Throughout my childhood I struggled to answer the simplest of questions: where are you from? I was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents who moved to Lubbock, Texas, when I was six months old. During my childhood, my parents would uproot me every few years, from Texas to South Carolina to Virginia. Living in the American South, I was far from the image of a Southern belle, and yet the summers I spent in the Middle East only emphasized my American identity and made it clear to me that I would also never exactly be an Arab poster child.
By the time I was in high school, I had learned to embrace and love all parts of my joint identity with the fervor only a teenager could feel. I was an Arab and an American. I was a Palestinian and a Southerner. I was a Muslim and a woman. As I grew, I accepted that the emphasis on each facet of my identity would shift with the phases of the moon. Growing up in a world struggling to understand multiculturalism, I saw this ability to move among my many identities as my own secret superpower.
Propelled by the conviction that my identities provided me with a competitive advantage, I embarked on a career in international development. My mother argued that somewhere along the way I became delusional, perhaps because my desire to make a difference in the world led me to a career in humanitarian aid in conflict zones.
With my secret superpower tucked away, I was among the first international aid workers to arrive in Baghdad in 2003. I would also be among the last to leave. The two intervening years inside Iraq would transform my life forever.
Many writers have attempted to capture in words what happened in Iraq during the watershed years of 2003 through early 2005. Some authors have written about the political maneuvering behind the walls of the Green Zone or the military strategy as seen by journalists embedded in the armed forces. But until now, none of them have written from the viewpoint of an international aid worker who had access to both everyday Iraqi citizens and the people in power on the U.S. and Iraqi sides.
In Iraq, I was finally able to put my superpower to full use. A wave of my American passport at the checkpoint of the fortified Green Zone allowed me access to the representatives of the U.S.-led coalition. My adherence to Muslim dress and my fluent Arabic made it possible for me to live in an Iraqi neighborhood with no armed security. This unique access allowed me to see an Iraq that was accessible to few others. With each passing season, the country would shed its skin from the past and emerge as a completely new place. Who was better positioned to adapt within a country experiencing a period of tumultuous change than someone who had been raised with an ever-shifting identity? In Iraq, I found a place with as many complicated contradictions as I had in myself.
Here, though, my internal complexity was manifested in an entire society. My international colleagues were struggling to force Iraqi culture into convenient boxes, but I simply accepted its unique, fluctuating shape. International journalists marveled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange-colored hair and wearing tight jeans, but I simply shrugged. It was natural to me. The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful.
Nevertheless, that mosaic was shattered by the eruption of violence that followed on the heels of the U.S. invasion. From weapons of mass destruction to suicide bombings, the lives of everyday Iraqis became inextricably linked to violence. The hopes and dreams that Iraqis once dared to share evaporated in the smoke of car bombs. The diverse peoples who populated Iraq—Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, Sabaeans—had once sipped tea at their doorsteps, but now they had disappeared from the streets. Women hid behind closed doors. The only images from within Iraq were of death and destruction. The only feelings people described were betrayal and despair. Overnight, that brilliant diversity—Iraq’s own secret superpower—was forgotten, buried under the rubble left by bombs.
My story is not one of statistics and death tolls or descriptions gleaned from short visits to the Green Zone. Instead, my story outlines the journey of a nation determined to rise from the ashes of war and sanctions and to re-create itself in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But this is also my own story of struggling to understand my identity against the backdrop of a country in turmoil. What I experienced internally reflected what the country as a whole was enduring. As a woman, I could not bear to see the erosion of the simple freedoms Iraqi women had gained decades earlier. Gone were the days when Iraqi woman could walk in the streets unaccompanied or choose what they would wear.
As a non-Iraqi Arab, I felt apologetic toward the Iraqis, who were baffled as to why Arabs from other countries were coming to Iraq to act as suicide bombers in crowded markets and on buses. And I was angry to witness the most powerful nation in the region being torn apart.
As an American, I was speechless. I could neither attack nor defend my country, although I found myself desperately wanting to do both. My parents had realized the American dream, and I refused to believe that freedom and democracy were empty promises.
But I could not exonerate the United States for its role in allowing Iraq to devolve into violence. The military’s most basic mistakes—not securing the borders, dissolving the Iraqi military, and fast-forwarding the nation-building process—had catapulted the country into chaos.
In addition to coming to terms with the war and the violence that unfolded before me, I also had to deal with the implications of my growing personal attachments. My Iraqi staff, my neighbors, and local women’s organizations were taking great risks of being labeled traitors or Western puppets just by being associated with me. And yet I found myself developing my own family circle inside the country. The Iraqi women I worked with side by side became my sisters, and the men who risked their lives for my security became my brothers. I desperately wanted to prove my worth by making the lives of the Iraqis a little better, if not those who lived in the communities where I worked, then at least those closest to me. I avoided the thought that one day I would have to leave the country. And I refused to admit that my growing feelings of trust and admiration for one of my male colleagues could actually be love. Eventually, I would be both punished and rewarded for allowing the lines between work and my personal life to blur. Personal tragedy began to strike everyone I knew, one family at a time. People with whom I was close began to disappear without a trace.
Barefoot in Baghdad is not a story of the war in Iraq. It is the story of the women in Iraq who are standing at the crossroads every dawn. It is the story of my time working with Iraqis as they struggled to create a new nation and a new identity. It is informed by my years of living and working within communities throughout the country. It recounts my own experiences and the stories of the men and women I encountered, each of them players in one of the most complicated political struggles of our era. It is also a memoir of the discovery of my many identities and the strengths and weaknesses inherent within them. Finally, it is a story of finding love in the most unlikely place. As my life became intertwined with the lives of the Iraqis around me, I lost sight of where my horizons ended and theirs began. Their expectations became my expectations; their disappointments, dreams, pains, and losses became my own.
Excerpted from “Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity – My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos” by Manal Omar Copyright © 2010 by Manal Omar. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.