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.
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”.
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.