A story about the sufferings of suppressed Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, all struggling with similar socio-politico-economic ills, and very likely caused by the same political players, disguised under a million masks, and a million colors.
An Iraqi refugee in an apartment, somewhere in the USA
I recently went to Pennsylvania to see one of my dear American friends whose sister passed away after a short battle with cancer. Having worked at a hospital and witnessed people whose lives had been harvested by the sickle of this disease, I have learned that, with cancer, it is much better to exit after a short battle than after a long one. In a sense, my friend’s sister was fortunate to depart in the course of a couple of months rather than go through the painful process of chemotherapy, radiation, followed by usually a high chance of relapse, then death anyway.
After shedding some tears in each other’s arms, we decided to head to the cemetery to visit her sister’s grave. We took a look at the graveside with notably small bouquets of flowers, perhaps because she was a poor woman who spent her life cleaning the houses of the rich with cleaning materials loaded with chemicals. After all, poor people are only as good as their last service to the masters of the system. At any rate, the visit was peaceful and it reminded us of the direction in which we are all headed. It reminded us that before the power of death, all significant things can become insignificant. More importantly, we were reminded that death itself is not frightening, what is frightening is a meaningless, or an unfair death. Having been raised in Iraq, I know this lesson well. We took a few flowers from the graveside to dry them in her memory. As we got ready to leave the cemetery, my friend started talking about how some family members of her deceased sister were already fighting over the old TV, the grill, the desktop, and other “trivial” things her sister had left behind. She also talked about how this “unexpected death” is to affect her own budget and life for many months to come. She works as a kitchen manager at a convenient store. “I have to simply live on bread, milk, and eggs for the next few months, because I do not have any money for anything else. If I am to pay the bills, I have to be extremely frugal for a long time.”
On the way back from the cemetery, we decided to buy some bread to cook a small dinner for us that evening. She suggested that we stop at a store that specializes in selling breads and pastries near expiration date at half price. The idea of this store is interesting and it made me wonder whether we are headed to a future when people with limited means will be forced to live on “second-hand breads”—as in second-hand clothes—in order to survive. Unlike the stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which cater for the rich and their slave classes, this was a one big room with a strong smell of stale food. The lighting was dim and rather depressing even on a beautiful sunny day, as if reminding its costumers of their reality, and making sure that they do not forget who they are, where they are coming from, and where they are headed on their path to the nightmarish “American dream”.
As we got ready to checkout, I went first in line to get the bread for our dinner that evening. The cashier was a woman in her early to mid-40s, with a beautiful chestnut-color hair, wearing a comfortable white shirt and blue jeans, with a cross hanging around her neck. I greeted her in English and told her that she looked Middle Eastern, and the following conversation took place between us:
-“Yes. I am Middle Eastern, indeed. I am from Syria.” She said.
-“Nice to meet you ‘my sister in pain’.” I said in Arabic, referring to the current crisis in Syria and its painful connections with the situation in Iraq and the potential connection of what brings us together in the US.
-“Thank you. Are you originally from Iraq?”
-“Yes. And you can only imagine how much I feel the pain Syria is going through.”
-“Yes my dear. The day we all feared has come. All those who did not wish us well must be very happy gloating at the destruction taking place in beloved Syria. We who embraced the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and the Iraqis in their crises and called them ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’; we are now being stigmatized and seen as annoying, unwanted, and unpleasant ‘refugees’ disturbing the status quo. Aside from everything else, the reality of what is happening in Syria is hideously, though not surprisingly, distorted by Western media for God knows what purposes.”
I was speechless. I looked into her beautiful amber eyes and noticed that she was courageously struggling to hold her tears back. My own life and journey with wars, hunger, pain, destruction, and injustice have taught me that at certain difficult moments, being with somebody simply means to listen, to hold their hand as they grieve, while acknowledging that no words can possibly provide comfort. Silence at such moments is more articulate than words. As she finished the checkout, she gave me another look as though asking me to just say something before departing. I wish I could have held her hand and sang for her, but neither the place nor the time were appropriate, and so I simply recited a part of a song by a Lebanese singer expressing the massive pain of Lebanon, which have become the reality of almost all Middle Eastern countries:
“I dream to see you one day. Tomorrow this nightmare will be over, and instead of one sun, many suns shall shine. On the land of our beloved homeland, we shall meet again one day…” I said the words, without looking at her face that awakened all my own pains. In the car, my friend gave a loving slap on the back saying: “what did you say to that poor woman in Arabic? Did you say something harsh? Why did you leave her in tears like that, you bastard?”
I remained silent. We drove out of the parking lot heading home and all I could think of was the deep connections between the sufferings of suppressed Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, all struggling with similar socio-politico-economic ills, and very likely caused by the same political players, disguised under a million masks, and a million colors. Although many of us are struggling against the same oppressive powers, we are all made to think of each other as enemies rather than allies in this global struggle. Reflecting on my day, I thought about how what connects our human reality is much more meaningful and significant than the trivial details over which we are made to hate and kill each other. I hoped for a day when, as the singer says, instead of one sun, many suns will shine, but for that to happen, do not we need to wake up first?
Louis Yako is a PhD student of cultural anthropology researching Iraqi higher education and intellectuals at Duke University.