Blog Archive

Blog Archive – June, 2012

Where Do All The Flowers Go?

June 15, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

"Are you the journalist who visited our class at Al-Aquida?” she asked me.

The inquiry came from a grown woman I did not know. We were attending our national conference of Arab American Writers (www.rawi.org) so I assumed she had an interest in literature penned by our talented community in the US.

Unable to recognize the woman, yet aware of how eagerly she was awaiting my reply, I turned my gaze to her name tag-- not the family name but her personal name. “Lamia”. This popular Iraqi name for girls began to stir my memory.

On my first visit to Iraq gathering material for an article on women’s outstanding role in that country’s public life and their advances in education, I visited a girls’ school in central Baghdad. Yes, it was Al-Aquida. And Lamia had been a 12 or 13 year old student then. 

How well I remember the encounter: the proud headmistress; crowds of self-assured girls speaking fluently in English; the brightly lit orderly computer room; the expansive tree-lined yard; a row of arches supporting the portico that extended around three sides of the school building.

Lamia and a number her schoolmates spoke with me in 1990. They were so hopeful.

The following year, I returned to Iraq and I revisited al-Aquida. This time things were different. Very different.  The American-engineered and policed UN sanctions regime—a brutal global embargo against 20 million people that would go on for 13 murderous years—had begun. Although the blockade had been in effect only seven months at that time, life for Iraqis was already transformed. Added to the blockade was a military defeat, the routing of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and 42 uninterrupted days of bombing across the entire country. It was a well planned US-led campaign to slowly crush Iraq and reverse its development.

The nation gradually, painfully, unraveled, taking millions with it. Perhaps 2 million perished; an estimated 4 million became refugees; most of those who remained in the country silently sank into penury. That was before the 2003 American invasion that finally dislodged Baath rule, set off waves of sectarian strife and destroyed what infrastructure and pride the Iraqis had managed to maintain during the debilitating embargo. (What figures we read of the deaths, destruction and flight to safety of others are those calculated only since 2003.)

On my second visit to Al-Aquida in 1991, no one in Iraq knew what the US plan for the country was. But the schoolgirls’ shock, anger, and wounded pride surely captured the sentiments of most Iraqis at the time. I wove those youngsters’ comments into an audio documentary: “Iraq; How Can I Forget?” which I then produced for radio broadcast. In those children’s voices, you may begin to grasp their poignant, young experiences. Take a moment to listen to that program; you can download it from our webpage: www.radiotahrir.org/iraq.php.

More extensive details of that vicious UN blockade are recorded in “Swimming Up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters in Iraq”. Finally published in 2007 from University Press of Florida, my account is one of a mere handful of English language sources documenting that overlooked and shameful period of world history.

Lamia told me that she and her family left Iraq only in 2006. I don’t know how they managed to remain in their homeland for that length of time and what finally pressed them to leave and to begin a new life elsewhere. It is bound to be a harrowing tale of overcoming obstacles few others can even begin to imagine.   

As a student of literature, Lamia will surely acquire the tools and inspiration to tell us that history. Whether in memoir, film, music or in fiction, the world, especially our younger citizens, need to hear Iraqis’ own testimonies.

Thankfully perhaps, I won’t be around when my once young, bright Syrian friends turn up somewhere else in the world to recall our joyful yet naïve early meetings together in Damascus.

[ Where Do All The Flowers Go? ]


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