Ed. Note: In February 2003, the author visited pre-war Iraq with a women’s delegation. She returned in July 2003, twelve weeks after the U.S.-led invasion, to find the fate of the Iraqis who had touched her so deeply. This is a chapter from her in-progress journalistic memoir.
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
“Soura” is one of the few Arabic words I learn, simply because it is shouted good-naturedly whenever I pull out my camera. “Soura, soura!” demand three teenage boys one day in the souk showing off butchered roosters they carry upside down by the feet. I remember them as rambunctious, playful boys, but later, I feel clever when I title their photo “The Three Turkeys.”
I come home from pre-war Iraq with hundreds of souras, mostly portraits of people whose paths I crossed. “Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent,” Lillian Hellman wrote in Pentimento. “When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.” Over time, my photographs become their own stories. Time, distance and reassimilation sharpen vignettes to frame revised conceptions, dimming the circumstances of the original snapshot.
So it is with the soura of Sura, the vivacious brown-eyed beauty I met for ten minutes in pre-war Baghdad. My brief encounter with this twelve-year-old – and the portrait photo I took of her innocent optimism – came to represent my country’s attempts to shape her country’s future.
I met Sura at Amariyah, the neighborhood bomb shelter where over 400 Iraqi children, women and men took refuge during the 1991 Gulf War. Claiming it was a military command center, we dropped two laser controlled bombs, directly hitting the civilian shelter one cold February morning at 4:00 am, incinerating nearly all the families trapped inside.
Today, Amariyah stands as a monument to war’s horrors. Grainy photos of the victims line the reinforced cement walls, wilting floral wreaths litter the stained concrete floor, and rebar protrudes at impolite angles through layers of sheet metal, curled like chocolate shavings from the intense heat. Shafts of sunlight stream through the bombs’ gaping entrance point, throwing eerie shadows over the haunting scene.
In February 2003, Sura was acting in a TV commemoration of this grim national tragedy. During a break, the chirpy little girl took my hand and led me around the shelter, pointing out the shadowed outlines of mothers who had died clutching their babies, of the bloody splotches preserved in full horror, of the scum of skin that literally baked off boiling bodies and clung to the shelter’s walls.
Once home, my photo of her open, easy face and quick smile came to represent the face of this war – the girl who pays for every gallon of gasoline I use, the girl who pays for every vote not cast or counted, the girl who pays for every moment I spend on the busyness of my life that keeps me from being attentive to my life.
“Sura was born the year of the Gulf War,” I told audiences throughout California. “In her brief lifetime, she has known nothing but recovering from one war and preparing for another.” I attached twelve years of failed diplomatic, economic and military policies to ten minutes of smiles and gestures.
On my return to Iraq after the invasion, I try to find Sura. Although mail was not allowed between our countries, we had optimistically exchanged addresses. Every morning, I hired a translator to take me to neighborhoods that had been bombed so that I might see firsthand the impact of our “shock and awe” campaign and interview people for a column I was writing for my local newspaper. Without hesitation, I was driven to a new neighborhood pockmarked by bullet holes and engraved with terrifying memories.
To find Sura, we drive the labyrinthine Baghdadi streets, passing US tanks and bombed buildings. My translator pulls over on a commercial street and disappears behind a gate and up a staircase. As I stand waiting on the sidewalk, I begin to worry. Would this girl remember me? How would her parents feel about a strange American showing up at their doorstep looking for their daughter? …Was she even alive?
I am not as welcomed on this, my second, trip. Rumors on the street are spread that American troops deliberately cut electricity to certain neighborhoods to retaliate against Iraqis for not turning in their guns. No power, no water. No power, no refrigeration. No A/C. Tempers rise with the temperature - an exhausting and volatile 120 degrees well into the evening.
The dinar's value is also volatile, so much so that money-changers operate from curbside card tables bearing foot-and-a-half stacks of the Saddam-monikered bills. These sidewalk entrepreneurs ring Fidor Square, where a giant statue the size of Saddam’s ego once ruled and was famously pulled down for the international media. In its place now is an indecipherable sculpture that looks like an angel after a bad night. Stenciled in foot-high red letters along the cement base is “ALL DONNE. GO HOME.”
While I negotiated exchange rates on my first day back in Baghdad, a car pulled alongside and an irate Iraqi family screamed their frustration at me: "No water," the driver shook an empty jug like a raised fist. "America bad. Saddam good! Bush bad," he shouted while a woman in a black abaya and a teenage girl admonished in high-pitched Arabic. He sped off, punctuating his emotional outburst with a grimy cloud of exhaust.
I wait nervously in the inhospitable heat outside Sura’s apartment, attracting a crowd of laughing children. “Hello mister! Where are you from?” they sing.
Through the corner of my eye, I see a streak of red as Sura explodes through the gate and leaps into my arms, throwing multiple kisses to my left cheek, then to my right, then to my left again, laughing and chatting and kissing in one excited, jumbled moment.
I blink back tears, overjoyed that she is not one of the “collateral” casualties of the war and – selfishly – that she remembers me. She grabs my hand and pulls me upstairs to show me off to her family, chatting excitedly in Arabic as if I can understand her.
She leads me through a makeshift kitchen on an outdoor porch, where her sister is cooking over propane hotplates, and into the living room. My translator is already seated. I am given the chair of honor amid profuse apologies for the stifling heat. “Karada, electricity,” says Sura’s father with frustrated gestures at the silent ceiling fan, reminding me that my country helped kill their power.
“It’s time for the Americans to go,” Sura’s father says through my translator. “We have no electricity, no water. We are glad Saddam is gone, but now the Americans need to go, too.”
Sura watches her father solemnly and glances toward him for confirmation before answering any of my questions. I try to explain through the interpreter how I’ve shown her photo to many Americans, how so many people have come to care about her and her family, how we all send our love and our wishes for peace. I see her bewildered look and I lose my ability to articulate.
“Thank you for your feeling,” she says awkwardly, after coaching from her father. “We wish you a happy life.”
I hand her the photos I took of her in February, including one of the two of us that she touches to her heart. She leaps up – every movement matches her delightful, delighted exuberance – and disappears to get a small album of photos showing off her dazzling smile.
I ask her if she wants to be a model. “No,” she answers, eyes flashing, glancing at her father. “A dentist. But, I like being an actress.”
In a room Sura shares with some of her six sisters hangs a framed photo of her mother, who died years ago. I meet three of her sisters, all with the same sparkling eyes and full, rich smiles. Her family, along with two brothers, fled Baghdad during the war to take refuge with relatives.
The younger children, Sura’s nieces, still have nightmares, but no one wants to talk about the war today. My visit is a celebration. They pour me a tepid 7-UP, take turns fanning me with a hand-woven fan and clown for my camera. I think about the time I am taking from their chores, their children and their day. I am reminded of my complicated, consumptive lifestyle that makes just simple visiting with friends a major logistics endeavor.
Our conversation ultimately turns political again: I ask Sura why she thinks the war occurred. Unhesitatingly, without a glance toward her father, she answers simply: “Oil.”
Much later, I return to the Amariyah bomb shelter where I first met Sura, longing for someplace solemn and respectful amid Baghdad’s chaos and cataclysm. When I arrive this time, the electricity is out and I bribe the guards to let me in. Alone in the creepy darkness that had sheltered so much death, I think about the workers outside planting a memorial garden in the bright sunlight. Inside the tomb it’s quiet, almost prayerful. A single shaft of light weaves through the tangled rebar and spotlights a wreath marked “peace” in English and Arabic. On the walls, abstract shadows intermingle with the bloodstains, old paint on a canvas too stubborn to fade.
Fifteen years ago, there was blood on the walls in that apartment, too, and bits of hair, where my brother died. Driving out to it, the car felt too small to contain my mother and her two ex-husbands and me, these three people who used to be at each other’s throats, who hadn’t been in the same room in two decades. My father and stepfather sat in the back, politely discussing cholesterol and the new studies on fiber, while I understood what it meant to be a character in a Salvador Dali painting, melting surreally in the stifling Florida heat.
The blood-soaked couch and formerly snow-white bedpillow assaulted us the moment we opened the front door. Bits of bone lay on the floor like scattered cigarette ashes. We moved delicately around the cramped apartment, pointing out half empty bottles of beer in hushed tones, trying to avoid the couch and bones and blood and the intimacy and the intrusion of understanding my brother’s final hours.
“It’s like a movie scene,” my mother stage-whispered to no one, and, indeed, the couch looked more like it was rusting than bleeding. Perhaps that was so. My brother had been dead for two days and the sheriff had already removed his body for an autopsy, leaving the couch purposeless.
In the bedroom, we found racy photos of his recent ex-fiancée and handcuffs on the bedpost. You’d think if you were going to shoot yourself you’d at least clean up a little first, I think, sanitize the memory. I could kill my brother for this.
The tiptoeing was getting on my nerves. I got a dishtowel and picked up the bones in that gingerly disdainful way one picks up a dead cockroach with toilet paper, knowing it was once alive and wanting to make it someone else’s disposal problem. I forced my father and stepfather to carry the couch out to the dumpster in the parking lot of the fast food joint next door. “Well, who do you think is going to do this after you leave? Mom?” I glared.
The void made the blood on the wall more naked. I gathered wet towels and knelt as I had all those Sundays growing up, priests intoning death as a sacrifice. This death was no sacrifice, this death was selfish. The only thing that made sense to me in that moment was the painful, pitiful look on my mother’s face as she watched me wash away the last physical vestige of her son.
After my brother’s death, I traveled to Europe, alone, exchanging my small Santa Monica apartment for a small Parisian apartment. I tried going to mass at Notre Dame, but left crying before communion, leaving untouched the body and blood of Christ given up for my sins. I could no longer find either refuge or community in the ritualistic passing of the sanitized host and grape juice in a challis.
Fifteen years later, I marveled at how Iraqis, who had experienced so much violence, maintained their faith. We often bombed them at dawn, as they were preparing for morning prayers. Entire communities bound in shared horror.
“It was a kind of destruction I cannot describe,” says Isam Hindi. The tall, slight man gestures to the decimated statues in the park across the street from his home in Baghdad. “There were many dead bodies in front of us. They were shooting fire randomly from a helicopter and dropping rockets. I was frightened and saw many dead bodies – and body parts, hands, legs,” he says through the translator. “These were the hours of death.”
“I told my children, if we are going to die, we should die together in the house,” the solemn man says as he leads us past his curious children into a living room where there had not been much living going on lately. The room is disheveled, furniture askew, books piled along the walls. A cloth clumsily hung attempts to cover a ragged, foot-wide hole in the wall.
Isam is a soft-spoken, 28-year-old computer professor at Al-Mansour University. As he cowered with his wife and children in their living room that terrifying morning, a grenade pierced his wall and set the room on fire. “They shot my picture of Mohammed, our prophet,” he says, holding the remnants of a framed photo. Shrapnel tore into the middle finger of his right hand, leaving a gash black with infection. He cannot get antibiotics.
Since the invasion, Isam has been out of work. His 9-year-old daughter, Sahar, and 6-year-old son, Ibrahim, still cry through sleepless nights.
Isam turns to me. “I would like to show you the dignity and hospitality and honesty of the Iraqi people and give you this painting to remember us by,” he says proudly, picking up a painting that rested against the couch.
Through tears, I gaze at the darkly moody painting of a solitary man, shoulders hunched, walking away from me through an empty souk. His roughly defined figure suggests he is avoiding something, but the shifty scene in the foreground offers no clues. Not knowing what to say, I shake Isam’s injured hand and humbly accept his gift.
It took me years to frame the painting, which haunted me with its danger and ambiguity. Now hung, however, my perspective has shifted, and I see a man leaving behind something sinister, moving into a foggy unknown. It’s his future that haunts me now, not his past.
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Double-Take, which has won several literary awards and been published in literary journals, is one segment of Kelly Hayes-Raitt’s forthcoming book of new journalism titled Unveiled: How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten. Learn more at www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com