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Letter to my Baghdad friends

About the author
Maura Stephens has been a professional journalist and editor since 1977.

I am desperate to go back to Iraq. Almost everyone I know who has spent time in that beleaguered country in the last three years feels the same. The people of Iraq - so brave, kind and generous, so truly noble - call me back, call us all back. Yet they warn me not to come. They would, I know, put themselves in danger to protect me, to protect any visitor who comes in peace. And I could not live with myself if I were the cause of any harm coming to them.

I have come to Amman to be closer to you, my dear Iraqi friends, to see if I can help in some small way by being here. Today I drove the four hours to the border to speak to Iraqis coming across - for good, some of them hope, insha’allah, or for a short respite from the never-ending stress and terror that have become their lives.

Starting out in Amman one forgets how harsh the world out here is. The four-hour drive through desert is a boring, tedious ride with nary a hillock to break the relentless flatness. A few small outposts along the way, but mostly the terrain is flat red sand, surfaced for around 150 kilometres by black volcanic rock: a strange barren otherworldly landscape.

I well know that past the border it is more of the same, and it goes on for hours until Fallujah and Ramadi and then at last Baghdad. And that once in Baghdad, or Fallujah or Hilla or Mosul or Tikrit or Karbala, I will understand for myself just what it is like to feel that terror every day, never to know if my sweetheart will be safe on his way home from work, if my neighbour will survive parking his car in the street, if our house will be stormed at 2:00 in the morning by men with machine-guns and bad attitudes, if my old nana will be able to get her insulin and her asthma medicine when she runs out of this batch.

Yet I want to be there, to see for myself what I have heard from you and so many of your compatriots. I want to walk your children to school in the morning and go back in the afternoon to pick them up and walk them home. I want to protect you, my friend, to give you back-rubs and listen to your stories. I want to keep you safe. I want to help you have a normal life. I want to play music and dance with you and your whole family when they come in from out of town on holidays. I think of us cooking up a feast that we will eat from huge platters spread out on the rug in the living room, singing and joking and telling stories. I long to hear your brothers poking fun at me as I try to get through an entire sentence in Arabic without misspeaking once. I want this for me and I want this for you. I want little things, not much. I want you to be able to go to the dentist when you need a filling, I want you not to live in pain constantly. I want you to be able to buy a nice pair of shoes to replace those worn pumps you’ve been wearing for two years straight. I want you to know that you can walk out of your house without worrying if you will ever see your husband again. I want you to be able to let your children play in the front yard. They are too full of energy still to be cooped inside day and night, every season of the year. I want you to have a working refrigerator so you can keep the food fresh. I want your fans and air conditioners to work when it is 135 degrees outside, as it will be again soon. I want you not to have to burn wood in the living room when it’s cold out, as it was this winter. I want you not to have to all sleep on the floor together under blankets because it’s too cold out to be in your own bedrooms. I want you not to have to sleep on the roof in the summer unless you want to for fun.

I long to hear your voices on the phone without a two-second delay. I wish you could just log onto your computer from home and send me an email. I wish you didn’t have to go all the way to the internet café, placing your life at risk every time you want to communicate with me or with one of your friends or family. I wish you could fill up your car with fuel and go for a visit to your sister across town. I wish you could take a little holiday, come out for a week and visit Jordan, seeing Petra and Jerash and getting a mud treatment at the beach on the Dead Sea while your kids play in the saline water, safe from drowning because of the high concentration of salt that would keep them afloat even if they do not know how to swim. I wish you could go shopping in Amman for shoes and clothes and toiletries. I wish you had an income.

I know you want these things, too. They are simple wants, yet now they are pie-in-the-sky dreams. There is no indication that even one of them might come true anytime soon.

I despair of seeing your face, my friend. I know we must rely on the occasional Yahoo Messenger conversation, carefully planned in advance. I thank heaven for the web, and for the fact that you have access at times, when the electricity is working at the internet café. Which, of course, depends on the generators. Which, of course, depends on gasoline. The pumping of which, of course, depends on electricity. Which, of course, depends on generators.

But it’s the best we can do. The telecommunications are spotty at best. I’ve been calling you for ten days at your mobile number, but only today were we able to talk in person. It was so frustrating with a two-second delay; we were unable to have a decent conversation. So I resort to that instant messenger function and am glad I finally decided to try it. Talking to you this way is almost as good as hearing your voice. But nothing, nothing would be better than sitting face to face with you, my friends, looking into your eyes and letting you know how much I care about you and your families, how hard I have been trying to make things better for you, how sorry I am, and ashamed, for my utter failure and the despicable arrogance of my country’s government.

I will not come into Iraq. It is too dangerous. I cannot do you much good if I am dead. But more important, I know that you would lay your life on the line for me, as would every one of my brave, generous Iraqi friends, and even to be seen with me would likely be a death sentence for you.

In my hotel here in Amman is a stone-deaf British writer who swears he will come into Baghdad to check things out for himself and report the truth in the British newspapers. The truth is, he’s not just a fool but potentially an accomplice to murder. He does not know you the way I do. He does not know that his arrogance and naivété will put you in mortal danger.

The same with the young American “peacemaker” who wants to go in, take photos, and share them with the world. He has been studying Arabic but his teacher says he is hopeless. He is leaving for Baghdad tomorrow. May someone look over him and those protecting him, and may he learn from this experience.

Both these men will make their hosts and translators targets of those who do not see the difference between helping fellow human beings and consorting with the enemy. They are fools, and I will never forgive them should any harm come to a single gentle Iraqi soul.

So my friends, I will follow your advice, against my longing. I will not come. Not now. But some day, insha’allah, we shall meet in Baghdad and feel safe, we shall share many cups of Iraqi tea, maybe even a meal of masguouf, that wonderful river fish that is cooked over an open fire. Maybe that meal will not be toxic enough to kill us - terrible thought, after you’ve lived through all this hell. Maybe your children will be happy and carefree again. Maybe you and I will relearn to smile and joke.

Maybe this is a quixotic dream. Right now I’m convinced it is. But hold onto hope, dear friend. I’ll try to do the same.

Ma’asalaam’a,


Maura Stephens
May 2005


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