Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Baghdad

Baghdad, the Gift of God

Weam at School

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

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When Women Owned Bathing Suits in Baghdad

Reading (2)

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.

The Truth About the Veil

The Veil

Last week, I did a radio interview with Stu Bryer of WICH in Norwich, Connecticut. We talked about several subjects, including the Syrian refugees and the veil. While I believe that veils that completely disguise people are problematic for safety purposes and unnecessary in a Western country where people choose to live, I also feel that we should explore the issue of veiling in a more historical and personal context.

During my trip to Baghdad in 2000, I visited my parents’ Christian village in Mosul and asked my cousins to find me an abayya in the souk. He found one I liked, disputed with the merchant over a few dinars, wanted to walk out, and at my plea, agreed on a price. I left with an abbaya that today still has some of the spices I’d carried in my luggage in a journey that lasted from Baghdad to Detroit three days.

What’s an abbaya? It’s a veil that reminds me of my mother and the neighborhood women who’d sometimes wear it when they went to the market. Since Saddam encouraged women to wear western clothing and he was against Islamic fundamentalists, the burka wasn’t allowed in Iraq. Usually older women wore the abbaya. They did so for religious purposes, as Islam requires women to dress modestly in order to keep the focus of beauty on spiritual and not superficial attributes. Wearing the veil was also a way to avoid harassment. But mostly, they wore it because it was part of a culture that predates Islam by many centuries.

In the Near East, Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in royal harem and the veil. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. This practice also appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste women. It’s suggested that afterwards it spread among the Arabs.

Muslims in their first century were relaxed about female dress. As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of women, were adopted. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Muhammad’s wives originally dressed in veil in order for people to distinguish them from other women.

Throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic women, the majority of the population, were not. The veil did not appear as a common rule to be followed until around the tenth century. In the Middle Ages numerous laws were developed which most often placed women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times.

For 2,000 years, Catholic women have veiled themselves before entering a church or any time they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., during sick calls). It was written into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, that women must cover their heads – “especially when they approach the holy table”

For many centuries (until around 1175) Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. It was in the Tudor period (1485), when hoods became increasingly popular, that veils of this type became less common.

Sometimes a sheer was draped over and pinned to the bonnet or hat of a woman in mourning. They would also have been used as a simple method of hiding the identity of a woman who was travelling to meet a lover, or doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about. Veils were also sometimes worn to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage (when un-tanned skin was fashionable), or to keep dust out of a woman’s face. Conversely, veils are often part of the stereotypical image of the courtesan and harem woman where the mysterious veil hints at sensuality and the unknown.

Among the Tuareg of West Africa, women do not traditionally wear the veil, while men do. It’s believed that the veil wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well. This veil is worn from 25 years of age and is never removed, even in front of family members.

What about the origin of a bride’s veil? Some say that the veil was introduced in ancient Rome to keep away the evil spirits. It’s also said that it was a symbol of purity, chastity, and modesty. Other say that the origin of the bridal veil was due to the circumstances of an arranged marriage. In days past, men bargained with an eligible young lady’s father for their hand in marriage. After the ceremony, the veil was lifted to reveal the bride’s features. This was to keep a groom from backing out of the deal if he didn’t like what he saw.

With my mother, the veil was used for convenience, when she didn’t want to change from her nightgown in order to go to the bakery and buy bread. Or when my cousin wanted to meet her lover without anyone noticing her. Or it was worn by those who found it attractive or simply liked having it flutter around their ankles.

When I was a little girl, I used my mother’s veil to play house. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have my own veil, not knowing then that one day wearing fabric in such a manner, or not wearing it, could cost women their lives.

 

To Our Countries

“To Our Countries” is a project produced by a group of youths who live in Sweden and are originally from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

The song expresses different parts of the Middle East. Here’s an excerpt about Baghdad:

 In Iraq there has been a liberation for more than 10 years.  A liberation from injustice, oppression and tyranny that came with a greater tyranny, injustice and oppression, where the people of the country were all expelled.

A liberation that divided what was already divided and what broke what’s already broken. A liberation where civilizations cease to exist. A liberation which all Iraqi citizens were marginalized regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

A liberation that enslaved people and demolished homes. One that killed the human and the motherland.”

I have the right to peace of mind

I have a right to peace of mind

What a Pro-Saddamist once said to me

SONY DSC

Maaloula, an ancient Syrian village with Christian inhabitants was attacked by rebels today. These rebels shot and killed people, and forced residents to convert to Islam.

Yesterday my cousin told me that he was nearly killed in a Baghdad bombing where 8 men died and 20 were injured.

“Since Saddam’s fall, you tell me where in the Middle East and Arab world has there been peace?” a famous local radio announce once asked me.

I did not have an answer for this man, who is known to be pro-Saddam and was once investigated just because, he said, “I did not have a dislike for Saddam.”

“I mean, isn’t this why we went into Iraq to begin with?” he continued. “So the world would be a more peaceful place?”

I still had no answer for this man. But these questions blink in my head each time I watch the Arab news channels and see violence tread the streets of the Middle East and Arab world, like a loose madman in search of blood.

If only men would stop trying to be heroes through war, and emulate Gandhi’s type of heroism.

27 Years Ago

Babba

Twenty seven years ago today my father passed away. He was a very pleasant man, full of life and laughter. I didn’t get to know him too well, as I was a young teenager when he died (I knew he loved “Sandford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” and will never forget the way in which he laughed wholeheartedly as he watched each episode). He’d spent the majority of his days in Iraq working hard to support his eleven children. Then we immigrated to the United States, where he fell ill shortly afterwards as our family experienced a big struggle.

But I do know this – I got my love for books from his side. I remember him often walking around with an Arabic/English dictionary in his hand. He was a translator for the train station in Iraq. I also got my passion for education and my independence from him and his sisters, one of whom left the village of Telkaif to go study at the University of Baghdad. This was in the 1950s! Another aunt, who was a single mother because her husband went missing in some war, studied to be a nurse and became the midwife of Fallujah.

Well, I did not get to spend enough time with my father on this earth. But I am often visited by his energy, which especially during adversaries gives me strength to push ahead.