Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity (by Manal Omar)

Although Iraq is in the news frequently, I’m not as well-versed as I would like to be, and should be, on what it means to be a woman living in Iraq. I picked up this book hoping to learn more–not realizing that the book isn’t about Iraqi women much at all. I did find this book an interesting perspective, however.

Manal Omar is an American Muslim woman of Palestinian descent who takes a job with Woman for Woman International and is assigned to Baghdad in 2003. This book chronicles her own ever-growing sense of personal identity as she begins with her choice to wear a veil and follow Muslim traditions in the U.S., and then how those choices both seem to help and create issues in her job as an aid worker in Baghdad.

While I basically enjoyed the book and appreciated Omar’s self-exploration of issues of identity, changing opinions, and becoming connected in ways she hadn’t expected, and while I did learn a little bit about life in Baghdad post-invasion, I still don’t have any better idea of what life is like for Iraqi women simply because I wasn’t actually reading about an Iraqi woman. After reading another book published by someone involved with Women for Women International, I detect a trend of WfWI encouraging their staff people to publish memoirs. In some cases, those memoirs are more useful for broadening our own perspectives than in others.

Where I found this book most interesting was getting a glimpse into what life is like for first or second-generation American immigrants, still working out issues of cultural identity and all that entails. Omar’s relationship with her family and her family’s friends while she works out her own choices and priorities is filled with cultural conflict, and yet still loving and close. As someone several generations removed from my own immigrant roots, this was a very helpful glimpse for me into what others may need to work through on a daily basis.

Books about others’ lives always help us learn, and in that, I did learn from this book as well. I found Manal Omar engaging and followed her story with interest; I appreciated her honesty about her own misgivings and how her perspectives on certain issues changed along the way whether or not I agreed with her perspectives. I’ll just need to look elsewhere to learn more about women of Iraq.

–Sandy Hasenauer


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