Normal Violence

This morning a man I’ve worked with in Iraq, Tariq, called me on Skype.  I hadn’t spoken with Tariq in some time and I wasn’t expecting a call from him, but was glad to hear his familiar voice bursting through the cyber waves from Baghdad into my office in DC (and that’s literally what Tariq’s voice does — it bursts).

Over the past months, I’ve pulled away some from my previous work in Iraq.  The projects I’d been working on came to a close, the funding from State dried up.  Of course, there were ways I could have maintained more active involvement in the Iraq work if I had wanted (to be fair, I am advising on a project USIP hopes to do this next year, offering peacebuilding courses at sharia colleges and seminaries).  But I was ready to move away from the Iraq work.  Even eager to.  I was put on the Iraq work in 2007 when I arrived at USIP and I never stopped feeling conflicted about our religious peacebuilding work there, and uncertain about its real impact.  Iraq is a difficult place to work in for many obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. I won’t get into that now — that’ll require an epic post.

Even if it was right, or ripe, for me to have walked away from our work in Iraq, that doesn’t mean I haven’t felt morally ambivalent about it.  My country did so much damage to that country.  And then it walked away.  Am I doing the same?

When I heard Tariq’s voice, it stirred all this in me.  I love Tariq — he is always in a positive mood, always making jokes.  He has a good heart and gives a great impression.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything other than a pressed suit, looking sharp.

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Photo of Iraqi Christian refugees in Sweden taken by my friend Jacob Silberberg

Tariq is Christian, and as many know, the Christian community in Iraq has faced particular hardship over the years since the U.S. invasion.  But Tariq expresses no bitterness, ever, to those in the country/region who have brutalized his community, or to the U.S. who failed to protect so many Christians (and Sunni and Shia and Yazidi and Mandean and… ).  And Tariq has stayed in Iraq, while so many other Christians have left.  He’s stayed and kept working for peace with those from all religious and ethnic communities.  Last year he went to offer a peace training at a sharia college in Al-Anbar province with two Sunni colleagues.  He was incredibly nervous, rightly so.  But he went.  And he charmed the socks off everyone.  And he never told them he was a Christian because he was afraid to.

In many of the places where I work for USIP, violence is the norm.  Iraq is certainly one of those places.  Bombs have been a constant since 2003.  Our news cycles rarely even report them anymore.  But in the past four months alone, nearly 4000 people have been killed by bombs.  Yesterday, 23 were killed at a market outside Baghdad.  When I hear these reports, I think of specific people: Tariq and Dalia and Salih and Qusay and others.  I see their faces in my mind, shuffle through them like a card deck, these ones I love in Iraq.  I pray they are still alive.

Perhaps my own feelings of guilt led me to say to Tariq almost immediately, as if a confession: “The violence is unending, Tariq.  I keep hearing all these reports of bombs and then more bombs.  It seems the good news never arrives — only more bad news.  How are you holding up?”  He replied to me, in an amused voice: “Yes, well.  Things just stay the same, or get worse, really.  I think honestly, we are accustomed to it now.  The sound of the bombs is a part of life here — background noise.  If the sound of bombs were to stop, honestly Susan, it would be weird for us.”  He said it with lightness, a chuckle, as something of a joke.  And then he got down to business about the reason he’d called me — a specific peace program he wants to do.

His words stuck with me throughout the day, reverberating in my head and heart.  They were chilling.  Now, eleven hours later, I still haven’t been able to shake them.  This world these Iraqis inhabit now, where the bombs are normal.  Every day violence.  Everyone touched by it.  You feel it when you go there — that everyone, everyone, is suffering ptsd.  It’s not a condition outside the norm, it’s the norm.  To the point that if the bombs were suddenly silenced, it’d feel abnormal, jarring.  This is the same world we all inhabit, I have to remind myself.  Tonight I fear the good news will never arrive.  Tonight I fear I ran from the cross.  Come, Holy Spirit.

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