Blog Archive

Blog Archive – March, 2018

Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead

March 26, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Will Saturday’s astounding "March for Our Lives" become the defining protest of our time? Some say it’s comparable to Vietnam War era anti-war marches. Not actually comparable, I hope. Because it took daily news of American deaths month after month to sustain those protests.

March 24th’s nationwide event was led by youngsters, Americans even younger than the 1960s’ protesters. It is certainly a stirring event to witness-- unarguably inspiring for millions like me viewing it on television. Saturday’s rally demonstrated the leadership of ‘just’ teenagers. (We generally only hear about our youths’ drug habits or sports and cell phone obsessions, their sex lives or their music and clothing trends.)

I hope the political work these new leaders have launched is sustained. I hope this movement doesn't need further killings anywhere to keep the issue alive, to activate media interest and to swell the numbers of activists. It is essential too that America’s adult responses are not technical, namely: not calling for still more security devices to sell to schools and municipalities, not commissioning more experts to invent even more bizarre safety measures.   

Whenever a massacre at a school or concert hall or other public event occurs, there’s ample television footage to demonstrate how authorities respond— police, FBI and other armed forces ‘secure’ neighborhoods and control onlookers with massive military-like tactics and equipment. (Only recently have Americans realized how much like a military occupation of our streets, local police forces had become.) Unquestioned is the  associated tactic called “lockdown”.

Following the end of deadly sieges, we witness survivors of an attack emerging from “lockdown”, moving in single file, hands above their heads, stripped of any bags or backpacks, obediently proceeding down a path past armed guards. (This presumably after they’ve been frisked to ensure they are not part of a terror group.) This scary procession is now a common procedure executed without questions about what affect these practices have on those innocents.

Every school in this nation is geared for terror. With the powerful testimonies of the March 24 speakers in D.C. last week, those who may not normally visit schools hear how children are taught lockdown drill, procedures they must practice and then follow if their school is under threat. One 17-year old at a "March for Our Lives" event in Detroit confesses: “The fire alarm at Trenton High School is scary,  …We don't know if it's an actual drill or if someone's actually inside the school, going to take your life."

As a journalist I have occasion to visit local schools. When I do, I can secure entry only if I’ve made an appointment with a staff member who knows me and is expecting me. My name is listed beforehand, and when I arrive at the (locked) school door, a security guard, usually armed, calls the staff person I’m to meet, who then comes to the reception desk to accompany me into the school. I’m given an ID which I must wear while inside and relinquish when I leave. (Every schoolchild wears his/her special ID all the time at school.) This is the same process I go through when I visit a prison!

Not to deny our youths their credit and our gratitude for their initiative today, one wonders: what took us so long? That is, what took so long for youths to dump any expectations they had of leadership by adults: —elected officials as well as community leaders, teachers and other educators, social workers, police and trauma experts, journalists and celebrities. How many deaths by gun-loving, angry, disturbed and embittered young men does it take for a sensible strategy to emerge? Maybe these youngsters stepping into the forefront marks a watershed, a turning point not only in gun reform but in American civic action.

Regarding solutions: look what some in the (political) room have been advising in response to gun violence. (We know the U.S. president’s suggestion.) Even clear-headed, mature leaders have little to offer beyond assigning more money to build more safety mechanisms into schools. (This in addition to adding more on-duty armed officers inside and around schools.) When a recent threat of violence at undistinguishable school in my own semi-rural neighborhood occurred, the director announced measures including retrofitting every door in the place. This is an educator’s all-too-common solution in an institute already patrolled by two armed guards!

From what we heard from school-age activists in their fearless and unequivocal statements these past weeks, they are not demanding more security measures in classrooms and hallways. They want their teachers to teach; they want political their leaders to enact gun reforms; they want to hold elected representatives accountable to the citizen, not to special interests.

One may be unable to expect any reduction in safety measures. While the downside of increasing them is twofold: first, our places of learning become hazardous zones. Students report how they move through their classrooms in a state of fear. The educational budgets of public schools are already inadequate. From teachers’ rallies in Virginia and Arizona, we learn that teachers’ salaries are low and getting lower, with many teachers working at a second job. Core curricula are threatened by educational budgets cuts or freezes. If more funds are allocated to military-like solutions, basic educational facilities will suffer. Second, the main beneficiaries of all those technical solutions will be security companies who provide guards and who manufacture safety devices— part of the mammoth American arms business. The security industry is equally involved in diversionary costly solutions as is the NRA.

[ Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead ]

The Path of Martyrs

March 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

       In the final thirty kilometers’ drive back to my home in the Catskills, along a vacant highway through hills of leafless winter trees  colorless and devoid of any sign of life, I inexplicably recall my recent journey in a distant known-but-unfamiliar land. Just a few weeks before, I’d traversed a profoundly different landscape en route from Baghdad to Kerbala city in Iraq.   

          My Kerbala host and I had quipped that the two hours plus required to reach Kerbala that day was the time I needed to drive upstate from New York city. Except that that holy city is hardly 50 miles from the Iraqi capital. Scores—no, thousands-- of military checkpoints slow every kind of movement within Iraq today.

          I first traveled to Kerbala 27 years ago, visiting the magnificent Al-Hussain shrine and the city’s general hospital, also named Al-Hussain. On every visit to Iraq during the fierce 13-year embargo (from 1990 to 2003) against the nation-- starting in April 1991 when evidence of a government attack against rebels hiding there was still in evidence-- I made my way to Al-Hussain General Hospital. On subsequent annual visits, the hospital’s medical staff uncomplainingly helped me document the crime of sanctions, the U.S. campaign deliberately decimating Iraq’s once exemplary health system (along with the entire economy and civil structure).

          The four lane highway to Kerbala, the major route into south Iraq, is divided by a wide median. Unlike the vacant fields that stretch to a horizon of palm trees to my right, the median is planted with shrubs and trees. And tributes.

           Among the few private cars heading south, I see an occasional small bus. Most vehicles are large transport trucks, and those heading toward Baghdad carry imported goods from Basrah port, or earth from excavation sites in the south.

          Although crossing through farmland, viewed from the road there’s little sign of cultivation. Perhaps this is because of the dearth of rain this season. (I would later learn Iraq’s agricultural industry is badly neglected.) Occasionally we overtake a pickup truck loaded with sheep or with vegetables. What roadside structures we pass, auto-repair stations or cafes, look unkempt and uninviting-- part of the generally colorless landscape. Now and then I notice a cluster of children in uniform and toting bookpacks, strolling towards their local school.    

          In the median in the center of the highway is a sight far more compelling and throughout this voyage my eyes refocus there. This is not because of anything alarming or troubling. It’s the stream of arresting, insistent images posted there:-- each one a different face, each a martyr of the recent wars (the costly fight against Daesh/ISIS). This silent parade constitutes a kind of running panorama of the battles for Iraq, for its sovereignty, for its honor and its history.   

          The faces are mainly of young men, most likely no more than 30 years old. Although occasionally, the portrait of an older man, probably an officer, enters this landscape.

          All the way to Kerbala, and southward to Al-Najaf https://www.britannica.com/place/Al-Najaf and beyond in all directions, Iraq’s roads and highways are adorned with the names and faces of soldiers, a placard every few hundred feet, sometimes two or more photos on a single notice.

          These martyrs’ banners are posted high, like flags, in rows-- mile after mile. Each name a story, each a family’s son, each a patriot, each a sacrifice. For me, a visitor, they evidence the history of what war and nationhood mean.  

          Today, back in the USA, I ask: Is that vista so different in its meaning and impact on Iraqi citizens from how fields of simple white plaques or crosses at French and Belgian Flanders, at Arlington National Cemetery, or the amassed names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, affect Europeans and Americans?

          Although martyrdom may be central to Shiite history, belief and culture, it is deeply embedded in other societies. In Arab culture and thought—martyrdom is expressed in our language as well as our religion. A man can be named Shaheed (pl. Shuhadah) in some countries, and street names are prefixed with Shuhadah; the portrait of a martyr has a special place in his family’s home.

          A pity that people in the dominant Christian society of the West cannot grasp the universal qualities of the martyr. Was Prophet Jesus Christ not a martyr? As for those who die in battle, sacrifice for the American homeland is visibly displayed today in the high status accorded its soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in inglorious wars moreover. What is “Gold Star Family” but a title honoring American military martyrs?

          U.S. veterans, especially the wounded, are heaped with praise for their service and they’re given unlimited government assistance. Even radio and television features regularly tell Americans of ‘noble sacrifices’ of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stories of hardships, trauma, and handicaps transmit a feeling of martyrdom. 

          Then come civilians martyred in the daily racist war on America’s streets, deaths that awaken calls for social change. Not co-incidentally it was a religious leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who recognized martyrdom in the death of a Black child gunned down for his race: “We must illuminate the darkness with the light that comes from the martyr, Jackson pleaded after the death of 14-year old Trayvon Martin.

          The paths of martyrs are endless and boundless.     

 

BN Aziz recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007

 

 

[ The Path of Martyrs ]

Iraq Outside History

March 11, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

"Scientists Outside History” was published in the September 1996 issue of Natural History, the popular educational journal of the American Museum of Natural History. Authored by me, “Scientists Outside History” was based on research I undertook in Iraq between 1989 and 1996. The article’s subheading: “Faced with international embargo, Iraq’s most progressive community finds itself abandoned.” 

            Reviewing my early files on Iraq, along with this article I found a readers’ correspondence (that was the pre-digital era) which Natural History’s editor had forwarded to me. Most of these letters were from outraged readers, many of them scientists or teachers, berating and excoriating me for seeing any merits in what they viewed as the ‘vicious and tyrannical Saddam regime’. (Praise Iraq’s earlier four millennia, but not the 20th century.) How dare I claim “Iraq’s scientists and doctors had enjoyed strong government backing, enabling them to pursue their international studies”? (p. 15 in the article.)

            Those indignant respondents didn’t object that international scientific and medical journals were freely available in Iraq up to 1990. Nor did they challenge my report of how that embargo went far beyond its mandate, to include cultural and medical exchange, that even by 1996 (it would continue for another six years) it ensured Iraqis no longer received international journals, that Iraqi students were barred from post graduate studies (in U.S., Canada, and perhaps elsewhere) in scientific fields such as physics, and that invitations to international conferences could not be extended to Iraqis. As I wrote at the time, this exclusion “proved as severe as any weapon of mass destruction”.

            It was the noted sculptor, Mohammed Hikmat Ghani, one of many Iraqi artists who, sponsored by his government, frequently traveled abroad to meet his peers, pointed out to me in 1991, that (as a result of that vicious embargo) “Iraq is now outside history”.

            Visiting Iraq earlier this year, fourteen years into its American-designed and supervised democracy, I found that, as much as during the embargo-- perhaps more so today--Iraq is indeed outside history. It has been plundered of both its human and historical resources.

            During my 1989 tour of the resplendent Iraq National Museum, it was Mohammed Ghani who informed me how the government had secreted away and protected the entire museum’s holdings during the eight year Iraq-Iran war. That collection was returned intact and complete following the 1988 cease fire:-- the same treasure which, overseen by U.S. occupation troops in 2003, was ransacked and pillaged. (That was during the early months of the American invasion.)

            One need not invoke ancient eras of past millennia to acknowledge Iraq’s contributions to civilization. Modern Iraq, before that embargo, was replete with industrious, well trained, talented men and women dedicated to their arts and sciences, their efforts generously encouraged and published by the government. They advanced more by personal merit than by party membership then.

            The world famous architect Zaha Hadid, one of a large community of Iraqi artists and scientists, may have settled in Europe, but the foundation of her energy and imagination can be traced to her childhood within Iraq; there was early recognition of her mathematical genius and the influence of scientists in her own family.

            Although not without difficulty, one can find many examples of outstanding 20th century treatises by Iraqi engineers (e.g. Ahmed Sousa and Aliya Sousa), medical specialists, linguists and artists produced within Iraq prior to the sanction regime. That exhaustive embargo targeted Iraq’s intelligentsia as much as its Baathist leadership. 

            You may ask: Why bring this up now? The embargo ended in 2003; Saadam is gone. Liberated from international isolation and dictatorship, Iraq’s an oil rich nation free to interact on the global stage.

            In fact Iraq is still culturally marginalized, and intellectually much weakened. Many teachers, scholars and other talent who represent the high standards of the 20th century and could bridge the three decade-long wasteland created by embargo and war, have departed. Either they have been snapped up by foreign nations who recognize their abilities and fine training. Or as refugees, they’re obliged to accept jobs that do not advance or nourish their talent and imagination.  

            I was reminded of just how widespread the destruction of modern Iraqi civilization is today by a recent FB post from an Iraqi colleague residing abroad. Now middle aged and without economic security as a non-citizen in a nearby Arab country, following the work of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, he recalls his own research in photon physics as a young engineer. He scans world scientific developments today realizing that Iraq, 30-60 years ago, was well placed to be in the forefront of scientific discoveries, on the cusp of frontiers in medical research, physics, and archeology. In response to his posting, colleagues in his network recalled their own attenuated and derailed careers. Many of these women and men are now exiles, snapped up by foreign companies and European and American universities, engineering institutes and hospitals, all well aware of the high standard of Iraq’s education (both before and during the Baath era). Tens of thousands of these experts are forced to take up work inferior to their level of training and without institutional support for publication and international dialogue.

            When did you last see a citation of research authored by an Iraqi scientist? When have you last heard an Iraqi scientific presentation at an international conference? Their absence is indicative of their continued isolation and of their government’s cultural poverty and mismanaged resources.

            Inside Iraq today the main concern of citizens (and government) is security. The streets of Baghdad are channels cutting through walled-in lanes. There’s no civic landscape. No conferences take place here; few foreign professional colleagues visit; the government’s resources are consumed by a military budget for tanks and trucks, foreign anti-terror devices, and arming check posts.

            Just as there are no conferences and few gatherings of musicians or writers or researchers, there are no open playgrounds, no public football matches, no concerts, and little inter-city travel. Children and families are confined to their homes watching the world pass through television, youtube, and whatsapp.

            With corruption gripping all levels of government, whatever resources are available are allocated to cronies and their families; merit is an alien concept now. Even the Ministry of Health, once the pride of Iraq, is today incapable of designing and carrying out essential research to assess  the nation’s basic health needs.

            In response to the arrival of so many highly trained Iraqis in the West over the past 30 years, surely Americans and others could make an effort to visit Iraq and start a new dialogue with their peers there.  

BN Aziz’ recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007. 

[ Iraq Outside History ]


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