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Forbidden Journey: Building Democracy in Iraq
.... Summer 1999. There were million reasons for Saddam Hussein to keep the Westerners out of the hot spots in Iraq, especially those in the South, after the Persian Gulf War of 1991.  Somehow I was able to convince his government to let me visit many of them, often under a false pretense, to document the life, which was about to disappear forever. 

The Marsh Arabs, these very few who were not killed by or did not flee to the neighboring Iran from Saddam’s regime, welcomed me with their guns. For them, democracy meant to be left alone.

What is democracy? While this concept is easily “felt” by any Westerner experiencing its benefits in his/her native country for years, it is quite difficult to define “democracy” for those who have been living their whole lives in a totalitarian system as, for example, under the regime of Saddam Hussein or a communistic rule. 

I should know, because I had tried many times to convey the message of democracy to the Iraqi people in Summer 1999 when Saddam Hussein allowed me to visit his country and granted me an almost unrestricted access to the people and places of the South. After numerous unsuccessful attempts at describing principles of democracy, especially to the generation of young people born in the 1970s, by using conventional ways learned in my life as an anthropologist and a scholar in general, I had to change my approach. Since desperate times call for desperate measures, I used President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky as the means to explain the concept of the “freedom of the press.” While each and every Iraqi knew about the President’s marital indiscretion in details, none of them could even think about any personal information concerning their President, Saddam Hussein, freely disclosed in the Iraqi press to his subjects. That day, no longer, my companions blamed the U.S. and embargo for the limited and censored access to the mass media.

This presentation is designed to explain difficulties in building democracy in the country where this concept has been associated by many with “anarchy,” a freedom to do whatever one wants, whenever one sees it fit. Breaking traffic rules is an example of such a perception of democracy i.e., freedom of driving in four directions on one-way street! By the same token, “equality” has been often regarded in terms of “equality in poverty and suffering” and “security” as the fear of leaving one’s house because Saddam’s henchmen were everywhere. 

The people of Iraq took the first major step toward the democracy: they went to vote in an election which, as imperfect as it was, offered them more than one choice. They did it, because they wanted for their voices to count and be heard. Now, as long and painful as this process might be, they must learn that democratic benefits come with individual responsibility. Saddam Hussein is no longer there to censor their dreams and actions, they must do it themselves in the atmosphere of mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect. Once Iraq was a cradle of civilization – this time she has a chance to become a cradle of democracy. 

"Equality in poverty and suffering".  Wherever I went, discussions about democracy followed. These men in Affek argued with me that Saddam Hussein would let everyone to have an unlimited access to information thru Internet and satellite TV, if not for the embargo. Since majority of people in Iraq could not afford computers or TV, it would be unfair to allow the very few enjoy and possibly manipulate “free information” of the American propaganda. 

Under Saddam Hussein people voted with their blood: either in his favor in official polls by pricking their thumbs before pressing them on the ballot or by opposing his actions in any shape or form which led to their blood being shed. 

Under the American occupation people voluntarily risked their lives voting for a new government, the democratic one, for which the Iraqis’ blood became the founding stone. 

Saddam Hussein, “the king of Mesopotamia,” met his end as many other dictators before him. He should be thankful that ancient laws are no longer reinforced in this cradle of civilization since his death could have been a very long and a painful event. 


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