North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

An Iraqi in the capital of the US Empire

Do the people on the street in Washington DC know that their government decimated my home?

Nabil Salih
6 January 2022, 12.00am
Tourists at a war memorial in Virginia, the United States of America on 13 August 2021
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Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

As a child in Baghdad, I opened my eyes to a world holding its whip and subjugating us Iraqis to collective punishment through sanctions and repeated wars.

Death in Iraq was a spectacle on TV screens in the US. War coverage paid scarce attention to civilian casualties. As one Iraqi woman put it after the Gulf War, “Did they [Americans] ask where these tons and tons of explosives thrown fell? On whom? What happened there?”

Now that I am in Washington DC, I walk around the capital of the ‘Empire’ and feel as if I am an inferior being who has barely survived repeated attempts at the obliteration of his species. As I make my way through the crowds, I think of how oblivious they must be to the bombs that were funded by their taxes and are still going off in my head.

Sometimes the few who ask where I come from don’t even know where Iraq is on the map, as if nothing happened there. Most of those who bother to engage in a conversation with me don’t even ask about life over there.

It is safe to say that to most Americans, Iraqis are not even an afterthought. Thus I came to think that we are now being comfortably placed in a corner of oblivion beyond dehumanisation.

Walking in Washington DC, some of the faces I see on the streets remind me of the soldiers who regularly raided my family’s house in Baghdad after the invasion of 2003. I remember the grunt who shot down a young vendor in my childhood alley on a distant, calm afternoon now permanently stained with blood.

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Pedestrians in Georgetown, Washington DC on 16 August 2021 | Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

Like the politicians who sent him to war, he has probably gotten away with it. Perhaps he is one of those veterans whose mental health the US media now worries about. But who shall wash this blood off the trembling walls of my memory now?

Two rivers

In the morning, my commute from my residence in Virginia to Georgetown University takes me across the Potomac River. I think of my early morning walks along the banks of the Tigris. Poor is the river whose bends don’t caress the curves of Baghdad!

Alas, the Tigris is dying, its banks are littered with damp garbage. Police dictate when and where Baghdad’s fishermen are allowed to fish. But even the fish have migrated. In the aftermath of the US modernising mission, lifeless bodies floated downstream instead.

As my bus cruises across the river via Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge, I think of Iraq and the corrupt Iraqi politicians perpetuating its misery. Many of them were in the diaspora and pleaded for a US ‘liberation’, the consequences of which still devastate the lives of millions.

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After a spree of assassinations that took place following protests against these crooks in 2019, a group of Iraqis gathered outside the White House in a demonstration to “end impunity” in Iraq. Were they asking Americans for rescue again?

I wonder if they realise that in doing so, they place the very colonial state responsible for irreversibly destroying Iraq – and gifting its people the politicians who either orchestrate or fail to prevent their incessant death – in the category of the friend. I wonder whether by doing so, they make their actions benign, and their long history of slaughtering Iraqis forgiven.

It seems that some people never learn from past mistakes.

From Georgetown, my footsteps often take me past numerous tents of hallucinating homeless people to Adams Morgan, a declining cultural street that once thrived in a past life. There, I step inside the ‘Green Zone’ without someone asking me for a security pass.

The Green Zone in DC is a pub often frequented by students, some of whom are from area studies programs and will further contribute to the marginalisation of native voices in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Global South upon graduation.

In Baghdad, the Green Zone is a fortified den on the western bank of the Tigris occupied by fine-suited, shipped-in democracy knights whose lethal failure often turned the lives of downtrodden civilians beyond the den’s walls into hell.

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Boat on the Potomac River in Washington DC, the United States of America, on 13 August 2021 | Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

Many of DC’s Green Zone patrons are known to present themselves as pro-Palestinian and even express solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians rising against their Israeli tormentors. But I often wonder about their selective solidarity and why the consequences of the war on Iraq are absent from their online tirades.

I came to realise that solidarity with Palestinians in the US has a whiff of white knightism. The crimes committed by allies in occupied Palestine differ from those committed by their siblings, friends and neighbors in Iraq. The latter are forgettable and unfashionable. The children born with birth defects in Fallujah merit no attention. Remembering requires admitting responsibility.

Perhaps, some of these people wish to join the ranks of the State Department to ‘change from within’ and save us from future imperial adventures. As a dear friend put it, what they will do instead is influence their bosses to drop fewer bombs on ‘barbarian’ lands the next time the Empire decides to spread its values and depleted uranium overseas.

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People walk in Georgetown, Washington D.C. on 15 December 2021 | Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

Rough crossing

Coming to the United States, I had clear expectations about what kind of characters I would encounter on my journey. But I never thought that I would feel deeply disappointed before I even set foot on US soil.

Prior to take off from Hamad International Airport in August, an Arab-American stood before me in line for a security check before boarding. He jabbered with a lady about his traditional wedding and his visit to his fiancée’s family somewhere in the Levant.

In the lounge upon arrival in Dulles International, he stood in front of me, again, chatting with a white, loud, inked grunt blabbering about his time “overseas”, and told him: “Thank you for your service”.

Though I have only been here for a few months, and despite meeting few welcoming people, many encounters reminded me that it is difficult to feel at peace in the country that destroyed mine.

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Sunset on the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq on 19 June 2021 | Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

At an Irish pub in Arlington, Virginia, someone approached me to ask, “Are you from Iraq?” “Yes,” I replied. “I never met anyone from Iraq before,” he said. “My brother was there, in Fallujah. He used to call the airstrikes in both battles.”

When I return home from my usual evening walks in the city, the words of the late Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus accompany me: “In front of my neighbors’ houses giant flags flutter/America’s generals hone the machine of destruction.”

Searching for home

For us Iraqis who carry a gunny sack of traumas on our backs and refuse to forget the pain inflicted on our land and bodies and psyche, war hasn’t ended yet.

I rest my head on the pillow and try to sleep, but I suffocate. In the evening, my sorrows rise like the gaze of an Oudist hunting high notes on the musical scale. The specters of my dead visit me from Baghdad, call upon me to visit the memories of my ancestral land from afar.

But as the late and great Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef once wrote, “How do I enter Iraq?”

“Whichever way I choose to approach my native city, I must tread softly and warily, for its streets are still littered with bodies, books and blood,” writes the Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon.

So I slip from the squeaking door of memory that is unhinged by an explosion still wailing in yesterday’s coffin, in tomorrow’s womb, and walk towards home under intermittent bullet sprees. I cover my ears from the echo of bombing that has been ringing against the blood-smeared walls of my memory since the day of my birth, until I am there.

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Man sits alone on the bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq on 19 June 2021 | Nabil Salih. All rights reserved

An orphan searching for what is no longer there, I sit outside the family’s house in Baghdad, and watch in silence.

I see my father, polishing his blue Fiat under the Narenj tree in the garage. I see my mother, alive, pretty, in white, preparing date-stuffed kleicha cookies and cardamom tea in the kitchen on a sunny afternoon of a somewhat merciful past. I see a young me who looks different, unlike me, happy, chasing a football with a smile, barefooted on the lawn with friends in the shade of a palm, and a ziziphus tree that is no longer there.

I sit there and cry here. For I know the labyrinth of memory has few happy streets. I try to cling to fleeting moments uninhabited by pain. I fail, and soon find myself standing outside the isolation ward in Mustashfa al-Kadhimiyah, the hospital where my mother closed her eyes for a final time this past summer.

There, I count the stretchers carrying the day’s dead to the morgue, as mothers and fathers and children wail in agony and beat their heads under the sun.

Inside, I stand frozen by my mother’s bed. The oxygen drops, and my sister’s head falls in the abyss. I hear it hitting its bottom for the thousandth time. Mother is pushed on a stretcher to the morgue, leaving me and my orphaned look behind.

I visit my mother’s resting place in Baghdad, touch and kiss her grave at sunrise. I then retreat, defeated. I close the door of memory, and weep here in silence.

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