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10 years ago. Spring 2003. I was teaching at the University of Nouakchott. That year, I was the only American, the only Westerner, on campus, although I was later joined by a Canadian woman (Hi Louise!) and an American couple. I stood out, on the campus and in the city in general. A blonde American, wearing long skirts and heeled sandals, with 3 young children usually in tow–I was always surprised when taxi drivers remembered me, but in hindsight I was perhaps a bit clueless.

We’d discussed it, of course, between us as a family and with other expatriates during our weekly beach trips. Friends from Norway, England, Switzerland, and Oregon tended to be on one side (against), while the majority of the Americans tended to be for the potential invasion. I officially decided I thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to state that, so that I could avoid later saying, “I knew it at the time” and everyone else saying, “No you didn’t!” But it wasn’t all that clear-cut. We got our news very second-hand then. Not everyone even had a satellite dish. We personally had an antenna on the roof, often blown off by the hot desert winds. We got two stations: Mauritanian television (MTV) and a German station that broadcast everything twice, once in German and once in English. Our internet connection was usually non-existent, and we used to do something called “flash sessions” to get our email, since connection was over $4/minute. (This was only 10 years ago but I feel kind of like grandma telling the kids how she used to take a horse and buggy to school).

At the French school, another American family reported a case of bullying over nationalities. Their son was thrown up against a wall and threatened. It was for this reason we discussed it with our kids, although they had no problems, not then at that school.

At the University, there were signs of unrest. Once as I was leaving after a class, I saw a large group of young men waving the Iraqi flag and forming up a protest. They were gathering in the middle of a road down which I normally walked to catch a taxi. I turned and went the other way before they saw me, feeling that was wisdom. One of my students told me, “Listen, if your country invades Iraq, don’t come to class. If something happens and you’re already here, don’t worry. We’ll protect you. But it’s best if you don’t come.” The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.

We did invade, of course. The administration instantly declared a “Spring Holiday” and cancelled classes for a month. By the time I returned, somewhat warily, things were calm again on the streets of Nouakchott, after demonstrators had burned tires (why does that make a statement? it’s never made sense to me) and had some fun smashing a few random items.

I didn’t know then that 10 years after, I’d be back in Oregon, living in the green and grey again after those years in the heat and dryness and the days of blowing sand, comfortable again in jeans and boots. I didn’t know that my days would be spent with those whose lives began to be torn apart on that day, filled with death and destruction, loss of limbs, loss of daughters, husbands, aunts and cousins, best friends from childhood. The stories haunt me now; the woman running down the street carrying her toddler and realizing that the child had been shot and killed and what she was carrying was a corpse; the man betrayed by a colleague and kidnapped, stuffed in a trunk, riddled with bullets that left him paralyzed from the waist down; the children caught in cross-fire between 2 opposing armies and one panicking and running, running, into the street towards home and perceived safety while her agonized friend watched her die. These are stories of war, and are probably typical, although I don’t think they ever should be.

Why did they happen and what was accomplished? That is the question that I and apparently most of the media are asking. All week I have seen and heard news stories, many of them of the “where are they now?” variety. All of the stories are sad, although some of them have found some degree of closure. All carry terrible scars, mostly internal, psychological–whether they participated as American soldier or Iraqi civilian. My Iraqi friends are stoic, filled with black humor. I read of an appalling suicide rate amongst soldiers who survived the combat. And in the end, the why isn’t perhaps the most important part, but the how and where do we go now? I pray it is towards hope and healing, although there’s little in the history of this planet to inspire me.

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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.

Today, as you may have noticed if you went on the internet at all, is the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I have written before of what it was like to experience that as an American living in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I also remember a student at the university in 2002 referring to the “accidents” of 9/11. That made me angry, until I learned that he was simply transliterating Arabic, and that’s how they refer to wrongs done and sins committed. (Which would make for an awfully interesting side-trail…) Also, this week I read a fascinating book called In the Land of Invisible Women I got it from the library and it was great. I want to own it. It’s a memoir by a British-Pakistani secularized Muslim doctor who lives in Saudi Arabia for 2 years. Her description of experiencing 9/11 in Saudi had my jaw literally dropping open, while on public transportation. (Which got me a few looks but not many) I experienced nothing like that in Mauritania or Morocco.

Today, President Obama said to do what we normally would do. I sort of listened, sort of didn’t. While it’s true that many of days include visiting Iraqi friends, normal days do not include henna parties. This one did. It had nothing to do with the date—in fact as far as I know, I was the only one who noticed. We planned this party weeks ago, and today was simply the first day that all of us were free. And yet, I thought, were it not for this date’s horrible events, my Iraqi friends would not be in my country, and I would not have met the others. (Aside: I’m not at all trying to belittle my Iraqi friends’ journeys, which involve terrors and bombs and insurrections and loss of children, in some cases, and of husbands in others. I was just thinking of the way things have turned out)

So we all showed up at Mona’s about 3—Leslie and I from America, W and Mona from Iraq, Bea from Lebanon and Sophie from Egypt. Head coverings came off, and low-cut, form-fitting clothing covered in sequins and dangling gold “coins” appeared. Arab pop music blared from the stereo. Ilsa disappeared with Mona’s daughters into the bedroom where they danced for a while before joining us for hennas.

We decorated each other’s arms, legs, and necklines. We talked and ate and spent time together, beginning new friendships and deepening existing ones. Tonight my hands are beautiful but they stink slightly, as henna does. Mona scattered glitter liberally after each application, and my clothes are full of it but my arms twinkle in the light of the computer screen as I type.

It wasn’t a bad way at all to remember the day’s tragedy, meant to divide but instead, in some weird way, uniting us with people with whom we share neither language nor culture nor religion.

I am sitting on Suzi’s couch. “Tea or coffee?” she says to me, heading into the kitchen.

“Oh anything,” I say.

“I don’t have anything—I’m sorry,” she says. “Only tea or coffee.”

I suppress a smile. Tea it is, then.

***

We squish on the couch—like most refugees, their furniture is other people’s cast-offs, and couches are often missing springs or have broken frames. We tend to fall towards each other, but I’ve learned over my years in the Arab world that my comfort space is much larger than theirs. I’ve learned to relax, ignore their hand on my knee or their elbow in my side. And really, once you get used to it, it’s a nicer way to be.

Suzi spends the morning showing me pictures of Iraq on her computer—former Iraq, she specifies, not current. She shows me ancient monuments, a modern city with streams of traffic, a waterfall in either the north or south of the country (she gets directions mixed up). We try to find her old house on google earth but we can’t get it to work. “And now…” she pauses, lost for words. “Terrible?” I offer. She nods. “Every day I cry,” she says. She hasn’t seen her family in 5 years; they’ve never met her youngest.

This is what I’ve been noticing a lot lately, as the clouds lift and the sun shines in Oregon—the terrible unrelenting pain my Iraqi friends carry. I’d noticed manifestations already, in the countless trips to the clinic, for unspecified aches and pains. Beka bled for a year, she told me. Eve gets back aches. When they came for lasagna, while her husband and Donn were off discussing art and photography, it all came spilling out—stories of gunfire strafing her house, of death threats specifically against her because she wouldn’t allow a militia access to her roof so they could shoot her neighbours in the street. Her husband having to argue for her life, while she was frantic about whether or not he would return. They all carry such a burden of memories with them. I want to help them lay that down, but there’s not much I can do. I listen as they shape their mouths around unfamiliar syllables, struggle to find words, occasionally lapse into their own language out of frustration.

I read this article recently and found myself nodding in recognition.

“It is estimated that some 4.5 million refugees have been uprooted from their homes since the Iraq conflict began in 2003 and escalated in 2006… approximately half of whom are children and adolescents. In many cases, they are neither able to go back, nor forward with their lives, as experiences of torture, kidnapping, severe violence, and grief continue to fill their lives.

The lack of psychosocial support means that Iraqi refugee families are left unaided to cope with the trauma they have faced in Iraq…Insecurity and hopelessness due to an uncertain future all have a significant impact upon the family unit, which in turn affects the health and well-being of the younger generations of Iraqi refugees.”

The article was focused specifically on the diaspora in Syria and Jordan (and can you imagine fleeing war in Iraq and being in Syria now?) but I found it very applicable to my friends here.

One thing I’ve always said about living overseas, it’s not for the faint-hearted. At least we’re never bored, I say. And so it is today.

“Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”  Inigo Montoya to the mostly-dead Westley on the castle wall.

  • My husband is stuck in a desert town in southern Morocco, waiting for a phone call. He’s supposed to meet our friend Tim at the border tomorrow. Tim will be in the company of a Moroccan driver and a fruit truck full of all our stuff. They will trade off, and then Donn will climb into the cab and travel back 3 days with a fruit truck driver, with whom he may or may not be able to communicate, and with our stuff, arriving here safe and sound. Insha’allah, as they say round here, which highlights the element of uncertainty inherent in the whole endeavor.
  • Two young women who were supposed to arrive in Nouakchott to do an internship at our old English center never got visas. They were turned away in the Mauritanian airport and flown back to Morocco, where they have apparently disappeared. I mean, I assume they’re somewhere, but no one has heard from them since last night. When they were put on the flight, the airline claimed there was no room for their carry-on luggage and kept it. Wha??? As a result, we think they may not have their computers, which would explain why they haven‘t been in contact with anyone all day. I suspect they crashed at a hotel; I know that potent mix of uncertainty and jet lag on top of two sleepless nights in a row. The thing is, I am supposed to be taking care of them while they’re stuck here, but how can I do that when I don’t know where they are?
  • Horrible horrible news this morning. The guy was a friend; his kids were friends with our kids and were supposed to be coming for a visit this summer.
  • And yes, as a result of that last item, it’s entirely possible that Tim and the truck full o’ stuff won’t make that meeting tomorrow.

We’ve had two Moroccan kids to play at our house in the last week. One, a friend of Ilsa’s, is a tall, quiet girl with a really sweet smile. She lives in the same apartment building where we lived on our first arrival in Rabat. Her parents didn’t know where our new place was, so we arranged to meet in front of the school. I was worried because I was a little late–about 5 minutes. But we waited 45 minutes for Hiba to show up. Her parents told me they’d pick her up at 6:30, but it was closer to 8 when they arrived. This didn’t bother me.

On Wednesday, Abel invited Yusef to play. (They have Wednesday afternoons off) Same arrangement; in front of the school. Again, I was about 5 minutes late, and got a phone call from Yusef’s dad wondering where I was. Which just goes to show you–you shouldn’t make generalizations.

In spite of this fair warning I’d received, I was none-the-less late for the strike on Thursday morning. They stated, they being the Parents’ Association of which I am a bona-fide dues-paying member, that the manifestation would go from 7:45 to 9:00 a.m. I assumed it would be entirely outside of the kids’ school, a junior high in our neighbourhood. Donn and I showed up about 8:15 to find the tiny parking lot deserted except for a few posters. We popped into the café across the street, where we ordered coffees and I called my friend Irena, who soon joined us for coffee. She explained that the plan was to march on the high school, and that the banners and armbands were off doing that. We’d missed it!

At first I was disappointed, especially about missing the armbands, but she reassured me. The important thing was to keep the children home from school, she said. She herself was showing solidarity by watching the children of a mother who worked; she invited Ilsa to play and me for coffee that afternoon.

I was exhausted. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, finally drifting off around 2 a.m. to get in a solid two hours before Abel, who never does this anymore, crawled in with me around 4 a.m., thereby killing sleep for the rest of the night. (He was very restless, although very cuddly) I figured I’d drop Ilsa off, have a quick cup of Irena’s excellent coffee, and then head home for a nap. Instead, I stayed at Irena’s for 4 hours, while we chatted about everything from embarrassing faux pas made in languages not our own (she had the funniest stories!), to the ways our husbands deal with life’s trials, to her dreams of opening her own shop. I realized, as I yawned my way home, that we have transitioned from her being kind to me and my limited language skills, to the give-and-take of real friendship.

And, while I was eating gelato she’d made herself from the ripe, juicy fresh local strawberries we’ve been eating so many of lately, the cashier at the French high school turned up to pick up his kids! Yes, he’d kept Day of the Dead School, while going to work for The Man himself. We chatted briefly, and he said the school had agreed to talk to the parents about the explosive price increases (12% this year; prices doubled within the next 6 years. And we have 3 kids in the system!). I hope they do something. If not, I’m willing to keep the kids home another day, and to sleep in again if necessary. I’m a true revolutionary at heart.

Donn and I have been spending quite a bit of time at Barnes & Noble lately. He was given a $25 gift card as a thank you for some work he did, and for some reason wouldn’t give it to me.

I have explained to him that I’m sure the nice people at the airlines won’t mind if our suitcases are overweight. Airlines are casual about these things, I tell him. But he won’t be convinced, and is really adamant about No More Books.

While we were there, he was perusing photo books he wanted and didn’t get (he’s nothing if not consistent), and music CD s that were too expensive, and I was browsing and adding titles to the mental list I keep yet always manage to forget if I‘m in a library or actually have money in a bookstore. I came across a book called My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou…An Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara” Fascinated, I picked it up. I flipped through, found the chapter on Senegal (called “All Africans are Cheats”), went back a bit knowing the previous chapter would be on Mauritania which borders Senegal to the north, and sure enough, found it in the chapter titled “Heart of Darkness.”

This guy HATED Mauritania (in case the chapter headings weren’t clues). I can’t quote him exactly, but he went on and on about how dusty and ugly and backward Nouakchott was, and how terrible the driving was. (Actual quote: Drivers there fear neither God nor man.) Considering that this guy drove from Europe all the way down to Benin or Togo, through many African countries, and that he singled out Mauritania for traffic comments, makes me feel somewhat vindicated in my own complaints. Now do you believe me when I said you had to experience it to be able to even imagine it?

Mauritania can be hard to love, with the exception of those remarkable individuals who thrive on sandstorms and being cheated by random strangers. I have added this new book to my list of things written about Mauritania in English, mostly travel books by people who visited most of the North African and Saharan countries, all of them negative reviews. That’s one of the reasons why I want to write a book about our experiences there.

Yes, there are a lot of things to dislike; the dust, the desert, the trash, the habit the general populace has of viewing the streets as their toilet, and squatting down right in public wherever or whenever they feel the need. But there’s a lot more to the country; there are treasures lying just below the surface for those who take the time and interest to find them. The warmth and hospitality of the people; the pace of life where a friend takes precedence over anything; the determination of my students to succeed in spite of the odds stacked against them; the fascination of having a glimpse into a culture that has changed very little since the time of Abraham–all these things are there and available to discover.

Mauritania has been in the news this week. There was another coup, and the country’s first democratically-elected president was deposed in favor of another military junta. Coups seem to be a habit in Mauritania; in our 6 years there, we experienced several coup attempts and one other successful one. I have written of this here and here. Now, the “Purple Rap Candidate” is gone and there’s yet another stern-faced guy in camouflage taking his place, promising elections, promising transparency and proclaiming that this was necessary for the good of the country.
According to reports, the streets are calm. One article mentioned people joking in the airport, which made me smile as we made many of our own jokes during various coups and coup attempts. We’ve heard from friends, who report that their lives are continuing as normal under the wide and desolate desert skies.

When you lived for a while in a place, it will always hold a place in your heart if for no other reason than the place it holds in your own personal history. The patina of time adds a luminescence to even the intensely negative times, times that were fiercely experienced yet reluctantly lived through. Our memories of Mauritania hold plenty of those times; the murder of a close friend, the uncertainty that permeated our lives during the first few weeks of the Iraq war. The 3 weeks of sandstorms, triple-digit heat, intestinal parasites and camel hump dinners we endured one summer in a desolate desert village. The locust plague. The constant dishonesty and corruption we encountered. But there are many good memories too; beach barbecues, cool evenings in our gazebo, desert camping trips lit by a million distant stars. Times with friends when we made connections that transcended barriers of nationality, religion, worldview. Connections made over newborn babies, over feasts, over shared language trials.

There’s a lot more to Mauritania than frequent coups, sand-filled meals, suspicious strangers. There are friends there, and for their sake, I wish this country peace, safety and prosperity.

Ilsa, age 9: “You know, it doesn’t feel like 2007. It still feels like 2006.”

2006 was a relatively uneventful year for us, although frankly 2005 was such a roller-coaster that anything less than a nuclear bomb under the bed might have seemed uneventful. Life here in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania has been calm and quiet. The sand whips around your ankles, dust fills the air, it’s days since we’ve seen the sun and at night the moon has an eerie halo, but it’s a pleasant temperature, and sandstorms are certainly not out of the ordinary. The elections in the fall went well, with everyone reporting that these were the best, most honest elections this country has ever seen. The university students are still on strike and rioting, and riot police recently hammered on the door where my colleague had locked herself in the library, leaking tear gas under the door, reshaping the door with their boots and clubs and scaring her to death, but I wasn’t there so it didn’t affect me.

But it hasn’t always been this uneventful.

For example, one night in June 2002, I awoke about 1:30 a.m. to the heavy rumble of tank fire. “Donn, wake up!” I whispered. “What do you think is going on?” “Nothing,” he muttered. “Go back to sleep.” A huge explosion shook the walls of the house, followed a few minutes later by a second explosion. (He told me later that he thought, “I hate it when she’s right.”) We looked out our window towards the presidential palace, located about 2 or 3 miles across town, and we could see an airplane buzzing in circles overhead and red tracers lighting up the sky.

Donn called our friend Tim. “Tim, is this normal?” he asked. We’d been here just over a year at that point, long enough to know that we were still often surprised at how things happen here on Planet Nomad. For all we knew, it was Independence Day or something.

Tim assured us it wasn’t normal. We decided it must be a coup. Every time the walls would shake, I’d toddle off to the kids’ rooms to reassure them that we were all fine, but they slept on unawares through the whole night. Donn and I tried to sleep too, but kept startling awake to crashes and rumbles of anti-aircraft fire, tanks going down the street, etc. The fighting wasn’t too close and we were in no danger, but it was loud enough to murder sleep.

The next day, we kept the kids home from school. We knew by then it was a coup attempt, but our TV wasn’t working and we had no way of knowing what was actually going on. Ironically, Donn’s dad calling from California, where he was watching BBC news, had the most updated information. We went out on our roof to see if we could see any tanks (we’re all 13 at heart) and shared the news from California with our neighbours, also on their roof.

Later in the day, we needed food. I sent Donn out for bread. He will never let me live this down, but he wasn’t in any danger. No really. (This is actually the crux of the argument) It’s true that the embassy was saying “Stay in” and I sent him out for bread, but you have to realize that the embassy is always saying “Stay in”–they are worse than your grandmother on a cold winter’s day.

I made a pie (comfort food) and invited our next-door neighbour, another American, over. I packed a box of food staples, including extra coffee which is always needed in an emergency, or non-emergency, or is basically just always needed. Donn put together all our vital information (passports, his negatives, etc) and I went through my bookshelves to decide what to read; something that would be involving enough to distract me in the event of an evacuation without being either too intellectually challenging or too simple. I can’t remember now what it was, but I remember that I chose 2 or 3 options. I also packed my journal. We were ready to evacuate if necessary. In the meantime, we watched movies with the kids, who were only too ready to stay home from school another day.

Two days later it was over. Reuters had actually already announced that the coup was successful, but troops loyal to the president drove through the night and managed to keep power in the president’s hands, so Reuters had to add in the word “almost”. Many people were arrested, some people had died, and for weeks we’d see tanks stationed around town. After Ould Taya (then president) returned in triumph, everyone in town quickly plastered posters of his face all over their cars and drove around honking to celebrate, hanging out of their cars or sitting on top, as if he’d just won an international soccer match. Everyone was sooo happy that he was still in power, even those who earlier might not have felt that way.

Elliot, then 6, didn’t clearly understand the situation, but he was happy. He’s an orderly child, the sort who would disapprove of military coups on principle. “I’d like to buy the president a chicken sandwich,” he told me that night.

Unless my so-called-exotic-life gets more interesting, over the next few days I’ll post some other highlights of our time here.

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