Barefoot in Baghdad
Author: Manal M. Omar
Genre: Non-fiction (memoir)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Challenges: Women Unbound, Middle East Reading
FTC Disclosure: I bought this book
Summary (from the back of the book): 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 heartening stories of the women of Iraq, as they grapple with what it means to be female in a homeland you no longer recognize.
Review: I told myself I would read one book a month for my Middle East Reading Challenge and for this month it was going to be Mornings in Jenin. Then I heard about Barefoot in Baghdad (I also love the cover!) and started reading it instead and I am so glad that I did (I still plan on reading Mornings in Jenin since we're discussing it at my book group next Wednesday).
What caught my eye at first is that Manal Omar went to Iraq to set up offices for Women for Women International. This past summer I read Zainab Salbi's book and she is the founder of WFWI so I thought it would be really interesting to read a book about how the group's work actually played out in a country. I am so glad I read this book as it is more than just the story of an NGO (non-governmental organization) and it's impact on women's lives. The stories of the women that Omar helps and interacts with are heart-breaking. They range from honor crimes to prostitution to rape and more. But, wisely, the author chooses to cover only a few women and she goes into depth with each one rather than covering a lot of stories superficially. That is very effective. We get to see how the US military dealt with NGOs, Iraqis, Americans, and more. And through these stories I got a real look at Iraq through as it was for those living there in the middle of this decade (Omar was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005).
While this book does cover helping women in Iraq after the US invasion, it is also about Iraq and its people. Omar, as a muslim American, has access to people and situations that most Americans would not. She lives in the neighborhoods, hangs out with Iraqis, but also has access to the US military and officials. Through her descriptions of her daily life, her friends, their experiences, I feel like I really got a sense of what life in Iraq was like. It's not a pretty picture, except that Omar also manages to show what she loves about Iraq and why she was so drawn to live and work there. That is so important since what we in the States see is Hussein and the war.
This book is a smooth, quick, and interesting read. I learned a lot, felt emotional (though it is certainly not pulling on heart strings for your sympathy), and highly recommend this book! Like when I read Half the Sky, I have been moved to support a non-profit (Women for Women International) by reading this book.