Hospitality and hope in the iraqi desert preemptive love gas in oil lawn mower

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If I close my eyes, I can imagine the travelers who’ve been crossing the desert on this same path for as long as humans have been here. Even with cars and cell phones, the expanse between the modern-day cities of Amman, Jordan to the west, and Baghdad to the east, is vast. How much more so when travelers walked these paths ages before?

For most of Rutbah’s history, it was a place of welcome. For ancient travelers, this “wet spot” in the desert kept nomads and their animals alive. It was as if the earth itself was showing hospitality in providing an accessible source of water.

In the 1930s, Rutbah became a stopover for a British airline (back when commercial aviation was still new), for transport companies shipping goods from Jordan to Baghdad, and for water companies capitalizing on the resource. It was a place of welcome in a brutally inhospitable environment.

In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, American forces took over Rutbah. While the US government had a policy of doing benevolent projects in local communities to “win over the hearts and minds of Iraqis,” what happened on the ground was sometimes very different. Iraqi detainees and civilians in Rutbah were abused, instilling a culture of fear.

“We’ve been traumatized by the invasion,” he said. One night he and his family were awakened by the explosion of a bomb blowing open his front door, a terrifying sound that had been heard many nights in Rutbah. They felt the terror of heavily armed soldiers storming through the house in the middle of the night.

With quiet sadness but without malice he said, “It was painful for me to see soldiers pull down a cabinet filled with nice china I had bought for my wife on my travels. They destroyed everything for no other reason than to humiliate us. I kept silent because I was afraid of being handcuffed and tortured if I said anything. I will never get over that night. Our children have witnessed these things and will never forget.”

The last US camp remained open in Rutbah until 2010. After seven years of military occupation, the town of Rutbah should have had the chance to rest, to restore itself. But it never got the support it needed. Little help arrived from the central government, and basic services were poor.

To ISIS, it seemed Rutbah was made just for them. The nearby border with Syria, which they also controlled, meant their fighters could come and go as they pleased, essentially superimposing their own caliphate borders over the internationally recognized borders.

ISIS remained in Rutbah for two years before the city was liberated. It wasn’t a hard fight—ISIS fighters withdrew to nearby villages and melted into the desert. In fact, ISIS still rules the desert, especially at night. They are preparing, launching attacks against local communities, biding their time until they are called up by ISIS leaders to begin war again.

Rutbah didn’t suffer the same kind of devastation under ISIS as cities like Mosul, but the years of war and occupation have been economically crushing. The main highway through town still isn’t safe. Businesses that rely on international trade were destroyed. Infrastructure that provided water and electricity was destroyed.

Our host, the local sheikh, stands nearby, attentive to anything we might need. When he sees I’m not eating any sheep, he steps close, pulls off bite-sized pieces of meat, and piles them on the platter in front of me. When he learns I’m vegetarian, he shifts to spooning beans and okra onto the platter any time my rice looks dry.

In tribal Iraq, the host always serves himself last. We, as guests, come to the table first—our team, our local partners, a collective of sheikhs from nearby communities. We are offered first choice of the delicious food that fills the table.

It is essential for local leaders to reach a consensus on which villages will receive food. Every leader wanted to help their own people, of course. There were a lot of heavy negotiations as they sorted out the needs their people face, and whose needs were most acute.

A group of American peacemakers—including Shane Claiborne from The Simple Way and Cliff Kindy from Christian Peacemaker Teams—were driving through the Iraqi desert when their car blew a tire and crashed. A car traveling the opposite direction stopped and took the men to Rutbah, where they received emergency medical care at a makeshift clinic.

Just three days earlier, the US had bombed the hospital in Rutbah. The group of Americans was so moved by the radical hospitality they received—what they experienced ran counter to the common stereotype of Iraqis and Muslims as evil terrorists.

“They… saved our lives,” Shane Claiborne wrote years later. “It is one of the most powerful experiences of my life. When we went to pay them for their services, they refused our money, and insisted that the only thing we could do to repay them is to tell the story of their hospitality, and of the bombing that destroyed their hospital.”

“The community of Rutbah rejects all the violence and the things that ISIS was doing. It’s a peaceful, open community here. It accepts all, from different communities, from different religions or different ethnicities. What happened is ISIS came, but the community itself rejected every single thing ISIS did.”

“We hope that you see the reality—the real life of Rutbah, and the real people of Rutbah. They are the same people that your folks saw before, when they came here. They are the same people. They didn’t change, and you will see this by yourself.”

To be honest, I was worried about what we would find in Rutbah. I was concerned that years of violence and an economy devastated by war would change the people of this place—that it would harden their hearts. Instead, I found nothing but welcome.

The war with ISIS is far from over, here in the western desert. Iraq just held nationwide elections, with major policies hashed out between candidates on television news each night, and the world—believing ISIS to be utterly defeated—has already moved on.

When the trucks roll onto the site, families line up for a receipt that allows them to receive a “share.” They show identification that proves the size of their family, to make sure that large families get enough for every member. The receipts are marked as families move through and receive aid, to make sure that each family gets their share, but can’t step back into line for a second share.

After delivering to remote villages outside Rutbah, we set up a delivery site in the municipal yard at the center of town. As we approached the site early in the morning, a line of women—many of them widows—were lined up to the right of the entrance gate.

One woman described her life working full-time at the local hospital, and caring for her disabled husband and their eight children. They are displaced from a nearby town still too dangerous to return to. She earns a salary each month from her work at the hospital, but it is exactly enough to cover rent and not a penny more.

Three successive generations in Rutbah have known war. Because the town was built around a single industry—the shipping of goods between Syria, Jordan and Baghdad—periods of violence cause the economic tides of the town to shift dramatically.

When you showed up in Rutbah, you brought relief to villagers who still have to protect themselves from ISIS attacks every night. You honored the hospitality they so freely give to everyone by showing kindness and generosity of your own. You saw them for who they really are—despite generations of war.