Who Cares About a Dead Iraqi Anyways?

On a week like this, when 55 persons in Baghdad has been killed by bombs in a vegetable market; outside a mosque and in residential areas, I feel with the Iraqis, and I feel with the families of the assassinated civilian people that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 55 persons of yesterday were not the only ones: last month almost 1.000 people were killed all over Iraq.

And I’m relieved that I’m not working for an Iraq mission as I have in the past, even though safely tucked away in the comfort of Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan. Relieved because I don’t have to work Skype and the phone to make sure none of my Iraqi colleagues are among the murdered. Because what would happen if they were?

No one would be hunted down by the local police and tried in front of the justice system, where they would get their rightful punishment, that in turn would discourage others from committing the same crime. No office or NGO would close for the day or a minute of silence be demanded in order to respect the dead. No debriefing would be given to the other staff to help them cope with the loss. Work would carry on as normal and the organization would send their condolences to the family while starting the recruitment process for someone new. Years back in an Iraq mission, my expat colleague whose team member was taken from his own house under gunpoint by one of the many militias, and tortured for hours before being killed, was left on her own to choke back tears in front of her laptop after the murder. Because who cares about a dead Iraqi anyways?

The colleague of ours was actually a person, a real human being. He happened to be friendly and everyone in the office liked him. He had a family that loved him, a mother and a father, sisters and brothers that missed him deeply when he was gone. But in the eyes of many he was a nobody, just another dead Iraqi. I rest quite assured things remain the same for the Iraqis whose lives are lost today.

Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights in Kuwait

Human Rights Watch has launched Campaign for Domestic Worker’s Rights. The campaign is illustrated with photos of Arab women dressed in the costumes that many of the workers have to wear when on duty – which often is 15 hours per day, 7 days a week. Hopefully this will make people think.

I have repeatedly become surprised over how people’s brains stop working when exposed to something abnormal being normal – Arabs, Europeans, Americans alike – which is what the trafficking situation of poor people from Asia and Africa to the Middle East is today. I won’t dig into the subject of why you can’t clean your own house or raise your own kids, but on how today’s knowledge about human rights for some people seem to have vanished.

When living in Kuwait I had a friend from Eastern Europe who had married an Arab man residing in the country. She was a great girlfriend; caring, funny and smart, and I missed her a lot when moving. Going back to visit a few years later, she and her husband had got their first child and employed a live-in-maid, and suddenly I saw a new side of her. The woman they had employed, let’s call her Maria, was not allowed to call my friend and her husband by their first names, instead ”sir” and “maam”.

“If you let them call you by your name they will disrespect you, you can’t give them too much freedom,” my friend explained.

All house chores had been given to Maria who worked from 6 am to 10 pm without a break. She was not allowed go out on her own or make her own decisions about what to do during the day, had to follow my friend wherever she went, walking a few steps behind with all the bags and the trolley that she pushed the toddler in, when my friend was out with her girlfriends on one of their many shopping tours to the mall.

My friend thought she was nice to Maria. She could eat how much she wanted and slept in a bed in the child’s playroom – “Not on the floor like with the Kuwaiti families”. My friend didn’t seem to reflect on how Maria might feel when my friend called her stupid or criticized her for not doing anything right (I noticed this among many, the constantly criticizing of the domestic staff, as if they get a kick out of putting them down).

Now I happened to like Maria as a person and we spent some time talking. It turned out she had a university degree in her Asian home country and previously had a qualified job that she had lost, why her last way out if keeping her own child in a private school was to go abroad as a domestic worker. The experience had been a shock and she found herself not able to return as she had signed a two year contract and had her passport taken away. I suggested I ask my other friends about jobs in her field of experience and we secretly exchanged numbers. My research didn’t lead to anything but we kept in touch after I left. She often called and texted, feeling so alone and exposed.

Then a few weeks later my friend’s husband emailed me. My friend had taken Maria’s mobile to check on her and had read my messages. She and her husband were furious I had kept in touch with Maria and urged her to get a better job. This is an excerpt from the e-mail:

I would really like to thank you for treating your friends who were soo good, honest, loveable to you and accepted you in their home not as a guest but as a very close person. We are very surprised of the way you cheated us and tried to contact our nanny from our back and tried to help her to leave us and finding a job because you persuaded her that she’s over qualified to be a nanny…  If you think that you are supporting women right by encourage her to do what she did and leave us then let me tell you that you destroyed our lovely family and destroyed her life as well.

He ended the e-mail by telling story I had heard before, on how Maria had felt so empowered by me that she had brought home a man and had sex with him in a room next to where the child had been sleeping. The story is one version of many used to justify what happens if you give your maids “too many rights”; Asians are not only unintelligent, they are also sexually primitive if you fail to control them. Do you know your history? African–Americans were once considered the same way by whites.

My friend blocked me on all social websites we had been in touch through and we never spoke again. I don’t know what happened to Maria – the control must have increased and I assumed it was safer for her not to be in touch with me as I anyways was far away from Kuwait and had no means of helping her.

Human Rights Watch’s campaign is much needed in a time when again human rights doesn’t apply to people of color, and I wish it leads to some sort of change. If I could speak to my friend I would explain to her why I had urged Maria to leave and that I hadn’t mean to hurt my friend – but I wouldn’t say I’m sorry. And if I were in the same situation I would do what I did again, even if it meant losing a close friend. I know some people would say I’m fanatic. I say I’m normal.

Photocredit: Human Rights Watch

Sameera My African Friend in Amman

Amman“You want to go see my friends? They’re African, they speak good English” my neighbor in Amman asked me one Thursday afternoon years back. In the sleepy little area we lived there were not a big variety among the neighbors, so I became curious and tagged along.

Long before that, no one knew when, the father of Sameera and her sisters left his country Nigeria, supposedly to go to Mekka, travelling by land for several months until he came to Jordan. For some reason, if money went out or whatever it could have been, Sameera’s father decided to stay there for a while. Back then Amman was just a village and foreigners a rarity, so rare that the authorities quite soon offered him a passport. There were a few other Africans in Amman though, and someone pointed out the houses to him: “Here lives an African family!” And so he met Sameera’s mother whose father originated from the Ivory Coast, and for a while became a lifetime; he never saw Nigeria again.

Sameera was cool and smart, too broad in her mind for the suburb where she had lived all her life. Her father, illiterate himself, decided that his six daughters were going to be educated, and sent them to college. To his son and other people he said: “No one is going to tell my daughters anything”. Probably he was the one to blame for their independency that stayed present even after he and their mother had passed away. They all worked and made their own money, only one of them getting married, to a Kenyan man that she said respected her freedom. The others saying they didn’t want the burden of being controlled. Sameera and her sisters fully identified as Africans, sticking to African satellite channels and music, even though they had never been. Later on, with the UN moving in big-scale to Amman the city became more international, with foreign women dressing in tank tops and Starbucks popping up in street corners. But the international vibes of a city often has a way of not reaching the original citizens, the ones limited by the conservative ways of condemning those different African girls that lived by themselves, worked for themselves, dressed in modern clothes.

I always had a good time at Sameera’s place and I wanted her to come visit me in Beirut when I went to stay there the upcoming year. She was up for it after some persuading. Collecting her best outfits, she called me a number of times before she left; “Can I have white jeans in Beirut? That’s cool there?”, and took a shared taxi for the eight hours ride.

She cried the first evening on my balcony and I got perplexed: what was wrong? But it was just the free spirit of Lebanon and the mixture of people that she saw. She was no longer the odd one; she was just one among many. “I’m sad because of all the beautiful things I see, I see nothing of this is in Amman”, she said.

That weekend was the best, we had so much fun. It was Beirut in the summer in the mid-2000s: clubs were open until the morning, people could still afford going out, Tiesto and Amr Diab was the DJs choice for the night. Our exotic appearance, the blonde girl and the black, was priceless. We didn’t pay entrance anywhere, the Buddha Bar DJ invited us to party with his crew, not understanding why such an urban girl like Sameera didn’t drink or wanting to date, and Sameera acted like she was born in the cosmopolitan city, showing off her amazing dancing skills that she rarely got to practice, pretending she was American when someone asked (“Hey I ain’t gonna see them again!”). When we grew tired of the company we told them we were going home, then hopped into a cab and went to the next club.

We’re not in touch anymore why I don’t share her real name or photo. But I hope she would agree on me sharing her story, because being a minority is never easy and she was a person that showed someone can grow different from her society and still remain her integrity, becoming the special person that she was. Or as Sameera said once, to a taxi driver in Amman that criticized her for being a Muslim and not covering herself:

Ammo, I am a Muslim and when I read the Qur’an and decide that I will cover, at that time I will cover. Until then I will mind my own business, and you mind yours.”

Photo credit: http://www.primetravels.com

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog