For many Americans, weaned on provocative media images, the Middle East is thought of in terms of burning American flags and massive street demonstrations. But Memphian Ceylon Mooney recently got a firsthand look as one of the few American faces in the crowd at a Baghdad demonstration to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Gulf War.
"I was surrounded by thousands of Iraqis," Mooney remembers. "They were chanting, in Arabic, something like, "Our life and our blood is in Saddam," but all I'm hearing is "duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-Saddam." It was pretty intimidating, because I looked really American. But they were coming up to me, shaking my hand, and giving me hugs, and saying, 'Welcome to Iraq' and 'Welcome to Baghdad.' There was a lot of chanting, a lot of marching, a lot of burning flags, and the curse on their lips was the name of our country. But at the same time it was a celebration that they had survived 10 years of bombings and sanctions."
Mooney, a 26-year-old member of the local punk band Pezz, was in Iraq, in violation of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, last month as part of a 45-person delegation called Iraq Sanctions Challenge IV, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Mooney believes that he is the first Memphian to travel to Iraq since the Gulf War. The delegation brought $1.5 million worth of medical and school supplies to give to the Iraqi people, and also traveled to the country to learn more about the effect of post-Gulf War economic sanctions on Iraq's civilian population and to bring that knowledge back to the United States.
In Iraq, Mooney says, the group witnessed proof of a public health crisis brought about by environmental damage from the bombing and the lack of medical supplies due to the sanctions. He also paints the picture of a country where economic sanctions punish the weak while making Saddam Hussein's regime more powerful by forcing citizens to rely on the government for all basic needs.
Mooney says that his understanding of the damage caused by the sanctions was only confirmed by the trip, but that his understanding of the Iraqi people themselves was greatly affected. "People in Iraq differentiate between American people and the American government. It was very humbling. It made me ashamed, actually," Mooney says. "Iraq is an educated country and they are well aware of what Arab stereotypes are in America.They also know that their suffering is because of U.N. Security Council resolutions and they know that those are there because of U.S. power. So that's where they place the blame for this. Basically, I saw a lot of what I expected to see, but I did not expect the Iraqi people to be so welcoming of us." One man, during the demonstration, even gave Mooney a ring off his finger in exchange for Mooney's New York Yankees ski cap.
But not all interaction with the Iraqi people was that smooth. The delegation visited a couple of elementary schools where they were mobbed by school children, but these visits also delivered a moment that put the visitors into perspective. "These are kids who have grown up only knowing a life of sanctions and bombing," says Mooney. "And at one school, someone from our group made the mistake of going into a classroom without permission from the teacher first, and had a friend translate to the kids in Arabic, 'What message do you want us to take home to the United States?' The teacher, shocked, came in and said, 'How dare you step into this classroom. How dare you ask these kids that when you've bombed us and your country has these sanctions against us?' Then she started crying, and so did the rest of the classroom."