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Barefoot in Baghdad
Cover of Barefoot in Baghdad
Barefoot in Baghdad
A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos
Borrow Borrow

"Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you..." —Iraqi-Turkmen proverb

A riveting story of hope and despair, of elation and longing, Barefoot in Baghdad takes you to the front lines of a different kind of battle, where the unsung freedom fighters are strong, vibrant—and female.

An American aid worker of Arab descent, Manal Omar moves to Iraq to help as many women as she can rebuild their lives. She quickly finds herself drawn into the saga of a people determined to rise from the ashes of war and sanctions and rebuild their lives in the face of crushing chaos. This is a chronicle of Omar's friendships with several Iraqis whose lives are crumbling before her eyes. It is a tale of love, as her relationship with one Iraqi man intensifies in a country in turmoil. And it is the heartrending stories of the women of Iraq, as they grapple with what it means to be female in a homeland you no longer recognize.

"Manal Omar captures the complex reality of living and working in war-torn Iraq, a reality that tells the story of love and hope in the midst of bombs and explosions."—Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, and author (with Laurie Becklund) of the national bestselling book Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

"A fascinating, honest, and inspiring portrait of a women's rights activist in Iraq, struggling to help local women while exploring her own identity. Manal Omar is a skilled guide into Iraq, as she understands the region, speaks Arabic, and wears the veil. At turns funny and tragic, she carries a powerful message for women, and delivers it through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq

"At turns funny and tragic...a powerful message for women, [delivered] through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War

"Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you..." —Iraqi-Turkmen proverb

A riveting story of hope and despair, of elation and longing, Barefoot in Baghdad takes you to the front lines of a different kind of battle, where the unsung freedom fighters are strong, vibrant—and female.

An American aid worker of Arab descent, Manal Omar moves to Iraq to help as many women as she can rebuild their lives. She quickly finds herself drawn into the saga of a people determined to rise from the ashes of war and sanctions and rebuild their lives in the face of crushing chaos. This is a chronicle of Omar's friendships with several Iraqis whose lives are crumbling before her eyes. It is a tale of love, as her relationship with one Iraqi man intensifies in a country in turmoil. And it is the heartrending stories of the women of Iraq, as they grapple with what it means to be female in a homeland you no longer recognize.

"Manal Omar captures the complex reality of living and working in war-torn Iraq, a reality that tells the story of love and hope in the midst of bombs and explosions."—Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, and author (with Laurie Becklund) of the national bestselling book Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam

"A fascinating, honest, and inspiring portrait of a women's rights activist in Iraq, struggling to help local women while exploring her own identity. Manal Omar is a skilled guide into Iraq, as she understands the region, speaks Arabic, and wears the veil. At turns funny and tragic, she carries a powerful message for women, and delivers it through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq

"At turns funny and tragic...a powerful message for women, [delivered] through beautiful storytelling."—Christina Asquith, author of Sisters in War

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    Throughout my childhood I struggled to answer the simplest of questions: where are you from? I was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents who moved to Lubbock, Texas, when I was six months old. During my childhood, my parents would uproot me every few years, from Texas to South Carolina to Virginia. Living in the American South, I was far from the image of a Southern belle, and yet the summers I spent in the Middle East only emphasized my American identity and made it clear to me that I would also never exactly be an Arab poster child.

    By the time I was in high school, I had learned to embrace and love all parts of my joint identity with the fervor only a teenager could feel. I was an Arab and an American. I was a Palestinian and a Southerner. I was a Muslim and a woman. As I grew, I accepted that the emphasis on each facet of my identity would shift with the phases of the moon. Growing up in a world struggling to understand multiculturalism, I saw this ability to move among my many identities as my own secret superpower.

    Propelled by the conviction that my identities provided me with a competitive advantage, I embarked on a career in international development. My mother argued that somewhere along the way I became delusional, perhaps because my desire to make a difference in the world led me to a career in humanitarian aid in conflict zones.

    With my secret superpower tucked away, I was among the first international aid workers to arrive in Baghdad in 2003. I would also be among the last to leave. The two intervening years inside Iraq would transform my life forever.

    Many writers have attempted to capture in words what happened in Iraq during the watershed years of 2003 through early 2005. Some authors have written about the political maneuvering behind the walls of the Green Zone or the military strategy as seen by journalists embedded in the armed forces. But until now, none of them have written from the viewpoint of an international aid worker who had access to both everyday Iraqi citizens and the people in power on the U.S. and Iraqi sides.

    In Iraq, I was finally able to put my superpower to full use. A wave of my American passport at the checkpoint of the fortified Green Zone allowed me access to the representatives of the U.S.-led coalition. My adherence to Muslim dress and my fluent Arabic made it possible for me to live in an Iraqi neighborhood with no armed security. This unique access allowed me to see an Iraq that was accessible to few others. With each passing season, the country would shed its skin from the past and emerge as a completely new place. Who was better positioned to adapt within a country experiencing a period of tumultuous change than someone who had been raised with an ever-shifting identity? In Iraq, I found a place with as many complicated contradictions as I had in myself. Here, though, my internal complexity was manifested in an entire society. My international colleagues were struggling to force Iraqi culture into convenient boxes, but I simply accepted its unique, fluctuating shape. International journalists marveled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange-colored hair and wearing tight jeans, but I simply shrugged. It was natural to me. The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful.

    Nevertheless, that mosaic was shattered by the eruption of violence that followed on the heels of the U.S. invasion. From weapons of mass destruction to suicide bombings, the lives of everyday Iraqis became...

About the Author-
  • Manal Omar has worked with Women for Women International, a nonprofit NGO, as Regional Coordinator for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan. Formerly a journalist, she began work in Iraq in 1997 and 1998 for UNESCO, and worked for OxFam in the Middle East. Currently, she is the Program Officer for the Iraq Grants Program with the United States Institute of Peace, based in Washington, D.C.
Table of Contents-
  • Acknowledgments xi

    Author Note xiii

    Introduction xvii

    Chapter One: The Opening 1

    Chapter Two: Road Trip 15

    Chapter Three: Breaking the Barriers 27

    Chapter Four: Choosing Sides 35

    Chapter Five: A Lot Hotter in Hell 45

    Chapter Six: Hysteria of Hope 55

    Chapter Seven: Eyes Wide Shut 69

    Chapter Eight: A Place of Fantasies 89

    Chapter Nine: Fern 103

    Chapter Ten: The Negotiating Chips 113

    Chapter Eleven: The Whistle-Blower 125

    Chapter Twelve: Playing with Fire 137

    Chapter Thirteen: Locked In 165

    Chapter Fourteen: Four Men and a Lady 173

    Chapter Fifteen: Breaking Point 203

    Chapter Sixteen: Purple Thumbs Don't Wash Off 213

    Chapter Seventeen: Iraqi Brides 225

    Epilogue: Dawn Approaches 233

    Reading Group Guide 239

    About the Author 243

Reviews-
  • Book Pleasures "Giving both an insider's and an outsider's view of the unfolding drama of Iraq, the memoir should prove worthwhile reading for anyone who has a keen interest in developments in the Middle East."
  • A Traveler's Library "We gain a picture of Baghdad beyond the Green Zone and through the eyes of a bright, young, idealistic humanitarian."
  • East County Magaine "A must read."
  • South by Southwest "You may not be able to lay Barefoot in Baghdad down for a while. This book will capture your interest."
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A Story of Identity-My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos
Manal Omar
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