I moved to Jordan with Peace Corps in 2004, less than a year after my country invaded Iraq, just before the torture at Abu Ghraib Prison came to light. My fellow Jordanian teachers brought the gruesome images to school, insisting, “You must look at these pictures. These are our brothers.” By the end of that year, two devastating battles had been fought in the streets of Fallujah.
Early in my second year, Operation Smile asked if Peace Corps Volunteers could assist their medical mission by staying at an Amman hotel with forty Iraqi children, each with one parent. Most had only rarely left their villages, never stayed in a hotel, certainly never left Iraq. They were asking us, with our Arabic and intercultural fluency, to keep the parents calm and informed, and entertain the children.
I almost didn’t do it.
It should have been depressing, living with forty families from the impoverished Iraqi countryside — ravaged by American-made land mines, littered with the remains of radioactive American bomb casings, and now sprayed with insurgent gunfire and IEDs. I was sure I would be so distraught by the deformities of these children that I wouldn’t be able to look at them, let alone help them.
I volunteered anyway, because I needed to do something for this country that my country had invaded, for these families in need so close to my new Jordanian home.
My first encounter was in the hotel lobby at check-in with Nour, a chubby little girl, nine months old. Her mother had brought her to Jordan to have a double cleft repaired that divided her upper lip in three. For a moment, she became her deformity. Then she smiled and transformed. “Nour” means light, and a delighted glow radiated from her fat round face and big liquid eyes when she looked up at me and grinned. There was only one thing to do. I grinned back, tickling the bib of her red ruffled dress until we both giggled.
After Nour, it was easy to love them all. I wasn’t disgusted or even uncomfortable. They were blithely happy babies, cheerful, playful, and I was instantly charmed. It took me longer to appreciate the quiet strength of their mothers.
I especially loved two-year-old Serdar. His parents had been given special dispensation to both come with their son, because in addition to his cleft lip and cleft palate, he was blind, deaf and possibly autistic. Then, after he arrived in Amman, the doctors doing his pre-op found a hole in his heart. Despite all that, he energized that whole dim hotel dining room.
After dinner, his parents sat Serdar on top of a big round table. He rolled over onto his belly, pressing his cheek and ear to the navy blue polyester tablecloth. Though deaf, he could feel people talking through the table beneath.
His father tapped lightly on the table’s edge. Serdar tapped back, arms and legs splayed out to the four directions. He mimicked flawlessly his father’s more and more complex rhythms, keeping perfect time.
Then his father started doing drum rolls, at first softly with his fingertips on the edge of the table, a light crescendo growing faster and louder, until he was pounding the table like thunder with both palms. Serdar’s back arched, his hands and feet slapped against the table, and he gave a great, loud peal of laughter.
His delight rang out across the room. Heads lifted and turned. I moved closer, grinning, enchanted. The war was a world away. Caught up in the innocent joy of the moment, it was impossible not to laugh with Serdar.
His father decrescendoed, bringing the drumroll down to just the light, intermittent tapping of two fingertips on the table edge. Serdar laid down his arms and legs and pressed his ear to the tablecloth again, listening intently to the light tap-tap and chortling softly to himself. Then his father started again, faster and louder, drawing out that peal of uninhibited laughter once more.
Crowding around the table without speaking, we all got involved at the peak of the crescendo, then dropped away one by one as the drumroll came back down again. Serdar entertained a dozen of us for nearly an hour, helping us forget entirely where we were and what was happening back in his homeland.
More than half the children came with their mothers. Some framed their faces in loose hijab of navy blue or espresso brown, but most wore black headscarves. They all wore chador, a large semicircle of black cloth. The center of the straight edge balanced on the crowns of their heads, trailing to the ground all around, held closed under their chins with one hand. The chador rippled and billowed in even the slight wind of a woman’s own passing, lending a poetic, ethereal quality to these mothers, petite and demur and preferring the company of other women.
One mother was none of those things. She was tall, with a long, blocky face, lined and leathery from sun and wind. There was a faint patina of sandy dirt permanently ground into the lower edge of her chador, made of a thicker material that didn’t billow so romantically. I guessed from her thick, coarse hands and her easy manner with the fathers that she must have been a Bedouin shepherd or farmer like my Jordanian neighbors.
She stopped me after dinner one evening, taking my forearm firmly in her big, dark hand, the skin dry and cracked. “Do you know what my name is?” she asked. She had a booming outdoor voice in the dark, low-ceilinged dining room. “My name is Amreeka.”
“W-allah? Really?” I wasn’t sure what to say, or if she was pulling my leg. She had spoken slowly and clearly enough, in a thick Bedouin accent almost identical to my Jordanian neighbors, but amreeka means America.
She laughed at my confusion and gestured expansively. “My parents named me Amreeka because you supported us in the war” — this must have been the Iran-Iraq War — “and my parents thought you would bring progress and democracy to Iraq. And now here you are, helping my daughter. Thank God for you!”
Though Operation Smile’s doctors hailed from across the Western world, Amreeka would go back to Iraq and say that Americans had fixed her daughter’s cleft lip. In the Bedouin tribes, disability may be seen as a family’s punishment from God for some sin, tarnishing the reputations of whole extended families. This surgery meant that not only Amreeka’s daughter, but her sisters and her girl cousins would have better marriage prospects, that Amreeka and her husband might look forward in their later years to the support of a more successful son-in-law.
That is, if there were enough hale and whole young men remaining for her daughters to marry, and if those young men lived into Amreeka’s later years. If Amreeka lived into her own later years. With American soldiers’ fingers nervous on the trigger, and desperate Iraqis perpetrating their own violence, Amreeka’s future and her daughters’ futures were far from certain or rosy.
Still, she remained certain that America held the key. I feared she would be brutally disappointed, but I couldn’t make myself contradict her optimism.
The war in Iraq was the daily reality back home for these families, and a frequent topic of conversation. They kept using a word to refer to American soldiers that sounded like the Arabic word Hmaar—donkey. Arabs use it much the way Americans do, as in, “You jackass!”
Yet, it was clear from the Iraqis’ tone and body language that they were speaking kindly, even fondly of these hamar. Finally, another Volunteer realized that it had nothing to do with donkeys. This hamar was an English loan word — from Hummer or Humvee — referring to a patrol of Coalition soldiers in an armored vehicle.
“The Hummer saw my son’s harelip when we were on the way to the market,” one mother said, tugging her filmy, slippery chador back into place on the crown of her head. “We always wave and smile at the Hummers and say thank you for helping us.”
These women did not see themselves as I saw them, as victims of my arrogant, angry government. The Hummers had brought war and death. American troops had bombed infrastructure, destroyed their priceless ancient monuments, brought chaos, insurgency and Al Qaeda to their country.
Yet, these women were grateful, and this was not that often-infuriating practice of Arab hospitality where they tell the polite fiction they think their host wants to hear. They were not talking to me. They said these things to each other, and they said them with confident sincerity. So I listened as best I could with my imperfect Arabic, and tried to understand.
The young, pretty mother continued, “Usually, we thank them from a distance. We don’t get too near the Hummers. It makes them nervous. But one day, a soldier waved at us to come closer, me and my son.” He was a slight boy beside her, about seven, hesitant to meet my gaze.
I listened silently, worried what would come next. I knew the Hummers were harbingers of destruction.
“The soldier smiled at me and my son. He said hello,” she said. “He asked him his name. My son is shy. He wouldn’t answer.” Shy seemed the wrong word. The children at the hotel were more reticent, subjected all of their short lives to shame and ridicule from their neighbors, and then the traumas of war and occupation.
“Then he leaned down from his Hummer and gave me the paper with information about Operation Smile. That’s how we got here.” Other mothers jumped into the conversation with their own stories about how the Hummers had won their hearts and minds.
Every time I hear the news from Iraq, I remember those families. Nour should now be finishing elementary school. Does her smile still glow? Do her big doe eyes still dance? I cannot imagine what she has seen, or how it may have dimmed her light.
Operation Smile arranged for another organization to take Serdar and his parents to London for open heart surgery, and then the facial reconstruction he had come to Jordan for. I remember him as a toddler, but he should be a teenager now. Is he still the happy drummer boy on that dining room table? Is he still strong-limbed and pudgy with a pealing laugh that fills the room? Or have explosions vibrating up through his living room floor tempered his joie de vivre?
Amreeka’s daughter should be in her twenties, married with at least one baby of her own. Are her children healthy? Maybe Amreeka’s village of farmers and shepherds is small enough to have escaped the violence, the bloody conflict, the decimated manhood.
I’m still reaching for Amreeka’s optimism.
In 2014, Iraqi cities fell like dominoes to the fanatics calling themselves “Islamic State.” Yezidis who had managed to survive both Saddam and the occupation now starved on mountaintops. Journalists lost their heads trying to plead the Iraqi cause. I click through pictures of women walking back into Mosul, after the Iraqi army had retreated and the extremists had taken control.
I see their black chador rippling and dancing on the dusty wind. They turn and reach out black-gloved hands for small children just out of frame. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout, “W-allahi—By God, why? Why would you go back there?”
“W-allahi,” they say, “why not? Now it’s the fundamentalists, before them the Hummers, before them Saddam, before him the British, before them the Ottomans. Ma shaa’ allah—What God hath wrought! All we can do is go back to our homes, where our grandfathers lived and their grandfathers. Allahu ‘alem—God knows, and His will be done.”
Demur but determined, they float away down the streets of Mosul, steadfast pillars of black smoke silhouetted against the pockmarked shells of their whitewashed homes. And I remind myself that Iraq is also the land of Nour’s smile, and of Serdar’s laughter. When Mosul is liberated, it will be these women, these children and their children who rebuild. If there is to be peace, it will be theirs.
I struggle for Amreeka’s optimism, but I still have hope.
“The Peace of Iraq’s Mothers” previously appeared in Re-Creating Our Common Chord anthology, Wising Up Press, September 2019; and DoveTales, An International Journal of The Arts, May 2017; first appeared in New Madrid, Journal of Contemporary Literature vol. 7, no. 1: Winter 2017.
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