George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 11 January 2007
A Giant Shiny Swan
Owen Powell – 11th January 2007
I like to think of myself as a fairly well-informed person. I watch a lot of news, I take a look at the BBC website almost daily (and not just for football transfer speculation), and I read a newspaper that’s still loosely a broadsheet. Cover to cover as well, including most of the world news sections. (OK, not quite cover to cover. Business and horse-racing both leave me a bit baffled.) In short, I think I have a fair idea about what’s going on in the world.
[Alex here, taking back everything I said about Owen being falsely modest in my write up of Iran. He is clearly well aware of his comparative wisdom and I applaud this straight-talking self-appraisal.]
However, until today, I had never met someone from a country which my country, in living memory, had invaded.
And, yes. It was the biggy. It was Iraq.
There’s not really a tactful way of putting this, but there were some countries whose representatives I was more excited about meeting than others. Countries that, in some ways, sum up aspects of 21st century life. Countries which, in effect, are no longer simply areas of land, but become concepts or even (is this distasteful?) brands – up there in the newspaper headlines alongside Nike, Starbucks, and David Beckham. Of course, in the last four or five years there is only one such country, and that is Iraq.
Undoubtedly, there are probably countries more worthy of our attention, for all sorts of reasons. Sudan, North Korea, even Venezuela all come to mind, for the different impacts they are making (or should be making) on the global consciousness, but it is Iraq that seems to dominate the news, week in, week out. And now here I am, marching into Al-Mustafa on the Edgware Road, cycle helmet tucked under my arm, and meeting my first Iraqi.
Standing next to a five-foot high glossy white ceramic swan, Thana introduced herself, and didn’t even flinch when I embarrassedly asked her age (34).
[Alex here again, just wanting to say that she also didn’t flinch when I idiotically exclaimed ‘Brilliant! We’ve just got Iran, so that’s great!’ on hearing that Thana is from Iraq. As I’ve made quite clear, I don’t have all that much political nous and didn’t necessarily realise that Thana herself might not be as pleased as I was with the Iran-Iraq link (I have to say, I was mainly thinking about our alphabetical list). ]
We picked up the outlines of her story – she had been in London two years and three months, she works part time at the shop selling all manner of interior decorations, and lives with her husband, a British citizen, with whom she had travelled from Baghdad, through Jordan, to Britain. The specific details of how and where they met and married got a bit lost as Thana warmed to her theme and told us of her impressions of first arriving in London – “I called my family and told them that there are dogs and cats living here in a better standard of life than you are” – and bantered with us about her growing realisation that London isn’t perfect after all. I hope it’s not a generalisation to say that the people we met today (broadly from the Middle East, broadly Muslim, generally from countries with interesting relationships with ‘the West’) were more keen than any we had previously met to tell their stories, to explain how they experienced London and just have a bit of an old chat with two middle class white boys clutching a folder.
Despite her early hopes that she would live beyond her wildest dreams in London, Thana soon discovered what we all discover when arriving within the M25, that it always costs slightly too much to live here. Now, she is more likely to phone home (which she does daily, or twice daily) to tell them that they have it easier in Iraq, that it is easier to maintain a decent standard of living back there than it is in London. Her husband is ill, and she is struggling on her part-time wages, trying to ignore any thoughts of using her BSc in Chemistry to train as a pharmacist or in medicine. “To be a student here? It is too expensive.”
Thana has noticed, however, that many other immigrants in London are able to make money, and her views in this area throw up a whole host of interesting ideas when compared to someone like Paul, our St Lucian. He had said that Britain should have been more welcoming to people like himself, ex-citizens of the Empire, loyal to the Queen and happy to do jobs we couldn’t or wouldn’t do ourselves. Thana, on the other hand, finds it astonishing that people are allowed to come here from countries without political difficulties (she mentioned India and Pakistan) with the express purpose of getting good jobs and making good money. To her, the idea that we would welcome in just another worker, whilst perhaps denying access to someone in a more life-and-death situation, is a decidedly odd state of affairs. The contrast (even the conflict) between economic migrants and political refugees is one that is perhaps glossed over in the tabloid approach to immigration, with the result that all new arrivals here are treated as simultaneously ‘after-our-jobs’ and ‘from-somewhere-dangerous’. It’s becoming clearer as we go through this project that as well as finding British attitudes to immigration contradictory, we’re also seeing how the immigrants themselves have a whole range of views on the topic.
But Thana wasn’t just ‘from-somewhere-dangerous’. She was from Iraq! I asked her if she thought she’d ever go back there again, even if in five, ten years’ time. “My husband, he says, ‘Never again to Iraq. Even if it is heaven’.” Wow. That’s pretty definitive. From her smile, however, I couldn’t tell if she agreed with him, or was gently mocking him, and actually did want to return herself. She clearly loved her country – she was wearing a necklace that was a map of it – and my guess is that in some utopian future she might be back in Baghdad again.
And then of course, the question that I couldn’t not ask. Saddam. How did she feel now he was dead? Had she seen the execution?
“I was very happy. He was an evil man. The devil. The night he was to be killed, I could not sleep. I stayed up all night until I heard.”
But would it cause more problems than it solved, I wondered? She shrugged.
“Maybe. But it is important that he is dead.”
Sure. It looks callous written down. But it wasn’t said vindictively. To Thana, it seemed quite matter-of-fact. The execution of this man who did, and represented, so much had clearly allowed her to face some old demons and move on.
Desperately trawling through my limited (and only recently acquired) knowledge of Iraqi politics, and the divisions in society there, I asked as tentatively as I could, “So … you’re … Shia?”
“Shia, yes. Although I am an Iraqi first. I am proud to be an Iraqi.” (She touched her necklace at this point). “In Iraq we are Shia, Sunni, Christian, we are all together. There are Iraqi Jews – ” (I think I may have known this already, but I probably still looked a bit surprised) “ – yes, yes, and I weep for them. They were driven away by Saddam.”
I asked her how religious she was in London. Did she visit a mosque?
“No.” She smiled. “I am religious. I believe in a god. Whether we are Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jew, we all believe in a god. But I don’t have to go to a mosque to listen to a man who will tell me what to think, so I can join with everyone else – ” (here she made a chopping gesture) “ – and follow him in a line, doing what he says. That is not believing in god. If there is a god, a god for all of us, he wants us to be peaceful, to live in peace with each other. It is important to be clean, from the inside. That is where you should believe in your god, from the inside.”
Small-minded atheist that I am, I still found it hard to repress a shout of “You go, girl!” as Thana outlined her theology. It all seemed to make so much sense, and I couldn’t help thinking that in the future Iraq could do with a few more people like her helping to decide what happens next. Unfortunately, it appears that it is precisely people like Thana who have been driven out, and are unlikely to return while such an unholy mess is being made of her country. I wondered how she saw the future. I have read some commentators who suggest that division into separate countries, Balkanisation, is the only way to restore stability, but Thana was opposed to this. Again, she touched her necklace as she explained that the real truth, the truth we don’t see on our news, was that Iraq is not divided, that the people there want to live in peace in a unified country, but that it was impossible to do that under Saddam, and that it is proving just as hard to make it happen after he has gone.
It was difficult to leave Thana’s company feeling wholly positive about the future. She’s obviously seen things and lived through experiences that I never will, and her current straightened circumstances are undoubtedly a constant reminder to her of what she’s been through. And yet, at the same time, it was impossible to leave her feeling in any way negative. If you’re passing Edgware Road and fancy an interesting and involved chat, a bit of a laugh, or just a chance to see a big sculpture of a swan, then pop in and say hello.