Terrorist or Tragedy? My Struggle with the Tale of Sajida al-Rishawi

i.

I imagine many Americans, when they think about terrorism, have definitive ideas of what it means. I imagine its moral implications are clear. I have to imagine because, for me, there is no such clarity. Instead, I am haunted by the face of a small, haggard woman with a simple white hijab and the eyes of a dead woman walking.

On the night of November 9th, 2005, I was settling into bed, a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small Bedouin village in the north of Jordan. A two hour bus ride south, in the capital Amman, four Iraqis strapped with explosives walked into three hotels. Fifty-four people died, mostly Jordanian and Lebanese Muslims. One bomber lived, and a few tense days later, Sajida al-Rishawi was caught.

Nearly a decade later, my Jordanian friends on Facebook began posting about a Jordanian Air Force pilot named Muath al-Kasasbeh who had crashed in Syria and been captured by the fanatics of Daesh, known by some as the Islamic State. They wanted to trade Muath for several terrorists in Jordanian prisons, including Sajida al-Rishawi. Her brother was an aide to a commander of Daesh, and had also once been a top aide to the notorious leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mas’ab al-Zarqawi.

Jordan, one of the first and staunchest allies of the United States in the so-called War on Terror, refused to negotiate with terrorists. Daesh burned Muath al-Kasasbeh alive. A few days later, Jordan’s moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, and on February 4, 2015, Sajida al-Rishawi was executed.

Very little of that is why Sajida’s small, dark-eyed face and hunched shoulders have haunted my conscience for more than a decade.

When Jordanians asked where I lived, I said, “Do you know Gafgafa?” It was the next town over, site of one of the more notorious prisons in Jordan, rumored to be one of the extraordinary rendition prisons where the CIA was sending terrorists that could not be tortured on American soil. Once Sajida was caught by Jordanian authorities, she was thrown into another rumored extraordinary rendition prison.

About a week later, I remember sitting at the neighbors’ house one evening when Sajida appeared in the kingdom’s living rooms on Jordan’s national television, making a confession. Parents, children, cousins and in-laws all gathered around, turning up the volume.

Unlike the precisely pinned hijab of the women I taught with in the village school, Sajida’s long rectangular white ishaar was wrapped loosely around her head, hanging in folds over her brow, tucked under her chin, not a pin in evidence. Every woman watching the confession with me that night had the same look, the casual hijab for running to the neighbors for an evening cup of tea, in a scarf that would continually slip and require readjustment several times an hour, or even complete re-wrapping.

Sajida had a thick, unfamiliar accent, so I was not able to follow the words of her confession well. I studied visual cues instead. Were her shoulders bent beneath the weight of her suicide vest, or beneath the burdens of her life in Iraq? For Sajida, was there a difference between the two?

I remember the gasps of my neighbors as Sajida opened her black jelbaab, the long duster commonly worn by modest Muslim women, to reveal the pack of explosives duct-taped to her torso. Her speech was slow and monotone, neither defensive nor apologetic. She picked through the wires with blunt fingertips, explaining the mechanics that should have made this small woman into a deadly weapon. She remained unfocused, unmoved by the tale she was telling.

There was a dead look in her dark eyes, staring flatly off to one side of the camera as she spoke, unfocused and barely blinking. Was this the look of a tortured woman? Or was hers the face of a woman with nothing left to love in the world?

Sajida shares a look I saw on many Jordanian women, mothers of the girls I taught in that little Bedouin village, girls my colleagues there called “unteachable.” Girls like Eslam, cowering in the back left corner of my eighth grade classroom. No teacher had ever let Eslam answer a question in school, let alone encouraged her to work through a wrong answer in front of the class for as long as it took to turn it into the right answer. I was the first to defend her right to participate over the louder voices of the “clever” students.

Her mother, Umm Eslam, once walked from the far side of the village, instead of baking the family’s daily bread, so she could speak with me. She lingered in the school garden until she could catch me alone for a moment. “Eslam never liked school before,” she said. “She used to skip school often to help me at home because she didn’t think she could learn anything. Now she can’t wait to come to school, to English class.”

I was not a good teacher in those Peace Corps days, but I did that much, at least.

Eslam, her mother and Sajida share a fashion, too, a certain way of wearing certain kinds of hijab. The amira style is a cotton-poly Tshirt-knit hijab in two pieces. A new hijab amira fits snugly along the brow and cheeks, holding behind it those short hairs at the temples. Yet like the Tshirt-knit headbands I used in my hair in the Ninties, they stretch and fade with time and washing, loosening around the face. Poorer women like Umm Eslam twist and tuck or pin their folded hijab amira under the chin. As Sajida seems to do in photos, sometimes they tug the stretched edges forward so stray bits of hair disappear behind loose folds around the face.

There were so many such women I knew, faces and hands weathered, spirits bowed like Sajida’s shoulders under the grind of poverty and a pregnancy nearly every year. How did the storyline veer so tragically from the Bedouin neighbors I loved to Sajida blowing herself up in the middle of a stranger’s wedding?

Sajida’s vest failed to detonate, but Sajida’s husband killed the fathers of the bride and groom at a wedding reception. I remember the flurry of two a.m. text messages, checking in with friends. I remember the hard tension of shocked disbelief in my chest. I remember rehashing and rehashing the few facts we had in the teachers’ lounge the next day.

For more than a year and a half, I had eaten with Jordanians, slept beside them, taught with them, learned from them. Suicide attacks were happening every day across the border in Iraq, but they did not happen in Jordan. The Bani Hassan had become my people, and these things did not happen to my people. Not in our tribe.

To my surprise, the Jordanians I lived with rarely blamed me for the actions of my government. It was entirely different from when I had lived in Europe while Pres. George W. Bush was declaring “you’re either with us or against us.” Europeans had held me accountable. Like Americans, they live in democracies where they are taught that their governments represent the will of the people. Jordanians live in a police state with only a veneer of democratic process. It didn’t seem to occur to them to hold me accountable for my government.

“Bush bad!” they would declare. “Americans good!” Two thumbs up!

When I was despondent about the reelection of Bush, my neighbor asked, “But why? It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

They had little expectation that government would respond to their demands, even if they thought that governments should. The Iraqis I have known felt the same. Saddam did not do what his people wanted or needed, and to complain was to court exile or death.

One of my earliest, clearest memories of Jordan is from April 2003. After ten weeks of Peace Corps training, in my third week on the job, the national newspaper Al-Ghad published a full-color two-page spread of the pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib Prison. That morning in the teachers’ lounge, Miss Ismahan the Islam teacher held the pages up in front of me. “You have to look at this,” she said.

“I saw it yesterday on the Internet,” I said. “It’s terrible. I don’t have to see it again.”

“No,” she insisted, holding the newsprint closer to me. “You have to look again. These are our brothers and sisters.”

What she did not say was, “and those are your American brothers and sisters in uniform.” Where I grew up in southern Pennsylvania, many in my high school had joined the military and were in uniform on September 11, 2001. Lynndie England, the young reservist who became the internationally reviled poster child for the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison, could have been one of my classmates. She was my age, had my hair, had graduated from a West Virginia high school very similar to mine.

I struggled to reconcile that with my new life in Jordan. I found myself both empathizing with the Iraqis suffering for the abuses of a president they had never elected, and empathizing, too, with the soldiers who joined up to afford college, not to go to war. I still struggle to reconcile my relationships with my student Eslam and the Islam teacher Miss Ismahan, my relationship to the soldier Lynndie England, and my relationship to suicide bombers like Sajida al-Rishawi.

ii.

After the Peace Corps, I went to graduate school to study Arabic, where I met a young man from the West Bank I will call Hamdan. He was tall and lanky, with glasses and a quick smile, and spoke intelligently and expressively on many things. His voice was soft and gentle, even in difficult conversations about his native Palestine.

I took a Media Arabic class that he was teaching. That summer of 2007, there was a conflict between Lebanese military forces and Hamas militants sheltering in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barad. The Arab media was covering it every day, and we found ourselves talking about it in nearly every class.

One day, mid-sentence, Hamdan paused and was silent for a moment.

Finally, in his usual quiet voice, he said, “When my parents got me a scholarship for my Bachelor’s in America, they saved my life. I was only weeks away from becoming a suicide bomber.”

He tried to explain what it was like to live in a country where he had no freedom of movement or expression, no self-determination, under embargo and constant threat of violence. “I was so hopeless,” he said. One final, powerful act of violence seemed like the only remaining way he could make a difference for the people he loved.

Not long after my class with Hamdan, I went to a small seminar by Mia Bloom, one of the few academics studying suicide terrorism. She had just been in Iraq at the behest of the American government, where they gave her unprecedented access to military data for her research, hoping to discern the profile of the suicide bomber. I went to hear her because I was still thinking about Sajida.

Two things stood out for me about Bloom’s presentation.

She did extensive personal interviews with failed bombers, recruits who had recanted, and families and friends of deceased perpetrators in Sri Lanka, Ireland, Palestine and Lebanon. She rejected the common pundit claim that education, economic circumstances, religion or politics were predictors of a suicide bomber. Given the number of suicide attacks in the last several decades, she said, there was not a statistically significant sample for a responsible academic to draw any conclusions about the profile of a suicide bomber.

Yet, Bloom went on to show us some slides based on data she had mined from military records. In a detailed street map of Baghdad’s notorious Sadr City, red dots marked the known residences of suicide bombers. On top of this map, Bloom laid down a layer of blue marking house-by-house where there was less than a few hours a day of running water. In yellow, less than a few hours a day of electricity. Another layer for open sewage in the streets. Every red dot met two, often all three of these deficits.

Even knowing that there is not enough data to draw conclusions, when I read about suicide bombings now, I think, “We did that.” Not directly, but American voters were complicit.

iii.

After graduate school, I spent two more years in Amman, Jordan’s capital, making friends from all over the region and the world. Amman is a city filled with the children of Palestinians who had fled central Israel or the West Bank. Western Amman was flooded with expatriates—aid workers, English teachers, contractors, international students. My Jordanian friends spoke English, French, Russian, Chechen.

On the morning after Barack Obama won his first presidential election, everyone I passed in the neighborhood and all my fellow teachers at work greeted me with, “Congratulations!” It was the talk of the town when his first official press interview was with the Saudi television channel Al-Arabiyya and he became the first sitting U.S. President to ever call for an end to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. When President Obama spoke to students at the University of Cairo and called on his audience to build the world they dreamed of, I knew he was talking to my friends in Amman, too.

I told everyone they should come and see the beautiful little kingdom of Jordan for themselves, and one friend who did was Philip, a fellow polyglot world traveler. We spent a couple days in Wadi Musa and the ancient rose-red city of Petra. There was snow in the forecast for the next day, and the cold drove us back to our cheap hotel early.

What the accommodations lacked for amenities they made up for in character, namely the hotel owner Adel, who was lounging in the lobby and invited us to share a cup of tea with him. He was middle-aged, a retired military man with big eyebrows, intelligent dark eyes and a weathered face. He was loud, and said what was on his mind.

The night before, when we checked in, Adel had been charmed by my Bedouin-accented Arabic. “Where did you learn it? Is your mother an Arab?”

“No, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years in a little village.”

“Ah, yes! Peace Corps! I know it. Where did you live?”

“In the north, between Jerash and Irbid. Do you know Gafgafa?”

His big eyebrows rose. “You lived in Gafgafa? The prison?”

“Well … near there.”

“Which village?” And when I told him, he knew it, knew about the Member of Parliament who lived there, Mr. Harahsheh. They were from the same tribe, the Bani Hassan.

Adel insisted on a second glass of tea, and then he became serious, slipping in and out of English to make sure Philip also understood this point, which was very important to him. “You know about this man Zarqawi, yes? Abu Mas’ab al-Zarqawi? The CIA says he is a terrorist, responsible for the horrible killing of many Muslims in al-Anbar Province in Iraq, but that’s crazy. I mean, for one thing, Zarqawi? That’s not even a name! Have you ever met an al-Zarqawi?”

I had not, but I also understood that Adel was being a bit disingenuous. Al-Zarqawi meant “the man from Zarqa,” a large industrial city in Jordan’s northeast. Though not a common practice in Jordan, in Iraq most surnames refer to the town of one’s ancestors. It was also a custom common to Al Qaeda noms du guerre: al-Baghdadi, al-Masri from Egypt, al-Libi from Libya. But I held my tongue.

“This man,” said Adel, “that the CIA said was responsible for killing hundreds of Iraqis in terrible ways…. He couldn’t have done it. I knew this man. He was my uncle. I only met him a few times, in Zarqa. But he was a quiet man, a reader, a religious scholar. He was a gentle man, a teacher. He loved children, and they loved him. That man didn’t do what the CIA says he did.”

In my village near Gafgafa, my closest friend was Wijdan, an educated, under-employed, outspoken woman far to the left of most of her neighbors. She had insisted that Zarqawi never existed at all. He was a character, a ghost invented by the CIA as a scapegoat, a diversion, or a cover for U.S. attacks on unarmed civilians. “Muslims don’t kill other Muslims,” she insisted.

iv.

After he claimed credit for the Amman bombings, Zarqawi was denounced by the Bani Hassan. By the time he was killed by a missile strike in June 2006, public opinion had swayed decisively against both Zarqawi and his mentor Osama bin Laden. Even my friend Wijdan believed.

I believe that Abu Mas’ab Zarqawi was the mastermind of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and I blame him for years of gratuitous acts of violence, too often against civilians. I blame him for giving carte blanche to his followers, even encouraging them to greater, more horrific violence such as is perpetrated today by Daesh and Boko Haram. Zarqawi’s lieutenants and aides surely also bear responsibility, including Sajida’s brother. The propagandists and recruiters who incited and enabled the fervor for martyrdom are to blame, too. They all had a hand in reaping such a bloody harvest.

Yet, I know that my country and I bear responsibility, too. American bombs shattered the infrastructure of an Iraq already teetering on the brink, starving sick families ripped apart by decades of war, sanctions and a dictatorship alternately supported and decried by the West. We destroyed with no plan for after, and Iraqis became mired in our mess. They could no more control their fates than the victims in New York City, on whose bodies we justified our invasion.

None of this can justify what Sajida and her four companions did. It barely begins to explain it. I will never know what shaped Sajida into the deadly weapon she wished to become. Her voice is silenced now. My conscience, however, is far from silent.

I still cling to the dream of government by the people. I find us all complicit.

By Maryah Converse

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