ASHRAF, where the streets have no name (day one)
What if you where only allowed to have a face after your death? A name, after your death? This is the reality of Ashraf City, the headquarters of the Iranian resistance, the PMOI, in Iraq. A city with 3.800 people protected, under the Genova agreement, by Americans.
There, right in the heart of a destroyed country, an Oasis flourishes, literally, and one feels like Alice in the Wonderland. First of all, because the Iraq in Ashraf has nothing to do with any other Iraq – the one we see on the news, the one with no hope, no safety, no structures, one so ever. When Paulo Casaca asked me, for the first time “do you want to go to Iraq?”, I was ready to sleep in a tent, wear a burke, assist to terrible things. I was ready for everything…except for what I found. The day before, while we were in Brussels, I asked him so many questions, trying to make “a plan” for my staying. Only today I can really understand how impossible it was for him to provide clear answers, and the deep abyss between us then: even if Iraq is the most obvious symptom of our future, we know so little about it (even if we care) that the most basic knowledge will be lost in translation until the day we go there. And – imagine – we take political decisions based on that “little”.
We arrived by the end of the day. Everything was grey, because of the dust. After 300 km of devastation (Iraq palpitates in it’s own ruins), I saw a wide area of lights, quite similar to a regular western village. “Welcome to Ashraf, our host said”. In 5 minutes, I was out of the car, surrounded by men I have never spoken to. Mr. Casaca was warmly welcomed and I felt the terrible weight of being a western silly girl. I had no idea how to act, standing on my heels, protected by the status of Mr. Casaca, but all alone in all the rest. And then, I committed the terrible mistake of shaking the hand of all the men present – my first protocol failure. We were driven into the base, where I saw roads, buildings and monuments. Mr. B (I will call him this because he is still alive and so, not allowed to have a name) drove us to the “hotel”, a place with several small apartments, guarded. Mine had two rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and an amazing living room, with a plate of home made cookies – will I ever forget that taste? Outside, a garden with flowers and trees. I sat there in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. In that garden, I understood why Iraq is a part of me, a part of all of us. When you sit alone in such a beautiful place, where human beings fight so hard to defend a life that we, in the West, live in a very sceptical way, it’s like going back in time. The time when, in Europe and America, people actually fought for a cause called freedom. Still nervous, I got ready for dinner. There, I was presented two girls of my age, who welcomed me warmly, S and Z – “they will be your guides here, Mr. B said”. During dinner, Mr. B and a woman spoke to Mr. Casaca. I tried so hard to understand, I barely paid attention to my young companions – even if the thing I remember the best was when they both gave me the flowers decorating they’re plate – it was the first time that the sentence “the flowers of Ashraf” came to my mind. I thought, during the hole dinner, that the woman was married to Mr. B, that the girls were the daughters and that they were the family in charge of Ashraf’s government – how silly can a western girl be. Later in the night, the girls took me to the Ashraft’s museum of martyrs, where I’ve learned about the Iranian history, saw the face and read the name of too many dead people. S was born in a prison in Iran. Z was born and raised in Canada, graduated there, but left to fight for her country from Ashraf a few years ago. “A girl like me” – I thought. In Ashraf, there is a cemetery, where they keep all the martyrs, or a memory of them. It’s almost like our cemeteries. So clean, so cherished, so modern. In the PMOI, all the people who died fighting for a free Iran are celebrated and remembered. Their names are told to younger generations, as an example of the terror they are fighting against. I have almost 700 pictures of Iraq, many of which were taken in Ashraf. I cannot show them, because this “could put in jeopardy the individuals”, Mr. B told me on the phone, a few days later. “We have a powerful enemy and we must protect ourselves”, he told me. And he’s right. And I thought “what if, I could not have a face, a name, until I die?”. This must be one of the most powerful impressions I brought from Iraq – the fundamental importance of a name and how dangerous it is to see it fade. I saw those men and women. I spoke to M (our driver, I will write about him later) for a long time. I saw “the father” (like the girls call him), an old man who plants flowers in the desert (I will write more about him too). I hugged a woman while she told me “I hope to see you soon, but this time back home, our Iran”. I saw a young girl looking at my camera with disbelief. What’s the power of the Press for, if people don’t care? ANTONIO CAÑO wrote, in El Pais (26/06/2008 ): "La violencia por sí sola ya no es noticia en Irak", (Violence, alone, is no longer news in Iraq). After the museum, and the cemetery, the girls took me to the Musk. A beautiful building created, from top to bottom, by Ashraf citizens. Again, my first time and again, the strange but yet strong impression of taking my shoes off. The contact of naked feet against the carpet. Alice in the Wonderland: in Ashraf, everything was so intense, alive and strange to my comprehension, that I cannot explain it unless I say: “it’s a place where small (and big) things matter again, like they did, when we wrote our values, our stories, our beliefs”. Like Lewis Carrol preached about children’s innocence, Ashraft seems to preach about humanity – did we lost both, dreaming about the top of the world? Plus, I was told that is the only Musk in Iraq where Sunnis and Sheas prey together, these days. Iraqis and Iranians. And, like I was told so many times before, during and after my staying in Iraq, from so many different people: “It’s not a mater of religion; it’s a mater of barbarian hunger for power”. By the time I went to sleep that night, I already knew that the girls were not the daughters of a “chief couple”, but two educated members of a community perfectly organized to resist to the Iranian Regime. I am a cold woman, rational to my bones. Still, I knew, when I got to Ashraf, I was playing with people far stronger then me: we are not ready for the deaths (even the natural ones) in our lives – those girls, with my age, are. And still, I saw them smile on my love for the flowers. They (those millions of people who are resisting against the “no news” violence) are flowers, so strong in their fragility, so fragile in their strength. There’s nothing silly in this thought, I’m still rational to my bones: they have a feeling that we look for every day, we cry for everyday, we kill ourselves for, everyday: faith in something bigger. They believe in freedom while we survive with a complete lack of faith in the most democratic countries of the World. How could we ever, really, “help” them? That’s why I felt so lost in my heels: I belong to the generation of roses cut from their roots, who know not how to survive to the real nature of things. And I am protected for a beautiful system that I do know not how to keep alive, in the next page of History. On our way back to the road, Mr. Casaca got a phone call: it was journalist asking for a statement regarding the Irish “no” to the European Treaty: 20% of the population voted, 59% of which said no. More people then that, I believe, got together in Paris, last weekend, to show their support to the PMOI and the Iranian Resistance. Even more depressing was the fact that Mr. Casaca said “I’m in Kircuk, Iraq”, and the journalist didn’t even take the time to ask: “oh really? Why?” If USA insists in thinking that Malaki is a productive man and if EU insists that Iran should not be antagonized, Ashraf can be sold in any top secret meeting (how can an unarmed resistance survive without an American base around it – and would we know if the Americans decide to leave?). 3.800 people with no place to go. 3.800 lives without a name. Without a face. . Antonio Cano is right. One death in Iraq means nothing anymore. Not after so many deaths, that we cannot understand, truly evaluate or even fight against from our homes. But we all, each one of us, have the obligation of supporting the ones who, in Iraq, fight for life, development and freedom. It took me several weeks to start writing about my travel. I was trying to understand about the correct way of doing it, the most political and impartial one. One that could show me more like a credible writer and less like a human being. Well, I am a human being. I saw, spoke and spent time with human beings. No political, economical or social decisions can be made forgetting this small detail. No journalism should show death without explaining the richness of the life that was lost behind it – there’s nothing left to see or do when we are just bodies lying on the ground. In Ashraf, I saw clearly how weak I am, how weak my civilization is becoming. However, I shall not apologize or feel ashamed. I shall not wait for my world to crash. I shall not give up without a fight. I shall not lose freedom before I learn to cherish it. While Muslims fight against the Islamic fanaticism, Western citizens must fight against the Western’s apathy. And this is a war where every word, every vote, every step counts. My name is Ana and I am alive. My face is in picture above. I saw the flowers of Ashraf and, if I die, you’ll know. If you ever forget what being European or American is all about, remember this: West is the place where we are not just Mrs. A.