Faleeha Hassan, WAR AND ME: A Memoir.

Faleeha Hassan, WAR AND ME: A Memoir.

Zibby speaks to Pulitzer and Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, poet, playwright, and teacher Faleeha Hassan about her remarkable, heartfelt, and harrowing new memoir War and Me. Faleeha talks about the unimaginable hardship of living through several wars, the memories that still haunt her today, and how her past experiences inevitably infiltrate her life and writing. She also describes what it was like to move to the United States and teach herself English and how her life has changed since being nominated for the most prestigious writing award.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Faleeha. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss War and Me, your beautiful memoir.

Faleeha Hassan: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here with you today.

Zibby: Thank you. My goodness, the experiences that you’ve lived, everything from what happened with your brother when you were little and him getting hurt and the guilt that you felt for that through all of the atrocities that fell at your feet, the loss, the resilience, it’s staggering. Amazing. I don’t even know what to say. Congratulations on being so amazing.

Faleeha: Thank you so much. Life is not easy, especially in different countries.

Zibby: You have become this sensation out of Iraq for writing, even though you’re risking your life to do so, writing about all of the things going on and telling it like it is. What was it inside you that made you start writing when all of the things around you were just falling apart?

Faleeha: While poetry comes easily to me, I have longtime dreaming about try to a detailed memoirs about the war because I was a witness on these wars. I lived maybe three wars, the Iraq-Iran War, the Kuwait-Iraq War, and then the injustice, blockades that last for twelve years. This is also, for me, it’s war because you’re fighting every day for your food. In war, you know there is enemy. Sometime we can fight it because we are now soldier. Even this war last for eight years. It’s affect everyone. She doesn’t care if we are innocent people, we are not soldier. This war affect women, kids, older people, everyone. It last for eight years. The blockade, it destroyed our community because everyone now looking for the day he can live without being need something. For me, I did work so many different jobs. I was a teacher. Also, as you read in my book, I was typing all these master degree, PhD degree. That spurred my fingers because I type almost every day when I come home, even when I was studying for my master degree.

Some people, especially the young men, they start new jobs, one of these unusual jobs. They start to sell the blood, blood in the hospital in the black market just to survive the day. I don’t know how they measure the blood, but how much he can sell this blood just to survive the day ? This blockade doesn’t end until 2003. After that, we get some . Before that, everyone, every employee, especially in government — we include as teachers because a government job. We don’t have a special school back there in my time. We just a government school, public schools. All salaries for teachers is three thousand Iraqi dinar. That’s meaning two . That’s monthly. When you are a teacher, you can’t apply for different job. You can’t. If the government know that, you get punished by going to the jail. Maybe they release you from your job. There’s so many rules. That’s why all teachers stay in the same position and in same jobs. All doctors, same jobs. All lawyers, it’s all same. No one can change his career to go to try another.

Zibby: Wow. Faleeha, how do you go about every day in your life? Now you live in New Jersey and live a normal life in New Jersey carrying all of this with you. How do you get up and live the day and not be in your mind about all of the stuff in the past? How do you live for the day?

Faleeha: First of all, I have issue with sleeping. If I sleep every day, I will sleep for four hours, five hours, two hours sometimes. That’s not enough. When I wake up during this sleeping, I have different nightmares about the war because in my mind, I still there. That’s why when I write, the war is controlled in my writing. Even if I like to write about love, I starting with love, something, and then the poem gets her way, and she took me to the war zone. That’s why I can’t write pure poems about love or about peaceful because I didn’t live with peaceful. Now, yes, I live in peaceful, but it’s not that pure. I can’t because all my memory and my childhood and even when I was a teenage and young adult, I was living in a war. Right now, I try my best to be another woman, but that’s not easy. I can’t just take my soul off and start again, establish my life. Maybe my kids do it because they don’t have these bad memories I have. For me, it is not that easy.

Zibby: I bet.

Faleeha: Even right now when I go outside sometimes, not everyone welcome a woman with hijab. That’s also making me feel I’m still fighting another war. People, they believe woman with hijab, that’s a very dangerous subject for them. I face that so many times. One time I was in art museum in Philadelphia. I was just looking for this beautiful painting, picture. There was two couples. They was also watching or interesting to this picture. He told her — I heard him. He told her, “Watch out. She’s behind you.” Believe me. I don’t know when people can accept it. I hope it’s coming soon.

Zibby: It’s never-ending for you.

Faleeha: In one of my poem, I said I’m still from exile to another time or maybe one war to another. It’s not easy, but this is the life. What should we do? We supposed to accept it because there is no other choice. If there is another choice, I can do it. I’m a woman. I respect myself. I love my hijab. I just can’t take it off and be different because it’s like my skin. I can’t just take off my skin.

Zibby: Right. It’s a part of you, a part of who you are. How do you find joy? What gives you joy?

Faleeha: When I see my kids happy, I feel joyful. When I call my grandkids on WhatsApp, oh, my god, this is my amazing moment. I hope one time I can hug them, give them kiss, smell them, something like that. Also, when I write poetry, I feel joy, and when I see movies, especially movies about another cultures. It’s not just fantasy movies. I don’t like fantasy movies. I like movies based on real story with different cultures. That give me joy because now with all these details, I compare myself and my life and other people life. I will talk to myself. It’s very difficult for me, but they live it. I have some difficulty in my life, but . In this moment, I feel .

Zibby: How do you feel about all of the praise and the accolades and awards? A nominee for the Pulitzer and the Pushcart Prizes, that’s amazing.

Faleeha: Yes, especially, both surprise. It was like a dream because they don’t accept translation. They don’t accept any book come to them with a translation. Maybe Pushcart, they accept it. With Pulitzer, it’s so difficult. When I said I’m going to write this book in my English language, the language I taught myself by myself, it was very challenging for me. When I heard from the publisher, Mr. William Peters, when he said, “I nominate this book for Pulitzer Prize, and they accepted,” that was something. It’s like for me. As you know, when I came here — when I was in Iraq, I was focusing on my career as a teacher with master degree in Arabic language. I spent twenty-four years teaching Arabic. I almost finished my PhD degree in Arabic language. It’s not in my mind I’m going to need English. Yes, they teach us English from the fifth grade, but English just to pass the exam. Then we don’t have partner to practice this language. Any language, if you don’t practice it, it’s gone by the time. In my mind, I don’t need this English. I just focus in classic Arabic language. Then when I came here, I came with zero English. I did use the Google to translate one or two sentences just to communicate with my neighbor. She passed away. Rest in peace. Her name Mary. She said, “You can go to a school,” school, meaning college community, “and ask them if they can accept you.”

I went there. When someone ask you — I can’t lie about my life. When they asked me, “Do you have a degree?” I said, “Yeah, I have master degree in Arabic language.” They said, “That’s good, but you are not eligible for financial aid. If you want to take a class like English 101, something like that, you need to pay from your pocket.” You just imagine that. I’ve been here three months. There is no job yet, no car, no salary, no nothing. Catholic charity, they pay our rent for three months. They help us with electricity. That’s it. Even my kids, they just start going to school. Even if I want to take a bus to go there because I don’t have car, now they ask me to pay from my pocket. When I did ask about the price for this class, they said, “Between $500 and $800, each class.” That’s a fortune for me. I don’t have much money to do that. Then I did ask for another . Also, I went to ESL program. I paid ten dollar. This program, after I became volunteer in and I start working there from — I would take two buses to go there from six o’clock until six evening. That’s why I can’t go to any to learn myself English, but I need it. It’s an emergency. It’s not just wanting to learn English because it’s fun and I love, love language. I need it. That’s why I start watching cartoons, watching funny shows like Dave Chapelle, Kevin Hart. Believe me. I watched all Madea movies.

After this level, I start reading kids’ book, especially when I went to the — I volunteered two years in . I start looking for book for kids. I start reading them. I think 2014, I start read and write and talk English. I was spending every day, five hour to teach myself. Sometime I cry. Believe me. Sometime I feel so happy because there is a new sentence I learned today. My kids, they learn English very well in school because as kids, they’re like a sponge. They can take everything easy. Even when I start talking with them in the house, they reject to talk with me in English because they like to speak Arabic with me as a mom, I think because in their mind, they believe if I make mistake, they can’t correct me as a respection. That’s the reason, I think. I did all the job by working. That’s why when I did write Breakfast for Butterflies, this book in English language, and they accept it for publication and they nominate it for Pulitzer Prize, it was my — I don’t have the good word for that. I was speechless when Mr. William told me about that.

Zibby: It’s amazing. It’s so amazing. My heart just goes out to you for all the things you’ve overcome, even something as simple as that. It’s crazy. It’s just amazing. Do you think you were born with this drive to be able to teach yourself? I know you’re, obviously, brilliant, but not everyone could keep going, could be optimistic in the face of everything.

Faleeha: Because I believe life’s supposed to continue, if I still breathing, I’m going to continue until the last breath I have. Right now, I have another goal because I have so many people around me, they speak Spanish. I said, maybe I can learn Spanish.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. No, you’re crazy.

Faleeha: You know why? When I was in Turkey for one and a half year, I was communicate with people in Turkish language because there’s people around me, they speak Turkish. In Turkey, they don’t speak English or Arabic. I forced myself to learn Turkish with my friend. Her name Hamida. She’s a Turkish woman. She was a teacher too. She said, “Teach me Arabic. I teach you Turkish.” Then we started doing that. This is my goal. Maybe next year, I’m going to the college and learn myself Spanish because there’s so many people around me, they speak Spanish. I have many friends, they have limitation with English language, but they are Spanish and Puerto Rico. I said, yeah, let’s do this. Let’s go here and learn Spanish. Why not?

Zibby: Why not? Just add it to the list. Add it to the list. Oh, my goodness. Do you feel, since your book has come out, that things have changed for you? Do you feel understood? Do you feel that it’s changed your life? What has happened since then?

Faleeha: Before that, especially my friends, they don’t know all these details on my life. We speak, but we speak in different subjects. Maybe we talk about Iraqi foods because they talk about the food all the time. Then when they read all these details in my book, I think they started to respect me and love me more and more. Right now, I don’t have time just to sit in my home and do nothing. Every time I receive invitation to come and sign the book or talk about the book or read something or do article or also interview, a written interview or online or just face to face — something has happened. I think this book will last for so many years here in America and in different countries because it’s record for very harsh subjects. War, it’s not easy to live. When you see a surviving people talking about their life in this moment, you will interesting to read more and more and to see them, to talk to them because they telling the truth. In wars, there’s so many hidden write about them. Then maybe the rulers will wake up one time and think a thousand time before they start a new war.

Zibby: Wow. This is really how we learn anything, the stories, the individual stories of people and what they go through. That’s the only way.

Faleeha: Yeah, the media doesn’t give you all these. The media can’t control everything. They focus about something. They focus what they like to focus on. If you talk to individual people and see them talk about them opinion about this, that’s the true and correct way to have your resource, to find out the real truth. For me right now, if I want to write — that’s my other goal, to write story about the Iraqi blockade. In my mind, this is maybe one year or two years. I’m going to meet the people they was living the same time I was there. I will talk to them about how they faced that, what kind of food they ate in this time, how they survived. Right now, if I want to do that, I can’t just google on YouTube or different media and I say, okay, I’m going to see how the Iraqi people survived from the war. I need book. I need real book. I’m not bragging when I say this is real book. It’s not just fantasy. It’s based on real event, true stories.

Zibby: Faleeha, thank you for writing the book. Thank you for sharing your experience. An inspiration. I just keep saying you’re saying inspiring and resilient. Your story is sensational. Thank you. Good luck learning Spanish.

Faleeha: Thank you. Yes, please. I don’t know, maybe one time, I will write two or three poems in Spanish, and I’m going to read it to you. Who knows?

Zibby: Then you’ll win the National Book Award for those.

Faleeha: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Faleeha: Bye.

Faleeha Hassan, WAR AND ME: A Memoir.

WAR AND ME: A Memoir by Faleeha Hassan

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