Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Category: Political

Iraqi Americans Protest in Sterling Heights

Yesterday was an exhausting and sad day as I interviewed families of the 100+ Iraqi-born people who were rounded up Sunday from their homes, churches, restaurants, and one elderly was even taken out of the hospital. Some of them have been here since 1978 with “crimes” that consisted of a brawl in a bar and possession of marijuana over 25 years ago (when it was considered a felony, now it’s a misdemeanor).

Full story will be published by The Chaldean News.

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The US Book Review of My Book

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The US Book Review of my book The Great American Family: A Story of Political Disenchantment 

The true and gripping story of an all-American girl charged with illegally selling telecommunications equipment to Iraq. However, her co-conspirator turns out to be a CIA operative, possibly working on a project to bug Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen.

The author makes good use of firsthand accounts, skillfully weaving them together to show how the “War on Terror” has blurred or perhaps frayed our criminal justice system. As an Iraqi-American journalist the author has the prefect background to tell this story. Settings are well-depicted and characters come to life so that it’s tempting to skip ahead to learn the resolution. This book takes a hard look at how terrorism, oppression, and sanctions invite hypocrisy, abuse of power and double-dealing. One hopes this isn’t an example of the new normal for America but fears that it is.

Baghdad, the Gift of God

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They say that Baghdad means the “gift of God” in Persian. That definition reflects the memory I have of my birth country, not the news, which is saturated with accounts of prolific violence and a reign of terror. Instead, I visit that place, the past, which contains flavors of a happy childhood, of magic and mystery.

In the 1970s, children in Baghdad owned the streets during the hours when they were not in school. We were like the train gate in control of traffic. When a car drove by, we scattered left and right to make way, and once the car passed, we resumed to jump rope, hopscotch, tag, hide-and-go-seek, and play the all-time favorite game of marbles, where we drew a circle on the ground with a stick, placed all the marbles in the circle, then shot their smooth and brightly colored glass sphere to knock the other marbles out of the circle.

We did not worry about thieves or kidnappers because the majority of mothers stayed at home and watched the children, theirs and the whole neighborhoods’, as if they had binoculars implanted on all sides of their heads.

We didn’t have toys, board games, or electronic games. Television programming started at 6:00 pm, opening up with Quranic prayers, then children’s shows, followed by regular family programming, and the news. By midnight, the screen would go dark and then the colored bars came on, followed by the pink noise and static-filled screen. In the summer, two additional hours were added in the morning to get the kids out of their mother’s hair.

Our district was our amusement park.

We didn’t need waterslides, merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, cotton candy, popcorn, or lemonade. We just had a simple desire to be together, and to be creative.

Once the early morning winter frosts had given way to spring, the wild flowers and fruit trees sprouted over the land the way in which brown and yellow grass turned green here in America. There are more than 3,300 plants and flowers in Iraq. The scent of palm trees, fig trees, citrus trees, berries, Jasmine, sunflowers, and roses – the national flower of Iraq and the United States – is enough to cure ailments and feed the soul before their parts are removed and used for food or traditional medicine.

In the summer, our bedrooms were dismantled and our pillows, bed sheets, and blankets were carried to the rooftop, where they were set up in rows so we could sleep under an open sky. The rooftop was a real entertainment.

During broad daylight, we would go to the rooftop and watch the man in a white tank top smoke, his arms resting over the roofless wall; a woman hang bed sheets, pajamas, nightgowns, and men’s tank tops and pants on a clothesline; our neighbor’s older sister hold up a mirror in a well-lit corner as she plucked her eyebrows; a young student across the street who liked to pace back and forth while reading his book.

In the falling twilight we would crawl out of our beds on the rooftops to chase after the moon that changed direction whenever we changed direction. We’d stand on top of the beds, raise our voice, and call out to our friends next door, asking them, “What are you doing?” Or we argued about who the moon was actually following, us or them, until our mothers would hush us up and scuttle us back to bed. Lovers had their own secret way of utilizing the rooftop, which we were then too young to learn the details of.

Every July 14, we watched the fireworks celebrating the 1958 revolution that took place in Iraq, marking the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy established by King Faisal in 1932 under the support of the British. One July 14, as we competed with the neighbors across our roof, we screamed so loud and jumped so hard that the bed broke and we fell through to the ground. The neighbors laughed hysterically and we got up, all red-faced.

Long before that, Baghdad was the center of learning and commerce where the House of Wisdom was built. The House of Wisdom, was a key institution in the translation movement where Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Syriac works were translated into Arabic and the concept of the library catalog was introduced. When the Mongol invaded Iraq in 1258, they destroyed the House of Wisdom, along with all other libraries in Baghdad, and that has become the story of Iraq’s life.

My family left Iraq when I was nine years old, and I didn’t visit that land until 20 years later. I spent Easter of 2000 in Baghdad, church hopping and eating pacha with relatives. I visited my parents’ and grandparents’ village of Telkaif in Mosul, and slept on the rooftop under the star filled night. Iraq was not the same as I remembered it, but I still had a lovely time.

This article was originally published by Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/baghdad-gift-god/#.WO5FxRMpPxw.facebook

Cleopatra’s Dance of Darkness

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Cleopatra and Caesar (1866). Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

An old friend, a Native American whom I call in my books the Red Indian, is the focus of my upcoming book, Conversations with My Native American Friend. Over the weekend, we continued a conversation we have been having for a while about Cleopatra. Here is some of what he said:

Cleopatra was a matriarch and that’s why the war happened. There were big wars at that time which people didn’t know about, and Cleopatra actually won a couple of big wars. She kind of took over the Roman guy, Caesar. It was like she married him, not he married her. Everything is negative toward that woman, and everything is Caesar, but it was Cleopatra that was the ruler at that time, in the Roman Empire. That’s why Rome was burned.

They didn’t write the history like that, that Cleopatra was the clan mother, that she won. They call her Caesar’s wife and point to her femininity and promiscuity because she is female. They write all about that because it takes away from all the positive things she did. They focus on her negativity to make her a negative person, but she took care of thousands of families and she almost took over the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra was in the middle of the world, the middle of the clan system. When she married the guy from Rome, Caesar, she did that for a reason, but they took her power away. They thought in their mind that they suppressed the clan system to start what we know now as the judicial system. They’d rather not have the clan system. They’d rather have the judicial system.

The court system is the largest corporation in the United States. It’s a form of tax and it’s operated on billions and billions of dollars. If it’s a clan system and you pass a red light, you say, ‘Hey girl, give me the keys. You can’t drive for two or three weeks. Your sister will drive you or you have to wait.’

With the judicial system, you pay a big fine. Making a mistake is monetary with the judicial system.

So back to Cleopatra…  Ancient people, her people, did the dark dance, where it gets cloudy for so long that there’s no crops. That’s how she won a great battle by using the powers at hand. Her enemies had no food. People became sick and died from starvation with no sun coming from the cloud. The problem with the dark dance is not only did the enemies have nothing to eat but neither did you.

If you have a weapon and you decide to use it against someone else, then you have to be willing and able to take that medicine too. If you wish something on someone else, like your enemy, you really should be able to take that on yourself without harm – or you die.

The patriarch society was forced on the matriarch society but that does not mean that the matriarch society is still not there. It just means that it’s not as prevalent. Everything that happened on the earth was because the Creator made it like this. There’s a reason. It’s not good or bad. If you look to the Creator, you will always find a reason why.

 

For more information and updates about this book, visit wwww.weamnamou.com

 

What We Carried: Fragments from the Craddle of Civilization

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Samir Khurshid and Jim Lommasson at the first What We Carried exhibition in Portland, 2011

What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization is an ongoing project currently on view at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois. The exhibit includes photos and writings chosen from over 250 Iraqi and Syrian refugees of the objects they carried to <!–more–>America, such as abayas, Barbie dolls, coffee cups, Qurans, platters, milk cans, rugs, and flip flops. Some of the actual objects that refugees carried to America from their homeland are included in the exhibition.

Renowned freelance photographer and author Jim Lommasson of Portland, Oregon started this project as a way for Americans to meet the people who have been displaced and demonized in the media.

“It’s a bridge building project,” Lommasson said, explaining how it came about. “I was horrified that we invaded and occupied Iraq. One of the questions I wanted answered for myself is: what did the American soldiers feel about the war in Iraq?”

Believing in the power of pictures, and the idea that photography can change lives, Lommasson used his artistic talents to tell stories he hopes can bring about peace. In 2007, he created a traveling show and book about American troops called Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life After Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lommasson asked the soldiers how they felt about the war in Iraq. He was surprised that the vast majority of soldiers he interviewed admitted that the war was a mistake. Many had regrets, became anti-war activists, and some wanted to go back to Iraq as civilians and help rebuild the country.

“They wanted to tell us cautionary stories,” he said, “that we should not be so gullible for our leaders to bring us to war. Many said, ‘If foreigners came to our cities and neighborhood and started kicking in doors, we would do the same to them as the Iraqis did to us.’”

He realized that the consequences of war are horrific for everybody, so he thought that he should not only interview soldiers who fought in Iraq, but the affected Iraqi people, too. Lommasson sat down an Iraqi woman, who is now an academic in Portland. During the course of their interview, he asked her what she thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She answered, “I thank America for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but did they have to destroy the whole country to do that?”

That statement stuck with him, and it suggested a new project. Lommasson felt that people needed to hear from those “others” affected by the war. He soon learned that Iraqis, whether they came before or after 2003, shared universal stories.

Poet Dunya Mikhail brought with her a folder of stories written by her friend, famous Iraqi author, Lutfiya Al-Dulaimi, who now lives in Jordan.

“Although there’s an age gap between us, we were friends in Iraq,” Mikhail said. “Once she wanted to throw out this file in the garbage. I said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you throwing this out?’ She said, ‘What would I do with it? They’re already published.’”

Mikhail asked if she could have the file and Al-Dulaimi easily gave it to her. The file came along in the one suitcase that Mikhail brought along with her to America. While at a conference in Jordan last summer, Mikhail met with Al-Dulaimi and showed her the file she’d held onto for twenty years. She said to her friend, “You can keep it or let me keep it. But if you let me keep it that’s even better because they want to place it at a museum.”

Al-Dulaimi thought Mikhail was joking.

“The irony is that she wanted to throw it away and now it ended up in the museum,” said Mikhail.

Rafat Mandwee, a tour guide at the Arab American National Museum, also had from Iraq a blanket, which was over a hundred years old and previously owned by his great grandmother. He also brought a tin milk container, which was used during the 1950s and 60s. After the milk finished, people used it to store water.

“Some of the items people brought with them, like diaries, were sensitive material and too dangerous to bring out during Saddam’s time,” said Mandwee. “If they were caught, they would have risked their life. This required a lot of strength and courage on their part.”

“When you leave, you often leave under the veil of darkness and the things that you bring, you lose more along your travel, depending on your travel path,” Lommasson said. “It’s not really about what people brought, but what they left behind – their memories, cultures, education, families.”

Exit Wounds and What We Carried have traveled to universities, galleries, and museums. They have become books that have been embraced by the participant communities.

What We Carried will be going to Nebraska next where there’s a large Yazidi community.

Lommasson feels that this project is creating a new and unique language to tell stories.

“I wanted the American public to know the consequences of our government and the consequences of ignorance. George Bush told people to just go to the mall. We can’t just go to the mall,” said Lommasson. “We have to become aware and educated. The efforts we do – we have little effect moving the big picture, but we can have an effect on one-on-one relationships.”

This article was written for, and originally published by, Arab America http://www.arabamerica.com/78783-2/

Freedom of Religion

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“The recent controversy over Article 26 in Iraq has exposed an important problem in the Middle East,” said Tina Ramirez, president and founder of Hardwired, an organization that goes to some of the darkest places in the world in countries like Nepal, Sudan, and Iraq, and provide people on the frontline of religious oppression an understanding of what their rights are so that they can stand up and defend them, for themselves and for others.

“In the Middle East, individuals are not identified by their humanity but by their religion,” she said. “And consequently, they are also divided by their religion.”

Ramirez, who lives in Virginia, flew into Michigan on Thursday, September 29 to visit members of the Chaldean community at the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) in Sterling Heights. Along with myself, present at the meeting were Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, and Wendy Acho, director of strategic initiatives at the CCF.

Ramirez is an award-winning humanitarian whose passion for religious freedom began in college while studying at the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, decided in 2013 to start an organization to end religious oppression. Around the world today, 5.3 billion people are living under religious oppression and that number is growing.

“For many refugees from the region who have resettled in the U.S., it will take a while to fully understand that most Americans do not know what religion they are by reading their name or looking at them,” she said. “And they likely will not care.”

She explained that Americans have been heavily influenced by a Protestant worldview that views religion as something that can be changed, challenged, and reformed.  Religion may influence their lives, but it is not an immutable characteristic like race and ethnicity so it would never be placed on a government driver’s license or identity card like it is in the Middle East.

“Its absence does not mean it is not valued,” she said. “But it is valued as an individual choice and not as a means to classify and stratify people.”

Hardwired focuses on specific leaders in the community, which range from advocates and lawyers to media personnel and religious leaders, to make a ripple effect and influence others to embrace the idea of freedom of religion.

“One of the challenges for individuals we work with around the world who identify others by their religion is that they often fail to see the common humanity they share,” she said. “The commonalities are what ensure that each person has the basic rights and freedoms to live according to a particular religion or belief in peace with others, even those with whom they may disagree.”

Earlier this year, Hardwired brought together ten teachers from around the world representing seven different religious communities in the Middle East so they can teach their students in that region about freedom of religion and belief.

“A couple of teachers who joined us were Yezidis from northern Iraq, who themselves had experienced persecution for their beliefs,” said Ramirez.

The two men development an activity where they took a group of displaced students to choose flowers. They told them to pick whichever flowers they wanted but to keep a few yellow flowers. After the students did that, the teachers expressed how the same situation happened to their country when ISIS came and destroyed everyone except the people who believed and looked like them.

This activity enabled the teachers and students to discuss issues about their countries and what vision they had for it. The students had the opportunity to then plant their own garden and to go around and learn as much as possible about one another. Throughout the process, one of the young Yezidi boys, who didn’t like Muslims, shared something with the teacher as they went back to the garden that was replanted with colorful flowers.

He told his teacher, “I didn’t know that other Muslims had suffered the same way we have.”

He had done a project with a Muslim boy learned that they had both been attacked by ISIS.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to plant the seeds of freedom in that society,” she said, “but it’s worth it and it would make them feel safer in the future.”

There are several ways one can become involved in this program by signing a petition, joining the Hardwired team and becoming an ambassador for freedom, hosting a screening, or investing to the program. To learn more, visit http://www.hardwiredglobal.org/

 

Legendary Iraqi-Born Author and Publisher

 

IMG_7857 (2)I’ve been freelancing for the Chaldean News for about ten years. Oftentimes when I interview people, they’ll ask me, “Is the publisher of this magazine the son of Fouad Manna, otherwise known as Abu Jibran?” I’d say yes and they would then list Abu Jibran’s wonderful qualities and mention his accomplishments and contributions as a writer and publisher. Their descriptions made me want to one day meet him in person.

Well, yesterday I had the honor of doing that. We met at the Chaldean Community Foundation and then taking advantage of the pleasant weather, we walked the short distance to Ishtar Restaurant for lunch. For approximately three hours, this legendary and kind man shared with me some of the most fascinating stories, starting with his childhood.

Fouad Manna was born in 1936 in a Christian village which had 96 homes, 500 residents, and no schools. It was during a time when families easily and naturally shared one big home. In his case, there were three families, each with about seven to eight kids. For the most part, they lived off the land, through agriculture or herding. Everyone worked, even the children. But Manna wanted something else. He wanted to go to school.

“I went up to my mom and said, ‘I want to go to school,’” he said and she and her husband helped fulfill his desire. They registered him in a school that was two miles away in walking distance.

He continued in this educational path, and after graduating, studied journalism for a year. One day a man was pushing a three-wheel cart, selling used books. A book that stood out for Manna was by an author named Khalil Gibran. He was drawn to this book and decided to buy it.

“Reading Gibran’s book mesmerized me,” he said. “I felt an immediate connection with the author. It was as if he knew my thoughts and feelings.”

After that, he searched for more books by Gibran and read each one several times.

At the age of twenty, Manna also began his writing career by working for one of Iraq’s newspapers. This was during the Hashemite Kingdom which he describes as “The best government Iraq ever had. Every government that has come since then has been worse and worse.”

During this period, a writer could write whatever they wanted as long as they did not attack the government. The Kingdom of Iraq was founded on August 21, 1923 under British administration and following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I. It was established with King Faisal I of the Hashemite dynasty receiving the throne.

After the Hashemite Kingdom’s overthrow on July 14, 1958, the new government closed all the newspapers associated with the Kingdom and arrested the editors-in-chief. Manna eventually continued to write in different papers until 1963, when the Baath Party came into power. They too closed newspapers, but they did something entirely different with the editors-in-chief.

“These people were gone, just disappeared,” said Manna.

This reminded me of the Mural of the Revolution in one of Baghdad’s famous squares. The Mural is located on the other side of where the Freedom Monument stands and it depicts, among other beautiful things, a woman whose hands extend upward as she holds peace doves. In 1963, when the Baath Party began to come into power, they considered certain art dangerous, so they removed the doves and left the woman’s hand empty.

Manna realized that he could not live under this type of government, especially not given his writing profession. “Journalists have to address the negativities of the community, to shed light on it,” he said.

So he prepared to leave for America. He arrived to the United States on January 11, 1969 and he has since then made an incredible legacy for himself and his family. His story is uplifting and the lessons he learned over the decades are full of wisdom, the details of which will be included in the upcoming book, Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Writers.

When Women Owned Bathing Suits in Baghdad

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Six Detroit area-writers gathered Sunday to share their work (memoir, fiction, poetry) during the monthly reading series organized by Detroit Working Writers. The theme for July was water and I shared two passages from my new book, Healing Wisdom for a Wounded: My Life-Changing Journey Through a Shamanic School (Book 2).  

The first passage was from Chapter 7, where I recount a story that took place in the 1970s. In our neighborhood in Baghdad, almost every home had some sort of bathing attire because the families had a membership to Al Zawraa Swim Club which had two pools outside, one for children and one for adults. This made it useful when an out-of-towner who did not possess a bathing suit was invited for a swim, as so happened with one of my cousins. My cousin spent the night over our house and the next day my siblings wanted to take her swimming. Because she did not have a bathing suit, they ended up borrowing one from a neighbor who was somewhat my cousin’s size.

 

As many know by now, Iraqi women who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s had much more liberty than the women who grew up during the 80s and the 90s. They enjoyed higher education, independence, and positions in the public work force. Many even dressed in miniskirts and bikinis. Men imitated the Western style of a shaggy moptop hairstyle, and dressed in bellbottoms and disco shirts. Women dressed miniskirts, cropped pants, and had fancy updos.

When Khairallah Talfah, Saddam’s paternal uncle and his father-in-law and the brother-in-law of then President Al-Bark, became the Mayor of Baghdad in the early 1970s, he ordered the security service and police force to spray paint the legs of any woman wearing short skirts and to tear the bellbottom trousers worn by any male or female. These actions against any westernized contemporary trends only lasted a few weeks and were terminated abruptly, when Vice President Saddam Hussein intervened. These trendy fashions subsequently spread all over the country and ironically had been worn even by Tulfa’s own sons and daughters.

Provoking Americans to Think and Become One Team

 

rainbow-flowerI was scheduled for a 20 minute interview at 2:30 pm by award winning talk show host Ed Tyll on Starcom Radio Network. Within a minute of our interview, I realized this was not the typical interview. It was a political rumble (one of my listeners called it egotistical bullying). I held my ground, threw my own political punches and 80 minutes later, he said, “You’re the most provocative person I’ve interviewed. You’re intelligent and brilliant and you never lost your femininity. I haven’t gone this much over an interview in 3 or 4 years.” He has been in this business for over 40 years. Oh, and he also invited me out to dinner.

Overall, the interview was fun, engaging and I saw, once again, how the lessons I’d learned from Lynn Andrews’ 4-year school about feminine power could be used as a tool to create harmony between people and in the world.

Today, I shared a recording of this through social media. Soon I discovered that, as so happened yesterday, people were having difficulty listening to it because of the aggressive way Ed Tyll started the interview. But keep this in mind: it’s important to listen to the other side in order to create the change. And in this 80 minutes, a big transformation occurs in our conversation.

Ed Tyll said that he does this to provoke Americans to think. Caring about this country, the earth, and world affairs, means that we have to do some independent thinking and open up our hearts. My teacher, Lynn Andrews, often says, “We’re all responsible for the wars in the world. How are you responsible? Because there is a war inside each and every one of us.”

If we don’t heal that war within ourselves, within our own country, it’ll always be us vs. them and we’ll never resolve our differences.

Ed asked me in the end who I believed would win the elections in November. I had difficulty answering, and he said, “What does your gut tell you?”

“My gut tells me that if the democrats don’t resolve their differences and become a team, then Trump will win.”

Link to Interview: http://theedtyllshow.podomatic.com/entry/2016-06-22T23_41_35-07_00

Becoming Politically Fit

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Yesterday Robert W. DeKelaita, an attorney who was born in Iraq, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit immigration and naturalization fraud for his Christian clients. This is the message he wrote on his Facebook page to the people: I am asking something of you. Don’t ever be afraid. When you fight, fight with courage.  Did you see what they did to our ancestral lands in Assyria (Iraq)? They kicked us out and brought us here and look at what they’ve done to us here. Have faith in yourselves and have faith in me as an attorney who has fought until the last minute.

Mr. DeKelaita is an activist for Christian Iraqis and ironically his verdict came just as a book which I spent six years writing comes out. The Great American Family: A Story of Political Disenchantment was released this week. It is about a case that had all the political elements that Mr. DeKelaita’s had, which made me realize this: Although we came here for America’s freedoms, as an immigrant, I’m seeing how we are losing the very things we came here for.

This realization is the result of six years of research, which began the day a family approached me to write a story about their daughter, who was then serving a 6-year prison term. She was accused of conspiring to broker telecommunication equipment to Iraq during the sanctions. Unbeknownst to Dawn and the jury which tried her, her co-conspirator was actually a CIA operative. The project was sponsored by the United States to listen in on Saddam and his men.

I was drawn to this story and decided to write about it as a cautionary tale. Through the lens of a single case, I touch on a number of important issues that are robbing American families from living the American dream: a criminal justice system that is based on greed and profit; big lies that lead to wars, sanctions, terrorism and other costly consequences; a democracy that is based on double standards.

 

 

To purchase a copy of The Great American Family: A Story of Political Disenchantment, visit http://www.amazon.com/Great-American-Family-Political-Disenchantment/dp/0977679055/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1462991178&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Great+American+Family%3A+A+Story+of+Political

To learn more about the documentary that accompanies this book, which will be released later this year, visit www.TheGreatAmericanFamilyDocumentary.com