Thursday, August 30, 2007

Juan Cole on Iraq: Simpleton Paints by Numbers

I know I promised you my interview with Cindy Sheehan, but published another paint-by-numbers article written by Juan Cole and I had to respond. His article was titled: “The war against Iraq's prime minister
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin are calling for Nouri al-Maliki's ouster as a way of attacking Bush's Iraq policy. But do they understand the consequences?”

My question is: does understand the consequences of continuing to publish the uniformed dribble of Prof. Cole?

Here is my letter, written to in response to Prof. Cole’s article:

I am an independent journalist who has just returned from spending four weeks in the Middle East: one week in Amman, Jordan checking in with old friends and researching the Iraqi refugee/displaced person crisis; and 3 weeks in northern Iraq, where among other things, I spent time with a group of Iraqis: Sunni, Shiite, Kurds, and at least one Zoastrian. All were working on a 6-week biodiversity survey project spanning northern Iraq. Another such survey occurs in the south at another time of the year. An Iraqi NGO employs these people and has offices in the north, in Baghdad and in Basra. These people are all educated, middle class Iraqis, some of whom had met each other for the first time. They either live in Baghdad, Basra, or northern Iraq.

Over the three weeks time I spent living with these folks, they relaxed enough to speak openly in front of me. All felt high frustration at the US for not handling the occupation appropriately form the beginning. All said that in the beginning they welcomed the US presence and being freed from the horror grip of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The general sentiment among all of them was that the US should remove Prime Minister Mailiky from his position. His ties with Iran and his favoritism of the Shiite (in the eyes of most of the Iraqis I spoke with, both in Iraq and Amman, Jordan) are absolutely not acceptable. (I did explain to them that they would have to remove Maliky themselves by way of democratic process). They also want the US to attack Iran as soon as possible - their reaction to seeing Ahmadinejad and Maliki in Iran holding hands almost tore the roof off of the building.

Just about all said the US should impose a new Prime Minister – Ayad Allawi was a name that constantly came up. But most said Maliky’s replacement didn’t have to necessarily be Allawi but definitely someone like him. That is (in the words of more than one of these Iraqis), “We want someone who will kill the terrorists because they are terrorists, and not just because they are Sunni or Shiite. We don’t make that division.”

As they explained to me in their own words, Iyad Allawi, although Shiite, was Baathist and served under Saddam. He did not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite, and simply killed people who were doing wrong (based on the definition of “wrong” at the time). Indeed, as one Iraqi woman – a refugee living in Amman – told me, “We Iraqis don’t make a distinction between insurgent, Mujahadeen, al Qaeda or terrorist. All who create terror in people’s lives are terrorists. They should be killed.”

Prof. Cole does an amazing job writing articles that weave together chosen sound bites from various Western media reports and put forth his amateurish and spurious conclusions that, in the end, only support his continuing agenda to demonize the US involvement in Iraq. This specific article was so rife with agenda-ized “frames” (à la George Lakoff, who I interviewed in July 2006:, catch-all words and misleading information, that it would have served a better purpose as a humor piece – except that the situation is NOT humorous and deserves more in-depth and objective reporting, to say the least.

For Cole to say that Sen. Warner “doesn’t grasp the role of Iran” and simplistically back that statement up by saying, “Maliki is less close to Iran than his predecessor, Ibrahim Jaafari, was. Warner does not understand the Islamic Call Party or its history as an Iraqi nationalist organization with a Shiite emphasis” is ludicrous. Just what does “less close to Iran” mean Prof. Cole?

While understanding the history of a group or even a country is an important factor in any discussion, the situation on the ground in today’s Iraq is a primodial soup where alliances, definitions and the emergence of groups and their intentions change and realign constantly. One independent journalist who recently ventured to Baghdad told me that the Madhi militia is so fractured that moving from neighborhood to neighborhood was more dangerous than ever because there is no communication between the splinter groups. No communication means no central command.

Indeed, one cannot use the word “Shiite” and act as if it represents all Shiite. I would say the same for the word “Sunni.” Many Sunni and Shiite (and Kurds) bristle at the idea of an Iranian-infused fundamentalist-run Iraq.

Not to mention that a quick look around the souks of the east Kurdistan, Iraq show an implosion of Iranian and Turkish (and Chinese) products into the country. Iraqis take this as a sign of an Iranian invasion they feel is fully supported by Prime Minister Maliky. “His identification documents may say Maliky is Iraqi, but in truth he is an Iranian Shiite,” was a continuing theme I heard.

If Prof. Cole would dare to venture to Iraq and speak with a healthy mixture of Iraqis, he would clearly see that it is not only American Democrats and Republicans who are “bashing” Iraqi Prime Minister Maliky and his government, are desirous of his prompt removal, and want him replaced by “a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister.” Indeed, one has to wonder why Cole, a self-proclaimed expert on the goings on in Iraq, hasn’t once left his academic ivory tower to step foot in a country with issues he feels so comfortable speaking of yet he has no first hand knowledge of.

Really, Juan, I urge you to go and see for yourself. You might actually learn a thing or two. You know, broaden your horizons, have your mind opened, help you see beyond your limited view... Hell, it might even make you a better teacher.

Next up: My interview with Cindy Sheehan

Monday, August 27, 2007

War Zone Touristing

A bird is spotted and so all cameras work to capture the image

August 17, 2007
We used them as comic relief…the folks who would show up at the Baghdad hotel “we” all stayed at back in early 2004. “They” were the war tourists. Folks who would simply buy a ticket, hop a plane and somehow make it to Baghdad. One day, a US postal worker arrived with his yearly vacation savings tucked safely in his pockets. He informed us as to how each year he would take a “war” vacation – picking a different “hotspot” each year. Some came with no money at all – having spent it along the way. Like the young American man I spied sleeping on the lobby couch of my hotel one day. His gapping holes in the knees of his jeans got my attention. His only belongings were the dirty clothes he wore. He himself, looked haggard and worn from the journey. I later heard he had actually asked the management for a free room for the night. This, in a country where even as the bombing was going on, the Iraqis would create whatever miracles they could muster to look fresh, clean and crisp - loathe to appear unkempt in any way.

“We” were a healthy mix of international do-gooders: independent journalists, photojournalists, peace activists, NGO workers, and people looking for work in the newly freed Iraq. Equally aghast at this display of the worst of western behavior, we would listen to the tales of these war tourists, or share their tales among ourselves. Later, sometimes in the evening, when blasts of Kalashnikov fire could be heard just outside our windows while we were comparing our photos of suicide bombing sites, squatter families, demonstrations and the like; or in the mornings at breakfast when we would gather, happy to see each other before setting out into the surrounding environs, we would say clever things in relation to these wandering souls – the object to make each other laugh. Like I said, we used them as comic relief.

And so now these memories come to mind as I begin to question my self. I have been here in Sulaimania for over 2 weeks and have hiked, swam and traversed some of the region’s more spectacular sights. OMG. Having come here to report on the effects of the war - have I become a war tourist?

Our Captain taking us to various sites on Darbendiken Lake

It’s not like I haven’t been working. In addition to attempting to make sense of this never-before-visited territory of Kurdistan, Iraq, which does not feel like a war zone, I have been interviewing people on the serious issues of the day: the ever-growing number of displaced,

refugee and homeless Iraqis;

Qalawa Refugee Camp, Sulaimania,
Kurdistan Iraq

the humanitarian rights violations, specifically gender-based violence, present in Kurdistan, Iraq; the setting up of the brand spanking-new American University of Iraq in Sulaimania; the work of an NGO that has spent over a decade helping to clear landmines left from Saddam and the Iraq/Iran war, and has also been working to help spread such civil society tenets as gender equality - in a section of the world where women are chattel to the men – and has helped to build schools, roads, and supplied over 2000 sheep to destitute widows. I’ve been to a refugee camp,

Qawala Refugee Camp, Sulaimania,
Kurdistan Iraq

made arrangements to visit a PKK camp in the mountains. (Word finally came tonight that I passed muster and could visit on Sunday – unfortunately, it is the same day as my flight to NY!)

The list continues and suddenly I realize I have been working my butt off.

But then again, no bombs have been exploding. I don’t recall hearing even a gun go off. The only shouts I’ve heard have come from crowds of people watching local soccer games and I did hear my first ambulance siren tonight. The central souk area, a seemingly endless maze of shops, has been nothing but teeming with people and goods of all kinds. I’ve been to an art opening, went bowling with the guys (I’ll explain in a minute), ate at a Chinese restaurant and took a 3-hour drive through thriving towns on the way to the burgeoning and modern city of Erbil. The only alarm that went off was within me, and it was in relation to the lack of a female presence on the streets in these smaller towns. Men were everywhere…but no women. I don’t think I have ever experienced this before.

I suppose it has been risky being here. I’ve been swimming in remote

and not-so-remote mountain lakes and rivers,

and climbed down into a dangerous but stunningly beautiful gorge where I did come close to being incapacitated - by heat emanating from surrounding boulders.

Touching them literally singed my fingertips. I gave swimming lessons to at least 8 of the guys the other night – it was part of our day-off picnic. I must admit, it was a bit of a challenge to attempt to teach 8 grown men, whose languages of Arabic and Kurdi is alien to your tongue and who are terrified of the water, how to swim. Later, while photographing them playing soccer, I thought they might be thinking of eliminating me as the ball inadvertently went over the cliff, down a 30 meter rock scramble to a sheer drop-off into the water. “Lorna! Lorna,” went the war cry. The only one able to swim strongly, I was volunteered to retrieve the ball – not once, but 3 times.

Then there was the time I was tagging along at a meeting that I really had no business being at. So I left the building to go get some water. This is Kurdistan, Iraq where the men don’t allow women to do much on their own – tradition, defined within a certain desire to be polite masks a deep-rooted subjugation of the women. Our super friendly driver, Shorsh – who speaks no English, followed me to the grocery store. As we mounted the steps together, he non-verbally insisting that he was to purchase the water, I gently tugged on his shirt in an attempt to hold him back. It didn’t work and as he ordered the water bottles and took out his wallet to pay, my mind soundlessly spoke these words to him: “I am going to kill you.” At the very same moment – literally - he pointed to a toy handgun on the counter and said in pure, clear as day English, “I am going to kill you.” It was truly the funniest moment I have experienced in quite a while. We both laughed – tears streamed down my face.

And that is about the closest to danger I have come while here.

And so this guilt pervades my being. I have not been shot at once this trip. My American face at checkpoints sends us sailing through. I’ve actually felt relaxed and had moments of playing the role of tourist. I’ve discovered that incredibly good things are happening in this country – despite what at least one independent journalist (left-leaning, of course) told me at dinner last week. That is, that nothing good is happening in Iraq. Indeed, there are people in the US who are loathe to hear this…that good is happening in Iraq. They wring their hands, moan and wail on their way to their next shopping excursion. They criticize and make judgments from the darkest corners of ignorance, reading and listening to only that which supports their already cemented opinion, and rocket launch tirades of blame blame blame from their couch potato positions within the international arena.

And yet, good, if not great things are happening here. I kid you not. Take for instance the work of the environmental NGO I have been researching. The “guys” I have referred to earlier are living specimens of Iraq’s “brain drain” virtually rescued from the drain. Scientists all, mostly biologists, they are this very healthy mixture of Sunni, Shiite, Kurd and one Zoastrian. The project manager, Anna, is an American environmentalist who has become a good friend since we first met in Baghdad before the war. The guys come from Baghdad, Basra and Kurdistan and we have all been living together peacefully as family in the office/house of the NGO for a few weeks now.

They are all working together on a Key Biodiversity Area [KBA] survey of northern Iraq. The point of the survey is to document Iraq’s plant, mammal, bird, fish, zooplankton, phytoplankton and other plankton life. They all have cameras. They are all experts in their fields. They all work practically round the clock either out “in the field” collecting data from the lakes, rivers,

and dry areas within Kurdistan,

or back at the office/house organizing and analyzing the data. Or, in the case of Haidar Fishman (there are 3 Haidars here so I have made up my own identification system), dissecting the fish samples he has collected.

Or in the case of the water study team, analyzing the water samples for levels of different planktons. For the most part, they spend a good part of each day in full sun with temps hovering at 100 plus.

I have gone along with them - hiking and swimming – when safety permits. Some sites they have traveled to, I have not been allowed to go due to al Qaeda or Ansar al Islam sightings.

This sort of work, on this level, has never been done in Iraq before. They are not only pioneers, but also truly brave men. I cannot show you photos that show their faces for fear they will become targets by those they call “terrorists.” I can't show you any images that show them outside of the places they are housed, identifying the vehicles they travel in, or anything that could possibly identify them at all. And yet they work each day, willingly, diligently, gladly. All are working to rebuild their beloved Iraq. They each say that Iran and al Qaeda are behind the violence in Iraq. None want the US troops to leave. Just about all told me a few days ago – the day Bush announced that Iran’s Republican Guard is considered a terrorist organization and therefore subject to attack by the US without the consent of Congress – that they wished for the US to go war with Iran and wipe out the present regime there. It didn’t help that a few days before that, Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliky was seen on parade in Iran holding the Iranian president’s (Ahmadinejad) hand on TV. The image, show over and over and over again, nearly incited a gentle riot among them.

And there are those within America, driven by agenda and media hype that only allows the horrors to be shown, who would say nothing good is happening in Iraq. To them I say, shame on you for disrespecting these brave souls who are working under threat of torture and death, to improve the condition of their country and help to create a healthy future.

Next up: An interview with Cindy Sheehan in Amman, Jordan. An interview that she agreed to, gave me permission to record and once completed, informed me, via her press representative, that she didn't like the "tone" of my questions and therefore would not allow me to use the interview for any purposes. When I asked what would happen if I did use it, she said Cindy Sheehan would sue me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ruminations on Reality

The following is in response to Errol Morris' NY TimesSelect piece of August 16th titled: Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up?"


Morris' piece begins:

Every human being has his own particular web of associations for identifying and interpreting reality, which, most often, instinctively and unthinkingly, he superimposes on every set of circumstances. Frequently, however, those external circumstances do not conform with, or fit, the structure of our webs, and then we can misread the unfamiliar reality, and interpret its elements incorrectly…
— Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Travels with Herodotus” (2007)

"It was arguably one of the least newsworthy pictures in the world, if only because it had already been seen by everybody. And yet, on March 11, 2006, The New York Times published on the front page of the first section, upper left-hand corner, a photograph of a man holding the photograph that had been seen around the world. Ali Shalal Qaissi, the man in the Times photograph (below) had told a group of human rights workers that he was “The Hooded Man” or “The Man on the Box.”

Mr. Haj Ali, also known as Ali Shalal Qaissi, also known as "The Hooded Man - Not" ; also known as "The Man on the Box - Not"; also known as "Clawman."

My response:

I write from Sulaimania, Kurdistan Iraq. Before arriving here on July 31, I was in Amman, Jordan and spent some time with "Clawman" - who identified himself to me as Haj Ali. One look at the man - he is a huge hulk - and one can see he is not the man in the photo."

When I asked the towering giant if he indeed was the one in the photo, he said he had been advised by his (American) attorney not to answer any questions in relation to the time he spent at Abu Graib. When I pressed him for a response, he said that he was “one of many” treated in this way.

He now runs an Iraqi NGO that originally brought attention to prison issues, but now deals with the more broad topics in relation to "humanitarian" issues.

The following are direct quotes from Mr. Haj Ali:

"It is a new idea that people in Iraq know the war was made by the US. The result is that there are 5 million people displaced within Iraq and 5 million people have left. The US has said it will accept 7000 refugees. We don’t want an alternative homeland. We want human rights resettlement organizations to help us solve the reasons behind needing to leave Iraq. Without security the problems of Iraqis cannot be addressed. There are militias, ethnic identity killings, and there is internal interference by Iranians. Anyone who says the US should leave Iraq is insane. They need to stay at least 3 more years. We would say to the Americans, “leave tomorrow.” But the Iraqi police force consists of 32 militias. Iraqi prisoners pay $50,000 US dollars to stay in American prisons instead of being transferred to Iraqi prisons. In Iraqi prisons they cut off ears, torture and kill. In US prisons all are registered. A lot of people are willing to sell everything to stay in an American prison."

I wonder if Americans can handle hearing such words.

Of course, Mr. Haj Ali said he could not tell me who the donors are to his ethno-unified 65,000-member NGO, and later said he receives no money, only foodstuffs and other goods, which, to date, he has distributed to 23,000 Iraqis.

Putting the question of Mr. Haj Ali’s legitimacy aside, the real crime in all of this was how the press took their time to report on the issues at Abu Graib and instead waited until they were able to obtain the "sexy" images of naked Iraqis. I was present in Baghdad, Iraq as an independent journalist on two occasions (each several weeks long) in 2004 and had close contact with members of the Christian Peacemaking Team.

CPT had a continuous presence in Iraq from Oct. 2002 and after the bombs stopped falling began to document the stories of Iraqi detainees. I was witness to how they desperately tried to get the media to report on the issues at Abu Graib and other Iraqi prisons and were ignored by all of the media outlets - that is, until the naked pics surfaced. Once they surfaced, CPT's phone rang off the hook from the same media outlets that had previously ignored their pleas for coverage of detainee issues.

The everyday stories of Iraqis are not newsworthy to a media that feeds on sensationalism, and a public that only wants to have its own narrow preconceptions reflected back at it.

Continue your intellectual meanderings Mr. Morris. Such philosophical discourse is of certain comedic relief to those of us who have been working here on the ground since before the war. The realities in Iraq are so distant and go so against what most Americans believe to be true as to what is happening here, that thinking about returning to America makes me feel as if I will be imprisoned once again in an idyllic disneyland-esque horror show. Yes, there are terrible things happening in this country. But there are also wondrous, amazing, and positive things being created by incredible people – Iraqi and international alike.

Lorna Tychostup
Senior Editor Chronogram Magazine

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Falling in Love Again

After 26 hours of not sleeping, I instantly passed out on the plane from Amman to Sulaimania. Departing at 4AM and adding an hour due to the time difference, we arrived in Sulay at approx. 6:30AM. It wasn’t a normal flight where people chitchat as they board and exchange niceties. Barely a word was spoken, neither in the waiting area of the airport or during the flight. The big southern fella in the cowboy hat I imagine was a contractor. A dashing Kurdish man, accompanied by what I imagined to be a gypsy beauty with kohl-black ringed eyes and a smile that erupted each time anyone spoke to her, had quite a problem with airport immigration. As I sailed through after a brief wait, her gentlemen friend was still arguing with the officials.

For those of you who know me, you have seen how I love too easily, and so once again I immediately fell deeply in love as I spied the mountainous Sulaimanian terrain through the plane’s window. Any trepidation or lingering melted away as I stepped off the plane and was embraced by the mountains' enormous grasp. It suddenly all came back to me why I was there…here…having wondered at the airport in Amman if I was truly crazy for returning to this place of war.

But the war is not apparent in Sulay. There are limited checkpoints, signs of enormous growth everywhere, men with scarves wrapped turban-like around their heads wearing big, flowy zoot-suit-type pants cinched at their ankles, and smooth clean black asphalt roads. How could it be I was at all tentative about coming to this place that captivated my affection so immediately, so intensely?

The place where I am staying houses an Iraqi environmental NGO that shall remain nameless for now. I have arrived in time to participate at the start of a 6-week bio diversity survey of the surrounding region. After sleeping a good part of the first day and making introductions to the 18+ members of the survey team, we went off early the next morning to the first site of the day: Biyari, a small mountain village directly on the border with Iran. The mountain's embrace tightened around me as we drove to the site: a centuries old pure water stream emanating from an underground spring. The area to be surveyed was wooded and cooler than Sulaimania. Seated on blankets under the spacious arms of the trees, families were gathered to picnic and beat the summer heat.

A healthy mixture of Kurds, and Shiite and Sunni Arabs, the environmental NGO’s survey team of biologists, chemists and geologist are representative to some degree of the brain drain that is decimating central and southern Iraq. The Shiite and Sunni are all displaced, having had to flee their places of origin; many have family scattered to Jordan, Syria, Switzerland and farther. One man has not seen his not-quite-one-year-old grandson yet. Another travels occasionally to Syria to see his family – that is, the family members who are there and not in some other “external” to Iraq location.

All quickly scattered and went about their work. Some measured water quality and fluidity. Others took to the hills to photograph plants, animals, birds, insects and other flora and fauna. I was free to mingle with the families who beckoned to me invitations to join them and to photograph them. One family up the hill had brought a sound system and Kurdish music flowed among the trees. A rock wall acting as buffer between the picnic area and stream housed colonies of hundreds of one type of butterfly. (It is almost 3AM as I write this and if everyone weren’t asleep right now I would ask what type of butterflies they were and pass the info along to you.)

[Later: I have asked and it was not a butterfly but a moth with leaf like green-veined camouflaged external wings with bright orange undersides.]

By now you are beginning to question if I am truly in Iraq! Don’t worry. So am I – questioning just where I am! It is true that at the site in Biyari we could have technically been in Iran. Wherever we were, there were no signs of war. However, as we readied to leave a few hours later, a woman preaching Islamist dogma to a large group of women and girls who surrounded her listening to rapture emanating from her mouth, was pointed out to me. It was not rapture but brainwashing, I was assured by the Kurds of the group, who openly despise the Islamists, especially this woman and her disciples who were most likely members of Ansar al Islam – a radical Islamist Kurdish Sunni offshoot group that promotes Jihad and is known for using suicide bombers to kill and maim in an ongoing war with other Kurdish groups. “Ansar al Islam was kicked out by the Peshmerga and the US,” I was informed by our extraordinarily observant and intelligent young Kurdish biologist-fixer. “They go in and out of Iran at will.”

Indeed, we passed a number of checkpoints while making our way up the mountain – some made up of Kurdish police, some of Kurdish border guards, others Peshmerga or Kurdish government forces. Women were working equally among the men. Unlike al Qaeda-denialists in the US, the Kurds acknowledge that al Qaeda is alive and well and readying to wreck havoc. In fact, the original lake-based survey site planned for the day was closed off to us by the military due to al Qaeda activity.

The second site of the day was a valley river area that also serves as a summer picnic park. When we arrived a Kurdish wedding was about to begin.

The women were wearing incredible colors – bright hues of blues, reds, golds, greens and oranges. As I passed them making my way further up the river, Kurdish music started up.

A family along the riverside called me over for tea and I joined them. Although we did not share even one word of a common verbal language, we communicated beautifully - they asked me to photograph them and then one man took my camera, and after a short bit of direction from me on its use, proceeded to take a pretty damn good group shot with me in it.

I left them to traverse further up river, carefully walking in the stone-lined riverbed, its water a cool salve to my hot and tired sandled feet. At a deeper spot, a few young boys from the wedding were shedding their clothes and diving into the water.

I watched, photographed and walked into a field adjoining the river.

Its lush green expanse was met by a cool line of mowed and dry yellowish grass that spread to the far distance meeting the base of mountains the like of which I had never seen before. Their light and transparent hued peaks, faded away by the extremely harsh summer sun, steamily rose up through an equally faded sky.
Standing in awe, realizing that for all the talk that had been going on since (and I am sure long before) my arrival, of Islam, religion, and differences between us, this place I stood within was a church of a different sort where any and all participate in any given moment – that is, if they take the time. After filling on this feast for the soul I headed back in the direction of the wedding where I was asked to dance.

Yes, really, this is a war zone.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Illumination of Hate Email

One of the last emails I received before I left for Amman was from a peace activist who had seen me speak the night before at a fundraising show of my photos arranged by a gallery that represents my work. Although I repeated a minimum of 5 times that Iraqi people hate being occupied, yet he seemed to take his own meaning from my words and create a new reality. He went so far as to insinuate that my photos were perhaps not mine after all.

It went like this:
“Ms. Tychostup:

Tonight I listened to your presentation at the strip mall out in Delmar. I was the one who asked you to reconcile your contention that Iraqis were happy to have an occupying force in their country with the well-known data about Iraqi opinion and estimates of the Iraqi death count since the invasion.

I was stunned and appalled that you dismissed the famous Johns Hopkins estimate of Iraqi dead as "propaganda."

I did not challenge you because I did not have the facts in front of me, so I am sure that you would have easily out-talked me. But there is one thing I could have said to you if I had been as sharp a talker as you are. I could have pointed out that your dismissal of the Johns Hopkins study is remarkably reminiscent of George W. Bush's dismissal of the study:

Until you let slip this one blazing error I was willing to overlook all the little red flags in your speech. Up until that point I saw no reason to assume that you were anything but what you claimed to be.

When I came home my wife asked me how was your presentation. Forced to sum up in a few words, I replied, "The woman was phony baloney."

Perhaps I could have more accurately said, "She is very, very slick."

I tell you this because I want you to understand that while you may have fooled and befuddled most of that audience, there is at least one person who sees you in clear focus.

Your photographs, though, were excellent, quite extraordinary. That is, if they were yours.

-Dan Van Riper

Oh well. You can’t please everyone.

Right before I left the US, I contacted Judy Meeker in Tennessee. She makes handmade quilts with children – peace quilts – and sends them off to far corners of the world where children are in need. I have taken her quilts with me on at least 3 trips now. I asked her to send me some more – over might them because I was leaving the next day. The quilts arrived by way of miracle and early this morning, my 4th day in Amman, Judy put an email exchange up her internet newsletter that spoke of this miracle:

Approximately 5 minutes after I read her newsletter I received this email:

“Dear Lurna
I have checked your website
what are you doing?
trying to help Iraqis , or just making propoganda for yourself?
where is the refugees you visited?
and to whom to gave the blankets or quilts?
if you are activist, you need to help people on ground, for their basic needs like education
for their kids here in Amman,
do you know whats the needs of Iraqis here in Amman?
have you met families and write down on your notebook?
I dont know what to say, another naive American trying to bring lights on herself under the name
of Iraqi refugees?
how much you know about the suffering of Iraqis?
4 times you visited Iraq?
by hiding inside American tank?
who protect you?
have you seen the mess, your government done in mt country?
is your quilts , the solution for what happened in Iraq?
are you an American dreamer?
please ask your government to pull out its troops from Iraq, leave the country to its people,
I dont think that Iraqis need your quilts or pity
thank you
Faiza Alaraji
an Iraqi mother”

Unlike the first writer, an angry American person who calls himself a peace activist and thinks sending an angry hate email is taking action, an angry Iraqi I can deal with. Iraqis have a right to be angry. There is a lot to be angry about. I forwarded the email to Judy and wrote Faiza back:

“I am here in Amman. Would you like to meet?


Apparently, Faiza traveled to the US with the help of Code Pink. Judy Meeker wrote of Faiza: “She went to California- around Santa Cruz and spoke. She was blown out by the people of the US mindlessness about what was going on. After, she was given a quilt by my friends. She was inspired that American children cared about her people and had her son take it to his school to show.”

I’d be interested to hear what Faiza has to say about Code Pink. Just about every international and Iraqi person I know who worked with Code Pink and Global Exchange in Iraq does not have anything positive to say about the experience. One Iraqi woman formed her own NGO after working with them, she was so disgusted. They are known as media hounds. Coming to Amman for photo ops with Iraqi refugees, not daring to step foot in Iraq themselves. Collecting money for their own coffers by way of the Iraqi poster child they choose for the moment who must support their agenda.

I am waiting for Faiza’s reply. I hope we can meet. I’ll keep you guys posted.

PS One of the Iraqi refugees I was taken to meet was Haj Ali. Apparently, Haj Ali claimed at one time that he was the man in the infamous Abu Graib photo with the hood over his head and attached to electrical wires. He later said that he was not that person, but that the same thing had happened to him. But that is another story.

First Night in Amman

I have to admit to a little bit of the jitters just before I left. The unknown loomed ahead. But as soon as the plane landed I realized I was back to yet another “home” of mine, one that is experiencing extraordinary development, and growing and expanding at a seemingly exponential level. Palm trees now line the road leaving the airport and billboards proclaim that Dubai and Jordan are partnered in some way. Huge condos, both new and under construction, fill the cityscape. One massive hole we passed – and I mean massive in both depth and breath – is being readied for yet another construction project. In the dark of night, a new expansion bridge lined with rectangular lights connecting in a long streaming line all along its cement guardrails, gives one the feeling of gliding along on an indoor Disney ride.

I hope to re-connect with the bright young Syrian Kurdish man I sat next to on the plane, if and when I get to Damascus. Moving from Syria to Pittsburgh when he was thirteen years old, Kawa (“like ‘Kawasaki’” he told me) flew on to his homeland to marry his childhood sweetheart. He will bring her back with him to his new home in Pittsburgh where she will go to school and he will continue working on his doctorate in child psychology. We talked at great length about the human rights abuses perpetrated on the Kurds by the Syrian government. Last time Kawa visited Syria, he was prevented from boarding his flight to the US and not allowed to leave for two months. A lengthy process of meeting with officials - sometimes 3 in one day - and the paying of a bribe each time, finally bought him his freedom. A fan of American psychologist/psychiatrist, Milton Erikson, Kawa is an extraordinary positive thinker, and although a little trepidatious at entering Syria once again, he is convinced that no matter what happens, all will be for the best.

After settling in to Anna’s enviro’s NGO office/apartment, I went with Anna and her American-born Iraq coworker, took a taxi to my favorite Amman restaurant. Amal (not her real name), now thirty, was born in Nebraska and lived there for one year before her parents moved back to Baghdad. She arrived in Amman yesterday from Iraq and is beginning the process that will hopefully allow her Iraqi-born husband and two children to migrate with her to the US for the purposes of attending school and working. Not only did she get royally ripped off today by a slick Jordanian taxi cab driver who obscenely overcharged her, Amal’s effort to begin her family’s US immigration process today was somewhat stonewalled by folks at the American Embassy. Tomorrow Anna will accompany her. Amal speaks excellent English, is an American citizen and carries an American passport and it will be interesting to see if Anna’s “American” presence tomorrow will help facilitate Amal’s immigration process.

Once at the restaurant, I ordered ouze, a boiled and delicately seasoned lamb shank served over a bed of raisin-filled spiced white rice smothered in a curdled yogurt. Yum. Kathy Kelly, a long-term peace activist working in Iraq since the early 90s under the now defunct Voices in the Wilderness she helped to found, joined us for dinner. It was good to see Kathy, who helped me (and Anna and many others) enter Iraq that first time back in February of 2003, and who has kept her finger, as best one can without entering the country, on the pulse of the situation in Iraq. We mostly reminisced, caught up on the whereabouts and activities of Iraqis and others we had met and/or worked with and around, and began to compare notes on issues facing Iraqis today.

I asked Kathy what she thought were the most pressing issues regarding the Iraq refugees in Amman. Education topped her list. “Education matters very much to [the Iraqi] people who know they will be here a long time. They want their kids educated. Health care is another issue. There is a lot of neglect regarding health care. People come here with huge trauma. Within Iraq, it is very, very dire regarding food, water, transport, and insecurity.” In Kathy’s opinion, the UN should declare Iraq an emergency zone, but the US is blocking such efforts because if the UN were to declare Iraq an emergency zone, the US would have to accept responsibility for the war.

I asked Kathy if she thought the health care here in Jordan was any better for poorer Jordanians than it was for Iraqis. Her consensus was that it was probably about the same.

Tomorrow I will visit with Mazen, the manager of the dilapidated, 5-blanket hotel (I named it so due to the fact that 5 heavy wool blankets are needed in order to keep warm in bed during the colder months) where many of us independents, peaceworkers, internationals, NGO staffers, Iraqis and others have frequented over the years. I also hope to meet with an Iraqi videographer friend and an Iraqi interpreter recommended by Mazen, and go off to the Iraqi refugee neighborhoods and interview people living there.

It is good to be back. There is much more happening here than I having been hearing about in the media. So many stories….so many angles and views. And I have been here less than 24 hours!