Baghdad Burning

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

Friday, October 31, 2003
Remember "Malcom Lagauche"... the author whose site was shut down after he got too many hits? You can now find him here: Lagauche is Right

Ramadhan is the 9th month in the Islamic year (which also has 12 months, but only has around 358 days). Ramadhan is considered one of the holiest months of the Islamic year- in my opinion, it is the most interesting. We spend the whole of Ramadhan fasting, every day, from the first rays of light at dawn, until the sun sets. In other words, we can neither eat, nor drink, nor smoke, nor chew gum until it is time to ‘break the fast’ during the evening.

Ramadhan is the month during which the angel Gabriel first visited our Prophet, with the message of Islam and the Quran. That is why it is celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The exact date of the momentous occasion can’t be calculated exactly, but it is believed that ‘Laylet il Qadir’ (the night the Prophet was first visited by Gabriel) is towards the end of Ramadhan (many believe that it falls on the 27th night).

Ramadhan is a festive month, in many ways. It’s like the last two weeks of December- a little bit hectic, but important, all the same. It’s that month where you get to see all the family you never you knew you had- the intolerable cousins, the favorite aunt, the grandparents, nieces, nephews, uncles and even the great-uncle you thought had died last year. The whole month is sort of a ‘family month’.

The fasting works like this: at the break of dawn, we simply stop eating and drinking. This lasts through the whole day until ‘al maghrib’ or dusk. Fasting is considered one of the ‘arkan’ of Islam, which means it is required of all Muslims. There are certain exceptions- people who are ill aren’t required to fast during Ramadhan, and people who are traveling. If the fasting affects a person’s health in any way (i.e. if the person is diabetic, or pregnant, etc.), they are excused from fasting.

Of course, the ‘moral fasting’ comes with the physical fasting. In other words, a person can break their fast without using food. Gossiping, fighting, lying, cheating, angry words and more have to be avoided during Ramadhan, otherwise your fast, or ‘siyam’ is considered useless. Prayer and Quran reading are also stepped-up during the whole of the month because it is believed to be a ‘blessed month’.

Someone might ask, but why fast? What is the point of denying yourself food and drink for over half a day? Fasting is supposed to teach tolerance, patience, and hunger. Yes, hunger. The average person forgets what it’s like to be hungry… and I don’t mean the, wow-I-could-really-use-a-burger-and-some-fries type of hunger. I mean the hunger you feel when you haven’t had anything to eat or drink for over 12 hours and your stomach feels ready to cave in and your head feels like exploding because you didn’t get that zap of caffeine you need to function.

The point of being hungry is to help you appreciate food more. It helps you realize that food and water shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially when there are people who feel like this every day regardless of it being a holy month or otherwise. Many doctors also believe fasting is healthy, as it often lowers blood pressure and keeps people from smoking or drinking. I currently have an uncle who swears he's going to give up smoking this Ramadhan (like he gave it up last Ramadhan- and the one before).

We begin preparing for the ‘futtoor’, or the meal with which we break our fast, over an hour before its time. Traditionally, most people break their fast on a date, and then proceed to whatever is on the menu. Often, people begin the meal with some sort of soup because it warms the stomach without shocking it after all those hours without food. The most popular Ramadhan soup is lentil soup, or ‘addess’. It is a pale, yellow soup that is both light and flavorful. There are dozens of different ways to make it, but I enjoy it with a squeeze of lime and ‘khubz’.

After the soup, comes a whole procession of often traditional foods… maybe I should post the recipes. There’s so much food because the ‘futtoor’ is more of a daily celebration than it is an ordinary meal. During previous years, we would spend almost every day breaking our fast with various family or friends. This year is different because the security situation doesn’t allow for traipsing around Baghdad or other provinces on a daily basis. It’s also not the same because, under normal circumstances, our ‘futtoor’ gatherings often last well into the night, sometimes past 12 am, before the group breaks up to go home.

The neighbors are often a big part of the month. If they’re not dropping by to sample futtoor, then they’re sending over a plate of something for you to sample. We also get together to agree who will be sending food over to the local mosque to feed the mosque keepers and the Imam, and to arrange who will be sending what to the more destitute families in the neighborhood. Ramadhan is the time of year when we put aside neighborhood differences (like the fact that Abu K.’s dog howls at anyone who goes down the street), and combine culinary skills and a general feeling of empathy.

The most active part of the whole day is the quarter of an hour directly before breaking the fast… the whole family is often in a flurry of action, with someone setting the table, someone carrying the food, someone giving orders about where to put everything… and everyone impatient with hunger. The last five minutes before you hear the call for prayer signifying the end of the fast are always the most difficult.

Every second of those last five minutes passes with the heaviness of an hour… you can literally see every one strain to hear the sound of the call for prayer echoing through the Baghdad streets. And then it is finally time for futtoor… and we begin to eat with relish. The platter of rice that seemed ridiculously small 15 minutes ago, is now ‘too much’ and no one eats as much as they had hoped they were going to eat- everyone is exhausted with simply contemplating the food, the choices and the possibilities.

After futtoor, the smokers fall upon their cigarettes with an enthusiasm only other smokers can appreciate. We watch them taking puff after puff with a contentment that even screaming kids, and loud televisions cannot taint.

The rest of the night is spent in eating snacks and sweets, like baqlawa saturated in syrup, and warm kunaffa (a cheese sweet). Everyone moves somewhat slower and the general mood is one of contentment and joviality (no one can get up the energy to be angry after a large meal). .. the only thing that can thoroughly ruin a futtoor is an air strike (like in 1998) or an electricity cut.

Tomorrow we’re expecting to break our fast with an uncle’s family and one of our neighbors (who are Christian). Christians don’t fast during Ramadhan, but they do often join us while breaking the fast and many refuse to eat and drink in places like college and school (where eating is allowed) out of solidarity and respect.

And now you’ll excuse me… they’ve just warmed the kunaffa drenched in a sugar syrup and if I don’t hurry, there’ll be nothing left for Riverbend…

Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Riverbend and Multiple Personalities...
No, I do not have Multiple Personality Disorder. Many of you have pointed out a fake "Baghdad Burning" site at (notice the 'S'). It is not being run by me in parallel to my own site- I knew it existed for some time now (a friend pointed it out to me in late September). Apparently, someone was so angry at my site, they decided to make an identical site named "Baghdad Burning" being written by, supposedly, me. The contents are almost completely opposite to what I write- and most of the posts are just copied and pasted from different sources (mostly USA government sources).

When I first noticed it, the first post was on September 11, I think. It was about American troops and Iraqi women falling in love with each other, etc. etc. Apparently, someone pointed out the fact that while the fake BB site began in September, my site began in August. Soooooooo, our fraud backdated his posts and created some hollow, silly archives dating back to July. Anyone who uses Blogger knows how easy that is.

I wrote to Blogger, telling them about the site and how the person was pretending to be me, they said that if I wanted to make an official complaint, I had to mail in (by snail-mail) a letter complaining that someone was stealing the contents of my site. Besides my identity, the only thing the fraud has stolen is the line I use, "I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend" And yes, this is MY line- it's a line from a poem I wrote for a friend? perhaps one day I'll post the complete poem.

A great guy named Brian has been following this fraud carefully. Check out the site for details. Another blogger has more information on the culprit, check out: Thank you both of you.

Now, while I am very flattered there are people out there taking so much trouble to prove me wrong, I am rather annoyed that it wasn't all done with better style. I mean, the guy who runs the fake site is retired, for God's sake- he has all the time in the world to make me look bad. I think it only fair to demand he should have put in a little more effort. Furthermore, I don't like the way many words are misspelled and that the grammar is just atrocious in an apparent attempt to make it look more "Iraqi"- or maybe that's just the way this person actually writes.

My favorite post is the first one, supposedly written on July 6:

"Time to Blog!

We finally returned to my Baghdad. The evening walks along the river are much refreshing. We were living with relatives near Erbul for the better part of five months. al-Jazeera kept us informed regarding the war. I gasped and held my breath not believing as we watched Baghdad burning."

The Real Riverbend's Comment: Huh? Erbul? Where is that? Somewhere between Kirkuk and Erbil?! Give me a break. Another part I loved was one of the posts describing how the dear 'girl' got a tour of Baghdad Airport (which no one is allowed near): please don't miss that one- the blogger might change it. I can't decide which is worse- the dry stuff copied and pasted directly from governmental sites, or when Troy gets lyrical and writes how 'walks along the river are much refreshing'.

The writer of the fake riverSbend site is someone named Troy who is ex-military, retired, and a GOP Team Leader (?):

El Solerito Troy,

Artist, HAM, Korean War, Reg. Army & USAF Retired, MOPH L38342 Unit 1849, Phi Theta Kappa, RNC 146441197-D186, GOP Team Leader, NRA 040959746

One thing our friend Troy didn't take into consideration while writing the blog was the following: Even if you backdate your archives, the month you originally started with won't contain the faked archives. If you check out the September archives for the fake riverSbend blog, you'll see that the list of archives on the left only dates back to September- which is when the blog originally started!!

Finally, thank you, dear Troy- the fake riverSbend- for trying to imitate Baghdad Burning- I am flattered. However, 1. You make a horrible 24-year-old girl from 'Erbul', 2. When you copy and paste stuff from articles and sites, try to make sure the date *you* post them on isn't before the original date the material was posted, and 3. Find a hobby- get a cat, grow a garden, play chess, golf- i.e. Get a life.

Drop Troy a line- he obviously has lots of time to correspond- he has several email addresses, this is one of them:
Brian over at has several more.

The Red Cross and Terrorism
The Red Cross have started pulling out their personnel. A friend of mine who works with the Red Crescent said that they were going to try to pull out most of their personnel, while trying to continue with what they're doing- humanitarian assistance. When I heard Nada Domani, the head of the ICRC in Iraq, say that they'd begin pulling out their personnel on Tuesday, I wished I could yell out, "Don't abandon us Nada!" But I realize that their first priority is to ensure the safety of their employees.

The Red Cross is especially important at this point because they are the 'link' that is connecting the families of the detainees and the military. When someone suddenly disappears, people go to the Red Cross and after a few grueling days, the missing person can often be tracked down at one of the prison camps or prisons.

The easy and na�ve thing to do would be to blame the whole situation on fundamentalists/extremists/terrorists/loyalists/ba'athists/foreigners which many people, apparently, think are one and the same. Another trend in western media is to blame the whole of them on the 'Sunni triangle' and 'neighboring countries'.

There are *several* groups orchestrating the attacks against the various targets. The first and most obvious indicator is the method of attack, while the second indicator is the variety of the targets.

The techniques being used in the attacks range from primitive, to professional. We hear that some of the explosive devices being used are home-made and uncomplicated, obviously made by amateurs. We know for a fact that there are high-tech attacks against Coalition headquarters- like at the Baghdad International Airport and some of the palaces where high-ranking army personnel are located. On some of these places, like the airport, missiles are being used which is an indicator that the source of the attack is a highly trained group.

One of my uncles lives in one of the areas closer to the airport, which is on the outskirts of Baghdad. During June, we spent a couple of weeks with him. Almost every night, we would wake up to a colossal explosion that seems to be coming from the direction of the airport and less than a minute later, the helicopters would begin hovering overhead. Another example of a high-tech attack, was the attack on Rasheed Hotel a few days ago, where Wolfowitz was shocked and awed out of a meeting. (I don't understand why the CPA is trying very hard to pretend the attack had nothing to do with his presence there).

The majority associate such attacks with resistance and many people believe that they are being carried out by people with access and knowledge of advanced military equipment- perhaps Iraqis who were a part of the Guard or former members of the Iraqi army. Now, while some may certainly be labeled as Ba'athists, or loyalists, they aren't fundamentalists. We do, after all, have hundreds of thousands of disgruntled former military personnel and soldiers who were made to sit at home without retirement, a pension or any form of compensation. The relatively few who were promised a monthly 'retirement wage', complain that they aren't getting the money. (I can never emphasize enough the mistake of dissolving the army� was anyone thinking when they came up with that decision?!)

New resistance groups are popping up every day. The techniques are becoming more sophisticated and we even hear of 'menshoorat' being passed around. Menshoorat are underground 'fliers'.

The suicide bombings, on the other hand, are more often attributed to fundamentalist groups. To say that these groups are fighting to bring back the former regime is ridiculous: People chose to ignore the fact that the majority of fundamentalists were completely against the former regime because members of Al Qaeda, Ansar Al Islam, Al Da'awa and other political fundamentalist groups were prone to detention, exile and in some cases, execution.

These groups are both Sunni and Shi'a fundamentalist groups (as the attacks on the British and Polish troops in the southern region have proven). Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack on Baghdad Hotel a couple of weeks ago, while in the south, people swear that one of Al Hakim's personal bodyguards helped to conspire with his assassination (which would explain how a car full of explosives made it through his personal army of bodyguards and into the parking area where his own car was).

The irony is hearing about the 'War on Terrorism' on CNN and then tuning in to the CPA channel to see the Al-Da'awa people sitting there, polished and suited, Puppet Knights of the Round Table. To see Al-Jaffari, you almost forget that they had a reputation for terrorism over the decades, here in Iraq. They were one of the first political/religious groups to use bombings in Iraq to get their political message across to the people.

Their most famous debacle was one that occurred in 1980. One of the most prominent universities in Iraq, Mustansiriya University, was hosting a major, international conference on economics for various international youth groups. Tariq Aziz, who was then the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Iraq, was visiting the conference during the opening. Suddenly, in the middle of thousands of students from over 70 international and Iraqi youth organizations, two bombs exploded, killing 2 students and injuring dozens. The next day, while a demonstration of outraged students was following the funeral procession to a local graveyard, two more bombs were thrown in their midst, killing two high school students. Al-Da'awa later claimed responsibility.

Later that same year, in an attempt to assassinate the president of the University of Technology in Baghdad, they instead killed one of the university custodians who stood in their way.

In the '70s, members of Al Da'awa used to throw 'acid' in the faces of 'safirat' or females who don't wear the 'hijab', both in certain parts of Baghdad, and in certain areas in the south of Iraq. Shi'a clerics who didn't agree with their violent message, were often assassinated or assaulted.

The fact that they are currently one of the leading political parties involved with the "New Iraq" sends a wonderful message to 'terrorist organizations': Bombing works, terror works. People here are terrified we'll end up another Afghanistan� that these fundamentalist groups the CPA is currently flirting with are Iraq's Taliban.

Finally, there are all those strange, mystery attacks that no one understands and even the most extreme members of society can't condone or legitimatize. One such attack includes the attack on the UN headquarters. No one claimed responsibility for that. Another such attack was the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad� the Red Cross, the police stations... Many people believe that Al-Chalabi and his party are responsible for such incidents. Some of his guards are trained terrorists...

Al Chalabi arrived in April with a militia of Free Iraqi Fighters who, after several weeks of car hijacking, a few abductions, and some even say assassinations, suddenly disappeared� his 600+ thugs were supposedly 'interpreters'. I have very limited information on them, but someone said they were trained in Hungary? Today, people think they are acting as a sort of secret militia responsible for many of the assassinations and explosions all over Baghdad.

I'll blog about Ramadhan tomorrow� there's so much to tell.

Monday, October 27, 2003
Red Cross Bombing...
Horrible news. There was an explosion in front of the Red Cross this morning... just terrible. Some say it was an ambulance but others who saw the scene claim that the ambulance had a car right behind it that stopped suddenly for 'car trouble' and then exploded. Nada Domani, the head of the Red Cross in Iraq said that they might have to reduce their staff even further at this point... There were a series of other explosions all over Baghdad this morning and a couple last night... we still don't know everything that has been attacked. I'll post more later...

Saturday, October 25, 2003
Madrid Conference...
So the Madrid Conference is over. Half of the people here weren’t really aware it was going on anyway. No one seems to bother with stuff like that anymore because we have more pressing affairs to attend to. I, personally, spent the last 4 days cleaning out the pantry in preparation for Ramadhan. I’d pop into the living room every once in a while to catch a glimpse of the conference and what was going on in it.

Always, there was Aznar’s big teeth and Palacio’s big hair. What struck me in particular was how lavish the whole conference looked. I wonder how much was spent on it… how many schools it could have renovated… how many clinics it could have provided with medication... But that’s not reconstruction, of course- clinics and schools are luxuries what’s really important is making sure the CPA, Governing Council and ministerial cabinet are all housed comfortably in the palaces and hotels they call home.

The most embarrassing part of the conference was watching Muwafaq Al-Ruba’i grovel for international funds for the reconstruction effort. He batted his lashes, spoke softly and kept dragging ‘the Iraqi people’ into his speeches- as if the Iraqi people would actually ever see the uncountable billions that somehow enter the country and are spent before you can say ‘reconstruction’.

I must be sounding ungrateful, what with the $33 billion dollars being agreed upon, but the idea of being financially indebted to America, the IMF and the World Bank somehow has the appeal of selling ones soul to the devil. It sounds like, in conclusion, more debt upon debt. It’s not that I want everything to be donated to the country, but I think that our oil revenues should be able to cover a substantial part of rebuilding Iraq. I also think that many of the countries have every right to ask for their money ‘back’ at some point in the future… I'm sure the Japanese could use their $5 billion for something useful at home. One good thing is that the money is going to be under UN supervision.

Christian Aid have done a fascinating report on some ‘missing billions’. Apparently, there are $4 billion that have gone up in smoke and Bremer & Co. can only account for $1 billion. The report does some explaining on how the CPA spends the money and what committees are gone through. The PDF report asks the CPA to give a ‘transparent account’ of how the billions were spent.But that’s ridiculous- I mean, who can keep track of $4 billion dollars… I’m sure Ahmad Al-Chalabi can tell you first-hand that all those zeros are difficult to manage.

And what is $4 billion anyway?! First off, there are all those snazzy suits being worn by our governing council- I haven’t yet seen Al-Chalabi in the same suit twice… the silk ties, Rolex watches and leather shoes. (I can tell you that canary yellow ties are the rage in men’s fashion because just about every minister/ council member has worn one by now)

There are rumors that each new minister makes around $40,000 a month. For $40,000, you can build a large house in an elegant area in Baghdad. For $40,000, you can build, and fully furnish, a school. For $40,000, you can stock up a storage room in a hospital. For $40 K, you can feed 80 Iraqi families for a month *lavishly*. (Or you could buy 400 used Sony Play Stations- as my younger cousin calculated)

And then you have the extra expenses of the Governing Council- meals and abode, of course. The majority don’t live in houses because they have homes and families abroad. They live in various hotels like Baghdad Hotel, Al-Rashid, and Palestine Hotel… some of them reside in palaces. One minister, they say, even sends for his staff to meet at the hotel because he refuses to visit the ministry itself. Employees at the ministry know him as ‘il shabah’ or ‘the phantom’ because no one beyond his deputy ministers has ever seen him in the flesh.

There’s also the little matter of the Interim Government jetting about, all over the world… traveling from one place to the next. Every time one of the Puppets is rotated, they make it their immediate business to leave the country. It’s ironic how the Iraqi people hear about the majority of the major decisions (like selling off the country) through foreign media networks and sometimes through a voice-over, translating to Arabic. To see them shaking hands and kissing feet, you'd think our immediate concerns are Iraq's diplomatic affairs outside of the country and not the mess *inside* of it.

Then you have the food and beverages necessary to keep our interim government alive. There used to be $5,000 lunches (which the International Herald Tribune claim were reduced). Now $5,000 lunches may seem like no big deal for 25 people in New York or Paris… but $200 per person is… beyond belief in Baghdad. Pre-war, the best meal in Iraq wouldn’t cost you more than $30 per person (and there were only a handful of people who could afford a meal like that). Even now, restaurant food is quite cheap, albeit a bit risky.

A friend of an uncle, who is privy to certain purchases made by the CPA and Governing Council, says that millions each month are spent on… water. Yes. Apparently our Iraqi Council and interim government deems the water we drink not worthy of their thirst. I can understand worries about the quality of the water, but even the troops drink and eat off of vendors in the streets.

So when people here heard about the Madrid conference… well, it’s hardly going to make a difference to the average Iraqi. People are very worried about the fact that the Food-for-Oil program ends next month. Some say that the ‘husseh’ or ration that makes up a substantial part of the average Iraqi diet will probably be continued until January. People will literally starve without rations. Already the ration has been reduced and the quality of the what remains of it is just terrible.

I wanted to write up a paper and send it off to Madrid suggesting a “Ransom Fund”. I’d like to suggest opening up a special fund for the families who have people abducted. It is becoming incredibly common to hear about a man, woman or child being abducted and ransom as high as $250,000 being asked. The standard price is $25,000, but for wealthy families, $250,000 is not uncommon. Wealthy Christian families have been particularly vulnerable to abductions of late. One man had to sell his home and car to pay his son’s ransom because his money was all tied up in various projects.

And who are behind these abductions… common criminals, sometimes… other times they are Al-Sadr’s goons or SCIRI’s thugs. The SCIRIs are often politically motivated in their abductions and the money is said to go to supporting ‘Badr’s Brigade”, the SCIRI militia. More and more lately, the CPA has been complaining of the militia- but what did they expect? Giving them power in the first place was wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s safe to say that no matter HOW much they promise otherwise, an armed extremist is going to mean trouble. A militia of armed extremists is going to mean chaos- especially when you allow them to enforce ‘security’ in volatile areas.

Al-Sadr has been making waves in the south and Baghdad. He is frightening and I don’t think his influence should be underestimated. He easily has over a million followers (some say it’s up to 4 million) and they practically revere him. It’s not him personally that makes him so important with his followers, it’s the fact that he is the son of a famous Shi’a cleric who was assassinated in 1999. While the majority of the middle and upper class Iraqis want a secular government, Al-Sadr seems to resonate with the impoverished, currently jobless men in the south and in some of Baghdad’s slums.

Currently, the CPA believe he was responsible for Al-Kho’i’s assassination back in April. Others suspect that he might have been responsible for Al-Hakim’s death a couple of months ago… detaining him is going to be a major problem because his followers will make sure to wreak havoc… judging from the last few months, they’ll just strike up a deal with him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003
I heard some more details about the demonstration today… The whole situation was outrageous and people are still talking about it.

Ever since the occupation, employees of the Ministry of Oil are being searched by troops- and lately, dogs. The employees have been fed up… the ministry itself is a virtual fortress now with concrete, barbed wire and troops. The employees stand around for hours at a time, waiting to be checked and let inside. Iraqis have gotten accustomed to the 'security checks'. The checks are worse on the females than they are on the males because we have to watch our handbags rummaged through and sometimes personal items pulled out and examined while dozens of people stand by, watching.

Today, one of the women who work at the ministry, Amal, objected when the troops brought forward a dog to sniff her bag. She was carrying a Quran inside of it and to even handle a Quran, a Muslim has to be 'clean' or under 'widhu'. 'Widhu' is the process of cleansing oneself for prayer or to read from the Quran. We simply wash the face, neck, arms up to the elbows and feet with clean water and say a few brief 'prayers'. Muslims carry around small Qurans for protection and we've been doing it more often since the war- it gives many people a sense of security. It doesn't not mean the person is a 'fundamentalist' or 'extremist'.

As soon as Amal protested about letting the dog sniff her bag because of the Quran inside, the soldier grabbed the Quran, threw it out of the bag and proceeded to check it. The lady was horrified and the dozens of employees who were waiting to be checked moved forward in a rage at having the Quran thrown to the ground. Amal was put in hand-cuffs and taken away and the raging mob was greeted with the butts of rifles.

The Iraqi Police arrived to try to intervene, and found the mob had increased in number because it had turned from a security check into a demonstration. One of the stations showed police officers tearing off their "IP" badge- a black arm badge to identify them as Iraqi Police and shouting at the camera, "We don't want the badge- we signed up to help the people, not see our Quran thrown to the ground…"

Some journalists say that journalists' cameras were confiscated by the troops…

This is horrible. It made my blood boil just hearing about it- I can't imagine what the people who were witnessing it felt. You do not touch the Quran. Why is it so hard to understand that some things are sacred to people?!

How would the troops feel if Iraqis began flinging around Holy Bibles or Torahs and burning crosses?! They would be horrified and angry because you do not touch a person's faith…

But that's where the difference is: the majority of Iraqis have a deep respect for other cultures and religions… and that's what civilization is. It's not mobile phones, computers, skyscrapers and McDonalds; It's having enough security in your own faith and culture to allow people the sanctity of theirs…

Demonstrations in Baghdad...
Thousands were demonstrating today- I think near the Ministry of Oil (though someone said it was somewhere else). There were even women demonstarting because a female has been detained for refusing to have her bag checked by the troops... The troops began firing into the air and fighting suddenly broke out between the mob and some troops... we still don't know what's happening.

Saturday, October 18, 2003
New Links
I've updated my links on the right. I've added, which is the site Danny Schechter blogs on (he's the executive editor of the site). The site tackles some fantastic media issues- especially related to the war and occupation.

The other site is Juan Cole's *Informed Comment*. Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, author and translator. His site has some great commentary on Iraq. He tackles political, social and religious issues in the region with style and objectivity. His latest post is on the fighting between the troops and some followers of a Shi'a cleric in the south... things are looking frightening in Karbala and Najaf- people all over are worried.

Evening Tea and Turkish Troops...
In the evening, most Iraqi families gather together for 'evening tea'. It's hardly as formal as it sounds... No matter how busy the day, everyone sits around in the living room, waiting for tea.

Iraqi tea isn't a simple matter of teacups and teabags. If you serve 'teabag tea' to an Iraqi, you risk scorn and disdain- a teabag is an insult to tea connoisseurs. It speaks of a complete lack of appreciation for the valuable beverage.

The exact process of making tea differs from family to family, but, in general, it is a three-stage process. First, a kettle of water is put on the burner to boil. Next, the boiling water and a certain amount of tealeaves are combined in a separate teapot and put on a low burner just until the tealeaves rise to the top and threaten to 'boil over'. Finally, the teapot is set on top of the tea kettle on a low burner and allowed to 'yihder' or settle.

There are hundreds of different types of tea available on the market. The best types are from Ceylon. Tea is so important in Iraq, that it makes up a substantial part of the rations we've been getting ever since the sanctions were imposed upon the country. People drink tea with breakfast, they drink tea at midday, they drink tea in the evening and often drink tea with dinner.

Our tea in Iraq is special because it is flavored with cardamom and served in 'istikans'. Istikans are little glasses shaped like the number '8', but open at the top, and flat at the bottom. They are made of thin glass and sit in little glass saucers- or porcelain saucers with intricate designs drawn on them. The color of the tea has to be just right- clear, yet strong- preferably a deep reddish-brown color.

So we sit, during the evenings, gathered around the small coffee table which has seen conversations on blockade, war strategies, bombings, and politics, with a tray of tea and something simple to eat- like biscuits or bread and cheese. One of us pours the tea, adding the sugar- 2 spoons for dad and I, 3 for E. and one for mom.

Before the conversation officially begins, you can hear the gentle music of small, steel teaspoons clinking against the istikan, or teacup, as the tea is stirred. Unlike the typical family conversation around the world, "How was your day, dear?" doesn't get a typical answer in Iraq. Depending on who is being asked, the answer varies from stories of abductions and hijackings, to demonstrations, to empty gas cylinders and burned out water pumps.

The topic of the moment is "Turkish troops". We discuss Turkish troops at breakfast, we discuss them as we get ready for lunch, we discuss them with neighbors as we communicate over the walls separating our homes. E. says it's the same at topic at gas stations, shops and street corners.

The discussion isn't actually about Turkish troops, per se: it revolves more around the Puppets and their ability, or lack thereof, to convince the CPA what a bad idea introducing Turkish troops into Iraq would be. Iraqis of different ethnicities all have different opinions of late, but this is one thing we all seem to be agreeing upon- Turkish troops will only make the situation worse.

There are all sorts of reasons why people don't like the idea of Turkish troops in the region. First, there's a lot of animosity between the Kurds and Turks; thousands of Kurds faced constant persecution while on Turkish territory- many of them were driven into Iraq. Ever since the beginning of the war, there have been several clashes between Kurdish militias and Turkish troops in northern Iraq.

Second, everyone knows that Turkey has certain interests in the region- namely, Kirkuk and Mosul. Turkey has been overly eager to send in troops ever since the 'end' of the war in April.

Third, Shi'a are adamant about not allowing Turkish troops into Iraq because Turks are predominantly Sunni and the thought of an aggressive Sunni army makes the majority of Shi'a nervous.

One faction of Christian society in Iraq, Armenian-Iraqis, are dead set against having Turkish troops in Iraq. They speak of Turkish occupation, bloodshed, executions and being driven into Iraq. Armenian-Iraqis are horrified with the thought of having Turkish troops inside of Iraq.

Then there are all of the historical reasons. For almost 400 years, Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.... The Ottoman Rule in Iraq ended in 1918, with the start of the British occupation. Iraqis haven't forgotten that during World War I, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to fight and die for the Ottoman Empire.

Then there's the little issue of all the problems between Iraq and Turkey. Iraqis still haven't forgotten the infamous Ataturk Dam on the Furat (Euphrates), the fourth largest dam in the world. We had to watch the Euphrates diminish in front of our very eyes year after year, until in many areas, it seemed like nothing more than a stream. In a country that is largely composed of desert land, ebbing the flow of a river that many people depend on for survival is an atrocity.

People here don't understand why there's so much insistence to bring in a Turkish army anyway. What good can it possibly do? America is emphasizing how important it will be to have 'Muslim troops' in the region- but what difference will it make? If Turkish troops enter under the supervision of an occupation army, they will be occupation troops- religion isn't going to make a difference.

It's like this: imagine America being invaded and occupied by, say, North Korea. (Note: I only say 'North Korea' because of the cultural differences between the US and North Korea, and the animosity.... I, unlike Chalabi, am not privileged to information on WMD, etc.) Imagine Korean troops invading homes, detaining people and filling the streets with tanks and guns. Then imagine North Korea deciding it 'needed help' and bringing in?. Mexico. And you ask, "But why Mexico?!" and the answer is, "Well, Mexicans will understand you better because the majority of Americans are Christian, and the majority of Mexicans are Christian- you'll all get along famously."

The Puppet Council is completely opposed to a Turkish presence inside of the country; America is insistent that there should be one.... we're all just watching from the sidelines, waiting to see just how much real respect the CPA has for the Puppet Council.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003
'Shadow Government'
Why is no one covering this: Parallel Government Finds Support?! I don't read about it anywhere except on Al-Jazeera- we only hear about on our Arab media networks... It's a big deal because Moqtada Al-Sadr has A LOT of support with fundamentalist Shi'a Muslims.

Moqtada Al-Sadr is one of the more powerful Shi'a clerics currently in the south. He has a huge backing and his followers are very angry that he wasn't included in the power grab. For the last few months he has been building an armed militia known as the "Imam Mahdi's Army". The majority of this militia are young, and very angry. I think they were meant to be a sort of antidote to "Badr's Brigade"- SCIRI's armed militia.

We've been hearing all sorts of strange things about the happenings in Najaf. One report said that Al-Sadr's followers have been abducting some prominent Shi'a sheikhs that aren't supporting him. One thing is certain- a couple of nights ago, the Spanish troops in Najaf went to detain Al-Sadr and disarm his militia (many were guarding his house) and hundreds of supporters flocked about his house, pushing the troops back and threatening that things would get very ugly if Al-Sadr was detained... the Spanish troops had to pull out of the area.

Very recently, Al-Sadr announced a 'hikoomet dhill' or 'shadow government' as a parallel government to the one selected in Baghdad by Bremer. The Shadow Government includes 13 different ministries (including an information ministry)...

Al-Sadr announced the following:
"...I have formed a government made up of several ministries, including ministries of justice, finance, information, interior, foreign affairs, endowments and the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice"

So what if this new 'shadow government' has orders or laws that differ with the Governing Council? What happens when the hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of Sadr supporters decide that Al-Sadr's word is law?

Monday, October 13, 2003
Baghdad Hotel...
Baghdad Hotel was bombed today on Al-Sa’adun street, which is a mercantile area in Baghdad. Al-Sa’adun area is one of the oldest areas in Baghdad. The street is lined with pharmacies, optometrists, photographers, old hotels, doctors, labs, restaurants, etc.

The Baghdad Hotel is known to be ‘home’ the CIA and some prominent members from the Governing Council. No one is sure about the number of casualties yet- some say its in the range of 15 dead, and 40 wounded… while other reports say 8 dead and 40 wounded.

There were other bombings in Baghdad- one in Salhiya, one in Karrada (near the two-storey bridge).

Palms and Punishment...
Everyone has been wondering about the trees being cut down in Dhuluaya area. Dhuluaya is an area near Sammara, north of Baghdad. It’s an area popular for its wonderful date palms, citrus trees and grape vines. The majority of the people who live in the area are simple landowners who have been making a living off of the orchards they’ve been cultivating for decades.

Orchards in many areas in Iraq- especially central Iraq- are almost like oases in the desert. From kilometers away, you can see the vivid green of proud date palms shimmering through the waves of heat and smoke, reaching for a sky rarely overcast. Just seeing the orchards brings a sort of peace.

There are over 500 different kinds of palm trees in Iraq. They vary in type from short, stocky trees with a shock of haphazard, green fronds… to long, slim trees with a collection of leaves that seem almost symmetrical in their perfection. A palm tree is known as a ‘nakhla’ and never fails to bring a sense of satisfaction and admiration. They are the pride and joy of Iraqi farmers and landowners. A garden isn’t complete if there isn’t a palm tree gracing it. We locate houses by giving the area, the street and then, “Well, it’s the fourth- no, wait… the fifth house on the left… or was it the right? Oh never mind- it’s the house on the street with the tallest palm tree.”

The palm trees, besides being lovely, are highly useful. In the winter months, they act as ‘resorts’ for the exotic birds that flock to Iraq. We often see various species of birds roosting between the leaves, picking on the sweet dates and taunting the small boys below who can’t reach the nests. In the summer months, the ‘female palms’ provide hundreds of dates for immediate consumption, storage, or processing.

In Iraq, there are over 300 different types of dates- each with its own name, texture and flavor. Some are dark brown, and soft, while others are bright yellow, crunchy and have a certain ‘tang’ that is particular to dates. It’s very difficult to hate dates- if you don’t like one type, you are bound to like another. Dates are also used to produce ‘dibiss’, a dark, smooth, date syrup. This dibiss is eaten in some areas with rice, and in others it is used as a syrup with bread and butter. Often it is used as a main source of sugar in Iraqi sweets.

Iraqi ‘khal’ or vinegar is also produced from dates… it is dark and tangy and mixed with olive oil, makes the perfect seasoning to a fresh cucumber and tomato salad. Iraqi ‘areg’, a drink with very high alcoholic content, is often made with dates. In the summer, families trade baskets and trays of dates- allowing neighbors and friends to sample the fruit growing on their palms with the enthusiasm of proud parents showing off a child’s latest accomplishment...

Every bit of a palm is an investment. The fronds and leaves are dried and used to make beautiful, pale-yellow baskets, brooms, mats, bags, hats, wall hangings and even used for roofing. The fronds are often composed of thick, heavy wood at their ends and are used to make lovely, seemingly-delicate furniture- similar to the bamboo chairs and tables of the Far East. The low-quality dates and the date pits are used as animal feed for cows and sheep. Some of the date pits are the source of a sort of ‘date oil’ that can be used for cooking. The palm itself, should it be cut down, is used as firewood, or for building.

My favorite use for date pits is… beads. Each pit is smoothed and polished by hand, pierced in its center and made into necklaces, belts and rosaries. The finished product is rough, yet graceful, and wholly unique.

Palm trees are often planted alongside citrus trees in orchards for more than just decoration or economy. Palm trees tower above all other trees and provide shade for citrus trees, which whither under the Iraqi sun. Depending on the type, it takes some palm trees an average of 5 – 10 years to reach their final height (some never actually stop growing), and it takes an average of 5 -7 years for most palms to bear fruit.

The death of a palm tree is taken very seriously. Farmers consider it devastating and take the loss very personally. Each tree is so unique, it feels like a member of the family... I remember watching scenes from the war a couple of days after the bombing began- one image that stuck in my mind was that of a palm tree broken in half, the majestic fronds wilting and dragging on the ground. The sight affected me almost as much as the corpses.

Historically, palm trees have represented the rugged, stoic beauty of Iraq and its people. They are a reminder that no matter how difficult the circumstances, there is hope for life and productivity. The palm trees in the orchards have always stood lofty and resolute- oblivious of heat, political strife or war… until today.

One of the most famous streets in Baghdad is ‘shari3 il mattar’ or ‘The Airport Street’. It is actually two streets- one leading to Baghdad Airport and the other leading from it, into Baghdad. The streets are very simple and plain. Their magnificence lay in the palm trees growing on either side, and in the isle separating them. Entering Baghdad from the airport, and seeing the palm trees enclosing you from both sides, is a reminder that you have entered the country of 30 million palms.

Soon after the occupation, many of the palms on these streets were hacked down by troops for ‘security reasons’. We watched, horrified, as they were chopped down and dragged away to be laid side by side in mass graves overflowing with brown and wilting green. Although these trees were beautiful, no one considered them their livelihood. Unlike the trees Patrick Cockburn describes in Dhuluaya.

Several orchards in Dhuluaya are being cut down… except it’s not only Dhuluaya… it’s also Ba’aquba, the outskirts of Baghdad and several other areas. The trees are bulldozed and trampled beneath heavy machinery. We see the residents and keepers of these orchards begging the troops to spare the trees, holding up crushed branches, leaves and fruit- not yet ripe- from the ground littered with a green massacre. The faces of the farmers are crushed and amazed at the atrocity. I remember one wrinkled face holding up 4 oranges from the ground, still green (our citrus fruit ripens in the winter) and screaming at the camera- “Is this freedom? Is this democracy?!” And his son, who was about 10, stood there with tears of rage streaming down his cheeks and quietly said, “We want 5 troops dead for each tree they cut down… five troops.” A “terrorist”, perhaps? Or a terrorized child who had to watch his family’s future hacked down in the name of democracy and freedom?

Patrick Cockburn says that Dhuluaya is a Sunni area- which is true. Sunnis dominate Dhuluaya. What he doesn’t mention is that the Khazraji tribe, whose orchards were assaulted, are a prominent Shi’a tribe in Iraq.

For those not interested in reading the article, the first line summarizes it perfectly, “US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.”

…which reminds me of another line from an article brought to my attention yesterday…
“A dozen years after Saddam Hussein ordered the vast marshes of southeastern Iraq drained, transforming idyllic wetlands into a barren moonscape to eliminate a hiding place for Shiite Muslim political opponents…”

Déjà vu, perhaps? Or maybe the orchards differ from the marshlands in that Saddam wasn’t playing jazz when he dried up the marshlands…

Thursday, October 09, 2003
Jewelry and Raids...
Yesterday afternoon we went to visit a relative who had recently come home from London. He wasn’t a political refugee there, nor was he a double-agent… or anything glamorous… just a man who had decided to live his life in England. He came to visit every year, usually during December. He was in a state of… shock at what he saw around him. Every few minutes he would get up in disbelief, trailing off in mid-sentence, to stand in the window- looking out at the garden like he could perhaps see beyond the garden wall and into the streets of Baghdad.

“We watch it on television over there… but it’s nothing like *this*…” And I knew what he meant. Seeing it on the various networks covering the war is nothing like living in its midst. Watching the 7 o’clock news and hearing about ‘a car bomb in Baghdad’ is nothing like standing in the street, wary of the moving vehicles, wondering if one of them is going to burst into a flying ball of flames and shrapnel. Seeing the checkpoints on Al-Jazeera, CNN or BBC is nothing like driving solemnly up to them, easing the car to a stop and praying that the soldier on the other side doesn’t think you look decidedly suspicious… or that his gun doesn’t accidentally go off.

The relative had some interesting gossip on a few of our new ‘elite’, “Oh *him*?! He had shares in a club in London… didn’t know he was into politics.” And, “Oh hiiiiiiiiiiiiiim… his house *was* a club- smashing parties!” When we asked him why in the world he had moved up his trip to October when it would have been better to wait a couple of months for security reasons, he dismissed us with a wave of the hand, “I saw the nine-member presidential council… maybe I’ll run for president.”

We took my aunt and her daughter home with us, after the brief family gathering. E. was in a big hurry to get us home before it darkened. Luckily, our relative’s house wasn’t all that far from our own and we made it to our area just as the sun was setting over some distant palms. The tension during the brief journey eased up somewhat as we turned into the main road that led to our street, and then we all tensed up again.

There, pulled up to the side of the road, with one armored car in front and one behind, was a huge, beige-green tank. My aunt moaned and clutched at her handbag possessively, “Is this a checkpoint? What are they searching for? Are they going to check us?” She was carrying all of her gold jewelry in the black, leather bag which, every time she reached inside to rummage for something, I imagined would swallow her up into its depths.

Iraqi people don’t own gold because they are either spectacularly wealthy, or they have recently been on a looting spree... Gold is a part of our culture and the roll it plays in ‘family savings’ has increased since 1990 when the Iraqi Dinar (which was $3) began fluctuating crazily. People began converting their money to gold- earrings, bracelets, necklaces- because the value of gold didn’t change. People pulled their money out of banks before the war, and bought gold instead. Women here call gold “zeeneh ou 7*azeeneh (khazeeneh)” which means, “ornaments and savings”. Gold can be shown off and worn, but in times of economical trouble, a few pieces can be sold to tide the family over.

Many troops claimed that they took gold from houses because they couldn't believe people like *that* could own gold... what they don't know is that when two Iraqis get married- regardless of religion- the man often gives the woman a 'mahar' or dowry, composed of gold jewelry. When a couple has a child, the gifts are often little gold trinkets that the parents can sell or keep... this was especially popular before the blockade.

“They might be checking houses…” E. said. We traveled the last kilometer home in a thoughtful silence, each lost in their own worries. I was worried about the computer. In areas where they claimed to have gotten a ‘tip’, the computers were often confiscated for checking, never to be seen again. I practiced various phrases in my head, “Take the money, gold and gun, leave the computer…”

At home, my mother was anxiously clearing up the kitchen. We told her about the tank ‘parked’ on the main road, “I know,” she said, rubbing at a stubborn stain on the counter, “It’s been there for the last hour… they might check the area tonight.” My aunt went into a tirade against raids, troops, and looting, then calmed down and decided that she wouldn’t hide her gold tonight: her daughter and I would wear it. I stood there with my mouth hanging open- who is to stop anyone from taking it off of us? Was she crazy? No, she wasn’t crazy. We would wear the necklaces, tucking them in under our shirts and the rest would go into our pockets. There would be ‘abayas’ or robes on standby- if they decided to check the house, we would throw on the abayas and leave the house calmly, waiting for the raid to end.

My mother had hidden our not-particularly-impressive valuables in a few ingenious places. It was a game for days, during May, when the raids began and we started hearing tales of the ‘confiscation’ of valuables like gold and dollars during the raids. Everyone started thinking up creative hiding places to hide the money and jewelry. Neighbors and relatives would trade tips on the best hiding places and the ones that were checked right away… the guns were a little bit more difficult. They were necessary for protection against gangs and armed militias. People were allowed to have one pistol and one rifle. If the troops walk into your home, armed to the eyeballs, guns pointed and tense with fear, and find an extra rifle or gun, it is considered ‘terrorism’ and the family may find itself on the evening news as a potential terrorist cell.

We went on with our usual evening activities- well, almost. My aunt wanted to bathe, but was worried they’d suddenly decide to raid us while she was in the bathroom. In the end, she decided that she would bathe, but that E. would have to stand on the roof, diligently watching the road, and the moment an armored car or tank found itself on our street, he’d have to give the warning so my aunt would have time to dress. My cousin and I joined him on the roof and debated the degree of ‘fun’ it would be to run downstairs screaming “Raid! Raid!”, and pound on the bathroom door. After a few minutes, we regretfully decided we were all too mature for that.

The electricity went out during dinner, which was composed of not-too-sweet watermelon, salty cheese, khubz, cucumber and yoghurt salad and tomatoes. In the pitch dark, while waiting for a candle, I accidentally poked a finger in the cucumber and yoghurt salad (well, ok, a few fingers). I held up my hand, waiting for the light so I could find some tissues. E. walked in with a kerosene lamp and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw the box of tissues next my cousin. I pointed to them and as she reached out to hand me a few, the picture of us suddenly made me want to laugh and cry all at once.

Here we were, 10 p.m., no electricity and all fully clothed because no one wanted to be caught in a raid in their pajamas. I haven’t worn pajamas for the last… 6 months. Tonight though, my cousin and I looked particularly funny. She was reaching out to hand me tissues and her fingers flashed… the gold ring on her thumb was glittering under the rays of kerosene light. Her hair was piled up in a falling mass on top of her head and the necklaces glinted as she moved on the faded blue t-shirt with the words, “Smile at ME!”, in purple.

I didn’t look much better- I sat in cargo pants and an old shirt, feet bare on the cool tiles, with three necklaces, two rings and a bracelet that kept getting caught on my shirt and in my hair. I told everyone that we looked like maids who were playing dress-up with the mistress’s jewelry… E. said we actually looked like gypsies ready to make off with the mistress’s jewelry. The ‘mistress’ called out that we could laugh all we wanted but since the jewelry was everything she had saved since 1965, we had better be careful.

We went to sleep early… except no one slept. E. kept checking for cars or tanks and I sat listening to the night and trying to sleep around the jewelry, thinking of all the pictures I had seen of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe sleeping in diamonds and emeralds. At 3 am, I decided I wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor, took off the rings and bracelet and stuffed them in my pillowcase.

The morning eventually came, with no tanks- only some distant shots in the background and something that sounded vaguely like an explosion. E. said that they weren’t even on the main road anymore… apparently they had left during the night. I returned the jewelry, relieved, but my cousin kept it on, deciding she had grown accustomed to seeing a ‘wealthy-looking reflection’ in the mirror.

Check out Justin Alexander's blog from Baghdad. Justin works for a nonprofit organization called Jubilee Iraq which is dedicated to cancelling Iraqi debt. My favorite post is "Have You Seen the Planning Minister?"

Sunday, October 05, 2003
First Day of School...
Today was the first day of the new academic year. Well, it was actually on October 1, but most students didn’t bother going on Wednesday. University students have decided they are not going to start classes until next week.

Yesterday, I went with my cousin, his wife and my brother, E., to shop for school supplies for his two daughters- a pretty 10-year-old and a loud 7-year-old. Every year his wife, S., takes the girls to pick out their own pencils, notebooks and backpacks but ever since the war, she hasn’t let them step outside of the house- unless it is to go visit a relative.

So we packed into the car and headed off for a shopping area in the middle of Baghdad. We don’t have shopping malls or huge shopping centers in Iraq. We have shops, big and small, up and down commercial streets and located on corners of residential blocks. School supplies are sold at ‘makatib’ or stationary shops that sell everything from toys to desk sets.

We pulled up in front of a little stationary shop and all got down. It felt a bit ridiculous- four grown people all out shopping for Barbie notebooks and strawberry-scented erasers… but I knew it was necessary. E. and the cousin loitered outside of the shop while we went inside to make our purchases.

I have missed stationary shops… the row upon row of colored copybooks, the assorted cans of pencils, pens, and markers are the best part of any school year. I used to anticipate shopping for school supplies well before the start of the school year. The long, unsharpened pencils with no bite marks, multi-colored pens, and clean erasers somehow held the promise of achievements to come…
My cousin’s wife, S., was in a hurry. She had left her daughters at our house with my parents and was sure that the little one was going to talk them to death. She went to pick out the pencils and crayons while I got to choose the copybooks. In the end, I went with a few Senafir (Smurfs) copybooks, some Barbie notebooks for the older one and was hard-pressed to choose between Winnie the Pooh and Lion King for the younger. I went with Winnie the Pooh in the end.

The erasers were all in a big, clear fishbowl. S. wanted to go with some generic pink ones that looked like pieces of gum and smelled like tires, but I argued that kids don’t take care of their school supplies if they’re ugly and she should just let me choose- they all cost the same anyway. I rummaged around in the fishbowl, pulled out one colored eraser after the other and tried to decide which ones would look the best with the copybooks I had chosen.

The shop assistant looked exasperated when I started smelling them and S. hissed that they all smelled the same anyway. No, they DON’T all smell the same- they all *taste* the same (and don’t shake your head- we’ve all tasted an eraser at some point or another). In the end, we went with some strawberry-shaped erasers that, oddly enough, smelled like peaches… S. said I was confusing the kids but I reminded her that they had never tasted strawberries anyway (they only grow in the northern region in Iraq and rarely reach Baghdad)… her kids wouldn’t know the difference.

At home, we found the girls waiting impatiently. There were mixed feelings- their summer vacation had started at the end of June this year and since they had been cooped up at home the whole summer, the last couple of months didn’t count as a summer vacation to them. On the other hand, they were going to get to see their friends, and leave the confines of their house on a daily basis… I would gladly trade places.

They greeted us at the door, reaching for the bags their mother was carrying. The older one was appropriately pleased with everything I had chosen… the younger one was another story. Apparently, she had outgrown Winnie Dabdoob (Winnie the Pooh, in Arabic) and wanted a Barbie copybook instead… I tried to divert her with the ‘pretty horse with a plait and a bow…’ but she loudly proclaimed that he was a ‘7mar benefseji’ (purple donkey) and if I liked donkeys so much, I could keep the copybook… so from now on I’m going to jot things down for my blog in a little notebook with a purple donkey and a bear gracing its cover.

My cousin and S. made arrangements on how the kids would get to school and back. They agreed that my cousin would walk them to school (which was two blocks away) and wait around to see when school would be out and what sort of security arrangements the administration had made.

This morning, at 8:30, they headed out to the school, the girls dressed in their uniforms, new pencils and deceptive erasers ready for use… my cousin, pistol at his waist, clutching each girl firmly by the hand, reached the school just as other parents and kids were getting there- school normally starts no later than 8 am, but today was an exception.

The school was full of people… but many of the classrooms were practically empty- the desks were gone… the chairs were gone… but, the blackboards were still there and they would have to do. The good news was that the windows that had shattered when a site behind the school was bombed, had been replaced. The parents agreed that any child who could, would bring two pieces of chalk a week, until the school could sort out the situation with the Ministry of Education. An architect with 3 kids in the school volunteered to provide white paint for walls at a reasonably low price.

We’ve heard of a few schools that are being renovated in Baghdad by the UNICEF and the UNESCO, but it’s a slow process and there’s a lot of damage. Some schools suffered from the bombing, others from the looting and quite a few from the ‘political parties’ that set up camp at various schools all over Baghdad.

The curriculums aren’t going to be changed drastically and the students will be using the same books but teachers have been asked not to teach specific topics in the history and geography books.

My cousin met with the teachers and with other fathers and everyone decided that the best option would be to have the kids bring in small chairs or stools to sit on while the teachers gave classes. The fathers were agreeing amongst themselves to take shifts ‘guarding’ the school during the day… lucky for my cousin, the school is in a residential area and the majority of the students’ parents live nearby- the whole area keeps an eye on the kids. Very few of them will be walking to and from school, at this point.

I remember watching them every year- I’d be off to my university or work just as the kids started leaving for school. The majority were on foot, early morning, wearing their uniforms. The uniforms are usually a navy-blue smock and white shirt for the girls, and navy-blue or gray pants and a white shirt for the boys. Many parents prefer uniforms because they are more economical and the financial backgrounds of the children are far less conspicuous when everyone is in navy-blue and white.

They always looked crisp and clean in the morning- shirts pressed, hair tidy, faces clean and backpacks where they should be- on the back. By 2 o’clock, the majority of them are straggling home after school in little groups, backpacks being dragged on the sidewalks, shirts half yanked out of pants, sweaters tied around their wastes or around their heads and white socks a dingy gray and bunching around little ankles.

This year will be different… S. says she doesn’t know how she’s going to spend the day without the girls ‘in front of her eyes’… “It felt like they took my lungs with them- I couldn’t breathe until they got home…”

There were riots in Baghdad today… the group was a combination of expelled soldiers and jobless people. They say the mob started getting loud and moving forward, crowding the troops standing in front of the building they receive wages from so one of the American troops started firing into the air… a few people started throwing rocks… all hell broke loose. They say two people were killed- one was shot by the troops in the head and another was beaten on the head with a nightstick and was unconscious for several hours before he died. The riots were near Al-Muthana airport near Mansur- an upscale area in the center of Baghdad...

About "Forward Command Post"... for those of you who claim that it doesn't exist- there's plenty of information if you Google it. For those of you who corrected me- thank you- apparently, it doesn't represent an "Iraqi home", it just represents some war-torn home anywhere in the world...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Cousins and Veils...
This is some further commentary on John Tierney's article "Iraq Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change", printed in the New York Times.

(BTW, thanks to "jd" for the following tip- for people who don't wish to register with New York Times, the username/password mediajunkie/mediajunkie can be used to access articles.)

"A key purpose of veiling is to prevent outsiders from competing with a woman's cousins for marriage," Dr. Kurtz said. "Attack veiling, and you are attacking the core of the Middle Eastern social system."

Thank you Stanley Kurtz, anthropologist at the Hoover Institution.

He took hundreds of years of wearing the veil for religious reasons and relegated it all to the oppression of females by their male cousins. Wow- human nature is that simple.

I can see the image now- my cousins roaming the opening of our cave, holding clubs and keeping a wary eye on the female members of their clan… and us cowed, frightened females all gathered in groups, murmuring behind our veils…

I have a question: why is Dr. Kurtz using the word ‘veil’ in relation to Iraq? Very, very few females wore veils or burqas prior to the occupation. Note that I say ‘veil’ or ‘burqa’. If Dr. Kurtz meant the general ‘hijab’ or headscarf worn on the hair by millions of Muslim females instead of an actual ‘veil’ then he should have been more specific. While a ‘veil’ in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan is quite common, in Iraq it speaks of extremism. It is uncommon because the majority of moderate Muslim clerics believe it is unnecessary.

A ‘veil’ is a piece of cloth that covers the whole face and head. It is called a ‘veil’ in English and called a ‘burgu3’ (burqa), ‘khimar’, or ‘pushi’ in Iraq. The khimar or burqa either covers the whole face, or covers it all with the exception of the eyes.

The standard ‘hijab’ or ‘rabta’ is a simple headscarf that covers the hair and neck, and can be worn in a variety of ways. The majority of ‘covered’ females in Iraq wear a simple hijab. Some fashionable females wear a turban-like head cover and something with a high collar that generally serves the same purpose. The hijab can be any color. Some women prefer white, others black and I have friends who own every color and design imaginable and look so good, it almost seems more like a fashion statement than a religious one.

The ‘abaya’, on the other hand, is a long, cloak-like garment and is more traditional, than it is religious. Although designs vary, the abaya is similar in style to the standard graduation robe- long, wide and flowing. Some abayas are designed to cover the head, and others are made only to wear on the shoulders. Men, as well as women, wear abayas. The feminine abayas are often black and may have some sort of design on them. Male abayas are plain, with perhaps some simple embroidery along the edges and are brown, black, gray, beige or khaki. Abayas are often worn in Iraq, although the younger generations don’t like them- I haven’t worn one yet.

The hijab can be worn with ordinary clothing- skirts, shirts and pants as long as they are ‘appropriate’. The skirt should be somewhat long, the shirt a little bit loose and the sleeves should be below the elbows and, if worn with pants, a bit long. The purpose of the hijab is to protect females from sexual harassment. It acts as a sort of safeguard against ogling and uninvited attention.

Muslim females do not wear a hijab or veil because their male cousins *make* them wear it. They wear it for religious reasons. I personally don’t wear a hijab or headscarf, but I know many females who do- in Baghdad, in Mosul, in Najaf, in Kerbela, in Falloojeh… in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia… and *none* of these females wear a headscarf because their *cousins* make them wear it. They wear the headscarf out of a conviction that it is the correct thing to do and out of the comfort and security it gives them. Cousins have nothing to do with it and Dr. Kurtz’s very simplistic explanation is an insult.

Dr. Kurtz would have better said, “Attack the headscarf or the hijab and you are attacking the core of the Middle Eastern social system because the majority of the Middle East is Muslim and the headscarf is considered a required part of Islam by a huge number of Muslims.” Attacking the hijab would be the equivalent of attacking a Christian’s right to wear a cross, or a Jew’s right to wear a yarmulke…

Current Reading...
I’m reading a great book by Danny Schechter called “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” which can be found on The book is fantastic… it discusses the media deception that went on before the war and is still occurring today. Some chapters leave me awed with thoughts like, “Were they actually doing that?! How could they have done that?!” Other chapters leave me angry, “Didn’t the world know *that*?!”… the whole book leaves me relieved: the world is finally waking up.

Another site I’m checking out lately is a site by "Malcom Lagauche", a journalist/author who writes about Iraq, amongst other things. His site is called Lagauche is Right. One post that got my attention was his September 25 post about that atrocious toy that was being sold in America- the “Forward Command Post” which shows an Iraqi home, complete with bloodstains, crumbling walls, no family members (they were probably detained) and a triumphant American soldier…

I can imagine a child receiving the huge package for Christmas or a Birthday and opening it up with glee… seeing the chaos, the havoc, the destruction and feeling… what? Pride? Victory? Elation? And they say it's Al-Jazeera that promotes violence. Sure.

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