by Kelly Hayes-Raitt
She went to Iraq to help women, but lost her heart to a girl.
The one I wanted to wrap in my arms and bring home was Nebras. I didn’t even know her name when I went back to Iraq in July 2003, shortly after the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad. I was armed only with a photo of a beggar touching her nose with her tongue.
I had met Nebras a few months before, when I traveled to Iraq with a women’s human rights delegation, just five weeks before the U.S. bombings and invasion. Unfazed by impending disaster, this little girl had begged for handouts in a popular market. I taught her to touch her nose with her tongue. We teased; clearly she wasn’t used to an adult making faces at her and delighting in her company. She followed me around the souk nearly swallowing her tongue in laughter as she imitated my nose-touching stunt.
She was cold. The dirty scarf wrapped loosely around her neck neither protected her from the chill nor hid her calculating ability to work the shoppers. Without a translator, the most I gathered from her was a photo of a gleeful girl with laughing eyes.
In July, when I returned to Iraq to find out how war had touched the people who had so deeply touched me, translators were reluctant to take me to the souk where I had met Nebras. The mood was shifting in Baghdad; gunfire was heard nightly and no one wanted to be responsible for my harm. The day before I was to leave, I finally convinced a friendly driver to take me “shopping.” I canvassed the cluttered shops for hours, flashing Nebras’ photo.
“Yes, that’s Nebras,” shopkeepers agreed. “But I haven’t seen her in a while,” said one. “Not since before the war,” said another.
My breath stopped. I had been lucky in my return trip to Iraq: Although I could not find everyone I had befriended before the war, no one I’d met had died. I had just learned Nebras’ name. Could she be one of the thousands of nameless Iraqis we now called “collateral damage”?
During our morning in the souk, insistent gunfire across the river rattled us. As rumors spread, I felt increasingly uneasy in the crowded narrow alleys. We had to leave.
Suddenly, a commotion erupted behind me with several men moving in my direction. I froze. They parted, revealing the terrified eyes of a sweet, familiar elfish girl wondering why she was being dragged by the scruff of her T-shirt.
Nebras didn’t recognize me at first. Not until I showed her photos of herself did she smile. Backed against a shop facing a tight crowd of curious men, Nebras stood shyly studying her photo intently. I shooed back the men who had treated this beggar only as a nuisance and asked the interpreter to tell her I had come from America to see her.
Without warning, the overwhelmed girl lunged forward and kissed me on the lips.
We bought an ice cream from a passing vendor. She opened it and held it out to me. My defenses melted. After two weeks of rigorous attention to all food and water that passed my lips, I licked the sweet streetfare sacrificing my intestines to this little girl’s pleasure at hosting a visitor with all that she could offer.
She’s an only child who couldn’t tell me her age. It was particularly ironic that we met outside the Al Mustanseria University, the world’s oldest science school built in 1233. This schoolless girl’s only education is learned navigating the streets adjacent to this university.
U.S. helicopters overhead and rumors that the American troops had closed bridges and jammed traffic made us jittery. Nebras escorted me out of the edgy souk, grabbing my hand and expertly keeping my skirt from being snagged by the ubiquitous wartime razor wire.
As we passed a store being repainted, she mentioned it had been hit during the war. She had spent the long nights of the early bombings in a nearby mosque.
I hugged her harder than I intended. I felt her wiry hair against my cheek, her grungy T-shirt against my shoulder, her warm, open heart so willing to accept mine.
I left feeling guilty. Last time, I’d taught her how to touch her tongue to her nose. This time, the only thing I could do was accept her ice cream.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a former Commissioner on the Santa Monica (California) Women’s Commission, traveled to Iraq in February 2003, just five weeks before the U.S. bombings and invasion, and returned in July 2003. Her series of articles about the Iraqis she met—and photos, including one of Nebras performing her tongue-to-nose stunt—are on her website at www.CommunityCampaigns.com. She hopes to travel to Iran next.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.