Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Video: America Votes: Next US President To Face New Challenges

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

NEW YORK, United States -- Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether President Barack Obama should stay in the White House for four more years or leave it for his Republican rival Mitt Romney. Romney has been seeking the White House for seven years.

Despite the country’s struggling economy, the Obama-Romney race has been the most expensive one in history. The total cost of this year’s US elections is estimated at 6 billion dollars.

Many issues were raised during the election campaigns.They raged from international issues such as the Syria crisis to the rise of China. But, of course, no issue received more attention than domestic unemployment, which is rated at 7.9 percent here in the United States. That means more than 12 million Americans are currently unemployed.

 Mitt Romney, a business tycoon, appears to have swayed some voters that he is the right man for a bad economic time. In just a few hours we will have the election result. Whether it’s Obama or Romney, the next US leader will find himself in a new world, where real leadership is tested. Dealing with the post-Arab Spring order, Syria crisis, and Iran’s nuclear program are going to be at the top of those issues. 

The policies of the next US leader will no doubt have their own impacts on the Kurds, the largest stateless ethnic group who live in significant numbers in both Iran and Syria.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Paul Bremer Shows Little Regret about Role in Iraq

By Namo Abdulla -- Rudaw

CHESTER, United States -- A densely forested and isolated town in the state of Vermont is a far cry from the deserts of the Middle East. But though Chester is a long way from Basra, it is home to a man who governed Iraq.
“The de-Baathifcation decree was never intended to exclude Baathists
from being in the government,” says Paul Bremer  

Paul Bremer’s policies had a more long-lasting influence than his 382-day tenure as the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, a post-war institution created to rule the country from May 2003 to June 2004.

Two of Bremer’s policies, which were particularly prominent and favored by the Kurds, received wide-ranging criticism from pundits as factors for the sectarian strife that broke out not long after Bremer left the country.

One of which was a decree drafted to outlaw the former Baath Party. It was called “de-Baathification” in English, but what Iraqis implemented was closer to the Arabic or Kurdish version of the word, “ijtithath - rishekeshkrdn” -- to uproot.

About the implementation of this, Bremer showed a little regret. “Of course,” he said, “the de-Baathifcation decree was never intended to exclude Baathists from being in the government.”  

“It affected only 1 percent of the Baath Party, the top 1 percent. The mistake I made was turning the implementation of the decree over to Iraqi politicians, who then expanded the implementation far beyond what was written in the decree,” Bremer said, adding that he should have turned the decree over to lawyers and judges who would have had a narrower, legal approach.

Bremer believes that de-Baathification itself was the correct decision and had been made long before he was appointed as Iraq’s governor.    

“The decree itself was essentially part of the agreed American policy from before the fall of Saddam,” he said.

Bremer added, “The Baath Party had been the primary instrument of political oppression, just as the army had been the primary instrument of physical oppression. The party had to be outlawed, and then the top people could not work in government.”

However, many former Baathists and soldiers joined armed insurgent groups who have ravaged much of the country over the past nine years.

At his home in Chester, Bremer appeared proud of his past. On a table in the front hall, dozens of medals, including a few he received for his work in Iraq, are displayed. One of which is a semi-circle painted with Iraq’s new flag that carries the words “God is the Greatest.” It does not have the three stars Saddam Hussein placed on the old flag, under which Bremer served too.

On the day Rudaw visited him last week, nobody else was at home except for two small white dogs. Appearing relaxed, Bremer was not wearing the kind of business attire he sported at the historic moment he declared Saddam Hussein had been arrested with the simple words: “Ladies and gentleman, we got him.”  

This time, the retired diplomat, whose next job is teaching at the American University in Washington, D.C., was wearing jeans and sneakers with his shirt sleeves rolled up. Even the books on his shelves were mostly non-political: several volumes by Charles Dickens stood out next to books by William Shakespeare, whose portrait hangs in Bremer’s living room.

Asked why he thought it was necessary to dissolve the Iraqi Army and, in turn, lay off nearly 400,000 soldiers, Bremer replied, “The question was not should we dissolve the Iraqi Army, it was should we recall the Iraqi Army because there was no Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army had disappeared. The commanding generals reported there were no Iraqi units anywhere in place. They’d gone home.”

“As the people of Kurdistan are well aware, it was a primary instrument of Saddam Hussein’s terror not just against Iraqi Arabs but against Iraqi Kurds,” Bremer added.

He gave two reasons -- one practical and one political -- why it was the correct decision to build the army anew. 
“Practically, it would’ve meant sending American forces into the villages, farms and towns to force the conscripts, the enlisted men, back into the army they hated, under Sunni Arab officers they hated.”

The political reason, Bremer said, pressured the United States to surrender to the new reality it helped create with the invasion of Iraq.

“It was very clear,” he said, “from the cooperation we were getting from both the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Shia, that both of them would consider the recalling of the Iraqi Army a hostile action. In fact, the Kurdish leaders made it very clear to me that if we had recalled the Iraqi Army, they would secede from Iraq. They would have declared an independent Kurdistan.”

Bremer spoke a few words in Persian, learned in three years spent as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan. Iraq’s post-Saddam Shia leaders spent years in exile in Iran, but Bremer does not share the worry of some Washington officials and Iraq experts that these leaders will work to serve the interests of the increasingly isolated government in Tehran.

“When I was in Iraq, there were a lot of people in Washington that were concerned about the rise of the Iraqi Shia … I have never believed that Iraqi Shias were essentially pawns of the government in Tehran. I just don’t believe that, including Maliki,” he said.

One reason this is the case, Bremer argued, is the fact that Iraqis and Iranians are ethnically different.
“I think it overlooks the fact that, other than the Kurds, the Shia and Sunnis are Arabs, not Persians. The border between Iraq and Iran is a border that predates Mohammed. It’s basically an ethnic border between the Arab and Persian peoples,” he said.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Namo Abdulla Honored by WHCA

Namo Abdulla with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on April 28, 2012.

By Columbia Journalism School

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism M.A. student Namo Abdulla recently attended a White House Correspondents’ Association Scholarship event in Washington, DC, in honor of the $5,000 tuition grant he received from the organization in 2012.
Abdulla, who is concentrating in politics, will graduate this May. He is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and has reported for top Iraqi and international media outlets. As a freelance correspondent, he has written for The New York Times, Reuters, the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and IRIN, UN's humanitarian news agency. He was most recently editor-in-chief of the English version of Rudaw, a leading newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan. Abdulla has reported from some of Iraq’s most volatile areas, including Baghdad, Kirkuk and Diyala.
At an April 27 WHCA luncheon, Abdulla—and the 15 other undergraduate and graduate students from across the country who together received more than $132,000 in scholarship funds from the organization—heard from a panel of White House reporters and from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about access and transparency in their coverage of the President. Moderated by Julie Mason of SiriusXM, the panel included Jake Tapper of ABC News, Ben Feller of the Associated Press, Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal, and Jackie Kucinich of USA Today.
Scholarship recipients were officially announced at the WHCA Annual Dinner on April 28, where Abdullah had opportunity to pose for a particularly memorable photograph—one the WHCA selected to represent the 2012 recipients' event on its Web site.
“It was such a proud moment to be standing next to the President and First Lady and talk to them,” Abdulla said.
“It had never even been a dream for me to be awarded by the President of the United States of America. I am sure this award will make me even more determined to practice ethical and professional journalism, which I have studied deeply at Columbia Journalism School over the past nine months,” Abdulla continued.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fukuyama's Future of History

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

In the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, Francis Fukuyama published an article entitled The Future of History. The subtitle is Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class? In this piece, there’s a clear admission by the famed American author that his previous ideas, which brought him to prominence, are simply not so true anymore.

We all know Fukuyama for his famous 1989 article, which described the “end of history.” The article, which was published as a book later, argued liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government.”

But as we see widespread popular discontent with the economic mismanagement by Western democracies, Fukuyama finds it difficult to convince himself that history has ended. Therefore, he is now writing about “the future of history.”

In the new article, Fukuyama still believes that liberal democracy is the world’s hegemonic ideology. “No plausible rival ideology looms,” he says. However, he admits that liberal democracy is in danger due to changes in the socio-economic system. “Some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood.”

Those trends are troubling because they mean the decline of the middle class, a group seen as the backbone of liberal democracy. “What if the further development of technology and globalization undermines the middle class and makes it impossible for more than a minority of citizens in an advanced society to achieve middle-class status?” he says.

Despite agreeing with the notion that the decline of the middle class, as an infrastructure, means the decline of liberal democracy, as an ideology, Fukuyama, a former neoconservative, makes sure he is not viewed as a Marxist, of course. He draws a vague distinction between his argument and that of Karl Marx. “Social forces and conditions do not simply ‘determine’ ideologies, as Karl Marx once maintained,” he writes, “but ideas do not become powerful unless they speak to the concerns of large numbers of ordinary people.”

Now, one could ask a key question: what can be done to prevent the decline of the middle class? More importantly, who can do it? There’s no easy answer to these questions, which Fukuyama fails to address in his article.

But there are at least two answers available. Those on the right of the political spectrum stick to their old argument. Don’t intervene in the market. Provide everybody with equality of opportunity to compete. This keeps the market dynamic. This is liberal democracy.

The left are for a bigger government. (Fukuyama seems to be on this side too, as he sees the “Chinese Model” as “the single most serious challenge to liberal democracy,” which provides a more “dynamic” economy than that of the U.S. because of a combination of authoritarianism and partially marketized economy.) Democrats want to increase taxes for the rich and lower them for the poor, meaning that they are concerned not only with equality opportunity, but equality of outcome, too. From this perspective, preventing the decline of the middle class requires government intervention.

Though Fukuyama believes the left has failed to offer a meaningful alternative, we might be heading in the direction of bigger governments. Greece is already imposing highly unpopular austerity measures, including big cuts in wages and pensions.

The idea of a completely free market, that can regulate itself, has never made full sense for one simple reason. The interests of the government and corporations are interwoven. To put it simply, corporations need employees, whose concerns government cares about. Why did U.S. government give a $52.4 billion bailout to General Motors in 2008 and 2009? The answer is partially because General Motors employs more than 200,000 people.

But we should also be aware that any government-led attempt to prevent the decline of the middle class might itself mean the demise of liberal democracy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Journalism Without Anthony Shadid!

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Anthony Shadid- photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

The New York Times can no longer be as good as it once was on the Middle East. From now on, we will know much less about this intricate, tumultuous, but pivotal region. That is because Anthony Shadid has died.

After I returned home from university on Thursday evening, I did what I usually do: opened the New York Times website to learn where Syria’s pro-democracy protestors stood in their long and bloody struggle to topple a dictator who exercises little restraint in murdering his own people. I was hoping to read another masterpiece by Shadid, who had secretly snuck into Syria from a border demarcated by barbed wires.

Instead, I was told that the best journalist of the era hadn’t lived more than 43 years.

I didn’t believe what I was reading. I wanted to shout: “The New York Times is the worst liar.” After all the adventures he took, Shadid couldn’t have died from asthma triggered by horse allergies.

But soon my eyes seemed to believe the news as they started to send teardrops down my cheeks. It had been a long time since I had wept. But this time it was for Shadid, one of the best and kindest persons I had ever known and had the honor to work with as a translator, fixer and reporter. I will forever remain honored by a single byline I shared with him.

Long before working with him in late 2010, I had made Shadid my must-read author. I was a constant reader of his dispatches for the Washington Post, where he won two Pulitzer prizes for his reporting in Iraq, where he went when the war broke out in 2003.

On Jan. 22, 2010, after reading a story by him, I wished I had his email so I could tell him, “Thank you for this great work.” Right away, I thought of Ayub Nuri, a friend who is now the editor of this website and had previously mentioned that he had met Shadid. He sent me the address:“shadida@washpost.com.”

But it wasn’t helpful. By the time I wanted to send him an email, he had already left the Post to join the Times. After a few months, an opportunity came up for me to work as a stringer for the Times in Kurdistan, where I finally met Shadid.

The first time I met him was at the Safeer Hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan where giant oil fields had been discovered, allowing the region to flourish like nowhere else in Iraq. He was accompanied by Ayman Oghanaa, a photographer, and Duraid Adnan, a Baghdad-based reporter for the Times. Since I had previously known both of them, we shook hands and hugged each other. Then, I found myself standing in front of Shadid, who introduced himself just like an unknown, ordinary person. “I’m Anthony,” he said. I looked at him for a bit, saying, “You think I don’t know you?” He laughed. I said something else that made everybody laugh: “Just tell me how can you write like that?”

After that, Anthony became a great friend who always fulfilled my never-ending demands, be it a job recommendation letter or even proofreading an essay. He would write, “Let me know if there's anything more I can do. Good luck, my friend!” To be exact, I copied these two sentences from his last email nearly two months ago after he wrote me a reference letter. He put aside all his great reporting on an increasingly tumultuous Middle East, which he singlehandedly helped the world understand better, for a while to do me a favor. “What kind of person is he?” I wondered. “For a journalistic giant,” wrote Tim Arango, the Times Baghdad bureau chief, about Shadid, “the only thing missing from his toolbox was a massive ego.”

“One of my milestones was hiring Anthony Shadid in 2009 -- on at least the third try,” said Bill Keller, former executive editor of the Times, which said, “Mr. Shadid's hiring by The Times at the end of 2009 was widely considered a coup for the newspaper.”

First through his writings and then his friendship, Shadid taught me that journalism was more than just a profession. It seemed that Shadid himself loved it more than his life. He was shot, arrested and tortured but never quit war reporting. For two decades, Shadid risked his life in Palestine, Iraq, Libya and Syria to allow us to know better and, in our case, to be heard better. He never regretted what he was doing. “I felt that if I wasn't there, the story wouldn't be told otherwise,” he replied to a NPR reporter’s question on why he was risking his life by going to Syria on motorcycle to report on a bloody protest. Shadid seemed crazy about the truth.

Shadid wrote many unmatched stories about Iraq, where he, unlike many other foreign reporters who would report from their hotel rooms, took advantage of his fluency in Arabic to go to Iraq’s troubled slums and towns to dig up stories no one else could uncover. It was he who, long before everybody else, told the world that it was Iraq’s turban-wearing Shiite clerics who would have most influence in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where President Bush once promised to deliver democracy with guns.

One of the most powerful passages that I still remember was in a story he wrote about the withdrawal of some American troops in 2009:

"From the once-proud city of Baghdad, they have withdrawn through a landscape that bears the scars of the battles they fought and witnessed, where the echoes of occupation still sound along the road in the grunts of anarchy and the whispers of abandonment. Everything seems bent and broken, torn and tangled, from the railing on the highway to the signs bearing names of faraway destinations to the rubble piling up along the curbside. At least those curbs are not yet crumbling."

Unlike most terms suffixed with an “ism,” journalism is not an ideology. But it might be a religion, which makes people like Shadid passionately practice. Last week, this era’s prophet of journalism died.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The American Lens on Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite Relations

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

On Saturday, I woke up to a new day in Dearborn, an American city where the largest Iraqi community is based.

The chilly weather did not let me sleep as usual, forcing me to open my eyes at dawn to see through my bedroom window snow covering the street and pyramid-shaped rooftops of my neighbors’ houses. Everything was white, apart from a few footprints and big tire prints that looked like the ones left by a crazy driver.

It was the final day of a journalistic visit that I nervously began 10 days ago. I was previously worried that Dearborn-based Iraqis, who are mostly Shiite Arabs, might not welcome me as a Sunni Kurd.

The Arabs and Kurds share a long, bloody history that dates back to the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in early 1920s. This conflict continues until now, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad remain at loggerheads over oil-rich disputed territories in the north.

Since my trip coincided with a renewed wave of sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict, I was more worried about my Sunni identity than my Kurdish one. After Iraq’s Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant for a Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, the past 10 days saw two major attacks in Iraq’s south. Nearly 100 Shiite worshipers, including women and children, were killed. Some of the dead had cousins in Dearborn where funerals were held.

In the Detroit airport, I caught a ride with a Shiite driver. The first thing I asked him was whether the Shiite-Sunni problem existed among Iraqi-Americans.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Here, we live together, we marry each other and we celebrate together.”

His answer was like a happiness pill, giving me a feeling of confidence and bravery that I thought was realized by the driver.

Our first stop was at a restaurant where a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk was serving black tea and lentil soup to Shiite Arabs. Admittedly, I was very happy to see her. After speaking to her in Kurdish, I enjoyed my first Iraqi-style breakfast in the more than five months since I came to America.

At the restaurant, a television set was tuned to an Iraqi channel broadcasting news about Hashimi being given refuge in Kurdistan. The feeling I got here was not as good as the one I got from the driver. Just like the Iraqi Shiites, these middle-aged men were voicing concern about Hashimi and the Kurdish government.

“He’s a terrorist,” one guy said, referring to Hashimi.

The next person I met was Saeed Ghalib al-Yassiri, an Iraqi Shiite political activist who has been hosting a one-hour radio show for more than a decade. Aired live on Wednesday at 11:00 pm, it started as an opposition show against Saddam Hussein’s regime before the invasion and is now more dedicated to religious affairs.

Mr. Yassiri fled Iraq after the Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq were brutally quashed in 1991. First stayed in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and was later given a refuge status in the United States, where his sole child, Mohammed, was born 9 years ago.

While a conservative and religious person, Mr. Yassiri didn’t exude any of the Shiite or Arab extremism that exist in many parts of Iraq. Instead, he invited me to his house every day, telling me how both the Shiites and Kurds were for decades victims of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator.

His son, Mohammed, goes to a religious school and prays five times a day. But he also knows much about America and speaks a fluent American English and Arabic. He has the latest version of Xbox, which we used to play soccer many times.

On the final day, each of us decided to choose our favorite soccer teams. I picked Argentina and lost two games to his team from America, a country that Mohammed says he never wants to leave permanently for Iraq.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Kurdish Nationalism and American Pizza

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

It wasn’t new to see how food promoted different ethnicities on Michigan’s Merriman Street where Chinese, Greek, Arab and American restaurants are built next to each other. It was, however, both unique and touching to find an American pizza shop in this far corner of the world introducing its international customers to the flag of Kurdistan, a nation which exists only in dreams.

As I stepped into Toarmina’s Pizza with an Arab acquaintance, the red-white-yellow-green Kurdish colors caught my eye. They were swinging next to an American flag and represented the world’s largest ethnic group without an independent state of their own.

The Kurds are an estimated 30 million people living in adjacent parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, a division that was created following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.

Originally from Halabja, a town where Saddam Hussein’s government used chemical gas in 1988, Umed Ali is the owner of the small pizzeria. As a man who has lost many neighbors and relatives to the Kurdish cause, it was understandable why Ali revered the flag, which has officially only flown in Iraq’s north where the Kurds have for two decades enjoyed self-rule.

“Since I opened my own shop I have placed that flag there. It’s been 12 years,” Ali said as I enjoyed lunch at his restaurant, where his young daughter in a fluent American accent joined him in serving diverse customers.

“In America, we have freedom and everybody is proud of their ethnicity. Here visitors ask: ‘Whose flag is that?’ and I start telling them about the Kurds,” added Ali.

Despite being a high school teacher and a leader on a local soccer team in Kurdistan, Ali chose to flee Iraqi Kurdistan for the US in 1995, when the Iraqi Kurds were at the height of a civil war that claimed thousands of lives.

Ali’s nationalistic behavior in America reminded me of the famed American author, Benedict Anderson, who a couple of decades ago came up with a new theory discussing a new form of national sentiment called “long-distance nationalism.”

Anderson previously coined the term “imagined communities,” which argues that long-distance nationalism serves as a “phantom bedrock” for communities in Diaspora to experience connections to their homeland.

But Ali’s case adds something else to Anderson’s argument. In an American kitchen, Ali’s hanging of the Kurdistan flag is part a vague process of nation-building abroad. It’s an attempt to find more sympathizers for a kind of nationalism whose birth, if it ever happens, is in the future.

As Ali was an Iraqi citizen, I asked him why he didn’t replace the Kurdish flag with an Iraqi flag, which represents an internationally-recognized nation.

“Under the Iraqi flag, we were massacred and gassed,” he replied.

While the post-2003 Iraqi flag isn’t the same as the one Saddam used, Ali’s answer served as another reminder of how history has made it difficult for Iraq’s ethnic groups to build a unified nation.

“I’m optimistic,” Ali said. “I don’t think Anfal (Kurdish genocide) will ever happen again. But I don’t also think we have totally closed the door on war.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Night in Times Square

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Wearing colorful party clothes, some arrived at 7 a.m. to secure a good position from where they could see the famous midnight ball dropping on New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

By midnight, nearly a million people had decided that it was worth it to spend the last minutes of 2011 in the reveling square. For a long time, I had wished to be one of these people attending the New York’s largest New Year gathering.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I had only seen and heard of it on television. Watching people dancing and wearing hats and glasses displaying the numerals of the New Year had given me the impression that New Yorkers had great lives.

It was part of the heavenly image of henderan “abroad” which many Kurds, including me, had longed to be a part of. Many of my friends and relatives equated living in henderan with living without sadness. (Though the word henderan was more often referred to Europe than America, given its geographical location.)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Kurds found it was worth risking their lives to be smuggled by unknown people on illegal boats through Turkey’s Aegean Sea to Greece. Hundreds died before reaching their destination.

But here I was now in America, attending a New Year’s Eve party in the Big Apple, a nickname with which I had become familiar with thanks to a British teacher in Kurdistan. Though I’m yet to understand exactly why it’s called as such, I felt the analogy on New Year’s Eve.

Accompanied by another Kurdish student, I headed to Times Square finding fluorescent lights and Christmas decorations on avenues which police barricaded -- taking people’s freedom of movement for security, a notion that I had been indoctrinated with in Iraq.

“Are you guys also Kurdish?” asked a random Kurdish man curiously, interrupting a Kurdish-language conversation I had with my friend. It was a moment as thrilling as unexpected to meet a fellow countryman in a city whose multi-ethnic nature is as old as its diversity.

He was speechless and happy about it as well, seeing how happy people looked in the fast-approaching new year. One of Roland Emmerich’s movies, 2012, strengthens the eschatological belief that it would see cataclysmic events.

Putting aside all grievances was what I felt in people regardless of their economic status. One man who appeared to be homeless, a poor street vendor, for instance, was shouting on Broadway: “I love you… I love you.” In the Square, people were expecting Lady Gaga and Justin Biebier to sing, marking the demise of a certain year and birth of an unknown one.

It was around 8 p.m. when I arrived in Times Square to see people shoving and pushing to get closer to the sight of the ball dropping in four hours. Not long after I came out of the subway, parts of which were again closed by the police, it was clear that I would not be a witness to it. But missing the ball dropping here didn’t actually sadden me as it would have in Kurdistan, because for me the Big Apple now means having options more than anything else.

* Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

A Journey to Washington DC

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

It was three o’clock in the morning when I packed my bag for a trip to a city about which I had heard so much but never seen. I was to visit Washington DC--a city whose decisions had caused death and saved lives in my country.

Back in Iraq I knew it merely as “Washington.” But I see that in America most people refer to it as DC.

Washington was named after George Washington, one of the founding fathers of America--a country made by war but has ever since continued to use a carrot and stick approach to promote her values and interests.

My trip to Washington coincided with the withdrawal of the final US soldier from Iraq.

When the war started in 2003, I was only 16 years old and I spoke no more than a few words of English in Kurdistan. The prospect of an end to Saddam Hussein’s regime, a leader whose forces had destroyed my birth-village, made me happy.

But my mother seemed afraid. After I came home from playing soccer with other children in our neighborhood’s dusty field, she told me to go to the market to buy polyethylene and nails to board up our windows to prevent possible seeping of chemical gas which Washington wrongly claimed Saddam possessed.

My trip to DC started from New York City’s Penn Station where I took a train ride for the first time in my life. When I was a child I hated trains. I thought of them as murderous machines that never stop. Though Kurdistan does not have railroads, I had once seen on television a man trying to save a child stuck on a railroad.

This train, however, was different. It provided my laptop with Wi-Fi Internet and allowed me to chat with my younger brother thousands of miles away in Kurdistan. I opened my webcam to show him the beautiful scenery outside.

“You know there are no checkpoints on the way to Washington,” I told him. “Come on!” he said simply. “I know. How can a train stop for checkpoints?”

The brother, who would go to college next year, has never been on a train or to a country without numerous checkpoints. In Iraq there are countless checkpoints inside and between cities. They are often manned by masked and scary soldiers aiming at finding potential “terrorists.”

“How does it feel to be on a train?” my brother asked curiously. “It feels good,” I replied.

Though Kurdistan is much safer than the rest of Iraq, it still has many checkpoints and they increase as you go near leaders’ compounds. Before you enter a city guards at checkpoints may ask you weird questions as “where are you going?” and demand to see you identification papers.

Whether at checkpoints, party headquarters, highways that link cities to leaders’ homes, or family gatherings, there is one unchanging rule in Kurdistan: No photos. At political places it’s for security reasons unknown to most ordinary people.

Despite the fact that America has some enemies of its own, no one stopped me from taking photos in front of the White House, a place where I saw fewer guards than around the house of low-ranking Iraqi officials. With a Kurdish friend of mine, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in America, I took many photos in front of the Congress, the White House and posted them on Facebook later on.

My friend and I, however, both felt that we represented the happy part of the Iraq’s sad story. We had both learned English during the invasion in a school built after the war.

On the way back to New York, I checked my Facebook on the train and saw two messages: an invitation from an American friend to a party and a story sent by an Iraqi friend about a new political crisis in the war-torn Iraq that once Washington D.C. had pledged to make better.

Follow the author on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu