Merna al-Marjan is a young Iraqi who is currently in Germany studying European history. We talked in her dormitory room, a spartan but functional cubicle in a building that embodies a hopeful change in European history: it was constructed in the nineteenth century as an army barracks but now houses university students. That’s progress.
On Merna’s small table sat a pot of peppermint tea and a plate of baklava. She’s short and plump with smooth skin the color of clover honey and deep anthracite eyes; she was wearing a long skirt of light cotton, a long-sleeved blouse, and a green paisley headscarf.
William Hathaway: Headscarves have become a controversial item of clothing here in Germany.
Merna Al-Marjan: Yes, you can’t teach in the schools if you wear one. It’s OK for a teacher to wear a Christian crucifix but not a Muslim headscarf. I didn’t wear a hijab in Iraq, but I’ve started doing it here to show solidarity. It’s ridiculous to ban an article of clothing, a simple piece of cloth. What sort of freedom is that?
The West has such a distorted view of Arab women. Well, of men too, but since I’m a woman, I notice that more.
What really makes me mad is when Westerners use the way women live in the Muslim world as a justification for invading it ― either with their armies or their ideas. They’re convinced we should be like them. If they were happy, that would be one thing. They could say, ‘Here, follow our example.’ But they’re much unhappier than most of us are. Their marriages and families fall apart, their children commit terrible crimes, commit suicide. Their society is fragmented into these isolated individuals who have to compete against one another. It’s a wreck, but they’re trying to force it onto us.
Western women are convinced they need a career to be fulfilled, as if that’s some magic thing, much better than being just a mother. But if you look at the things people actually do in their careers, most of them aren’t very fulfilling. The work gets routine, then boring. I may get to be a professor, but I’ve been around enough of them to know that’s no big deal. They just juggle ideas in the air. What people do in their jobs is trivial compared to raising a family.
The work of being a mother is devalued here, but to be the emotional center of a family, to keep everyone in balance, to know what they need on so many different levels and to give them some of that, well, that requires a much subtler intelligence than business does. It’s a deep knowledge of human beings, far more important than a job. Mothers are the real CEOs of civilization, and we need to give that power back to them, including the power to have a career, if that’s what they want.
A family needs money, but the getting of it is dominating our lives. People are either unemployed and terribly poor or they have a job and are totally exhausted. But if we took the work that needs to be done and spread it around so everyone could work a few hours a day, then we’d have time for our families and also make some money. Life would be more balanced. Some people might end up less rich, but they’d enjoy life more. They think they need so much now only because their jobs have fixated them on that. Money has become a substitute for life. There’s never enough of it, because the things it can buy aren’t really satisfying. They just distract us from the emptiness of our lives spent chasing money. We’ve become shrunken down to coins.
WH: It’s unusual to hear a young person say things like this. Where did you learn this?
MM: From my mother, of course, from talking to her and watching her. Women in my country, and probably most non-western women, understand this.
That doesn’t mean we’re content with our situation. We want to change it, but by strengthening the family. Family should be the power center of the society, rather than business. In the West, home life is subservient to the outer world of work, but that’s destructive. Work should serve the needs of the family, not the other way around.
We definitely have to change the power between men and women. It has to be more equal. We need to make sure men don’t harm women. But we don’t need help from the all-wise Westerners to do that. Their model doesn’t work even for them, so it sure won’t work for us.
WH: How did you come to be studying in Germany?”
MM: I won a scholarship with an essay I wrote comparing King Faisal I and Marshal Pétain. Both of them came to power by serving imperialist conquerors. Faisal helped the British take over Iraq, and Pétain helped the Germans rule France. Both were hated by their people as traitors. The current puppet president of Iraq ― he’s not worth naming ― is playing the same role for the Americans. But I didn’t mention this last part in my essay.
WH: Why not?
MM: Because I wanted to win the scholarship. The Germans don’t mind if you criticize them, but they’re very nervous about offending the Americans. They’re still an occupied country. Plus they’re not about to give a scholarship to someone they think might be a ‘Muslim extremist.’
WH: Are you a Muslim extremist?
MM: No, but that doesn’t matter. The Germans are running on fear now. They try to pretend they’re independent of the Americans, but they’re helping them in all sorts of ways to kill Iraqis and Afghans. And they know that’s going to lead to revenge attacks in their country, so they’re wary now about letting Muslims into Germany. To them, we’re all potential terrorists.
WH: How is Germany helping the USA in the war?
MM: One example came out in the news recently, although it happened before the war started. Back then the Germans had spies in the Iraqi Defense Ministry, and they managed to steal a copy of the plans for defending against the US invasion ― where our troops were going to be stationed, where anti-aircraft batteries would be placed, where supplies would be stored. The Germans gave those plans to the Americans, so they knew exactly where to bomb. That caused the death of tens of thousands of our soldiers. Now their families need to avenge them.
The Germans are also helping train this new army and police in suppressing the people. And they’re sending military equipment to fight the insurgency. Iraqis are being killed with weapons made in Germany. German politicians call that peace keeping, but it’s actually war making. We don’t forget things like that.
WH: Do you know people in the insurgency?
MM: Of course … some of them very well. In the West all resistance fighters are portrayed as fanatics, but many of them aren’t even religious. They just want to throw the invaders out.
Even fanatics like al-Qaeda aren’t really aggressors. They’re fighting a defensive war. Have you read al-Qaeda’s demands?
MM: I’m not surprised. The Western media never publish them because the demands are so reasonable. They basically come down to, ‘Go home and leave us alone. Pull your soldiers, your CIA agents, your missionaries, your corporations out of Muslim territory. If you do that, we’ll stop attacking you.’ Nothing about destroying the West or forcing it to become Islamic. Just that the West should stay in the West.
If people knew this ― knew how easy it would be to stop terrorism ― they wouldn’t want to fight this crazy war. That’s why the media ignore al-Qaeda’s demands. Western leaders don’t want people to see that the war’s real purpose isn’t to stop terrorism but to control this part of the world ― my home. They actually want the terrorism because that gives them the excuse they need ― the threat of an evil enemy.
WH: But how about Israel? Is that Muslim territory?
MM: It’s been Muslim since the time of the Prophet and continues to be, despite invasions by the Crusaders, the colonialists, and now the Zionists and Americans. We drove out the first two, and we’ll drive out the second two. None of them have the right to take what belongs to the Arab people. The barbarians keep descending on us from the north, and we keep throwing them out. It’s an old story.
Just because the ancestors of the Jews might have lived there two thousand years ago doesn’t give them any claim to that land today. It’s absurd for them to say it belongs to them after all this time. We’re not going to let them get away with it.
WH: Would you consider yourself a resistance fighter?
MM: To the extent that one can fight with ideas, yes. I don’t believe in setting bombs, though. But my brother does. He didn’t start out that way, though. He used to be pro-American. He got his PhD in physics there. He likes the people and still has friends there. But he’s come to hate the government.
WH: What happened to him?
MM: Well … it happened to our whole family.
WH: Tell me about it.
Merna glanced away, grimaced, and chewed on her cheek for a moment.
MM: One night very late I woke up to a huge crash. The house was shaking. I thought it was an earthquake, then I thought it was a bomb. I heard shouts downstairs. Someone was in our home. All I could think was, ‘They’ll kill us! I don’t want to die in my pajamas.’
Then I thought, ‘Better in pajamas than naked.’ I was afraid whoever it was would rape me and then kill me. I wanted to jump out the window, but it was the second floor and I was too afraid. Then I thought, ‘Jumping is my only chance. If I don’t break my leg, maybe I can run away. Where, though? Anywhere, just away.’
I put on a robe and shoes and went to the window. Men with guns were standing in our yard, soldiers with little American flags sewn on their sleeves. Their truck was parked in front of our house. I couldn’t run away.
Inside the house men were stamping up our stairs, shouting something I didn’t understand. One of them kicked my door open, and another one shined a flashlight on me. The flashlight was on his rifle, which was pointed at me. I screamed and prayed ‘Allahu Akbar.’
The door kicker ran at me, grabbed my hand, and dragged me downstairs. I fell onto the stairs, but he just kept dragging. My father, mother and brother were in the living room, all of them in pajamas. My mother was shaking and crying. The door to our house wasn’t there anymore. They’d blown it off. The air was smoky.
While two soldiers pointed their rifles at us, the others searched us. They made us raise our arms and spread our legs, then they patted all over our bodies. One of them stuck his hand between my legs and smirked. Another squeezed my mother’s breasts.
My brother shouted and lunged at the man, but the Americans grabbed him. I heard a shot ― so close it hurt my ears ― and thought they’d killed him, but then pieces of the ceiling fell down ― one of them had shot into the air. They pushed my brother to the floor and kicked him in the head and stomach and between his legs. He tried to kick back until one of them put the barrel of his gun to his head. My brother stopped, and they punched him in the face, yanked his arms behind his back, snapped handcuffs on him, and kicked him again, calling him a sand nigger. Then they handcuffed my father to keep him from defending us.
‘Now they’re going to rape mom and me and make my father and brother watch, then kill us all,’ I thought.
My father is a gentle man. He’s a professor of Arabic literature, retired now. Seeing him so helpless and humiliated … it broke my heart. And I’d never seen hatred on his face until that moment.
After they searched us, they demanded to see our identity papers. Imagine ― they break into our house and demand to see our identity papers, as if we don’t belong here. When we gave them the papers, they compared our names to a list they had. ‘Where is Ahmad al-Marjan?’ one of them shouted at us. ‘I am Ahmed al-Marjan. I don’t know any Ahmad,’ my father answered. ‘You’ve got the same last name, you must know him. Where is he?’ the American demanded. ‘There are thousands of al-Marjans. I do not know them all. You have the wrong house. You have attacked the wrong family. You have ruined our home for nothing,’ my father said.
In fact Ahmad was our cousin, and he was in the resistance. We knew where his parents lived, but he’d gone underground, sleeping in different houses, striking at the Americans and their puppet police whenever he could find the opportunity. I was terrified the Americans would torture us into giving information on him. How much did they already know? If they knew he was our cousin, then they would know we were lying to them, and they would torture us more. What would the torture be? Whatever it was, I didn’t think I could take it. But if I told about him, and they arrested him or killed him, how could I live with myself? I’m sure our whole family was having similar thoughts.
‘Are any of you in the resistance?’ the American demanded. “No,’ my father answered. ‘Who do you know in the resistance?’ ‘No one that I know of. People do not tell such things.’ ‘Do you have any weapons or explosives or information about the resistance?’ ‘No.’ ‘If you have any, and you tell us now, we’ll let you go. But if you say no and we find it, we’ll take you to prison.’ ‘We have nothing.’
They made us lie on the floor, then searched the house ― dumping out drawers, knocking books off shelves. They pulled up the rug, I guess to see if we had a trap door, turned over furniture and cut open the cushions on the divan. All the while one of them was pointing his rifle at us.
These men stank. Their bodies were dirty, their clothes were dirty. They were disgusting. Muslims are very clean people, and it was an insult just to have these filthy soldiers in our home, let alone that they were destroying it. You could tell they were afraid, but they covered it up by being mean. They threw cigarette butts on our rug and smeared them out with their boots. They spat on the floor.
Some of them went into my parents’ bedroom and started tearing it apart. They threw clothes out of the closets and ripped off the boards joined to the wall. Threw their mattress onto the floor. I could hear others tearing up the kitchen and my brother’s and my rooms upstairs.
When they didn’t find anything, they tied bags over my father’s and brother’s heads and took them with them. Outside, the neighbor’s dog, a big German shepherd, came running up, barking. The Americans shouted at the dog to shut up, and when it started snarling at them, one of them shot it. But didn’t kill it. The dog was squealing and writhing on the ground as they drove away.
My father told me later the soldiers drove for about twenty minutes, then unloaded him and my brother into a group of other men they’d rounded up. He couldn’t tell where they were. The men had to sit on the ground for five hours with the bags on their heads, no water, no food, no toilets. When some of them finally had to go to the toilet in their pants, the Americans called them stinking Arabs. Then they loaded them onto another truck and drove them to a prison, not Abu Ghraib, but somewhere on an American base.
My father was put in a big cell with twenty other older men and one broken toilet, only the floor to sleep on. Every couple of days they would interrogate him again, asking who he knew in the insurgency, where weapons were stored. Sometimes they would try to scare him into thinking he’d be tortured if he didn’t give names. They tied his hands and blindfolded him and turned on an electric saw next to his ear. The sound was terrifying, he said, but they didn’t actually cut him. He kept insisting he didn’t know anything and the raid on our house was a mistake because of the mix-up of names.
After two weeks they let him go and offered him a job as an interpreter because his English was so good. He wanted to scream at them, ‘Get out of my life, get out of my country,’ but was afraid to. He just said no.
The Americans tortured my brother, maybe because he’d fought back at the house. They stripped him naked, tied wires to his toes, and sent electric shocks through him, then asked him for names of people in the resistance. When he didn’t give them, they stepped up the current. He said it was a kind of pain he’d never experienced before. It took over his body like an invading force and sent his legs and arms wild, making him thrash around the floor while the Americans laughed at him. He felt as if his blood was boiling and his skin would explode. Then they threw buckets of ice-cold water on him. That almost gave him a heart attack. When he still wouldn’t talk, they told him would tie the wires to his penis. But they didn’t. They just sent him back to this big crowded cell and brought in the next man.
My brother was actually expecting to be tortured more, but there were so many prisoners, and the Americans had to concentrate on the ones they most suspected. Those poor guys really got it ― attacked with dogs when they were naked, no sleep, almost drowned, hung from hooks on the wall, beaten, drugged. He saw some of them afterwards ― shattered, half crazy, the only things holding them together were hatred of the Americans and love of Allah.
After a month they let my brother go. He came back different, much more quiet and distant. A tenderness he’d had before was gone. In its place was a bitter determination and a hard-earned pride that he hadn’t given in, they hadn’t broken him, he hadn’t told about our cousin. He was harsh, and I didn’t feel as close to him. But I loved and respected him.
I could tell the humiliation our family had suffered was weighing on him. In our culture such things demand retaliation. That is how their effect is undone. Otherwise they remain a stain on the soul. My brother knew it was his duty to restore the family’s honor as well as his own. My father is old and my mother and I are women. We cannot be expected to make the reprisals ourselves.
A few days after he was released, he went searching for our cousin, to join him in the resistance. Ahmad had heard he was in prison, and he said as soon as he saw my brother, he knew that he hadn’t betrayed him. Ahmad had seen many men come back from torture. The ones who didn’t break were proud and wanted to become long-term fighters. The ones who had talked were crushed and wanted to become suicide bombers to redeem themselves. The insurgency needs and honors both men. The ones who talked under torture are accepted back without accusation because everyone knows it could be them next time. Their desire for martyrdom is respected.
My brother had no military training. I don’t think he’d ever fired a gun. Ours isn’t that sort of family. But firing a gun is a simple thing, and he got good at it. Baghdad now has so many gutted buildings, and those give good cover for snipers. But it’s very boring work, he said. You have to wait and watch for hours before you get a target ― some days you never get one. The best targets are the convoys, but they’re always changing their routes for protection. Because of their fear, they tear through the streets at top speed, forcing other cars off the road, running over pedestrians, never stopping. He talked about how good it feels to spray the trucks with your Kalashnikov and see the invaders falling over. You have to shoot and run, though, because they sometimes have helicopters with them, and they’ll blow up your building with a rocket.
When he’s out on the street, he carries a hidden pistol. A couple of times he’s been able to follow an American patrol and shoot into their backs, then disappear into the crowd. The Americans open fire in all directions. He’s sorry about the killed civilians, but this is the only way to drive out the invaders.
The other reason he carries the pistol is to keep from being taken prisoner. If he’s ever surrounded, he’ll kill as many soldiers as he can and save the last shot for himself. He’s determined not to be captured and tortured again because he knows next time will be worse, and he’s not sure he can take it.
He doesn’t know how many he’s killed and wounded, but it’s enough so that the family’s honor is again intact. But he wants to continue the battle. He’s now fighting the Americans on a larger scale where he can use his education. He’s in Iran working as a physicist. They are developing smaller, cheaper heat-seeking missiles to shoot down US aircraft.
He says the main advantage the Americans have is their air force. Their soldiers don’t really believe in what they’re doing and don’t want to take risks in battle. Their main motivation is just to survive and go home, and you can’t win wars that way.
But the USA controls the air. Their planes and helicopters can destroy a whole area, and they don’t mind killing everybody in it.
Heat-seeking missiles are now bulky and expensive, but he and the other scientists are researching ways to micro-miniaturize the sensors and mass produce them in guidance systems. He says being able to shoot down their planes will totally change the balance of power. They’ll have to fight us face to face, and they’ll lose that way.
I haven’t seen my brother in a year and a half. When we said good-bye, he seemed like someone else. His gentleness had been replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance. I love him and feel sorry for what he’s been through and worry he’ll be killed, but I don’t feel very comfortable with him. Violence warps people.
He calls his project SAMs for Uncle Sam and thinks it’s a great idea. But I call it the ongoing insanity of the arms race and think it’s a terrible idea. It’ll just force the Americans to develop some new kind of horrible weapon that will kill even more people.
We somehow have to get out of this whole way of thinking. We have to realize that war doesn’t solve problems, just creates new ones. It generates more rage that then breaks out again in violence. With all the atomic weapons, we’ll end up turning this lovely planet into a mass graveyard, not just for humans but for everyone except radiation-resistant insects.
WH: Some people say fighting these small wars is a way to prevent a nuclear war. Or attacking another country is necessary to prevent them from attacking us.
MM: Those are murderous lies. Every war is sold to us as a preventive war. That’s a favorite claim of tyrants, and I think some of them really believe it, that we’re being threatened by savages and have to strike against them. It’s a projection of their own personality. Hitler said he was protecting Western civilization from the Russian hordes. Saddam demonized the Iranians to scare us into war with them, just as Bush demonized the Iraqis. I’ve been reading about the Vietnam War. The hawks kept saying, ‘If we don’t fight the communists in Vietnam, we’ll have to fight them in California. They’re trying to destroy us any way they can.’ But it wasn’t true. The opposite was true. The communists were trying to build a different economic system, so the capitalists wanted to destroy them any way they could. Warmongers have always portrayed themselves as the only alternative to the brutal beasts out there. They generate fear to stay in power.
One favorite trick of the USA is to secretly support the reactionary side in a civil war with arms and money. If their side starts to lose, they suddenly get upset about this awful war and all the people who are dying. They say they need to intervene for humanitarian reasons, to bring peace and prevent a holocaust. Then they jump in openly and try to crush the other side.
WH: The war that’s going on now, how do you see that ending?
MM: Disaster for the Americans. They started this war, and they deserve to lose it. They think they can win with all their money and weapons, but our people are stronger than that. We will continue to fight and resist for as long as it takes to defeat the invaders and their figurehead government.
These so-called Iraqi Security Forces are only there for the money. They don’t believe in the cause. They won’t fight and die for the Americans, they’ll just take their money and run.
The more people the Americans kill, they more enemies they create. They can’t kill all the people. The people are stronger. We have them surrounded, and they’re afraid to come out of their bases, just like in Vietnam. We’re going to drive them out of the country, get rid of their Arab pawns, and take back our land ― oil and all. We are a patient people, and the Americans are impatient.
One reason they are impatient is because deep down they know what they’re doing in Iraq is wrong. They can ignore that for a while, but not forever. It eats away at them. They are human too. They know they would react to an invasion they same way we are. They don’t have the heart for this fight, but we do. This is our home. We will win.
But the tragic thing is that it won’t end there, either for Iraq or America. The violence the USA has unleashed will continue in both countries. That’s the way of barbarity. It doesn’t just stop, it keeps going on in different ways. The war may be over, but people on both sides have been infected with the disease of cruelty, and it spreads. It gets passed on, finding new victims who then turn into attackers and contaminate others with it. Violence really is a plague, and since the American inflicted it on us, they must bear the brunt of it ― killings, crime, chaos in their society. They must suffer as much as the suffering they have caused. That is the divine justice.
WH: Do you see any cure to this disease?
MM: Sure. Give the UN the power to keep the peace. For instance, the American invasion of Iraq is a clear violation of the UN Charter, but the UN can’t do anything about it. They need enough power to outlaw invasions and other acts of war and to enforce that with economic and political sanctions strong enough to work. They could outlaw the manufacture and possession of military weapons ― from assault rifles to nuclear bombs. Governments could take some of the money they spend on the military and put it into an international peace fund that would inspect world-wide for weapons and destroy them. No more military training. Send the soldiers home.
I’m not saying there wouldn’t be problems and conflicts, but they would end up killing far fewer people. We would need to expand the World Court and give it jurisdiction to settle disputes between countries and groups of people. Conflicts would be decided by laws, not force. That’s called civilization, and it works pretty well within countries. Now we need to make it work between countries. That’ll be difficult, but we can do it … we have to.
WH: Would you make people give up their personal weapons?
MM: With a license they could have a pistol for protection and a simple rifle for hunting. You can’t kill huge numbers of people with those.”
WH: Your idea sounds definitely worth trying.
MM: Think of the lives and money that would save. But the politicians and corporate executives don’t want it. They want to use the military to build their empire and hold on to power. That’s more important to them than peace. Their children don’t die in the wars.
Governments and corporations have become enemies of the people. We need to take their power away. We can’t let them keep killing. All of us are their potential victims now. Having gone from being ruled by Saddam Hussein to George W. Bush, I can tell you we need a whole other approach to politics. There’s no real difference between those two men. They’re both murderers.
That’s why the USA helped Hussein into power in the first place. They knew he would control Iraq with an iron fist and would never nationalize the oil. They kept him in power with massive military aid. Hussein was just a marionette of the USA who had the audacity to cut his strings and act on his own, so naturally the USA had to string him up.
This kind of interference is the main reason America and Britain are so hated in the world. That’s why there’s terrorism. People are sick and tired of being abused, of having their politics manipulated and their economies controlled from the outside. Arabs have had it up to here with this new colonialism that the West is using to control our oil. We refuse to be dominated anymore, and we’re resisting with the only weapons we have ― guerrilla warfare.
WH: What about the Arab leaders who are on the US side?
MM: These so-called leaders represent only the comprador elite in their countries. They serve Western interests and are hated by the people. They stay in office only with their Western arms.
But it can’t last. The USA and the rich Arabs are doomed. Bush blew the whole show by creating too many enemies. Billions of people now oppose the USA. The USA can’t kill them all. Before Bush, the American goal of a world empire was camouflaged with diplomacy, harder to see. But his stupidity turned out to be a boon to humanity. He made the plans obvious to everyone, so mass resistance coalesced. Obama’s job is to restore the camouflage, but it’s too late.
I’m proud to be an Arab because we’re at the forefront of this opposition. We’re standing up to the most powerful military machine the world has ever seen … and defeating it. Forty years ago the Vietnamese did it, and now we’re doing it.
Maybe finally the Americans will learn not to try to rule over other countries. That would be a big step towards peace.