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Small steps — and a serendipitous encounter — in journey toward peace in Iraq

Serendipity can be an incredible thing.

Last week in Minneapolis, I was introducing a small group of emissaries from Najaf, Iraq, to the Open Book Literary Arts Center, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Open Book is home to Milkweed Editions, the Minnesota Center for Books Arts, and The Loft Literary Center. The visitors from Najaf were all nicely impressed by the facilities. Then we headed to the basement of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

It was there we encountered a member of the Combat Paper Project. Christopher Arendt, a lanky 25-year-old veteran with a stocking cap and tattoos on both arms, was in the middle of a weeklong residency where veterans of war cut their uniforms and pulp them into paper to be used for art projects and writing their stories. Arendt was busily preparing the green paper he made from his uniform to typeset the next page of his story.

“Did you fight in the war against Iraq?” one of the delegation members asked.

“No, I was stationed at Guantanamo,” Arendt said. “But I’m a member of the Iraqi Veterans Against the War.” The Iraqi group broke into applause. Arendt then explained how he made the paper and ran a page through the press.

“For the first time I feel like my uniform is being put to good use,” another veteran said.

A new Sister City relationship
Everyone in the room had made long journeys to reach this moment. The group from Najaf was part of a 14-member delegation in town to celebrate the new Sister City relationship between Minneapolis and Najaf. The visit from Sept. 18 to today is the first official exchange between the two cities.

On July 31, 2009, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution by unanimous vote establishing Minneapolis and Najaf as official Sister Cities. A Sister City relationship is a formal agreement for sharing cultural, educational and citizen resources and for building relationships over the long term, both between the two cities and between individuals. The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP) and its partner organization in Iraq, the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), spearheaded the Sister City initiative.

Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, had seen the focus of much of the U.S. war against Iraq. Many insurgents used the largest cemetery in the world located there as a hideout. As one of the holiest cities for the Shia — and a major pilgrimage stopping place because it is holds the tomb of Alī ibn Abī Tālib, whom the Shia consider the first imam — Najaf also suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s reign.

These emissaries, 11 men and three women, came to Minneapolis for the sole purpose of fostering long-term relationships between the peoples of the two cities, to start a better relationship with America and make peace. As delegation member Kadhim Al-Mhanawi put it, “We come here so the message of peace can wipe out the message of war.”

In addition to spreading a message of peace and reconciliation, the delegation also hopes to make contact with Americans who can help rebuild their city and nation. “You succeeded in bombing us into the Middle Ages,” Al-Mhanawi said. Now he wonders what our next step will be. One of the greatest needs right now is the creation of a cancer treatment center in Najaf. There is only one such center in Baghdad, and people have to wait months for treatment after traveling great distances to be seen by a doctor. Cancer is now epidemic in Iraq. Partnerships to train doctors and health-care workers would go a long way to solving many of the current ills that beset everyday citizens of Iraq.

From engineers to public officials
The visitors represent a wide range of vocations: teachers, engineers, professors, city council members and the dean of liberal arts at the University of Kufa. And the women — a university professor, a PhD student and former city council member, and a Najaf Chamber of Commerce member — were clearly on equal footing with the men as they interacted with their Minnesota counterparts.

It was by chance this group encountered Christopher Arendt and the Combat Paper Project. Based at the Green Door Studio in Burlington, Vt., the project provides papermaking workshops worldwide. Its goal is to use art to help individuals reconcile their personal experiences and challenge traditional narratives surrounding service, honor and military culture. (You can read more about the Combat Paper Project here.) The Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Susan Hensel Gallery were sponsors of the residency that the Najaf delegation happened upon.

Afterwards Christopher said to me, “I hope this story travels all the way to Najaf, where just one person can hear that I am sorry for what we did there.”

And the visitors from Iraq hope next that a group of Americans will travel to Najaf in the coming year. Peace takes small steps like these to happen. And moments of serendipity.

Michael Kiesow Moore is a Minnesota writer who teaches creative writing at the Loft and facilitates the Loft’s Peace and Social Justice Writing Group.

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