Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From Green Zone to the Big Apple

By Namo Abdulla - for Rudaw

In mid-July, I feared nearing the United States Embassy in Baghdad’s International Zone. Commonly known as the Green Zone, it looked massive and endless, surrounded by multi-layered blast walls topped with barbed wire.

But this time, the fear did not stem from the possibility of a bomb attack; I was instead afraid that I wouldn’t get a US visa by the time my fall semester classes began in New York.

For a couple friends of mine whose names were Mohammed, it took weeks and months to get an American visa. Some Erbil-based US diplomats whom I knew and approached gave a one piece of advice: apply “as soon as possible.”

Beyond anyone’s expectations, however, my visa was issued in just five days. Getting a US visa so soon made me think of and rethink a couple explanations.

First, it was wrong to think that the US government discriminates against Muslims wanting to go to America. It may rather treat those named “Mohammed” differently, because the holy name is enormously popular, and it’s unfortunately too easy for an innocent person to have the same name as a terrorist these days.

The second explanation, which I thought was equally important, was that I’m not from the troublesome part of Iraq; I rather belong to Kurdistan, a safe and pro-American haven in northern Iraq. In Kurdistan, no American soldier, diplomat or businessman has been killed or kidnapped since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Upon my arrival in New York’s massive JFK Airport, there was again no questioning whatsoever. I presented my documents, and in a few seconds, the officer stamped my passport, letting me step into America. I admittedly loved it right then and there. Day after day, the stereotypes I had about this country were now vanishing.

It was about 11 p.m. when I saw New York for the first time. As looked around to see everything, I perhaps looked like a person with wandering eyes. Right there, I got a feeling that it was impossible to draw any comparison between the US and Iraq.

Sitting in a yellow cab, I could see through the window the actual tall buildings that I had only seen in Hollywood movies, which had never given me a true image of what American society looks like. Reading all the English banners on the streets, this time I felt I was in a movie.

Before coming to the US, I had already made my mind that if somebody asked where I was from, the response would be just “Kurdistan.” No mention of the word Iraq at all, a behavior totally opposite what I had done a few days earlier in Turkey. I had, perhaps rightfully, thought that in America if I said I was from Iraq, everybody would suddenly think of bombs if not terrorism. But if I said Kurdistan, everybody would welcome me.

The attempt soon proved to be in vain. Few had any idea about Kurdistan. Each time I had to tell a long story to define it and explain where it was on the map. Hopelessly, I had to change my mind, saying I am from Iraq. The response, this time, has often been a big “wow.”

* The author is a student at Columbia Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

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