Like Millions Of Iraqis, I Made A Long Journey To The Nearest Polling Place Today
--A brief note: as of March 1, 2005, excerpts and photos from this piece can be found in the current print edition of Maisonneuve Magazine. Use the store locator to find a copy near you.--
Unlike all those other Iraqis, I lost my freaking notebook. What follows is a true-as-I-can-remember account of our afternoon, with approximated quotes and absolutely no hope of recalling the names. Should you or anyone you know these people, please have them contact me...
I've had a guilty taste in my mouth since the inaugural protest's cocktail of adrenaline and pepper gas wore off. I haven't been able to shake the feeling that while the right is wrong, the left might not be right either. I looked around those protests and saw legitimately angry people who were well-fed and intentionally scruffy. Not to be presumptuous, but I didn't detect sadness and suffering ringing the eyes of most protestors. People were angry, loudly vocal, and legitimate in the depth of their feeling...but I didn't see anyone from the middle East. While I would guess that many people there had traveled, I doubt any of them had an Iraqi stamp in their passports.
This is not to discount the suffering felt by thousand of families and friends connected to those lost in the war.
Ever since I got ready to leave America, I've felt the country wobbling out of balance, like world events have been spinning out of control and America is right there at the center pulling the levers. I've needed the comfort that comes from answers and been really jealous of the righteous sense of stability that the religious right and Bush supporters and other stupid white people seemed to have. I took refuge in a knee-jerk liberal identity for a long time, but now it's threadbare and not as comfortable as it once was.
Tash and I are both terrifically loudmouthed critics of the Bush administration, she from an Australian perspective and me from a disgruntled American's p.o.v. We are also both white, young, healthy, and from lands that enjoy a vast degree of privilege, thousands of miles away from true suffering. We knew we didn't have the full story so we went out to the Iraqi Out-Of Country Voting poll on Sunday to get another truth and see ground-level democracy for ourselves.
This man has lived in America on and off for the past seven years. Three of his uncles were murdered by Hussein's regime. He has been back and forth between Iraq and the U.S. during this war, helping as a translator and contractor to the U.S. military. His most recent project was to build a high school in Fallujah. When not assisting the United States military he works for the Republican party.
He is sort of smiling in this photo, but only because I told him to. He spoke carefully and slowly, in very subdued tones as I interviewed him, like someone emerging from shock. The skin around his eyes was a hundred years old, like the trauma that had passing through his retinas had burnt the skin around them and somehow weakened the strength of the tissue itself.
In his words,
"The insurgents and the people fighting the United States are the ones who were favored under Hussein's regime. They had land and houses when nobody else had anything. Now that Saddam is captured, they are fighting violently to cling to what is already gone. They do not represent Iraq. They are the chosen people of an evil, evil man and they have benefited for too long from everyone else's suffering. Older people in Iraq, poor people and the uneducated are confused right now because there is no order and the old ways are gone. But we all are hopeful,and we know that things will get better."
"Almost all Iraqis in America will vote Republican for the rest of their lives, as will their children and their children's children. George Bush has freed us and we are grateful forever for this. America has more power than anyone else in the world, and it is their responsibility to end the type of suffering that Iraq has endured. It is a terrible shame, the loss of life and suffering on both sides. Many good people have die. What Americans at home must remember is that this is war, and war is what it took to free us. When you go to war...when you go fishing, your pants will get wet. This is the way things are."
"Maybe Bush did not do it the way that the world wanted him to, but he has done a wonderful thing, and I think that the rest of the world will look to Iraq and America as a model. Syria, maybe Iran will hopefully do as Libya has and change their ways."
This woman is the man above's aunt. She has four living children, two of whom are under eighteen and were extremely disappointed to learn that they could not come and vote. The daughter who is no longer living was brutally murdered when Hussein's army bombed her house. Her husband died after the family moved to the U.S. While she has no plans to ever return to Iraq, she was bursting with nothing more complicated than sheer joy when she spoke to Tash and I about voting today. She thanked me repeatedly for photographing her and caring enough about her and her people to tell their story.
Having lived in Richmond, VA long enough to really stunt my career, I can tell you that a lot of Americans are obsessed with appearing tough. Tattoos, wallet chains, and pit bulls are all fashion accessories that Americans adopt to try and look real bad-ass. But you know who's tougher than like fifteen pop-punk fans with really expensive tattoos all wrapped up with wallet chains like some sort of weird Voltron?
Even her little girl looks like she could jump out of that pink coat and show Mike Tyson a thing or two.
Here's another photo of the same woman, another proud Iraqi expat voter:
No matter how tough anyone on earth is, there's no way they can fuck with these guys:
The guy on the left came to America from as a refugee, shifting from camp to camp until finally granted resident status. He was nearly killed in a 1998 uprising. His friend, in the green, was an officer in Saddam Hussein's army until he defected and joined the opposition in the late 90's. I asked him if the change was difficult, to which he responded,
"well, nothing in this life is easy. But if something is worth doing, and you have it as a goal, you see that it gets done, no matter how hard."Why do I think that this statement applies a little more broadly than just losing ten pounds for bikini season? Because when he said it, I could feel the pain this guy has been through to do what he believes is right. I told him that I was no supporter of the Bush administration, but knew that I did not have the full story. I asked if there was anything he wanted to communicate to the world at large. His response, as I recall, went like this:
"What you see on the television is not the news It is nothing. The Arab media and the Arab world hates Iraq as well, and they portray us very unfairly. While we know that American news is still somewhat distorted, it is not run by dictators. We just want our voices to be heard. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, evil man who cared nothing for humans. I wish that I could tell all those protestors I see booing Bush to stay at home because he has done such a fantastic thing for my people. I know that I cannot because everyone can be heard in a democracy, but that is my wish."
You may think that you have felt dumb before, but let me tell you something: until you have stood in front of a man who knows real pain and told him that you are against your country's alleviation of his country's state-sponsored murderous suffering, you have not felt truly, deeply, like a total moron.
I still am no Bush fan, and I believe that America got lied to. I don't believe we should have gone into Iraq the way we did, and I think Rove is as evil as they come. But through all this deception and lying, through all this dismemberment and pain, America has wrought a beautiful, fantastic side effect: joy, freedom and a hope for peace. Does it take lies and misdirection to do this?? Is this what the other side of justice is? I feel like such a whiner and I don't know what to think anymore. Ultimately, in total defiance of my mother and grandmother's teachings, two wrongs have made a right and my moral compass is tired and busted.
I can't tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I want a clear cut mandate, some lines to believe along. But there aren't any. There's just right and wrong and following your heart of hearts. And for the first time in my life, I can say that I was wrong to be compulsively critical of the current administration without seeking my own truth.
Some clear wrongs rise from this morass like an evil swamp monster, reeking of decay and crawling with filthy insect larvae. Puppeting a belief for social or financial gain, without seeking the truth within one's heart is real, real wrong. The level of discourse in America has plummeted to a name-calling ping-pong match with a turd for a ball. It doesn't matter how wicked the serve is, both sides are still smacking a bunch of shit around. Just like Ann Coulter and the Protest Warriors, those "Fuck Bush" signs hurt America and all that it stands for. Even though I don't know what it stands for anymore...but I am so glad those people can vote.