... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...
Sunday, February 29, 2004
The tension in the air is almost electric. Everyone feels it. It is the beginning of the Islamic year or Muharam, the first month of the Hijri year. This time of the Hijri year is important because of certain historical events that occurred hundreds of years ago. The Prophet Mohammed's remaining family were killed, and some captured, in Karbala, in south-east Iraq. It's a long, sad and involved story.
The Prophet Mohammed's grandchildren, their children, wives and entourage all came to Iraq because they were encouraged by the people in the region to receive the leadership of the Islamic nation, or Khilafah. Before they could get to Karbala- more near the area of Kouffa- they were surrounded by Yazeed's army. Yazeed was a distant relative of the Prophet and wanted to become the Khalifa- or leader of the Islamic world. Yazeed was also believed he had a right to be the Khalifah because his father, Ma'awiya, had claimed his right as Khalifah in opposition to the Imam Ali- the Prophet's cousin and also his son-in-law.
The Khilafah (or caliph-hood) was not hereditary. The Prophet Mohammed, upon his deathbed, ordered that the Khilafah would always be through general agreement of the 'Sahhaba' who were a group of select respected, devout and influential people in Mecca. Three Khalifas after the Prophet's death, when the third Khalifah Othman bin Affan was killed, the problems began.
Anyway, after the Prophet's family were trapped in Kouffa, they were systematically killed and some taken as prisoner during the first ten days of Muharam. On the tenth day, Imam Al-Hussein, the Prophet's grandson was killed in the most gruesome way during a battle in Kouffa. He was beheaded and his head was taken to Yazeed.
The people of Kouffa and Karbala have always felt guilty for not helping Al-Hussein and his family and followers- for sending for them and then abandoning them when Yazeed's army attacked. This guilt is 'remembered' every year by doing certain things- like cooking huge pots of steaming porridge for the poor and making special foods for neighbors and family. Sunnis and Shi'a alike do this, usually. My mother makes 'harrisa', the porridge, for the whole family every year- it's the best part of Muharam.
Sometimes people have a 'qirraya' at their house. This is often a women's affair. Women from all over the neighborhood gather at one of the houses and they send for a specialized group of women who sort of sing out the story of the 'Maqtal' or the killing of Imam Al-Hussein and his family. I attended one of these qirrayas a few years ago and it was emotional and charged. The qirrayas often end in tears because the story of the 'Maqtal' is so terrible, that it is difficult to stay dry-eyed when hearing about it.
This year, another ritual has been added to the ones mentioned above- the 'Latmiya'. This is done strictly by Shi'a- and not all Shi'a. Many moderate Shi'a frown upon the process of beating oneself with chains because the sight of it is just so… terrible. E. and I watched from the rooftop a couple of days ago as a procession of about 50 black-clad men passed down the main road. It was frightening. They had beards, wore head-to-toe black, with the exception of a green bandanna or piece of cloth tied around the wrist and they held up green and black flags and banners and pictures of Imam Al-Hussein on a green background. They were beating their chests to a certain beat and chanting something incoherent. These processions were banned before and, quite frankly, I wish they could be confined to certain areas now. The sight of so much violence (even if it is towards oneself) is just a little bit unnerving.
On tv, we saw much bigger Latmiyas in the south- especially Karbala where Imam Al-Hussein is buried. The men hold chains and beat their backs with them, sometimes to the point where their clothes tear and their bodies are bloodied. I don't like the ritual. It doesn't feel sacred or religious and many Muslims consider it a wrong, since it is considered 'haram', or a sin, to disfigure the body. This year, Karbala is going to be especially crowded because, in addition to Iraqis, there are going to be thousands and thousands of Iranians who have somehow gotten into Iraq.
Ashoura, or the tenth day of Muharam, is in a couple of days and everyone is really worried about what might happen on this day. Dozens of buildings all over Baghdad are shrouded in black cloth. It is a depressing and sobering sight. E. was in Baghdad University a few days ago and he says that someone draped black cloth all over the buildings there and even over the department balconies. There were even signs offering 'Latmiya' lessons and some of the more religiously bent Shi'a have given orders to the department cafeterias that there will be no music allowed and the only stuff they can play are taped 'qirrayas'.
The electrical situation is almost stable at around 10 hours of electricity a day at this point. Everything is a little bit frightening right now and I can't help but wish we could remain without electricity during the day and have it as soon as it gets dark. There have been a string of assassinations these last couple of weeks and some of them are just inexplicable… doctors, teachers, professors, religious figures… Baghdad is quite depressing and all this black cloth isn't helping any.
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Angry Arabs and American Media...
We were all watching Al-Itijah Al-Mu'akis or "The Opposite Direction" on Al-Jazeera. It was pretty good today. We had just cleared the dinner table and were settling down to watch some film when E. turned the channel to Al-Jazeera expecting a news brief. I instantly recognized the man in the lemon yellow shirt with his longish curly hair pulled back in a ponytail- Asa'ad Abu Khalil. I remembered him from an interview he did on Al-Arabiya or Al-Jazeera- I can't remember which- immediately after the war, slamming Radio Sawa. Tonight, "The Opposite Direction" was hosting Asa'ad Abu Khalil, better known as The Angry Arab, and Ibraheim Al-Ariss, a writer for Al-Hayat newspaper which is based in Lebanon but is funded by some rich Saudi.
The subject was American propaganda in Arab media. Asa'ad Abu Khalil was brilliant. He discussed the effects of American propaganda on current Arab media and the way the current American government was pressuring certain Arab publications and networks into a pro-America stance. Unfortunately, his argument was way above Al-Ariss's head. Al-Ariss apparently thinks that pro-American propaganda is nothing less than a front-page headline saying, "WE LOVE AMERICA!!!"
Asa'ad Abu Khalil was discussing the more subtle changes taking place in some newspapers- the change in terminology, the fact that some newspapers have stopped covering the news and taken to translating articles directly from New York Times or some other American news outlet. He almost gave Ibraheim Al-Iriss, a reddish, portly man, an apoplectic fit. Poor Ibraheim fell short of pounding the table with his fists and throwing crumpled papers at Abu Khalil, who kept admirably cool. In other words, Asa'ad Abu Khalil ibarid il gallub.
(Iraqi phrase alert: ibarid il gallub, translated to 'cools the heart' is basically used to refer to something or someone who eases the mind- and heart- by saying or doing something satisfactory)
I get really tired of the emails deriding Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for their news coverage, telling me they're too biased towards Arabs, etc. Why is it ok for CNN to be completely biased towards Americans and BBC to be biased towards the British but Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have to objective and unprejudiced and, preferably, pander to American public opinion? They are Arab news networks- they SHOULD be biased towards Arabs. I agree that there is quite a bit of anti-America propaganda in some Arabic media, but there is an equal, if not more potent, amount of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim propaganda in American media. The annoying thing is that your average Arab knows much more about American culture and history than the average American knows about Arabs and Islam.
I wish everyone could see Al-Hurra- the new 'unbiased' news network started by the Pentagon and currently being broadcast all over the Arab world. It is the visual equivalent of Sawa- the American radio station which was previously the Voice of America. The news and reports are so completely biased, they only lack George Bush and Condi Rice as anchors. We watch the reports and news briefs and snicker… it is far from subtle. Interestingly enough, Asa'ad Abu Khalil said that Sawa and Al-Hurra are banned inside of America due to some sort of law that doesn't allow the broadcast of blatant political propaganda or something to that effect. I'd love to know more about that.
A channel like Al-Hurra may be able to convince Egyptians, for example, that everything is going great inside of Iraq, but how are you supposed to convince Iraqis of that? Just because they broadcast it hourly, it doesn't make it true. I sometimes wonder how Americans would feel if the Saudi government, for example, suddenly decided to start broadcasting an English channel with Islamic propaganda to Americans.
Important note to those of you who are going to email me: The last few days, I have received at least 3 emails saying, "I read your blog and don't agree with what you say but we have a famous saying in America- I don't agree with what you say but I'll die for your right to say it." Just a note- it's not your famous American saying, it is French and it is Voltaire's famous saying:"I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it."
Friday, February 20, 2004
Dumb and Dumber...
Ok, I just read this article in the New York Times and I had to share. Actually, someone sent it to me and they seem highly satisfied with it. The title is: Arabs in U.S. Raising Money to Back Bush and it is written by a Leslie Wayne who, apparently, knows very little about geography. I just love when articles like this find their way into the New York Times.
The article basically states that a substantial sum of the money supporting Bush's presidential campaign is coming from affluent Arab-Americans who support the war on Iraq. The fun part about the article is that it goes on and on about "Arab"-Americans- not Muslim-Americans or even Asian-Americans but specifies Arab-Americans giving you the impression that the article is going to be about people who were originally from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon… you know- an Arab country where the national language is Arabic and the people are generally known as Arabs.
The article is dumb, but apparently the author thinks that the readers are even dumber. Of the 5 prominent "Arabs" the author gives as examples in the article (supporters of Bush), two are Iranian and the third is a Pakistani! Now this is highly amusing to an Arab because Pakistanis aren't Arabs and while Iran is our neighbor, Iranians are, generally speaking, not Arabs and I'm sure you can confirm that with Iranian bloggers…
One of the Iranian contributors is a Mr. Mori Hosseini who claims to know all about the region because he was born in Iran and lived there before moving to the US at the tender, prepubescent age of 13. He must be Iran's Chalabi- keep an eye on him. I predict he'll either be given contracts to build homes in Iraq or suddenly have important information on Iranian WMD he has been hiding since the age of 13.
I just wish all those prominent Arabs who supported the war- you know, the ones living in Washington and London who attend State dinners and parties at the White House holding silk handkerchiefs in one hand (to wipe away the tears for the 'homeland') and cocktails in the other hand- would pack their Louis Vuitton bags, and bring all that money they are contributing to that war-hungry imbecile in the White House to Iraq or Iran or wherever they wish the spread of democracy and help 'reconstruct' and 'develop' their own countries. One wonders with that $200,000 how many homes Mr.Hosseini could have rebuilt in Bam, for example… but then again, if they don't bomb Iran into the pre-industrial era, how will Mr.Hosseini get all those huge contracts in the future?
Sunday, February 15, 2004
Dedicated to the Memory of L.A.S.
So Happy Valentine's Day… although it's the 15th. It still feels like the 14th here because I'm not asleep… it's the extension of yesterday.
Do you know what yesterday marked? It marked the 13th anniversary of the Amiriyah Shelter massacre- February 13, 1991. Can you really call it an 'anniversary'? Anniversary brings to mind such happy things and yet is there any other word? Please send it along if you know it.
February 12, 1991, marked one of the days of the small Eid or 'Eid Al-Fitr'. Of course it also marked one of the heaviest days of bombing during the Gulf War. No one was in the mood for celebration. Most families remained at home because there wasn't even gasoline to travel from one area to the next. The more fortunate areas had bomb shelters and people from all over the neighborhood would get together inside of the shelter during the bombing. That year, they also got together inside of the shelters to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr with their neighbors and friends.
Iraqis don't go to shelters for safety reasons so much as for social reasons. It's a great place to be during a bombing. There's water, electricity and a feeling of serenity and safety that is provided as much by the solid structure as by the congregation of smiling friends and family. Being with a large group of people helps make things easier during war- it's like courage and stamina travel from one person to the next and increase exponentially with the number of people collected.
So the families in the Amiriyah area decided they'd join up in the shelter to have a nice Eid dinner and then the men and boys over the age of 15 would leave to give the women and children some privacy. Little did they know, leaving them behind, that it would be the last time they would see the wife/daughter/son/fiancé/sister/infant…
I can imagine the scene after the men left at around midnight- women sat around, pouring out steaming istikans of tea, passing out Eid kilaycha and chocolate. Kids would run around the shelter shrieking and laughing like they owned the huge playground under the earth. Teenage girls would sit around gossiping about guys or clothes or music or the latest rumor about Sara or Lina or Fatima. The smells would mingle- tea, baked goods, rice… comfortable smells that made one imagine, for a few seconds, that they were actually at home.
The sirens would begin shrieking- the women and children would pause in the midst of eating or scolding, say a brief prayer in their heart and worry about their loved ones above the ground- the men who refused to remain inside of the shelter in order to make room for their wives and kids.
The bombs fell hard and fast at around 4 a.m. The first smart bomb went through the ventilation, through the first floor of the shelter- leaving a gaping hole- and to the bottom 'basement' of the shelter where there were water tanks and propane tanks for heating water and food. The second missile came immediately after and finished off what the first missile missed. The doors of the advanced shelter immediately shut automatically- locking over 400 women and children inside.
It turned from a shelter into an inferno; explosions and fire rose from the lower level up to the level that held the women and children and the water rose with it, boiling and simmering. Those who did not burn to death immediately or die of the impact of the explosions, boiled to death or were steamed in the 900+ º F heat.
We woke in the morning to see the horrors on the news. We watched as the Iraqi rescue workers walked inside of the shelter and came out crying and screaming- dragging out bodies so charred, they didn't look human. We saw the people in the area- men, women and children- clinging to the fence surrounding the shelter and screaming with terror; calling out name after name… searching for a familiar face in the middle of the horror.
The bodies were laid out one beside the other- all the same size- shrunk with heat and charred beyond recognition. Some were in the fetal position, curled up, as if trying to escape within themselves. Others were stretched out and rigid, like the victims were trying to reach out a hand to save a loved one or reach for safety. Most remained unrecognizable to their families- only the size and fragments of clothing or jewelry indicating the gender and the general age.
Amiriyah itself is an area full of school teachers, college professors, doctors and ordinary employees- a middle-class neighborhood with low houses, friendly people and a growing mercantile population. It was a mélange of Sunnis and Shi'a and Christians- all living together peacefully and happily. After the 13th of February, it became the area everyone avoided. For weeks and weeks the whole area stank of charred flesh and the air was thick and gray with ash. The beige stucco houses were suddenly all covered with black pieces of cloth scrolled with the names of dead loved ones. "Ali Jabbar mourns the loss of his wife, daughter, and two sons…"; "Muna Rahim mourns the loss of her mother, sisters, brothers and son…"
Within days, the streets were shut with black cloth tents set up by the grief-stricken families to receive mourners from all over Iraq who came to weep and ease some of the shock and horror. And it was horrible. Everyone lost someone- or knew someone who lost several people.
My first visit to the shelter came several years after it was bombed. We were in the neighborhood visiting a friend of my mother. She was a retired schoolteacher who quit after the Amiriyah bombing. She had no thoughts of quitting but after schools resumed in April of 1991, she went on the first day to greet her class of 2nd graders. She walked into the classroom and found only 11 of her 23 students. "I thought they had decided not to come…" I remember her saying to my mother in hushed tones, later that year,"… but when I took attendance, they told me the rest of the children had died in the shelter…" She quit soon after that because she claimed her heart had broken that day and she couldn't look at the children anymore without remembering the tragedy.
I decided to pay my respects to the shelter and the victims. It was October and I asked the retired teacher if the shelter was open (hoping in my heart of hearts she'd say 'no'). She nodded her head and said that it was indeed open- it was always open. I walked the two short blocks to the shelter and found it in the midst of houses- the only separation being a wide street. There were children playing in the street and we stopped one of them who was kicking around a ball. Is there anyone in the shelter? He nodded his head solemnly- yes the shelter was 'maskoon'.
Now the word 'maskoon' can mean two different things in Arabic. It can mean 'lived in' and it can also mean 'haunted'. My imagination immediately carried me away- could the child mean haunted? I'm not one who believes in ghosts and monsters- the worst monsters are people and if you survive war and bombs, ghosts are a piece of cake… yet something inside of me knew that a place where 400 people had lost their lives so terribly- almost simultaneously- had to be 'haunted' somehow by their souls…
We walked inside and the place was dark and cold, even for the warm October weather. The only light filtering in came from the gaping hole in the roof of the shelter where the American missiles had fallen. I wanted to hold my breath- expecting to smell something I didn't want to… but you can only do that for so long. The air didn't smell stale at all; it simply smelled sad- like the winds that passed through this place were sorrowful winds. The far corners of the shelter were so dark, it was almost easy to imagine real people crouching in them.
The walls were covered with pictures. Hundreds of pictures of smiling women and children- toothy grins, large, gazelle eyes and the gummy smiles of babies. Face after face after face stared back at us from the dull gray walls and it felt endless and hopeless. I wondered what had happened to their families, or rather their remaining families after the catastrophe. We knew one man who had lost his mind after losing his wife and children inside of the shelter. I wondered how many others had met the same fate… and I wondered how much life was worth after you lost the people most precious to you.
At the far end of the shelter we heard voices. I strained my ears to listen and we searched them out- there were 4 or 5 Japanese tourists and a small, slight woman who was speaking haltingly in English. She was trying to explain how the bomb had fallen and how the people had died. She used elaborate hand gestures and the Japanese tourists nodded their heads, clicked away with their cameras and clucked sympathetically.
"Who is she?" I whispered to my mother's friend.
"She takes care of the place…" she replied in a low voice.
"Why don't they bring in someone who can speak fluently- this is frustrating to see…" I whispered back, watching the Japanese men shake hands with the woman before turning to go.
My mother's friend shook her head sadly, "They tried, but she just refuses to leave. She has been taking care of the place since the rescue teams finished cleaning it out… she lost 8 of her children here." I was horrified with that fact as the woman approached us. Her face was stern, yet gentle- like that of a school principal or… like that of a mother of 8 children. She shook hands with us and took us around to see the shelter. This is where we were. This is where the missiles came in… this is where the water rose up to… this is where the people stuck to the walls.
Her voice was strong and solid in Arabic. We didn't know what to answer. She continued to tell us how she had been in the shelter with 8 of her 9 children and how she had left minutes before the missiles hit to get some food and a change of clothes for one of the toddlers. She was in the house when the missiles struck and her first thoughts were, "Thank God the kids are in the shelter…" When she ran back to the shelter from her house across the street, she found it had been struck and the horror had begun. She had watched the corpses dragged out for days and days and refused to believe they were all gone for months after. She hadn't left the shelter since- it had become her home.
She pointed to the vague ghosts of bodies stuck to the concrete on the walls and ground and the worst one to look at was that of a mother, holding a child to her breast, like she was trying to protect it or save it. "That should have been me…" the woman who lost her children said and we didn't know what to answer.
It was then that I knew that the place was indeed 'maskoon' or haunted… since February 13, 1991 it has been haunted by the living who were cursed with their own survival.
Important Side Note:For those of you with the audacity to write to me claiming it was a legitimate target because "American officials assumed it was for military purposes" just remember Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, Part IV, Section 1, Chapter III, Article 52: ... 3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used. (Like that would matter to you anyway)
Friday, February 13, 2004
I haven't been blogging for several reasons. The main reason is that since the fourth day of Eid of we've been coping with a family crisis.
Eid started out normal enough, under the circumstances. The first day consisted of explosions, and a few family members and neighbors, interspersed with bouts electricity. We spent the first two days at home, so thoroughly exhausted with Eid preparations, we didn't enjoy Eid itself very much.
On the fourth day of Eid, one of my uncles absolutely insisted on a family reunion of sorts at his house. His wife had been slaving over the stove all day and anyone who couldn't come had better have a good excuse.
And so we went. We packed ourselves off to his house, across Baghdad, at 4 p.m. and he promised dinner would be served promptly at 7 (which is an obscene hour to eat dinner for Iraqis, but everyone wanted to be home early). The house was crowded with uncles and aunts, grandparents, nieces, nephews, and shrieking children (two of whom I didn't recognize).
Dinner was served at seven. It consisted of 'timen ala quzi' or rice and lamb garnished with sultanas, almonds and all sorts of spices, a Lebanese salad, chicken soup and two different kinds of bread. For a brief 30 minutes, we forgot politics and occupation and sat concentrating on the steaming array of food piled before us. Even the children calmed down enough to enjoy the feast. The local generator was humming in the background and we sat enjoying the food and light and feeling that it really was Eid. After all, we were family and gathered together… what could be more Eid-like than that?
After sweet tea and fresh fruit, the family began to disperse. At nine, we sat around with my uncle, his wife, my cousin and her husband and her husband's parents. The children had fallen into a sort of lethargic stupor in front of the television, watching a children's song in Arabic with a bunch of crazy rabbits bouncing about on the screen.
The elders soon began the usual discussion- politics. Politics in Iraq isn't discussed like in any other place. You see, we don't sit around with lit cigars and cups of tea debating this politician or that one- that's much too tame and boring. That is left for Brits in wood-paneled studies, surrounded by leather-bound books. No. We have to do it the Iraqi way- mobile expressions, erratic hand signals, and an occasional table- pounding to emphasize a particularly salient point.
The younger generation (E., a couple of cousins, and I) instantly backed out of the conversation. Old/new names were suddenly being dragged into the limelight of the dispute and I, personally, was lost at the Iraqi monarchy. They left me behind during the '50s and I got up to help clear the tea cups which were beginning to rattle ominously as the conversation got more heated.
My uncle and his daughter's father-in-law were soon deep into an argument over some conspiracy dealing with the monarchy. I saw a smile hovering on the lips of my cousin as her father-in-law began to light the wrong end of the cigarette. She winked covertly at her husband and he gracefully rose with the words, "Well, dad- should we drop you and mom off at home? It's getting late and I don't want to have to drive back alone… L., the children and I are spending the night here tonight."
And they were off in a matter of minutes. The argument was soon forgotten, adults bundled in coats and cigarettes properly lit. My cousin's husband, A., hustled his parents outside and into his battered old Brazilian-made Volkswagen. We stayed behind to help clear up the mess- which was considerable. Rice was strewn everywhere, little fingers had made little marks up and down the walls, the tables and across the television screen. Ashtrays had to be emptied, cups washed and children undressed and put to bed.
By the time the initial mess was cleared, it was almost 10 pm. Where was A., my cousin's husband? He had left over an hour earlier and his parents' house was only 15 minutes away. My mother suggested that his parents had maybe insisted he step down for a cup of tea or something else to eat… my cousin, L., shook her head emphatically- he wouldn't do that because he knew she'd worry. His parents didn't have a working telephone and any delay simply meant additional worry. Her brow puckered and I suddenly felt queasy.
We went over the possibilities- perhaps the road to his parents' house was blocked and he had to take an alternate route? Maybe they needed to purchase something on the way home? There *must* be a logical, rational reason. A. was a logical, rational, and- above all- careful man. We were supposed to be on our way home by 10:30. In modern-day Iraq, you just don't stay out longer than that. We couldn't leave my uncle and his family in the mess they were in. We sat around longer.
My father and uncle couldn't take it anymore- they got into our car and went to A.'s parents' house to see what had happened- and drag A. home by his ear if necessary. L. was angry by then, convinced that A. was OK and that he was simply dallying around at his mother's house. I was dubious, but supported the theory because it seemed like the easiest one to accept.
We sat around quietly for 30 minutes while my father and uncle went to look for A. L. was furiously polishing the coffee table and I sat channel-surfing, trying to find something to take my mind off of the possibilities.
Half an hour later, the men came home- trying not to look grim and worried. A.'s parents were safe at home- had, in fact, been home for over an hour. A. dropped them off at the door, watched them walk inside, honked his horn twice and left. L. went paler than she normally is and sat down dully on the couch. She was suddenly sure he was dead. What could have happened? Where had he gone? Someone mentioned a flat tire but L.'s father said that they hadn't seen his car along the way…
And so we reviewed the possibilities. He had been detained by Americans. His car had been hijacked. He had been abducted. He had been killed. He had a car accident and his beat-up old vehicle was overturned in some ditch… the possibilities were endless and each one was worse than the one before.
Going home was no longer an option. We sat around in the living room with my uncle's family, watching the seconds creep by on the clock and willing A. to walk through the door. E. spent the night pacing the driveway and peering out into the dark, silent street. I joined him outdoors a couple of times and he confessed that he was very worried- any disappearance at this time of night couldn't be good.
We spent the night making conjectures and trying to find logical reasons for A.'s disappearance. In the end, we agreed that if he wasn't back by 10 a.m., we'd go to the police and the family would start a separate search.
At 8 a.m., I was putting the kettle on in preparation for morning tea. The house was silent but no one was asleep. No one had slept all night. E. was still pacing; my father and uncle were closed up in the living room, trying to decide on a course of action and L. was trying not to cry. Suddenly, just as I lit the stove, the phone rang. It never sounded so shrill. I ran to the living room and found that my uncle had already jumped to answer it and was barking, "Elloo?" L. ran into the room and stood wringing her hands nervously.
It was A.'s best friend and business partner, S. He had heard from A. just a few minutes before… he had been abducted and was being held for a ransom of $15,000. A. and S. are partners and share a small shop in a mercantile neighborhood in Baghdad. They sell everything from Korean electrical ovens to fluorescent light bulbs and make just enough money to support their respective families. We'd be given 3 days to get the money- a place would be agreed upon where we'd give them the money and they'd release A. later on.
We panicked. The whole house broke down. L. fell to the floor crying and shouting that they'll kill him- she just knew they'd kill him like they were killing others. We tried to calm her down and finally decided to give her a couple of valiums to ease the stress. We sat debating on what to do- go to the police? No way. In some areas, the police were actually working with abductors for a certain amount of money and there was nothing they were willing to do anyway.
We spent the rest of the day rushing to sell gold, collect money and my uncle took a broken L. to the bank to empty the account- they've been saving up to build or buy a house. A.'s parents were soon at my uncle's house and we had a difficult time breaking the news to them. His mother cried and wanted to rush home for her few pieces of gold and his father sat, stunned, chain-smoking and trying to make sense of the situation. S., A.'s friend, came over with money- looking harrowed and tired.
To make a long, terrible story short- we had the money by the middle of the next day. L. had almost lost her wits and the only way the rest of us stayed sane was with the hope that A. would soon be back at home, with us.
The money was handed over on the third day after his abduction. But no A. came back. They told my uncle and S., who had gone with him, that A. would be set free in the next couple of days. My uncle and S. came home almost in tears- like we had sent them on a mission and they had failed us.
I can't even begin to describe the next couple of days. If it was bad before- it suddenly became worse. We hear about abductions ALL THE TIME… but to actually experience it is something else. It's like having a part of you torn away. To think that A. might not come back was more horrible than anything we'd experienced so far. Watching his parents deteriorate from one minute to the next and knowing his wife was dying a little bit inside every hour that passed by was so nerve-wracking that I'd run outside every hour to breathe in some fresh air- not the stale stuff inside of the house contaminated with depression, frustration and fear.
On the fifth day after A.'s abduction, we were all sitting in the living room. There was no electricity and L. had fallen into a valium-induced sort of calm. We suddenly heard a feeble clang of the gate- like someone was knocking, but not very hard. E. jumped up, ran to the door and called out, "Who is it?!" A moment later he ran back- it was A… he had come home.
I won't describe the crying, screaming, shouting, jumping, hobbling (A. was limping) and general chaos that followed A.s entrance. Apparently, his abductors had been watching the house for the last couple of weeks. As soon as A. dropped off his parents, they had followed with two cars and forced him to the side of the road on a secluded street. Four armed men forced him out of the car, put a bag over his head after kicking him around and threw him into a minivan with some more men.
After several hours of abuse and interrogation about his assets (which they seemed to have thought much more than he actually had), they let him make a call to his business partner who was supposed to call his family for the money.
(And if you could have seen him the moment he described this- you'd know ALL about the tenacity of the Iraqi sense of humor- here was A., with a gash on his head, a bluish bruise on the side of his face, a back bruised with kicks and punches, feet bleeding after walking over one kilometer barefoot and he was cracking jokes: "They actually only wanted $5,000," he said at one point, "but I was outraged- told them I was worth ATLEAST $20,000 – five is just an insult to my personal worth… we agreed on $15,000 in the end…")
They had kept him in slum on the outskirts of Baghdad where police and troops don't dare set up camp. He was transferred from one hovel to the next and at each one he says there were abducted people. Some of the abductions were political- some religious and many were for the money. He says the worst part was not being able to see anything around him, but being able to hear the others being beaten… and anticipating another kick or punch from any random direction.
I saw him again yesterday and he still looks haggard and tired. L. says he can't sleep all night- he keeps waking in the middle of the night with a nightmare or some sort of hallucination- thinking he's still caught.
And so that's how we've been spending our last few days. It has been a nightmare and I've had to examine a lot. Everything has felt so trivial and ridiculous… the blog, the electrical situation, the insomnia, the 'reconstruction', the elections, the fictional WMD… politics and politicians… I've been wondering about all those families who can't pay the ransom or the ones whose sons and daughters come home on a stretcher instead of on foot or in a garbage bag, as we heard about one family… and I've also realized how grateful we should be just being able to make the transition from one day to the next in a situation like ours…