Reflections of an Iraqi in Palestine

on 19 Comments
Nessma Bashi at the wall in Bethlehem that has destroyed countless Palestinian homes. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

Nessma Bashi at the wall in Bethlehem that has destroyed countless Palestinian homes. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

“Where was your father born?” he suspiciously asks. “Iraq” I reply.

Born lost, I have found myself in the home of the landless where I am acutely aware of my identity built on a destroyed foundation. The rolling hills covered by aged olive trees, the scent of fresh lemons on my hand, and the immensity of the walls are exactly what I pictured. In fact, I’m struck by the accuracy of the painting in my head.

The poverty engulfing Khalil can be seen in its young residents. (Photo: Nessma Bashi)

The poverty engulfing Khalil can be seen in its young residents. (Photo: Nessma Bashi)

It’s an odd feeling to be defined by a place you’ve never been. I’ve grown up listening to stories set in a place far away from where I was raised and in a time that I have never lived. I have been shaped by my grandfather’s elaborate stories of Baghdadi nights, of my uncle’s version of Abdul-Karim Kassem’s rise to power, and my mother’s tears as she recalls the sight of soldiers’ deceased bodies on the roof of trucks making their way home from the battlefield in 1967. These images have collectively formed an image of Iraq in my mind, particularly of Baghdad, with which I constantly struggle when the reality is that the Iraq of my parents no longer exists and will never return.

My parents also raised me with an acute consciousness of the plight of the Palestinian people, using the struggle to teach my brothers and I the extent to which prejudice can cripple a community and education can bolster it. For them, Palestine symbolized their utmost pride and their greatest disappointment; the untapped potential of the Palestinian people and their unyielding tenacity demonstrated the power of conviction, but the inability of the international community to neither acknowledge nor respond to human suffering represented pure disappointment. Palestine became their way of teaching my brothers and I the importance of social justice. Thus, being in Palestine for the first time has spawned the feelings I think I would have upon on my first trip to the Iraq of my parents. I’m overwhelmed.

Graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem calling for the remembrance of women and children. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

Graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem calling for the remembrance of women and children. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

This land isn’t necessarily my own, no one in my family was born here, and my thick Iraqi accent is surely distinguished over the local dialect, yet this is the closest I’ve come to feeling ‘at home’. Maybe it’s because, as Iraqis, we have looked to the Palestinians as teachers of survival, especially in the post 9/11 era. They have taught us how to rebuild our lives when our surroundings have been destroyed and they have been the ultimate example of resilience despite displacement, daily incursions, and infringement of rights. Now, at a time when Syria is crippled by violence, the survival skills taught to Iraqi refugees by their Palestinian counterparts are being passed on to Syrian refugees. This is particularly the case in Jordan where nearly 600,00 Syrians are registered as refugees with UNHCR and have spread themselves across the country.

The immensity of the wall is hard deny in Bethlehem where it continues to be built on Palestinian land. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

The immensity of the wall is hard deny in Bethlehem where it continues to be built on Palestinian land. (Photo: Elena Habersky)

Sitting in my friend’s house in Bethlehem, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of gratitude and pride. I’m proud of the strength of Palestinian individuals whose every move is scrutinized by the same authority that interrogated me upon entering a land not theirs. I’m grateful for the Palestinian hospitality that has embraced me on this trip and in my time living in Jordan in the form of patient taxi drivers and kind store owners. Most of all, I am deeply moved by the connections Palestinians, Iraqis, and now Syrians have made to guide each other when injustice threatens livelihoods.

About Nessma Eman Bashi

Nessma Eman Bashi is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. Before beginning law school this fall, she is working in Amman with Jordan’s growing refugee community through Jesuit Refugee Services and the King Hussein Foundation’s Information and Research Center.

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19 Responses

  1. LanceThruster
    March 4, 2014, 2:45 pm

    I share Ms. Bashi’s empathy. It is important for people to work together to look after those who are wronged and neglected. I am truly sorry for what my country did/is doing to her country, and to the people of Palestine.

  2. just
    March 4, 2014, 4:26 pm

    Thank you, Nessma Eman Bashi, for your gracious and heartrending post that I will save. I, too, apologize to you for what the US did/is doing to your beautiful country and fellow Iraqis. It’s criminal. I also apologize what we have done to the Palestinians– every day by our hypocrisy, enabling of Israel and the Occupation, and our complicity. I must also apologize to the Afghan people. And to the Iranian people. I’ll just apologize for all of our war- making, our rampant quest for hegemony, and our own lawlessness.

    Thank you for the brave and good work that you are doing. In this beautiful essay, you have captured so well the incredible strength of the Palestinians. In fact, you have captured the essence of the daily struggle of those who have lost so very much, but retain their souls and humanity above all else.

    (my parents taught me many of the same things that your parents gave you.)

  3. MahaneYehude1
    March 4, 2014, 4:46 pm


    …and my mother’s tears as she recalls the sight of soldiers’ deceased bodies on the roof of trucks making their way home from the battlefield in 1967.

    Many here think that the Arab states didn’t want war in 1967, and actually Israel planned and started the war to occupy lands. The war, according to them, was a surprise to the Arab armies that didn’t prepare themselves to it (“resembling the attack on Pearl Harbor” – Ron Edwards). So, why Iraqi soldiers came far from Iraq to Palestine before the war if it was planned by Israel? When they came and for what purpose?

    • just
      March 4, 2014, 6:12 pm

      I was thinking you might “show up”, Mahane. I thought so because I thought you might have something in common with this lady, since you claim to be a humanitarian of sorts, with roots in Iraq… I thought you might be here because of her haunting essay.

      I didn’t think that you would show up to ask such a benighted question, though.

      • MahaneYehude1
        March 4, 2014, 11:07 pm


        I have much in common with many in this site, especially Arabs, yet no one of them saved his questions to me. Humanism, Just, has two directions and it is the time that you start to understand it.

        To the point: I didn’t hear your voice when many here wrote their lies about the 1967 war. Now I hope you will be honest enough to answer my question. Humanism is bidirectional, Just.

      • amigo
        March 5, 2014, 5:56 am

        “Humanism is bidirectional, Just.” mehane

        Where was your humanism when the GOI placed the blame squarely on the backs of the Palestinian victims of price tag attacks by illegal settler terrorists.

        Are you now ready to condemn the GOI for this most outrageous of statements.

        Show us your humanism.

        Or cut the hypocrisy mehane.

      • seafoid
        March 5, 2014, 8:19 am

        Humanism is bidirectional, Just.

        It usually is but Jewish Israelis seem have it removed at age 4. It’s like a mental bar mitzvah.
        Eternal victimhood sits very uneasily with humanism.

      • eljay
        March 5, 2014, 7:49 am

        >> Humanism is bidirectional …

        And Zionism – that is to say, Jewish supremacism – is neither, Potato-man.

      • DaBakr
        March 5, 2014, 12:33 pm

        as another with some roots in Iraq I also can ‘relate’ in some ways to the essay. But I also would say that if the author wanted to reflect- she could have reflected on why her nations (she seems to consider iraq her ‘home’ and not where she lives-just like many american Jews, hmmm) leaders butt their military noses into a land that did not even border on them and i would say CAUSED much of the Palestinian peoples problems in the first place. I don’t think anybody here is that ignorant as to kid themselves on how little iraq, jordan, egypt, sa, syria, etc cared about the lives of the Palestinians. in fact, had they not been hellbent on destroying the Jewish Nation from day one the Palestinians would have long since had their own state as Israel was very willing to give back most of the territory just post ’67. then it would have been a matter of border disputes between Palestine, Israel, Syria and Jordan that could have been negotiated by the UN. iraq was called in (or dove in) as the arab ‘saviour’ with the only formidable army at the time after egypt.

        i think the authors youth or rosey glasses prevents her from looking at the harder story of how her and her arab brethren have treated the Palestinians as pawns for over 60 years. ironically-i believe it WAS only syria who extended some rights of citizenship to its refugees.

        my roots in iraq go back far. while financially allowed to exist those relatives were treated with derision and sometimes utter disgust and no amount of tzadaka ameliorated the general disdain of the local muslims. of course some were deeply close and loving friends. not many from what i have heard. and when Israel was born? that was the end of that. all monies went for so-called ‘exit’ fees. there was no covert Jewish ops to scare them into leaving. they got the msg. loud and clear-it was time to go.
        and so if Israel-as it almost ALWAYS is here-accused of making its own problems and own enemies worse and more arch-then so it goes that the arab feifdoms surrounding the new Israel and up until the 80s have continuously acted against ANY compromise with Israel that would have allowed for Palestinians to have a real home. That would have freed Jerusalem from hashemite occupation. Gaza from egypt, etc. until the author can relate to that aspect of history she will be sorely lost as to why the ‘evil zionist entity’ has put up such a fight to hold onto its original mandate, include Jerusalem, its captial, and buffer itself geographically from further attack from overtly hostile forces allied against them.

        the Japanese did not surrender until (and despite wether the US used the bombs or threatened to firebomb tokyo) their eminent demise was at hand. the palestinians have the luxury of knowing there is no massacre coming their way. in fact-i believe the entire number of Palestinian deaths in the conflict from ’67 is far less then singular slaughters of Palestinians or other neighboring Arab/Muslim leaders by Jordan, Syrian, Turkish, Iranian, Lybian dictatorships.
        So-yes, the Palestinians are an amazingly tenacious and strong willed people. The ultimately deserve their own state for no other reason then the have clawed their way to the top of the ‘victim’ heap just as the Jews were unceremoniously dumped there post ww2. they have taken cues from holocaust educators and Israeli advocates on how to use the idea of ‘victimhood’ to their benefit. It has been the most successful strategy employed to date against their enemy-Israel. and it is in part thanks to the way neighbors like iraq and others sang the Palestinian songs of praise and nationalism but did nothing to actually help (except to pay for PLO salaries, maybe, and pay and support violent acts against Jews worldwide which is a good part of the reason for the quagmire now)

        It behooves nobody to insulate themselves from the ‘others’ story. the ‘others’ side of events. no matter how biased or how one-sided you choose to be-ignorance only serves the aims of the corrupt and evil. the author does not have to agree with Israel or Zionism to understand it has a very firm foundation upon which it stands. And now the Palestinians are trying to gain an equally firm foundation. I will say-often pro-Israelis like myself like to make historical analogies whereby no other nation in history has given up strategic land while holding the upper hand militarily-and for VERY good reason. But it seems like this conflict os lining up (for many reasons-Israeli chauvanism AND anti-Jewish sentiment included) to be a unique conflict in the worlds history. hopefully the constraints on massive violence that have been imposed through no so-called ‘world’ court, no actual reading of international law, and not because 1 side is massively more powerful then the other. the so-called ‘weaker’ side has found with Jews and and a Jewish Nation-the rules of the world are not the same. no slaughter could ever take place. (s & s was not Israels doing and while horrendous can not compare to slaughters in places like Syria ’13, Jordan Syria 70s, etc)
        just pressure. just PR. 2 distinct sets of propaganda containing exclusionary elements of the truth. and just 2 people who are getting tired of killing each other.

        to this young (?) author i would say-good for you-your going out in the world to see how things are. but do not fool yourself. just across this ‘horrible’ fence or wall you mention (with no context of course) there is another iraqi who is visiting with her peers and hearing her own stories of the bagdadi market place, the gossip about the monarchy. the fine line between being allowed to thrive but not allowed to assimilate. and as a great grandfather of mine would say, “everybody has a story” [he also said in some version of hebrew/arabic-“don’t shit where you eat “. and i always thought he made that up until i was in my 20s and he was long gone. not sure that applies here…but then it almost always does, eventually]

    • Walid
      March 5, 2014, 12:01 am

      Iraq’s involvement in the 1967 “battlefield” was rather minimal and was comprised of soldiers mobilized on their side of the border to protect Jordan’s flank and when the actual war started, of having sent in a couple of Tupolevs that did minimal damage in Israel. Iraq lost 30 soldiers and had 30 injured in 1967, so doubtful that these would be carried on roofs of trucks.

      Same symbolic participation in 1973 when Iraq lost 275 soldiers.

      The bodies on roofs of incoming trucks was most probably in reference to the time of the American war that Iraq waged on Iran between 1980 and 1988 in which each country lost about 500,000 and most probably the time she was talking about. This would make both Nessma and Mahane inaccurate, but still a very sad period nonetheless.

      • jon s
        March 5, 2014, 1:03 am

        On June 6, 1967, one Iraqi Tupolev bomber penetrated Israeli air space and dropped a few bombs on Natanya. The bombs hadn’t been armed, however, so the damage was minimal. The Tupolev then attempted to attack the IAF base in Ramat David and was shot down. It crashed into the base, killing 14 soldiers, as well as the crew of the bomber.

    • Walid
      March 5, 2014, 12:24 am

      “Many here think that the Arab states didn’t want war in 1967…”

      That observation is not that inaccurate. A whole lot of mobilization was ongoing with only Lebanon unwilling or actually not having the capacity to join in and was subsequently made to pay for it in 1969.

    • Hostage
      March 5, 2014, 11:16 am

      So, why Iraqi soldiers came far from Iraq to Palestine before the war if it was planned by Israel? When they came and for what purpose?

      Oh for God’s sake! Because:
      * Israel spent most of 1964 and 1965 talking itself into a war over Arab plans to divert some water from the Jordan River, despite the fact it had no evidence at all that they would take more than they were allocated under the Johnston Plan.
      * The IDF staff spent much of 1966 and 1967 escalating the situation into a shooting war, where Israel used tanks to destroy construction equipment in Syria and threatening to topple the Syrian government. See the section under the heading “Deployment for War” in “The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War: Government, Armed Forces and Defence Policy 1963–67”
      * Anyone can read the UN Yearbook or history books, like Segev’s (and even Oren’s), and learn that Israel’s path to war lasted many months and was in full swing by late 1966, when Israel launched the large-scale invasion of the the West Bank Hebron region of Jordan.
      * Israel had unilaterally declared its own sovereignty over the DMZs and declared the Arab cultivators living in the region a security threat. They were evicted by the now-familiar pretext of declaring the area a closed military zone.
      * The IDF sent armored tractors into the DMZs and “no man’s land” to cultivate the stolen land or acquire more and complained when Syrians or Jordanians shot at them.
      * Israel dispatched its air forces to shoot down Syrian planes over Damascus.

      All of these acts of belligerency triggered the mutual defense obligations of Syria’s allies months before Israel started its next offensive in June of 1967.

      • MahaneYehude1
        March 5, 2014, 2:28 pm


        The events you wrote in your comment are examples of the hostilities events between the Arabs states and Israel which occurred prior to six day war but none of them is a proof that Israel planed the war. The six day war was a response to Arab states provocations and actually, was a preventive war.

        Indeed, Israel and Syria had a long conflict on the water resources, and each state attacked the other. You bring examples of Israeli attacks on Syria in the years prior to the war. But Syria also attacked Israel in several occasions in the decade before the war. Syria usually attacked Israeli civilian villages like Kibbutz Dan which suffered from Syrian bombings for years.

        Ben-Gurion, 10 April, 1962 in front of the Knesset:

        And I must emphasize that the Syrian attacks did not begin in March of this year. Throughout the past six years Syrian regular and irregular forces on Israel’s north-eastern border have opened fire in four hundred and thirty-one cases on Israeli patrols moving within our borders and Israeli settlements along the Syrian border: in the last two months of 1956 – on eleven occasions; in 1957 on 125 occasions; in 1958 on 100 occasions; in 1959 on 50 occasions; in 1960 on 67 occasions; in 1961 on 52 occasions; and in the first three months of 1962 on 26 occasions.
        In these six years, these attacks have caused 122 Israeli casualties in dead and wounded.

        From time to time, Syria threatened Israel by war. Syrian Premier, Izzat El-Nous, 2 November 1961:

        “The Government of Syria, like every other Arab Government, will continue to believe that its first sacred duty is to liberate Palestine from Zionism. If Israel tries to divert the Jordan, the entire Syrian army and every Syrian citizen will take up arms against it.”

        In addition, Syria and other Arab states supported Palestinian terror groups against Israel. On 2 November 1965, the spokesman of the US Ministry for Foreign Affairs issued the following statement:

        “The Government of Israel wonders why the US Government has not condemned the more than thirty acts of sabotage which Arab terrorists have perpetrated in Israeli territory in the past few months. The Government of Israel does not rejoice at the use of force, but it is its duty to maintain quiet on its borders and security for its citizens. Al-Fatah activities have been carried on for a long time, during which the Arab States involved have not taken substantial measures to put an end to the terrorists’ misdeeds. Nor have the investigations of the UN Observers succeeded in preventing further sabotage.”

        From unknown reason to me you didn’t mention in your comment the provocations of Egypt prior to the six days war. Egypt moved its forces to the Sinai desert, closed the straits of Tiran to Israeli navy, including civilian ships, expelled the UNEF force from Gaza strip and Sinai and signed military treaty with King Hussein of Jordan. In addition, Gamal Abd-El-Nasser threatened Israel by war:

        “Today the armed forces are everywhere. The army is mobilized; so are all the armed forces and the people. The people are all behind you, praying for you day and night, and feeling that you, their sons, are the pride of their nation, of the Arab nation. This is what the Arab people in Egypt and outside Egypt feel about you. We are confident that you will honor the trust. Every one of us is ready to die rather than allow a grain of his country’s soil to be surrendered. This is the greatest honor for us; it is the greatest honor for us to defend our country. So we shall not be frightened by imperialist, Zionist or reactionary campaigns. We have won our independence and tasted freedom. We have built a strong national army and achieved our aims, and we are building our country. There is at present a propaganda campaign against us, a psychological campaign, a campaign to implant doubts, but we can leave all that behind and follow the course of duty, the course of victory. God be with you.”

        Gamal Abd-El-Nasser, 22 May, 1967:

        “The Jews threaten us with war and we say to them Ahlan Wa-Sahlan!!!”

        Of course, I can continue and bring more and more examples which all of them show one thing: the six days war was a response to Arab states provocation and to the terror attacks on Israeli civilians for two decades. Both sides were ready for war and no side was surprised.

        BTW, Hostage, what about the Iraqi soldiers, the subject of this thread? Is the fact that they came to Palestine days before the war started doesn’t say that the Arab states prepared their armies for war with Israel?

      • RoHa
        March 5, 2014, 8:25 pm

        “Anyone can read the UN Yearbook or history books, like Segev’s (and even Oren’s), and learn that Israel’s path to war lasted many months and was in full swing by late 1966, when Israel launched the large-scale invasion of the the West Bank Hebron region of Jordan.”

        Some of us don’t have to bother with history books. We remember reading it in the newspapers.

  4. Citizen
    March 4, 2014, 4:57 pm

    Nessma Eman Bashi, I feel the same way as just and LanceThruster. I too apologize for my own country’s leaders and what they’ve done, and do, so that you end up writing this wrenching little claim to my heart. I do what I can daily to rectify this situation.

  5. alfa
    March 4, 2014, 9:14 pm

    Mahanne your post displays your ignorance and propensity for fiction. Iraq sent troops after Israel had been provoking with shelling of Syrian farmers and sending armored tractors into the 49 armistice DMZ, as Dayan bragged later. In early 67 the Zionists planned a action to draw Syrian fire and escalate it to probe Syrian defenses destroying their some of Syria’s aircraft. It was the preliminary preparations for the June attacks. Stop trying to invent your claims everyone picks on you zionist occupiers. Read history in books instead of listening to lies floated back and forth in your echo chamber.

    • Walid
      March 5, 2014, 2:44 am

      Alfa, again, Mahane is not totally wrong in his assertion. True that at the time, the Arabs and especially Egypt’s Nasser were trying to get some peace deal going and Israel kept on giving them the finger (as they subsequently also did with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative), but also true that the Arabs had been arming themselves for a just-in-case scenario. War-mongering Israel jumped the gun and beat them to the punch. A lot of dramatic bluffing had been going on on the Arab side starting with the kicking-out of the UN peacekeepers in the Sinai, to the closing of of the Tiran. In time Israeli leaders admitted to having known that Egypt would not attack and decided to go ahead with their own plan of attacking the Arabs first, as grabbing the Golan had been on the drawing boards for a long time and opportunity came knocking at their door with all the Arab huffing and puffing. Nobody really knows what would have happened if Israel hadn’t started the war. Maybe nothing, maybe something; the Arabs did attack first in 1973 and it was their turn to catch Israel with its pants down. Lebanon again refused or didn’t have the capacity to get on board and it was again punished for it in 1975.

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