I have friends from all over the political spectrum, and sometimes that makes me crazy when I’m checking my Facebook. I’ll have one loudly bashing the conservatives, followed by another loudly bashing Obama and everything he might even possibly stand for. Today was a case in point; an old college friend posted a quote from Obama about Assad, the beleaguered president of Syria who in my opinion is a monster, and compared Obama to Assad. According to this fine-except-for-the-insanity-part individual, the only reason Obama isn’t gunning us all down, a la Syrian civil war, is because we are armed.
I know. Over the top much?
You will be proud of me. I didn’t join in the fun; I stayed calm, did some deep breathing. Posted a gentle response, about how we really have no clue what it means to live under terrible government.
Last night Mona* and her husband dropped by, with gifts as always. They are the most generous people on the planet. I made turkish coffee and put out dried fruit and chewy ginger cookies and the 4 of us sat around chatting. Mona and her family lived in Egypt for 5 years while they waited to be processed as refugees to come to America. This isn’t unusual; typically when a family flees a country, they go to a neighbouring country and apply for refugee status with the UN. For some reason, in Egypt it takes longer than a lot of other places. Refugees don’t have much recourse in these halfway destinations; they’re not allowed to work, don’t get government assistance. Our talk turned to the Egyptian Revolution. Surprisingly, she wasn’t sympathetic to the rebels.
“I know Mubarak did horrible things, but he did good things too,” she says. We take some time figuring out she is searching for the word infrastructure. She tells me after she and Larry were married, they lived with his family in one room. This is typical in Iraq, she says. She tells me that Mubarak built apartment buildings for young couples, where their rent was subsidized and they could begin their lives together. There were hundreds of these complexes, and it really impressed her. “Saddam did nothing good for Iraq,” she says. “Only war. War. War. War.”
Mona has told me before that she hates nighttime, darkness. When she was a child in the 80s, the war between Iraq and Iran (started by Saddam) was going on, and evening is associated forever in her memory with fear and sirens and bombs falling and the death of childhood friends. Then there was the invasion of Kuwait. After that, there were sanctions. She and Larry talk about how difficult life was for everyday Iraqis then, while Saddam and his cronies continued to live in style, wanting for nothing.
Later, she shows me a beautiful gold ring she’s wearing, telling me Larry got it for her when the ultrasound announced that they were having a son. She had a lot more jewelry but she’s sold most of it. The wedding ring set, a family heirloom with an enormous diamond set in white gold, costing more than $5000, was sold so that the family could survive in Egypt. “I don’t even care,” Mona tells me. “If it means keeping my family alive, I will sell anything.” Sometimes her mother asks her about the set, and Mona lies, because she knows her mother would have a hard time with it. I laugh. I can relate.
“But really, Elizabeth,” she tells me. “You don’t know what it’s like to live like that.” I agree. I know I don’t. I remember the various coup d’etats, both successful and attempted, when we were in Mauritania; one night I saw a plane flying over the palace and watched red tracer bullets trying to take it down. The walls shook with explosions. In the morning we saw tanks on the streets. It lasted two days and we were never in any real danger. How can I compare that to her wondering, when her husband left for his job delivering pharmaceutical supplies between two cities, if he would ever return? How could I ever compare that to the death threat delivered under their door, saying if Larry didn’t leave they would cut off his head and kill their whole family?
Meanwhile, many of my American friends are unaware of what’s going on in the world outside our borders. I’ll mention fighting in Nigeria, or bloodshed in Syria, where it’s so bad that Iraqi refugees are fleeing back to the comparative safety of Baghdad, where it isn’t really safe at all. And people look at me blankly and go back to talking about American politics and how wrong the other side is. Which is fine too, I suppose. It’s just that I wish people wouldn’t be so loud about their opinions, so divided, when the reality is that life is so much quieter here, and there are good people to be found on both sides, and we can recognize that without people having to die.
*for those of you just joining us, I work with Iraqi refugees and I always change their names, for the sake of their privacy.