Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos [NOOK Book]

Overview

"Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you…" —Iraqi-Turkmen proverb

A riveting story of hope and despair, of elation and longing, Barefoot in Baghdad takes you to the front lines of a different kind of battle, where the unsung freedom fighters are strong, vibrant—and female.

An American aid worker of Arab descent, Manal Omar moves to Iraq to help as many women as she can rebuild their lives. She quickly finds herself drawn into the saga of a ...

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Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos

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Overview

"Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you…" —Iraqi-Turkmen proverb

A riveting story of hope and despair, of elation and longing, Barefoot in Baghdad takes you to the front lines of a different kind of battle, where the unsung freedom fighters are strong, vibrant—and female.

An American aid worker of Arab descent, Manal Omar moves to Iraq to help as many women as she can rebuild their lives. She quickly finds herself drawn into the saga of a people determined to rise from the ashes of war and sanctions and rebuild their lives in the face of crushing chaos. This is a chronicle of Omar's friendships with several Iraqis whose lives are crumbling before her eyes. It is a tale of love, as her relationship with one Iraqi man intensifies in a country in turmoil. And it is the heartrending stories of the women of Iraq, as they grapple with what it means to be female in a homeland you no longer recognize.

"Manal Omar captures the complex reality of living and working in war-torn Iraq, a reality that tells the story of love and hope in the midst of bombs and explosions."—Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, and author (with Laurie Becklund) of the national bestselling book Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

"A fascinating, honest, and inspiring portrait of a women's rights activist in Iraq, struggling to help local women while exploring her own identity. Manal Omar is a skilled guide into Iraq, as she understands the region, speaks Arabic, and wears the veil. At turns funny and tragic, she carries a powerful message for women, and delivers it through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq

"At turns funny and tragic…a powerful message for women, [delivered] through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Omar provides a rare glimpse into facets of Iraqi life not often described in American newspapers and magazines as she describes not only the dangers but also the joys, small and great.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402256943
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 285,689
  • File size: 950 KB

Meet the Author

Manal Omar has worked with Women for Women International, a nonprofit NGO, as Regional Coordinator for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Formerly a journalist, she began work in Iraq in 1997 and 1998 for UNESCO, and worked for OxFam in the Middle East. Currently, she is the Program Officer for the Iraq Grants Program with the United States Institute of Peace, based in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

Throughout my childhood I struggled to answer the simplest of questions: where are you from? I was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents who moved to Lubbock, Texas, when I was six months old. During my childhood, my parents would uproot me every few years, from Texas to South Carolina to Virginia. Living in the American South, I was far from the image of a Southern belle, and yet the summers I spent in the Middle East only emphasized my American identity and made it clear to me that I would also never exactly be an Arab poster child.

By the time I was in high school, I had learned to embrace and love all parts of my joint identity with the fervor only a teenager could feel. I was an Arab and an American. I was a Palestinian and a Southerner. I was a Muslim and a woman. As I grew, I accepted that the emphasis on each facet of my identity would shift with the phases of the moon. Growing up in a world struggling to understand multiculturalism, I saw this ability to move among my many identities as my own secret superpower.

Propelled by the conviction that my identities provided me with a competitive advantage, I embarked on a career in international development. My mother argued that somewhere along the way I became delusional, perhaps because my desire to make a difference in the world led me to a career in humanitarian aid in conflict zones.

With my secret superpower tucked away, I was among the first international aid workers to arrive in Baghdad in 2003. I would also be among the last to leave. The two intervening years inside Iraq would transform my life forever.

Many writers have attempted to capture in words what happened in Iraq during the watershed years of 2003 through early 2005. Some authors have written about the political maneuvering behind the walls of the Green Zone or the military strategy as seen by journalists embedded in the armed forces. But until now, none of them have written from the viewpoint of an international aid worker who had access to both everyday Iraqi citizens and the people in power on the U.S. and Iraqi sides.

In Iraq, I was finally able to put my superpower to full use. A wave of my American passport at the checkpoint of the fortified Green Zone allowed me access to the representatives of the U.S.-led coalition. My adherence to Muslim dress and my fluent Arabic made it possible for me to live in an Iraqi neighborhood with no armed security. This unique access allowed me to see an Iraq that was accessible to few others. With each passing season, the country would shed its skin from the past and emerge as a completely new place. Who was better positioned to adapt within a country experiencing a period of tumultuous change than someone who had been raised with an ever-shifting identity? In Iraq, I found a place with as many complicated contradictions as I had in myself. Here, though, my internal complexity was manifested in an entire society. My international colleagues were struggling to force Iraqi culture into convenient boxes, but I simply accepted its unique, fluctuating shape. International journalists marveled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange-colored hair and wearing tight jeans, but I simply shrugged. It was natural to me. The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful.

Nevertheless, that mosaic was shattered by the eruption of violence that followed on the heels of the U.S. invasion. From weapons of mass destruction to suicide bombings, the lives of everyday Iraqis became inextricably linked to violence. The hopes and dreams that Iraqis once dared to share evaporated in the smoke of car bombs. The diverse peoples who populated Iraq - Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, Sabaeans - had once sipped tea at their doorsteps, but now they had disappeared from the streets. Women hid behind closed doors. The only images from within Iraq were of death and destruction. The only feelings people described were betrayal and despair. Overnight, that brilliant diversity - Iraq's own secret superpower - was forgotten, buried under the rubble left by bombs.

My story is not one of statistics and death tolls or descriptions gleaned from short visits to the Green Zone. Instead, my story outlines the journey of a nation determined to rise from the ashes of war and sanctions and to re-create itself in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But this is also my own story of struggling to understand my identity against the backdrop of a country in turmoil. What I experienced internally reflected what the country as a whole was enduring. As a woman, I could not bear to see the erosion of the simple freedoms Iraqi women had gained decades earlier. Gone were the days when Iraqi woman could walk in the streets unaccompanied or choose what they would wear. As a non-Iraqi Arab, I felt apologetic toward the Iraqis, who were baffled as to why Arabs from other countries were coming to Iraq to act as suicide bombers in crowded markets and on buses. And I was angry to witness the most powerful nation in the region being torn apart.

As an American, I was speechless. I could neither attack nor defend my country, although I found myself desperately wanting to do both. My parents had realized the American dream, and I refused to believe that freedom and democracy were empty promises. But I could not exonerate the United States for its role in allowing Iraq to devolve into violence. The military's most basic mistakes - not securing the borders, dissolving the Iraqi military, and fast-forwarding the nation-building process - had catapulted the country into chaos.

In addition to coming to terms with the war and the violence that unfolded before me, I also had to deal with the implications of my growing personal attachments. My Iraqi staff, my neighbors, and local women's organizations were taking great risks of being labeled traitors or Western puppets just by being associated with me. And yet I found myself developing my own family circle inside the country. The Iraqi women I worked with side by side became my sisters, and the men who risked their lives for my security became my brothers. I desperately wanted to prove my worth by making the lives of the Iraqis a little better, if not those who lived in the communities where I worked, then at least those closest to me. I avoided the thought that one day I would have to leave the country. And I refused to admit that my growing feelings of trust and admiration for one of my male colleagues could actually be love. Eventually, I would be both punished and rewarded for allowing the lines between work and my personal life to blur. Personal tragedy began to strike everyone I knew, one family at a time. People with whom I was close began to disappear without a trace.

Barefoot in Baghdad is not a story of the war in Iraq. It is the story of the women in Iraq who are standing at the crossroads every dawn. It is the story of my time working with Iraqis as they struggled to create a new nation and a new identity. It is informed by my years of living and working within communities throughout the country. It recounts my own experiences and the stories of the men and women I encountered, each of them players in one of the most complicated political struggles of our era. It is also a memoir of the discovery of my many identities and the strengths and weaknesses inherent within them. Finally, it is a story of finding love in the most unlikely place. As my life became intertwined with the lives of the Iraqis around me, I lost sight of where my horizons ended and theirs began. Their expectations became my expectations; their disappointments, dreams, pains, and losses became my own.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Author Note xiii
Introduction xvii
Chapter One: The Opening 1
Chapter Two: Road Trip 15
Chapter Three: Breaking the Barriers 27
Chapter Four: Choosing Sides 35
Chapter Five: A Lot Hotter in Hell 45
Chapter Six: Hysteria of Hope 55
Chapter Seven: Eyes Wide Shut 69
Chapter Eight: A Place of Fantasies 89
Chapter Nine: Fern 103
Chapter Ten: The Negotiating Chips 113
Chapter Eleven: The Whistle-Blower 125
Chapter Twelve: Playing with Fire 137
Chapter Thirteen: Locked In 165
Chapter Fourteen: Four Men and a Lady 173
Chapter Fifteen: Breaking Point 203
Chapter Sixteen: Purple Thumbs Don't Wash Off 213
Chapter Seventeen: Iraqi Brides 225
Epilogue: Dawn Approaches 233
Reading Group Guide 239
About the Author 243

Manal Omar has worked with Women for Women International, a nonprofit NGO, as Regional Coordinator for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Formerly a journalist, she began work in Iraq in 1997 and 1998 for UNESCO, and worked for OxFam in the Middle East. Currently, she is the Program Officer for the Iraq Grants Program with the United States Institute of Peace, based in Washington, D.C.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted December 25, 2010

    Barefoot Perhaps, But Most Definitely Not in the Kitchen

    Despite her family's opposition to Omar's assuming the position of country director in Iraq with Women for Women International, a group that helped female survivors of war to rebuild their lives, she quickly took up the reins of such a position, proving her worth in her many encounters with those women whom she helped free from a life of degradation and fear. The dichotomy of her status, as both Arab and American, born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents and raised in the American South, as a Muslim and a woman, she was in an ideal position to negotiate the hazardous and diverse microcosm of Iraq, still trying to recover from the ravages of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. In this moving memoir, she describes how she was among the first international aid workers to arrive in Baghdad in 2003. Barefoot in Baghdad tells of the two years that she spent working with Iraqi women as they struggled to create a new nation and a new identity for themselves. Omar describes her daily battle to overcome prejudices in the society, which were present in many forms. She not only had to suppress her own misgivings about having to work sometimes in close conjunction with the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, but also to persuade her Iraqi colleagues of the integrity of her intent. She asks a telling question at the outset of the memoir: "Who was better equipped to adapt within a country experiencing a period of tumultuous change than someone who had been raised with an ever-shifting identity?" The redemptive nature of this tale, both on a personal and broader societal front, conveys a central message of hope overcoming what might so easily have been a position of despair. The uplifting and youthful approach which Omar takes to her subject matter is as captivating in the fluency and ease of her writing as it is in the way in which she is able to navigate her position among the many diverse segments of Iraqi society. No matter whether you view the US occupation of Iraq as unwarranted or as totally justifiable in terms of their acting as a liberation force, Barefoot in Baghdad should be of interest to you. Giving both an insider's and an outsider's view of the unfolding drama of Iraq, the memoir should prove worthwhile reading for anyone who has a keen interest in developments in the Middle East.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2013

    Enjoyable read

    Slow in the beginning but picks up towards the middle/end. Interesting subject.

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