Faiza Al-Araji, a middle-class Iraqi woman, was able to pay her innocent son’s way out of jail last summer. That’s when she understood that she had to leave. With her husband and three sons, she went to Jordan, leaving behind the chaos and misery of the country of her birth.
“I was lucky. I had money to pay for the release of my son,” Al-Araji said, speaking to a small home gathering in Berkeley on Wednesday evening. Al-Araji’s talk was part of a tour by six Iraqi women organized by San Francisco-based Global Exchange to promote a better understanding of the effects of war on the Iraqi people. It took place in a house owned by Becky and Mike O’Malley, also owners of the Daily Planet. She will speak at three large public events in Oakland, Palo Alto and Santa Cruz this weekend.
“I have come here to talk about the truth. It’s been three years of pain and suffering,” Al-Araji said. “I hope we can open people’s eyes.”
An engineer since 1976—taught in part by women professors, she said proudly—the family’s exit follows on the heels of countless Iraqi professionals who have fled. Al-Araji and her husband, who still own a water treatment company in Iraq, have the means to live in Jordan, where life is very expensive.
But what of the others? “The majority of the people in Iraq now, who are suffering from the horrible conditions and have no way to get out of Iraq, are poor people. They will be the victims of the killings and the chaos,” she said.
Or, without other means of survival, they will become perpetrators of crime or join the occupation’s police force or army, which causes them to become targets themselves. “This creates a horrible environment,” she said. “That’s why people attack the police.”
Iraq’s oil wealth is nowhere to be seen, as people line up, sometimes overnight, for gasoline. “Where is the oil of the Iraqi people?” Al-Araji asked.
Al-Araji does not mince words. She says the chaos in her country is no accident. “It’s to [the occupation’s] benefit to create conflict to stay forever in Iraq, so that the Iraqis will be confused about who is the real enemy. But the real enemy is the occupation.”
The U.S. began to destabilize the country with the dismissal of the army, and the firing of all government officials and university professors who were members of the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein’s political party, Al-Araji said. “Not all Ba’ath are bad,” she said, explaining that if people wanted to work in the government, teach in a university, or practice medicine in a government hospital under Hussein, they had to join the Ba’ath Party.
Life is worse today in Iraq than under Hussein, she said: “Nobody would steal a car or kidnap someone. There would be severe punishment.”
“This is the environment America needs to stay in Iraq forever,” she said.
Americans have a false picture of Iraq, Al Araji said, hoping to paint a truer picture. “I feel sad for the American people who are looking at TV and believing. The American people believe Iraq is a noble mission.”
Only in America, and somewhat in England, do people talk about Shi’ia and Sunni Muslims, said Al Araji, who is Shi’ia; her husband is Sunni. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “There’s no faith conflict—we are Muslim.”
The United States is trying to market the conflict by going to the majority Shi’ias and saying: “’You have been oppressed by Saddam and his group of Sunnis,’” she said, arguing that’s not true: Saddam oppressed both Sunnis and Shi’ias.
The occupation has “planted the culture of revenge, the culture of hatred. They have torn the tissue of our society,” she said.
Another media myth is that the United States liberated Iraqi women, Al-Araji said. But under Hussein women worked, drove cars, chose their husbands, kept their names, became judges, lawyers and
doctors, Al-Araji said. The reality is that, with the new Iraqi leadership “now the position of the Iraqi women is very bad.”
When someone in the audience asked Al-Araji if U.S. troops should pull out all at once, she said they should. It’s up to Iraqis to find their own way, she said. “Leave Iraq for the Iraqis. This is what we want.”
Faiza Al-Araji will be joined by Scott Ritter and Ray McGovern, 7 p.m. March 24, First Unitarian Church, 685 14th St., Oakland. $15 in advance, $20 at the door. On Saturday Al Araji will speak in Palo Alto and Santa Cruz. For details, see www.globalexchange.org..