Sunday, October 09, 2011

10 questions with Ahmed

Ahmed [False name used to protect identity and family] and I have been talking online since I saw a blog post of his about Zionism (back in 2004), which I thought needed my response. Though he's an Iraqi Muslim and I'm a Israeli Jew, we've become friends and despite various disagreements, there is a strong mutual respect and warm friendship. Here's a Q & A session with the man himself:

1) I remember what started our friendship was a post you had written about Judaism and Zionism. I didn't agree with various points you made, and I e-mailed you to discuss. Do you remember your first recollections of our conversation (and don't worry if you don't, I really don't anymore either!)?

How could I forget?! I was still at work and received your email. The first thing that caught my eyes was the letters "IDF".

You were serving in the army then, if my memory doesn't betray me, and you mentioned that you wanted to "extend an olive branch." I remember I sat back and started thinking. Growing up in a country that was run by an anti-Israel regime, I started thinking if this was a scam, an email from Mossad trying to recruit an Iraqi or if it was a real Jewish person who wanted to become friends with me.

I remember I did not respond right away to give it more thought. I was still doubtful even when I replied later. I was mainly worried because you were in the IDF, which is something considered evil, brutal and even satanic in Iraq.

2) As we talked more, how did your impression of Israeli Jews - especially religious Zionist Jews - change, if it did at all?

Before we had started talking, I met the first Jews ever in my life at work. They were Jewish Americans whom I worked and became good friends with. During that time, I started realizing there is a difference between what I grew up knowing and what the real definition of "Jew" is.

Most Iraqis, especially my generation, thought that every Jew is an Israeli Zionist, someone who "hates Palestinians and who wants to get rid of them forever."

However, I realized that there is actually a difference between the word "Zionist" and the word "Jew". Mind you, we were not subject to question the difference or even learn there is a difference!

You were honestly the very first Israeli Jew I've ever known and talked to. I must say that despite the fact that I was doubtful of you at first, I was a bit excited that you contacted me. Of course, it is still something I never shared with any of my family members and friends. No one would understand where I come from.

As we became friends -as I like to describe it- I started learning about where you come from. I disagreed, and still do, with a lot of the things you agree on. However, discussing such issues with you made me think that it's OK to disagree and not hate.

I do not remember if I "hated" Jews but I remember hating what the Palestinians were going through, especially during the second Intifada, which of course made me a bit angry with the "Zionists". Keep in mind, the word "Zionist" is considered a very bad word. We even did not call Israel "Israel". Instead, we used to call it "The Zionist Entity".

Something you may not know is Iraqis are not huge fans of Palestinians, but we have a saying "I'm against my cousin but I support my cousin against the stranger."

3) Growing up in Saddam's Iraq as a minority must have been difficult. What stands out about your youth there?

I'm from a Shiite background, something I don't like to define myself with or with any other term other than "Iraqi" or "Arab".

Under Saddam, most Iraqis from all sects and religions suffered. It was only the elite group that was favored by the regime. It included those from all sects and religions who were loyal to Saddam and the Baath Party.

4) You made a comment once about how you were educated about Jews in school. Can you share a bit more about that?

Well, like I said earlier we were mainly taught that the "Palestinian Cause" is something important and that Jews are the ones who are killing Palestinians and stealing their land. So you can imagine what we considered Jews to be.

Unfortunately, this has not changed much even after the Saddam was overthrown. However, Kurdish Iraqis are a little bit more accepting, at least the politicians. Rumors have it in Iraq that Kurdish leaders are in touch with their Israeli counterparts but they don't talk about it, fearing public rage.

5) What was it like being a war zone correspondent around that danger? Did it create any issues for you or your family? Any regrets?

Working for this news organization made me a stronger person. It was very hard to be objective and unbiased since I was covering the horrors my country was going through.

6) How did you get to the US? What are your thoughts about the country?

I came to the US to pursue my graduate studies. An American friend of mine encouraged me to apply to study in the US. In 2006, I arrived and have been living here since.

The US is a diverse place of people and thoughts. I come across ignorant, racist and intolerant people sometimes but I also meet very open-minded people who are aware of what is happening in the world.

I believe that a lot of American still need to get out of the bubble they live in and understand the world in a better way. A lot of Americans still think it's "UnAmerican" to question what happens here. This needs to change in order to better solve the problems.

7) You're a big fan of Obama. How do you think the Arab world sees the man? Do you feel he can promote a strong relationship between the US and the Arab world? How do you feel he's handled the Arab Spring rebellions?

I'm an Obama fan mostly because he's Democrat which I lean to become when I become a US citizen. I think he really cares about the people who are struggling in the US, but the Republicans are not giving him the chance to help those in need because they think it's "socialism," which they consider a bad thing. I think socialism can be useful too if it is not abused.

With regards to the Arab Spring, I do not like where the US administration stand. On one hand it was completely silent with regards to the tyrannical oppression of protesters in Bahrain, while on the other hand it intervened in what happened in Libya. It's all a matter of interests and the victims are the people. I believe you either fully support protesters' legitimate demands in every country controlled by totalitarian regimes or you don't. It's too ideal I believe and it will never happen.

8) What are your thoughts on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad & Iran?

I pity the Iranian people because of him. I know a lot of Iranians inside and outside Iran who despise what he's doing. He's taking his country backwards and hurting whatever chance left to make Iran blend in with the rest of the world.

9) You recently got engaged, so congrats yet again. Do you wish to settle down in the US and build your future there? Or is there a hope to return home, to Iraq? What do you see for the future of Iraq?

Thanks for the kind wishes!

The future in Iraq is grim. It'll take a really long time to rebuild Iraq to at least how it was before 2003. I do want to go home and help rebuild but like we say, "One hand doesn't clap". We need a group effort which doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon.

I do intend to live in the US for now. Things change and you never know what the next step might be sometimes even if you plan it!

10) Last but not least - if you could control the powers that be, how would you end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Two states as a start. Both sides must compromise. Palestinians need to build their new country and stop saying "It's our land. You stole it from us" and the Israelis should compromise and stop the whole "We were here before you" ideology if they both want peace. If no one compromises, this conflict will never end.

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