I enjoy learning about things from an academic perspective. However, I have found that simply speaking and interacting with people on a human level greatly enhances my understanding. In this brief note I will share one of these experiences.
It was October 2010. I was out grocery shopping and felt a craving for a mocha frappucino. Fortunately the grocery store that I was at had a Starbucks in it. I parked my shopping cart on the side and headed over to the Starbucks counter. An amber-eyed brunette greeted me.
“HI! What can I get for you today?”, she said, her English heavily accented with Arabic. From her voice it was clear that Arabic was her first language, but I wasn’t acquainted enough with the region to place which country.
“Yes, can I get a grande mocha frappucino please?”
“Sure, would you like a pastry or anything else with that?”
“No, that will be all, thank you”.
She rang me up. As I waited for my drink, she started speaking again.
“May I ask you a question? Are you fluent in Arabic?”
“No, I’m not fluent”, I said, chuckling to myself. As a practicing muslimah clad in an abaya and khimar, I was used to people thinking that I wasn’t American or that I could speak Arabic and/or Somali. “I only know enough Arabic to make salat”, I told her.
“Oh”, she said, nodding her head.”I’m not Muslim myself-I am Chaldean Catholic- but Arabic is my language. I am from Iraq”.
As soon as I heard the word Iraq, my mind went to a different place. I thought of the scenes on my screen when my country launched the invasion in 2003, the angry anti-war protests that brought traffic to a halt in Seattle,jubilant Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein, President Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring ‘mission accomplished’, the pictures of the shame at Abu Ghraib, the endless stream of bloody images from the suicide bombings and guerilla war that engulfed the country and the jarring numbers of casualties reported by the Lancet medical journal in 2006. As we stood there looking at each other-American to Iraqi, occupier to occupied and woman to woman-there was so much I wanted to say to her. There was so much I wanted to ask her. But she was at work and it would be uncouth to start such a discussion. I had no idea what she had gone through or witnessed before she came to the USA and didn’t want to do or say anything that might cause her to relive any trauma she’d experienced. So instead I decided to keep it safe and not delve into the subject to deeply.
“You’re from Iraq? Wow! How long have you been in the States, if you’re okay with me asking?”
“I’ve been here a little over a year, only lived in Iraq before coming to America”.
Ya Allah, I thought to myself, swallowing hard. So she definitely lived under the rule of Saddam, then through the invasion and under the occupation too…
“Ah I see. So, how are things going for you in America? How are you adapting so far?”
She looked at me with the uneasy smile of someone who does not want to offend, her eyes misting over with unshed tears. “I do not like it here”, she replied. “It is not good for me. I miss my country. I miss my family. But I couldn’t stay…” she said, her voice trailing off. I simply nodded at her and smiled in solidarity, for there were no words that I could say. I couldn’t say that I could understand or even relate, for that would be a lie. I couldn’t assure her that things would get better, for I didn’t know that. After my drink was ready I grabbed it from the counter, thanked her for her help and bid her adieu. But to this day, that conversation and the irony of it haunts me. My nation launched Operation Iraqi Freedom to ‘liberate’ her homeland, to topple Saddam, to establish a “beachhead of democracy” in the Middle East that would remake the region and improve the lives of everyday people like my barista. Yet instead of enjoying life in a peaceful, secure Iraq, this woman was now a refugee, over 6,000 miles away from her homeland and making iced drinks at Starbucks. Indeed, it was a classic example of unintended consequences.