When the bombs hit home
Imagine if your hometown was being bombed, and all you could do was watch. That’s what the last month has been like for one family of Iraqi-Americans who left their closest relatives in Baghdad.
Early in the war, three generations of women from one Iraqi-American family set up a loose vigil around the TV in their small, crowded Davis apartment.
The television was not large, not obtrusive. It sat in a corner, off to the side of three couches that formed a U along the boundaries of the living room. Like many of us in the past month, the women found the TV an irresistible magnet. They watched for hours at a time, spellbound by the bombings, the fires and the steady progression of the allied forces. But for them, the war was not happening in a foreign country. Through TV, they saw their homeland blown to bits, an experience that many Americans can’t comprehend.
After the first days of the bombing, the Arabic television station Al Jazeera, via the Dish network, showed again and again the dramatic images of two dead siblings, so tiny that their bodies shared one stretcher. The little girl’s uncovered feet rested along one side of her brother’s head.
“These are scenes that CNN and MSNBC, they really don’t show,” said Geed, a young woman who could not turn away. (She and her family did not want their last name used.)
Graphic images of unnaturally bright blood, deep wounds prodded by gloved fingers, and Iraqi civilians wailing in grief passed across the screen in the evenings, coloring the family members’ earliest perceptions of the war and frightening them with examples of what could happen to their close relatives in Baghdad. With phone lines down, the family got no direct news, only these televised images from a land with limited medical care, no electricity and sporadic access to water.
As they watched Iraq’s defenses weaken and fall, Geed and her family considered their complex relationship to their homeland, and each reacted differently to the destruction of what he or she had left behind after the Gulf War. One woman was so angry, she rose to protest aggressively for peace. Another sought solace through her faith in Islam. The one member of the family who had tried to avoid the war altogether reluctantly submitted to a surprise interview with the FBI’s joint terrorism task force.
Looking through the portal that Al Jazeera offered, each member of the family viewed the future through the eyes of Iraqi citizens.
“Iraqis say there was no victor,” said Geed’s mother, Rihab, as the fighting subsided. Until the Americans have found or killed Saddam Hussein, Rihab explained, they will not have won the war.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen, good or bad,” said Geed’s brother, Asef. “With Saddam, you knew when to keep your mouth shut, and you knew when to speak. … Now, I don’t know what to think.”
At 18, Geed was a passionate, smoky-voiced college student and the family’s most active critic of American foreign policy. She sat nearest the television one evening struggling to express her fear and anger and found a dozen different ways to say the same thing: “I’m not too happy about what’s going on,” she said, her eyes straying repeatedly to the magnet, the television. “Innocent people are dying—kids and families. … I mean, this is really getting out of hand. The whole country is getting destroyed. … Those people are, like, dying. … It’s just making things really, really worse. … They really need to put an end to this.” Eventually, she gave up. “I feel really bad and horrible,” she concluded.
To show her pride in her Iraqi heritage, Geed had begun parading a full-sized Iraqi flag around Sacramento during anti-war protests.
Asef also wanted the war to end, but he avoided lingering around the television. The 17-year-old spent most of his time at school, working, hanging out with his friends or playing soccer. When he was at home, Asef could sit right next to the TV and willfully ignore it. It made him angry to watch mainstream American news, he said, and then compare that with Al Jazeera’s reports of “what really happens to the people.” But in a way, the war affected Asef more personally than it did Geed. He was the one interviewed by the FBI’s terrorism task-force agents. For nearly half an hour, he said, he’d tried to assure them that he was not guilty of terrorist activity and that neither he nor his family members knew where Saddam Hussein had built hidden bunkers. It still made Asef uncomfortable to talk about it.
If the war made Asef feel exposed and Geed angry, it made their younger sister Ghask more devout. As a sign of pride, the 14-year-old had begun wearing hijab, the Muslim head covering. At home, Ghask removed the black hood that covered her head and neck and sat cross-legged on the couch, uttering pitying sounds every time she viewed some new violence against her people.
The children’s mother, Rihab, watched these same images and reminisced about the comfort of living near her extended family in the ancient city of Baghdad. She grew sadder as forces moved toward it. For her, the war wasn’t just about the destruction of lives but about the destruction of cities she’d lived in, bridges she’d driven over and a lifestyle of ease and comfort that she very much missed. In spite of these losses, Rihab remained loyal to both countries. “America is my country,” she said in her soft, inflected voice. “Iraq is my country.”
Rihab’s own mother seemed less forgiving. The older woman, with her long, gray braid and her white headscarf, sat all day in front of Al Jazeera, while fingering a string of turquoise beads and whispering to herself, “Allah.” The older woman watched the news with devotion, ignoring conversation swirling around her in English and Arabic. Sometimes, she flashed the same sweet, indulgent smile as the conversation lingered on what life was like in Iraq, but mostly, the older woman fretted silently about her children and grandchildren. “If she’s going to die,” said Rihab, watching her mother carefully, “she wants to die with them.”
When Ghask made her pitying sighs, the girl’s grandmother pulled her breath through her teeth in a hiss, as if she were bracing against some pain in her own body.
As the long days of the war passed, only Rihab’s youngest daughter, Ghena, a charming 3-year-old with lush, dark hair that curled against her chin, remained her lighthearted self. She streaked across floors at high speed, dragged toys from their hiding places and regularly interrupted all conversation by pointing to a photo of herself and saying in her joyous voice, “That’s me as a princess!”
Ghena usually paid no attention to the news, but while the women in her family watched solemnly during one of the war’s earliest days, Ghena got very close to the screen and looked at the face of the little dead girl lying with her brother on the stretcher.
She turned back to the center of the room.
“That me?” she asked her sisters brightly.
Very few details in the apartment indicated that the family had come from Iraq. The dining chairs were modern American and covered in yellow vinyl; a white, plastic cloth with red polka dots protected the dining table. In wedding pictures and family photo collages, none of the women wore hijab, and the only reference to Islam was a framed portion of the Quran elaborately embroidered onto a velvety cloth in gold thread.
Geed, sporty in black sweats, sat closest to the television. “Innocent children and families,” she repeated, her usual liveliness blunted. “You gotta put yourself into somebody else’s shoes just to get a feeling of what it is,” she said. She imagined her aunts and uncles, her cousins and her grandfather—he had refused to take his family out of Baghdad.
Geed got the provocative idea of carrying the Iraqi flag into protests when she noticed how many other protesters proudly carried the Palestinian flag. Some protesters wore Iraqi-flag lapel pins, but those struck her as too subtle. Geed went for the bigger, bolder statement and painted her own Iraqi-flag poster, which she carried as a symbol of her national pride. The fact that she didn’t care much for Saddam did not stop her from loving her culture, her people and her country.
When she finally bought a real Iraqi flag, the flirtatious man behind the counter insisted that he didn’t resent her request. Then he dug out a Syrian flag, Geed said. She had to explain to him that hers had three stars on it, not two.
Geed protested with her new full-sized flag in spite of the advice of older members of her community, who felt she was being too bold. “What happens if they hit you?” she remembered being asked.
In this country, Geed told them, a person could defend herself. She could even hit them back.
Geed’s father, who died in 2001, taught his daughter not to be ashamed of who she was. His was the advice she respected.
“I’m not afraid of anyone but God,” she said.
Most people left Geed alone as she defiantly paraded her flag up and down the streets of downtown Sacramento, or gave her smiles of support. But most people who stopped to talk just wanted to ask the same question: What flag is that?
Geed was amazed that American forces could bomb her country when American citizens couldn’t even recognize its flag, but she didn’t mind educating them. She even posed for pictures.
“I felt good inside,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
Geed only remembered one negative response. A jogger ran by and yelled that her flag was stupid. “Why don’t you come back and say that in my face?” she remembered calling after him. Then, she chased him. “He was faster than me,” she said with an embarrassed smile.
As forces moved deeper into Iraq, there were fewer local protests for Geed to attend, and she stopped flying her flag, but her anger over the conflict only deepened. Sitting in her living room as the war swept through Baghdad and farther north, Geed felt sure the bombing of markets and hospitals and journalists’ hotels must have been intentional.
“Accidents! Accidents!” she said. “I don’t think it’s an accident at all!”
But on the day Baghdad fell, and the American news showed cheering Iraqis, Geed’s interest swung away from the fighting and the civilian casualties. “They’re so stupid,” Geed said, overwhelmed and laughing as she stared at the Iraqis on the screen. “No education,” she said. “No thinking. God will get you in the end.”
While Americans were still getting used to the fall of Baghdad, Geed was already seizing the next big story. The Iraqi citizens looting government buildings shocked and mortified her. “Stealing chairs?” she asked incredulously.
She also laughed at the images portrayed around the world of Iraqis hitting the faces of Saddam Hussein statues with their shoes. “I know what people here are going to think of Iraqis,” she said, suspicious of how Americans would interpret these images. “This is what they’re going to focus on … the ugliest, the nastiest.”
The younger Ghask had a different take. Saddam is going to find those people, she said, claiming that the leader must have been watching everything and making notes on whom to punish.
Geed’s disgust at the media portrayal of her countrymen came partly from her pride. She’d begun to think about moving back to Iraq. As she spoke about it, the courageous teenager began to look pensive, almost shy.
“I want to go back to my own country,” she said in the early days of the bombing. “I want to visit because when I look at it, I feel that I’m missing something.”
As the war neared its close, her dream of visiting began to expand in her mind and to sound more like a permanent homecoming. It was as if the war were keeping something from her that she had forgotten to value, and now she couldn’t wait to reclaim it.
“Six months at least,” she said of her trip, but even then she wavered. “If I like it, maybe I won’t come back.”
Geed thought of her courage and her national pride as gifts from her father, who had died in a hospital in Davis from complications following surgery to correct sleep apnea.
As the family patriarch, Geed’s father had taken care of all the family bills and all the big decisions. He was the one who had brought them to the United States in 1993 as political-asylum seekers. He and Rihab since had become citizens, but Geed, Ghask and Asef are still in the process.
Though Rihab claimed not to know exactly why her husband, whom she referred to as a journalist and a diplomat for Iraq’s ministry of information, had chosen to bring her to California; she believes it had to do with the quality of life and education. He had not been a member of any political party in Iraq, she said, but he had worked for the good of the country.
Asef remembered that his father had traveled to embassies around the world. Though Asef was too young at the time to understand the details, he later remembered that his father did not support Saddam and that the family did not have permission to leave Iraq and had to bribe people to get out.
If Asef’s father had been alive still, it’s likely that Asef never would have been questioned by the FBI’s anti-terrorism force.
Muslim leaders were warned that “voluntary” interviews would take place with approximately 120 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans in and around the Central Valley. These interviews were for information-gathering purposes only and for building relationships, the leaders were told; no one should be alarmed.
But the teenage Asef was alarmed when two federal agents showed up on an afternoon, when he was home alone, and asked to speak with his deceased father.
“What are you talking about?” Asef remembered asking the agents. He didn’t let them in.
The pair then asked to speak with another member of his family, Asef’s fraternal grandmother, who still was in Iraq.
The pair carried a thick file of information, said Asef, which included documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The male agent in black was probably in his early 50s, Asef guessed. The other agent he described as a short, Asian lady. “The little lady,” he said, appeared sympathetic when Asef said he had family in Baghdad. “The guy didn’t seem to care too much,” Asef added.
When the agents asked if Asef would answer a few questions, he told them he’d be late for work. “I was trying to make them leave,” he said, but the agents remained.
Asef remembered a few of the specific questions. Others he paraphrased. He said the agents asked him who he was, whether he was involved in any terrorist attacks and whether he planned to be involved in any in the future, he said. They wondered what he thought of the war with Iraq and wondered if he’d spoken with his Iraqi relatives recently. Asef said that he had, and the agents asked if his relatives knew where Hussein had hidden underground bunkers and compounds. Asef thought the agents wanted him to question his relatives further.
Asef scoffed at the memory later, while snacking on sticky bars of Turkish Delight with his sisters. He said sullenly that the federal officers acted as if he were guilty of something. He also scoffed at the idea that the interview was voluntary—like anyone would risk refusing.
“I’m not a terrorist,” Asef remembered telling them.
“We’re not calling you a terrorist,” he remembered an agent replying. The pair claimed just to be making conversation.
When he spoke about the encounter, Asef fingered his lips unhappily, his voice low and slow. Only when he teased his sisters did he lighten up. “I sure hope they don’t have internment camps,” he told them wryly. The girls laughed.
After the interview, Asef suspected the family’s telephone and Internet use were under surveillance. Their Internet connection had slowed down to a crawl, he said, and the last time the family got a call from Iraq, the connection was crystal clear, not scratchy and echoing like normal. Asef said he noticed these changes immediately after meeting the anti-terrorism team.
“It’s probably not even against the law,” he said solemnly, assuming the Patriot Act had stripped his family of its right to privacy.
Nick Rossi, public-information officer for the local office of the FBI, couldn’t comment specifically on Asef’s interview, but he did say that the agents who had visited local Iraqi-Americans had worked to build strong relationships with the community. They’d had three goals: to gather information about any local terror threat, to learn about conditions on the ground in Iraq and to assure people personally that the FBI would investigate and protect against any hate crimes.
As for any change in Internet or phone service, said Rossi, it must have been a coincidence. None of the interviewers had been gathering information that would lead to court orders for added surveillance. And that kind of authority, he added, is difficult to get. Besides, if someone were under surveillance, he said with a hint of humor, it’s highly unlikely they would notice any change at all.
Asef’s discomfort was understandable. He remembered the Gulf War better than his sisters claimed to and remembered huddling with his family in a corner of his grandfather’s house during the first night of bombing. He remembered his grandfather traveling outside Baghdad to another city just to get water. He remembered visiting scenes of the nights’ explosions in the early mornings. He also remembered the long trip through Jordan, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries that eventually brought the family to the Bay Area. The family moved to Davis, said Asef, when his parents became concerned about the visible gang violence, drugs and prostitution in the neighborhood around their first apartment in East Palo Alto.
“I’d moved from one war to another,” Asef said.
The family qualified for low-cost housing in Davis, said Asef, and even though his mother teaches French, and he and 14-year-old Ghask have jobs, it’s still difficult to get by, especially without his father.
Neither Asef nor Geed wore any clothing or symbol that identified them specifically as Iraqi or Muslim—except when Geed paraded her flag. Asef even said that when he was pulled over by the Davis police, they assumed he was Latino. Ghask, on the other hand, had chosen to wear the most obvious sign of Muslim modesty.
Ghask began to wear hijab about two months before the war started. Her classmates wondered if her mother made her, but Ghask wanted to identify herself as Muslim not only to the people with whom she went to school, but to everyone who saw her. Like Geed’s flag, wearing hijab was a symbol of Ghask’s pride in her identity as an Iraqi-American and a Muslim.
The same religious impulse compelled her to start a new chapter of the Muslim Students Association at school. She and 35 or so other members met during lunchtimes and were hoping to install a microphone in the school quad so that people could speak their minds.
When watching the news, Ghask was always the first to notice new images of death and injury. Even when doing her homework, she sat in the same room with the television.
“Before the war, like 10 million kids were already undergoing starvation,” she said at the start of the war, exaggerating already dismal figures on malnourishment among Iraqi children. “Now, Bush wants to come over and bomb them? I mean, he’s just making things worse.” She sounded incredulous, as if the logic simply escaped her.
Like her older sister, Ghask wasn’t afraid to confront those who might not be sympathetic to Iraq. Most of the people she knew opposed the war, but after listening to some of her classmates supporting the war, she didn’t hesitate to start an argument.
Hussein has nuclear capability, they told her. Then, she asked, why didn’t the inspectors find anything? He kills his own people, they told her. And now Bush is coming in and killing more people, she replied, unable to see how that was an improvement. After 9/11, we have to protect our own country, they said. Ghask was sympathetic. Muslims had died in that tragedy, as well, but 9/11 was nothing compared with what other countries had suffered, she argued, sometimes at the hands of Americans.
Ghask’s substitute teacher was supportive. She told the class that she’d attended a war protest that weekend and watched some of her friends get arrested.
The girl’s ethnicity and religion were subjects of interest to her other teachers, as well. One of them asked after her family and mentioned that he’d gotten an e-mail saying that Ghask was from Iraq.
Ghask, sitting on the couch among her school work, opened her hands and let them drop against her knees. “So, I guess all my teachers are getting e-mails about me or something?” she said.
Teachers weren’t the only authority figures who supported Ghask. The girl’s growing devotion to Islam even had helped her get a job. When she applied at the local International House of Pancakes, she said, her interviewer told her that it was nice to see someone respecting her religion.
Ghask was hired, hijab and all.
Wearing the covering in front of all men who were not family was still novel for Ghask. When Asef’s male soccer coach came to the family’s door, Ghask immediately ran upstairs and covered her shiny, dark hair with a plain black hood. It made her sparkly, purple eye shadow all the more striking.
Rihab hurriedly spread out her own scarf, which she’d been holding in her hands. She pulled it up over her face and then down over her dark hair and then quickly wrapped the scarf around her neck and tied a knot under her chin.
Asef’s soccer coach was then admitted into a living room apparently filled with a family of modest-looking Middle Eastern Muslims—who, a moment earlier, had appeared as American as anyone else.
Though each of Rihab’s children mentioned in interviews that they were happy to be in America and thankful for all they had, Rihab was the one who seemed to take the sentiment most to heart. Her neighbors were supportive, she said, her friends at the mosque had helped with her husband’s burial, and she’d made numerous friends who attended the university. But a few weeks into the war, Rihab lost a good deal of her general optimism. On some days, she was too sad even to talk about the war.
“It’s almost destroyed,” said Rihab one evening, while watching images of Basra under fire. She reconsidered. “Not almost,” she added. “I think, completely destroyed.”
“Maybe 96 percent of it,” Geed added.
Five of Rihab’s siblings were still in Iraq, as were her in-laws, and they had refused to leave the capital city, according to Rihab’s mother-in-law, who made her last call to Davis three days into the war.
“She called,” said Rihab, “and asked, ‘Why you didn’t call me?’”
A serene woman with cultured, elegant manners, Rihab closed her eyes and shook her head very slightly.
“I didn’t call Baghdad,” she said, “so I wouldn’t hear any bad things.”
As the war moved closer to the capital city, Rihab admitted that she, too, wanted to return to Iraq. She missed big family celebrations and dinners.
“Everybody,” said Geed, delighting in her mother’s memory, “gets to know a little bit about you.”
At tea time, said Rihab, the girls used to play badminton together, after drinking tea and snacking on date cookies. The older ladies would talk, and the men would gather on the street, away from the private gardens shared by a series of connected family homes. And then at sunset, the family patriarch would call everyone together, and that’s how they would stay until late at night. Around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. the families would have dinner together, and if it were hot out, they would sleep on the flat roofs of their Baghdad homes.
It’s different now, said Rihab. After the first Gulf War, people became more afraid and insular, but before, there’d been “more love, more gathering.”
To retain something of her old customs when she moved to Davis, Rihab grew some mint and tomatoes on her tiny porch behind the apartment. On warm afternoons, she still served tea to her mother outside in tiny, delicate, gold-painted teacups.
She thought about all the organic produce driven through town the day it was picked so that the wealthy families could shop from their front doors. Before the war, the milkman still drove his cart through town every morning.
Rihab explained that her country, especially the city of Basra, was very rich, partly because of the oil wells and partly because of the nearby sea.
“In every house,” said Geed, “there’s, like, four palm trees.”
As an example of the decorative arts of her country, Rihab showed off the delicate lightweight dresses the girls wore for celebrations. They were embroidered in gold, intricately patterned, and in perfect condition. One had been in the family for 34 years.
During Rihab’s reveries, her mother watched Al Jazeera with absorption. Wearing a loose, blue robe and a pair of white tube socks, the grandmother fingered her string of beads and stopped as the sun went down, to cover her head with a prayer shawl, stand in the middle of the room and pray.
And perhaps those prayers were answered. Rihab got the first news of her family days after the fighting ended. A journalist from Al Jazeera who’d known her husband called to say that her in-laws were safe. The family still waits for news from Rihab’s siblings and their children.
Rihab’s mother was perhaps the one most struck by the devastation of Iraq. She had come to the United States to visit her daughter, and then she became a captive here, watching as her country was swallowed up in fire and crumbled by bombs and missiles, the relics of the country’s ancient history stolen from museums.
The older woman had expected to return this winter to her children, her grandchildren and the neighbors she missed, but Rihab had refused to let her go.
“I hide her passport,” said Rihab, bringing her open hands together slowly as if she were secreting it away in her palms at that moment. The older woman wouldn’t be well enough to run if there were bombs falling around her, said Rihab. And there were no medicines there. She’d arrived in the United States with a bag full of expired medications. With the looting of everything, including hospitals, who knew what the medical situation was like there after the war had started?
“We have food in Iraq,” said Rihab, her finger raised as if this were often a matter of debate. “But I admit we don’t have medication.” She flashed a sad smile.
Geed’s grandmother appeared to understand the gist of these conversations. Once, she lifted one hand and began to beat it very lightly and repetitively against her chest. As she did so, she began to sniffle, though she continued to smile. The family, moved by this, grinned at her warmly. Geed’s youngest sister, the bright-eyed, bouncy 3-year-old, hurried over to one side of her. Ghask slid over to the other side, and both children embraced their grandmother and cooed to her softly as they wiped her eyes with a white handkerchief.
The 3-year-old then ran off and returned with a tube of ointment that she held up to her grandmother. The child assumed that whatever pain the older woman felt could be salved away.
Rihab watched them and tried to explain her mother’s tears.
“She says, ‘My body’s here,’” Rihab said, though she seemed to be speaking for the whole family. “'My spirit,’” she continued, “'is there.’”