Tuesday, January 3, 2012

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

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