Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Iraqi Realities and Unrealities, Erbil, Iraq 011211

The past two weeks have been overwhelming. A 17-year-old Palestinian shot by the settlers in Beit Ommar. Closely following the events in Egypt and just wanting to be in that same Tahrir Square I was a little bit more than a year ago. But now is different, last year it was just us, internationals standing in Tahrir Square, but now, it just lifts my heart to see it filled with Egyptians both young and old, women and men, Christian and Muslims. The images are just so empowering. When I was there two months ago, I never imagined that this will unfold, otherwise I would have stayed there.

I cannot find words to express how I feel. Sometimes angry, sad, and sometimes frustrated. Sometimes grateful for the freedom I have, just by virtue of being born American. I find myself just living the Iraqi reality, where basic things such as electricity are unavailable most of the time. I will be writing a more deep analysis on that soon, but for now just know that it is even a struggle to take a hot shower, because of the lack of electricity, so that happens only once or twice a week. I took a shower today, well, a half shower. I really lost count on when was my last shower. My roommate makes fun of me, and tells me to thank the Ministry of Electricity.

Electricity is an issue, but there is gas and tea to keep one warm...

Nights in Iraq are cold, I sleep with many blankets and even sometimes I feel cold. It is midnight, and as I write, the electricity is gone, like every day at this time. There are two kinds of electricity supply, the public one provided by the state and the private supplied by generators. My roommate explained, “We have to switch to the one that is available”. It took me more than a week to understand which was which, after every day around midnight, the electricity supply changes to the state supply and mostly all day, the generators take over. “This is not life” my roommate exclaims every time, and I have learned to echo her slogan.

Snow on the Iraq mountains in Shaqlawa

As I mentioned before, one of the big challenges is being a woman and trying to live in a male dominated society, where women are barely seen out alone. So this has been one of my challenges. Every day, after work, I sit in a cafe that is close to my work, I am the only girl, and I have to deal with all the guys looking at me, like if I was something strange. I can because I am not from here, so my “reputation” will not be stained, nor anyone will kill me for dishonoring my family. But local girls have it miserable to live like that, they don’t have a social life, they just go home and sit in the computer or talk on the phone, and just try to look for a husband so they can be free to go out without being judged. Oftentimes I find myself thinking like an Iraqi girl, as I have been living, working, laughing and crying and sharing their frustrations for the past two months. These are beautiful, well prepared women, they know about the opportunities they could have if they leave Iraq, but there is a lot of pressure on them and while they manage to find their way out, they have to stick to the rules.

My coworker putting make up on our way to work

I came here to see “the real Iraq”, the face of Iraq that is not shown by the mainstream media, the poor and the marginalized by the war, but in turn I have found another face of Iraq: the face of the internal struggle seen in my own co-workers, the faces of the guys that work on the cafe, and the supermarket I buy my groceries from. The faces of the internally displaced Iraqis that turn to Kurdistan as their source of stability, jobs, peace and security. The faces of those who look fine on the outside, but that have a big pain inside. The pain of being away from their families, the pain of having lost everything in Baghdad, of having being threatened to death and pushed out of their homes because of their religious views. The pain of women being trapped in a society that oppresses and discriminates her, that does not allow her to be a WOMAN. On the same day, three of the young women, who are close to me complained about the same: they felt sad, and depressed, the daily routine of going to work and coming back home, without nothing else to do, no chances to participate in society, to go out with friends, have fun, to be active in their communities, to be able to shape their future. An I found myself suffering from the same things.

A typical scene at the suq next to the citadel, Erbil

An equally challenging thing is having to deal with the Kurdish bureaucracy: that is NOT EASYYY! The Assayish, (kind of like the Kurdish CIA) has to give me the clearance for renewing my visa, which with this bureaucracy, is never going to happen! I was really disappointed because after my visit to the Ministry of Interior and waiting for one week, they just dismissed me with a list of documents, some of which at this point are very complicated to get, including an 8,000$ guarantee letter which someone has to give me! Also, they need a letter stating that I am residing here in Ankawa and I have to show proof of residence, which I really don’t have because I am not even renting a place.

For the past month, I have been living with one of my coworkers, I stay here and there. I don't even have an address, well, nobody really does. If you ask people for an address, they will say, next to the supermarket. I say I live by the Venus restaurant. Is really funny. So, how do you get mail, I asked. "We don't " my co-worker replied. I really confirmed this today, when I was checking the UN contact list of active NGO’s in Kurdistan. The address column was filled with, next to the gas station, behind UNICEF old building, and the like. How do you get your electricity bill. "There is a collector that comes to every house and collects the money for the month". And of course, you pay cash. And about water, people here pay 250 ID, which is less than $0.25. "People here wash their cars every day and clean all the time”. These are some of the faces of the real Iraq that I came to experience and that every day are making me appreciate the freedoms that we have. I have not only heard the frustrations of Iraqis, but also lived them myself. The only difference is that at any time I can take a bus or a plane and leave this country, but they have to deal with them, to lift their heads, dry their tears and tell themselves that is going to get better.

I know I am only writing about the challenging things, but this to remind myself of the beauties that surround Kurdistan

Half an hour from Erbil these are the amazing views of Iraq

These are the things that I really appreciate and that help me forget for a few hours of the other more difficult things.....

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