Baghdad Burning

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
I sat late last night switching between Iraqi channels (the half dozen or so I sometimes try to watch). It’s a late-night tradition for me when there’s electricity- to see what the Iraqi channels are showing. Generally speaking, there still isn’t a truly ‘neutral’ Iraqi channel. The most popular ones are backed and funded by the different political parties currently vying for power. This became particularly apparent during the period directly before the elections.

I was trying to decide between a report on bird flu on one channel, a montage of bits and pieces from various latmiyas on another channel and an Egyptian soap opera on a third channel. I paused on the Sharqiya channel which many Iraqis consider to be a reasonably toned channel (and which during the elections showed its support for Allawi in particular). I was reading the little scrolling news headlines on the bottom of the page. The usual- mortar fire on an area in Baghdad, an American soldier killed here, another one wounded there… 12 Iraqi corpses found in an area in Baghdad, etc. Suddenly, one of them caught my attention and I sat up straight on the sofa, wondering if I had read it correctly.

E. was sitting at the other end of the living room, taking apart a radio he later wouldn’t be able to put back together. I called him over with the words, “Come here and read this- I’m sure I misunderstood…” He stood in front of the television and watched the words about corpses and Americans and puppets scroll by and when the news item I was watching for appeared, I jumped up and pointed. E. and I read it in silence and E. looked as confused as I was feeling.

The line said:

وزارة الدفاع تدعو المواطنين الى عدم الانصياع لاوامر دوريات الجيش والشرطة الليلية اذا لم تكن برفقة قوات التحالف العاملة في تلك المنطقة
The translation:

“The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.”

That’s how messed up the country is at this point.

We switched to another channel, the “Baghdad” channel (allied with Muhsin Abdul Hameed and his group) and they had the same news item, but instead of the general “coalition forces” they had “American coalition forces”. We checked two other channels. Iraqiya (pro-Da’awa) didn’t mention it and Forat (pro-SCIRI) also didn’t have it on their news ticker.

We discussed it today as it was repeated on another channel.

“So what does it mean?” My cousin’s wife asked as we sat gathered at lunch.

“It means if they come at night and want to raid the house, we don’t have to let them in.” I answered.

“They’re not exactly asking your permission,” E. pointed out. “They break the door down and take people away- or have you forgotten?”

“Well according to the Ministry of Defense, we can shoot at them, right? It’s trespassing-they can be considered burglars or abductors…” I replied.

The cousin shook his head, “If your family is inside the house- you’re not going to shoot at them. They come in groups, remember? They come armed and in large groups- shooting at them or resisting them would endanger people inside of the house.”

“Besides that, when they first attack, how can you be sure they DON’T have Americans with them?” E. asked.

We sat drinking tea, mulling over the possibilities. It confirmed what has been obvious to Iraqis since the beginning- the Iraqi security forces are actually militias allied to religious and political parties.

But it also brings to light other worrisome issues. The situation is so bad on the security front that the top two ministries in charge of protecting Iraqi civilians cannot trust each other. The Ministry of Defense can’t even trust its own personnel, unless they are “accompanied by American coalition forces”.

It really is difficult to understand what is happening lately. We hear about talks between Americans and Iran over security in Iraq, and then American ambassador in Iraq accuses Iran of funding militias inside of the country. Today there are claims that Americans killed between 20 to 30 men from Sadr’s militia in an attack on a husseiniya yesterday. The Americans are claiming that responsibility for the attack should be placed on Iraqi security forces (the same security forces they are constantly commending).

All of this directly contradicts claims by Bush and other American politicians that Iraqi troops and security forces are in control of the situation. Or maybe they are in control- just not in a good way.

They’ve been finding corpses all over Baghdad for weeks now- and it’s always the same: holes drilled in the head, multiple shots or strangulation, like the victims were hung. Execution, militia style. Many of the people were taken from their homes by security forces- police or special army brigades… Some of them were rounded up from mosques.

A few days ago we went to pick up one of my female cousins from college. Her college happens to be quite close to the local morgue. E., our cousin L., and I all sat in the car which, due to traffic, we parked slightly further away from the college to wait for our other cousin. I looked over at the commotion near the morgue.

There were dozens of people- mostly men- standing around in a bleak group. Some of them smoked cigarettes, others leaned on cars or pick-up trucks... Their expressions varied- grief, horror, resignation. On some faces, there was an anxious look of combined dread and anticipation. It’s a very specific look, one you will find only outside the Baghdad morgue. The eyes are wide and bloodshot, as if searching for something, the brow is furrowed, the jaw is set and the mouth is a thin frown. It’s a look that tells you they are walking into the morgue, where the bodies lay in rows, and that they pray they do not find what they are looking for.

The cousin sighed heavily and told us to open a couple of windows and lock the doors- he was going to check the morgue. A month before, his wife’s uncle had been taken away from a mosque during prayer- they’ve yet to find him. Every two days, someone from the family goes to the morgue to see if his body was brought in. “Pray I don’t find him… or rather... I just- we hate the uncertainty.” My cousin sighed heavily and got out of the car. I said a silent prayer as he crossed the street and disappeared into the crowd.

E. and I waited patiently for H., who was still inside the college and for L. who was in the morgue. The minutes stretched and E. and I sat silently- smalltalk seeming almost blasphemous under the circumstances. L. came out first. I watched him tensely and found myself chewing away at my lower lip, “Did he find him? Inshalla he didn’t find him…” I said to no one in particular. As he got closer to the car, he shook his head. His face was immobile and grim, but behind the grim expression, we could see relief, “He’s not there. Hamdulilah [Thank God].”

“Hamdulilah” E. and I repeated the words in unison.

WE all looked back at the morgue. Most of the cars had simple, narrow wooden coffins on top of them, in anticipation of the son or daughter or brother. One frenzied woman in a black abaya was struggling to make her way inside, two relatives holding her back. A third man was reaching up to untie the coffin tied to the top of their car.

“See that woman- they found her son. I saw them identifying him. A bullet to the head.” The woman continued to struggle, her legs suddenly buckling under her, her wails filling the afternoon, and although it was surprisingly warm that day, I pulled at my sleeves, trying to cover my suddenly cold fingers.

We continued to watch the various scenes of grief, anger, frustration and every once in a while, an almost tangible relief as someone left the morgue having not found what they dreaded most to find- eyes watery from the smell, the step slightly lighter than when they went in, having been given a temporary reprieve from the worry of claiming a loved one from the morgue…

Saturday, March 18, 2006
Three Years...
It has been three years since the beginning of the war that marked the end of Iraq’s independence. Three years of occupation and bloodshed.

Spring should be about renewal and rebirth. For Iraqis, spring has been about reliving painful memories and preparing for future disasters. In many ways, this year is like 2003 prior to the war when we were stocking up on fuel, water, food and first aid supplies and medications. We're doing it again this year but now we don't discuss what we're stocking up for. Bombs and B-52's are so much easier to face than other possibilities.

I don’t think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I’m so tired of it all- we’re all tired.

Three years and the electricity is worse than ever. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it’s on the brink of chaos once more- but a pre-planned, pre-fabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots.

School, college and work have been on again, off again affairs. It seems for every two days of work/school, there are five days of sitting at home waiting for the situation to improve. Right now college and school are on hold because the “arba3eeniya” or the “40th Day” is coming up- more black and green flags, mobs of men in black and latmiyas. We were told the children should try going back to school next Wednesday. I say “try” because prior to the much-awaited parliamentary meeting a couple of days ago, schools were out. After the Samarra mosque bombing, schools were out. The children have been at home this year more than they’ve been in school.

I’m especially worried about the Arba3eeniya this year. I’m worried we’ll see more of what happened to the Askari mosque in Samarra. Most Iraqis seem to agree that the whole thing was set up by those who had most to gain by driving Iraqis apart.

I’m sitting here trying to think what makes this year, 2006, so much worse than 2005 or 2004. It’s not the outward differences- things such as electricity, water, dilapidated buildings, broken streets and ugly concrete security walls. Those things are disturbing, but they are fixable. Iraqis have proved again and again that countries can be rebuilt. No- it’s not the obvious that fills us with foreboding.

The real fear is the mentality of so many people lately- the rift that seems to have worked it’s way through the very heart of the country, dividing people. It’s disheartening to talk to acquaintances- sophisticated, civilized people- and hear how Sunnis are like this, and Shia are like that… To watch people pick up their things to move to “Sunni neighborhoods” or “Shia neighborhoods”. How did this happen?

I read constantly analyses mostly written by foreigners or Iraqis who’ve been abroad for decades talking about how there was always a divide between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq (which, ironically, only becomes apparent when you're not actually living amongst Iraqis they claim)… but how under a dictator, nobody saw it or nobody wanted to see it. That is simply not true- if there was a divide, it was between the fanatics on both ends. The extreme Shia and extreme Sunnis. Most people simply didn’t go around making friends or socializing with neighbors based on their sect. People didn't care- you could ask that question, but everyone would look at you like you were silly and rude.

I remember as a child, during a visit, I was playing outside with one of the neighbors children. Amal was exactly my age- we were even born in the same month, only three days apart. We were laughing at a silly joke and suddenly she turned and asked coyly, “Are you Sanafir or Shanakil?” I stood there, puzzled. ‘Sanafir’ is the Arabic word for “Smurfs” and ‘Shanakil” is the Arabic word for “Snorks”. I didn’t understand why she was asking me if I was a Smurf or a Snork. Apparently, it was an indirect way to ask whether I was Sunni (Sanafir) or Shia (Shanakil).

“What???” I asked, half smiling. She laughed and asked me whether I prayed with my hands to my sides or folded against my stomach. I shrugged, not very interested and a little bit ashamed to admit that I still didn’t really know how to pray properly, at the tender age of 10.

Later that evening, I sat at my aunt’s house and remember to ask my mother whether we were Smurfs or Snorks. She gave me the same blank look I had given Amal. “Mama- do we pray like THIS or like THIS?!” I got up and did both prayer positions. My mother’s eyes cleared and she shook her head and rolled her eyes at my aunt, “Why are you asking? Who wants to know?” I explained how Amal, our Shanakil neighbor, had asked me earlier that day. “Well tell Amal we’re not Shanakil and we’re not Sanafir- we’re Muslims- there’s no difference.”

It was years later before I learned that half the family were Sanafir, and the other half were Shanakil, but nobody cared. We didn’t sit around during family reunions or family dinners and argue Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. The family didn’t care about how this cousin prayed with his hands at his side and that one prayed with her hands folded across her stomach. Many Iraqis of my generation have that attitude. We were brought up to believe that people who discriminated in any way- positively or negatively- based on sect or ethnicity were backward, uneducated and uncivilized.

The thing most worrisome about the situation now, is that discrimination based on sect has become so commonplace. For the average educated Iraqi in Baghdad, there is still scorn for all the Sunni/Shia talk. Sadly though, people are being pushed into claiming to be this or that because political parties are promoting it with every speech and every newspaper- the whole ‘us’ / ‘them’. We read constantly about how ‘We Sunnis should unite with our Shia brothers…’ or how ‘We Shia should forgive our Sunni brothers…’ (note how us Sunni and Shia sisters don’t really fit into either equation at this point). Politicians and religious figures seem to forget at the end of the day that we’re all simply Iraqis.

And what role are the occupiers playing in all of this? It’s very convenient for them, I believe. It’s all very good if Iraqis are abducting and killing each other- then they can be the neutral foreign party trying to promote peace and understanding between people who, up until the occupation, were very peaceful and understanding.

Three years after the war, and we’ve managed to move backwards in a visible way, and in a not so visible way.

In the last weeks alone, thousands have died in senseless violence and the American and Iraqi army bomb Samarra as I write this. The sad thing isn’t the air raid, which is one of hundreds of air raids we’ve seen in three years- it’s the resignation in the people. They sit in their homes in Samarra because there’s no where to go. Before, we’d get refugees in Baghdad and surrounding areas… Now, Baghdadis themselves are looking for ways out of the city… out of the country. The typical Iraqi dream has become to find some safe haven abroad.

Three years later and the nightmares of bombings and of shock and awe have evolved into another sort of nightmare. The difference between now and then was that three years ago, we were still worrying about material things- possessions, houses, cars, electricity, water, fuel… It’s difficult to define what worries us most now. Even the most cynical war critics couldn't imagine the country being this bad three years after the war... Allah yistur min il rab3a (God protect us from the fourth year).

Monday, March 06, 2006
And the Oscar Goes to...
It’s Oscar time once again. We’ve been bombarded with Oscar propaganda for nearly a month now. MBC and One TV (a channel from the Emirates) have been promising us live Oscar coverage since January. It seems like all the interviews and programs for the last week at least have been about the Oscars- Barbara Walters, Oprah, Inside Edition, Entertainment Tonight- it’s an endless stream of Oscar nominees and analysts.

Now I’ve seen the nominees- we see them every year- and I’ve come to a conclusion- Iraqis need an award show. While the Hollywood glitterati make good entertainers, our local super stars, Hakeem, Jaffari, Talabani, Allawi et al. make GREAT entertainers. This last year we’ve seen several dramas unfold and our political leaders have been riveting!

So… not to be outdone by Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey- we bring you the Baghdad Burning Oscar Special!! Except, for our award show I suggest we change the name of the little statuette from Oscar to something more local and familiar. (Oscar is too close in pronunciation to the Arabic word “Iskar” which means “get drunk”. Should we use “Oscar” I fear the award show would be hijacked by Sadr’s religious militia, hence I would like to suggest the “Sayid” Awards!)

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, we bring you the nominees for the 2006 Sayid Awards!

Nominees for Best Actor:

Ibraheim Al-Jaffari in “Free Iraqi Elections” for his attempted portrayal of a non-sectarian, independent PM of a ‘legitimate’ Iraqi government.

George W. Bush in “OIF: The War on Terror” The third sequel to the original “Operation Iraqi Freedom: Weapons of Mass Destruction” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom: Liberating Iraqis”. Bush’s nomination comes for his convincing portrayal as the worlds first mentally challenged president.

Bayan Baqir Solagh in “Torture Houses”, for his world-class acting as the shocked and indignant Iraqi Minister of Interior during the whole torture houses scandal.

Abdul Aziz Al Hakeem in “Men in Black [Turbans]” as the deeply devout Mullah pretending to be independent of his masters in Iran.

Mihsan Abdul Hameed in “Fickle” for his compelling portrayal of a victimized pro-war, then suddenly anti-war, anti-occupation Sunni politician.

Nominee for Best Leading Actress:

Condi Rice in “Viva Iran!” as the vicious Secretary of State in the charade to stop Iran’s nuclear power program (in spite of Iranian control in Iraq).

Nominees for Best Supporting Actor:

Jalal Talbani in “Kaka President” (Kaka = Kurdish word for 'brother') for his attempt at playing the ‘legitimate’ leader of the New Iraq (and although, technically, he’s the star of the movie, we nominate him for best ‘supporting’ actor as the PM managed to upstage him all year).

Dick Cheney in “OIF: The War on Terror” for his role as the devoted, fanatical VP and his relentless insistence that all goes well in Iraq.

Muqtada Al Sadr in “Viva Iran!“ as the young, charismatic, black-turbaned spiritual militia leader intent on protecting Iran from all harm and promoting tolerance between Sunnis and Shia (in spite of his Sadr militia responsible for vandalism and attacks against Sunnis and secularists).

Scott McClellan in “OIF: The War on Terror” and "Denial" best known for his ability to keep a straight face while reading through White House press briefings.

Nominees for special effects:

Ahmed Al Chalabi in “Disappearing Act” for his magnificent evaporation from the Iraqi political scene this year. Mr. Chalabi is quite the master of illusion and received a previous nomination for his disappearance from Jordan in “The Petra Bank Scandal”.

Best production:

“OIF: The War on Terror” (originally called “My Daddy’s War”) produced by Washington neocons, including Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc.

“Free Iraqi Elections”- produced (and directed) by Abdul Aziz Al Hakeem et al. and his army (quite literally) of supporters (the Badrists).

Best motion picture:

“OIF: The War on Terror” starring George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condi Rice and others. A riveting drama set in Iraq. Rated “G” for ‘Gullibility’ and “R” for ‘Republican”.

“Disappearing Act” starring Ahmed Al Chalabi, Adnan Al Pachachi, and Ghazi Al Yawir.

“Free Iraqi Elections”- A black comedy based on the farfetched theory of free elections under foreign occupation starring Abdul Aziz Al Hakeem, Ibraheim Al-Jaffari and Muqtada Al Sadr.

“Kangaroo Court” - starring Saddam Hussein, Barazan Hassen, and various judges, prosecutors and lawyers.

Many honorable mentions:

First and foremost, an honorable mention to Bush’s speech writers. It must be the most difficult job in the world writing scripts to make George W. Bush sound/look not great, not even good- but passable. It must also be challenging having to write speeches using words with a maximum of two syllables.

An honorable mention to the Saudis for their support of Sunni extremists and Wahabis, the Iranians for their support of Shia extremist, and Americans for their support of chaos.

And so, as our Green Zone glitterati retire to their camps to celebrate their great victories, Iraqis wonder what wonderful, new cinematic opportunities await. There is much talk that a block buster is in the works - in the pre-production stage of this years most anticipated psychological thriller "Iraqi Civil War".

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