Fallujah 1999: A brief encounter with the future

The current iteration of the Iraq war is concentrated now on Fallujah, the city that has been the focus of so much bloodshed and suffering since the initiation of the third phase of the slow torture of Iraq. It brought to mind a brief visit I made to the city while accompanying a delegation of mostly Catholic Workers to Iraq in 1999.

The delegation was led by Kathy Kelly, the Chicagoan who had founded what was then known as Voices in the Wilderness, an organization that cried out metaphorically and at times quite literally in the wilderness of international maelstrom, begging for leaders to seek an alternative to the carnage they sensed was on the way and that in time occurred in dimensions that even they hadn’t imagined.

Contemporary headlines speak of a slow takeback of the city from ISIS forces by Iraqi government forces. Forces have been competing for control of the city for a long time. And the Iraqis, as one headline put it, go from one hell to another.

The scene I witnessed was but a microsecond in all of this, full of ambiguity. But I’ve wondered since if it was more weighted with meaning and the future than I could have known at the time. The reference to meeting the women in the mosque was to an event that occurred earlier in the trip when Kelly and other women in the delegation were warmly welcomed by Muslim women and invited to prayer.

As I wrote about it then:

An old man in a market in Fallujah apparently understood something, too, as he watched an exchange between Kelly and a small boy. Ahmed El Sherif, a native of Sinai and now a U.S. citizen, was translating for the group and recalls that the boy attracted Kelly's attention because he seemed so serious and quiet in an otherwise noisy scene.

Kelly asked him through El Sherif what he was thinking. He said, "I am a scholar of the faith." The old man was watching intently.

Kelly then asked the youngster what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I want to be a pilot and bomb the United States," he replied. At that moment, El Sharif nudged Kelly and motioned for her to look at the old man. Tears were running down his face.

Later, Kelly said, the incident in Fallujah prompted her to recall the experience in the mosque with the women. The welcome there was not surprising because by far her experience in Iraq has been of unconditional hospitality.

"I think that man's tears might have been because he sensed that here was a child who was going to grow up with enmity and not hospitality as the first foot forward. I think there is going to be a change," she said, from "instant acceptance and hospitality" to a "new generation that is going to grow up angry and rebellious."



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