Interview with Laura Hamblin
Interviewer: Jack Donaldson
My name is Laura Hamblin, and I teach at Utah Valley University. My area of emphasis is actually poetry. And that actually has something to do with how I came to this research project. I was up for my sabbatical leave, and normally I would have just sat in my cabin and written poems for a year. But my son [Blake] had recently died, and he was my only child. His death really shifted my perception of everything. Things that I thought were important before, stopped being important. My poetry was one of those things which seemed self-indulgent, petty, trivial. I used to think that poetry could actually save the world.
(2:00) I remember that once, in a class, I actually said to my students, “What would it be like if before soldiers went to war, the soldiers were required to study the native language for two solid years, and then read the poets of that language before going over [to fight]?” My student got all flustered because he was an ex-military guy, and he got all flustered and he said, “That, that wouldn’t work–that just wouldn’t work!” And I said, “Why not?” and he said, “No one would fight!” So, I had this notion that poetry could save us, but . . . after Blake died, it felt. . . it felt as if at its [poetry’s] best it was self-indulgent, and at its worst it was was trivial.
(3:00) I am actually part of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Utah Valley University, and I was interested in doing something for my sabbatical leave which had to do with peace issues. And I also teach women’s literature at UVU; I have been passionate about women’s issues for a long time. And so, my interests came together and I wanted to do a research project which delta with women and which delta with issues of peace and justice. And then when Blake died, my grief and my loss– it inhabited every space
(4:00) of my life. There was no place I could go that I could be free of it or relieved of it. And I thought that if I could actually go somewhere where the concentration of human loss and suffering was so concentrated, that my own loss, by comparison, would somehow be diminished, or at least manageable. And so I decided that I wanted to gather oral histories of Iraqi women refugees. The United States, the West as a whole, I think that we are naively unaware of the situation of the refugees with this war.
(5:00) And, initially I thought, well, what little I had seen of, [what] work that had been done on the refugees was from a masculine perspective. So we had heard men’s stories. And I felt that women for the most part–unless you’re Condoleezza Rice, or maybe Hillary Clinton–women have little to no say about the decisions to go to war, but they [women] bear the burden of the costs of war. So I specifically wanted to hear their [women’s] stories and their experiences. I decided to go to the Middle East and gather the oral histories of the Iraqi women refugees there. Initially–and this is kind of funny–initially I wanted to go to Syria, and my father said, “You’re not going to Syria; it’s too dangerous there.” I’m fifty years old, and I said “All right Dad.” And so I ended up in Amman.
(7:26) There were so many powerful stories, so many unimaginable, really, experiences that these women went through. And it’s kind of interesting because when I talk with people about the oral histories and about my experiences there, so many approach the topic, or ask questions about it, like, “What do these women feel or think?” When the reality of it is that each woman’ story is absolutely unique, although there are certain
(8:00) similar experiences. But because they are all individuals and they all respond from their own unique experience–every story was amazingly powerful. And these women, when I talked about my own loss and my own grief, I had lost my only child–and there is nothing you can do to get that back; there is nothing you can do to really fill that space or that loss. But these women, in addition to losing family members–these women had lost their homes, their socio-economic standing, their faith–many of them–any sense of stability, their sense of safety, their sense of future–any possibility of the future, what their future might hold–all of these things were taken from these women,
(9:00) and yet somehow–I don’t know how–day by day, they just kept doing what it is that is necessary for them to survive.
The stories–my goodness–one of the most powerful stories, in terms of just its pure horror, if you will: there is a woman whose family–all of the men in her family–including her father, her uncles, her husband, etc.–all of the men–worked for Saddam’s intelligence operation. So these were the very people who would seek out the enemies or the perceived enemies of Saddam’s regime, would kill and capture them, interrogate them, etc. And so she came from a family which has a very brutal and violent background. But because they worked
(10:00) within Saddam’s inner circles, they really existed in a state of privilege, isolated privilege, if you will; their privilege was one of being isolated from the rest of the culture’s experiences. She was raised almost like a princess. She went to the same schools as Saddam’s daughters. There were maids and servants which took care of every family need, every personal need, and this was her background and experience. She, . . . after Saddam’s regime fell, many, many people felt that it was pay-back time, and her family was naturally targeted. One day, a stranger came to her door and asked if she was the wife of so-and-so. And she said, “Yes, I am.” And they left a big garbage bag [on the doorstep], and left.
(11:00) And she opened up the garbage bag, she and her sisters. And it was full of human body parts. They took the body parts out, and put them together like a puzzle–there were forty-seven pieces. And it was her husband. She, I think something in her broke terribly. When I interviews her she had inappropriate affect in almost everything–all of her responses–she was giggling as she told me this story. She had six children; two of them died. She actually had three sets of twins, if you can imagine. So two of the children had died. And the place that she was living in, in Amman, it was the most wretched, filthy environment that I had ever been in.
(12:00) She lived in a cement apartment. The ground [basement] floor–it was moist, it was cold. It was colder inside than outside. And the winters in Amman, it can be very cold. It’s a desert cold. The carpets were full of water and moisture. Sitting on the couch, I could feel mice moving through the cushions of her couch. Her kitchen was devastatingly filthy–food everywhere, dirty dishes everywhere. She had no background, no understanding, no experience of how to take care of herself or her family because all of those needs had been met by other people. And, although I think it’s easy for us as Westerners to think, “Well, you know, Saddam’s regime got what it deserved.” And, perhaps that’s true. I don’t know. Who can say?
(13:00) But I can’t believe that this woman got what she deserved. Or, let me rephrase that, I can’t believe that what she got was what she deserved. She had nowhere to go, because going back to Iraq was not an option. There were no family members left except women in her family. She had no way of providing for herself financially. She had no idea of how to take care of her children. Just a hopeless, hopeless situation. She showed us a basket that she had woven. She said she was trying to sell some handmade articles. She had a needlepoint that she had made. Let’s say she sold those two things.
(14:00) What’s that going [to do]?. . . maybe that will provide food for two or three days. She, one option, of course, that women in very desperate situations the world over, one option is to sell her body. Prostitution. That;s about all she had left. It was horrific. It was unimaginable. . . . Unimaginable. If I hadn’t experienced it, honestly, if someone had told me about it, I could not believe that they were telling me the truth.
(16:37) Again, I had naive hopes that spending a years with these women’s and hearing their stories would somehow enable me to manage my own loss and grief. And, mostly that wasn’t so.
(17:00) The loss is always present. What it did do is made me aware that loss and grief is everywhere, and that women’s loss and grief, although there are unique aspects to the specific loss and grief, women’s loss and grief is almost universal. Human loss and grief is universal, but I think –women’s loss and grief, there is something unique, of course, about a woman’s tie to her children. I think becoming more aware of the common bonds that we share due to our loss
(18:00) and our grief . . . I felt as if these women, whose language I did not speak, and who did not speak my language, that somehow we were . . . there was a sisterhood we shared that is beyond language. You know, I found myself a member of a club that one would do absolutely anything to prevent themselves from becoming a member [the club of women who have lost a child]. And the initiation to that club is horrific. Those of us who are members of that club would never wish for our club to enlarge in size or membership . . . and yet it does, day, after day, after day. War, the effects of war go so far
(19:00) beyond what we might traditional, normally think the costs of war or the losses of [due to]war. Of course, as Westerners, when we think about the costs of war, I think we, for the most part, we think of course, of our solders who give their lives, we think of our solders who return and struggle with all of the various aftermath of their war experience, PTSD, physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries–what those different disabilities and experiences mean in terms of their personal relationships and their ability to find employment, and just [find] their place in the world. We certainly consider those as costs of war–terrible costs of war. We will often consider just the financial expense of war, the total, the total fiscal costs of war,
(20:00) but rarely, I think, do we consider the costs of war of the innocence, if you will, women and children. And we don’t measure their loss. We don’t measure the price they pay when we add up the sum total of what the cost of war is. And I feel very strongly that these specific costs–it’s extremely important that we as Western people are aware of them. If for no other reason, I don’t know, wouldn’t it be great if by being aware of these, we were able to make peace. That this was enough of a motive to say, “you know what, we don’t want to do this any more. There’s got to be a better way to work out our differences.” That’s not going to
(21:00) happen. . . . But if we can somehow take into consideration that these terrible, these terrible prices that these women and children are paying are part of what we are, number one, we’re responsible for it. We need to be responsible to it–to them. We are responsible for the situation they find themselves in. If only we could be responsible to the situation, to them as individuals. That would be, that would be the goal, I guess, of my research. (21:36)
(22:44) I mean it’s absurd on so many levels. It’s absurd because there’s no sum total. There’s no four thousand people died, or worse, severely affected in the fall of the twin towers”. And so what makes that
(23:00) even? Four thousand of the enemy dying? Then could we say, ok, justice has been served? But the level of absurdity of course, is that there is no sum total. Then add to that that these people were not responsible for anything that happened in the Twin Towers. That this war was, is unjust from its very conception. Saddam had nothing to do with it. And by the way, I don’t think there would be anyone, ok well there might be a sum total of three of the seventy women I interviewed who actually felt that Saddam was a good leader, and they had strong feelings about him, positive feeling about him. the rest of them would say, “You know what, it’s great he’s gone, but as long as you didn’t cross his path,
(24:00) at least we had a functioning society. We had our jobs; we had our education. Our children were safe; we had our men. And, I mean, this has been take from then. And they had nothing to do with 9/11. The absurdity of a preemptive attack is horrific. But when yo do your preemptive attack against innocence how does that ever equal justice? How is anything served, except ego? And by the way, the sum total of the American military who have died–the Bush administration had a policy that
(25:00) individuals were only counted as war dead if they died with their boots on the ground in Iraq. Which means those individuals who died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital were not counted as the war dead. They did not die in Iraq, in the war on Iraq. . . . and yet it does compute. I mean, the Iraqi War refugees and the displaced people–there is an estimate of five million Iraqi refugees and displaced people from this war. . . .
(26:12) So you know we hear so little of the refugees, and then when we hear [of] five million refugees and displaced people–what does this mean in terms of these individuals’ lives and how it affects our relationship to people in the Middle East? I mean the majority of these people, I mean the high majority–98%, something like that–their desire is to be resettle in a third country. And for the most part, third countries are not accepting them. And so they’re living in these various Middle Eastern countries under very dire
(27:00) circumstance. With no hope of things changing. and then you have to wonder: how are their attitudes about he West, about the United States’ relationship to them, to the Middle East, how are those changing? I mean we’re not making friends. And yet, this [the war] is somehow a solution to the “War onTerror”? I don’ know. . . .
(28:00) You know, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll be a refugee.” Or nobody, no one as a child says, “I want to grow up and be a refugee.” This is never, never an option that anyone would choose. These women find themselves in Amman it’s . . . the types of problems that these women are struggling with are multifaceted and they’re really, there are problems on all levels of their lives, their personal and their social lives.
One of the things that is a very big problem is the education of their children. Which I think, when we think about refugees, how many of us think, oh, what about the education of their children–right? But Amman–Jordan, is a country of approximately six million people.
(29:00) Although the statistic vary about the number of Iraqi refugees who are in Amman, the numbers vary any where from a million, to 500,000. And I think most people, their understanding is there is somewhere around 750,000 people. But the reason they don’t know the exact numbers is because some people don’t enter with passports and visas, and the appropriate documentation. And then we don’t, when people leave, if they don’t leave according to, sort of, the legitimate legal protocol, we don’t really have statistics on those people either.
But, when the war began, Jordan assumed that this would be a temporary situation, and so the refugees who entered Jordan, they were allowed to stay there
(30:00) for three months as guests. And then they were expected to go back. Which means, one of the policies that was set accordingly is that the children were not allowed to attend school in Jordan. Three years later, when these children are still in Amman, and they are not being educated, the government of Amman decided that this was a problem that needed to be addressed, and so the children were allowed to attend school. But it was also the case, in Jordan, if a child misses three years of school, three or more years of school, they are not allowed back into the system, period. So many of these children had missed enough years that they could simply not return. Then we’ve got children who have not attended school and are allowed to go back, but
(31:00) they obviously can’t go back in their normal grade level because they’ve not been in school. So what are these young children going to do? Is someone in forth grade going to go back into kindergarten and feel comfortable there? So there were a lot of problems getting these children back into school. And then, of course, many of the families, as refugees, they’re not allowed to work legally, and so in order to support the family, someone in the family had to be working illegally. And [often] it was the children. And they became the breadwinners of the family. So now we’ve got a population of children who are not being educated, who are being socially ostracized on a number of levels–one, they’re Iraqis, and everyone knows because of their accent. Two, they are Iraqi refugees; three, they don’t go to school. And these children,
(32:00) what adults are these children going to grow up to be? How are they going to feel about the West? In many respects, I think, these children are the ones who could be ripe for fanatical thought. And so, whatever we’re doing is a war against terror? Hum? It seems to that if we, as a country, were to take the money that we would spend, even in one day of the war, and give that as a gift to the country of Jordan, and say, “Do you know what Jordan, we know that your back is breaking under the challenge of absorbing this population, And we want to help out. Here’s the money. Let’s get the systems in place in order to care for these families and these children appropriately.” And how would, you have to wonder, how would that be different?
(33:00) But we don’t. Because the way you fight the war on terror is to kill individuals who may or may not be terrorists. . . .
JD: Talk about the title, “Waiting in Amman.”
LH: I’ve titled my research, and this film “Waiting in Amman”
(34:00) because as I began to know the women and know their stories, it became very apparent that these women and their families are going nowhere. They can’t go back to Iraq. They are not being accepted in third countries. And so their lives consist of simple waiting, and in this case, in Amman. You know, there are certainly refugees who are waiting in Damascus, in Egypt, in Iran, in Libya, and yet, their lives consist of this state of limbo where their entire life is manifest in simply waiting for something to happen. And there is very little they can do actively to change their situation.
(35:00) It is a passive, waiting. Not because they don’t desire to do something. But their options of what they actually can do are so limited.
JD: . . . How do the members of that club acknowledge one another in the club? Did you share your story?
(36:00) I did share my own personal loss and the death of my son with a number of women. I didn’t specifically begin or set out with that because I wanted initially to hear their stories free from anything I might bring to their story. I wanted their stories to be as clean and as authentic as possible. I didn’t want their stories to be in response of my own loss. But as we, in number of cases, as we talked, as the interviews sort of developed, if it seemed appropriate, if it seemed natural, I might mention that I had also lost a son. And it’s true, when a woman was aware of that, inevitably there was an opening,
(37:00) something opened in her which might have been closed or guarded in a certain way. You know, and one thing that you could never expect or anticipate was the sympathy which these women showed me in the face of my own loss. At that point I wasn’t an American academic, you know, holding a microphone up to them saying, “Tell me your story.” I was just a woman who had lost something very dear and precious, and they knew what that loss was.
JD: . . . saying stuff . . . that’s the angle that we want . . . laughing
(39:44) Initially with my research it was very important to me to have this [the research] as objective as possible. I wanted to hear their stories. I did not want to be a part of the story.
(40:00) And I felt, academically, that there was something–the integrity of my research was dependent upon that being the case. Since then, it seems to me that it is equally important that somehow these women’s stories translate not just into an intellectual awareness of who these women are and what their lives are like, but that it’s important for us to connect and recognize emotionally the price these women are paying.
(42:00) And that’s what I would hope this film could do–that somehow it could enable us to recognize that these women more than anything else are very similar to any of us. Minimally, I think it’s important that we recognize and honor their loss. Optimally, I would hope that we could do something tangible to address their loss, to demonstrate our awareness of it, our sympathy for who they are and what they’ve experienced. And somehow to do something to counter act this war. This terrible, terrible war.
(43:00) And of course, it’s not a uniquely terrible. That’s part of the horror. There is nothing uniquely terrible about this war. It is the terror of any war, or every war.
JD: [congratulating, McKay telling of his brother’s death]. What are some of the reflections about your loss while you were there.
LH: Honestly, my son died in a spelunking accident. He drowned, along with three of his friends. And was a freak accident. They were spelunking . . . .
(47:47) My son was a musician, he was an artist. He would have been twenty-five a month later. He died when he was twenty-four years old.
(48:00) You know, at a time when he was just coming into his own, he died doing something he loved. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been so grateful he didn’t die in war. Those mothers, those members of the club, I don’t know how . . . I don’t know how . . . I don’t know who they do it. I don’t know; maybe there’s honor, maybe there’s courage, maybe there’s just horror. I don’t know.
(49:00) I’m glad I don’t have to know. So, as I worked with these [Iraqi] women, as I witnessed their loss, as I heard their stories of their children who were kidnapped, who were tortured, who died, I knew that Blake’s death in many respects, was an easy death. Certainly compared to their children’s death. I saw him everywhere. [while I was in Amman]. He’s dark. His eyes–you can’t even see the pupil of his eye, I mean the iris of his eye, they are so dark. He’s sort of this brooding, Byronic kind of figure, character.
(50:00) When he had a beard, he very much looked like a person from the Middle East. In fact, various people [end of tape]
(:11) One of the women whose stories I had a lot of sympathy for, she was an academic, and she taught Sharia law, which is the Islamic legal code, and in many ways I think that, I mean, here is a woman who teaches Sharia law–that’s something that’s a little bit unexpected with our stereotype about women from the Middle East. One thing that Saddam was very serious about was having a secular state, and promoting women’s rights and equality. And very few women wore the hijab, the scarf, were veiled during Saddam’s reign.
(1:00) The number of educated women way surpasses the percentage of the United States’ population. And this particular woman, she was telling her story, and she said that one of the things that was really difficult for her is that as the economy fell, and education became sort of untenable in many ways–and many of the academics were executed–and then there is also the case that many of the academics and professionals left the country–they call it “the brain drain.” So that those who were left were really working in a system that was just skeletal. And she was one of these. And she said that her students would bribe her,
(2:00) and that none of this was going on before the fall of Saddam. But she said that their salaries were cut tremendously. And then there was a time where they weren’t getting paid anything. The money just simply wasn’t there. And so it was a very, very difficult time for academics. And at one point in her story she became sort of teary eyed and she said, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this.” And she said, “Things got so bad that I sold my books.” . . . .I mean, the things that are most precious and dear. . . For an academic, that’s horrific–horrific.
Another story, (3:16) I was able to interview a woman, quite extensively, who was sort of the Katie Couric of Iraq. And she was an anchor woman and worked for many years. And it got to a point where journalists were being executed, left and right. At the time that I interviewed her, she said there were five humored journalists who had been killed. And her life was threatened accordingly. She was very well known, of course. Her son had been kidnapped and tortured.
(4:00) And she said that one of her friends who had been an anchor woman for years had retired and actually. . . . She had retired from the business for several years, and then she went to Syria to be with family members when the war broke out. And while she was there, they found her body one day. And she had, her heart had been drilled with an electric drill. And various joints in her body had been drilled. And this is a form of execution which was common for the Shite to perform. And there was a note left on her chest which said, “This is what happened to women who do not veil.” . . . .I mean. . . . (5:00) what, what do you do with that? . . . I don’t know. . . . I don’t know.
(5:42) One of the women I met, she was actually studying chemistry at the university, and she said that of her faculty of twelve faculty in the department, she said that half of them were executed,
(6:00) and the other half left. And she said that graduate students were teaching the classes in order for these undergraduates to actually finish their degrees. She had her degree in chemistry, and she was now living in Amman with her brother and his wife and their children, and she was working in a little store—there’s a lot of little stores in Amman that are sort of like makeup stores—you can buy makeup, and hair bows and combs, and jewelry, and stuff like that. She was working in one of those little shops. Now to do so, she was working illegally. And another big problem with the women who are working illegally is that it is very easy [for their bosses] to exploit them, of course. Because they can’t do anything; they have no legal recourse. And so she was working seven days a week, ten hours a day.
(7:00) Who know in what other ways her employer was taking advantage of her? But here’s this chemist who is stuck, and she’s helping to support her brother and his family.
I spoke with one woman who worked for the Ministry of Education, and she’s selling cigarettes on the streets. Which is . . . cigarette sells women were sort of the lowest of the low in terms of the social economic scale. I spoke with a woman who was a veterinarian who was unemployed. Over and over again–I’ve talked about how they lost family and their homes and so forth. But they also lost their careers,
(8:00) and that sense of independence and self esteem that comes with being able to provide for yourself, and the satisfaction that come with having a successful career–gone.
I think I mentioned to you before a woman who was a widow with four daughters, and the two oldest daughters who were ages fourteen and thirteen who were working, again illegally, as carters for a business that put on wedding parties. And these little girls would serve at these wedding parties. And the weddings [in Amman were] amazingly big deals–big shebangs–and they [the parties] would go late into the night. Many of the weddings were held at big five star hotels. And so the girls would be serving, and the immigration officers would be aware that
(9:00) there were a lot of little Iraqi girls who were doing this, and they would sometimes come into the wedding parties looking for these girls. And the little girls told me that when this would happen they would dive under the tables and just sit there, looking at the guests’ knee around the table, waiting until they were told, “It’s ok. You can come out now.” And these little girls would work late into the night when public transportation was no longer running. They did not have the money for a taxi, and they would walk home at night. Which means, they said. . . this is the way they said it, “Men followed us, and they said things that were not nice to us.” And you have to wonder–how long can these little fourteen and thirteen-year-old girls ward off sexual predators. Very precarious situation for these little girls. They are not, or course, attending schools accordingly. And somehow this is a viable option for that family because they are so desperate for money.
(:25) One thing that was interesting, of all of the women that I spoke with, not one member of their family was engaged to be married. And if you think about this, it’s a very, very serious situation. There were certainly plenty of young people of marriageable age in this population, but because they could not provide for themselves financially, because their situation was so precarious, they simply were not marrying. And in the Middle East, (1:00) as in many cultures, there is sort of a window of opportunity for women to marry–a certain age group–which is appropriate for marriage. And then once you are past that, the likelihood of your marrying decreases exponentially. And so we’ve this population of women and young men who are not marrying–but particularly young women. And they may never marry–right? There was one woman I spoke with, who once she came to Amman, she married a man in a polygamist marriage. And wouldn’t have done that in Iraq, and hadn’t done that in Iraq. But when she was in Amman, it seemed like a pretty good option, apparently.
(2:53) Among the women whom I interviewed and spoke with–there were all sorts of women who were living productive, fulfilling lives, professional and personal lives while they were in Iraq, and who are now, again, simply waiting. There was a woman who was a chemist who is now working in a makeup store; an academic who sold her books to simply survive; a medical doctor, who is doing volunteering work while she’s in Amman, but is not able to pull in any sort of income. There was one woman who worked for the Ministry of Education who is now selling cigarettes on the sidewalk; women who, a woman who worked in the textile industry who spoke of how difficult the situation was for her right now
(4:00) that sometimes when men make sexual propositions to her she actually would consider them, where before, of course, that would never, never enter her mind. Students who had to interrupt their entire education. A young woman who was an engineer who is now living with her mother, afraid to leave the home. Over and over again, disrupted lives one after another, where they lived in Iraq and were productive citizens, independent women, well educated, professional women who have lost everything.
(5:00) JD: . . . are they protecting their children from this reality . . .
LH: You know there is no way to protect the children from what it means to be a refugee. Absolutely no way–when the children are not being educated, when many of the children are supporting the families financially, when the children are being ostracized by other children in the neighborhood. I mean how do you protect a child? The only way you could protect a child is by keeping them locked up in a room. But to lock them up in a room is another form of the psychological
(6:00) damage. And many of the children would prefer to be locked up in a room. At least there’s a sense of safety in being contained in a certain way. Where there was no place that was safe for them in Iraq, and no place feels safe in Amman. Certainly they are living a much greater degree of safety while they are living in Amman, but they never feel safe. And the horror of being a parent, and witnessing your child grow up in a situation like this, and not being able to do anything to protect them. One of the experiences which was really powerful . . . I was able to go to a center, which was an NGO which helped with
(7:00) children in dire situations. So the children would come to this center and have classes, or play time, or supervision, you know, perhaps if the parents were not in the home during certain hours the children would come. And it was specifically for Iraq and Palestinian refugees. And one day the children were painting murals on the walls–and over and over again, the pictures the children would paint about their memories of Iraq, and the war. A big painting of a tank and three men and missiles going off from the tank, and I think to myself–this was just a little guy, maybe six or seven years old, the mural was larger than he was, which tells you something–right? I mean this thing was larger than his whole being. And he said, “Yah, there are American soldiers in here, and
(8:00) that’s his childhood memory. You now, a little girl who painted a mural of her uncle’s garden with bombs dropping it and crows flying over it. And she said, “This is the garden where we used to go every Friday and all my uncles and my aunts and my cousins would get together and eat and just play together. ” And she said, “And now, nothing grows in this garden.” A[nother] little child who painted a big flag of Iraq and said, “I am Iraqi.” And then you have to think–what does it mean? What does it mean for this little child to be Iraqi? Of course, we don’t what effects. . . . When a child grows up in such a traumatized situation, we don’t know what the psychological effects are as that child grows up. They’ll probably never be
(9:00) normal. Whatever normal is, right?
JD: . . . we’ve talked about your hope—it’s been beaten out of you. Can you talk about that in the context of these experiences?
LH:(10:00) Gathering the oral histories and getting to know them [the women] and witnessing their lives and their experiences. It’s challenging on a number of levels, In many respects I feel very hopeless about the situation. They are without hope, and it’s hard for me to see a life that is full of hope, for them. And in many ways, we live in a very dark world and I don’t know
(11:00) how people maneuver themselves in such a world. It’s hard for me to believe in a god that is somehow aware of and witnessing and allowing such horror, and such experiences to happen to people. When I returned [to the US] I was able to defer my taxes that year [I was in Amman], and so when I returned I had to get that [my taxes] taken right away. And I went into my tax accountant’s office and he said, “Well I bet’s it’s nice to be back in the United States.” And I said, “Well, actually,
(12:00) It’s really challenging.” Now mind you, I’m paying this man. So the longer I talk to him, the more I’m paying him. And instead of saying something like, “Yah, it’s great to be back.” I said, “Actually, it’s really challenging.” and he said, “Oh yah, how so?” And I said, “Well, for one thing, just the opulence.” And I said, the opulence of our culture and my own personal opulence. I don’t know what to do with that.” And he said, he said, “Yah, we really are blessed.” And I just responded in this physically, I literally went like this [holds hands lout as if stopping traffic], and I said, “NO! no, We do not have more because we are blessed. We have more because we take more than our share.” And I said, “Maybe you believe in a god that
(13:00) blesses you accordingly. But if you believe that, you also have to believe in a god that curses them accordingly. And I don’t believe in that god.” I don’t know what god I believe in any more. I mean, sometimes I’m a devout atheist. And sometimes I think, well, maybe it’s a possibility. And sometimes I think you know, sometimes it’s as if everything, everything is infused with spirit. But I don’t know how to hold on to that in some sort of consistent way. It’s so fleeting. And I think to myself, what’s the point? What’s the point? So much of life seems absurd after
(14:00) witnessing this, and the only thing that I can see, the only meaning I can hold to is that somehow, how can I say this? I still believe in beauty. I think, sometimes that’s the only thing I believe in. And I think that beauty, there’s a certain type of beauty there’s a certain type of art that can only be generated out of human suffering.
(15:00) I think I understand that type of beauty. I don’t understand why. It doesn’t make sense to me–but there it is. And I don’t have a lot of hope for humanity. I don’t have a lot of hope for myself. I certainly don’t have a lot of hope for these women. But I, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s stamina. I don’t know if it’s choice. I don’t know if it’s the absence of choice. But these women–they’re enduring. I don’t know how else to say it. There they are.
(16:00) They’re doing what it they have to do, and over and over I ask myself, “Why aren’t we helping them?” Why can we be so careless? How can we be so careless with these human lives? I don’t like that world. I don’t, but that’s the world I inhabit. I don’t know.
JD: . . . the story of Ali . . .
(17:52) LH: When I first arrived in Amman, before I met any of the refugees, I wrote a poem. The first line of the poem came to my head, and I thought , what it this? It seemed like avery absurd line. It was, “The women who fled the city carried a door on her back.” And I sort of surprised myself with that line, and I thought, ok, let’s follow this through. And I wrote the poem, and it goes like this:
The woman who fled the city carried a door on her back
and on the door was balanced a vase
and in the vase was rolled a scroll
and on the scroll was written a word
and in the word was folded a heart,
and in the heart was nailed a door.
A door, which neither opened nor closed
carried by the woman who fled the city.
Now I wrote that poem, and six months later,
(19:00) my translator, Hala Al-Sarraf, and I had made arrangements to go to an art exhibit by Iraqi refugees artists. I was exhausted that day, and I just wanted to go home and sleep. And Hala, we were sort of debating, should we go, should we not go? And Hala said,”Ah, let’s just go.” So we went, and I walked into the art exhibit, and there was a painting of a woman with a door on her back. I should say, a door at her back. It wasn’t like she was bent over with a door on her back. But I saw this painting, and I literally,
(20:15) So I saw this painting, and I thought oh my god that ‘s a pointing of my poem–I must meet this artist. And so we were asking around, and we found the artist. And Hala translated the poem for him, basically recited the poem for him. And he started to weep. His name was Ali Al-Hammashi, and I felt this very strong connection to him, and vise versa. And we became friends and –I don’t know how much of this story do you want me to tell? . . . the whole story of Ali? . . .
(21:00) I became friends with him and his family, and his three children. and just before I came home, Ali asked me if I would write a letter of recommendation for his family to be resettled in a third country. So I wrote a letter to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And I explained who I was and why Ali’s family would be good candidates for resettling in the United States. And then I left. And three months latter I received a phone call from UNHCR and they said, “Were you serious about the Al-Hamashi family, about sponsoring them as refugees?” And I said, “sure.” And they said, “Well, that’s good because they’re going to be in Salt Lake City in two weeks.” And they now live in Utah and
(22:00) Ali’s children Roua, and Amir, and Jood are amazing children. And in many ways it feels to me . . . as I say this I hesitate because it doesn’t make up for Blake’s death. But in many ways it feels to me as if Blake said, “You know Mom, I can’t be there and I can never give you grandchildren. But I have looked the whole world over, and I have found three of the most remarkable, beautify, creative, sensitive, funny, loving kids, and I will make it so that you get them in you life. . . . And I have them
(23:00) in my life.
JD: One of the thing Ali said last night . . .
LH: He has told me that he’s told his children, no matter what happens, Laura is like a second mother, and you need to always be there for her. And you need to, yah. Never turn your back on her. Always be there.
(24:00) And there is a great sense of security about that. You know. Ali’s children will be the ones who put me in the nursing home [laughs].
JD: Do you think it would be overstated, I mean, how big of a role did you play in them being able to come?
LH: I have no idea. I have no idea what the role was. I know I wrote the letter. I know that UNHCR called me. I know that there’s a million refugees in Amman. And I know that Ali’s family is here in the United States. And there’s what, what? A million minus one that’s still in Amman. I don’t know what to say, it’s lucky?
(25:00) Why can’t you say it’s “blesses”?
LH: Because there, everyone who didn’t get to come is cursed. And I can’t, I don’t believe in that god. I can’t say “blessed” any more. I don’t know how, I can’t make. I can’t reduce the world to “blessed” and “cursed.” And if something is blessed, it also means something is cursed. And I cannot see the world that way anymore. You know, what, I’m blessed that I have the Al-Hammashis in my life and, does that means that I’m blessed that Blake died? Because I wouldn’t have them in my life if he hadn’t. I can’t say that.
JD: Yah, I understand, I get it. That makes sense.
LH: I wish Blake could have know them. I think, I think they would like
(26:00) each other very much. Yah. How can you not like the Al-Hammashis? They’re so terrific. Everything about them is charming.
JD: What do you want to happen? . . . What do you want? . . .
LH: I want (27:00) the women that I worked with to feel as safe as I feel. And I don’t feel safe from the haphazard circumstances of life. Like, I was never safe that my son wouldn’t die [i.e. accidents do happen]. But I was safe that he wouldn’t die in a roadside bombing. I was safe in knowing that when he went to school, he would come back. Maybe I can’t say that. . . . I mean life happens, but going outside doesn’t frighten me. I have enough food.
(28:00) I have people who care about me. I have a job. Maybe “safe” isn’t the word, maybe “secure.”You know I can’t imagine what it feels like to be that insecure. To have lost everything they’ve lost. I want for them to be secure. I have no expectation that the wish would come about. None what so ever. I would wish that the United Sates’s government and its people would become more aware of the consequences of our decisions to go to war. And I would wish that being more aware, we might choose more wisely next time.
(29:00) That’s what I would wish and hope for. I really have no reason to believe that wish will come true.
JD: How does that make you feel?
LH: Well, certainly very frustrated. I don’t know, there’s no end. There’s no end to human suffering. Sometimes you feel like holding up your arms and saying “uncle.” ok. You win. I give up. Enough already. But you can’t even say “uncle.” You can’t even cry “uncle,” that’s not an option. If it were, they would have cried uncle.
(30:00) I don’t think there’s that turn of phrase in the Arabic language. don’t know, I didn’t say that very well.
JD: Ok, so there’s one more thing. . . . where does that [Ali’s] gratitude to the US come from?
(31:34) I think Ali’s gratitude , I don’t know, I can’t speak for him. But my suspicion is that his gratitude has to do with the life his children are living and will live, and his awareness that it’s going to be better, so much better for them than it was for him. Or that it was for them in either Iraq or Amman.
(32:00) And, I think there was a terrible sense, a terrible sense of hopelessness for his children, while they were waiting in Amman. Waiting for what? You know, waiting for what? You know, it’s like “Waiting for Godot” I don’t know, you’re aware of that play by [Samuel] Beckett. These two men stand at a corner and the entire play is a dialogue these two men have about waiting for Godot. And guess what? Godot never shows up. The whole play–you know, it’s the theater of the absurd. Waiting in Amman. For what? For what? Ali’s family is no longer waiting. They’re struggling a lot. He and his wife are struggling a lot. The children are doing remarkably well.
(33:00) They will always struggle in America. It’s unspeakably challenging being here, trying to find work. Trying to learn the language at their age. Trying to understand the culture. Trying to hold on to their own culture, and somehow find a balance there. They will always struggle. But it seems to me that Ali and his family are, that he’s. . . . I heard his say to his family once, “You can only hold two flags in your life. You can hold the flag of Iraq, and you can hold the flag of America. And those are the only two flags you can hold in your life.
(34:00) How many of us would be willing for our children to hold a different flag in their life? Not just to hold it, but to cling to it. They are Americans. And when he has every reason to be resentful towards the United Sates. It dumbfounds me at his gratitude. Now I’m not comfortable saying more because he was in a tight spot with Saddam. But, he would have to say more.
JD: Has he talked to you about . . . . the person/emotional struggle. . . .
LH: I’m not sure that it’s my place to talk. . . .
(35:00) . . . I think if he wanted that on film he would tell you that. Maybe he did and you guys had no idea.
JD: He talked about . . . the whole story, but he didn’t talk about the emotion. He said it was hard. . . .
LH: Well, all of their lives were in jeopardy because of his actions. And he,
(37:00) I mean, from a Westerners perspective, his response in not touching up the another person’s portrait–regardless of who it is–aesthetically, one does not remake another person’s art, or portrait in this case. So, from a Westerner’s perspective, his response was completely appropriate. And yet it put his entire family in jeopardy. Not just in jeopardy, their lives were threatened to the degree that he had to leave. He had to separate himself from his family so that would be not connected with him. And he had to leave because he would have been killed. And as soon as he was able to, he brought his family to Amman. and it took him two years to do it.
(37:00) And the horror of that. The horror of not being able to protect your family. of knowing that your actions put them in harms way. Not just harms way–that’s too mild of a word.
JD: Was his family . . .
LH: I don’t know anything about that. I know he has relatives that lives there still . . . .
JD: Anything else you can think of? . . . [Jack and McKay talking]
(38:58) LH: You know, one of the things that I found remarkable
(39:00) in spite of the horrific these horrific experiences these women had, and in spite of the terribly compromised living situations, one of the things that was absolutely delightful is the ways kids will just be kids. I would be interviewing these women and their children would be bouncing of the wall and running around. One of the things that was so funny. . . One of colleagues, in fact her daughter died in the same accident as my son. and she’s the Administrative Assistant for the English Department. So we’ve been friends for many years. And just before I left on my sabbatical, she came to me and she said how jealous of me she was of me . She said to me, “I wish I could do something like you’re doing.” But she a husband and other children. You know as a staff person and not a faculty, she doesn’t get a sabbatical. So she made seven hundred
(40:00) bracelets. And she said, “Will you take these and give them to the women you meet. And she said, “I have this fantasy that one day I’ll open up like a “National Geographic” and see someone there wearing a bracelet I made.” So I took these bracelets and I gave them to everyone, and one day this one family, there were a bunch of little boys, like five of them. Little boys–like from eight all the way. And one little guy was three years old, and his name was Osama, and I said “OK guys, this is just heads up. If you ever get to America, his name is Sam, ok.” So Sam and his brothers took these bracelets and put them on their heads so they were like head bands, and then they were running around screaming and chasing each other around
(41:00) with these little headbands on, and it’s like, you know, there’s something just so vital about children that you can’t, you can’t put a lid on it. I mean you can, obviously there’s been a lid put on it, but somehow there are moments when the lid just pops off and this exuberance manifests. Maybe that’s what I’m talking about when I say beauty.
JD: Certainly children are incredibly resilient. . . .
(42:30) LH: You know here’s something that I would hope for these refugees. I think it would be amazing if we were able to establish scholarships and bring college age students to the United States. Or even better, to have an exchange program going on so that we could, these people who’ve experience the horrors of war could come an experience the best that the United States
(43:00) had to offer. And the best that we Americans can be. And that exchange of ideas and experiences and ways of seeing the world and ways of being in the world. I mean, to me that would be a type of a solution, or one aspect, one aspect of what we could be doing differently. That’s why this study abroad program has such possibilities, you know UVU’s, we’ve go this study abroad going in the Middle East.
JD: Anything else?