Friday, June 17, 2011

Barefoot in Baghdad

Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar

Incredible Quote (IQ) "Years of humanitarian work had taught me that the smallest intervention could set loose an avalanche of unexpected consequences. I knew better than to dive in on a whim. The key was to anticipate and plan for worst-case scenarios and to take calculated risks to improve people's lives. Even the most experienced aid workers could find themselves stuck in some intractable situation. My organization's motto was 'Underpromise and overdeliver.'" pg. 142

Manal Omar is an American aid worker of Palestinian descent and when she moves to Iraq as part of her work with Women for Women International her particular Arabic heritage and beliefs present a bit of a problem. It's hard for many of the Iraqi women to relate to her wearing the veil this is a story about her efforts to gain the trust of Iraqi women (and men) and her friendships with the three men (Yusuf, Fadi and Mais) who help her get started set during the time when things started to go terribly wrong for Iraq.

I thought this book was oddly devoid of what Ms. Omar DID exactly in Iraq. It all seemed very vague, she talked about setting up women's centers but mostly this book focused on the difficulties aid agencies faced working in Iraq. Which was disappointing to me because I had hoped the story would be specifically about what Women for Women International did in Iraq or even touch on what NGOs in general did in Iraq. Instead (and I guess it makes sense since this is a memoir) the story very much focuses on relationships but personally I cared more about her work than her personal life. Which sounds way harsh and I don't mean to say her personal life isn't interesting but I wish she had found a better balance. I wasn't a fan of the writing style either the book opens up moving fast with an engaging and heartbreaking story and then the story is dropped. I honestly couldn't remember who Ms. Omar was talking about once she resumed the story (after a looonnnggg pause in which she discussed her family and her first few months in Iraq) and I had to flip back to the beginning.

I was captivated by the fact that the author had such difficulty gaining the trust of American soldiers as well as the Iraqi women because she wore the veil. The men she worked with were disappointed because at first they didn't view her as a 'true American' and the Iraqi women feared she might be a religious fanatic. The point is continuously made that Iraq is a fairly secular country compared to the countries around them (they often say they are not like Iran) and that is a point of immense pride for the Iraqi people, especially concerning women's rights "They [Iraqi women] had paved the way for women in the region by being among the first to vote, the first to participate in the judiciary system, and the first to demonstrate their economic power. Women from the rural areas became legendary for devising methods to survive the sanctions of the 1990s." (pg. 17). Furthermore the author did an excellent job portraying her relationships with the Iraqi people, they all came alive and the inevitable deaths quite literally broke my heart. I obviously didn't suffer as much as Ms. Omar but I did get so wrapped up that I was near tears.

Barefoot in Baghdad was a disappointing story because I had different expectations. I would recommend going into this story with the mindset of having no expectations or expecting a strong focus on personal relationships between the author and certain people as well as a discussion of American policy flaws in Iraq. I personally admired Ms. Omar because her career path is one I would LOVE to follow. I want to major in international relations and work for an aid agency and travel around the world. However I was hoping to read a story that concentrated largely on aid work and it did not. From a cultural aspect I had a really hard time understanding Ms. Omar deciding to get married so suddenly but she explains that in her culture women don't date. Which I knew from other YA books I'd read but I guess I just assumed adult women would date if they wanted to, but Ms. Omar's culture and religious beliefs are very important to her and I respect that immensely. She asks for her parents blessings on everything but if they say no, she will fight them on it if she believes it's truly important. A striking story that looks at the time when Iraq began to crumble and the danger aid workers faced in Iraq as well as the even greater danger faced by the Iraqi people. I walked away from this book wanting to learn more about this amazing country. The story also reads like a how-to guide for humanitarians imparting lessons such as the IQ and this "As much as we thought we knew what was needed, in the end only the communities we planned to work with really knew" (pg.22).

Disclosure: Swapped with Helen from Helen's Book Blog

*I will be in Guatemala from June 10-20 with no Internet access