Letter from the Road #11

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Dark Night of the Soul


But we, like sentries, are obliged to stand
In starless nights, and wait the ‘pointed hours.
– John Dryden

Elias has been busy for the past days making banners, getting tents and setting up sites for a series of actions the Iraq Peace Team will initiate during the coming week. In contrast to his energy, I am paralysed by a deep dread. I feel the war’s shadow over my shoulder. And at the moment its darkness has me in its grip. I don’t want to meet new people or have new experiences. What’s the point, I think? This place is over! When I do talk with some old friends from my previous visit to Baghdad in November-December, we cry together. The future approaches and millions must stand silently through the coming night.

Those Iraqis who can afford it have already left Baghdad. United Nations officials are taking their vacations and humanitarian groups are being sent home. Businessmen have relocated their families. Foreigners are returning to their homelands. Journalists are surveying hotels for their structural soundness. People are selling their cars, their possessions, anything they have to help them get out of the city.

But the vast majority have nowhere to go. Five million men, women and children must stay here and endure the rain of bombs, the lack of electricity, clean water, food supplies and medicines. Schools and hospitals will close; so will shops and businesses. No one knows when and where the shells made with depleted uranium or other chemical, biological or nuclear weapons will be used. Rumors are that marshal law will be enforced.

Hassan is an out of work electrician. He tells me that he and his wife have put extra food by, but they worry that if the war lasts too long, looters will come for their supplies. He is a mild man. He tries not to discuss the war in front of his four children “but they hear it in school and from their friends. Yesterday Alla (his 9 year old son) asked if we are going to die. This is their great fear, not their own death, but the loss of their mother and father.”

Why? Why? Why? This is the one question every person I talk with asks. “Will you destroy so much just for the oil? Do Americans know what a catastrophe this will be? Nothing will be good between the Arabs and the Americans again—not for 100 years.” I can only bear witness to this pain. I have no answers.

Every day in the hotel, in small groups, the Peace Team people discuss the countdown to war. How many more days before the invasion? When should we leave? Will those who choose to stay through the war be safe? What can we do to prevent the coming disaster? Will anything stop it? The U.N. Security Council? France and Germany? The American public? Saudi Arabia? Most of us have given up hope for a last minute reprieve. Bush will have his war. And we will stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people as long as each of us can.

Khaled, our Yemeni graduate student friend looks at me and says I have “the fear sickness”. He says he is seeing it a lot. He says I should leave Iraq. It’s true I have a little fever, no appetite and sleep a lot. I do feel despair. Today a memo was slipped under my door. It had 14 questions. The first one: “In the event of your death, do you agree to your body not being returned to your own country but being disposed of in the most convenient way?” With decisions like this how does one not have the “fear sickness?”

Elias and I do have an exit date that we believe is safe, but of course it is not fool-proof. And the very fact that we can exit only heightens my despair for those we leave behind. Perhaps staying through the war with the Iraqi people would be easier on the soul. But not on the body – some people here say the survival odds given to the American peaceworkers staying through the invasion is about 30%. I am simply not ready (yet) to face the end of my life or to answer the second question: “Have you written a letter that can be sent to your loved ones in the event of your death?”

While I puzzle about how to avoid death, life goes on all around me. The shoeshine boys still play in front of our hotel, hoping for spare change. Amal, my friend with the art studio, opens her shop every morning, offers tea, weeps quietly and then shows me the new fabrics from Kurdistan. Kamel, the Imam’s assistant from a nearby mosque still comes to work every day, tall and dignified, serving coffee to us and teaching us a few words of Arabic. Last night seven wedding parades, complete with ribbons and music, drove down our street – seven! Across the street the Palestine Hotel has begun to tape it large glass windows to try and prevent them from shattering or imploding when the bombing starts. And on the grounds right below these windows there are two Iraqi men still tending to the few green plants and small garden that are in front of the hotel. Preparing for death, tending life. The truth of this lesson breaks my heart. A small green shoot pushes through the ruins. Surely the very least I owe these beautiful people is the energy of my smile and good cheer. What right do I have to despair when everywhere life continues. I pray that with the help of grace this “fear sickness” will pass. Insh’allah!

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