DAMASCUS – Only her eyelashes can be seen in profile, fluttering obsessively like the wings of a butterfly. She is like her own striking, svelte Kaaba, surrounded by an ocean of pilgrims – full black elegantly draped chador over jeans and a discreet mauve pair of pointy shoes, full hijab, only the heavily kohl-rimmed eyelashes trying to decode the torn-down messages in Arabic script, and then the official’s request for a pile of abstruse documents. Inevitably she has to sit down, like everyone else, in the antechamber of purgatory – the cramped, dingy room of the consular section at the Iraqi Embassy.
Her first words, when she breaks her silence, are “Waiting … All life is waiting.” Then her story shapes around familiar contours.
She is a young, educated, skilled professional – a veterinarian from Baghdad. Her husband “was killed” two months ago, she says with an almost imperceptible shrug, as if it were self-evident. By her side, her six-year-old kid, frightened look, hair plastered with gel and wearing sunglasses. Her little daughter was left behind in Baghdad, with her family.
In a less harsh universe she would have been the female lead in a Hollywood tear-jerker – those kohl-rimmed eyelashes under the black-veiled face filling the screen, and the audience, with awe. In unforgiving real life she is just one more Iraqi refugee – one more whose story will never make it to the front pages of US corporate newspapers or be carefully re-enacted by glamorous Diane Sawyer lookalikes.
The inflow through the dingy room is relentless – from grandmas who seem to have just sprung up from the kitchen to aged peasants who’ve been sporting the same coat for decades, from housewives in white scarves and plastic sandals dragging their reluctant children to sheikhs in fine blue robes with golden cufflinks, golden watch and golden mobile phones. All are equal in the face of distress. Occasionally, a chador-clad woman – a war widow – breaks down into pungent wailing: she cannot produce the stamp, the seal or the piece of paper the bureaucracy demands. When a small wooden window is closed – distress has to be meticulously processed – the men protest in vain to the fully made-up official in dressed-to-kill mode.
A mom and daughter are also waiting. They look like an average mom and daughter from Queens in New York or Camden Town in London. But Mom is visibly about to give it all up and collapse, and daughter tries all she can to maintain their dignified composure. Their house was destroyed by a car bomb on New Year’s Eve in Baghdad (eight people died). Mom reaches for her purse to show the dog-eared photos. The bomb was aimed at a restaurant.
They miraculously escaped because they were in the back yard. Now the head of the family, a sexagenarian, is ill and cannot find work. “Nobody helps us. They destroyed our country. Why? Why?” They are aiming for a visa to the United States. “Impossible.” Too many pieces of paper to collect. Mom warns, “Believe me, there are at least 6 million of us like this” – a reference to the millions of currently displaced Iraqis.
Suddenly an eerie silence envelops the squalid room. Business is closed for the day. More protestations. So much distress, so much paperwork to fill, so little time. The lucky ones will have to come back in a day, or two or many, to another window through another gate, and be crammed by the hundreds, called by name for hours on end to collect the stamp, seal or document that might open a small window of hope. “My friend has a company in Guangzhou.” “Is it better to try for a Spanish visa, or for Portugal?” “Don’t try Australia, you will wait forever.”
The striking veterinarian widow would like to resettle in England. But tomorrow night she will only make it to the lone night bus to Baghdad, where she hopes to rescue her little daughter, and then, back to Syria, resigned to keep waiting, waiting, waiting for a glimpse of what life might have been.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007).