We left off with Dr. Dahlia Wasfi discussing Islamophobia in Part 2 of my series. Now I want to explore what really drove her over the edge of inertia to become a powerful spokeswoman, even as I write, for ending the American occupation in Iraq, and a particularly well-versed one at that. To see my two earlier pieces on her (and Ross Caputi in Part 1 and Part 2.
A Crisis in Identity
We were still eating a leisurely dinner at the Pasha Mezze when I asked Dahlia “What led you to get involved with Iraq after 9/11 and the attack on Iraq?”
Dahlia: Iraq did not become an issue for me until I went to see my family and it was purely personal that I was going to see them. My life was falling apart at that point. I had taken leave from my residency and my full identification was as an MD. Outside of the hospital I had no idea who I was, and I really had become disillusioned, but also very depressed with the state of the world and the lack of control. I felt like I couldn’t control what was going on in my own life; I couldn’t stop the invasion from happening, so really there was a bit of passive suicidality in my first trip to Iraq. “Well, I’ll go see my family,” but in the back of my mind was the thought: “Take me out, because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t see myself going on. I don’t know who I am.”
I was miserable, and there was also Rachel’s (Corrie) experience. I was really bitter at that point, also questioning my sense of God, if there is a higher power. And if there was, I would have [inner] arguments: I saw Rachel, this very fair, blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful young American woman, and she had the guts to go over there, and SHE didn’t get to live anymore, and I thought, “This is ridiculous! I don’t want to be here anymore! Why would you take her?” These were questions I asked in conversations with God in my own head.
“OK, I’m going to go to Iraq! The regime fell. I’ll go see the family,” and a lot of the family members I met, my cousins – this is the first time I’m meeting them because all of them were born after I left in 1977 – it was like those 6 days [the trip overall was a total of 19 days-Mac], those 6 days I had with my cousins in Basra, that was life-changing, sort of a slap in the face, a wake-up call, like there’s something beyond you here! “You’re really being selfish and self-absorbed,” I told myself. I expected them to resent me, wanted them to resent me because I was an American who was living the American dream, and my tax dollars had rained down misery on them, so I expected them to think, “Why would you want to have anything to do with an American?”
But they welcomed me as if they had known me their entire lives, and to know that in my own mind, then if I could just get Americans to see them as real people I could turn this thing around, a little bit naïve, so basically I came back after this trip and I just wanted to put a human face on the people, so I just started showing family photos, and eventually that became much more for me, political talks – I would get more political questions and would have to read a little bit more, and I never consciously said I was going to put my medical career aside and I’m going to be an activist on Iraq. This is where my life has taken me, and like I said, “I’m still making it up as I go along,” but it’s been far more fulfilling, definitely therapeutic. I’m the one who definitely gets the most out of what I do. I get to tell people my story, offer my perspective…..and nothing gets better for anybody else over there. They continue to suffer, unfortunately, but this is my baby Don Quixote-like effort to try to turn the windmills in another direction.
Ashkenazi Jewish Heritage
Lest we forget, for those of you have read my earlier pieces in this series, and to enlighten those of you who haven’t, Dahlia is only Arab, or Arabian, on her father’s side of the family tree. Her mother is Jewish, raised in New York City, and whose own parents and grandfather actually were Ashkenazi Jews who had to flee from Nazi-occupied Austria during Hitler’s Anschluss, emigrating to the United States in 1938.
So Dahlia is in the unique position of having a foot in three, not two worlds: the Arab Middle East, the United States, and the Jewish Diaspora. This enables her to look more closely at Israel’s history as well, as she described to me how her mother’s family barely got into the United States before the Roosevelt Administration began placing quotas on the number of emigrants who could enter the country from Germany and Austria. C
onsequently, as Dahlia pointed out, many Jews were channeled instead to Palestine, the “Anglo-Saxons’ dumping ground” for Jewish refugees, among other actors vying to direct Jews to Palestine, which, as the world knows, would not be without major consequences soon after World War II was over.
In her interview with me, Dahlia didn’t go too much into the details of what she eye-witnessed during her 19 day journey into war-torn Iraq for the first time. It would be in order, thus, to insert this brief summary of her trip from her website liberatethis.com to give you a broader perspective of what see experienced on her first return trip since childhood:
In February 2004, I made a 19-day journey to Iraq. I flew to Jordan and made the 10-hour car ride to Baghdad, whose airport was (and is) controlled by our military. In Iraq’s capital, a year after the invasion, damage from bombing raids was omnipresent. Iraq had been liberated from electricity, security, and potable water. “Democracy” meant sewage in the streets, rolling blackouts, shooting, and explosions. Basrah was much the same, except that the damage appeared to be more extensive; this city had been destroyed during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, and sanctions and neglect had thwarted rebuilding.
Despite the desperation, the novelty of a visit from an American cousin brought us all joy. Getting to know each other for the first time, my cousins and I were like little kids, giggling and joking, whether the electricity was working or not. My stay was short because of the unpredictability of a country without law and order. I had to return to Amman via Baghdad to make my flight home, but I promised my cousins I would return for a longer stay soon, we hoped, when things were better.
Becoming a Spokeswoman
And as she explained above, once back in the States, she eventually evolved into one of the most sought after public speakers on the realties of the Iraq war, inside and outside of Iraq in all its gruesome details and aspects, physical and geopolitical. Her first speaking gig was actually in Estes Park, Colorado, in August of 2004 for an organization called Patriots for Peace, and from there, positive word of mouth brought here more and more invitations until she reached that snow-ball tipping point in a speaker’s career where she was constantly on the go with radio interviews and speaking engagements, always with the stipulation, however, that she would not become subordinated to anybody’s agenda. “You can’t tell me what to say,” she emphasizes.
Much of Dahlia’s mission is simply to explode stereotypes about Iraq that not only American citizens at home entertain, but also American soldiers, Marines and other personnel in Iraq and elsewhere abroad share, a situation where stereotypes can be deadly. For instance, she points out how we have constantly been fed the myth that Iraqi society simply consists of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, all three divisions continuously, or intermittently, at odds with each other to varying degrees of violence and hostility. Dahlia continues:
Dahlia: What we don’t really understand from a Western perspective is that there are all these extended family [her own extended family approaches a hundred relative-Mac], tribal connections that we just don’t have any idea about, what’s going on in neighborhoods, what’s going on in villages and how that extends out to the cities. Joe Biden broke it down for us as Sunni, Shia, Kurd. That’s it! It will never be that simple! It’s all of these extended interconnections, and tribal histories, especially in al Anbar Province, where Ross’s service was, that huge province with more extensive tribal histories, and we just have no idea what’s going on, but what we end up doing is that we go and ask who’s working for al Qaeda, and if there’s a battle going on between two families, one family might say, “Oh, well these people are connected to al Qaeda,” simply to have a vendetta carried out. This is happening in Iraq; this is happening in Afghanistan, and one family ends up with a whole lot of money from the Americans, and the other family ends up with dead relatives.
Mac: I’ve heard about that, calling in airstrikes on someone you don’t like.
Dahlia: Yeah. So it’s far more complicated than we understand, and I think that most of us want to understand, because…..there’s still this sense that we want to feel good about what we’ve done and what we’re doing. We just want do, and that’s understandable from a human perspective, but we have to stop and take stock of what we’ve done. And if we do look at that, then it gets really ugly really fast.
Just how ugly did it get? Dahlia isn’t squeamish at all about pointing out that the US Government has been violating international laws by invading and occupying Iraq. In fact she had a short but somewhat strident interview earlier this same day with the host of a local Hampton Roads NPR affiliate radio show, “Hearsay with Cathy Lewis”, over this, which she recounted during our interview. It began when the host unknowingly said something in her introductory remarks that rubbed Dahlia the wrong way:
Dahlia: Basically, the introduction to my little blurb was [paraphrasing the host], “Well, it could be argued whether or not we should have done what we did, but we are where we are now.” And I said that you just can’t blow of international law!….When the Nazis were invading Europe, we just didn’t say, “Well, they are where they are now.”
So she took that as “Are you comparing what we did to what the Nazis did?”
So I said, “I’ll tell you the difference. Because of what the Nazis did, the international community organized certain bodies to pass certain laws to make sure that that would never happen again,” and I said it was the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Convention, the Geneva Convention, and so what we did was in violation of all those laws. We said we’re not going to pay attention to them.
And simply from these categorizations, of the collective punishment of a population, which is what we did to Fallujah and many cities, but Fallujah is the prime example of collective punishment, of death squads, of the use of chemical and depleted uranium weapons, but just from this tactical perspective we’ve killed a million people [this figure, quoted frequently in various media, cannot be confirmed however – Mac]. I mean there is nothing to feel good about. It’s very emotional, and I’m the one who brought up Nazis, so it’s a very emotional association with that, but if we want to assess what we’ve done in the region, we should ask the people who are living there and find out their stories.
Dahlia went on to underscore that, “as the occupying power, we are responsible for, by the Geneva Convention, the civilian population, so everything that happens is our responsibility.”
This is painful to acknowledge that, on one hand, America has had this responsibility to protect the civilian Iraqi population, while on the other hand we have been laying waste to a large percentage of the same since 2003. And there has been little accountability for, to again quote Dahlia, “how we affected ‘divide and conquer’, how before we showed up there were no Sunni neighborhoods, no Shia neighborhoods. THAT did not exist!
Dahlia: In the recent demonstrations in Iraq that are capturing the fervor of the Revolution that going on throughout western Asia and North Africa, they’re pulling down these walls. They’re knocking down these walls that were set up by the Army Corps of Engineers. They don’t want them! They don’t want that division, but this is an age-old tactic.
Mac: Divide and conquer?
Dahlia: That’s it!
Dahlia spoke at length about “divide and conquer” as a Coalition strategy in Iraq, correlating that with another strategy, the “Salvador Option”, both of which we will explore farther in my next article in this series, but suffice it to say at this point that, historically, the former refers to the British Empire’s strategy of dividing peoples and tribes against each others in those areas the British wanted to colonize, not that they, of course, are the only ones who have practiced this in history. Far from it! The later refers to the policy the US military supported in El Salvador in the 1980s,
For now, I will leave you, the reader, with an excerpt from an article written on Dahlia back in 2007 expounding upon these two subjects:
In her presentation she exposed as a myth one encouraged by much of the mainstream media, the notion that U.S. forces need to remain in Iraq to quell the civil war. Wasfi argues that the occupation is actually driving the sectarian strife. The U.S. military machine has instigated sectarian warfare in Iraq, invoking the “Salvador Option.” American Special Forces, she says, are using many of the same tactics that were previously used in the “dirty wars” of Latin America, including the recruitment and training of Iraqi death squads.
For decades Iraqi society was secular and many people are of mixed background. For example, Wasfi’s grandfather was Shia, and her grandmother was Sunni and from the north of Iraq, “So she also had some Kurdish blood.”
“There has never been a war between Sunni and Shia in the region of modern day Iraq since the sects were established 1400 years ago,” says, “and the violence will dramatically fall once U.S. troops leave.” For example, she notes, “2.5 million Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries, and they didn’t bring violence with them. The violence is centered in Iraq where the CIA, U.S. forces and Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency] are fomenting it. The same people who are telling us that it’s a civil war are the same people who told us that Saddam had WMDs and ties to Al Qaeda.”
The present conflict in Iraq reminds Wasfi of a joke her father told her of Britain’s earlier colonial strategy, “If you see two fish fighting in the sea, look around for the British guy who started it.” It’s the strategy of divide and conquer.