When people ask me how I feel about the latest events in Iraq, I tell them I feel sad. All these people—both Americans and Iraqis—have died since 2003 for nothing. As the Islamic State insurgency unfolds, I’m mourning not just those who have died over the past decade, but for a country that I haven’t been able to recognize for a very long time.
I grew up in Baghdad in a middle-class family. My father served in the Iraqi Air Force and traveled often internationally; my mother was a math teacher; my siblings all attended college. I graduated from the most prestigious high school in Baghdad before getting my degree at pharmacy school.
I grew up reading Superman and Batman comics, playing with Legos, and swimming at the pools of the fancy clubs where my parents were members. I was 12 during the first Gulf War in 1990. And until then, my childhood was uneventful: I was a happy kid.
Until 1990, I never heard a mosque call for prayer. I almost never saw a woman covering her hair with a hijab. My mom wore make-up, skirts, blouses with shoulder pads, and Bermuda shorts.
Since moving to Los Angeles in 2009, I’ve realized that most Americans don’t understand that Iraq used to be a Westernized, secular country. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Iraq’s neighbors used to look to it as the example. The country had an excellent education system, great healthcare, and Iraq was rich—not the richest, but rich.
Of course, Iraq is not like this today.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 years ago last month, the United States destroyed most of Iraq’s infrastructure during the Persian Gulf War. Bridges were bombed, along with power stations, railroads, dams, and oil refineries.
I remember that we would turn on the faucet, and barely any water would come out. In order to take showers, we had to rely on water tanks on the roof, which supplied extra water to our home. The water would come out boiling hot because it had been sitting in the sun. We also had limited electricity—which remains a problem, even 20 years later. Sleeping was difficult. You would wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night.
In 1990, an embargo was imposed, which prohibited Iraq from exporting oil. Iraqis suddenly found themselves poor. People’s values changed after 1990, too. Robberies increased. If you parked your car by the street—even for just three minutes—you risked your hubcaps being stolen.
Neither of the United States wars changed life in Iraq the way the U.S. government had intended.
I think the United States wanted Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein and depose him. That wasn’t going to happen.
The notion of democracy is foreign to the Arab world. Although the West saw the “Arab Spring” protests as movements for democracy, they were really uprisings against various dictators, which are not the same thing. What we know is that for countless generations, we’ve lived in a society of hierarchy. It’s not about individualism or personal freedoms. It’s about following your father, your family, and your tribe. There’s no culture of respecting different opinions.
So, when Iraqis were given their freedom, instead of turning to democracy, they, like many other in the region, turned to religion—and religious leaders for guidance, and political advice.
Shiites voted for Shiite candidates. Sunnis voted for Sunnis. The Shiites came to power because they were the majority.
What’s happening in Iraq today is merely a continuation of the failure of democracy. And a failure of the United States to understand the psyche of Iraqis.
The people who might have been able to change Iraq—the educated, the artists, the moderates—began leaving in 1990, mostly illegally, after the embargo was imposed and their comfortable lifestyles came to an end.
In 2003, Saddam Hussein fell and the floodgates opened up, with even more leaving the country for good at a time when they were most needed. Until that year, I was barred from traveling along with other pharmacists, doctors, and certain professionals.
I wanted to leave, but what would I do? Where would I go? Only a handful of countries even allowed travel on an Iraqi passport. My parents and siblings fled to Syria, and later to Jordan. I stayed in Baghdad.
With my friends and family gone, I felt very isolated and alone. It also became unsafe to move around—even to do simple things like go to a restaurant or to the market.
In 2009, I managed to come to the U.S. as a refugee, and I was happy to leave Iraq behind. But even though I’d given up on my country, I had hope that things would not get as bad as they have today. It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq and, though it pains me to say this, the aftermath of the U.S. invasions has brought us to this point.
I despised Saddam, but I don’t think an extremist group like the Islamic State would exist under his rule. Even if Saddam had gone crazy and killed a bunch of people, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the number of people who have died since he was overthrown. I see a civil war coming, and an Iraq divided into states.
So as I read the news on CNN Arabic and the BBC while pacing around the house, I feel as if I’m experiencing a death in the family. I’m going through the stages of grief—denial, anger, depression. Lately, I’ve even tried to avoid reading the news at all.
Sometimes, I watch old YouTube videos that show the way Iraq used to be. The Iraq I loved and was proud of—the country I lived in before 1990—doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t see that changing in my lifetime.
Saif Al-Azzawi lives in Los Angeles. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.