Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Advancing to the next level

Some readers pointed me to this article written by a freelance journalist in which he recounts some of his latest adventures in Baghdad. Of course there is nothing new in what he reports, and most Baghdadis -including myself- have experienced similar adventures, but I was reflecting to myself while reading that they have all become so painfully commonplace and almost normal that you never pause for a moment to consider their consequences on our everyday lives and where we are all heading. I only contemplate when I see them on news reports or read about them from others.

Take ransom abductions for example. Almost every family in Baghdad, particularly the rich, has had at least one case of a relative kidnapped at some time over the last few months, just as almost always every family has a relative living in exile. So common that the procedure to follow out has become routine; stay calm and don't panic, never contact the police, wait for a phone call (usually from a Thuraya phone) or a written note (if you still don't have a working phone line), meet with a representative of the kidnappers, bargain for all you're worth, and after reaching a satisfactory compromise deliver the money and wait a couple of days for your relative to return proudly home. So far, doctors and businessmen are the most attractive targets. Ransoms range from the ludicrous sum of $1000 to as high as $250,000 (impossible to afford even for the richest families in Baghdad).

One person in our neighbourhood, whose brother was abducted, was asked for $5000 by some contented gang. He told them to go to hell since he could afford a funeral and consolation banquet for his brother at a much lower sum. The gang meekly halved the ransom and almost begged for it, so he agreed after much pressure from his brother's wife and children. This approach works in most cases with amateur gangs, but you have to be careful because if you were dealing with professionals, your kidnapped relative might be returned to you in a body bag.

Another family in our neighbourhood took a much more aggressive stand. When contacted by the gang they informed them that they knew who they were, and that if their son was not returned to them by the next day without one hair touched on his body, the gang, their whole families, and their clan members would be mercilessly slaughtered. The gang hung up the phone. After a couple of hours they called again and said they would return the fellow and apologised for the inconvenience. The family told them that they were greatly offended by this behaviour, since they belonged to the powerful Sunni Azza tribe, and that the gang would better pay them for this disrespect an amount of $10,000. A little bargaining followed, and the son returned the next day with $5000 in his pocket.

Now, the whole city is gossiping about the news of Dr. Waleed Al-Khayyal's abduction from in front of his hospital at Maghrib street in Adhamiya. Dr. Al-Khayyal is a prominent nephrologist and is regarded as one of the best surgeons specialised in kidney implantations in the Middle East. Also, the kidnapping of the owner of Awa'il restaurant located in Karradah. Ransoms demanded for each are as high as $200,000.

Anyway, back to our article. I think the reporter's description of sectarian tensions, the comparison of Iraq to Bosnia, preparations for civil war at mosques, and recruiting of local neighbourhood armies are a bit farfetched and betrays his ignorance of Iraqi society. Personally, I haven't heard anything of the sort. He seems surprised that clerics from both the Sunni and Shia sect hate each other, and to the fact that they publish defamatory periodicals and fliers against each other when that has been the case for decades. There is nothing new about that, and both Sunnis and Shi'ites make fun and jokes about that practice.

I just remembered this joke that I have to share. One day an American soldier is captured by a group of insurgents in Fallujah (which is a Sunni stronghold). The American tried pleading with his captors to let him go, and he recalled that some Iraqis (Shia Iraqis) always say "Please, alaik alhussein (for the sake of Imam Al-Hussein), leave me", so he tried using that. His captors were extremely shocked by this, and they exclaimed in surprise: "An American! And a Shi'ite one for that?!! Come here!" POW!