Barefoot in Baghdad
by Manal M. Omar

Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010. ISBN 978-1-402-23721-8.
Reviewed by Rhonda Esakov
Posted on 12/07/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

"Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you" is an often told proverb of the Iraqi people. As Manal Omar discovers, this proverb is the rule, rather than the exception, in a war torn country ruled mostly by chaos.

Barefoot in Baghdad is Omar's story—funny, tragic and descriptive, as she travels to Iraq with the goal of helping women rebuild their lives. Her unique position as an American Muslim woman of Arab descent and her choice to wear the veil provide her with an understanding and desire as an aid worker to help women rebuild their lives within a country that has lost and is trying to regain its identity.

Disdaining the help of her home country's American soldiers, Omar weaves a story of the hardships, loyalties and sacrifices she and her team must overcome or endure in order to understand the people and places in which they find themselves. Instead of despairing over the conditions, prejudice, and poverty of the country where she has chosen to work, she instills hope in the people she wants to help.

Omar is a fluent and captivating storyteller, and I enjoyed journeying with her as she struggles to find her own identity and to work against a system that is broken and with it, breaking the fabric of women's lives. Her personal stories are heart wrenching or heartwarming, but at times I was a little put off by her political viewpoints and the pictures she draws of the American presence in this country and the local government and agencies she has to deal with.

Never an easy subject to address, the subjugation of proud, intelligent women is a story that must be heard and Barefoot in Baghdad is a story that people should heed. As the proverb states, walking barefoot in Baghdad offers many thorns, but Omar's youth, strength and hope help her carry through, meet her goals, and, unexpectedly, find the love of her life.

Manal M. Omar holds an MA in Arab studies from Georgetown University and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. As a journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East, her articles and opinion pieces have appeared in both American and Arab language publications. Currently, she is the director of Iraq programs at the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the US Institute of Peace and is on the board of directors of Women Without Borders.

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