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American Nurse Experiences Life in Iraq

I arrived in Baghdad aboard an Iraqi Airways flight from Amman, Jordan, on Sept. 22, 2006, with hopes of securing work as a nurse with an international aide group. I was accompanying my husband, James, a freelance journalist who was returning to the Iraqi capital for his second tour. He previously had spent a year reporting in the country.

I recently had completed a 13-month stint running a nutritional program for children in northern Uganda and was eager to build on that experience. My expectations quickly were deflated as it became clear few such organizations were operating in the country. I volunteered my services at private and government-run civilian hospitals throughout Baghdad, but Iraqi physicians who feared the daily presence of a foreigner would increase the possibility of attacks on their facilities reluctantly rejected me.

So after eight years of higher education and two master’s degrees, I decided to stay with my husband and embrace the role of a housewife rather than return to the U.S. The job came with its rewards. I had time to pursue my modest cooking ambitions, and I had the opportunity to study Arabic and use my language skills to develop friendships with my Iraqi neighbors.

But my new responsibilities in Iraq included challenges rarely encountered by my counterparts in the United States — washing clothes by hand, trying to keep a two-bedroom suite clean in an environment swirling with dust, and grocery shopping amid threats of car bombings and mortar attacks.

Excursions into the city meant preparing to enter a war zone without the benefit of an armored vehicle, Kevlar vests, or helmets. An ancient Belgian-manufactured pistol hidden inside an armrest in the front seat of our car was our only defense.

I wore a traditional abaya — a loose robe that covered the length of my body. Abaya’s are commonly worn by Iraqi women to deter attention. At times, I could get away with wearing an ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeved blouse.

Despite the dangers, I occasionally forgot Baghdad was a city at war as I sat in the backseat of a dilapidated yellow Nissan as Abbas, my husband’s driver, maneuvered through traffic and multiple checkpoints. Men and young boys in sandals marched along the road hawking everything from hats and sunscreen to cold sodas and cigarettes.

Women and their daughters swathed in long skirts with scarves tightly wrapped around their heads carried plastic bags filled with fruits and vegetables and gazed through shop windows at the fashionable clothes they never could wear outside of their homes because of the city’s increasingly religious conservatism.

I was brought back to reality whenever I heard the Iraqi police shooting into the air as they fought to bypass a traffic jam.

My closest view of violence came while accompanying my husband to an interview with the head of a women’s rights organization last winter. A massive car bomb detonated nearby, shaking the building we occupied. The first explosion elicited nothing more than a pause in the conversation, but after the second bomb erupted louder and closer, everyone agreed to end the interview.

We walked outside to the street where Abbas anxiously was waiting with the engine running. No one spoke as our vehicle raced through the streets, bullets whistling through the air. Through the back window, I could see plumes of thick, black smoke rising to the sky.

Once we were out of harm’s way, Abbas said, “They were shooting rocket-propelled grenades from the roof of a building towards the car bombs,” referring to an insurgent tactic of targeting people gathering at the site of an attack. “I could see them with my own eyes.”

Later that day, I learned more than 70 people died in an attack less than a mile from me, and l was grateful to have escaped alive.

In the course of my 10-month stay in Karrada, a predominately Shi’a, upscale neighborhood in central Baghdad, my social interactions were exclusively with Iraqis. The relationships provided a glimpse of the more subtle struggles facing some of the people most affected by the war.

My friend, Nashwa, who is married to James’ interpreter, Adnan, is a novelty among Iraqi women. A licensed pharmacist who speaks fluent English, she drives her own car, wears slacks and ankle-bearing skirts, and refuses to cover her head despite the taunts of men and risks of attacks by religious zealots.

“I don’t see why I have to wear a scarf on my head,” she would say, incredulous that anyone could dictate her behavior.

In contrast, Hana, who is married to Abbas, is more traditional and compliant to the religious conservatism in Iraqi society. Hana, 36, married young and now has five children between the ages of 4 and 18. She wears a headscarf at home with visitors in her house and spends most of her day preparing food, cleaning, and watching over her youngest child, Aboudi.

I often spent mornings in Hana’s kitchen learning to cook traditional Iraqi dishes such as dolma, kupa, and masgoof. Since Hana spoke no English, I quickly picked up Arabic phrases such as, “kulsh tahyib” (very tasty), “harkihe” (stir), and “riha tahyib” (smells delicious).

My visits with these two women provided a good distraction while our husbands ventured the streets of Baghdad. For a short time, we could forget about the explosions, firefights, and militia and insurgent groups prowling the streets.

And like Iraqi women across the country, I was grateful every time my husband returned safely home.

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By | 2020-04-15T15:52:12-04:00 January 28th, 2008|Categories: National|0 Comments

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