Haifa Zangana, writer and humanist, grew up between the Baghdad of her mother and the Kurdistan of her father: a seamless mix of identity between the overwhelmingly male society of Baghdad, and the cool mountains of Kurdistan, where women never covered their faces and could inherit property.
Haifa was imprisoned by the Ba’ath regime in the early 1970s. She escaped execution, released because the Ba’athists needed the help of the Left to consolidate their supremacy. ‘When I came out of prison I stayed in Iraq to finish my studies. They used to call me to Security Forces HQ. I sat on a chair all day, watching other people arrested, humiliated. You never knew if you would be detained or released. They controlled you by fear. Then I went to Syria and worked for the PLO there, before coming to Britain in 1976.
As we speak, a researcher calls up from BBC TV’s Question Time to check whether Haifa is a ‘suitable’ voice for the programme. Haifa explains she is against war in Iraq, since the Iraqis have suffered enough – from Saddam, war with Iran, the Gulf War, sanctions and continued bombing by US and British aircraft. ‘I was imprisoned, my three brothers were conscripted to fight against their will in the first Gulf War.’ What is the answer? asks the researcher. ‘What do you think? The scenario is already written. There will be war. If anyone suggests an alternative, as Chirac has done, he is demonized.’ What have you written about? ‘I write about exile, an autobiographical novel, short stories; a book in homage to Halabja, where Saddam gassed thousands of Kurds.’ Clearly, Haifa does not fit into the ideological mould. The conversation is terminated.
Haifa Zangana’s book is Through the vast halls of memory, Hourglass, 1991.
She is working with Maysoon Pachachi and Dr Nadje Al-Ali on Behind the Numbers –Beyond Sanctions: Women’s Voices on Iraq.
She is a co-founder of Act Together .
You have failed to learn the lessons of your last occupation of Iraq. Haifa Zangana
The last time I managed to speak to my eldest brother, Salam, was two days before the invasion of Iraq. He told me that his daughter Rana had just given birth to a baby boy.
"But she isn't due for another month," I said.
"The doctor tried to induce labour but failed, so he had to perform a caesarean," he explained. "We had to take the risk because we hear that war is starting in few days and then there'll be no hospital to take her to." Trying to ease my horror he continued: "She isn't the only one. Hundreds of women in Baghdad are doing the same thing."
Prime Minister Tony Blair says this is a war to liberate the Iraqi people. As an Iraqi Kurd whose family and people have been bombarded continuously in Baghdad for the last 14 days, I beg to differ.
Most of our cities are now under constant bombardment. Nassiriya, the city that was a thorn in the side of the regime, is bombarded continuously. Kerbala and Najaf, our holy cities, are surrounded by troops. Basra, famous for its shanashil porches, date palms and poetry, has been declared a military target and is under siege for its eighth day. Families are confined to small rooms, eating tinned food. They have no water or electricity. Baghdad itself, with its unique architecture, its narrow alleys and its large, mixed population (not so unlike London, really) is deprived of light, sleep, fresh air and shaken to its foundations by B52 bombing.
In the desert, scorned by some American soldiers for its lack of McDonald's, there are 3,500 archaeological sites, some of which date back to the beginning of civilisation. To this Iraqi, at least, it feels as though the British and Americans are not just guilty of killing us, but of erasing our history, too.
I last spoke to my sister, Goulzar, the day after the "shock and awe" bombardment of Baghdad, where she lives with her husband's family. She was very angry. She shouted at me. And in her anger she was cursing the whole world.
She kept repeating: "Why, why, why are they doing this to us?" I tried to calm her down. I said: "Well, to get rid of you know who."
She shouted back: "But Sharon is killing Palestinians every day . Why aren't they bombing Tel Aviv?" I was about to tell her about Blair's road map to help the Palestinians, but we were cut off. I have not heard from her since.
(Every day in my house we take it in turns to sit by the phone, dialling and redialling the numbers of our relatives and friends in Iraq. We never get through.)
My sister is not politically minded and definitely not loyal to the regime. She is an average Baghdadi housewife and mother who struggled to provide for her family over the last 12 years of Anglo-American enforced sanctions. Her husband, Jawad, is a conscript in the Iraqi army. Every time I watch the TV I see Iraqi soldiers: handcuffed, bare-footed in the mud, lying on the ground. I see scattered corpses in the newspapers, some of them half-eaten by dogs. Each time I wonder, is this Jawad?
The other day, after the market bombing, Bush said: "The Iraqi people gotta know, see, that they will be liberated." His tone was threatening. In a softer voice, Tony Blair added: "To Iraqis we say we'll liberate you." Don't they know that the people they are addressing are now simply trying to survive? Many have no contact with the outside world. They are not listening to their speeches.
The British and Americans troops expected to be showered with flowers. When this didn't happen, Bush and Blair said it was because the regime was so brutal. But to Iraqis, the call for a Shi'ite uprising is dangerous because it amounts to a call for sectarian civil war at a time of great confusion and bloodshed.
Arnold Wilson, the British ruler of Iraq from 1918 to 1920, played the divide and rule card in an attempt to put an end to continuous revolt against British occupation. He visited al-Shirazi (the greatest Shi'ite religious authority of his time) in the holy city of Kerbala. First he asked Shirazi whether he would like to replace the Sunni imam of Samara with a Shi'ite imam. Shirazi replied: "I don't differentiate between Sunni and Shi'ite. The imam of Samara is a good man."
Taken aback, Wilson tried another tactic. He asked Shirazi to approve a proposed agreement between Britain and Iran, which the Iranians were resisting. Shirazi replied: "The government of Iran is a better judge of Iranian problems."
Wilson then asked him to issue a fatwa to stop an ongoing battle between Iranian tribes and British troops in the south of Iran. Shirazi said: "I can't - those tribes have a government that knows better about their circumstances and their needs."
Then, as now, the British chose not to understand that Iraqis would not accept any form of foreign occupation. Instead, Wilson wrote a letter to the Foreign Office in London dismissing Shirazi as "an insane man surrounded by a gang of greedy men".
This failure to understand has a high price. Just four days ago my friend Muna's patience paid off. She got through to her family in Baghdad - a mother, two brothers and a sister. They were all well, and worried about her. Was she ok, her mother kept asking (they do this, our mothers - just to make us cry, I suppose).
She couldn't speak to her brothers because, both engineers, there were now part of "moving units" working 24-hour shifts to repair bomb damage to the electricity supplies. Whenever there was a power cut, her mother reported proudly, it never lasted more than an hour - no thanks to smart bombs; all thanks to her sons and men like them. Morale is high, she said, and many Iraqis she knows have been given guns by the regime. Muna's mother is not loyal to Saddam. Her family have been split apart by his cruelty - not only her daughter, but several other members of her immediate family are in exile. So, "how could they be trusted with guns?" asked my friend. "We don't care about all that any more," her mother said.
Iraqis are like any other people. They are defending their country against an invasion. For months, I pleaded with my brother to leave Baghdad. He insisted, despite all my pleas, on staying. "Baghdad isn't Saddam's property," he would say. "It's ours and we shouldn't leave it." In spite of all the years of oppression, Iraqis know very well that Iraq is not Saddam. They also know that Americans and British forces are occupiers, not liberators.
Over 3,000 Iraqis living in Jordan who risked their lives to leave Iraq in recent years have decided to return. A BBC correspondent asked why. Not one of them said, "To defend Saddam or the regime." They simply said, "To defend Iraq" or "To be with my family".
Meanwhile, the Bush-Blair alliance is leading us towards an escalation of war - perhaps including the use of Donald Rumsfeld's "mild" chemical weapons, or even "mini-nukes" - followed by occupation and direct rule. And thus we witness the natural birth of thousands of Arab "terrorists", not just in Iraq but in all Arab and Muslim countries.
Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi-born novelist and painter. She is a former political prisoner of the Ba'ath regime.
Bombs will deepen Iraq's nightmare
This war plan forces me to stand by the dictator who tortured me
Haifa Zangana - Tuesday September 17, 2021