Baghdad Burning

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

Friday, February 18, 2005
Final Email Change...
Ok- it's final. After trying several different email services, I've decided to use

Please email me there from now on. Thank you.

Groceries and Election Results...
Yesterday, one of our neighbors stopped by the house. She was carrying a hot plate of some green beans in a tomato sauce. “Abu Ammar has some wonderful green beans,” she confided. “But you have to tell him to give you some of the ones he hides under the table- the ones on display are a little bit chewy.” I added green beans to the grocery list and headed off with E. to Abu Ammar.

Our local grocer, Abu Ammar has a vegetable and fruit stand set up about 400 m away from our house, on the main street. He has been there for as long as anyone can remember and although you would not know it to see him, Abu Ammar is quite the entrepreneur. He wears a traditional dishdasha all year round and on cold days, a worn leather jacket and a black wool cap he pulls down over his ears.

We, and almost every house on the street, buy our groceries from him. He sets up his stand early in the morning and when you pass it by at just the right time, there’s a myriad of colors: the even brown of potatoes, deep green of spinach, bright orange of citrus fruits and the glossy red of sweet Iraqi tomatoes… And Abu Ammar is almost always there- come rain or sun or war, sitting in the midst of his vegetables and fruits, going through a newspaper, a cigarette in his mouth and crackling out of his little transistor radio are the warm tones of Fayrouz. On those rare occasions when Abu Ammar isn’t there, you can tell something is very wrong.

Abu Ammar sat there in his usual place. I could tell he was doing a crossword today because he kept making marks on the newspaper. Abu Ammar rose to greet us and handed me a few plastic bags so I could pick and choose the vegetables I wanted. “I have some very good lemons today,” he declared, tucking the newspaper under his arm and pointing to a pyramid of small greenish-yellow fruits. I wandered over to the lemons and inspected them critically.

I feel like I have my finger on the throbbing pulse of the Iraqi political situation every time I visit Abu Ammar. You can often tell just how things are going in the country from the produce available at his stand. For example, when he doesn’t have any good tomatoes we know that the roads to Basra are either closed or really bad and the tomatoes aren’t getting through to Baghdad. When citrus fruit isn’t available during the winter months, we know that the roads to Diyala are probably risky and oranges and lemons couldn’t be delivered. He'll also give you the main news headlines he picks up from various radio stations and if you feel so inclined, you can read the headlines from any one of the assorted newspapers lying in a pile near his feet. Plus, he has all of the neighborhood gossip.

“Did you know Abu Hamid’s family are going to move?” He took a drag from the cigarette and pointed with his ballpoint pen towards a house about 100 m away from his stand.
“Really?” I asked, turning my attention to the tomatoes, “How did you hear?”
“I saw them showing the house to a couple last week and then I saw them showing it again this week… they’re trying to sell it.”

“Did you hear about the election results?” E. asked Abu Ammar. Abu Ammar shook his head in the affirmative and squashed his cigarette with a slippered foot. “Well, we were expecting it.” He shrugged his shoulders and continued, “Most Shia voted for list 169. They were blaring it out at the Husseiniya near our house the night of the elections. I was there for evening prayer.” A Husseiniya is a sort of mosque for Shia. We had heard that many of them were campaigning for list 169- the Sistani-backed list.

I shook my head and sighed. “So do you still think the Americans want to turn Iraq into another America? You said last year that if we gave them a chance, Baghdad would look like New York.” I said in reference to a conversation we had last year. E. gave me a wary look and tried to draw my attention to some onions, “Oh hey- look at the onions- do we have onions?”

Abu Ammar shook his head and sighed, “Well if we’re New York or we’re Baghdad or we’re hell, it’s not going to make a difference to me. I’ll still sell my vegetables here.”

I nodded and handed over the bags to be weighed. “Well… they’re going to turn us into another Iran. You know list 169 means we might turn into Iran.” Abu Ammar pondered this a moment as he put the bags on the old brass scale and adjusted the weights.

“And is Iran so bad?” He finally asked. Well no, Abu Ammar, I wanted to answer, it’s not bad for *you* - you’re a man… if anything your right to several temporary marriages, a few permanent ones and the right to subdue females will increase. Why should it be so bad? Instead I was silent. It’s not a good thing to criticize Iran these days. I numbly reached for the bags he handed me, trying to rise out of that sinking feeling that overwhelmed me when the results were first made public.

It’s not about a Sunni government or a Shia government- it’s about the possibility of an Iranian-modeled Iraq. Many Shia are also appalled with the results of the elections. There’s talk of Sunnis being marginalized by the elections but that isn’t the situation. It’s not just Sunnis- it’s moderate Shia and secular people in general who have been marginalized.

The list is frightening- Da’awa, SCIRI, Chalabi, Hussein Shahristani and a whole collection of pro-Iran political figures and clerics. They are going to have a primary role in writing the new constitution. There’s talk of Shari’a, or Islamic law, having a very primary role in the new constitution. The problem is, whose Shari’a? Shari’a for many Shia differs from that of Sunni Shari’a. And what about all the other religions? What about Christians and Mendiyeen?

Is anyone surprised that the same people who came along with the Americans – the same puppets who all had a go at the presidency last year – are the ones who came out on top in the elections? Jaffari, Talbani, Barazani, Hakim, Allawi, Chalabi… exiles, convicted criminals and war lords. Welcome to the new Iraq.

Ibraheim Al-Jaffari, the head of the pro-Iran Da’awa party gave an interview the other day. He tried very hard to pretend he was open-minded and that he wasn’t going to turn the once-secular Iraq into a fundamentalist Shia state but the fact of the matter remains that he is the head of the Da’awa party. The same party that was responsible for some of the most infamous explosions and assassinations in Iraq during the last few decades. This is the same party that calls for an Islamic Republic modeled like Iran. Most of its members have spent a substantial amount of time in Iran.

Jaffari cannot separate himself from the ideology of his party.

Then there’s Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He got to be puppet president for the month of December and what was the first thing he did? He decided overburdened, indebted Iraq owed Iran 100 billion dollars. What was the second thing he did? He tried to have the “personal status” laws that protect individuals (and especially women) eradicated.

They try to give impressive interviews to western press but the situation is wholly different on the inside. Women feel it the most. There’s an almost constant pressure in Baghdad from these parties for women to cover up what little they have showing. There’s a pressure in many colleges for the segregation of males and females. There are the threats, and the printed and verbal warnings, and sometimes we hear of attacks or insults.

You feel it all around you. It begins slowly and almost insidiously. You stop wearing slacks or jeans or skirts that show any leg because you don’t want to be stopped in the street and lectured by someone who doesn’t approve. You stop wearing short sleeves and start preferring wider shirts with a collar that will cover up some of you neck. You stop letting your hair flow because you don’t want to attract attention to it. On the days when you forget to pull it back into a ponytail, you want to kick yourself and you rummage around in your handbag trying to find a hair band… hell, a rubber band to pull back your hair and make sure you attract less attention from *them*.

We were seriously discussing this situation the other day with a friend. The subject of the veil and hijab came up and I confessed my fear that while they might not make it a law, there would be enough pressure to make it a requirement for women when they leave their homes. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well women in Iran will tell you it’s not so bad- you know that they just throw something on their heads and use makeup and go places, etc.” True enough. But it wasn’t like that at the beginning. It took them over two decades to be able to do that. In the eighties, women were hauled off the streets and detained or beaten for the way they dressed.

It’s also not about covering the hair. I have many relatives and friends who wore a hijab before the war. It’s the principle. It’s having so little freedom that even your wardrobe is dictated. And wardrobe is just the tip of the iceberg. There are clerics and men who believe women shouldn’t be able to work or that they shouldn’t be allowed to do certain jobs or study in specific fields. Something that disturbed me about the election forms was that it indicated whether the voter was ‘male’ or ‘female’- why should that matter? Could it be because in Shari’a, a women’s vote or voice counts for half of that of a man? Will they implement that in the future?

Baghdad is once more shrouded in black. The buildings and even some of the houses have large black pieces of cloth hanging upon them, as if the whole city is mourning the election results. It’s because of “Ashoura” or the ten days marking the beginning of the Islamic New Year but also marking the death of the Prophet’s family 1400+ years ago in what is now known as Karbala. That means there are droves of religious Shia dressed in black from head to foot (sometimes with a touch of green or red) walking in the streets and beating themselves with special devices designed for this occasion.

We’ve been staying at home most of the time because it’s not a good idea to leave the house during these ten days. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to get to my aunt’s house yesterday because so many streets were closed with masses of men chanting and beating themselves. To say it is frightening is an understatement. Some of the men are even bleeding and they wear white to emphasize all the blood flowing down backs and foreheads. It’s painful to see small children wearing black clothes and carrying miniature chains that really don’t hurt, but look so bizarre.

Quite frankly, it’s disgusting. It’s a quasi political show of Sadomasochism that has nothing to do with religion. In Islam it’s unfavorable to hurt the human body. Moderate Shia also find it appalling and slightly embarrassing. E. teases the Shia cousin constantly, “So this your idea of a good time, ha?” But the cousin is just is revolted, although he can’t really express it. We’re so “free” now, it’s not good idea to publicly express your distaste to the whole bloody affair. I can, however, express it on my blog…

We’ve also heard of several more abductions and now assassinations. They say Badir’s Brigade have come out with a new list of ‘wanted’… but dead, not alive. It’s a list of mainly Sunni professors, former army generals, doctors, etc. Already there have been three assassinations in Saydiyeh, an area that is a mix of Sunnis and Shia. They say Badir’s Brigade people broke into the house and gunned down the families. This assassination spree is, apparently, a celebration of the election results.

It’s interesting to watch American politicians talk about how American troops are the one thing standing between Sunnis and Shia killing each other in the streets. It looks more and more these days like that’s not true. Right now, during all these assassinations and abductions, the troops are just standing aside and letting Iraqis get at each other. Not only that, but the new army or the National Guard are just around to protect American troops and squelch any resistance.

There was hope of a secular Iraq, even after the occupation. That hope is fading fast.

Saturday, February 12, 2005
And Life Goes On...
The elections have come and gone. The day of elections was a day of eerie silence punctuated by a few strong explosions and the hum of helicopters above. We remained at home and watched the situation on tv. E. left for about an hour to see what was happening at the local polling area, which was a secondary school nearby. He said there were maybe 50 people at the school and a lot of them looked like they were involved with the local electoral committee. The polling station near our house was actually being guarded by SCIRI people (Badir’s Brigade).

It was like an voting marathon for all of the news channels- everywhere you turned there was news of the elections. CNN, Euronews, BBC, Jazeera, Arabia, LBC… everyone was talking elections. The Arab news channels were focusing largely on voting abroad while CNN kept showing footage from the southern provinces and the northern ones.

I literally had chills going up and down my spine as I watched Abdul Aziz Al Hakeem of Iranian-inclined SCIRI dropping his ballot into a box. Behind him, giving moral support and her vote, was what I can only guess to be his wife. She was shrouded literally from head to foot and only her eyes peeped out of the endless sea of black. She stuffed her ballot in the box with black-gloved hands and submissively followed a very confident Hakeem. E. turned to me with a smile and a wink, “That might be you in a couple of years…” I promptly threw a sofa cushion at him.

Most of our acquaintances (Sunni and Shia) didn’t vote. My cousin, who is Shia, didn’t vote because he felt he didn’t really have ‘representation’ on the lists, as he called it. I laughed when he said that, “But you have your pick of at least 40 different Shia parties!” I teased, winking at his wife. I understood what he meant though. He’s a secular, educated, non-occupation Iraqi before he’s Sunni or Shia- he’s more concerned with having someone who wants to end the occupation than someone Shia.

We’re hearing about various strange happenings at different voting areas. They say that several areas in northern Iraq (some Assyrian and other Christian areas) weren’t allowed to vote. They also say that 300 different ballot boxes from all over the country were disqualified (mainly from Mosul) because a large number of the vote ballots had “Saddam” written on them. In other areas there’s talk of Badir’s Brigade people having bought the ballots to vote, and while the people of Falloojeh weren’t allowed to vote, people say that the identities of Falloojans were temporarily ‘borrowed’ for voting purposes. The stories are endless.

In spite of that, we’re all watching for the results carefully. When the ‘elected’ government takes control, will they set a timetable for American withdrawal? That would be a shocker considering none of the current parties would be able to remain in power without being forcefully backed by America with tanks and troops. We hear American politicians repeatedly saying that America will not withdraw until Iraq can secure itself. When will that happen? Our current National Guard or “Haress il Watani” are fondly called “Haress il Wathani” or “Infidel Guard” by people in the streets. On top of it all, to be one of them is considered such a disgrace by the general population that they have to wear masks so that none of them can be identified by neighbors and friends.

The results won’t really matter when so many people boycotted the elections. No matter what the number say, the reality of the situation is that there are millions of Iraqis who will refuse to submit to an occupation government. After almost two years of occupation, and miserable living conditions, we want our country back.

I do have my moments of weakness though, when I wonder who will be allowed to have power. Politicians are talking about a balance that might arise from a Shia, Kurdish alliance and it makes a lot of sense in theory. In theory, the Kurdish leaders are Sunni and secular and the Shia leaders are, well, they’re not exactly secular. If they get along, things should work out evenly. That looks good on blogs and on paper. Reality is quite different. Reality is that the Kurdish leaders are more concerned about their own autonomy and as long as the Kurdish north remains secular, the rest of Iraq can go up in flames.

An example is the situation in Baghdad today. The parties that have power in colleges today are actually the Iranian inclined Shia parties like Da’awa and SCIRI. Student representatives in colleges and universities these days mainly come from the abovementioned parties. They harass Christian and Muslim girls about what they should and shouldn’t wear. They invite students to attend “latmiyas” (mainly Shia religious festivities where the participants cry and beat themselves in sorrow over the killing of the Prophet’s family) and bully the cafeteria or canteen guy into not playing music during Ramadhan and instead showing the aforementioned latmiyas and Shia religious lectures by Ayatollah So-and-So and Sayid Something-or-Another.

Last week my cousin needed to visit the current Ministry of Higher Education. After the ministry building was burned and looted, the employees had to be transferred to a much, much smaller building in another part of the city. My cousin’s wife wanted to have her college degree legalized by the ministry and my cousin wasn’t sure about how to go about doing it. So I volunteered to go along with him because I had some questions of my own.

We headed for the building containing the ministry employees (but hardly ever containing the minister). It was small and cramped. Every 8 employees were stuck in the same room. The air was tense and heavy. We were greeted in the reception area by a bearded man who scanned us disapprovingly. “Da’awachi,” my cousin whispered under his breath, indicating the man was from the Da’awa Party. What could he do for us? Who did we want? We wanted to have some documents legalized by the ministry, I said loudly, trying to cover up my nervousness. He looked at me momentarily and then turned to the cousin pointedly. My cousin repeated why we were there and asked for directions. We were told to go to one of the rooms on the same floor and begin there.

“Please dress appropriately next time you come here.” The man said to me. I looked down at what I was wearing- black pants, a beige high-necked sweater and a knee-length black coat. Huh? I blushed furiously. He meant my head should be covered and I should be wearing a skirt. I don’t like being told what to wear and what not to wear by strange men. “I don’t work here- I don’t have to follow a dress code.” I answered coldly. The cousin didn’t like where the conversation was going, he angrily interceded, “We’re only here for an hour and it really isn’t your business.”

“It is my business.” Came the answer, “She should have some respect for the people who work here.” And the conversation ended. I looked around for the people I should be respecting. There were three or four women who were apparently ministry employees. Two of them were wearing long skirts, loose sweaters and headscarves and the third had gone all out and was wearing a complete “jubba” or robe-like garb topped with a black head scarf. My cousin and I turned to enter the room the receptionist had indicated and my eyes were stinging. No one could talk that way before the war and if they did, you didn’t have to listen. You could answer back. Now, you only answer back and make it an issue if you have some sort of death wish or just really, really like trouble.

Young females have the option of either just giving in to the pressure and dressing and acting ‘safely’- which means making everything longer and looser and preferably covering some of their head or constantly being defiant to what is becoming endemic in Iraq today. The problem with defiance is that it doesn’t just involve you personally, it involves anyone with you at that moment- usually a male relative. It means that there might be an exchange of ugly words or a fight and probably, after that, a detention in Abu Ghraib.

If it’s like this in Baghdad, I shudder to think what the other cities and provinces must be like. The Allawis and Pachichis of Iraq don’t sense it- their families are safely tucked away in Dubai and Amman, and the Hakeems and Jaffaris of Iraq promote it.

At the end of the day, it’s not about having a Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Arab in power. It’s about having someone who has Iraq’s best interests at heart- not America’s, not Iran’s, not Israel’s… It’s about needing someone who wants peace, prosperity, independence and above and beyond all, unity.

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