Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Saturday, July 31, 2004
And We're Back...
An insurmountable combination of heat and family issues has kept me from blogging and I’m feeling terribly guilty. I have actually started to avoid the computer which seems to look at me reprovingly every time I pass by.

The heat is unbearable. It begins very early in the day and continues late into the night. You’d think that once the sun has set, the weather would cool appreciably- no such thing in Baghdad. Once the sun sets, the buildings and streets cease to absorb heat and instead begin to emanate it. If you stand a few centimeters away from any stucco or brick wall, you can feel the waves of heat coming at you from every crack and crevice.

The electricity has been quite bad. On some days, we’re lucky to get 12 hours- 3 hours of electricity for three hours of no electricity- but more often than not, it’s four hours of no electricity and two hours of electricity. A couple of weeks ago, there was a day when our area had only one hour of electricity out of 23 hours with no power. The hellish weather had everyone out in their gardens by sunset, trying to find a way to stay cool.

Incidentally, one of man's greatest creations is definitely the refrigerator. I’ve made it a habit to rush into the kitchen every time anyone shows any inclination for a cool beverage. It gives me a great excuse to stand in front of the refrigerator for a couple of moments and let the cool- albeit slightly odorous- refrigerated air surround me. When we have some generator electricity, we keep the refrigerator working. At night, the refrigerator not only provides chilled air, and cold water, but it also offers that pale yellow light which falls like a beacon of hope across the darkened kitchen…

The family issues include the death of an older aunt. She had a stroke shortly after the war and has been deteriorating ever since. A combination of bad security, lack of the necessary health facilities and general stress and tension finally took its toll. We’ve been quite busy with the funeral process which can be extensive and drawn-out in Iraq. The deceased is buried after the proper preparation rituals, which shouldn’t take longer than a day. The first problems we faced occurred in the graveyard. Upon visiting the graveyard, my uncles discovered that the family plot which had been purchased years ago had very recently been occupied by some strangers who could find very little room elsewhere in the overcrowded cemetery. The grounds keeper apologized profusely but said that they were bringing in an average of almost 100 bodies a month this year to his graveyard alone- where was he supposed to bury the bodies?

After some negotiations, the uncles were directed to some empty spaces on the outer borders of the cemetery and the aunt was resignedly buried there. Immediately after began the 7-day mourning ritual in the deceased aunt’s house. For seven days- from morning until evening- friends, family and neighbors all come to give the family their condolences and mourn the dead. This is called a ‘fatiha’ or a wake. Another wake is simultaneously held at a local mosque and this one is attended by the men- it lasts for only three days. Scheduling the mosque wake was also an issue because so many of the mosques are booked for wakes lately.

Lately, the condolences from neighbors and friends come in the form of, “She was much too young for such a death, but you should thank God- it’s a better death than most these days…” And while death in general is still regarded as unfortunate, it is preferable to die of a stroke or natural causes than to die, say, of a car bomb, gun shot, beheading or under torture…

Security-wise, the situation is both better and worse all at once. The streets feel a little bit safer because you can see policemen standing around in the more crowded areas and even in some residential areas. There aren’t nearly enough to keep things secure, but just seeing someone standing there is a little bit comforting. At the same time, kidnappings have multiplied. It’s an epidemic now. Everyone seems to know someone who was abducted. Some are abducted for ransom while others are abducted for religious or political reasons. The abduction of foreigners is on the increase. People coming and going from Syria and Jordan tell stories of how their convoy or bus or private car was stopped in the middle of the road by men with covered faces and how passports and documents are checked. Should anything suspicious surface (like a British or American passport), the whole thing immediately turns from a ‘check’ or ‘tafteesh’ to an abduction.

I get emails by the dozen from people crying out against the abduction of foreigners. Endlessly I read the lines, “But these people are there to help you- they are aide workers…” or “But the press is there for a good cause…”, etc. What people abroad don’t seem to realize is the fact that everything is mixed up right now. Seeing a foreigner, there’s often no way to tell who is who. The blonde guy in the sunglasses and beige vest walking down the street could be a reporter or someone who works with a humanitarian group- but he could just as likely be ‘security’ from one of those private mercenary companies we’re hearing so much about.

Is there sympathy with all these abductees? There is. We hate seeing them looking frightened on television. We hate thinking of the fact that they have families and friends who worry about them in distant countries and wonder how in the world they managed to end up in the hell that is now Iraq… but for every foreigner abducted, there are probably 10 Iraqis being abducted and while we have to be here because it is home, truck drivers, security personnel for foreign companies and contractors do not. Sympathy has its limits in the Iraqi summer heat. Dozens of Iraqis are dying on a daily basis in places like Falloojeh and Najaf and everyone is mysteriously silent- one Brit, American or Pakistani dies and the world is in an uproar- it is getting tiresome.

Politically, things seem to be moving slowly. Maybe it's the heat. Everyone is waiting for the up and coming National Conference that is being debated so much. The problem is that it seems all of the same parties are going to be running- SCIRI, Da'awa, INC, PUK, etc. There does seem to be an interesting political resistance movement building up against them. Many of the parties that weren't involved with the CPA and Governing Council are currently trying to get their collective acts together.

Word on the street has it that email, internet access, and telephone calls are being monitored closely. We actually heard a couple of reports of people being detained due to the contents of their email. It's a daunting thought and speaks volumes about our current 'liberated' status- and please don't bother sending me a copy of the "Patriot Act"... this last year it has felt like everyone is under suspicion for something.

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