I cannot erase her portrait from my mind. Neither hers nor that of others I have seen, day in, day out.
She must have been around 70 years old. She looked thin. Her black abaya hanging loosely on her head. Her pale face showed no bitterness, no anger, no hate...I wished it did. They would have told me she was still alive. None of that. Just that lost look that has become like a stamp, a seal, a "made in Iraq" (or more aptly made in America or made in Iran) label, by which you can recognize us, us the "ordinary" ones.
Strands of disheveled hair escaped from under her abaya, covering one of her eyes and she let it be...
She was sqatting in the shade, propped by a cracked grey wall behind her. One hand was holding her head and the other freely hanging by her side.
She was talking to herself. A common thing these days. I personally engage in it often.
I heard her say:" What shall I tell you? They are gone. All gone and they left me behind."
Then she would stop and her gaze would drift somewhere far, somewhere beyond, as if visiting this place of no return...As if she was waiting for that moment...
She was no beggar. She begged for nothing. I do not think she was even aware that she needed anything anymore. She lost it all, she lost herself too.
I was discreetly observing her. A couple of kids passed her by and made fun. She raised her eyes and repeated that same sentence : "What shall I tell you? They are all gone...and they left me behind."
The kids ran away, frightened by what seeemed to be her "madness".
She was squatting on the edge, propping her head with one hand, whilst the other was free to reach out for "Life" in that place of no return, waiting for its final deliverance.
The other portrait which remains vivid and accompanies me all the time like some background wallpaper is the image of "another one". Another anonymous one.
Again she is around 70, a little more maybe. She has also taken up a corner, against a wall.
She, however sat on a small cardboard box. She too is not begging.
Cigarettes, not packs of cigarettes but single cigarettes, a few pencils, a rusty pair of tweezers, small packs of tissues are neatly placed in another large card box...too large for her.
She meticulously re-arranges her "goods", making sure to place them in the middle of the box, leaving the edges and margins very empty. Very empty, very much like her life.
Everytime I passed her by, she would say: " Bintee (my daughter). May God keep your family. Buy something from me. I have no one Bintee."
I call her Hijjia and she calls me Bintee.
And however much one gives, the need is so enormous, it is never enough.
Not just the material need which is great but also the other needs, the ones on the inside that virtually no one bothers to look at.
Sometimes I would take food and I'd say: " Hijjia, we just cooked this. It is fresh."
To which she replied: " Bintee, even if it is a week's old, I'd take it. It is Food."
I have just given you two portraits of two elderly Iraqi women. You can multiply these two examples a thousand times...
These were women who once had a home, a family, children, grandchildren and now they have nothing and are nothing - Nothing.
They are nothing but shadows on a cracked grey wall...
And as they secretly wait and wish for another form of "liberation" that would set them finally free from being nothing but shadows on a wall. As they are waiting...
I would like to extend to you my heartfelt congratulations on a "job well done".
Bravo and a thousand bravos for each of these shadows that you have so carefully crafted on the grey wall of our cracked existence.
Painting: Iraqi artist, Said Shnin.