Troubled homeland

Hiba Al-Zahawi misses Baghdad. The U computer science graduate student has been away from her town for more than a decade, but her longing for home sticks with her.

Al-Zahawi and her family left Iraq three years after the Persian Gulf War. U.N. sanctions helped dry up Iraq’s postwar economy, making employment scarce. Al-Zahawi was eight years old. After a couple years spent living in the country Jordan, her family relocated to Utah.

Al-Zahawi went to high school in Salt Lake City and earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from the U. She said she thrived during her undergraduate years because she became involved in extra-curricular activities around campus. “I created my own community,” she said.

June Marvel, academic program support specialist with the Middle East Center, recalls working with Al-Zahawi when Marvel helped with the U’s Model Arab League team.

“She was fun,” Marvel said, ” She took responsibility seriously.”

While Al-Zahawi has enjoyed Utah, she said trouble in Iraq always has her attention. The news that has flowed from Iraq over the last few years doesn’t paint a complete picture of the country, in her eyes.

She knows Iraq had its share of problems under Saddam Hussein’s rule, including the Iran-Iraq war, but, she said, she remembers a warmer place than what the media depicts.

“The Iraq you see on TV is not the real Iraq,” Al-Zahawi said.

The Iraq Al-Zahawi knew was a friendly country where neighbors and extended family members didn’t need excuses to drop by and visit each other unannounced. It was also a place where Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims got along.

“We had inter-religious marriages,” she said.

She said the Iraqi way of life in the city trumped religious differences, and explained that, as a little girl, she was educated in a Catholic school taught by nuns.

This is what makes watching what is going on in Iraq all the more painful for her, Al-Zahawi said. The coalition military strikes that started the invasion were all too familiar to her.

“It brought back memories of the bombing (from the Persian Gulf War),” she said.

She also said she doesn’t blame Americans for not understanding exactly what war is like.

“I can understand how people don’t really have a sense of what’s going on because all you have is a TV set,” she said. “I still remember being on the other side.” The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 make for the closest comparison, she said. “Take the World Trade (Center), take it every ten minutes–happening all around you–that is basically the ‘shock and awe.'”

Al-Zahawi said she hopes people don’t judge her native country by its current state of chaos and pointed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“That was only one city?for a few days,” she said, explaining that a failed infrastructure can bring out the worst in any population.

It would be a mistake to make Iraq solely the product of its worst years just as it would be with any country, she said.

Al-Zahawi follows news that flows out of Iraq closely. She reads both English and Arab language media, and said she has found differences between American and foreign reporting. Al-Zahawi said American news outlets use wording so sanitized and compressed that it reduces people to mere statistics.

And it isn’t just semantics, she said; foreign media is also more willing to show heartbreaking images that accurately portray the destruction caused by war. Al-Zahawi said she thinks if people were exposed to these reports and images, they might have different feelings about the war’s human toll.

“I don’t know what it will take to get back to normal,” she said.

Saddam Hussein’s impending execution won’t be a quick fix for Iraq’s problems, either, she added. Al-Zahawi said she’s no Saddam apologist, but the people who suffered greatly under his rule will be happy while those who were loyal to him will be angered. So divisions will remain.

Iraq would be best served, she said, if all people who are only working for their own interests rather than Iraq’s were removed from the country.

Ultimately, though, she said, “I’m hoping people will just wake up.”

Mike Terry

Graduate student Hiba Al-Zahawi left her homeland of Iraq more than 10 years ago to eventually relocate to Utah, where she attended high school and earned an undergraduate computer science degree from the U.