Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Dahr Jamail on Iraqi friendship

A humanising look at Iraqi society from one of the finest independent journalists, Dahr Jamail.

Among things that have not changed in Iraq is one that I hope never changes. After a four-year-long absence, each of my meetings here with former friends and fresh acquaintances seems to suggest that adversity has taken its toll on everything except Iraqi hospitality and Iraqi generosity. I am awestruck to find the warmth of the Iraqi people miraculously undiminished through grief, loss and chaos.

I first met A (name withheld) in 2004 during my second trip to Iraq. He had accompanied Sheikh Adnan, a mutual friend, when the latter came to visit me in Baghdad. Several visits had followed. The two men would come to my hotel laden with delicious home-cooked meals, of which the first morsel had to be eaten by me, as per their custom. Their visits and the times we spent together brought me an experience of love and brotherhood, the type of which I had rarely known before. More significantly, those occasions had healed and sustained me as I grappled with the guilt and raw horrors of the occupation the government of my country had subjected their land to.

When A came to visit me this time we could not contain our joy as we greeted each other. “I have gifts for you habibi,” he said, and pulled out two brand new leather jackets, one brown and one black, for me to choose from. It was only the first of many gifts he brought me.

My compulsion to know the truth behind the invasion and occupation had brought me to Iraq. I had come nearly empty-handed from an enemy country and found acceptance among strangers. What I received here is best described in Emerson’s words, “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”

It had not taken me long to grasp that habibi, which literally means “the one that is loved” in the Arab world, is not a mere form of address or a term of endearment. It encapsulates a way of life, an innate sense of an inclusive community, alien to the self-focused concept in the United States of so many, that of “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.”


I had last seen A, along with Sheikh Adnan, two years ago when they visited me in Syria. Soon after, A had written to me:


It has been very long since I have written to you. I’m sorry. I was terribly busy. I have some very bad news. Sheikh Adnan was kidnapped by the members of al-Qaeda in Diyala 25 days ago and there is no news about him up to this moment. It’s a horrible situation. One cannot feel safe in this country.

It was many months later that A finally found a photograph at their local morgue to confirm the death of our friend.

The absence of Sheikh Adnan made this meeting between A and me more poignant and precious.

He was concerned about my safety and tried to dissuade me from stepping out, “While there is less violence, the bad people are still out there,” he lamented. I managed to convince him that the area where I am residing is relatively safe, and we began to stroll down the sidewalk for some food.

He was not too hungry, but custom bars him from allowing me to eat alone, so he joined me. Sitting in the pleasant warmth of the Baghdad sun with a mild cool breeze swaying the palm fronds around us, we ate and talked.

I told him of my life since we last met in 2007. He talked of his wife.

Roughly one year ago, he and his wife had a boy, their first child. At six weeks the baby had to be taken to a hospital. Readers familiar with my reportage of the collapsed health care system in Iraq are aware that the large-scale forced exodus of skilled and experienced doctors from the country has compounded the crisis of destroyed infrastructure. As a result, A’s child became one among the countless Iraqis who have lost their lives in the absence of necessary medical care.

A showed me the photograph of the newborn baby that he has not erased from his cell phone. I thanked him for sharing it with me. Still looking at the photograph, he nodded, smiled, and put the phone away. His wife, he said, is trying to reconcile with the loss and they are now trying to have another child.

For a minute, the thought crossed my mind that the barbarians the Bush administration had vowed to liberate nearly six years ago seem most unnaturally human.

Finally, I broached the subject neither of us was too keen to breach. To my query about Sheikh Adnan’s wife and three children, A told me, “You know, when the husband dies, the wife and children are left in a very bad position, because it is not common for women here to work, they must rely completely on the grandparents. It is a continuous struggle. The economic situation here is not getting better for most of us.”

After we washed down the meal with strong Iraqi tea, A went to wash his hands. My eyes gazed leisurely over to a man carving shawarma, the palm fronds swaying languidly, and behind them the cars rolling down the road. The color of the palm fronds constantly changed hue as the sun slid slowly across the sky.

I knew without looking that A would have paid for the food. It is another Iraqi creed I have learnt not to question. Regardless of their status, no Iraqi worth their name will ever allow a guest to pay for refreshments. When A returned, I thanked him for his visit and for his generosity.

As we walked back to my hotel I marveled at A’s fortitude and poise. He, like others that I have met and will continue to encounter in this ravaged land, is a lesson in humanity, dignity and strength in the face of insurmountable odds.

We thanked one another profusely for our individual reasons.

“I feel grateful to have you as my friend Dahr,” he said as we bid goodbye.

I have no words for the gratitude that overflowed my heart, not for this one friend alone, but at my sheer fortune at having been gifted generous portions of so many lives, to have the humility to receive it, and the sense to appreciate it.

Our meeting was a full circle for me. It has enabled me to close out the experience of having lost my friend Sheikh Adnan. For both of us, it has been an unstated acknowledgment of that loss, backed by a fresh resolve to continue with life … a carrying forward.

I bring you but a single instance of loss. Estimates reveal at least 1.2 million such instances in Iraq. Each life lost emits ripples of grief across not just Iraq, but the globe.

Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last four years.

5 comments on “Dahr Jamail on Iraqi friendship

  1. Freeborn
    10 February, 2009

    A moving and humanizing example of journalism that comes from the heart as we have come to expect from Dahr Jamail.

    Anyone who has travelled in the Middle East will be familiar with the invigorating warmth and hospitality radiated by the people who live there.Generally they are unfailingly polite,exhibit social graces that come naturally and are all too conspicuous by their absence now in the UK.

    The unspeakable evil of sectarianism that tragically engulfed Iraq in the wake of the bombing of the mosque in Samarra bear witness to a faultline running through societies where disparate religious and tribal groups have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

    Such faultlines,barely perceptible to travelling outsiders and even most of the people themselves are still readily exploited by the divide and conquer imperialists who likely carried out the Samarra attack.

    For more journalism that comes like all the finest from the sense of common humanity the writer feels with his subjects,Leila Ahmed is worth a visit.

    Her latest post simmers with rightful anger at those in the West who,while ready to vent their outrage at Israeli depredations in Lebanon and Gaza,seem to have forgotten the monumental human catastrophe that has happened with the take-down of the Iraqi nation(see Walls of Silence piece on her blog).

    After reading Jamail’s Full Circle as well,you will probably wonder at the breathtaking hypocrisy of the BBC’s pious enunciations re-impartiality which are,in the light of what has happened in Iraq,let alone Gaza and Lebanon,utterly hollow and ultimately meaningless.

  2. Freeborn
    10 February, 2009

    Sorry,that should read Layla Anwar a.k.a.the Baghdad Blogger.

    Leila Ahmed was a Palestinian freedom fighter of some years hence.

    It’s funny how names stick in your head over the years.

    Anyway,a better example of a lyrical freedom fighter than Anwar would be hard to find.

  3. ann
    10 February, 2009

    Many thanks Freeborn.

    Layla Anwar: An Arab Woman Blues:

  4. 99
    10 February, 2009

    While I think there is much to be learned from Layla Anwar, and have certainly benefited greatly from the posts of hers I have read, she is so hate-filled that it becomes quickly unbearable stuff. If you pay attention to the comments threads, you will see lots of achingly guilty Westerners trying to make up for the atrocities and hate she writes about so evocatively. And she treats them like dirt. Which, in many respects is their due, but in another sense, on the ground where we are all human, is reprehensible.

    She isn’t just filled with hatred toward the West either. She canonizes Saddam and reviles those who killed him, which includes her countrymen. She takes unannounced blog breaks, or announced ones that carry on far past their due dates and people go batshit crazy worrying about her welfare on the threads. While she sits back and watches, with, I imagine, some vengeful gloating.

    It really angers me to see someone with the clear capacity to soar, writhing around in the mud like that… elevating her hatred so far above her love. I think of all the people around her, and all the people on earth, who could be helped by her and yet she persists in drumming on the hate.

    A fucking waste. I agree about her lyricism, and I am 100% in favor of her freedom, but the hatred and its meanness vitiate all the good she might do.

  5. Freeborn
    10 February, 2009

    I think,on the contrary,what you refer to as Layla’s “hatred” is more accurately recognisable as anger.

    Rage is a powerful emotion that can requires an outlet.

    Under the circumstances Layla could be forgiven for expressing her rage via the blog.

    She could be forgiven for the understandable breaks in transmission as well!

    I think if readers begin to reflect on the cherry-picking of newsworthy grievances in which the media encourages them to indulge,and the way they discard, forget and move on after they’ve put some money in a tin they might begin to understand Layla’s frustration.

    At the end of the day anger which is wholly understandable is probably a more useful human emotion than the willed amnesia and complacency that passes for “normality” in the West.

    Iraqis like Layla have had their lives turned upside down why the hell shouldn’t they be full of anger?

    No amount of newspaper space or money in a tin can compensate for the crimes committed by the so-called Western democracies against Iraq over decades.

    It make me fucking angry as well so just imagine what it does for Layla!

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This entry was posted on 9 February, 2009 by in Iraq and tagged .

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"