(Expanded from book: Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation, by Peggy Faw Gish (Cascade Books, 2013)
A highlight of our time in Karbela was the wedding celebration of a relative of one of the MPT members. The women were in one room, the men in another. After the Imam asked the bride fourteen times (as instructed in the Qu’ran) if she wanted to back out of the wedding, and she said, “no” each time, she came in the women’s room and sat on a large chair in front in her fancy gown.
Looking around at the women, I noticed something in their faces. Their eyes were welcoming, ready to risk, ready to see how much alike we are. In Baghdad, so many eyes were heavy and tense with worry, or averted out of fear or suspicion Even among long-time Iraqi friends, the strain was evident. Trying to be sensitive to those who no longer felt safe relating to us, we found ourselves pulling back from them.
Here at this wedding, the women’s eyes conveyed the many feelings dancing around the room. The bride’s eyes were nervous as she tried to play this dignified beauty-queen role. Eyes of children, flashed with excitement and curiosity, taking in the mysteries of this event. The eyes of the teens were full of dreams and imagination about this day in their own future. I saw in the middle-aged eyes more realism about the stresses and responsibility of marriage, but also a desire to relive the excitement of these traditions and pass them on to the next generation.
Many pulled off their scarves, revealing stylish hairdos. One passed along a playful wink at me as she began trilling (a high-pitched sound made through a fast rolling of the tongue) and let herself go to the beat of the clapping and dancing. Near me was a row of older women, fully covered in conservative black, unsure about the newer modern styles now mixed in with the old. They were no longer active players, but beloved and part of the stability of the clan. Some eyes were weary and worn, full of strength, some surrounded by countless wrinkles. One of those pairs of eyes looked at me intently, and, for longer than is usual in that culture, our eyes locked. It was long enough for her eyes to reveal her worry, but also acceptance and strength. She tried to tell me something, but her voice got lost in another wave of trilling.
It didn’t matter what she said. Something happened as I looked into her eyes. She revealed herself to me. I felt accepted for who I was, another woman who shared the same struggles in life. All the eyes I saw today started the melting of the protective wall I had recently let grow up around my heart in Iraq, but her eyes broke through. I let the tears well up in my eyes and allowed the love I’ve had for the Iraqi people to flow freely.