March 20; 7:45 am, B Nimri Aziz begins a new radio commentary on events around the globe and in the USA. Listen in at 99.5 fm, or online www.wbai.org where we are livestreamed.
March 8, Women's Day Radio Specials 10-11 am on WJFF Radio, 90.5 fm, and 11:am on WBAI, 99.5 New York: B. Nimri Aziz interviews director Amber Fares about her new film "Speed Sisters" --a profile of 5 Palestinian car racers. Orther segments are from 2009-2010 interviews with professional women in Damascus Syria, Nadia Khost and Nidaa Al-Islam.
As a Black writer, I was expected to accept the role of victim. That made it difficult in the beginning to be a writer. James Baldwin
I often feel that there must have been something that I should’ve done that I didn’t do. But I can’t identify what it is that I didn’t do. That’s the first difficulty. And the second is, what makes you think you’re it?
Harry Belafonte, activist and singer at 89
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble; It's what you know for sure that just ainst so.
You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you.
Mary Tyler Moore
You can’t defend Christianity by being against refugees and other religions
"I don't have to be what you want me to be". Muhammad Ali
"The Secret of Living Well and Longer: eat half, walk double, laugh triple, and love without measure" attributed to Tibetan sources
Recent audio posts include interviews with Rumi interpreter Shahram Shiva, London-based author Aamer Hussein, South African Muslim scholar, professor Farid Esack, and Iraqi journalist Nermeen Al-Mufti's brief account of Kirkuk City history. Your comments on our blogs are always welcome.
- Iraqi Scientists Outside History
- by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Archeologist Walid al-Jadir was one of those scientists who somehow connect everything they see and hear to their work. His task was to reveal the ancient history of Iraq. “See those hillocks on the landscape?” he once asked me pointing to the dull, winter farmland we were passing on the way to Sippar, the site of his research. “Every one of those hills could be a tell,” he continued. “Probably under each one lays an ancient city. The entire country of Iraq is a treasure.”
Al-Jadir felt a sense of urgency about uncovering his country’s distant past. He was proud of the role his ancestors—the inhabitants of Mesopotamia—played in human civilization as long as 5,000 years ago. Among the basic principles that Sumerian and Akkadian scientists developed were the first-known phonetic writing system, the zero in mathematics, the arch, and predictive astronomy. The early citizens of what is now Iraq also introduced the wheel, irrigation, schools, and popular representative government. Much of their civilization’s development reflected the importance they attached to education.
I first met al-Jadir in 1989 at a lecture at the newly opened American Cultural Center in Baghdad. For the previous eight years, Iraq had been preoccupied with its war with Iran, and many such programs had been halted. With the war over, the nation’s intellectuals welcomed the resumption of lectures and international contact. That evening, a few Americans and many Iraqis filled the small lecture room to celebrate restored relations and hear a scholar—McGuire Gibson, an archeologist at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Gibson described his research in Nippur in southern Iraq, explaining how his team had identified layers of successive occupation within that city, dating as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.
When the lecture ended, al-Jadir smiled, remarking on the fine work of his American colleague. “You know,” he said, “even during the entire war with Iran, we allowed Gibson and others to continue their research here, and they were not afraid to come at a time of hostilities. “And you see,” he added, “they produced something!” Al-Jadir knew that the nation’s archeological heritage was just too immense to be explored by Iraqis alone. He noted that government surveys had registered 10,000 sites—and these were a small fraction of the total believed to exist.
Iraq has a sizable body of professional archeologists. This is due in part to the keen interest of foreign scholars in the region’s history. The British and French began digging here in the last century and they inspired their Arab associates to continue their pursuits after Iraq gained independence in 1932.
By the 1960s, Iraqis were earning higher degrees abroad, not only in archeology but also in virtually all sciences as well as the humanities and the arts. Iraq’s policy of conducting scientific education in English encouraged bright young Iraqis to continue their advanced studies in Britain and the United States. Medicine for example was taught completely in English in Iraq’s eight colleges of medicine. And all university libraries included foreign professional journals.
Up to the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Iraq’s professionals enjoyed strong government backing, enabling them to pursue their international studies. This policy enriched the country, but Saddam Hussein did not necessarily win scientists’ undisputed loyalty because of it. Iraq’s scientists were among those citizens who most cherished democratic freedoms and who dared to report the government’s abuses to outsiders. Many left because of political repression. Even so, the government continued to support scientists’ training and contacts abroad.
During the war with Iran, economic development continued. Iraq expanded and modernized its museums and built research centers, universities, a network of modern hospitals, fine highways, and luxury hotels for conferences. But the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath changed all that. In 1991, the bombing of Baghdad and air strikes on water and power installations across the country paralyzed the nation. The Allied forces bombed Iraq for forty-two days and inflicted a decisive military defeat.
Much of the physical damage from the bombing could be repaired. Iraqi engineers set to work and rebuilt bridges, buildings and other installations. Many scientists were able to return to their jobs within a few months. Most of the ancient archeological sites were undisturbed. The evacuated ruins and the thousands of cities under those humps on the horizon had survived the bombing. By 1992, Walid al-Jadir was again directing work at the Sippar site, and the same year he attended a conference in Belgium.
But the war was not really over. A total economic embargo—imposed August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and continued following the ceasefire—is still in force. Iraq could not sell its oil or buy needed supplies until the U.N. Sanctions Committee was satisfied that the country’s weapons systems has been completely destroyed.
To a nation that had become heavily dependent on imported products paid for with oil revenues, the trade sanctions would prove to have a more devastating effect than the military campaign. By 1990, for example, 70 percent of Iraq’s food needs were fulfilled by imports: almost all milk came from Europe, rice and wheat from the United States, additional wheat from Australia, and poultry feed from Canada. But food was only part of the story. Cars and other machinery came from Germany and Japan. Also imported were books, newsprint, ink, computers, poultry and cattle vaccines, pesticides and herbicides. Iraq spent $500. million a year on medicines and medical supplies for its 19 million people, all of whom received high quality, free medical care. The government boasted that 90 percent of its villages were electrified and many farms had freezers, pickups, and modern machinery. Meanwhile industry and agriculture had been neglected.
After the war, the country found itself unable to produce or purchase necessary food. Supplies on hand rapidly disappeared, and what little emergency relief came from abroad could address only 5 percent of the country’s needs. Without chicken feed, the poultry industry collapsed; imported milk (including infant formula on which Iraqis had come to reply) disappeared from the market. Without vaccines and veterinary supplies, Iraq’s dairy herds declined. After six years, the embargo’s effects proved as severe as any weapon of mass destruction.
The death toll of civilians, mainly children, as a result of the embargo, is much higher than that of Iraqi soldiers in the war. Members of a team from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization confirmed that well over half a million children under age five have perished. Malnutrition and marasmus are common, and many children are stunted or retarded. The incidence of such diseases as malaria, typhoid, and schistosomiasis, rarely seen for thirty years, have risen sharply owing to the deterioration of the water supply and environment. Iraq’s once exemplary health care system is in shambles, with medical supplies dwindling and hospitals wards closing even as the need for them increases. For example, in surveys across the country, Iraq’s Institute of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine has documented increases in breast cancer and childhood leukemia.
Responding to reports of massive suffering, in 1995 the U.N. passed Resolution 986, allowing limited oil sales by Iraq in exchange for food and medicine; and in May 1996, the Iraqi government finally agreed to the U.N.’s terms. Under 986, nearly half of the oil income must go for war reparations to Kuwait and individual victims of the invasion, to support the Kurdish population in the north, and to pay for U.N. inspections and administration. The resolution limits the purchase of educational and agricultural equipment, which might enable Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure. Meanwhile the terms of the previous U.N. resolutions remain in effect.
While the health crisis has received some attention in the international press, another casualty of war that has passed unnoticed is Iraq’s intellectual infrastructure. Before the war, Iraq had 10,000 university faculty members and 14,000 physicians, as well as professionals in all spheres of science, the humanities and the arts. The needs of the higher education system were met through government imports, as were those of primary and secondary schools—everything from textbooks to computers to laboratory facilities. But most of those computers are no longer functioning for lack of spare parts; pencils are embargoed because of their graphite content; and even paper is in critically short supply.
While scientists are subject to the same general hardships, they suffer the additional burden of intellectual isolation. Sculptor Mohammad Ghani notes that “Iraq is now outside history.” Ghani, who studied in Rome and regularly exhibited there and in other parts of Europe as well as in the Arab World, mourns the loss of contact with his foreign peers. Iraqi professors and doctors report that they are unable to remain in touch with their international colleagues. They lack funding to participate in meetings where developments in their fields are discussed, and with the embargo, most newspaper, journal, and book publishers ceased sending their materials.
“Since 1990,” says Aziz Ali, “I have not even received medical journals I had current subscriptions for.” He adds a refrain heard from other scientists and professors. “When we write to colleagues abroad for literature or advice, we have no reply.” Dr. Ai studied at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London and now practices in Kerbala. With his British accent still intact, he expresses his utter dismay at the cutoff. “Our instructors in London would not countenance medicine as we are forced to practice it because we have no anesthetics or adequate surgical equipment.” He and other Iraqi surgeons are unable to operate frequently enough to maintain their skills.
Huda Amash is an environmental biologist who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri at Columbia. She is eager to see her university professors again but she is more concerned about publishing her work internationally. After four years spent measuring what she feels is an alarming amount of pollution generated by the 1991 war, Amash finds herself blocked from reporting her findings to the wider scientific community. “I cannot obtain any invitations to attend professional conferences,” she says, “and journal editors do not respond to my submissions.”
Sabri al-Aini Dawood is a mathematician. Having earned his Ph.D. from Perdue University, he knows the professional community in the United States well. The neglect by that community appears to him to be an intellectual boycott of his country. “Since the war,” he notes, “neither I nor my colleagues have been able to have our work accepted abroad. If an editor replies that an article submitted is scientifically unsound and does not merit publication, that is reasonable. We can accept the scientific standard. But we hear the rejection is political. This is totally unethical.”
Many of Iraq’s creative writers and academics have left the country because of the government’s censorship policies. Good journalism is missing from the country where open discussion on many issues is not possible. But doctors and scientists did not face the same censorship and professionals could subscribe to journals to suit their needs. Following imposition of the embargo however, postal offices in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere were instructed not to deliver mail above twelve ounces addressed to the outlawed nation (and no business mail at all).
Iraqi scientists did not realize what was happening until some time after the embargo. Well-meaning foreign colleagues also did not know the ban existed. Dr. Abdul Moneim of the Cancer Institute in Baghdad was recently at a seminar in Jordan and, meeting a colleague from the Royal College of Surgeons, he asked her for journals in cancer radiology, their common profession. She agreed. Several weeks later, she sent regrets from London. “She was surprised,” said the Iraqi specialist, “when she learned that medical journals were not exempt from the embargo.”
At the moment information about the latest medical technology may not be of much assistance to Iraqi doctors who lack basic medicines and diagnostic tools. But even if things improve in the future, doctors will be handicapped because they were not able to keep abreast of advances in their disciplines. And they sorely miss professional contacts. Being forgotten by the international community, they say, makes the hardships caused by food and medical shortages more difficult to endure.
Because of their reputations and their role as articulators of social ideals, artists and intellectuals often win the sympathy and support of the international community. In the case of Iraq however the world has largely ignored the difficulties these once comfortable, middle class professionals face, partly because of limited press coverage and also because they generally have had resources to stave off real hunger by selling possessions and receiving remittances from family abroad.
When a country faces disease and starvation, food and medicine naturally take priority over books and microscopes when it comes to relief aid. But if Iraqi scientists abandon their careers and leave teaching and if research stagnates, the nation will suffer lasting damage. Already tens of thousands of these professionals have left the country in search of work, undermining prospects that a strong democracy can take hold in the near future.
Among those who will not see Iraq’s future is Walid al-Jadir. Although he took up his work again after the war, his life never returned to normal. He died suddenly in 1994, a victim of cancer.
In his years of research, al-Jadir had been pursuing leads that the great city of Akkad might be found among the ruins his team was excavating at Sippar. One of their most exciting finds was a library, a small, low room with cuneiform tablets arranged on shelves. Located adjacent to the main temple, this was the first such structure to be excavated intact, and it confirmed that the site had been a major academic center. Al-Jadir speculated that similar libraries existed in other excavated cities, but that earlier archeologists, unearthing the thousands of cuneiform tablets they contained, inadvertently destroyed the library structures.
What especially excited al-Jadir was a set of tablets that had remained undisturbed in one corner of the library he uncovered. The cuneiform inscriptions on them identified the various subjects of the tablets on the adjacent shelves—a type of index.
“This proved beyond a doubt the sophistication of the earliest chroniclers of our civilization,” he told me. This evidence of the region’s intellectual vigor is an ancient but fragile legacy. Today, al-Jadir’s field office at Sippar is deserted and the fence around the ruins is broken, leaving them vulnerable to vandalism. Once again, the windswept site lies abandoned.
- Natural History Magazine, Vol 105, Sept. 1996
38,000 fruit-bearing trees,on Palestinian land, documented as destroyed by Israeli occupation forces and settler militants since 2011. It is a daily occurance. (paraphrased)
Saree Makdisi, LA Times OpEd, Nov 18, 2013
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