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

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

by Manal Omar


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Ariveting 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402237218
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 08/01/2010
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 794,534
Product dimensions: 7.44(w) x 11.32(h) x 0.84(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Author Note xiii

Introduction xvii

Chapter 1 The Opening 1

Chapter 2 Road Trip 15

Chapter 3 Breaking the Barriers 27

Chapter 4 Choosing Sides 35

Chapter 5 A Lot Hotter in Hell 45

Chapter 6 Hysteria of Hope 55

Chapter 7 Eyes Wide Shut 69

Chapter 8 A Place of Fantasies 89

Chapter 9 Fern 103

Chapter 10 The Negotiating Chips 113

Chapter 11 The Whistle-Blower 125

Chapter 12 Playing with Fire 137

Chapter 13 Locked In 165

Chapter 14 Four Men and a Lady 173

Chapter 15 Breaking Point 203

Chapter 16 Purple Thumbs Don't Wash Off 213

Chapter 17 Iraqi Brides 225

Epilogue: Dawn Approaches 233

Reading Group Guide 239

About the Author 243

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Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
ProReviewing More than 1 year ago
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.
jeanie1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of the authors quest to provide opportunties to the woman of Iraq that have no opportunity to better themselves; widows, orphans and those marginilized by the war and society. Omar speaks Arabic and wears the veil and is able to bridge the cultural gap between the powers-that-be and various aid agencies. This story thoughtfully written with a good balance between the authors personal life and her struggle to provide a foundation for Iraqi women to learn a new skill to better their lives and the future of their children.The is a heartfelt, well written and sometimes shocking story of the forgotten women. Share this book with your friends, your book club and urge your local library to have a discussion about this powerful book.
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Manal Omar is a Palestinian-American, a Muslim and a woman. When she was given the opportunity to work in Baghdad for an agency dedicated to providing women with training to allow them to be more financially independent and put their war-torn lives together, she felt uniquely qualified to do the job. Omar's story focuses primarily on her thoughts, feelings, interactions, and a few "outside" cases working for Women for Women International, a non-governmental agency (NGO) starting a branch in Iraq in 2003. As she spends time in Iraq, she finds herself attempting to negotiate between distinct worlds, and making compromises she never expected.The memoir could have used more stringent editing, as there was some repetition of thought (even within the same paragraph), some awkward sentences, and sometimes minimal connection between the chapter headings and content. Despite this, Omar presents a broad spectrum of women in Iraq, from the elite and well-off to the poorer women she was drawn to help. She is up front with her political leanings, and stubborn to a fault about certain things. I sometimes wished that she would include facts or statistics to back up some of her broader, opinionated claims. Since I was expecting a story about her work for the international aid organization, I was surprised at the tight focus on Omar herself. I did not learn much about her regular work; instead, she focuses on interactions she has with staff, friends, and U.S. military in Iraq, as well as detailing a few of the cases considered outside the purview of her position. Towards the end of the memoir, however, I realized that this is more a reflection of her time in Iraq and the memories that haunt her rather than an enumeration of success stories.
angela.vaughn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fantastic read, that will keep you rivited to your seat until the very end. I am not sure what else I can really say. It was the first book, in a long while that has made me think a little harder about the world we live in and the events that do not affect you first hand, but still leave a footprint on your mind and heart. I had my own ideals about how the war in Iraq was going, but I see with clearer eyes now. The damage that was caused and the turmoil in the people as a country is more than most could bear. I have never been one to judge on appearance, and after this book, I want to stand up for those that are hurt for that very reason.
TooBusyReading on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barefoot in Baghdad is going to be a hard book for me to review because I have very mixed feelings about it.First, let me make it clear that I applaud the author for the work she was, and is, doing. I have nothing but respect and admiration for that.The author, who describes herself as an Arab, an American, a Palestinian, a Southerner, a Muslim, and a woman, traveled to Iraq as an American aid worker. In addition, she chooses traditional dress, which is a help is some instances but establishes a barrier in others. She is caught between worlds, seen as too traditional by some and too modern and too American by others.The story is touted as beautifully written but I didn't find it so. In the finished, published edition there were mistakes that grated. When she was discussing the English language shortcomings of some of the Iraqis, did she really mean ¿an emerging pigeon English language¿? And had Fadi really ¿slammed on the breaks¿? Fortunately, either there were fewer mistakes in the later pages or I just didn't notice them as much.The problems for me started in the introduction with the sentence, ¿But I could not exonerate the United States for its role in allowing Iraq to devolve into violence.¿ I am not and never have been a fan of the American war in Iraq and know that much has been handled very badly, but throughout the book she seems to blame the U. S. for even the problems that were not of its making. As a humanitarian aid worker, she understandably wants to keep her distance from the military, and yet she relies on it for favors, including a ride out of the country when she had delayed too long for other options. It felt to me there was too much finger-pointing and not enough cooperation.The author came across to me as too arrogant and self-important. Immediately on meeting her staff of men she writes:I jumped in to try to break the ice again. ¿Well, that's all good. But at the end of the day it's still a bit odd. Women for Women, and all I see in front of me are four men. We are going to have to change that.¿ I can't see it being a very effective ice-breaker to immediately make your new co-workers wonder if they are going to lose their jobs because they are not female. I have to say that the men with whom she worked closely were courageous, loyal, and helpful beyond any expectations. I really admired them.When Ms. Omar is trying to find a safe place for one 16-year-old prostitute who ran away from her abusive husband whom she was forced to marry at 13, she speaks to a woman who runs an orphanage for 300 girls but cannot take this one, or others like her, because of the cultural implications and dangers.Before I left I asked her, ¿If you know the need is there, why don't you fight to create something for these girls?¿ It seemed very judgmental to say such a thing to a woman trying to protect 300 girls because the woman can't also protect the ones not allowed in the orphanage. Yet a few pages later, the author, still trying to find a safe place for the girl, visits a ¿special needs¿ orphanage that was hell on earth, left the child there, and immediately returned to get her again because she couldn't leave her there. So the same could be said about the author: If you know the need is there, why don't you fight to create something for these children? I know that she cannot do everything, but neither could the woman running the girls' orphanage.These are just some of the things that caused me to like the book less than I expected. I wanted more stories of the women she helped, and she undoubtedly did help women, and less of her life in Iraq. The story was engaging but not as well written as I had hoped. Even after writing this review, I still have mixed feelings about the book.A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.
VaterOlsen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Manal M. Omar tells a difficult and complex tale of being an Arab American aid worker in Iraq while the country is at war. As the leader of the local Women for Women International she struggles to provide justice and safety for women while managing her own safety, cultural struggles, and work relationships. A team, which grows in friendship as time passes, is built.Omar's story is told in a manner that is easily accessible, yet fulfilling to the reader. This is a well distilled tale, with substance and flavor and no bony bits to slow the reader down.
haiku.tx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although at times I had difficulty following the chronology of this book, overall it was a very easy read. The author has a conversational style to her writing that pulls you in and keeps you going. I actually read this in two days! I couldn't put it down. I found myself very emotionally involved in the story, and my initial concerns that it would be either overly analytical or overly author-centric proved unfounded. Omar maintains the delicate balance between her story and the story of the women of Iraq with poise and grace. I don't know how much longer my excessive notice of all things Muslim or Middle Eastern will continue, but I welcome it for as long as it stays. If you are or have ever loved a strong woman, or had even a vague passing interest in areas political, this one is well worth getting your hands on.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Manal Omar was 28-years-old when she was sent to Iraq as country director for Women for Women, an international humanitarian organization, . A Muslim American, Manal was completely trusted by neither the Iraqis or the American military. But she was used to ambiguity about her identity. Manal was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents and grew up in various locales around the United States. Throughout her youth, Manal struggled with identity, especially when she began wearing a hijab.Hoping to be accepted by the Iraqi women she was trying to organize, Manal decided to live in an Iraqi neighborhood, rather than accept the protection of living in the Green Zone. Trying to preserve the non-partisan stance of her organization, she at first eschews collaborating with the American military. As she gains experience, however, Manal learns that all players must work together in order to be effective. Sharing stories about marginalized girls and women whom she tries to help, Manal describes how the situation in Iraq fell apart for these women. At first hopeful and optimistic about "liberation", Iraqi confidence in the Americans plummets as basic utilities fail to come on, security deteriorates, and promises fail to be fulfilled. Her story is not an unbiased, historical account, rather it is a memoir of the experience of a young woman trying to do good in a country falling apart.I found the book to be a cross between Honeymoon in Tehran and Kabul Beauty School. Like Azadeh Moaveni in Honeymoon, Manal is young and struggling with a multicultural identity. However, whereas Azadeh is a political journalist and therefore writes about the political situation in Iran, Manal writes about the NGO scene and problems doing business in that arena. Deborah Rodriguez writes about the lives of ordinary Afghani women and in this reminds me of Manal's style. Manal however is a professional humanitarian aid worker and a Muslim, so their perspectives are different.Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to those interested in Iraqi women or American Muslim identity.
meganreads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoy memoirs and enjoy reading about the Middle East, so I was excited to read this book. I was particularly interested in hearing about the work Omar does with women in Iraq. As I read, I was mildly intrigued by some of her experiences but nothing really grabbed me and demanded my undivided attention. Her day-to-day experiences are interesting to read, but I kept waiting for some hugely compelling climax that never arrived. I didn't find the author's writing style to be quite as lackluster as some of my fellow reviewers did, but I didn't find it to be particularly engaging, either. Overall this book was a worthwhile read because of the insight it provides into one woman's work to help "rebuild" that which cannot be easily rebuilt, but I would rank it in the bottom fourth of the dozen or so memoirs I've read about women who have experiences living and working in both the U.S and Middle East.
ark76 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
BAREFOOT IN BAGHDAD is a true story that provides an easily read glimpse into Baghdad, Iraq during the Gulf War, during the years when we thought things were getting better, before they became dangerous again. A female Muslim-American (not from Iraq)goes to Iraq as an aid worker for an organization with the misgivings of her family, concerned for her safety and virtue. Because of her adherence to Muslim dress and culture, she is provided unique access to the local women and able to help them in a more intimate manner than most Americans. The locals trust her and the American military turns to her when all else fails. She works closely in dangerous situations with a group of Iraqi men who become her bodyguards, confidantes, assistants and eventually even a love interest. They way the respond to her, a Muslim woman, but still an American, is one of the more interesting storylines in the book and is the best written. Her writing about the women she meets and helps is not well developed and doesn't allow the readers to feel emotionally connected to them. However, we do become emotionally connected to her. Ultimately, this book is not about the women of Iraq as much as it is about a woman's journey to discover herself through her time in Iraq.
lostbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am not a huge fan of memoirs, though I did enjoy this one. Manal's account of her time in Baghdad was interesting because of the unique perspective she has being a Muslim-American. The story could have been more compelling if she'd included more information about the women she and her co-workers helped while in Iraq. I would have liked to know what the women are doing now, perhaps in an epilogue. I did pass this on to my sister-in-law who is a colonel in the army and just returned from Pakistan. I am very interested to hear her opinions of this book, seeing as she has first hand experience.
acornell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Book like this become must reads for Westerners because all of us need to put a face on Iraqis and Muslims. We need to understand that in so many ways they and especially women are the victims of war. Manal Omar has worked tirelessly for the rights of women around the world but she clearly has left her heart in Bagdad. She wrote this memoir to document her time spent in Iraq. It is part harrowing adventure in a war torn country, part how to manual on responding to women's needs in times of war and part islamic love story.The writing is at its most compelling when she tells individual stories of women she meets, their often horrifying problems and the struggles she has to help each one. The memoir turned into a page turner at the end as she fled Iraq and realized her love for a man with whom she had been working. Seeing how two muslims would manage to find love and pursue a life together in Islamic culture was also fascinating. I highly recommend this book.
maureen61 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This memoir of a women's rights advocate in Iraq was fascinating and educational. Manal Omar shares the triumphs and tragedies of a nation at war from the perspective of an Arab/American who is vigorously opposed to the Iraqui war. It offers a viewpoint not often available to American readers and was narrated in a personal, heartfelt way. A good read.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I guess it's unrealistic to want a book about a very courageous woman who works with women in Iraq to be less about her work and more about her growing relationship with one of her bodyguard/drivers. But I kept waiting and waiting to get to this part, and found the recounting of her efforts just a bit too dry. It felt as though the book was written at a distance from her real feelings - more integration of her emotional life with what she was trying to accomplish would have made a more compelling read.
awriterspen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
To be fair, had I read the description more closely, I would have understood that this book is not about Manal Omars' work in Iraq, it's about her. I was really looking forward to learning about the accomplishments and disappointments in working for an NGO in Iraq. There were a few stories highlighted in the book, but very little information or closure regarding the outcomes of the mentioned cases. Manal is brave, selfless, and truly committed to improving the lives of women in Iraq. However, unlike other books written by people who have worked for NGO's, I felt no connection to her mission and didn't feel compelled to become involved or make donations. I just wish more effort has been put into informing the readers about the people she has helped, their lives, their backgrounds, their dreams, and the final outcomes of their cases. Information such as this was remarkably sparse, which made the book a long read.
bakersfieldbarbara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A funny and tragic message for women told by Manal Omar as she moves to Iraq to help as many women as she can to rebuild their lives. A riveting story of hope,despair, elation and longing, this book takes you to the front lines of a different country, where the unsung freedom fighters are strong, vibrant and women. This is a chronicle of what Omar endured and of her many friendships whose lives are crumbling before her eyes. I had a difficult time reading this book, as I could not put myself in her place as to why she did the many things she did, and put herself in much danger. But because she is American and Arab, she felt the passion for these women, and made choices that I possibly could never make to help them. Regardless of the cost to her, and yet exploring her own identity, Omar is able to tell a powerful message through her talent of storytelling. This book is a great book to help us to understand living and working in war-torn Iraq, in the midst of bombs and explosions. What a wonderful gift this would be to anyone trying to understand Iraq and themselves.
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Slow in the beginning but picks up towards the middle/end. Interesting subject.