Saturday, May 15, 2004

Celebrating Iraqi style

An American patrol entered the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiyah just an hour ago, a sergeant told the mosque Imam that they were searching for weapons and fighters whom had taken refuge inside the mosque. Nothing was found and no arrests were made as far as I know. Short fighting broke after the force was leaving the area, a couple of mortar rounds were fired, an American vehicle came under an RPG attack, and people from the area say it was damaged badly.

I could hear the fighting, since I was fairly close to the area at that time, but I didn't venture any closer. Adhamiyah is still considered a war zone, and surprises are bound to happen over there as it's the most anti-American district in Baghdad. Iraqi flags (with the Allahu Akbar sign) are pasted on almost every store, graffiti praising the 'valiant resistance' are all over the place, some prasing Saddam openly, and recently there have been a few shyly saluting Muqtada Al-Sadr and Al-Mahdi army.

Two days ago, Adhamiyah residents talked about clashes with American troops following the celebrations on the Iraqi Olympic football team's qualification to the Athens Olympics. Baghdad's night sky was red with celebratory gun fire at that day. Apparently, American patrols were bewildered and had mistaken the gun fire as attacks against them, possibly returning fire at foolish Iraqi football enthusiasts.

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Contrary to what many people may imagine, celebrating by shooting in the air is not quite a recent tradition of Iraqi society. I've heard many Iraqis claim that this practice is alien to Iraqis, and that it had only been introduced during the rule of the Ba'ath, a reader emailed me once confused about the whole thing and wrote: "You can't
exactly say this a cultural thing, since AK-47's have only been around for a few decades,". They could never be more wrong. In fact, it dates back to at least a couple of centuries, since firearms were first introduced to the country during the 18th century. Almost every militant tribe at that time possessed fire power, the musket readily replaced the sword as a weapon used in raids against neighbouring trides and trade caravans. Tribesmen would celebrate victory by firing their spare bullets in the air while performing special dances and chanting hossat (tribal battle cry) fit for the occasion. And that's how it all originated. The practice also exists in similar societes throughout the Arab world, so it is not exclusive to Iraqis.

Many tribal leaders today still keep weapons used by their ancestors, they regard them with extreme care and pride, and they are passed over to successive generations and future Sheikhs. In rural Iraqi areas tribesmen and farmers use certain firing methods as signals, for example a call for help, to announce a newborn, a marriage, or the death of a significant person. Each signal has its own unique style, like 3 bullets fired in quick succession followed by 2 with a short pause in between. I remember once when we were teenagers and were partying at a friend's ranch north of Baghdad. A friend of ours wanted to impress us and he fired a few shots in the air from his pistol, and while others were filing up to take a try, shooting started suddenly from all around us, shortly afterwards some farmers passed by and offered our friend their condolences for his father's death, asking him how he met his unfortunate end! We didn't know anything about signals and all that stuff, so we were immensely surprised and the friend freaked out thinking his father had an accident or something. Of course our friend had coincidentally fired the death of a family member signal.

However, the tradition had only lately become common in urban areas. The capital (and other governorate centers) experienced a huge rate of growth and population following the 1958 coup, and due to poverty, dryness, and low opportunities for employment, a large number of peasant familes (sometimes whole clans) came to settle on the borders
of Baghdad mostly from the south (Sadr city is an excellent example of this migration phenomenon) creating huge slums areas. One cannot deny the fact that this brought great benefits to Baghdad in terms of man power and workers, but it has also brought along rural and tribal values and traditions in a direct conflict with urban civilised values
thus creating endless social problems and flourishing of crime and tribal traditions, new waves of migration continue to this day. The new settlers have to undergo drastic social changes in a very short period of time in order to adapt to their new environment, and just as their social circumstances rapidly evolved by the effect of urban Baghdadi society, they also integrated their own values brought from the rural
village into it, influencing urban dwellers. Celebratory gun fire is one of these products. Today, for example it is not uncommon to find a doctor or a university professor celebrate an event by shooting in the air.

The practice almost disappeared during the sixties until the nineties, when the former regime had controlled arms possession, and strongly prohibited any use of them. It returned again with a vengeance in the mid nineties after the regime implemented his controversial tribal policy and removed restrictions on tribal laws, but it was still mostly limited to rural parts, except when the regime granted permission for a specific event (such as Saddam's birthday or the Zahf Al-Kabir), or after the Iraqi football team wins a critical match. I remember my father (a man educated in the west) shooting in the air like crazy when the first Gulf War ended, that was the first and last time he ever did it.

Now, on Thursdays (the usual wedding day for Iraqis) you will have to remain indoors because of the ridiculous amount of gun fire in the air, the same for funerals, football events, and some creative instances such as getting your ancient car fixed! Yes, they do know that 'what goes up, comes down', but that won't change it. It is a bad habit indeed but if you lived here rest assured that you would be doing the same. Every individual is a product of his society.