Monday, February 27, 2006

A Helpful Explanation

Conversation with a Kurdish co-worker during the 2.5 hour drive from Arbil to Sulaymaniyah

Co-worker: I used to work for [a different international development organization] before I worked for yours.
Housediggity: Really? How did you like it at the [different international development organization]?
Co-worker: I didn't like it much at all. My supervisor was Serbian. You know, the Serbs are alot like the Kurds. We have both been beaten and fought and suffered. We have many repressed feelings that we release on others when we can.
Housediggity: [chuckles] Interesting. I didn't know that. I'm glad you like your new job better.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sketchy Views

I was alerted to the possible repercussions from the Danish cartoons by one of my Iraqi co-workers. It was a day after an unusually high number of thuds. Most sounded as if they came from bombs detonated nearby. The New York Times, in their January 30 coverage, was clueless about the rationale, speculating that Zarqawi might now be renewing attacks on Christian sites. I didn't believe one of the Iraqis who told me it was in response to the cartoons, because I thought that was many news cycles ago and that the insurgents had different motives. But now that this seems to have irked the Muslim world more than the war in Iraq, I believe him.

Not surprisingly, our Iraqi staff here have plenty of different takes on the cartoons. The Iraqi who first told me the bombings were due to the cartoons is not shy how silly he thinks this whole thing is. At the same time, he made sure that no one else was looking at the monitor when he showed them to me. Most of the staff seem to agree that the cartoons were in poor taste, but do not in any way hold me or the West responsible.

That's what confuses me most about the response to the cartoons. How could Denmark possibly be culpable? I can understand why the Muslim community would want the worst fate for the cartoonists, and maybe the newspaper. After what happened to Salman Rushdie following the Satanic Verses, death for blasphemy is not surprising. But how is Denmark responsible? In most Arab countries the media is government controlled, though most Arabs know that's not the case elsewhere. Perhaps there are too many cartoonists invovled to attack each artist so its easier to hold the country responsible. Would renaming the "Danish cartoons" as the "Westergaard, Refn..etc. Cartoons" stem the protests? Maybe the newspaper has been spared because "Jyllandsposten Cartoons" is too difficult to say. What seems most likely is that the response was too visceral and immediate to identify a proper target.

One of my coworkers did tell me that though she was offended by the cartoons, hurting the Dane on the street was not justified. However, she has no choice but to participate in the boycott. All the stores have been stripped of Danish goods. She would happily eat her Danish-made cheese for breakfast as she does normally, but its not an option any more. I wonder how much of the response to these cartoons is a grassroots movement, and how many of the protestors are people like my coworker who do not feel strongly opposed to the cartoons or the inappropriate response. The implication from that question is not that an Arab regime is orchestrating everything.

Professor Cole's post about the cartoons does explain why the Danish government might be a target. The government might be in a position to punish the paper, but has not done anything.

Above: A cartoon forwarded to me by a coworker.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Another Overlooked Story

Names have been changed, but everything else is as it was told to me:

When IIII trainer Fatima Al-Iraqiya arrived in the village of Al-Miyya, she was shocked by the audience that assembled for her two-day workshop. Attending her training entitled “Women’s Rights in the New Constitution” were two dozen men but not a single woman. The tribal leader who helped arranged the training, Sheikh Abu Al-Miyya, offered an explanation: In some villages, women attend these sorts of events. But Al-Miyya is more traditional, he explained, and women are expected to remain at home.

Located on the outskirts of Karbala, Al-Miyya numbers just over a thousand inhabitants. Agriculture forms the basis of the economy, and most of the land is used for date farming. Al-Iraqiya, one of the IIII trainers, targeted Al-Miyya as part of IIII efforts to reach as many women as possible, especially those in more remote areas.

Though she was disappointed, Al-Iraqiya knew that pleading with Sheikh Abu Al-Miyya to change his mind would be futile. She proceeded with her training, sticking to the material she had prepared and the activities she had planned. The first part of the workshop outlined the course and focused on defining the terms that she would use over the next two days. The men listened attentively as she continued through the lesson plan. After an hour, she gently posed a question, “Would it be all right if the men allowed their wives to attend the workshop?” There was plenty of space on the carpets where the participants sat.

Their answer was, “Yes.” The women would sit separately from the men, but they would be able to participate in the workshop. Al-Iraqiya asked that the group take a break and waited for the women to arrive. When the workshop resumed, there were more than 20 women. The following day, among the 45 participants, women outnumbered men.

For these women who worked as housewives, this was a unique experience. They were excited by the material that Al-Iraqiya presented. Using a course from the IIII-designed Women’s Advocacy curriculum, Al-Iraqiya covered all the international women’s agreements and how these related to the articles on women’s rights in the new constitution. Al-Iraqiya discussed the role that women’s advocacy groups could play in changing the position of women in Iraq and how the constitution supported this. After the lecture, two of the women asked if there was any way they too could work to encourage women’s rights. Al-Iraqiya connected the women to The Organization of Love and Prosperity, an IIII-partner CSO. The two women are now members.

IIII must overcome numerous obstacles as it works to develop capable women leaders and build a network of Civil Society Organizations that will continue to advocate for the rights of women. III is making significant progress on all fronts, including dismantling age-old perceptions about a woman’s role in society. Through training, forums, workshops, and awareness-raising activities, III is succeeding case by case and village by village.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Real Accomplishment

After returning from my R&R, I'm not happy to be back. Life in the compound hasn't changed any since I left, and that's exactly what bothers me. My daily activities could not be more routine here. Variety involves choosing between the two restaurants in the compound, or maybe what drink I'll order at the bar. There are plenty of interesting people and I do have great co-workers, but a perfectly normal activity like taking a walk is not an option. I'm tired of running on the treadmill and would like to go for a real jog. The contrast between the serendipity of my R&R and life in the compound is irritating. After only a few days at a hostel in Bangkok, I feel like I know the city much better than Baghdad, where I have been living for more than three months.

And what do I have to show for my time here, besides being completely unfamiliar with the city where I'm living? Sure, my supervisor is pleased with my work and everyone says I'm making an important contribution to the team. However, one of the major reasons I came here was because I wanted my efforts to help the Iraqi people, as naive and saccharine as that might sound. In theory, the reports I write every day are an important part of the reconstruction efforts and without them additional funds for the project might be withheld. Yet this is a tenuous connection. More aid might not be spent, but it would likely be spent the same way regardless of who penned the reports. Confined to the compound, I also don't have the satisfaction of seeing the beneficiaries. I learn about it second hand, from our Iraqi staff. Thought its not fair for me to complain about this, becuase I did know what it would be like.

So I'm pleased that an Iraqi girl is now being treated for her injuries. I wrote a letter to doctors whose contacts I found over the internet asking if they might be willing to provide surgery free of charge. I first approached doctors who worked on Extreme Makeover. The few that responded said that I needed doctors who specialized in reconstructive surgery, not cosmetic surgery. Eventually, one of the Extreme Makeover doctors talked to a friend, who agreed to do the surgery. She is now being treated at UCLA.

Reading over this short article about her treatment, I'm astonished at its inaccuracy. Or at least, how much the coverage differs from my understanding of her case. Her family wasn't fleeing an attack, as the article describes. The mother was killed and Marwa was wounded when their house was bombed. Some funds were already given to the family to repair their home.

Its also strange that this case has not generated more attention. Its just as significant as the Iraqi girl who was born with birth defects and treated in Atlanta, arguably even moreso. With Marwa's story, the American doctors are rectifying a mistake by that occurred because of their military's action. Surely there is more of an obligation to treat those cases first. I think the press person at Childspring International deserves some congratulations.

What is unfortunate is that there are so many more Iraqis that need to be connected to doctors who will help. Marwa had been injured for almost 2 years, but no one bothered to find a doctor who would perform the surgery. When I looked for organizations who had experience with this sort of thing, I learned that there is really a shortage of patients who have been brought to the attention of international organizations and that there are few individuals who can manage the logistics. But there are plenty of doctors who need to be connected to patients. In fact, this organization guarantees that it can help any Iraqi child who cannot be treated inside Iraq.

Working on the case is probably the most satisfying thing that I have done during my time in Iraq. Not only because my efforts really did help someone, but because I was able to take real initiative. I wasn't tasked with the assignment or given directions. I need more professional opportunities like this, and I doubt they're to be found in Iraq. They may not exist in development at all. Of course, its silly for me to ask for a role like this, as having it handed to me would destroy its appeal.