One of these is a truck driver who lost both his legs in a car bombing yet feels that things could have been a lot worse. “I could have run someone over with my truck or be in jail, but I still have my kids,” he says, as one of his daughters helps him into the wheelchair.
The truck driver’s surprising expression of gratitude is just one startling and moving moment in Nowhere to Hide, a documentary which describes the last four years in Iraq as seen through the eyes of Sharif, a hospital nurse in his late thirties and father-of-four. Sharif’s compassionate and poetic documentation, told with unflinching honesty, presents a humanistic portrait of a troubled people very different from the news images broadcast around the world during the last few decades.
Sharif’s narrative is remarkable in many respects: he provides an eye-witness account of the deteriorating political situation; his unobtrusive presence gives us access to the daily lives of ordinary people caught up in the ever-changing conflict; and because Sharif’s own life is so dramatically transformed during this period – as he himself becomes a refugee – his personal story takes on the dimensions of a Tolstoyesque novel, in which we profoundly sense and feel the events of war through the tragic details of a single life.
The film begins with Sharif describing his life “as good…my house with my beautiful wife and four kids.. is an oasis.” He presumably thinks that the film project will merely consist of presenting the untold stories of people around him. Indeed, if Sharif was only to offer us a picture of his fellow townspeople we would still come away from the film a lot wiser. Sharif introduces us to a shepherd boy with whom he has fun teaching a traditional dance; he sensitively describes a crippled woman whose “bed has become her only friend”, and he reflects on the condition of his neighbours for whom the war continues “to go on inside.”
“I don’t understand this war, it’s an undiagnosed war…you only see the symptoms.”
But, by 2013 Sharif’s focus changes. The newly formed independent Iraqi government has become corrupt and dysfunctional. Waves of terrorism, including those generated by Al-Qaeda, ISIS as well as local tribal rivalries soon bring a path of destruction. The hospital where Sharif works in his hometown of Jalawla is destroyed and by 2015 his own home is devastated. Sharif notes that he is no longer just “documenting other victims of war, now I am documenting myself.”
Yet, Sharif remains deeply involved with the people around him. He does the work normally performed by the doctors who have fled, and shares in the agonies of his friends, such as when a neighbour confides in him that he is unable to send his young son to elementary school because the child needs to collect and sell plastic bottles in order for the family to survive.
Throughout all this, Sharif admits to being baffled by the ever changing religious and ethnic rivalries. “I don’t understand this war, it’s an undiagnosed war…you only see the symptoms,” he reflects. “But you don’t understand the disease, it is hidden in the body.” He frankly concedes in a meeting with foreign doctors that he has no way of knowing if even his own neighbours will turn against him.
Still, life goes on. There are weddings and children laughing as they watch airplanes in the sky. Sharif does not overlook this side of daily life, yet continues to be drawn to the dark side of war: his camera ruminates over an empty bullet-riddled car where a young child was killed; he quietly visits the home of a family where two children were kidnapped and beheaded without anyone knowing by who or why.
When asked why he is filming all this, he simply replies “because I need to.” Like many people who have had their lives upended by war – also witnessed among survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and of the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur – the need to let the world know what has happened to them becomes an instinctual drive, well beyond any attempt to gain sympathy or reparations.
It is also instructive that Sharif’s sense of urgency to convey what has happened is combined with a measure of optimism and hope. Even as he and his family end up in a makeshift refugee camp in the Iraqi desert with an insufficient supply of water – twenty people squeezed into two small rooms – he remains steadfast in his belief that “in the end the will to build will win over the forces of destruction.” His life-affirming comment brings to mind Anne Frank’s famous words in her iconic Holocaust diary: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Just as the story of a single girl, hiding in an Amsterdam attic, helped open up the eyes of people around the world to the ordeal experienced by an entire people, it is to be hoped that this account of a hospital nurse and his family will provide a wide audience with a better understanding of who the people described in the news as “Middle Eastern refugees” really are.
Although the film does not mention whether Sharif wishes to remain in Iraq or to seek a new life in Europe or elsewhere, it is hard to think of someone who could be a better citizen in any country. Hard-working, skilled and highly-motivated, Sharif, like many of his fellow refugees, should not have nowhere to hide; instead, he really should have many places to go.