Since Day One. The Kennedys were awful. Clinton was awful and didn’t do anything. [she didn't mention Obama. I wonder why? She knew I was listening. Did she think I would have thought her to be a damn racist White supremacist? I did whether she mentioned Obama or not.] She and her hair fixer became one.
    My hair operator had not come in yet. My husband and I waited. When the hair fixer finished and was walking her white supremacist customer’s ass and her own to the counter for payment, she looked at me and said, “who are you waiting for?” I turned to my husband and said in the loudest Spanish I could muster “PREGUNTA POR QUIEN ESTAMOS ESPERANDO. [SHE ASKS WHO ARE WE WAITING FOR]” My husband said the name. I repeated it. The first white ass paid $75.00 for her new do. The two white assess stepped outside of the shop where they talked for a while with the customer’s husband and the shop’s owner.
    We remained seated in the shop waiting for our operator.
    Outside the four of them continued to go on about how TRUMP IS A GOD GIVEN GIFT TO THEIR WORLD.
    The client and her husband left after a while.
    We continued to wait. My husband likes to get early to his appointments. When the white ass operator had enough of us waiting and no one coming, she came back into the store, went to the back of it and got herself a cup of coffee. Then she again came up to the front of the store.
    She stopped in front of me and asked. “Are you waiting for X?” ” SI.” I said. She asked again, “Does she know?” I again said, “SI.” Then I beat myself up mentally. I realized that in answering her I had given away that I understood perfect English.
    The white ass operator turned around and went back out to sit with the shop’s owner.
    By the time our operator came in carrying her tiniest of Chihuahuas, I jumped out of my chair and said in perfect English, “OH, You got the baby with you. He is so cute…”and proceeded in perfect English to have a normal conversation in English with my descended of Italian parents operator.
    My two cousins, the two white assess (actually four if I count the husband and the shop owner) go to church every Sunday. In the case of my Catholic cousins they probably go to communion as well. In the case of the other four white assess they probably beat their chest telling their congregations what a wonderful Christian people they are.
    All the while thinking themselves superior to Muslims, Dreamers, Blacks, Hispanics and so much of the rest of humanity.
    At the shop the white ass operator (a new addition to the shop’s operators) told my hairdresser that one of their colleagues “is back on the Go Fund Me Page..” Someone who has had heart problems and has not worked for a while. My operator told the white ass “No . she was there a while back. I don’t think she is there again.” The white ass said, “No. This is new. X said that she lives in a mansion. I DON’T THINK HERS IS A CHARITY CASE.” (The gall of the woman, I thought, is inexplicable. She started to feed the Chihuahua after my operator said, “No. Don’t give her chocolate.” … then asked if she had noticed one of the other gal’s “peel” that she had done and taught her how to do. Never mind that my operator knows how to do it. She wondered if my operator wanted her to do a peel on her. “”No.” my operator said. Then the white ass finally went back outside to sit with the store owner.
    I wanted to tell my operator, “watch your back. This white ass will have it in no time if she wants to.” I didn’t say anything.
    Donald Trump has invaded this country with a totally demoralizing full frontal white assed supremacist assault force.
    Our landscape has not been turned into a physical looking Syrian or Iraqui landscape and we have not suffered the stench of rotting bodies on our soil since 9/11…
    But Our morals and ethics has become a casualty and it is leaving a malodorous stench.
    Trump is decimating whatever honor this country ever had.
    Families are split. Friends are split. Most of us live in fear. I do. And those who live to sanctify themselves and glorify the coming Trump created rapture are, in my opinion, as heinous to the welfare and wellbeing of this country as the bombs rained upon Iraq and the poisonous gas rained in Syria by its leader.
    The Orange White Supremacist Ass who sits in the White House Governs by Emotional tweets.
    And yes, this rant is an emotional reaction to the emotional crap I witnessed while I waited to have my hair cut the other day.