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Writings by Cathy Breen

Sharing a Meal with Qasim El Sabti

May 29, 2013

“My gun is my art, the bullets are the colors.” – Qasim El Sabti

“Don’t be alarmed if you hear an explosion “ Ahmed said to me. It was not yet 8am. “A bomb has been found nearby, and it will be detonated.”

Later in the morning, we were going to visit an artist at his gallery. I felt the need to be nourished and uplifted by beauty, by the arts. Although I had never met the artist personally, I felt I knew him already. Maybe six or seven years ago I went to an art exhibition of Iraqi art at a gallery in New York City, actually very close to where I live. Of all the artwork on display, Qasim El Sabti’s pieces were the ones I could not forget. And now I was to meet him. “You must come to eat mosguf,” he had told me over the phone the day before. Mosguf is a dish of fish cooked over an open fire.

The night before we heard that militias had attempted to take several of the main highways in Baghdad. As we drove down one of the highways on our way to the gallery, we spotted a tower of billowing black smoke up ahead. There was a charred car still burning, and firemen were trying to put out the fire. It was apparently a car bomb. Tragically, this is the reality in Iraq these days, not only in Baghdad.

Baghdad, May 25, 2013

Baghdad, May 25, 2013

I just got off the phone with a woman friend from Ramadi. She was to come to Baghdad to meet with me. “I’m so sorry” she said sadly. “It is just too dangerous.” She is wise to be fearful as I heard five drivers from Ramadi were kidnapped yesterday at fake checkpoints. We have good friends to the north of Baghdad whom we are also unable to see, from Dyala and Mosel.

Yesterday in broad daylight a man in civilian clothes pulled out his gun at a nearby gas station and screwed on a silencer. “It was like watching an American movie!” said a man looking on. I mention these facts to give you some sense of the extent of the lawlessness. It is not as if you can pick up the phone and call the police to come help you!

A sign of hope for me is to see that some of the cement barricade walls—which run the entire length of neighborhoods—have come down. If you look closely you can see a couple of them in the foreground of the photo I took from a moving car.

The Struggle to Understand

These are some of the bright open faces and futures that were extinguished that day.These are some of the bright open faces and futures that were extinguished that day. May 21, 2013

Yesterday a representative from the Anbar region gave the Malaki government an ultimatum. Either a federation (separate regions), or fighting! He declared that the demonstrations are over. They are demanding the soldiers evacuate the area. Also yesterday over a dozen suicide bombs took at least 95 lives in Iraq.

Now the Bombs Are Every Day

…I can’t tell you how relieved I was as to see the new day dawn! The restless night, the long hours of invoking God’s help and trying not to let fear overtake me, has given me some sense of what people in Iraq face every day…

…Another family father is being pressured at his workplace to join a militia. His salary would increase over a thousand fold. He now earns what I would call a “non-living” wage. Fearful to refuse them, he told them he would think about it in order to buy himself some time…

It's All About Kinship

Palm Trees Along the Euphrates RiverPalm Trees Along the Euphrates River

Since the onset of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” until the end of 2011 we lost 4,486 U.S. troops. This is a figure we might be familiar with as it is commonly cited in the U.S. media. A figure we might not have heard is the following: 4,471 Iraqi civilians died as a result of ongoing violence in 2012. This is only 15 less than the total loss of U.S. troops over an 8 year period. Should this be of any concern to us here in the United States? How can this fact not be newsworthy?

Unfathomly Deep Wounds

Nov. 23, 2012, Friday

Dear Friends, “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.

Revisiting Dust-Covered Dreams

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.

Why I Have Hope for Iraq

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?”

People Have Changed: A Legacy of the U.S. War in Iraq

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.

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.

Living Differently

Cement walls everywhere, still electricity is sporadic: Photo- Cathy Breen 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.”

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