Iraqi professor urges dialogue

Times Staff Writer

Forced to flee her homeland and her teaching post at the University of Baghdad, Naba Saleem Hamid has spent three years speaking in the United States and Europe about the chaos and pain in her country.

Her message is simple: While life under Saddam Hussein was horrible, because of the violence and power struggles, life since the U.S. invasion is worse. “My people live in misery and poverty, struggling for basic survival,” Hamid told an audience at San Diego State University on Thursday night.

In her many speeches, she implores Americans to think of Iraq not as a military target but as an ancient country of 27 million people.

Governments have failed, she said, and so it is time for the citizens of the U.S. and Iraq to begin communicating. Both countries are suffering from the mess in Iraq.


“We are all victims, we are all losers,” she said as students nodded.

Hamid said she is not calling for the U.S. to pull out its troops: “Their presence is part of the problem and of the solution.”

But she feels it is imperative for President Bush to work with leaders in Iran and Syria to cobble together a regional solution to suppressing the violence and repairing the massive damage. So far, Bush has ruled out such discussions.

Her speaking voice is soft, causing audience members on Thursday to push forward in their seats to hear her. She took questions politely and later said she was satisfied with the students’ curiosity: that younger Americans seem more willing to learn about Iraq than older ones.


Hamid, who is in her mid-50s, has come to San Diego three times and has a fourth trip planned in February. Her supporters, working through the Scholars at Risk network based at New York University, hope to help her and her husband, an architectural professor, find teaching jobs in San Diego and get the appropriate visas to move here.

She has been able to make only brief, unannounced visits to her home and job as a biology professor. Six months ago, on one such trip, she had an experience that left her shaken: A man sternly upbraided her for not covering her head.

When she spoke to her department chairman at the university, he replied only that Baghdad is not safe now for women, as gangs of ultraconservatives roam the streets trying to enforce a Taliban-esque domination.

“I am floating,” Hamid said in an interview Friday as she prepared to leave San Diego. “I do not know where I am going to land.”

Three weeks ago, while she was on her speaking tour, Hamid received word that a massive car bomb had detonated near her home in Baghdad. She expects to find the home ransacked the next time she is able to return.

Her latest trip to San Diego was sponsored by Voices of Women, a group dedicated to finding nonviolent solutions to global conflicts.

In addition to San Diego State, she has lectured at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.

In 2003, Hamid founded New Horizons for Women, dedicated to helping Iraqi women and girls assert their rights and become politically involved, a threatening proposition to some sectarians.


Although she said she would like to take up residence in San Diego -- if visa and other complications can be worked out -- she said her heart will forever be in Baghdad.

“I am like a fish,” she said. “If this fish leaves water, I will die.”