Tuesday, March 30, 2004
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!
Now this project is an unprecedented one in Iraq (and probably in the whole region). And until now there has been no reaction whatosever from religious groups and clerics to the announcement, but I fear the worst. However, I still think that Iraqi feminists kick ass!
Monday, March 29, 2004
At last, I've enabled an RSS feed for the blog, many readers have been asking me to do this. I admit that the RSS thing is still a mystery to me, but what the hell, you can make use of it now.
Also, new blogs from Iraq. Raed Jarrar, Salam's co-blogger, now has his own seperate blog site. Faiza is giving Arabic lessons on this blog (I can't keep up with the Jarrar family blogs! They keep multiplying). And here you can read her war diaries. While you're at it check out this awesome Iraqi cook book.
Abu Hadi's page has been updated, and I have a new guest blog written by Mina, where she expresses her views concerning the upcoming Arab Summit.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
The first entry is by Abu Hadi, an Iraqi expatriate, who will be describing in his diaries his first visit to his home country after 22 years of exile. Some of you might recall Abu Hadi. He has been a regular poster in the comments since the blog started some five months ago. The diary makes a very interesting read, and Abu Hadi has an admirable sense of humour. Check back often for more of his entries.
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
bed and rushed over to the tv, after which I heard him swearing at the doctor who was rolling with laughter at the situation.
Our cook had the most interesting reaction. "How many young men did this @#%$ send to death by brainwashing and fooling them into carrying out suicide attacks? How many innocent people had he killed?" he shouted to the doctor, "And how many thousands of dollars did he get in his Swiss bank accounts by pimping on the Palestinian cause?". "If he was truly such a hero and a believer in Jihad how come he didn't rig his wheelchair with explosives and blow himself up at some Israeli
checkpoint? I say f* him". We advised the cook to stay out of politics, at least for the moment, and stick to his task of scrambling eggs for us.
Later that day the doctors were solemnly discussing the issue over lunch. We were watching Al-Jazeera and as is expected on such occasions they were screaming as usual. My friend and I munched on our chicken and baked beans in silence while the doctors were swapping all the popular conspiracy theories with each other. "Just wait for Hassan Nasrallah (Hizbollah leader), I'm sure he'll have some things to say
about this" remarked the hospital opthalmologist, the older of the bunch. "Yeah? And what's that going to change anyway?" my friend offered. The sheikh of Al-Azhar, Al-Imam Al-Akbar Sayyid Tantawi, was talking to Al-Jazeera condemning the assasination. "What kind of title is that? Al-Imam Al-Akbar (the greatest Imam)?" the opthalmologist asked, "Only Allah is Akbar...". "Wait wait", my friend interrupted
him. "I'm really dissapointed with you guys, nothing ever seems to satisfy you. What is wrong with the Imams title?". "What does it have to do with you? You're a Christian" replied the doctor. "Hey" I called, "What about Ayatollah aluzma (Grand Ayatollah)? Why is that supposed to be ok, and Imam Al-Akbar not?". The doctor seemed shocked with this question and just looked sternly at me. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, so we all turned back to our dishes.
An explanation on the previous entry; the mob was shouting 'Hussein', referring to Imam Hussein bin Ali, not to Saddam Hussein. Also, I met a guy at the internet cafe who works with the Basrah CPA and he mentioned that he had pictures of the crowd stabbing the Wahhabi suspect but he gave them to Reuters.
Incidentally, I also talked to a few Wahhabis at the village where I'm posted and they were very uncomfortable with their surroundings and the treatment they get from fanatics and Shi'ite Islamic parties. "We try hard to mind our own business and go on with our lives but people here hate us, and we're always looked upon with suspicion" one of them confided to me. There was an attack against a market store owned by one of them and all his goods were destroyed just a day after the Basrah hotel attack.
Security measures have increased around Basrah city. Basrah IP are roaming busy streets and locations downtown inspecting suspiciously parked cars and setting checkpoints all around. We got 6 FPS guards for the hospital which kind of worried us.
I'm also experiencing some horrible nightmares, which started two days after the bombings. I really shouldn't have been there.
Saturday, March 20, 2004
Everyone left their seats hurriedly and went out to look. We saw black plumes of smoke rising from Istiqlal street which lies parallel to the one where we were standing. And since I knew a few people at that area, I immediately hailed a taxi to take me to the scene. People were rushing from all directions heading there. Old men, women, kids, bicycles, cars, everything. You would expect that people would actually run away as far as possible from the explosion area. But no, certainly Iraqis wouldn't.
When I arrived, there was already quite a crowd gathered in front of the hotel where the rigged car exploded. It was an '82 model Mercedes, and it was apparently not a suicide attack since the car, or what had remained of it, was in the middle of the street in front of the Marbid hotel. Basrah IP and Brits had arrived and were trying to keep the crowd away from the site but no use. They shouted from loud speakers that another rigged car might still be around, but no one budged from their positions.
All of a sudden there was a commotion. Two bearded guys were being dragged amidst the crowd by the police. It seemed that they were suspects. The mob got enraged and someone shouted "Don't let the British take them away! Kill the Wahhabi bastards now!". Everyone stormed forward and slippers and shoes were thrown at the two bewildered men. Someone sprang out of nowhere and stabbed one of them in the back, and that was that. He got trampled by the angry crowd, and I saw knives, sticks, and qamat (long blades) flashing. The police half heartedly attempted to dissipate them, but it was only until Brits started firing in the air that they left him, but he was obviously dead then, only a bloody mess was left of him. They were put into a British Land Rover and taken away. It turned out later that they had nothing to do with the attack.
The mob looked deadly and dangerous. They proceeded to throw stones and shoes at the British while shouting "Hussein, Hussein". There was shooting again so I slipped away for cover. The area was surrounded so it looked like I was trapped. Even reporters and camera men were shoved away by the British soldiers. I was now very close to the burnt Mercedes, I moved on trying to get as far away as possible from the crowd and I was treading carefully over shattered glass. At one point I felt the ground was slippery, so I looked down and almost got sick. I was walking on a pool of blood. Some bystanders pointed out something, I thought that I would better not look, but curiosity beat me. It was half a human head. It belonged to a once bald person, and his brain and what looked like his guts were all over the place and on the walls. He was the old man that sold groceries in front of the hotel. I recalled buying bananas from him once with Omar and AYS when we used to stay at these hotels at the time we first visited Basrah two months ago.
The explosion itself did not cause much damage to the surrounding buildings. It looked like an amateurish attempt since it only succeeded in breaking windows. However, 3 people were killed and 20 injured. It could have been much more worse if the timing was different. Istiqlal street is a very busy one where several hotels housing foreign reconstruction workers are located. Other people mentioned that a British patrol was meant to be targetted by the explosion.
I returned to the residence half an hour later. My colleagues were a bit worried about me since I pass through that street almost every other day while heading to the Internet cafe, so they were relieved. In a few minutes I was sinking in a deep sleep. And when I woke up in the evening, I was feeling considerably better.
I'm not the kind of person to count my blessings, but that experience made me rethink my whole life. Later that night, we were alone, me and my friend, the Christian dentist, after a dinner of tikka, we were feeling very content, smoking cigarettes and having tea. We smiled at one another. There was a cool breeze outside and life suddenly felt good. When you are vulnerable and have death waiting around the corner at any moment, it's only better that you try hard to make the most of what you have.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Which brings us to the topic of mosquitos/fleas/bugs. Those adorable flying creatures. I remember once asking my parents when I was a bit young and innocent, something like "Why did God create bugs?". Unfortunately nobody then had pointed me to the infamous book authored by Khairallah Talfah (Saddam's uncle) titled 'Three things God should not have created: Jews, Kurds, and mosquitos'.
Anyway, the last four nights have been terrible thanks to those restless godawful vampires. I had to sleep wrapped up tightly in a blanket and with socks on but they were persistent. Somehow they penetrated all the barriers and I could feel them all over the place even under my clothes. I was naiive enough to think that commercial insecticide sprays would work, but it seems the mosquitos over here have long become tolerant to such minor disturbances. You see the problem is that the residence is bordered by palm orchards and small creeks from every direction, so each time the door or a window is opened, swarms of mosquitos enter attracted by the lights. Our favorite game right now besides Cooncan is 'Who gets to squash mosquitos most is the winner'.
Now the area south to Basrah is known as the Venice of Iraq since there are approximately 13 thousand small rivers, canals, and creeks between Basrah city and Faw along both banks of Shatt Al-Arab. At the town of Abu Al-Khasib almost every house (some of which are centuries old) is surrounded by water. About 60% of the total Iraqi exported palm dates came from this area alone. The 8 years Iraq-Iran war and the long years of neglect by Saddam's regime contributed to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of these palm trees.
The creeks have also been clogged lately by smuggled crude oil which is spilled during loading to the various vessels in the many ports on Shatt Al-Arab. The oil is shamelessly being smuggled under the eyes and noses of the Iraqi police and British forces in the area. Each morning we witness endless lines of tanker trucks parked on the road to the Abu Floos port waiting for their turn to enter the port. On several occasions Basrah IP have claimed they are investigating and intercepting smugglers but practically nothing is being done. Months ago some large operations were carried out by Brits to put an end to it, but none lately according to the people over here.
I'll be back with more info later as I'll be visiting the ports area sometime this week.
In the meantime check out this article by Abu Ayad, an anonymous Baghdadi municipal council member. It's about the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, and the differences between the western media image of him, and the real thing on the ground. An excellent read and I'll be sure to check for Abu Ayad's name on the web from now on.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
Mohammed Bahr Al-Ulum (current president of the GC), Adnan Al-Pachachi, and Mass'ud Al-Barzani all gave short speeches commending the law. Ahmad Al-Chalabi seemed peculiarly jubilant. He was the first member to sign the law sitting down on the ancient desk once used by King Faisal (and which was specially refurbished for the occasion), after which he shouted "Long live Iraq!", this evoked cheers and applause from the audience. The chubby Jalal Al-Talabani cheerfully did the same move while scoffing jokingly at Chalabi.
"For the first time in history, we the Kurds feel that we are Iraqi citizens" remarked KDP leader Barzani, "And we got the federal pluralistic parliamentary Iraq". He also expressed his thanks to US president Bush, British PM Tony Blair, Ambassador Paul Bremer, and to coalition soldiers. There were news of huge celebrations in Kurdish cities following the signing of the law, and some media organizations reported that the Iraqi flag was burnt in several of them. hmmm.
12 Shia members of the GC repeated their reservations on the new law and specifically to Article 61. clause C in a statement read out by Ibrahim Al-Ja'ffari indicating that they signed the law in its unchhanged form to preserve the unity within the GC. Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim (SCIRI leader) did not attend the signing ceremony and his deputy Adil Abdul Mahdi signed in his place. He later admitted in a press conference yesterday that his absence was intentional.
At the same day, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani shortly issued a fatwa in which he stated his disapproval of the new law, describing it as 'an obstacle in the path of a permanent constitution'. No, mate, it's not. It's an obstacle in your way to put it right. Go back to your istihaza books and thick fiqh volumes, and quit meddling in our affairs until you at least apply for an Iraqi citizenship. And to tell the truth, this is a good thing because I would be actually worried if Sistani approved the new constitution. The Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Al-Mudarrissi was also critical of the constitution, calling it a 'time bomb for civil war'. The Sunni Hay'at Al-Ulemma stressed that the constitution was a step forward but that it also had problems, one of them the fact that the law was issued by a body appointed by occupiers.
On the other hand, a spokesman of Muqtada Al-Sadr accused the coalition of imposing a constitution on the Iraqi people that would only serve its interests . And here comes the good stuff: "The constitution should be drafted according to Islamic Shari'a law and under the supervision of the Hawza which represents the constitution of the heavens. Written constitutions change from time to time but that of the heavens is fixed, unchangeable, and fulfills all of man's needs regardless of his associations. This doesn't appeal to coalition forces", and "The Iraqi people reject such a constitution, they will never accept it and will have a different stand". Tut tut, blah blah, excuse me while I go puke.
Someone definitely has to explain the concept of federalism to Iraqis immediately. People simply freak out whenever they hear this f word, and they start shaking their fists, condemning the Zionist conspiracy to split and divide Iraq, especially with the daily brainwashing effect of the Arab media.
As to the contentious clause C of Article 61. which states that "The general referendum will be successful and the draft constitution ratified if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates do not reject it". I can't seem to quite understand why the Shia members are against this. I mean it does not apply only to the Kurds or the Sunnis, because even the Shia could benefit from this clause. Foreign minister, Hoshyar Zibari, correctly described this clause as a 'guarantee to 40% of the population that there will be no dictatorship of the majority" which makes sense.
Anyway, here is the full transcript of the Transitional Adminstrative Law. Chapter two states the fundamental rights of Iraqi citizens. Contrary to popular belief, these rights guaranteed by the constitution are not unprecedented in the region. In fact all the previous Iraqi constitutions granted such rights to the people, but they remained ink on paper. And if you read constitutions of other Arab countries you would be so impressed that you may think they were actually describing countries in western Europe, but despotic regimes in these countries have always found methods to override their constitutions by states of emergency and national security grounds.
So here is to ensure that the new constitution means what it says, and that the Iraqi people will see to that after long decades of dictatorships and abuse.
Saturday, March 06, 2004
While the Arab media mockingly and spitefully spread the news of this (un)expected development, Iraqis were scratching their heads in confusion. All sorts of rumours and conspiracy theories creeped over Baghdad filling in the empty spaces. Some people said that some of the Shi'ite groups on the council (SCIRI, Da'wa, INC) totally rejected the notion of a Sunni president. This was in accordance with earlier rumours that the American adminstration had decided that the presidential council of the future National Transitional Council would be comprised of a Sunni president, with two vice presidents, a Kurd and a Shi'ite. Of course this was never actually mentioned in the draft of the law, but the people promoting this interpretation explained that the US would never allow a Shi'ite president because he would be completely influenced by the Hawza and the Shi'ite marji'iyah.
Others mentioned that Sistani advised the GC to modify some points in the draft and to specifically state that "no future legislation in the country should contradict Islamic law", and also in regard to the representation of women in the government, Sistani had reservations on the draft mentioning an exact 25-40% percentage, allegedly saying that was 'unacceptable'. No official confirmation or denial of these rumours has yet come out from Sistani's agents. Another point of disagreement was on the joint Kurdish Sunni proposition that "two thirds of the voters of any three governorates could suspend the future constitution and resubmit it for revision" as a measure to protect minorities rights in the future government. Shi'ite groups reportedly objected to this addition. The 5 dissident members, according to some sources in the GC, were Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, Ibrahim Al-Ja'ffari, Muwafaq Al-Rubai'i, Mohammed Bahr Al-Uloom, and Ahmed Al-Chalabi. They did not attend the GC meeting yesterday and were in Najaf consulting with Sistani.
Foreign minister, Zibari, stated that it was very regretful that a minority in the GC would later change it's opinion after reaching a final agreement last sunday, and he advised Iraqis to be aware that foreign countries (alluding to our neighbours) were trying to abort the interim law.
Now, the whole situation looks embarrassingly ridiculous considering the deadline for finally approving the Transitional Law was almost a week ago, and this only serves to prove the stereotypical image of Iraqis that can never agree on anything. And, to tell the truth, most Iraqis were immensely surprised after reading the details of the law draft, it just seemed too good to be true.
Now the main point is that while we do appreciate the significant difficulties GC members must be facing everyday, they had plenty of time to go over the controversial issues in the law draft during the last few days since it was first announced instead of publicity stunts at Karbala and shuttle visits to Najaf to meet with Shi'ite clerics. Another point is that I hope Iraqis can now see clearly through some of the pretentious GC members, members that have made it clear that they show allegiance and loyalty to their respective sects and ethnicities (or in a couple of cases to neighbouring countries) over Iraq. And that when the time comes for voting in ballot boxes those members will be ruled out. I have faith in the insight and wisdom of Iraqis. They will never allow another despot to take over their lives and futures. Never again.
Maybe some of those members know that fact only too well, and realizing that their role is about to be over very soon they are just playing for time? Food for thought.
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
This years congregation at Karbala was probably the largest in its history. For the first time in 31 years the city was choking with hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite tourists who made their way from Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Arabian Gulf countries to visit the shrine of Al-Hussein. Not to mention mawakib (processions) from all over Iraq. Someone mentioned that for the first time in history there were mawakib from Ramadi and Mosul (both largely Sunni cities).
Shia Muharram rituals were banned by the Ba'athist Revolutionary Command Council in 1973, which is the main reason this years events were so special. People are now free to practice and revel in their beliefs with no fear of intimidation or prosecution. And that's why it's terrifying to see that someone would still dare to commit such a vile act against those people despite the huge security precautions.
The perpetrators are unknown as usual. And it seems the GC and coalition officials have already made up their minds and linked the attacks to Zarqawi and foreign terrorists, which I admit is a large possibility. However, there are still several parties operating independently from each other in Iraq. It would be foolish to assume that since attacks against the coalition have declined over the past few weeks that therefore the influence of remnants of the former regime is over (holy sites at Karbala were bombed in the past by the Republican Guard). Sunni extremists have attacked Shia mosques in Baqubah and Baghdad before, and I've heard many people calling these Shia festivals provocative, so why rule out that possibility? Even some Shi'ite organizations with agendas for Iraq might benefit in many ways from such attacks.
Statements like 'No Iraqi would commit such an atrocity' or 'No Muslim would do that' are stupid, as if all Iraqis were saints and haven't committed atrocities before. One GC member even went far as to say 'No human being did that'. Of course not, dude, they were Greys from the Zeta Reticuli system.
The reaction of the Shi'ite margi'iyah wasn't a surprise, blaming the coalition. First they ask coalition forces to keep out of the holy sites and stay as far as possible from the festivals, and when something goes wrong they are the first to blame for not providing adequate protection. I'm wondering why someone didn't wisely proclaim 'It was the joooz, you know', or maybe they did and I haven't noticed.
Iraqis are very bitter. Just as everything was looking so promising after the announcement of the Interim Law recently there's this. And I don't think it's going to stop any soon.
The shameful silence must end. Where are the cries of outrage from the Arab and Islamic world? Where is the condemnation and denunciation? Where are the fatwas? Where is the seething and shaking fists? Or are these preserved for other people?
Bring back the Mukhabarat, and start trying those captured regime officials and foreign terrorists before it's too late.
Here are the promised pictures of Muharram preparations in Basrah. I took these at various towns and villages south of Basrah. As I mentioned a few days ago, the preparations over there were widespread. Almost every house had a black, red, or green flag on the roof. Black mourning banners wherever you set your eyes. Never has Iraq witnessed anything like this before, not in my lifetime at least.
Signs like 'Al-Hussain the light of my eye', 'Al-Hussein is a piece of me and I am a piece of Al-Hussein', 'Oh Hussein, every drop of my blood calls for your name', 'Peace be upon Hussein, Ali bin Hussein, the children of Hussein, and the companions of Hussein', 'Our condolences to the Imam Al-Mahdi (may Allah speed his return) on the anniversary of holy Ashurra' were hanging everywhere including governmental buildings, colleges, schools, and hospitals which is not a good practice. I mean when they start putting these signs on governmental buildings, what does that indicate?
I uncomfortably watched as Al-Sadr supporters were putting one of these signs on our hospital entrance next to posters of Sistani, Al-Sadr, Al-Hakim, and Khomeini. One sign attributed to Al-Sadr which caught my eye was 'If a woman shows one hair of her head, it was as if she participated in killing my grandfather Al-Hussain'. Oops.
Another thing I noticed was the sheer bliss these people were experiencing by practicing these beliefs. "If Saddam had allowed us to practice latum, the British wouldn't be here today" our cook casually told me. "You mean to say that you would accept occupation by foreign forces just to be able to flog yourself?" I jokingly asked him. "Damn well I would" he responded curtly.
Of course the whole practice of self flagellation carried out by the Shia during Muharram denotes penance and remorse for the sin of their forefathers by abandoning Al-Hussein and failing to protect him from the army of bin Zeyad. Al-Hussein represents a symbol of rebellion against tyranny and injustice, and his death a sacrifice for mankind. Many similarities with the story of Jesus can be drawn from it.
By the way, I did try using one of these chain whips just for the fun of it. It was a bit dissapointing since they don't hurt at all. Phonies. I also put up an act and marched with some of them wearing my black shirt (which I had prepared for the event beforehand) after someone taught me. Everyone seemed so proud of the good devout dentist, hehe.
Haven't been listening to anything lately except qirayat and lamenting hymns during my stay in Basrah, and I've reached the point where I'm humming these tunes to myself, which scares me. "You're starting to sound like a Shi'ite!" my friends wife alarmingly exclaimed when I was telling her about my recent adventures yesterday over tea, "If you say one more word I swear to God I'll throw you out the window!".