Six days in Iraq and not one Humvee, tank, fighter jet, military escort, or intelligence report. Not one minute inside the Green Zone or between the miles-long walls of American military bases. Hosted by my friend and colleague, Sami Rasouli, I live in Najaf, a city two hours south of Baghdad. At the invitation of Sami, I came here to live and work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), a group of Iraqi peacemakers.
Sami and I know each other through our jobs at partner non-profit organizations -- Sami at MPT and I at the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP). The two organizations are based in the Sister Cities of Minneapolis, USA and Najaf, Iraq. They work together to rebuild peaceful relationships between Americans and Iraqis and support nonviolence in both countries.
Since its founding in 2004, MPT has accomplished a lot. It has provided clean water to more than 27,000 Iraqi students and promoted national unity through friendly soccer matches across Iraq. It held community roundtable meetings to discuss the new constitution in 2005 and helped stem the spread of cholera in 2007 through hygiene education. Recently, MPT began hosting Americans to live and work in Iraq as an alternative model of peaceful coexistence. This project is small compared to the scope of the American war on Iraq, but it is dissent against the hegemonic discourse of war. It is an affirmation that we are still brothers and sisters and that war does not have the final say.
My visit to Iraq is very different from the "visit" of most Americans. I came to Iraq motivated by the principles of MPT and IARP, an unarmed guest seeking to build respectful relationships between people. My American counterparts in military uniforms, while perhaps motivated by misinformed ideals of protecting their country, came to Iraq armed to the teeth, seeking to storm the country into submission.
On my first day in Iraq, I met no sergeants or lieutenants. I met a nuclear physicist, a director of tourism development, a professor of geography, an Internet cafe owner, 25 English-language students (among them engineers, a geologist, teachers and college students) and my host family -- Sami, his wife, Suaad, and their two sons, Redha and Omar. All welcomed me with big smiles. None were like the Iraqis on American TV.
On my third day, Sami and I walked along the busy streets of the old city. We visited the alleys where Sami grew up and met a number of his cousins still living in the area. We wandered near the home of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shiite leader in Iraq, then visited the nearby Shrine of Imam Ali. We met with the son of Sheikh Abbas, an open-minded religious leader interested in interfaith dialogue with counterparts in Minneapolis. Later we ate on crowded benches at Abu Hayder, a small restaurant with five options for lunch. We carried no weapons and felt no danger.
Though I have never been inside an American military base, I imagine a day in the life of a soldier stationed there to be quite different. Between walls of Humvees and military equipment, with all kinds of power and armament, I imagine American soldiers feel less secure than I did walking around the streets of Najaf. I imagine a big screen TV streaming CNN, a basketball court, a cafeteria, a solitary room and imported items to remind the soldier of home. He is isolated from the people of Iraq, an occupier.
Sami has introduced me to many new friends during my first week in Iraq. The 25 English-language students that I help teach are eager to host Sami and me at their homes. Some of the students are similar to my friends in Minneapolis. Both Hayder in Najaf and my roommate in Minneapolis are pharmacists who complain about their customers. Sami's family is also becoming good friends. Sami's wife, Suaad, and niece Nahla laughed when I said I was going to ask my girlfriend in Minneapolis to make the Iraqi dish they made. Three-year-old Omar started using me as a jungle gym after I gave him a Clif Bar.
Friendship breaks down stereotypes and borders. But rather than making friends, my counterparts in the American military have made enemies. Rather than eating freshly prepared meals in Iraqi homes and getting to know Iraqis, they eat frozen, imported Kuwaiti food in cafeterias behind high walls. They remain imprisoned by stereotypes and misinformation.
Peacemaking is a sacred activity. By hosting me, an American, MPT members and friends affirm that we are brothers and sisters. Both MPT and IARP believe that we share a common humanity that goes beyond war and politics. Our activities are rooted in salaam, or peace, just as the word Islam shares a root with the word salaam. After the death and destruction in Iraq caused by Americans -- Americans still here, hiding behind walls -- Sami and MPT welcomed me here in peace. That is reconciliation that cannot be found with any amount of high-tech military equipment.
Sami Rasouli is the Founder and Director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He has also hosted Liz Wieling, an American professor of mental health at the University of Minnesota; Rose Aslan, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina; and many others. He lives in Najaf with his wife, Suaad, and two children.
Luke Wilcox is the Development and Communications Director of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project in Minneapolis, MN. He is writing a blog about his visit to Iraq at http://embeddedwithpeacemakers.com.