Baghdad Burning

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

Saturday, April 22, 2006
A Royal Visit...
It’s officially spring in Baghdad. We jokingly say that in Iraq, spring doesn’t exist. We go immediately from cold, windy weather to a couple of months of humidity and dust storms, to a blazing, dry heat, i.e. summer. This is the month, however, for rolling up the carpeting and rugs and taking out the summer clothes.

Unpacking the summer clothes and putting away the winter clothes is a process that takes about a week in our household. When the transition from winter clothes to summer clothes is finally over, the house ends up smelling of naphthalene, and unused hand soap, which is sometimes used to store clothes or linen in order to ward off insects.

Besides the usual ‘spring cleaning’, etc. the last few weeks have been volatile, even by Iraqi standards. The area of A’adhamiya in Baghdad has seen some heavy fighting, especially during the last week. There’s almost always some action in A’adhamiya but a week ago it got to the point where there was open fighting in the streets between Ministry of Interior militias and guerrillas. As a result of this, we have an elderly relative staying with us. Her son, my mother’s second cousin, dropped her off at our house with the words, “Her heart can’t take all the excitement. Some bullets shattered the windows on the second floor and we thought she was going to have a heart-attack.”

Apparently, prior to this latest outbreak of violence in A’adhamiya, there was a ‘silent agreement’ between the guerrillas and the Iraqi police that no attacks would be launched against Iraqi security forces in the area as long as Iraqi special commandos (Interior Ministry militias) would not attack homes in the area as they have been doing for the last year.

So we’ve been spending the days with Bibi Z. (‘Bibi’ being a Baghdadi word meaning “granny” or “nana”) We don’t know her exact age, but we estimate she’s well into her eighties. She has a deceptively frail look about her- soft, almost transparent skin, a small face framed with long wisps of white hair. Her dark eyes are still very alive and have a look of permanent fascination because her brows are so white, they barely show up against her skin.

Having the distinction of being the oldest member of an Iraqi family has its privileges. Bibi Z. has installed herself as temporary reigning queen of the household- moving from room to room with the grace and authority of royalty. Within ten minutes of arriving at our house, she occupied my room and I was promptly relegated to the uncomfortable sofa in the living room. She spends the hours supervising everything from homework to housework, and inevitably advising on the best ways to store winter clothes, roll up the carpeting, and study algebra. Although she no longer cooks, she sometimes deigns to sample our cooking and always finds it in need of a spoon of this, or a pinch of that.

It’s always fascinating to sit with one of the older generation of Iraqis. They inspire mixed feelings- they’ve seen so much tragedy and triumph living in a country like Iraq, that it leaves one feeling both excited at the possibilities and frustrated with what seems to be a lifetime of instability.

Bibi Z.’s first memories are of the monarchy and she clearly remembers all the other subsequent governments and leaders; she even has gossip about some of the ones making a comeback now. “That young fellow wanting to be the king,” she says of Al Sharif Ali, “I think he’s the result of an affair between one of the princesses and an Egyptian palace servant.” She confides, as we watch him in a brief reportage on one of the Iraqi channels.

At around 10 am this morning, the electricity went out and it was too early for the generator. I commented that we wouldn’t be able to see what had happened overnight unless we listened to the radio. Bibi Z. told us about the first television she saw- in 1957. One of their wealthier neighbors had acquired a television and as soon as her husband headed off to work, the ladies in the area would gather at her house to watch an hour of television. “We would put on our abbayas when the male tv presenter was speaking,” she laughed. “It took Umm Adil two weeks to convince us that the presenter couldn’t see us just as we saw him.”

“And were the politicians just as bad?” I asked later as we watched Jaffari make some comments.

“History repeats itself… Politicians are opportunists… But they don’t worry me- they were bad, but Iraqis were better.” She continued to explain that through all of the drama and change that combine to form the colorful mosaic of the Iraqi political scene during the previous century, one thing remained constant- Iraqi loyalty and solicitude towards one another.

She talked of the student revolts during the years of the monarchy. “When Iraq signed the Portsmouth Treaty, the students revolted and organized demonstrations against the king- they were chased throughout Baghdad. My father was a police officer and yet when they chased the students into our area, we slipped them into the house and helped them get away by jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Iraqis were Iraqis and we had our differences, but we took care of each other… And women and children were sacred- no one dared touch the women and children of the house.”

The one unforgivable sin back then was to have loyalties to the foreign occupier. “Today, the only ones who can guarantee their survival are the ones with the loyalties to an occupier- and even they aren’t safe.” She sighed heavily as she said this, her prayer beads clicking gently in her thin hands.

“For the first time in many years, I fear death.” She said last night to no one in particular, as we sat around after dinner, sipping tea. We all objected, wishing her a longer life, telling her she had many years ahead of her, God willing. She shook her head at us like we didn’t understand- couldn’t possibly understand. “All people die eventually and I’ve had a longer life than most Iraqis- today children and young people are dying. I only fear death because I was born under a foreign occupation… I never dreamed I would die under one.”

Sunday, April 02, 2006
After an internet absence of a few days, I returned to find my inbox flooded with dozens of emails with the subject “Congratulations!!!”. In mid March, “Baghdad Burning” won Best Middle East and Africa blog and received a Bloggie so I thought the sudden surge of congratulatory emails was for that esteemed blog award (we would like to thank the academy…).

But, I was shocked to find out the BOOK “Baghdad Burning” had made the short list for the Samuel Johnson Prize- a prestigious, British award for non-fiction!! I didn’t even know it was on the long list for that award so it came as a huge surprise… I kept telling myself it was some sort of mistake because the other names on the short list are so illustrious but I got confirmation from the British publisher - Marion Boyars.

I’ve been walking around in a bit of a daze since I found out. I feel like it’s all happening to someone else and I have to keep reminding myself of it- while filling the water tanks, while cleaning out the kerosene heaters for storage and while changing the newspaper in the parakeets cage (“I hope you know the person cleaning out your cage is a Samuel Johnson nominee…”)

I just want to say it doesn’t matter if the book wins or loses- just to have it on that list is, in itself, an incredible honor.

Baghdad Burning (Feminist Press)

Baghdad Burning (Marion Boyars)

April Fool's Day...
Or 'kithbet neesan', as it is known in Arabic.

If the current Iraqi government should choose ANY day for their day- what better day than April 1? It’s appropriately named ‘Fool’s Day’, after all.

They have been foolishly trying to get a government together since they first announced the election results. And we’ve been patiently waiting. It’s like being under the threat of punishment for weeks and weeks at a time and finally just wanting to have the punishment over with.

I don’t think anyone believes they’re going to make any improvements or major changes, we’re just tired of waiting for the final formation. People need to know who’ll be in power because they want to know who to pay bribes to or get a ‘tazkiya’ from when they need something done. We need to know which religious party to go to when the Interior Ministry goons take away a relative.

They’ve been bickering over the Prime Minister’s position for so long now, I’m almost wishing Bremer were here to once again implement his whole “Puppet per month” arrangement as in 2003.

In any case, should you want to play an April Fool’s Day joke on an Iraqi (albeit a late one- or maybe even next year), I suggest the following:

1. “Guess what?! There’s going to be electricity this summer!!!” (For better effect, it is suggested a candle be broken in half and thrown high into the air with a whoop.)

2. “Guess what?! The Americans have declared they will be gone by 2010 and they won’t leave permanent bases behind!!!” (This should be said with a straight face.)

3. “Guess what?! They didn’t actually find three corpses in the strip of trees two streets away!!!”

4. “Guess what?! The Puppets finally formed a government!!!”

5. “Guess what?! They didn’t actually detain [fill in with the name of a relative, friend- everyone knows someone in prison these days]!!!”

6. "Guess what?! Chalabi solved the gasoline crisis!!!"

7. "Guess what?! No more religious militias- they've been banned from the country!!!" (This should be said in a low voice - just in case)

8. "Great news!! The US is going to make public how the billions of dollars in Iraqi oil money AND donations were 'spent'!!!"

9. "Guess what?! They're going to actually begin reconstructing the country and they estimate it will take 5 years!!!"

10. "Guess what?! They caught Zarqawi!!!" (This will only work on Iraqis who actually think he exists.)

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