Baghdad Burning

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

Monday, February 27, 2006
Volatile Days...
The last few days have been unsettlingly violent in spite of the curfew. We’ve been at home simply waiting it out and hoping for the best. The phone wasn’t working and the electrical situation hasn’t improved. We are at a point, however, where things like electricity, telephones and fuel seem like minor worries. Even complaining about them is a luxury Iraqis can’t afford these days.

The sounds of shooting and explosions usually begin at dawn, at least that’s when I first sense them, and they don’t really subside until well into the night. There was a small gunfight on the main road near our area the day before yesterday, but with the exception of the local mosque being fired upon, and a corpse found at dawn three streets down, things have been relatively quiet.

Some of the neighbors have been discussing the possibility of the men setting up a neighborhood watch. We did this during the war and during the chaos immediately after the war. The problem this time is that the Iraqi security forces are as much to fear as the black-clad and hooded men attacking mosques, houses and each other.

It does not feel like civil war because Sunnis and Shia have been showing solidarity these last few days in a big way. I don’t mean the clerics or the religious zealots or the politicians- but the average person. Our neighborhood is mixed and Sunnis and Shia alike have been outraged with the attacks on mosques and shrines. The telephones have been down, but we’ve agreed upon a very primitive communication arrangement. Should any house in the area come under siege, someone would fire in the air three times. If firing in the air isn’t an option, then someone inside the house would have to try to communicate trouble from the rooftop.

The mosques also have a code when they’re in trouble, i.e. under attack, the man who does the call for prayer calls out “Allahu Akbar” three times until people from the area can come help protect the mosque or someone gets involved.

Yesterday they were showing Sunni and Shia clerics praying together in a mosque and while it looked encouraging, I couldn’t help but feel angry. Why don’t they simply tell their militias to step down- to stop attacking mosques and husseiniyas- to stop terrorizing people? It’s so deceptive and empty on television- like a peaceful vision from another land. The Iraqi government is pretending dismay, but it's doing nothing to curb the violence and the bloodshed beyond a curfew. And where are the Americans in all of this? They are sitting back and letting things happen- sometimes flying a helicopter here or there- but generally not getting involved.

I’m reading, and hearing, about the possibility of civil war. The possibility. Yet I’m sitting here wondering if this is actually what civil war is like. Has it become a reality? Will we look back at this in one year, two years… ten… and say, “It began in February 2006…”? It is like a nightmare in that you don’t realise it’s a nightmare while having it- only later, after waking up with your heart throbbing, and your eyes searching the dark for a pinpoint of light, do you realise it was a nightmare…

Thursday, February 23, 2006
Things are not good in Baghdad.

There was an explosion this morning in a mosque in Samarra, a largely Sunni town. While the mosque is sacred to both Sunnis and Shia, it is considered one of the most important Shia visiting places in Iraq. Samarra is considered a sacred city by many Muslims and historians because it was made the capital of the Abassid Empire, after Baghdad, by the Abassid Caliph Al-Mu’tasim.

The name “Samarra” is actually derived from the phrase in Arabic “Sarre men ra’a” which translates to “A joy for all who see”. This is what the city was named by Al-Mu’tasim when he laid the plans for a city that was to compete with the greatest cities of the time- it was to be a joy for all who saw it. It remained the capital of the Abassid Empire for nearly sixty years and even after the capital was Baghdad once again, Samarra flourished under the care of various Caliphs.

The mosque damaged with explosives today is the “Askari Mosque” which is important because it is believed to be the burial place of two of the 12 Shia Imams- Ali Al-Hadi and Hassan Al-Askari (father and son) who lived and died in Samarra. The site of the mosque is believed to be where Ali Al-Hadi and Hassan Al-Askari lived and were buried. Many Shia believe Al-Mahdi ‘al muntadhar’ will also be resurrected or will reappear from this mosque.

I remember visiting the mosque several years ago- before the war. We visited Samarra to have a look at the famous “Malwiya” tower and someone suggested we also visit the Askari mosque. I was reluctant as I wasn’t dressed properly at the time- jeans and a t-shirt are not considered mosque garb. We stopped by a small shop in the city and purchased a few inexpensive black abbayas for us women and drove to the mosque.

We got there just as the sun was setting and I remember pausing outside the mosque to admire the golden dome and the intricate minarets. It was shimmering in the sunset and there seemed to be a million colors- orange, gold, white- it was almost glowing. The view was incredible and the environment was so peaceful and calm. There was none of the bustle and noise usually surrounding religious sites- we had come at a perfect time. The inside of the mosque didn’t disappoint either- elaborate Arabic script and more gold and this feeling of utter peace… I’m grateful we decided to visit it.

We woke up this morning to news that men wearing Iraqi security uniforms walked in and detonated explosives, damaging the mosque almost beyond repair. It’s heart-breaking and terrifying. There has been gunfire all over Baghdad since morning. The streets near our neighborhood were eerily empty and calm but there was a tension that had us all sitting on edge. We heard about problems in areas like Baladiyat where there was some rioting and vandalism, etc. and several mosques in Baghdad were attacked. I think what has everyone most disturbed is the fact that the reaction was so swift, like it was just waiting to happen.

All morning we’ve been hearing/watching both Shia and Sunni religious figures speak out against the explosions and emphasise that this is what is wanted by the enemies of Iraq- this is what they would like to achieve- divide and conquer. Extreme Shia are blaming extreme Sunnis and Iraq seems to be falling apart at the seams under foreign occupiers and local fanatics.

No one went to work today as the streets were mostly closed. The situation isn’t good at all. I don’t think I remember things being this tense- everyone is just watching and waiting quietly. There’s so much talk of civil war and yet, with the people I know- Sunnis and Shia alike- I can hardly believe it is a possibility. Educated, sophisticated Iraqis are horrified with the idea of turning against each other, and even not-so-educated Iraqis seem very aware that this is a small part of a bigger, more ominous plan…

Several mosques have been taken over by the Mahdi militia and the Badir people seem to be everywhere. Tomorrow no one is going to work or college or anywhere.

People are scared and watchful. We can only pray.

Saturday, February 11, 2006
The Raid...
We were collected at my aunts house for my cousins birthday party a few days ago. J. just turned 16 and my aunt invited us for a late lunch and some cake. It was a very small gathering- three cousins- including myself- my parents, and J.’s best friend, who also happened to be a neighbor.

The lunch was quite good- my aunt is possibly one of the best cooks in Baghdad. She makes traditional Iraqi food and for J.’s birthday she had prepared all our favorites- dolma (rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, onions, peppers, etc.), beryani rice, stuffed chicken, and some salads. The cake was ready-made and it was in the shape of a friendly-looking fish, J.’s father having forgotten she was an Aquarius and not a Pisces when he selected it, “I thought everyone born in February was a Pisces…” He explained when we pointed out his mistake.

When it was time to blow out the candles, the electricity was out and we stood around her in the dark and sang “Happy Birthday” in two different languages. She squeezed her eyes shut briefly to make a wish and then, with a single breath, she blew out the candles. She proceeded to open gifts- bear pajamas, boy band CDs, a sweater with some sparkly things on it, a red and beige book bag… Your typical gifts for a teenager.

The gift that made her happiest, however, was given by her father. After she’d opened up everything, he handed her a small, rather heavy, silvery package. She unwrapped it hastily and gasped with delight, “Baba- it’s lovely!” She smiled as she held it up to the light of the gas lamp to show it off. It was a Swiss Army knife- complete with corkscrew, nail clippers, and a bottle opener.

“You can carry it around in your bag for protection when you go places!” He explained. She smiled and gingerly pulled out the blade, “And look- when the blade is clean, it works as a mirror!” We all oohed and aahed our admiration and T., another cousin, commented she’d get one when the Swiss Army began making them in pink.

I tried to remember what I got on my 16th birthday and I was sure it wasn’t a knife of any sort.

By 8 pm, my parents and J.’s neighbor were gone. They had left me and T., our 24-year-old female cousin, to spend a night. It was 2 am and we had just gotten J.’s little brother into bed. He had eaten more than his share of cake and the sugar had made him wild for a couple of hours.

We were gathered in the living room and my aunt and her husband, Ammoo S. [Ammoo = uncle] were asleep. T., J. and I were speaking softly and looking for songs on the radio, having sworn not to sleep before the cake was all gone. T. was playing idly with her mobile phone, trying to send a message to a friend. “Hey- there’s no coverage here… is it just my phone?” She asked. J. and I both took out our phones and checked, “Mine isn’t working either…” J. answered, shaking her head. They both turned to me and I told them that I couldn’t get a signal either. J. suddenly looked alert and made a sort of “Uh-oh” sound as she remembered something. “R.- will you check the telephone next to you?” I picked up the ordinary telephone next to me and held my breath, waiting for a dial tone. Nothing.

“There’s no dial tone… but there was one earlier today- I was online…”

J. frowned and turned down the radio. “The last time this happened,” she said, “the area was raided.” The room was suddenly silent and we strained our ears. Nothing. I could hear a generator a couple of streets away, and I also heard the distant barking of a dog- but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

T. suddenly sat up straight, “Do you hear that?” She asked, wide-eyed. At first I couldn’t hear anything and then I caught it- it was the sound of cars or vehicles- moving slowly. “I can hear it!” I called back to T., standing up and moving towards the window. I looked out into the darkness and couldn’t see anything beyond the dim glow of lamps behind windows here and there.

“You won’t see anything from here- it’s probably on the main road!” J. jumped up and went to shake her father awake, “Baba, baba- get up- I think the area is being raided.” I heard J. call out as she approached her parents room. Ammoo S. was awake in moments and we heard him wandering around for his slippers and robe asking what time it was.

Meanwhile, the sound of cars had gotten louder and I remembered that one could see some of the neighborhood from a window on the second floor. T. and I crept upstairs quietly. We heard Ammoo S. unlocking 5 different locks on the kitchen door. “What’s he doing?” T. asked, “Shouldn’t he keep the doors locked?” We were looking out the window and there was the glow of lights a few streets away. I couldn’t see exactly where they came from, as several houses were blocking our view, but we could tell something extraordinary was going on in the neighborhood. The sound of vehicles was getting louder, and it was accompanied by the sound of clanging doors and lights that would flash every once in a while.

We clattered downstairs and found J. and the aunt bustling around in the dark. “What should we do?” T. asked, wringing her hands nervously. The only time I’d ever experienced a raid was back in 2003 at an uncle’s house- and it was Americans. This was the first time I was to witness what we assumed would be an Iraqi raid.

My aunt was seething quietly, “This is the third time the bastards raid the area in 2 months… We’ll never get any peace or quiet…” I stood at their bedroom door and watched as she made the bed. They lived in a mixed neighborhood- Sunnis, Shia and Christians. It was a relatively new neighborhood that began growing in the late eighties. Most of the neighbors have known each other for years. “We don’t know what they’re looking for… La Ilaha Ila Allah…”

I stood awkwardly, watching them make preparations. J. was already in her room changing- she called out for us to do the same, “They’ll come in the house- you don’t want to be wearing pajamas…”

“Why, will they have camera crews with them?” T. smiled wanly, attempting some humor. No, J. replied, her voice muffled as she put on a sweater, “Last time they made us wait outside in the cold.” I listened for Ammoo S. and heard him outside, taking the big padlock off of the gate in the driveway. “Why are you unlocking everything J.?” I called out in the dark.

“The animals will break down the doors if they aren’t open in three seconds and then they’ll be all over the garden and house… last time they pushed the door open on poor Abu H. three houses down and broke his shoulder…” J. was fully changed, and over her jeans and sweater she was wearing her robe. It was cold.

My aunt had dressed too and she was making her way upstairs to carry down my three-year-old cousin B. “I don’t want him waking up with all the noise and finding those bastards around him in the dark.”

Twenty minutes later, we were all assembled in the living room. The house was dark except for the warm glow of the kerosene heater and a small lamp in the corner. We were all dressed and waiting nervously, wrapped in blankets. T. and I sat on the ground while my aunt and her husband sat on the couch, B. wrapped in a blanket between them. J. was sitting in an armchair across from them. It was nearly 4 am.

Meanwhile, the noises outside had gotten louder as the raid got closer. Every once in a while, you could hear voices calling out for people to open a door or the sharp banging of a rifle against a door.

Last time they had raided my aunts area, they took away four men on their street alone. Two of them were students in their early twenties- one a law student, and the other an engineering student, and the third man was a grandfather in his early sixties. There was no accusation, no problem- they were simply ordered outside, loaded up into a white pickup truck and driven away with a group of other men from the area. Their families haven’t heard from them since and they visit the morgue almost daily in anticipation of finding them dead.

“There will be no problem,” My aunt said sternly, looking at each of us, thin-lipped. “You will not say anything improper and they will come in, look around and go.” Her eyes lingered on Ammoo S. He was silent. He had lit a cigarette and was inhaling deeply. J. said he’d begun smoking again a couple of months ago after having quit for ten years. “Are your papers ready?” She asked him, referring to his identification papers which would be requested. He didn’t answer, but nodded his head silently.

We waited. And waited… I began nodding off and my dreams were interspersed with troops and cars and hooded men. I woke to the sound of T. saying, “They’re almost here…” And lifted my head, groggy with what I thought was at least three hours of sleep. I squinted down at my watch and noted it was not yet 5 am. “Haven’t they gotten to us yet?” I asked.

Ammoo S. was pacing in the kitchen. I could hear him coming and going in his slippers, pausing every now and then in front of the window. My aunt was still on the couch- she sat with B. in her arms, rocking him gently and murmuring prayers. J. was doing a last-minute check, hiding valuables and gathering our handbags into the living room, “They took baba’s mobile phone during the last raid- make sure your mobile phones are with you.”

I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and I got closer to the kerosene heater in an attempt to dispel the cold that seemed to have permanently taken over my fingers and toes. T. was trembling, wrapped in her blanket. I waved her over to the heater but she shook her head and answered, “I.... mmmm… n-n-not… c-c-cold…”

It came ten minutes later. A big clanging sound on the garden gate and voices yelling “Ifta7u [OPEN UP]”. I heard my uncle outside, calling out, “We’re opening the gate, we’re opening…” It was moments and they were inside the house. Suddenly, the house was filled with strange men, yelling out orders and stomping into rooms. It was chaotic. We could see flashing lights in the garden and lights coming from the hallways. I could hear Ammoo S. talking loudly outside, telling them his wife and the ‘children’ were the only ones in the house. What were they looking for? Was there something wrong? He asked.

Suddenly, two of them were in the living room. We were all sitting on the sofa, near my aunt. My cousin B. was by then awake, eyes wide with fear. They were holding large lights or ‘torches’ and one of them pointed a Klashnikov at us. “Is there anyone here but you and them?” One of them barked at my aunt. “No- it’s only us and my husband outside with you- you can check the house.” T.’s hands went up to block the glaring light of the torch and one of the men yelled at her to put her hands down, they fell limply in her lap. I squinted in the strong light and as my sight adjusted, I noticed they were wearing masks, only their eyes and mouths showing. I glanced at my cousins and noted that T. was barely breathing. J. was sitting perfectly still, eyes focused on nothing in particular, I vaguely noted that her sweater was on backwards.

One of them stood with the Klashnikov pointed at us, and the other one began opening cabinets and checking behind doors. We were silent. The only sounds came from my aunt, who was praying in a tremulous whisper and little B., who was sucking away at his thumb, eyes wide with fear. I could hear the rest of the troops walking around the house, opening closets, doors and cabinets.

I listened for Ammoo S., hoping to hear him outside but I could only distinguish the harsh voices of the troops. The minutes we sat in the living room seemed to last forever. I didn’t know where to look exactly. My eyes kept wandering to the man with the weapon and yet I knew staring at him wasn’t a good idea. I stared down at a newspaper at my feet and tried to read the upside-down headlines. I glanced at J. again- her heart was beating so hard, the small silver pendant that my mother had given her just that day was throbbing on her chest in time to her heartbeat.

Suddenly, someone called out something from outside and it was over. They began rushing to leave the house, almost as fast as they’d invaded it. Doors slamming, lights dimming. We were left in the dark once more, not daring to move from the sofa we were sitting on, listening as the men disappeared, leaving only a couple to stand at our gate.

“Where’s baba?” J. asked, panicking for a moment before we heard his slippered feet in the driveway. “Did they take him?” Her voice was getting higher. Ammoo S. finally walked into the house, looking weary and drained. I could tell his face was pale even in the relative dark of the house. My aunt sat sobbing quietly in the living room, T. comforting her. “Houses are no longer sacred… We can’t sleep… We can’t live… If you can’t be safe in your own house, where can you be safe? The animals… the bastards…”

We found out a few hours later that one of our neighbors, two houses down, had died. Abu Salih was a man in his seventies and as the Iraqi mercenaries raided his house, he had a heart-attack. His grandson couldn’t get him to the hospital on time because the troops wouldn’t let him leave the house until they’d finished with it. His grandson told us later that day that the Iraqis were checking the houses, but the American troops had the area surrounded and secured. It was a coordinated raid.

They took at least a dozen men from my aunts area alone- their ages between 19 and 40. The street behind us doesn’t have a single house with a male under the age of 50- lawyers, engineers, students, ordinary laborers- all hauled away by the ‘security forces’ of the New Iraq. The only thing they share in common is the fact that they come from Sunni families (with the exception of two who I'm not sure about).

We spent the day putting clothes back into closets, taking stock of anything missing (a watch, a brass letter opener, and a walkman), and cleaning dirt and mud off of carpets. My aunt was fanatic about cleansing and disinfecting everything saying it was all “Dirty, dirty, dirty…” J. has sworn never to celebrate her birthday again.

It’s almost funny- only a month ago, we were watching a commercial on some Arabic satellite channel- Arabiya perhaps. They were showing a commercial for Iraqi security forces and giving a list of numbers Iraqis were supposed to dial in the case of a terrorist attack… You call THIS number if you need the police to protect you from burglars or abductors… You call THAT number if you need the National Guard or special forces to protect you from terrorists… But…

Who do you call to protect you from the New Iraq’s security forces?

Thursday, February 02, 2006
Election Results...
Iraqi election results were officially announced nearly two weeks ago, but it was apparent from the day of elections which political parties would come out on top. I’m not even going to bother listing the different types of election fraud witnessed all over Iraq- it’s a tedious subject and one we’ve been discussing for well over a month.

The fact that a Shia, Iran-influenced religious list came out on top is hardly surprising. I’m surprised, however, at Iraqis who seem to be astonished at the outcome. Didn’t we, over the last three years, see this coming? Iranian influenced clerics had a strong hold right from 2003. Their militias were almost instantly incorporated into the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense as soon a move was made to create new Iraqi security forces. Sistani has been promoting them from day one.

Why is it so very surprising that in times of calamity people turn to religion? It happens all over the world. During tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, blockades, wars- people turn to deities… It’s simple- when all else fails, there is always a higher power for most people.

After nearly three years of a failing occupation, I personally believe that many Iraqis voted for religious groups because it was counted as a vote against America and the occupation itself. No matter what American policy makers say to their own public- and no matter how many pictures Rumsfeld and Condi take with our fawning politicians- most Iraqis do not trust Americans. America as a whole is viewed as a devilish country that is, at best, full of self-serving mischief towards lesser countries and, at worst, an implementer of sanctions, and a warmongering invader.

Even Iraqis who believe America is here to help (and they seem to have grown fewer in number these days), believe that it helps not out of love for Iraqis, but out of self-interest and greed.

Shia religious parties, like SCIRI and Da’awa, have decidedly changed their tone in the last year. During 2003, they were friends of America- they owed the US their current power inside of the country. Today, as Iraqis are becoming more impatient with the American presence inside of Iraq, they are claiming that they will be the end of the ‘occupiers’. They openly blame the Americans for the lack of security and general chaos. The message is quite different. In 2003, there was general talk of a secular Iraq; today, that no longer seems to be an option.

In 2003, Jaffari was claiming he didn’t want to see Iraqi women losing their rights, etc. He never mentioned equal rights- but he did throw in a word here and there about how Iraqi women had a right to an education and even a job. I was changing channels a couple of weeks ago and I came across Jaffari speaking to students from Mustansiriya University- one of Iraq’s largest universities, with campuses in several areas in Baghdad. I couldn’t see the students- he might have been speaking with a group of penguins, for all I could tell. The camera was focused on him- his shifty eyes and low, mumbling voice.

On his right sat an Ayatollah with a black turban and black robes. He looked stern and he nodded with satisfaction as Jaffari spoke to the students (or penguins). His speech wasn’t about science, technology or even development- it was a religious sermon about heaven and hell, good and evil.

I noticed two things immediately. The first was that he seemed to be speaking to only male students. There were no females in the audience. He spoke of their female ‘sisters’ in absentia, as if they had absolutely no representation in the gathering. The second thing was that he seemed to be speaking to only Shia because he kept mentioning their ‘Sunni brothers’, as if they too were absent. He sermonized about how the men should take care of the women and how Sunnis weren’t bad at all. I waited to hear him speak about Iraqi unity, and the need to not make religious distinctions- those words never came.

In spite of all this, pro-war Republicans remain inanely hopeful. Ah well- so Ayatollahs won out this election- the next election will be better! But there is a problem…

The problem with religious parties and leaders in a country like Iraq, is that they control a following of fervent believers, not just political supporters. For followers of Da’awa and SCIRI, for example, it’s not about the policy or the promises or the puppet in power. It’s like the pope for devout Catholics- you don’t question the man in the chair because he is there by divine right, almost. You certainly don’t question his policies.

Ayatollahs are like that. Muqtada Al-Sadr is ridiculous. He talks like his tongue is swollen up in his mouth and he always looks like he needs to bathe. He speaks with an intonation that indicates a fluency in Farsi and yet… he commands an army of followers because his grandfather was a huge religious figure. He could be the least educated, least enlightened man in the country and he’d still have people willing to lay down their lives at his command because of his family’s religious history. (Lucky Americans- he announced a week ago that should Iran come under US attack, he and his followers would personally rise up to Iran’s defense.)

At the end of the day, people who follow these figures tell themselves that even if the current leader isn’t up to par, the goal and message remain the same- religion, God’s word as law. When living in the midst of a war-torn country with a situation that is deteriorating and death around every corner, you turn to God because Iyad Allawi couldn’t get you electricity and security- he certainly isn’t going to get you into heaven should you come face to face with a car bomb.

The trouble with having a religious party in power in a country as diverse as Iraq is that you automatically alienate everyone not of that particular sect or religion. Religion is personal- it is something you are virtually born into… it belongs to the heart, the mind, the spirit- and while it is welcome in day to day dealings, it shouldn’t be politicized.

Theocracies (and we seem to be standing on the verge of an Iranian influenced one), grow stronger with time because you cannot argue religion. Politicians are no longer politicians- they are Ayatollahs- they become modern-day envoys of God, to be worshipped, not simply respected. You cannot challenge them because for their followers, that is a challenge to a belief- not a person or a political party.

You go from being a critic or ‘opposition’ to simply being a heathen when you argue religious parties.

Americans write to me wondering, “But where are the educated Iraqis? Why didn’t they vote for secular parties?” The educated Iraqis have been systematically silenced since 2003. They’ve been pressured and bullied outside of the country. They’ve been assassinated, detained, tortured and abducted. Many of them have lost faith in the possibility of a secular Iraq.

Then again… who is to say that many of the people who voted for religious parties aren’t educated? I know some perfectly educated Iraqis who take criticism towards parties like Da’awa and SCIRI as a personal affront. This is because these parties are so cloaked and cocooned within their religious identity, that it is almost taken as an attack against Shia in general when one criticizes them. It’s the same thing for many Sunnis when a political Sunni party comes under criticism.

That’s the danger of mixing politics and religion- it becomes personal.

I try not to dwell on the results too much- the fact that Shia religious fundamentalists are currently in power- because when I do, I’m filled with this sort of chill that leaves in its wake a feeling of quiet terror. It’s like when the electricity goes out suddenly and you’re plunged into a deep, quiet, almost tangible darkness- you try not to focus too intently on the subtle noises and movements around you because the unseen possibilities will drive you mad…

Powered by Blogger