Writings by Cathy Breen
Nov. 23, 2012, Friday
“It is not written in our hearts, it is carved in our hearts.” I awoke this morning still shaken with these words in my head.
Yesterday I was in Ramadi and Fallujah. Instead of bringing a message of caring, of empathy for their suffering and a desire for peace, my presence as someone from the U.S, seemed to open wounds that are unfathomably deep.
November 11, 2012
Najaf—I returned from Baghdad last night. Over coffee this morning, I filled the father of my host family in on my trip. I told him it was wonderful to see everyone, but I only heard sad stories.
A few minutes ago a fierce wind rose, blowing the trees and dust and everything in its path. We hurried to close the windows, but there was no way to prevent the fine powdery dirt from entering. It covers everything. The weather seems to fit my mood somehow. There are forces beyond our control.
Yesterday in Baghdad I was able to visit with two families who both have grown children in the U.S. The parents of a third family, whom we know from Syria, met with me briefly on a quickly decided location, one of the roads that exits through the concrete walls encompassing their neighborhood.
I wanted to give them a package from the states, and they were hesitant to have me come to their neighborhood, an area which has seen much violence and conflict over the last years.
It was an emotional moment as the mother and I exited our respective car and taxi and embraced. She wept. I hope I will be able to see their seven children before I leave Iraq, but for now I am grateful for the five minutes I had with them. Thank God for the driver who is able to negotiate all these encounters. Somehow, between his little English and my little Arabic, we have been able to manage. In the other two families we visited, someone spoke English well enough to serve as a translator. Of course both families have contact with their relatives in the U.S. by internet and phone, but somehow my presence connects them physically, like a bridge.
November 7, 2012
Baghdad — It was late morning on a Friday, and we were caught in heavy Baghdad traffic going across town to visit a family. In the car I had time to get to know the young woman, who was to be my translator for the first time. I will call her Sarah. With little to no small talk needed, we dove into subjects which are close to both of our hearts.
Sarah is 23 years old and has already graduated from university. When the US invaded Iraq, she was just about 13, such an impressionable age. I asked her, “How has the war affected your country?”
November 4, 2012
Baghdad—Yesterday was a beautiful autumn day in Baghdad. As I was visiting two families in widely different neighborhoods, I was able to traverse a large part of the city. I looked with eyes that have not seen Baghdad for nine years. Today, it is a city of stark contrasts. Bright new autos wherever one looks. I saw them up close as we waited endlessly in gridlocks due to checkpoints. Although I was not conspicuous with my gown and head covering, I was careful not to gaze around and gawk when we were stuck in traffic jams.
Above this gridlock you can also see the web of electrical wires.
Above this gridlock you can also see the web of electrical wires.
Despite the warm welcome I have received everywhere I have traveled on this trip to Iraq, I am conscious that I am from the U.S. In Baghdad especially where the violence has been continuous over the last nine years, I am equally aware that the barricades and checkpoints exist because of my country’s war of choice. And the concrete walls are everywhere.
Cement walls everywhere, still electricity is sporadic: Photo- Cathy Breen
November 1, 2012
Najaf, Iraq — For the past three days I have been trying to get news of the situation in our houses on the lower East side of Manhattan, where the flooding from hurricane Sandy was especially heavy. I pictured the worst. As a good portion of Maryhouse is subterranean—the whole dining area and kitchen for example— I imagined the cellar and ground floor underwater! We have folks who are elderly and infirm, even an older frail resident who speaks no English. I pictured them frightened and in darkness! On internet news I read “Don’t think if you boil the water it is safe to drink it.”
October 27, 2012
I used to ask Iraqis in Jordan and Syria what kinds of food they most missed from their country. Ghaimar (a special thick cream extracted from water buffalo milk), often served with honey, was frequently the answer. And the word was spoken with such longing and sweet memories that I would have given anything to transport them back to their mothers’ houses. I just got to see and try Ghaimar for the first time at breakfast.
It is the second day of EID, or celebration. Business as usual comes to a halt. Schools and government offices are closed. It is a special time in the Muslim culture to spend with family and visit from house to house. Bowls of fruit and sweets are passed around and people are free to enjoy one another. People sleep in because they are generally up late visiting.
This morning the house was quiet, the three little children still asleep. I picked up a book I brought with me. By the late Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, it is called Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom. In it John writes that our soul knows the geography of our destiny; that our soul alone has the map of our future. Therefore, we can trust this indirect, oblique side of ourselves. If we do, it will take us where we need to go, but more important it will teach us a kindness of rhythm in our journey
Pilgrims streaming into Karbala
Najaf, Iraq — “Come to eat” the man cries out. “Come!” he calls invitingly. And they do. In the thousands, in the millions. They come streaming into Karbala from all directions to the sacred shrine of their holy martyrs, Imam Hussein and Abbas.
I have just returned to Najaf after spending some days in Karbala visiting a good friend of ours there and getting to know his dear family. In both my going from and my retuning to Najaf, I was moved by the sight of pilgrims walking on the side of the road to Karbala.
These holy commemorations and pilgrimages were not allowed under Saddam. The regime collapsed on April 9, 2003. Less than two weeks later, on the 20th of April was the 40th commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein. Approximately four million pilgrims traveled to Karbala that year. I was in Baghdad at that time and remember young Shia friends telling us with deep emotion and excitement about taking part in a similar pilgrimage, a treasured tradition so long denied them. One can imagine how disconcerting and foreign such a phenomena was to the U.S. troops who were occupying Karbala and the surrounding country. “How can we control such numbers?” they asked. My host was one of the persons who told them, “Just stay on your bases.” Fortunately they listened , and only patrolled overhead with helicopters. Now Karbala receives between 12 and 14 million during the feast that remembers the death of Imam Hussein.
October 21, 2012
The city-wide electrical grid went down here in Najaf this morning during breakfast. This is not such a big deal as it is daytime and the sun is up. More importantly, the weather is not oppressively hot now and fans and A/C are not an absolute necessity. I can only imagine what it was like in July, August and September when the electricity was off. I was told while in Basra yesterday, that the lack of electricity is a major problem there as well. I left the U. S. a week ago to travel to Iraq for a six-week visit. And the electricity has gone off non-stop since I arrived.
I had mixed emotions as I set out on this trip. Excitement at the thought of seeing old friends, I have not been back to Iraq since late 2003. But also some apprehension as to what I will find after such a long time. It has been nine years, a fact hard for me to believe. Of course we’ve gotten news over the years, through Iraqis in the states and refugees in Jordan and Syria, and contacts we’ve been able to maintain within Iraq. But it is quite another thing to be in the country again…. to try and get a sense of how things are with respect to everyday living, basic needs and security. I am hopeful that I can meet with Iraqis whom we know from Syria but who have had to flee back to Iraq. How are people faring? What are people feeling and thinking?
And so we come back to electricity.
Here are a couple of photos showing the twisted mass of electrical wires from the neighborhood where I am staying.
This sight evokes memories from post-invasion days in Baghdad when the electrical system was down and the deafening noise of generators was everywhere. It is nine years later and people still have no functional electrical grid! These wires are representative of the crippled city-wide backup generator system that kicks in when the city-wide grid goes down. The city electricity costs a family about $5.00 to $10.00 per month, while the local men who run the generators every couple of blocks, I’ll call them “bosses,” get perhaps $50.00 per month from the same family. Unfortunately though, it seems that the hands of the “bosses” are gripped in a tight handshake with the higher-ups of the municipal electrical system. And it is no secret that this is the reality nationwide.
This is one of the many different generator sites which charges families excessive fees for backup electricity.
Well, let me leave you with this to be continued journal of sorts. I have much more to write, but want to get some word off to you so you know that I’ve landed and am in good hands, warm and loving hands. I hope and trust that you too are well.
August 28, 2012
Each time I travel to Syria to follow the plight of Iraqi refugees there, I also visit with Palestinians from Iraq. During my last trip to Syria, in December 2011, I was sitting with one of these families in their humble apartment in Damascus. “Tell me again,” I asked, “where are your family members living?”
November 4, 2011
What a handsome young man. He came three months ago from Baghdad. He said he had to. He left his wife, his mother and six little children behind. When I asked about his children, he became silent and I realized after some moments that he was crying. I too was silent, hesitating to continue. So young, I thought. All he has ever known is war.