A fascinating, honest and inspiring portrait of a women’s rights activist in Iraq, struggling to help local women while exploring her own identity. Manal Omar is a skilled guide into Iraq, as she understands the region, speaks Arabic, and wears the veil. At turns funny and tragic, she carries a powerful message for women, and delivers it through beautiful storytelling.
Though I am a great deal older than this author, I found Omar’s book about her work with Iraq’s women oddly familiar. The author knows both East and West because she grew up in the United States, arriving with her Saudi Arabian parents in Texas at the age of 6 months. Having spent her summers in the Middle East, she calls multiculturalism “my own secret super power.”
I have also straddled two cultures, having grown up in a western state, and going back to visit there from Texas almost every summer. Much of my adult life in Texas (both professionally and as a volunteer) was spent working on behalf of women’s issues. My little culture shocks can never compare to the life changing experiences of Minal Omar, and the women she came to know, and with whom she connected, as she went barefoot in Baghdad. We all share the same gender, but what I came to understand more deeply through this book is this. As far as women experiencing cultural uprooting, our sisters in Iraq suffered incomparably more during the past decade than did most of us.
Manal Omar’s multicultural identity is, in my opinion, one of her key strengths as a writer. Readers will learn immeasurably more about the country of Iraq and its wonderful people than could have been learned over the past decade from consumption of news from the mainstream media. We now know all too well, that view can be risky. For example, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we took our reality from the powers that be, and we were dead wrong to do so.
The author had a great deal of ambivalence about the invasion in 2002. Omar said in her introduction, “As an American I was speechless. I could neither attack nor defend my country, although I found myself desperately wanting to do both,” But she was not deterred by her mixed feelings. Shortly after the United States went to war in Iraq, the author went to work for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in London, Women for Women International (WWI). Its CEO and founder, Zanaib Salbi, whom the author characterizes as “an adrenalin junkie,” was an important mentor to Manal. Their work together began with a wild road trip to Baghdad. To quote the head of Omar’s NGO, Salbi summarized the book well:
Manal Omar captures the complex reality of living and working in war-torn Iraq, a reality that tells the story of love and hope in the midst of bombs and explosions.
The author’s time in Iraq, which she called in an opening chapter “a place of fantasies,” was from 2003 to 2005; it was only rarely calm or peaceful. Her WWI NGO work was about helping Iraqi women who had been marginalized by the Saddam Hussein regime and the subsequent U.S. occupation. Through an amazingly courageous WWI effort in a country that eventually became too dangerous for the NGO to remain, almost 2000 women received various kinds of NGO program assistance, support and training towards self sufficiency.
The author and her WWI staff made themselves homes as best they could, and always lived out of the Green Zone. With unflagging support from her Iraqi core staff members (4 males and one female), Omar recounts a moving story of loyalty and bravery in the midst of the country’s descent into full blown civil war. It is also a wonderfully told love story. However, my lips are sealed. I can reveal that the mystery of how it unfolded was threaded through the book and very effectively handled by this talented author in the 245-page book’s final chapters.
Reviewed by Carol Gee, 8/31/10.
Southwest Postings, a political blog