Resister in Exile

Haifa Zangana survived Saddam, and urges Iraqi women to survive the occupation

Sanhita SinhaRoy

When I met Haifa Zangana in Naperville, ILL., 30 miles southwest of Chicago, the former political prisoner under Saddam Hussen’s Baath regime was working on a column but was having computer problems. The interview appeared to be a needed distraction. Zangana, who writes regularly for the Guardian, al-Quds, Red Pepper and al-Ahram Weekly, is also a novelist and feminist. She was in Chicago promoting her new book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2007), and visiting her brother-in-law in the suburbs before heading off to more speaking engagements, including one with CODEPINK in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25.

It was difficult to imagine that the petite, 57-year-old with smiling eyes once smuggled intelligence and weapons under her abaya to help subvert Iraq’s powerful political parties.

In 1972, when Zangana was 21, Baath officials arrested her and others for being part of a faction of the Iraqi Communist Party called the Central Leadership. She was held for six months as a terrorist and was tortured. After her release, Zangana eventually fled to London, where she has lived in exile with her husband ever since.

You write that you’ve been back to Iraq. How often do you go?

Not as often as I would like. I have my immediate family there, and my husband’s [family] too. But there have been cases where people are kidnapped immediately upon stepping into the Iraqi airport. Each political party has its own militias. The airport is under the control of one militia. So it’s getting more and more difficult, if not impossible.

How’s your family doing?

They are carrying on, like my husband’s family who lives in a part of Baghdad that the Americans built a wall around. 

This is the justification for it: We are protecting people from the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and we don’t want them to be randomly killed.” But at the same time there are air strikes that kill people randomly, so the justification doesn’t make sense except to separate and segregate people into smaller and smaller communities, which will make it easier for the occupiers to control them.

We are talking about Baghdad. There are also cities like Fallujah, Anbar and Samarra in the north, where walls are built to stop the coming and going of the people.

And it is not just the walls. The U.S. military was digging trenches around Al Hilla, the ancient city of Babylon, destroying an archaeological site to fill sandbags. 

American archaeologists did fantastic work highlighting this issue. The problem was that once they left, the damage had already been done.

You were imprisoned by the Baath regime when you were 21. Tell me about it.

I was part of a political group that was a faction of the Communist Party. We were a group of young people who didn’t want to be working within the party because it was following the agenda of the Soviet Union. We wanted to combine democracy and socialism and social justice. More like the Latin American left movement.

We were fought by both the mainstream Communist Party and the Baath regime. We were a thorn in their side so we were arrested. Some of us managed to escape, others were arrested. I was one of them. 

I was with a group of four people. Three of them were hanged. I was saved because my mother and family were adamant that I was there as a political prisoner. And because we had a relative who was a bodyguard for Saddam Hussein. The irony is that my relative was arrested later in the 90s and died while under house arrest. 

After my imprisonment, I spent over a year in Iraq. But my family thought I would be arrested again so my father arranged for a passport and I got out. 

Talk about your detention.

The first couple of weeks I was in the detention center called Qasir al-Nihaya. I was kept next to the torture room where you can hear 24 hours of nonstop screams of people tortured. It was horrendous.

You don’t know when they’ll come for you, so you sit and wait. You sit and think you hear footsteps. You try to decipher the sounds. Who is going to open the door? Why are they opening it? Where are they taking you? 

I was beaten up. I was pushed around. I was stripped naked. I had to face the other people who were arrested, but because they were tortured, I couldn’t even recognize them except for their voices. They were able to say a few words. They were made into a complete mess. 

When you hear allegations or stories of torture, what goes through your mind?

It’s very sad. I am also outraged because we fought these practices for many decades and we thought we would end them. 

But here we are with troops, with military occupation, with economic occupation and the cultural occupation. They try to erase our memory, our history, our archaeological sites and kill our civilians. 

In four and a half years, we have lost 1 million Iraqis. And that’s terminated, physically. We’re not talking about the consequences of conventional weapons, the depleted uranium, the phosphorous, the cluster bombs. 

As for detentions, the International Red Cross has recorded up to 60,000. And those are security detainees. 

You’ve written that it’s dangerous now for women to even go to university. 

Tremendously difficult. Because you have to defy almost everything, from the minute you step outside your house until you reach the university, and it is not even safe in the university. The assassination of academics, the targeting of professors, have left universities with a minimum presence of intellectuals.

There is a risk of being kidnapped, which is getting to be a very, very popular business. It depends on how affluent you are. That’s why people are fleeing the country. The fear of arbitrary arrest in the street. Of mortars dropping on you, IEDs, air strikes and snipers. Snipers are one of the main dangers because they shoot people as if to paralyze life in the city. 

As for jobs, last year, because of the targeting of men, women are going out to deal with every aspect of life, including trying to find jobs.

What kind of work?

I’ll give you an example. I know of a woman, she’s a widow with children who works as a taxi driver. Or she stands in queue on your behalf at the petrol station. With the lack of fuel, you have to queue sometimes seven hours to get a few liters of petrol. So you pay her to stand in queue. 

There are certain areas where you cannot really go nowadays unless you are wearing a hijab. So if you are a woman who refuses to, who believes, It’s a matter of choice and I don’t want to be forced wearing a hijab unless I want to,” then you send another woman who is wearing, or is willing to wear a hijab, and you pay her.

The title of your book, City of Widows, alludes to the fact that many women have lost their husbands.

There are 90 widows made each day. The Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq – it’s funny we have one – says that there are 1 million widows in Iraq. In Baghdad alone there are 300,000 widows.

What is the presence of women in the resistance?

Women are supporting the resistance in various ways, and not just the armed resistance. When I ask women there, What does the word resisting’ mean to you?” They answer, Survival. We have to stay alive. We have to protect our families.” 

There is also political resistance in peaceful, nonviolent ways. There is civil society and community resistance. Unions are doing a fantastic job. They were the real force behind delaying the signing of the new oil law that gives an open hand to the occupiers. Writing, painting, making documentary films, songs – these are all forms of resistance under occupation. 

In the book, you write that peaceful resistance ended three years into the war. Is armed struggle the only option?

Sometimes it seems like armed resistance is the only language that the occupiers understand. After all, the occupiers did not go to Iraq with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Nor did they go there to take Iraqis to the ballet or bring them books. No, they went as a brutal force, bringing shock and awe. Dropping bombs and napalm onto a new generation of people. So where does peaceful resistance take us?

But people are still working with international organizations, with the antiwar movement. In America, we are getting support from veterans’ families.

Many on the left in America debate whether an immediate withdrawal or a gradual withdrawal would be better. What do you think?

This gradual withdrawal is actually a gradual building of bases in Iraq. The call should be for immediate withdrawal. 

People are concerned that if the Americans leave, Iraqis will kill each other. But that is the white man’s burden. Powerful nations believe it is their duty to liberate people and then look after them because they are incapable of doing it themselves. 

You saw it in Algeria, in Vietnam and it’s now happening in Iraq. 

We’re approaching five years since the start of the war in Iraq. Do you think the future looks hopeful or bleak?

Both. Bleak because of the reality of what Iraqis are going through. The death, the violence, the suffering and the despair, especially among women.

And hopeful, because we cannot live without hope. We have to be optimistic. Because Iraqis are not accepting what’s being enforced on them, there is hope. This is a credit to the Iraqi people.

This kind of resilience gives you hope. And Iraq, after all, is a country with thousands of years of history, and the occupation has been here only for five years. We are bound to put an end to it.

Sanhita SinhaRoy, managing editor of American Libraries magazine, is a former managing editor of In These Times and a former copy editor of Playboy. (Yes, she did read it for the articles.)
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