Baghdad Burning

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Viva Muqtada...
It’s fascinating to watch the world beyond Iraq prepare for the World Cup. I get pictures by email of people hanging flags and banners, in support of this team or that one. Oh we have flags and banners too- the hole-ridden black banners all over Baghdad, announcing deaths and wakes. The flags are all of one color, usually- black, green, red, or yellow- representing a certain religious party or political group.

A friend who owns a shop in Karrada had a little problem with a certain flag last week. Karrada was one of the best mercantile areas in Baghdad prior to the war. It was the area you went to when you had a list of unrelated necessities- like shoes, a potato peeler, pink nail polish and a dozen blank CDs. You were sure to find everything you needed in under an hour.

After the war, SCIRI, Da’awa and other religious parties instantly opened up bureaus in the area. Shops that once displayed colorful clothes, and posters of women wearing makeup, began looking more subdued. Soon, instead of pictures of the charming women advertising Dior perfume, shops began putting up pictures of Sistani, looking half-alive, shrouded in black. Or pictures of Sadr, grim and dark, and almost certainly not smelling like Dior.

This friend owns a small cosmetics shop where he sells everything from lipstick to head scarves. His apartment is located right over the shop so that when he looks down from the living room window, he can see whoever is standing at the shop door. G. inherited the shop from his father, who sold sewing materials instead of cosmetics. The shop has been in his family for nearly 20 years. Prior to the war, his wife and sister ran the shop, making the most persuasive sales duo in the history of cosmetics probably (the proof of this being a garishly colored neck scarf I bought 4 years ago and never took out of the closet since). After the war, and various threats in the form of letters and broken windows, G. began running the shop personally and in addition to cosmetics, he introduced an appropriately dark line of flowing abbayas and headscarves.

The last time I visited G. in his shop was two weeks ago. Since January, G.’s shop has been the center of some football (soccer) activity. His obsession with football has gotten to the point where the shop closes up two hours early so that E., the cousin and various other friends can gather for PlayStation FIFA tournaments. These tournaments are basically a group of grown men sitting around, maneuvering little digital men running around after a digital ball, screaming encouragement and insults at each other. If you walk into the shop looking to buy something during those hours, you risk being thrown out or simply told to “Just take it, take it- whatever it is. Take it and GO!”. Every World Cup year, G. and his wife only half-jokingly quarrel about changing his only sons name to that of the footballer of the year. (As a sort of compromise, family and friends have all agreed to call his 14-year-old son “Ronaldino” until the games are over.)

G.’s cousin, who has lived in Canada for nearly 15 years, recently sent G. a large, colorful Brazilian flag- perfect for hanging on a shop window. He told us how he was planning to hang it right in the center and paint under it in big bold letters “VIVA BRASILIA!!”. E. looked dubious as G. excitedly described how he’d be changing the colors of the display- green and yellow to match the flag.

It was up for nearly two whole days before the problems began. The first hint of a problem came through G.’s neighbor. He stopped by the shop and told G. that a black-turbaned young cleric had been walking past the shop window, when the flag attracted his attention. According to the neighbor Abu Rossul, the young cleric stopped, gazed at the flag, took note of the shops name and location and went on his way. G. shrugged it off with the words, “Well maybe he’s a fan of Brazil too…” Abu Rossul wasn’t so sure, “He looked more like the ‘Viva Sadr!’ type to me…”.

A day later, G. had a visit at noon. A young black-clad cleric walked into the shop, and had a brief look around. G. tried to interest him in some lovely headscarves and abbayas, but he was not to be deterred from his apparent mission. He claimed to be a ‘representative’ from the Sadr press bureau which was a few streets away and he had a message for G.: the people at the abovementioned bureau were not happy with G.’s display. Where was his sense of national pride? Where was his sense of religion? Instead of the face of a heathen player, there were pictures of the first Sadr, or better yet, Muqtada! Why did he have a foreign flag plastered obscenely on his display window? Should he feel the need for a flag, there was the Iraqi flag to put up. Should he feel the necessity for a green flag, like the one in the display, there was the green flag of “Al il Bayt”… Democracy, after all, is all about having options.

G. wasn’t happy at all. He told the young cleric he would find a ‘solution’ and made a peace offering of some inexpensive men’s slippers and some cotton undershirts he sometimes sold. That evening, he conferred with various relatives and friends and although nearly everyone advised him to take down the flag, he insisted it should remain on display as a matter of principle. His wife even offered to turn it into a curtain or bed sheets for him to enjoy until the games were over. He was adamant about keeping it up.

Two days later, he found a rather dramatic warning letter slipped under the large aluminum outer door. In a nutshell, it declared G. and people like him ‘heathens’ and demanded he take down the flag or he would be exposing himself to danger. It takes quite a bit to shake up a guy like G., but the same day he had the flag down and the display was back to normal.

As it turns out, Muqtada has a fatwa against football (soccer). I downloaded it and this is a translation of what he says when someone asks him for a fatwa on football and the World Cup:

“In reality, my father's position on this topic isn't deficient... Not only my father but Sharia also prohibits such activities which keep the followers too occupied for worshiping, keep people from remembering [to worship]. Habeebi, the West created things that keep us from completing ourselves (perfection). What did they make us do? Run after a ball, habeebi… What does that mean? A man, this large and this tall, Muslim- running after a ball? Habeebi, this ‘goal’ as it is called… if you want to run, run for a noble goal. Follow the noble goals which complete you and not the ones that demean you. Run after a goal, put it in your mind and everyone follows their own path to the goal to satisfy God. That is one thing. The second thing, which is more important, we find that the West and especially Israel, habeebi the Jews, did you see them playing soccer? Did you see them playing games like Arabs play? They let us keep busy with soccer and other things and they've left it. Have you heard that the Israeli team, curse them, got the World Cup? Or even America? Only other games... They've kept us occuppied with them- singing, and soccer, and smoking, stuff like that, satellites used for things which are blasphemous while they occuppy themselves with science etc. Why habeebi? Are they better than us- no we're better than them.”

Important note: Islamic Sharia does not prohibit soccer/football or sports- it’s only prohibited by the version of Sharia in Muqtada’s dark little head. I wonder what he thinks of tennis, swimming and yoga…

I listened to the fatwa, with him getting emotional about playing football, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Foreign occupation and being a part of a puppet government- those things are ok. Football, however, will be the end of civilization as we know it, according to Muqtada. It’s amusing- they look nothing alike- yet he reminds me so much of Bush. He can barely string two sentences together properly and yet, millions of people consider his word law. So when Bush raves about the new ‘fledgling Iraqi government’ ‘freely elected’ into power, you can take a look at Muqtada and see one of the fledglings. He is currently one of the most powerful men in the country for his followers.

So this is democracy. This is one of the great minds of Bush’s democratic Iraq.

Sadr’s militia control parts of Iraq now. Just a couple of days ago, his militia, with the help of Badr, were keeping women from visiting the market in the southern city of Karbala. Women weren’t allowed in the marketplace and shop owners were complaining that their businesses were suffering. Welcome to the new Iraq.

It’s darkly funny to see what we’ve turned into, and it is also anguishing. Muqtada Al-Sadr is a measure of how much we’ve regressed these last three years. Even during the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions, people turned to sports to keep their mind off of day-to-day living. After the occupation, we won a football match against someone or another and we’d console ourselves with “Well we lose wars- but we win football!” From a country that once celebrated sports- football (soccer) especially- to a country that worries if the male football players are wearing long enough shorts or whether all sports fans will face eternal damnation… That’s what we’ve become.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006
American Hostages...
It was around the 10th or 11th of April, 2003. There had been no electricity in our area since the last days of March. The water was also cut off and most Iraqis still didn’t have generators. We spent the days- and nights- listening to American and British war planes, listening for the tanks as they invaded the city, and praying. We also tried desperately to follow the news.

The state-controlled Iraqi channels had, seemingly, ceased to exist. Transmission had been bad since the war began- sometimes, we’d be able to access the channel clearly, and at other times, it was only a fuzzy blur of faces and scratchy national anthems. The official Iraqi radio station was no better- sometimes it seemed like they were transmitting from Mars- it was so far away. When we did get it clearly, none of it made sense: Sahhaf, the Minister of Information, would say, “There are no tanks in Baghdad!” and yet, explosions and the carcasses of burnt up cars with families still inside, said otherwise.

By the beginning of April, we had given up on getting any information from television and had to rely completely on the news we received through radio stations such as Monte Carlo, BBC and the Voice of America. VOA was nearly as useless as Sahhaf- we could never tell if the news they were broadcasting was real or if it was simply propaganda. In between news, VOA would broadcast the same songs over and over and over. I still can’t hear Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come” without shuddering because in my head I hear the sounds of war. “I was waiting for someone…” the roar of a plane overhead … “For a miracle to come…” the BOOM of a missile… “My heart told me to be strong…” the rat-tat-tat of an AK-47... I hate that song today.

One television station that had been broadcasting since the beginning of the war was an Iranian station called “Al Alam”. They had been broadcasting for the Iraqi public in Arabic with permission from the former government and they continued broadcasting even after the Iraqi stations stopped. Their coverage of the war was rather neutral. They gave facts and avoided unnecessary commentary or opinion and that, to a certain extent, made them trustworthy- especially since we really didn’t have any other options.

We had heard about the statue being pulled down on one radio station or another, but none of us had seen it because we had no television due to a lack of electricity. Some Iraqis were taking old televisions and connecting them to an ordinary car battery which is what they did back in 1991. E. and the cousin managed to dig up a small, old, black and white television my aunt had managed to overlook during last years spring cleaning. They had it hooked up and working in a matter of twenty minutes (and after a thorough dusting). There was no longer an Iraqi television station. There was only the Iranian one, transmitting clearly. The tanks were rolling through Baghdad and bombing everything in their path. The Apaches were flying low and it seemed like every hour the gunfire and explosions were intensifying.

It was around 9 pm on the 11th of April when we finally saw the footage of Saddam’s statue being pulled down by American troops- the American flag plastered on his face. We watched, stunned, as Baghdad was looted and burned by hordes of men, being watched and saluted by American soldiers in tanks. Looking back at it now, it is properly ironic that our first glimpses of the ‘fall of Baghdad’ and the occupation of Iraq came to us via Iran- through that Iranian channel.

We immediately began hearing about the Iranian revolutionary guard, and how they had formed a militia of Iraqis who had defected to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. We heard how they were already inside of the country and were helping to loot and burn everything from governmental facilities to museums. The Hakims and Badr made their debut, followed by several other clerics with their personal guard and militias, all seeping in from Iran.

Today they rule the country. Over the duration of three years, and through the use of vicious militias, assassinations and abductions, they’ve managed to install themselves firmly in the Green Zone. We constantly hear our new puppets rant and rave against Syria, against Saudi Arabia, against Turkey, even against the country they have to thank for their rise to power- America… But no one dares to talk about the role Iran is planning in the country.

The last few days we’ve been hearing about Iranian attacks on northern Iraq- parts of Kurdistan that are on the Iranian border. Several sites were bombed and various news sources are reporting Iranian troops by the thousand standing ready at the Iraqi border. Prior to this, there has been talk of Iranian revolutionary guard infiltrating areas like Diyala and even parts of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the new puppets (simply a rotation of the same OLD puppets), after taking several months to finally decide who gets to play the role of prime minister, are now wrangling and wrestling over the ‘major’ ministries and which political party should receive what ministry. The reason behind this is that as soon as a minister is named from, say, SCIRI, that minister brings in ‘his people’ to key positions- his relatives, his friends and cronies, and most importantly- his personal militia. As soon as Al-Maliki was made prime minister, he announced that armed militias would be made a part of the Iraqi army (which can only mean the Badrists and Sadr’s goons).

A few days ago, we were watching one of several ceremonies they held after naming the new prime minister. Talbani stood in front of various politicians in a large room in the Green Zone and said, rather brazenly, that Iraq would not stand any ‘tadakhul’ or meddling by neighboring countries because Iraq was a ‘sovereign country free of foreign influence’. The cousin almost fainted from laughter and E. was wiping his eyes and gasping for air… as Talbani pompously made his statement- all big belly and grins- smiling back at him was a group of American army commanders or generals and to his left was Khalilzad, patting him fondly on the arm and gazing at him like a father looking at his first-born!

So while Iraqis are dying by the hundreds, with corpses turning up everywhere (last week they found a dead man in the open area in front of my cousins daughters school), the Iraqi puppets are taking their time trying to decide who gets to do the most stealing and in which ministry. Embezzlement, after all, is not to be taken lightly- one must give it the proper amount of thought and debate- even if the country is coming unhinged.

As for news of the new Iraqi army, it isn’t going as smoothly as Bush and his crew portray. Today we watched footage of Iraqi soldiers in Anbar graduating. The whole ceremony was quite ordinary up until nearly the end- their commander announced they would be deployed to various areas and suddenly it was chaos. The soldiers began stripping their fatigues and throwing them around, verbally attacking their seniors and yelling and shoving. They were promised, when they signed up for the army in their areas, that they would be deployed inside of their own areas- which does make sense. There is news that they are currently on strike- refusing to be deployed outside of their own provinces.

One can’t help but wonder if the ‘area’ they were supposed to be deployed to was the north of Iraq? Especially with Iranian troops on the border… Talbani announced a few days ago that the protection of Kurdistan was the responsibility of Iraq and I completely agree for a change- because Kurdistan IS a part of Iraq. Before he made this statement, it was always understood that only the Peshmerga would protect Kurdistan- apparently, against Iran, they aren’t nearly enough.

The big question is- what will the US do about Iran? There are the hints of the possibility of bombings, etc. While I hate the Iranian government, the people don’t deserve the chaos and damage of air strikes and war. I don’t really worry about that though, because if you live in Iraq- you know America’s hands are tied. Just as soon as Washington makes a move against Tehran, American troops inside Iraq will come under attack. It’s that simple- Washington has big guns and planes… But Iran has 150,000 American hostages.

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