Iraq: The Sum of War & Peace

Text by K. Cecchini

It’s been 12 years since the US invasion. “For Iraqis,” Vivian Salama reported last month for the Associated Press, “the various conflicts feel like one long war…”. And, for Americans? Iraq looks like the sum of ISIS, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction that the United Nations never found.

Profile of Vivian Salama in Rutgers Magazine (Winter 2015) by Angela Delli Santi

But, Salama believes she is “privileged” with a different point-of-view; “Iraq is such an incredible place, rich with history and culture,” the Baghdad correspondent told our Rutgers alum magazine, “The people are among the kindest and most misunderstood in the world because of a handful of extremists who have cast a negative light on the society”. 

I reached out to Salama for her unique insight on Iraq and its people. For one, she paints a charming picture of the capital’s old quarters; Mutannabbi and Rasheed Streets are “lined with gorgeous old Ottoman-era buildings that truly give visitors a window into another time”.  In the “relatively” safe district, men discuss politics and culture in long-established coffee shops, parents bring children to play on the banks of the Tigris River, and, on Fridays, vendors sell books and freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice at the fair. “It’s truly wonderful.”

However, Iraq’s “one long war” is still ever-present in the “true concrete jungle” that is Baghdad.  To shield its  structures from combat, the streets are lined with expansive concrete walls. Residents “always have to be vigilant”; they factor the ongoing conflicts into every decision and action. Most recently, of course, ISIS’s actions have ricocheted throughout society and citizens are often “horrified at how vulnerable their country was to this threat,” Salama affirms, “and yet not surprised after a decade of war”.

Nonetheless, there are many ways in which Americans can identify with Iraqis, particularly in their vision for life. Most Iraqis desire peace, freedom to move about and worship as they please, and, in the middle of an economic slump, they wish for “the right to earn a living and support their families”.

Photo of Vivian Salama in Rutgers Magazine (Winter 2015)  by Karim Kadim

Although Iraqis convey nuanced views on the United States, Salama feels they are “extremely warm to foreigners” and like to inquire about people’s lives in their home countries and their perspectives on Iraq.  Still, many Iraqis are “understandably angry with Americans and,” Salama stresses, “verbalize that in a peaceful way.”

So, by Salama’s calculations, what is the sum of lots of hope, 12 years of war and a history that extends back to the first civilizations? An “incredible” people.


The Terrorist’s Son

Text by K. Cecchini
Eight years before 9/11, a 1,200 pound bomb exploded in the World Trade Center’s parking garage; it killed 6 people and injured over a thousand people. El-Sayyid Nosair was one of the attack’s architects.
But this article is not about the terrorist. It is about a very different man – his son.

Worlds Collide

Zak Ebrahim
Zak Ebrahim
Nosair only had 7 years to share his “very hateful ideology” with his son before he was imprisoned. As detailed in his memoir, The Terrorist’s Son, Zak Ebrahim, his mother and siblings suffered for his father’s actions; Nosair’s notoriety ultimately led to the family’s transient and impoverished existence and an abusive remarriage.
Because of -or in spite of- his childhood, Zak’s worldview lies in direct opposition to Nosair’s.

Zak Ebrahim credits two things for the undoing of this worldview; bullying and exposure. Being bullied taught him empathy while kindness from people he had previously stereotyped taught him understanding,  “I realized i wasn’t being the better person because of my beliefs, I was doing to them what had been done many times before and…I didn’t want to be that person who made others feel the way that I had been made to feel.”

 Moral of His Story

For years, Zak was still hard pressed for answers from El-Sayyid Nosair  about “why he chose this ideology over is family…and why he chose to leave us so unprotected?”
But, today, he is ok without those answers.
For the past 6 years, Zak has found a much better way to not only process his father’s actions, but to also transform a volatile childhood into a positive contribution; storytelling.
The idea that his story could be useful for others to hear evolved partly from the anti-war movement of the previous decade, “I thought if people knew my story, it would help them understand the context of radicalization” and, perhaps, how to mitigate it.
“One of the main ingredients of radicalization is isolation,” Zak warns. We have to be mindful of our reactions to events like the Charlie Hebdo attack, because “marginalizing is exactly what these extremist groups want, they want Muslims to have to deal with being stereotyped and being harassed for their religion because it pushes them out of the mainstream and makes people more susceptive to joining groups….human beings more than anything want a purpose in life… that makes them feel fulfilled and unfortunately many people can be tricked into believing things that are greater than themselves.”
Although Zak has no illusions of utopia, he believes that we are more likely to defeat groups like ISIS if we all come together to rally against them. On the other hand, he echoes the concept that military force will only strengthen their narratives.
“You can choose peace.”

Coming Out

“The Terrorist’s Son” is a brave moniker to choose. And, as Zak tells it, he is an unlikely storyteller. He credits his best friend and associate Sharon for supporting their venture as his “courage before (he) had it”.
Zak attributes the traction his story has received to the fact that we can all relate to the emotions within it, but he is still amazed and grateful for the public’s reception, “there’s nothing in the world that I could have done that would’ve been better than what I’m doing now, taking such a negative experience and showing people that there is hope at the end of the tunnel.”
When Zak said, “I feel very lucky and grateful that I get to do it,” I could hear the happiness in his voice.

“We are not his children anymore.”

The last line of Zak’s book gave me chills. I had one more question; did he forgive his father?
Zak first articulated his view on the concept of forgiveness; “it’s not absolution”.
Then he delved into it. No longer seeking Nosair’s answers, Zak reflected, “In that sense I think perhaps I allowed myself I guess,” I hear him take a deep breath on the other end of the line, “to forgive myself for all the terrible things I had gone through and the way that I was made to feel because of those experiences.”
“You’ve come to some sort of peace with it, is what I’m gathering?” I tried to clarify.
Quietly, Zak agrees, “Yes.”
Learn more about Zak Ebrahim:
Click here for Mr. Ebrahim’s website or follow him on Twitter: @ZakEbrahim
The book and the tour. The Terrorist’s Son (Memoir): Zak donates a percent of sales from his memoir to Tuesday’s Children, a community of terrorism victims and their families around the world (that was started after 9/11). Zak is looking forward to dates in Australia and he is particularly honored and amazed to be sharing a panel with Desmond Tutu in England in the spring.