Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Baath Party

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.

Iraq’s Good Old Days

My Sisters During the 70's

My Sisters During the 70’s in Iraq

When my sisters tell me old stories of when they lived in Iraq, and as I flip through black and white family pictures taken in Iraq during the 60s and 70s, I am saddened that Iraqi women have fallen into the stone age. I am even more saddened that people wish to bury this devastating fact.

Throughout much of recent history, Iraq was one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East for women, with Iraqi women historically enjoying more freedoms than the women of neighboring countries. My sisters, for instance, had a membership to a neighborhood Swim Club. They went there regularly with their female friends, most of who were Muslim. They swam in unisex pools wearing modern day bathing suits. After a nice swim, they returned home unscathed.

Prior to 1920, Iraq was ruled under the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. During this time, Iraqi women had little or no rights. Under the British occupation from 1920-1958, the situation for women did not change much. It was not until 1958 that Iraq became a Republic and for the first time ever, women’s rights began to improve. That’s when the government of General Abdul-Kareem Kasim, supported by the Iraqi Communist Party, amended Personal Status Law to grant equal inheritance and divorce rights. This personal Status Law also relegated divorce, inheritance and marriage to civil, instead of religious, courts, and provided for child support.

The Iraqi Provisional Constitution (drafted in 1970the Baath Party) formally guaranteed equal rights to women and other laws specifically ensured their right to vote, attend school, run for political office, and own property. Enrollment of women and girls in rural areas in literacy centers under the illiteracy eradication legislation of 1979 transferred women in Iraq into a new level of education, labor, and employment. With other employment laws, the opportunities in the civil service sector, maternity benefits, and stringent laws against harassment in the work place allowed Iraqi women larger involvement in building their careers. Women attained the right to vote and run for office in 1980. In 1986 Iraq became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Deterioration of women’s rights in Iraq began during the US-UN comprehensive economical sanctions imposed on Iraqis during the 1990s. The financial crippling of families resulted in an increase of female illiteracy as many families could not afford to send their children to school. In 2003, the US led invasion resulted in the most vulgar descent of the rights of women. It led them to the oppression their ancestors experienced when they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has truly enslaved Iraqi women but most people don’t want to own responsibility for having created this story.

Falling in Love with Political Matters

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During Saddam’s era, if you were interested in politics you had to either join the Baath Party, be neutral or, if you wanted to start a new party or movement, risk imprisonment or death. Today, the situation is ten times worse. You risk losing your life (in a most brutal manner) no matter what you do or believe in.

In America, it’s quite the opposite. You get city officials who actually have an interest in establishing a relationship with your diverse community – something the City of Sterling Heights has been known to do over the years. You can even get rewarded for your efforts. That was the case with my colleague Nick Najjar last week when he received an award as Commissioner of the Year for the City of Sterling Heights. Over the years Nick has fostered civic virtue and political awareness, promoted active participation in political changes, and helped citizens identify policies that would benefit them. He is an example of someone who truly understands and honors the privileges this country has to offer.

Americans frequently expect the government to do something about their problems. But, how does the government know what these problems are unless members of the community address them? Some think that getting politically involved would not make a difference. Others, like Nick, have the attitude that it’s easier to act and create than it is to complain and be pessimistic.

It’s easy to complain. It’s rewarding to act – with love. We fall in love with tourist destinations, religious institutions, restaurants or foods, fashion trends, television shows, celebrities, or a new hobby.  But we rarely fall in love with politics and government matters, even though they impact our everyday life and will affect our future.

If we expect the government to do something about our problems, we have to look at how we can help them do just that, even if it simply means becoming better informed and passing that knowledge on to our neighbors. Even if it simply means treating our community with love and appreciation.