At a Gainesville church in January, after a presentation on the occupations in Iraq and Palestine, an elegant woman in the audience stood and thanked the group for being there. “I’m Iraqi,” she said, “and my mother is Palestinian.”
She spoke briefly of her rage at the occupation and destruction of the city she grew up in, Baghdad, and spoke of her feelings when she heard the news that the Abu Hanifah mosque, where her father is buried, was the site of a bombing and a battle.
“Would the US be in Iraq if all it grew and produced were turnips?” she asked me at the beginning of our interview.
Azza Showket’s father was jailed in Iraq for 3 years-for independence activities against the British.
“Who wants to be occupied?” Showket asks. “But Iraq’s history is one of occupation.” First the Ottoman empire, then the British, who she remembers propped up one king or regent after another, and whose policies came straight from Whitehall. The British hanged people in the public squares to warn others not to resist their rule.
Her father, a geographer, wrote textbooks while in jail. After the war he received his PhD in the U.S. Then, as secretary general, ran the University of Baghdad till his retirement in the seventies.
People in the U.S. have “so many mistaken ideas about Iraq,” Showket reflected. Iraq has a huge middle class, she said, compared to Egypt, where she also lived. In Egypt, there were very rich and very poor. In Iraq in those same years there was public education paid for by the government up through college, including housing. Medical care was publicly funded and free to patients. She and her friends traveled everywhere by bus; it was completely safe.
Another illusion people in the U.S. have is about the status of women in Iraq. Showket married someone from the U.S. and came to live here in the late 50s. She recalls traveling to Baghdad to visit in 1958 and getting together with her female school friends-among them were a gynecologist, two dentists, two pharmacists and two research chemists. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom, and felt slightly embarrassed. All of them had gone to the same neighborhood school together in Baghdad and all had gone to college for free in Iraq.
She also recalls that in those years the hijab or veil went completely out. “During the 40s and 50s, they were all thrown away,” she recalls. Her mother, who was educated in Quaker schools in Palestine, never wore a veil.
“Any Arab anywhere will tell you that the occupation of Palestine is the biggest problem in the Middle East. As long as people are living in [refugee] camps, since 1948, three generations, what kind of aspirations and hope can you have?” Arabs see it as a priority to settle that bit of horror, she said. Many people in the U.S. think that whatever Israel does, it’s OK. “How can everything Israel does be OK?”
“The reign of Saddam was a reign of terror and horror,” Showket says. Then came 1990, “the arrogant invasion of Kuwait by Saddam,” and the years of economic sanctions. “And now the Americans… Iraqis wonder to Americans, what did we ever do to you?”
Showket still hopes to go to Iraq. A bomb was dropped near her sister’s house by U.S. forces in the last two months, she said. An elderly neighbor was killed in the attack. She is in contact by phone. “It’s worse than you can imagine, anything you imagine, it’s worse. There is sewage in the street, the garbage doesn’t get picked up, the water is contaminated, electricity is limited to few hours a day, many houses are in total ruin.”
“I wept to see people lining up to vote. The bloody and the brave. Whole families saying we’re going to do this, even though it was hard to tell what you were voting for.”
But it felt like a step, perhaps, towards ending the occupation.