A Century Behind

A Century Behind

by Yassin Aref

For me the earth is not flat.  There still is a big gap and a huge distance between the East and the West.  When I was young we used to say that we Easterners were at least one century behind the West.  But in many poor countries and in war zones the difference is even more than a century.  In many African and Asian countries you can find the same distance between people living in the cities and people living in the villages.  In some places you can find the same distance between people in the majority who are in power, and the people in the minority who are in opposition.

In my country, Iraq, the difference between Baghdad, the capitol, and the Kurdish areas was like the difference between East and West.  It was also the same as the difference between the cities and the villages.  It was also the same as the difference between the minority in the mountains and the majority in the valley.  So in a sense I lived my childhood three centuries behind any child in America – one century because I lived in the Middle East; one century because I lived in a village; and one century because I lived with the Kurdish minority in the mountains. 

Yassin Aref
Yassin Aref

We see this distance today, especially in any country where war is going on.  We see that the life of people in Somalia, Congo, Darfur, Iraq, and Afghanistan is harder than the life of Europeans in the 18th century.  War makes the gap greater and greater.  This should help us understand why America cannot build democracy in the Middle East.  Western Europe spent billions in aid and education in Eastern Europe to prepare the people there for unity with the West.  As a result they slowly narrowed the gap between them until they finally met.  If America spent 400 billion dollars on aid and education in Iraq and Afghanistan it could be used to change people’s lives to be as good or better than life in the US or Canada, and people could unite around this prosperity.  But war instead has made the gap unbelievably large.  The war and the lack of improvement of the life or economy of the people ensure that people will remain centuries behind.

Why is nobody from Canada fleeing to live in the US as a refugee?  Why is it that the police and a wall cannot stop people coming to the US from Mexico?  Whatever the US is spending on the wall, and on surveillance cameras, and guards, and deportations centers, if they spent the money on Mexico’s education and economic development, it would stop undocumented immigration.  I say this as an immigrant who also saw this in his personal life.  Why would I have left my country, my friends, my family, if I was able to obtain food, medicine, education, freedom and a future for my children in Kurdistan?  My Dad did not want me to live as he did, and many times he told me how much he paid for being illiterate.  He made sure that I loved education and believed in science, and he took my pledge that I would educate myself and go to college.  I struggled a lot to fulfill this promise.  There was only a primary school in my village.  For Middle School I had to move to the city.  In some years school was cancelled because of the war.  Sometimes I had to leave school and work to survive.  I went to night school and worked full time during the day in High School.  I left my country to go to college.  Since I was a child, I used to say to people that to reach freedom, to get liberty, to defeat our enemies, we needed to educate ourselves and our children.  I had many debates about this.  I was sure that the ignorant would become dictators; the sick love to humiliate people; fools kill their people and destroy their country; the arrogant are scared of freedom; the racists create divisions. 

So why should we be like our enemies?  As the Arab Poet said, “If you call the living people they will hear.  But those you are calling are dead”.  I gave up!  I left the East to bridge the gap, jump one century ahead, and live so that my children would not have to be third class citizens, and live two or three centuries behind the West, and so they could have what my father and I never even saw or heard of. 

As the Arab Poet said, “Not all that a person wishes will he get; wind will come from a direction which the ship will not like”.  Up until now I do not believe in luck, but the reality is that there are many factors which play major roles in our lives and which are beyond our ability to control or plan for.

I am a Kurd.  It was not my choice, but this fact has influenced everything that happened to me in my life. 

I am from Iraq.  This was not my decision but it played a big role in my life and cost me my freedom.

I was born in the time of a dictator and grew up with continual warfare.  It was not my hand to change, but I am still suffering from it.

There are many things which prevent us from our goals or push us toward them, and it is not in our hand to determine the time, the place, or the situation, either to make an easy success, or to make it a rough struggle.  What do you call this?  Luck?  Chance? Nature? Decree? Test?   For me it is the last word – Test – although any name you chose will not change the reality of it.  It will still exist.  It will still be true, and we Kurds got a big portion of it.  I am just one example:

I came from the East to the West for Freedom and ended up in jail!

I left my country to avoid poverty, but my children now live from charity.

I fled from secret agents and spies, but they seem to have followed me.

I came to live with dignity as a first class citizen, but I did not get even a green card and my children are not even citizens of any county on earth.  (I at least was a third class citizen in Iraq).

I wanted to avoid living in the way my Dad did, but now I am living in my grandfather’s style.

I will give you some examples to show that I am not exaggerating and that history in my case repeats itself and made me in America of the 21st century to live like my father and grandfather did in the 19th and 20th century.   My father told me stories of his father’s life, especially when we as children said that we did not want to eat certain food, or we disliked certain clothes, or we complained about any difficulty.  Dad would tell us what he used to eat, and what he used to wear and how hard he used to work.  His life was full of tragedy, pain, suffering, struggling, fighting, poverty, and disease.  He had to face enemies and wars and had to survive snow, wind, bombs, and attacks, not for any crimes he committed, but just for being a Kurd in the wrong place at the wrong time as they say in America.  Unwillingly I inherited these tragedies in a different time and place but for the same reasons and the same “crimes” – I am a Muslim, a Kurd, and a victim.


In our village, especially in my Dad’s time, people depended for every thing on themselves and most of their needs came from their farms.  They planted the seeds, they made the bread, they gathered the fruit, they farmed vegetables, they produced eggs and milk and yogurt and cheese, they slaughtered sheep and chickens for meat.  They went to the city to buy blankets, and gasoline. They made carpets, shoes, and dried fruit and nuts for the winter.  Whenever they needed something they would exchange their goods for whatever they needed.  It was very rare for them to use money.  Some rich people in the city might use gold but not in the village.  Now I find myself in jail where nobody is allowed to have money or use checks or credit cards or money orders.  We have to do things in my Dad’s way except that we have to be very careful that the guards do not see us.  Here are some prices from the County jail.  Three apples will buy one banana; one orange will buy a bowl of cereal; one lunch will buy a dinner; a cookie or a piece of cake will buy two bags of tea; a drawing (picture) will buy one or two shots of coffee.  The government does not set the price, trading is not permitted, and no one pays tax.  The prices change depending on peoples needs.  I may get a banana for two apples.  Someone else at the same time might get three bananas for one apple.  Some one might get some labor for a bag of chips or a jar of peanut butter. 

All this trading used to take place in the county jail, but I heard that prison is a different kind of place.  At the present time I am in a special lock down unit, where everything is different and all the prisoners are Muslim.  If someone needs something here others will just give it to him free.  But in county jail, many people got into trouble for exchanging things and they lost some of their privileges such as commissary shopping for 6 months, or phone calls for 3 months, or weeks of lock down, or losing visiting privileges.  At least my Dad was bartering without having to fear the notice of the guards or worry about cameras.

Shot of Coffee

In Arabia they say, “Need is the mother of creation”.  The poor everywhere have their own philosophy which is different than what you have read.  That is why their actions, talk and appearance are often not understandable to the well-off.  For some people, the poor may look foolish but it is need that has pushed them to this appearance, and it is dignity that made them try to hide it.  I will never forget “Jamallaya” who I met in the County Jail.  I learned many unseen aspects of life from his routine, and I learned from him another side of American life.  Jamallaya was really like a person who had fallen from the sky without anyone to help him, or even visit him.  Nobody wrote to him, and he never received even one penny for his commissary account.  He told me how people like him were able to get what they needed in prison.

Imam Ali said, “It is not wise to say everything you know, until you find the perfect time and right person to tell”.  Jamallaya’s big problem was that he was a coffee drinker.  Every day he needed four, or five cups and he did not drink unless the coffee was really dark.  He was ready to give his food for coffee.  He would do whatever he could to get a shot of coffee.  His eyes and face told everybody what it meant to be poor.  I tried to help him to change his habit, and to eat his food instead of trading it for coffee.  I told him about the importance of his health and taking care of his body.  Jamallaya was a good listener and his tears were always ready to flow.  But after one hour he would come back to the cell and say, “Please can I have a shot of coffee”!?  And by diner time he would go door to door trying to find someone who would take his dinner in exchange for a shot of coffee.  I used to look at him then and take a deep breath and say to myself, “We all need freedom, but first we must find freedom from our habits and desires”.

Piece of Candy

The dream of village children was for a piece of candy.  We used to long for it.  We would wait and sing for Eid’s yearly ceremony in order to get some candy or have some good food.  Many families would cook meat only for this occasion and many children used to get candy only on Eid day.  I heard and saw many people in the County Jail waiting for Thanksgiving Day or New Years Day to get some sweets or turkey.  Some of the prisoners talked to me about what they hoped we would get on these celebration - six months in advance!.

When they moved me to Federal prison, people began talking about Christmas candy bags, and some asked me if we were allowed to take it.  I told them if any one did not want it to send it to Jamallaya.  Then I told them his story and told them to just accept it as a gift.  It is human weakness.  When I was outside I used to argue with my children and stop them from eating candy all the time.  I do not believe I ever thought of candy for myself.  But now in prison a piece of candy makes us happy – in the same way it used to make the children happy in the isolated village in a third world country.

PUK Raid

The PUK (or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), was the biggest opposition Kurdish party in my area when I was living with my family in Kurdistan.  The government used to call them rebels, but for us they were “peshmerga” (freedom fighters).  I grew up with them.  At first they claimed to be communists, and then socialists, and then social democrats, and finally liberals – all this just in name and slogans – but in fact they were cultural Kurdish Nationalists at least 90%.  Their followers and supporters had nothing to do with any ideology.  They were simply Kurds seeking their freedom and liberty, struggling to get their rights, and trying to survive.  PUK used to have a radio program for one hour in the Kurdish language.  It was broadcast every morning and was repeated in the evening, but it was very hard to listen to because the government used radar to jam to broadcast with static – tut, tut, tuoot – pip, pip, peep.  Generally this was all we could hear, but in good weather we used to go on the roof or a high hill and put as much wire and iron as we could around the radio.  All we needed to hear was just “Farhad” read the news or a poem, and then we got strength and were inspired for months. 

It was dangerous to listen to the broadcast.  If any government intelligence agent knew we were listening to PUK radio we would not see the sun again.  But in our village there was no government, no army, and no police.  It was not easy for the government to send spies because all of the people knew each other, and the area was controlled by the peshmerga.  Farhad’s voice was excellent.  It woke up the people by shaking them and moving their hearts.  All you needed to hear was the voice even if you could not understand what the voice said.  You became emotional and were ready to die for the cause.  If the peshmerga captured one soldier for us that meant the dictators army has been defeated and was finished.  Revolutions do not depend on the mind or science!  Its fuel is emotion.  Revolutions need songs not science, and the radio programmers, especially Arsalan Baeez, understood this.  He prepared the program with this in mind, and then called Farhad to read it and make our youth leave their schools, and jobs, and families, and run to the mountains, and fight the 5 biggest armies in the world at that time.  Farhad’s voice shook our hearts, our mountains, and shook the government in Baghdad.  We used to say that all of the party on one side was equal to Farhad’s voice on the other.

That voice of Farhad became part of our lives and memory.  Between 1980 and 1990, there were no Kurds, especially in Iraq, who were not effected by his sound.  He left an impact on all of us.  Thousands of speakers, poem readers, broadcasters, preachers, all tried to copy him, but nobody could do it.  Farhad was from the same county I am from – Sangaw – and his sister and brother-in-law were our neighbors in our village.  Even his brother “Latif” was my friend, but I never saw or met Farhad in person.  Still I wish to meet him. 

Every day in my cell I remember Farhad because in prison they allow us only the small walkman radios and it is very hard to find a good station, especially for me because I always look for Amy Goodmans’s program, Democracy Now, and I listen to NPR for news, especially when they broadcast the BBC news from London.  But in the night time there is no way to get it at all, and in the day time I must move the radio from one side of the cell to the other.  I go close to the window, I put the radio plug in my ear but still it is very hard to understand.  Sometimes I get mad and give up.  After two or three months I try again.  But I get no benefit so I start to read some poem in Farhad’s manner.  I shake my room, shouting and excited.  Sometimes they think I am crazy (and maybe it is true).  Some people cannot believe that an imam like me would be singing.  But I don’t care.  All I need is to find Democracy Now and I am back in my village listening to the news.  I used to love night time because we could come out and speak freely – accuse the government, read poems, sing patriotic songs, and meet with the peshmerga.  But now I do not like the night time because my radio cannot bring in any good stations and I am locked down in my cell.  I really do not understand why they do not let us buy stronger radios.  Why can’t we have CD players?  What should we do in our cells?  How can we learn and change?  How does this save America?  Why is it a danger for us to hear Democracy Now, or listen to the BBC News? 

I really believe that my Dad’s life was much better than mine.  I came here to live today’s life, and not be one century behind any more.  But I found that I went back one century to live my grandfather’s lifestyle.  My only crime is that I speak the truth and I love justice.

Posted 2/24/08

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March 27, 2008

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