I WAS IN A taxi speeding through Baghdad’s nearly empty streets when the blasts went off. The city looked deserted. All of Iraq, it seemed, had shut down for the holiest of high holy days to the country’s Shi’a majority. I had given up any hopes of making it to Kerbala for the first 10th of Muharram observance since the fall of Saddam. Four million faithful had already descended upon Kerbala – the actual site of the martyrdom of Sayyidna Husayn which the Day of Ashura commemorates – and the word on the street was traffic would be backed up for miles. People had started walking. I had placed my bets on getting to the Kadhimiyya mosque, second only in sanctity to Kerbala and Najaf on the Shi’a pilgrimage itinerary, when tanks and APCs cut across the intersection and set up an impromptu checkpoint
We were waved through the checkpoint, but the driver had heard something which prompted him to click his tongue and begin muttering in Arabic. He turned to me in the midst of his mournful litany, and slamming his hand on the steering wheel hissed the wordfujaraL This was a recent addition to my mongrel Arabic vocabulary, courtesy of Iraq. Suicide bombers.
“Kadhimiyya.” I said. It wasn’t a question.
He nodded. The two of us were now muttering the formulas of piety and tawhid in Islam which are often heard in times of trial and tragedy: There is no power or strength save with God … We are God’s and to him is our return . . . invocations which try to right our usually self centered perceptions about ourselves and what goes on in our own little corner of the world.
We were about a half mile from the mosque when the first wave of worshippers fleeing the site began to fill the street Most seemed stunned, afraid and bewildered; their sole aim was to walk away from the blasts and the anarchy unfolding in its wake. Others though, were clearly enraged. Ambulances sped past us towards the mosque. A beat up flatbed truck raced past us going the opposite way. In the bed of the pickup, I saw two or three men administering first aid to a man soaked in blood and then the truck was gone.
“I’ll let you off here” he said, hoping I wouldn’t argue.
“Of course,” I said, paying him, “Allah ma’ak” God be with you.
I wasn’t the only one heading towards the mosque. Shots rang out close by. I know they were close because I involuntarily flinched and found my feet walking backwards despite my brain’s clear orders to go forward. Someone was firing a rifle into the air but I wasn’t sure if it was impotent rage or an attempt to clear the street for the flow of ambulances. I had barely regained control of my feet when I was stopped and frisked by plainclothes security. I didn’t envy someone whose job was to defuse human bombs. He waved me on. I hadn’t yet heard that several blasts had also rocked Kerbala in the south, roughly at the same time as the Baghdad bombings. I was already getting a presentiment however, that I was walking into the aftershocks of a Shi’a 9/11. A moment frozen by the lens shutter of history.
Recalling a brief news item during my second or third day back in Baghdad, I can’t say that the tragedy which was unfolding now came as a complete surprise. Someone had fired a grenade into this very mosque, causing minor damage to the building but thankfully no casualties, less than a week ago. Nor was this the isolated perception of an outsider. Within the cauldron of emotions about to boil over: grief, fear, rage, helplessness and horror; there was a curious lack of surprise in this crowd psychology. Whether it was resignation to the ongoing cycle of violence and lawlessness, or the grim fatalism of a worldview actively shaped by blood sacrifice and martyrdom, I can’t say. More than a thousand years after the massacre of Sayyidna Husayn and a score of other People of the House – an event as integral to Shi’ism as the Stations of the Cross is to Christianity – the day of Ashura remained a day whose spiritual currency was blood.
I began wandering my way through side streets towards the mosque as the number of improvised checkpoints increased. At one point the wisest course of action seemed to be tailing along behind an Arabic TV news crew, until they were barred from getting any nearer the sight by Iraqi police. I veered off down yet another side street.
A rumor was quickly gaining ground on the street There were those who claimed the mosque had been hit by a rocket fired from a helicopter. I made the mistake of asking the police who had finally stopped me, frisked me and were now going through my papers. Less than a hundred yards from the mosque I was politely escorted to a police truck.
“You saw this?! You have pictures?!” a policeman asked, leaning back over the front seat of the van.
“No. No … that’s what people are saying … I heard it, that’s all…”
Given the situation, his composure was admirable. With one eye on the suspicious foreigner in the back seat and one eye on the growing crowds surging around the vehicle he asked again: “You have pictures? Of a helicopter near the mosque?!”
“No, no pictures. It’s just talk on the street …” and then I asked the inevitable question: “Do you think the Americans might have done this?”
He seemed relieved that we were not going to be at the center of an international incident That it hadn’t been his bum luck to pick up a Middle Eastern version of Zapruder. For a moment he said nothing as he watched the pandemonium in the street, then with an infinite weariness:
“No. I think this was done by Iraqis …”
BAD NEWS travels fast. By the time I got back to the hotel, less than an hour later, there was a crowd around the TV in the lobby. I had already heard from another American journalist at Khadhmiyya that a synchronized bomb attack had occurred in Kerbala. Already there was talk from Iraqis and foreigners, Sunni and Shi’a, that Al-Qaida was responsible. If the bomber’s rampage had been intended to spark off sectarian violence between the two Muslim communities it had failed miserably. Everyone spoke of fujurat, suicide bombers. The word martyr was reserved for the innocent victims. A city already subdued by the solemnity of the day took on funereal overtones. In a country where satellite television was finally making serious inroads, it was interesting to note how people switched to Manar broadcasting from Hizbullah controlled South Lebanon. Not even Al-Jazeerah or Arabiyah news could compete today. What proved even more interesting were the comments made to a rapt and silent authence numbering in the hundreds of thousands lining the streets of the Southern suburbs of Beirut by Hizbullah General Secretary Sayyid Hasan Nasrullah. For many years a Western scapegoat in the anti-terrorism crusade; it was Nasrullah who sounded what might have been the only voice of reason and clemency at such a tragic hour. A great deal of the speech was traditional Ashura fare. It was obvious that he knew of the events in Iraq. Everything would hinge on what he had to say about them. Or what he might recommend people do about them. Talking into a silence unnatural for such large rallies, he spoke in measured tones with just the right amount of oratory skill and dramatic flair to get his points across in no uncertain terms:
These events are very grave. As 1 said in the beginning, they place upon the shoulder of the entire nation heavy responsibilities. First, this places upon the shoulder of the Iraqi people, the leadership and religious authorities in the Iraqi arena a great challenge. We do not need to analyze any further in order to say that, regardless of the perpetrator who committed these murders and massacres, the aim is to cause sedition among Muslims. As someone already began saying, the Shi’ites will be told that the Sunnis are rejecting you and do not recognize you. They do not want you to commemorate your rituals freely and safely. These people consider you as such and such … This is why they violate your blood and kill your men, women and children. To them, you do not have any sanctity. Your blood, women, sacred places and your Hussein are not sacred with respect to them, and time makes no difference. People will say these words, which are already circulating in order to make the blood boil in the veins so that calls for revenge would launch here and there, gutreaction would conquer mind, and emotion would conquer sense. Then, we will be caught in the trap and step on the landmine, which ou r enemies have set for this nation. I do not know, these same perpetrators or those standing behind them might find the courage in the future to shoot some Sunni clerics in Iraq and shoot at some Sunni mosques as they did to the Shi’ite mosques …
We need to calm down and think. We must absorb the shock, pain, and press hard on the wound. Then we musi investigate in order to find the perpetrators. If the recruited networks of the Cl A and the various apparatuses of the American secret services were behind these actions, this will form an element of condolence to all of us. On the other hand, if those who stood behind these actions were fanatic, radical and tyrannical groups, which still live in a medieval age, lacking brain, mind, religion, and morals, yet claiming their affiliation to Islam, this is cause for grave concern. This is where the tragedy, sadness and the calamity lie, and it must be faced by the entire ummah …
You are all invited to act wisely and surmounl the calamity and sedition. Do not allow the Zionists, Americans or stonehearled assassins to drive this nation towards the abyss. I confirm to you that any stonehearted faction who believes in nothing but killing and spilling blood is an outcast and must be expelled by the ummah; rejected by the Sunnis first and Shi’ites second. We hear this sentiment voiced by many clerics of the Islamic Sunni movements …
All Islamic and religious authorities throughout the entire Islamic world must take the appropriate position to meet the challenge … ideologists, elites, academics, and freedom fighters must all take the same position. This is the day when each cleric must reveal his knowledge because the nation is facing true sedition …
This same trial was very harsh in Afghanistan; the trial of the Taliban and their allies. The Taliban did not only kill Shi’ites, they killed the Sunni “Tajiks”, “Uzbeks” and “Pashtons” who come from the same race. If we want to speak statistics, they killed more Sunnis than Shi’ites because the mentality of the Taliban is a mentality of assassins. They refuse others even if they come from the same religion and nationality. As long as you are not a Talibani your blood, money and honor is liable for violation. This mentality ruined Afghanistan and was one reason for its occupation.
Iraq and its people were never a part of this Taliban mentality. Throughout history, the Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq were closer to each other than any others throughout the Islamic world were. In Iraq nowadays, there are tribes or families with members that belong to different sections. For your information, half the tribe or family can be Shi’ite whereas the other half can be Sunni. Iraq was always immune to sectarian wars of this nature …
Such actions are a form of identification. These days, no one will execute suicidal operations but people who bear a partici] la r tenet. Can anyone convince me at present that the Iraqi Baathists or anyone from Saddam’s ranks would execute suicidal operations? We did not witness any such action from them while lhey confronted the Americans and were in the middle of the batüefield. This is a trademark and a means of colia ring the culprits. Í say these words to confirm this group as an outcast so they may be expelled by the ummah. Anyone seeking revenge from innocents does not differ from those who shelled Karbalaa or detonated the blasts in Kazimiyah. All these people are perpetrators and assassins. They violate the boundaries of God and do nor respect or regard anyone of the faithful Muslims who live by the rules and religion of God …
The speech continued, commanding an eerie silence punctuated by periodic rallying cries, and the unified response of more than 200,000 black clad supporters with fists raised. You could not help hearing the echoes of Nuremburg rallies. You hoped such hypnotic ability would continue to call for sanity and reason in the growing chaos.
I suppose it would noi have been terribly unrealistic to anticipate an outbreak of retaliatory fury against the city’s Sunni population. Civil wars have been ignited by less. But any attempt to orchestrate it reveals a fundamental ignorance about the people of Baghdad. The tragedy brought people together. For decades Saddam had forcefully desegregated many areas in Iraq so as to defuse ethnic tensions in a country where he and his henchmen were part of a religious minority. The result was that Sunni and Shi’a interacted daily in all strata of Baghdad society. They often intermarried. Whatmade Nasrullah’s speech so important though was a willingness to concede that the backward Salafism of Taliban-minded groups may have been responsible. Weeks after the event there was still a large segment of the Muslim world that refused to believe anyone claiming Islam might have done something so heinous.
There were of course public displays of grief, of solidarity and of religious fervor. It was the tenth of Muharram after all. But the murderous ignorance of terror merchants had backfired. On this tenth of Muharram the sectarian differences were put aside. An entire nation mourned the senseless loss of lives. On this day – if you were still alive – you left your ideology at the door, and over endless cups of black tea discussed how much more surviving you were capable of, in what used to be Iraq.
IRAQ is fast becoming the conspiracy theorist’s Mecca. The Americans did it, Iran did it, Osama bin Laden did it, Baathist thugs did it, the Jews did it. The number of splinter groups, revolutionary factions and shadow agents boggles the mind: the Ansar Island, the CIA, MI6, the KDP and the PUK, Qaida, Hizbullah, Green Berets and the 101st Airborne, Wahhabis, Baathists and the INC … National Fronts of countries that haven’t existed since Nebuchadnezzar, and everywhere you look there’s another Communist Party HQ opening up. And that’s just inside Iraq.
The rest of the world, in trying to make sense of the chaos, seeks a one spin fits all to explain away years of failed foreign policy and economic exploitation. Truth is, decades of short sighted agendas , botched careers salvaged by bombing raids, and a general international indifferenceso long as gas is cheap and our loved ones aren’t dying in plane crashes at the office – has produced nothing short of a bitch’s brew of rage, despair, poverty and disease. You know we’re heading for a whole lot of trouble when the word Balkanization is somewhere on the list of possible solutions …
Now it’s happening, and you can’t stop it happening
The people used to suffer everything and now they take their revenge
You are watching that revenge and you don’t remember it was you
Who drove them to it?
Now you protest but it’s too late to start crying over spilt blood;
What is this blood compared to the blood the people shed for you
In your predatory wars, in you predatory peace
What is this sacrifice, compared to the sacrifices they made to keep you fat?
What are a few looted mansions compared to their looted lives?
– Marat/Sadeby Peter Weiss
I’ve been reading dispatches from Iraq recently by the usually eloquent, insightful and well informed Robert Fisk. He too seems to offer little more than unanswerable questions and jarring, contradictory impressions. Coming from a man who made sense of the Lebanese inferno, it does more than worry me. It scares the hell out of me.
Whatever tales are being spun by armchair revolutionaries and think-tank demagogues means precious little on the ground. In the six months since my last visit to Iraq, the intoxication of new found freedom has already given way to a morning after of the worst possible kind. Debates of the “was it a magic bullet from a lone assassin or was it the men on the grassy knoll backed by corrupt power brokers” variety are of little interest to most Iraqis these days. Putting food on the table is certainly topping most lists of ‘things to do’. Hard on the heels of meeting basic survival needs is no doubt the need to lake action – any action – that can erase the years of impotence and global neglect. Instead of trying to sort out the heroes from the villains and evaluate which methods are sound and which are unsound, we should be prepared for an even more frightening option: heroism is a relative concept and there might not be any method at all.
This is not a palatable option in an information age. When the logarithms of globalization and import/export democracy refuse to apply, we do not accept defeat. Faced with a lack of concrete, workable answers we are forced by our imperial arrogance toinventthem. The cruel paradox is: now that we have woven our comfortable fictions, we seem to be the only ones who actually believe them.
THERE AND BACK, AGAIN
This was not thefirst trip. The first journey to Iraq the previous August had a more specific purpose. The magazine needed hard-to-find photographs of a number of the graves and sanctuaries scattered about the war-lorn country. Many of these holy sites were not prime AFP or Reuler’s stock. Photo agencies were also much more expensive than our fledgling magazine could afford. Then too, there was the editorial and personal allure of going into a land where the heavy warfare had just ended three months earlier. The country was without a formal government and officially occupied by U.S. and British troops. In the intervening chaos – rumor had it – it was an easy border to cross.
The first trip was adrenaline charged discovery. Knowing little or nothing about the country or the situation, my partner and I spent a roller coaster week in Baghdad, Kerbala, and Najaf. The dialect was unfamiliar; the absence of law was both invigorating and daunting. We carried American passports and expected hatred and accusations. VVe found hospitality and friendship.
On the way in, we joked about entering the land of Mordor; Tolkien’s allegoric land of the Dark Lord Sauron. Back home in Amman after a week in the suffering land, Iraq was now a real place in the most real of circumstances. Why we use the word real when describing extremes as if our day to day existence were somehow one step removed from the real, I don’t know. I doubt it’s ever possible to remove the tinted glasses a traveler must always peer through. For the Iraqis, the words day to day existence and real are synonymous. Bombing, economic sanctions, brutal dictatorship, anarchy and indigence have been their day to day reality for over a decade.
I went back to Amman thinking: I could love this country. I consciously ignored the fact that things of the heart and viscera are not thought but simply happen – to paraphrase Aeschylus against our will, and through the awful grace ofGod.
The financial realities both personal and magazine wise are preparing me for third class all the way. Buses, hitchhiking, flophouses and no more promiscuous exposing of endless frames of film. New locales like Mosul, Nineveh, Falluja and Kurdistan. The fast changing cogs of history take me lo an Iraq where Saddam has been captured hiding in a cave, the people are tired of the lawlessness, and civil unrest grows. As one commentator put it: the people of Iraq are learning Terrorism 101. The attacks on an uninformed and ill-prepared American militan’ presence are met with fierce reprisals and each week a new flashpoint for the coming fall of a nation makes headlines.
The Middle of Nowhere
February 23, 2004
Trying to sleep in a jammed parking lot under cold stars. Dozens of parked cars fill the parking lot of the small rest stop; full of dozing travelers awaiting daylight.
Out there, somewhere under the diamond lit blackness is Ali Baba.
I had thought that since we crossed the border into Iraq after nightfall that the sweeping hordes of highway robbers were a thing of the past. Then, in the empty desert wastes on the way to Ramadi we are waved off the road by the gasoline vendors, who have set up camp outside the isolated rest stop. We pull off and drive slowly through what looks like some nomad encampment from a post nuclear sci fi epic. Stacked piles of jerry cans of petrol … people hunched over small bonfires, keeping warm in the desert night chill.
Now, trying to write in a dark 4×4 with only a dim bulb from the fruit stand outside swaying in the wind and the not-so-gentle snoring of Marwan and Abu Ahmed in the front seats for a soundtrack, I realize I was wrong. Back to the Mad Max reality of Iraq.
ARRIVING just after dawn in the center of Baghdad I am shocked by the grayness and ramshackle squalor. By the litter and debris and pools of black, stagnant, malodorous puddles which fill the numerous potholes. With none of the typical clamor and bustle that characterizes Baghdad in the waking hours to hide the blemishes and scars, I look on the hag face of a former beauty and want to avert my gaze.
I have to knock on the locked steel gate of the Hotel Yarmouk. At first Fuad doesn’t want to open. Then he recognizes me, undoes the locks and lets me in. He puts the pistol back in its hiding place between the cushions of the couch he was sleeping on and – pointing to another couch – tells me to get some sleep till the morning desk clerk wakes up. Even the uhlan wa sahlans here are tired and strained.
I decide to spend a couple of days getting my bearings. Walk around, look up old friends, find the necessary travel info and try to gauge the political and social clime before stumbling blindly into the unknown. A primary rule of thumb when traveling in dicey areas: get all the updates about the swiftly changing situation; then stumble blindly into the unknown.
As I talk again with people I met on my first trip last August, I hear the same answer over and over: Iraq is zayn now; zayn being the local slang for kwayis or tammam . . . fine, good , great depending on intonation. Not completely zayn mind you, but more zayn than it was six months ago. It’s possible to be out after nightfall but still not recommended to be out after 11:00. For the first few days back, it was a four hours on, four hours off schedule for electricity, and people planned accordingly. Generators were kept fueled and most places had hurricane lamps.
But just like the first trip, it was still amazing to note how the electric supply could suddenly gear up to an ultra efficient 20 hours a day when there was an increase in civil unrest, street fighting or bombings. Call me paranoid but I began to suspect a connection between public utilities and Coalition strategists.
And the gunfire. If gunfire can have a tone, can convey a mood, then this time around the mood was more senseless and random. And a lot closer. At odd hours a shot or two or three with no answering fire in the street in front of the hotel. Most of the time everyone would freeze for a moment, then break into good natured but high strung mockery of whoever among us had dove for cover or flinched. The sound of more earnest and genuine gun battles was usually far enough away to pass unnoticed.
For the first few days, there was almost no sign of the U.S. military. The copters were too high up and far away to be seen clearly. That too changed after the Ashura bombings.
Like most words you can think of, zayn is a relative term.
For the first few days of reorientation, I couldn’t help but notice how much calmer the city seemed. On the first trip, I was hopped-up on adrenaline and the Iraqis were hopped-up on freedom. Now, there was a business-as-usual, life-goes-on atmosphere. Being alone on this trip, I no longer encountered the curious stares and the endless “Mister, mister!” of street vendors. When I did meet people and they found out I wras American, their response was more along the lines of”… Oh,” and we moved on to other topics. I was glad for the Iraqis. You can only go on for so long cranked out on anarchy before something gives.
Unfortunately, wrhat I initially perceived as calmness; as a ‘keep on keeping on’ pragmatism, would reveal its true nature over the coming days and weeks. It was in reality a deeply rooted despair watered daily by the vicissitudes of making ends meet while the world community mapped out a Utopian future for Iraq which conveniently overlooked its inhabitants.
THE WRETCHED OFTHE EARTH
Franz Fanon – one of the chief architects of the Algerian struggle for independence – stated in no uncertain terms that a nation freeing itself from the shackles of occupation must do so by means of a socialist revolution. No other brand of revolution or ideology would, or could succeed. His classic text, The Wretched of the Earth, served the Algerian struggle so well it has been borrowed, appropriated and rewritten by revolutionary groups the world over. This is no manifesto full of fiery slogans and empty promises. Its author, a trained psychiatrist, analyzes with brutal clarity the character of both oppressor and oppressed and clinically maps out the ways in which a people’s struggle can and must make their occupation unprofitable to the colonizing forces. Only then, when the proceeds of imperialism and dominance become a source of social and political deficit, will the occupying forces choose to withdraw’ and leave the natives – the savages who are savage simply because they are native – to their own devices. This tactic has been replayed the world over and with varying degrees of success: Palestine, Lebanon, El Salvador, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Vietnam to name just a few.
Nor does Mr. Fanon stop there. In the second half of the book he charts the necessary steps an emerging nation must follow in order to assure its continued independence and sovereignty as a nation state. With relentless logic and real and practical examples, he assures us that the first form of rule in the developing country must be socialist. In order to appease all sectors of society, in order to promote the proper egalitarian treatment of all classes, bul most importantly, to deny the will to power based purely on ethnicity or moneyed interests a foothold; the revolution must be socialist. Other forms of government are examined and cast aside as unworkable. Nationalism will always be to some degree exclusive, and democracy in the Western sense of the word is seen for what it is : a sacred cow of feigned equality promoted by a someare-more-equal-than-others wealthy elite. True socialism, according to Fanon, is truly democratic and therefore the only possible starting point in a post-colonial state.
Heady stuff for a downtrodden and exploited people. Unfortunately it is also a mode of thinking that is anathema to the world’s only surviving superpower. The U.S. and its ever changing list of allies has spent nearly a century in trying to stamp out anything that hints of Marxism and over two decades trying to ferret out and decapitate any movement rooted in Islam; whether socialist tinged or not But they are promising ‘democracy’ to Iraq. It begs the questionto borrow a phrase from Milton: So when is all hell going to break loosed
And everywhere you look in Baghdad, it seems there’s another office of the Iraqi Communist Party opening up. Sure; there are dozens of new NGO’s and Human Rights organizations opening up. From Kurdistan to the Shia’ south there are committees and parties and democratic fronts hanging out their plaques. But few of these are what the U.S. has in mind when it reverently intones ‘democracy’. That word is reserved only for secular, pro-globalization, U.S.-friendly camps.
More and more Iraqis every day have another word for such ‘democratic’ puppets: collaborators. There is a growing list of casualties in Iraq these days. People are being killed as collaborators, or for merely being suspected of collaboration with Coalition forces. High on the hit list are translators and others whose work brings them in contact with Westerners and in particular with the U.S. military or corporate reps trying to be first on their block to land the Iraqi account
From my hotel window I can look directly into a newly opened and usually empty Party HQ. Six months ago there were little or no signs of organized revolutionary activity. Seems America’s democratic chicken is coming home to roost
If you travel within the confines of a triangle roughly formed by Tikrit in the North, Kamadi and Falluja in the West and Ba’quba to the East you’ll encounter enough military checkpoints, convoys of serious military hardware, and’helicopter traffic to remind you that, almost a year after the end of heavy fighting, there’s a war going on. It is here that opposition to Coalition forces is the fiercest and organized resistance is most lethal. If you hear news reports of heavy fighting in Iraq against US troops, you can be almost certain of it occurring in what is called the Sunni Triangle. Cut out of the center of Iraq, with Baghdad just off dead center, it is the area with the highest percentage of Sunni Muslims and since Saddam hails originally from Awjaan oppressively grey and dusty village east of Tikrit – it is where you can expect to find most of the old Baathist hardliners as well. Assuming of course that such creatures exist Given the volatile nature of the region, it is hard to assess actual loyalties and leanings, whether tribal or political. Neither the military nor the local residents are particularly fond of outsiders showing up for a glimpse into Iraq’s own little heart of darkness.
Two things though, are apparent. It is not a homogenous region comprised of Wahabbibacked fundamentalists and Saddam cronies. Most of the population is looking towards a future Iraq minus Saddam but not all that different in other regards. The modern secular Iraq was fine if you overlooked the psychopathic head of state. The other glaring truth is – in spite of constant news reports to the contrary – I have yet to meet anyone claiming loyalty to Saddam’s Baathist ideals. I’ve met socialists and communists, Muslim and Christian spokesmen of every persuasion, Kurds, Assyrians, and Yezidis, proponents of armed struggle and peaceniks. Democratic reformers and pan-Arabists, Iraqis, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians and Iranians. But not one self-proclaimed Saddamite Baathist in the bunch.
Not one. Makes you wonder where the Beltway and Downing Street hawks are getting their information from. Assuming that factual information has a role in deciding whether or not to wage wars.
The next morning it would be on to Falluja. I had no way of knowing that a mere few weeks after the journey, locals in that little corner of the Iraqi dustbowl would be dubbing their village a “graveyard for Americans”.
Saturday, February 28
Believe no one. Last night as I prepared to head off for Falluja in the am,, I asked AU at the front desk whether it would be difficult to get into Falluja. Whether there was a checkpoint or not. “Of course there’s a checkpoint,” he replied. “But it’s nothing to worry about. You’re American.” I stared at him blankly. “You’re a journalist …”he went on, “Just show them your press pass.”
I explained not only did I not have a recognized press pass; I didn’t have a “Coalition Approved Press Pass.”
“Oh” he said.
With this news in mind I spent a few hours debating whether to go at all. Lots of scenarios ran through my head: I go and don’t get in. I go, get stopped at a checkpoint and am detained and questioned and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. I go and slip through coalition security only to be picked up, tortured and eventually pummeled to death by angry Fallujians who are certain I am an agent of the Imperialists. I don’t go. I stay in Baghdad and sleep in.
Knowing I would be forever kicking myself if I didn’t try to cover Iraq’s most notorious flashpoint I resolved to go. What wasn’t so easy was silencing the part of my brain which kept muttering: its decisions like this that make people wake up dead. Nobody’s forcing you. You could go to a museum! Visit the pretty ruins of Babylon and Ur. But nooooooooooo … you have to go to the front lines! Did I ever mention that common sense was not your strongest suit?
Eventually the voice got bored and I was able to sleep.
There is no checkpoint to Fallufa. Having found my way to Alawi station and jumped on a minibus, I was now entering the city limits of Fallufa. The other passengers spent most of the hour long trip debating the future of Iraq and the realities behind the headlines. “It’s a war of the West versus islam” was a popular one. “America wants to spark a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shi’a … divide, then conquer” was another:
I’m fust really glad no one asked me where I was from. Might have dampened the conversation a bit. They did find it odd that whenever we slowed down or approached what might be a checkpoint, I slid the camera under the seat, but they were too polite to comment.
It was a short walk from the bus station to the town center. A short walk in what would prove to be a very short visit.
Appearances are deceptive. The place had a reputation. I would find out later that the reason we had to stop in the middle of the desert on the way in was because we were nearing the Ramadi/Falluja area. The combination of nightlime curfew and a heavy Ali Baba presence made the zone a suicidal night drive.
The main strip had little to offer in the way of things to do. Auto repair shops, numerous roasted chicken outlets, some clothing stores and street vendors selling everything from produce to plastic sandals to second hand clothes
I had the camera out of sight under my jacket which was hanging over my shoulder. It may be February to the rest of the world but in Iraq, it’s late spring. Since I didn’t know the terrain except through rumor and dated news I thought it best to remain unnoticed at least till I got my bearings. It was too early for dhuhr prayer so loitering in a mosque in the midst of the “rebel held” Sunni Triangle was not an option. The few mosques I did see were of that concrete prefab style that looked more at home somewhere in the deserts outside of Vegas. The only thing missing was lumbleweed.
Which is probably why I was surprised to look up and see a building with the sign in English and Arabic: Iraq Telecommunications and Internet Center. Not many of those in Baghdad. While I was pondering whether to go inside and see if I could e-mail the magazine to tell them I was still alive, I was nabbed by the mukhabarat. A guy materializes out of nowhere-mid twenties, plainclothes, a shadow of a beard . . .
“What are you loo king for?” he asked.
“A coffee shop.” was my first response. I wanted to sit down somewhere and think over what to do next rather than continue walking like I knew where I was going when I hadn’t a clue. Some dark corner of a coffee shop would give me a second to figure out how exactly I was going to ‘cover’ Fallufa. I could also feed the cqffeine monkey on my back.
That was an easy one.
“To drink some coffee …” I answered. His face remained impassive. If anything he seemed slightly annoyed.
“Or . . . tea …”
I was holding up my end of the conversation. He meanwhile, pulled off a move I’d only seen previously in action movies. When I first started talking with him I had seen no sign of a weapon. Then, with a slight shrug of the shoulder, therewas an AK-47 comfortably nestled in the crook of his right elbow.
“What are you doing here?”
All right, I thought, enough small talk. “I’m a journalist,” as I slowly reached for my passport and business card that I used in lieu of bona fide press credentials. He glanced at them and motioned to two of his colleagues, who, like the rifle, materialized out of nowhere. They made it clear I was going with them. At that moment, my biggest fear was that somewhere at the end of this little walk I would end up face to face with some American officer named Sergeant Buck who would be really, really annoyed by the presence of a “unilateral” journalist in occupied Iraq. My fear would prove unjustified. The American military stays clear of downtown Falluja Their base is a couple miles down the highway and surrounded by miles of concrete walls.
Showing up at the mukhabarat HQ caused quite a stir. By the time we entered the senior officer’s office, we had about eight curious policemen in tow. A translator was sent for but unfortunately was”along the lines of: “You . . . Here . . . What?” said very loudly. So I stuck to Arabic The senior officer said little while he absently thumbed through my ID. What made everyone there suspicious, it turned out, was that I seemed to be interested in the telecommunications center. I had stopped in front of it. Didn’t I know that Falluja was dangerous? I was asked What exactly did I want here?
I explained that even as nearby as Baghdad, the reputation of Falluja as a flashpoint of resistance was well established In the past year, the town had definitely earned its place on the map.
Back in Amman, the reports start to come in. A carload of foreigners was stopped in Falluja. The passengers were killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge. What isn’t clear at the moment of writing is who the passengers were. Some reports say civilian, others U.S. military. Does it matter? Of course. The who helps answer the why and sets the stage for what next. As I view the images of dismembered bodies and a crowd reveling in the purest of Dionysian frenzies, I find another equally disturbing series of questions. What is a carload of “civilians” doing in Falluja? Why is there an American media blackout on the more graphic images?
Within a day of so, a clearer picture emerges. The “civilians” worked for Blackwater Security, an elite mercenary training outfit in North Carolina. Blackwater protects Bremer among others. Increasing numbers of mercenary units under the banner nf security advisors have entered the Iraqi maelstrom. Knowing that the victims were former Navy Seals working as hired guns makes me less sympathetic to their fate. Is that wrong?
Trying to piece a story together, the constant news updates coming out of this small dusty town have turned any impressions I had on their head. The U.S. military presence in Falluja is now, in mid- April, a militant one as insurgents begin an all out bid to regain territory from the occupying coalition. A month after my visit and news commentators are already making comparisons, however lame, to the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Were Iraqi security forces serious when they asked what I was looking for in Falluja?
After ten minutes or so, I was free to leave – or so I thought. As I gathered my things the translator earnestly pantomimed and sputtered in broken English: You have money? Your money? Then I realized what he meant. He wanted to make sure no one had pocketed the small stash of money in my camera bag or demanded any baksheesh I assured him that no one had in any way done anything untoward or venal and that I wasn’t upset. Strange when you realize these guys are in a no-win situation. They would never be fully trusted by the Coalition because they were first and foremost Iraqi and they spoke the wrong language; and secondly because any dissident or paramilitary groups in the area would see them as stooges and collaborators to the hated coalition. And they were worried that I might get a bad impression?
I was now free … to go to the police station. I got in the back seat of a jeep. I stared at the barrel of another Kalashnikov propped up in the front seat with its barrel aimed at my snout. I prayed we didn’t hit any bumps. The driver moved it to a safer place and it was off to the Falluja Police Station.
It would be easy to portray these Iraqi security measures in a Keystone Kops fight but that simply wasn’t the case. Given the undoubted rarity of suspicious lone foreigners wandering around, there was definite curiosity. But what surprised me most was the warnings and worried looks of those I spoke with. One of the police stopped me before leaving the mukhabarat and said bluntly: “This is nota good place to be. We’re afraid something will happen to you. The people here don’t like foreigners.” He was apologetic. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be spending the next few days in lockup surviving on cockroach soup till they got to the bottom of this lone ‘journalist’ scoping out the Telecom Center issue. Given the situation they could have been much less polite and much more thorough, and if anything went amiss they could plead “C’est la guerre.”
I was handed over to Lieutenant Khalid at the police station for a lower key version of the same interrogation. Lt Khalid was one of those physically demonstrative Arabs. In his mid thirties with a receding hairline and a mustache straight out of an old Egyptian tarbush opera, he led me by the hand to his superior officer. Throughout the questioning he held my hand. It was both disconcerting and amusing to be questioned while holding hands. I felt as if we were being gently chastised by someone’s Dad because we’d be caught kissing on the front porch. After this perfunctory round of questions I was taken outside by Lt. Rhalid; past another respectfully curious squad of uniforms. Outside he said simply: Now we go to my house. For lunch.
There goes the blood and guts front-line war story angle.
Since there is a sundown curfew in the area, Khalid suggested I stay overnight and head back to Baghdad in the morning. Back at his house, his older brother – whom I never saw – vetoed the idea. No strangers in our house overnight Even South Lebanon during the Israeli occupation wasn’t so closed, hostile, and suspicious toward the outside world. I wouldn’t be there long enough though, to make sense of how bad the situation was. Khalid did inform me that the Sunday previous had seen a lot of firefights and rockets and general mayhem. Like most war zones, it’s the waiting which drives people round the bend … the intervals between incidents and the silences that scrape nerves raw like a razor blade on dry bone.
After one of the best home cooked meals I’ve had in years, Khalid offered to take me to the bus station. As a gesture of thanks i offered him a night on the town in Baghdad. What surprised me is that he accepted. When we arrived at his house, he had quickly changed into the warmup suit favored by most shabdb for lounging around the house. Now he asked me to wait and came back with something more suitable to the bright lights, big city world of Baghdad: pressed trousers, shined shoes, a dress shirt and casual jacket. I couldn’t help feeling that this excuse to go ‘into the city’ was a welcome relief and a bit of a novelty. Especially with a foreigner. It’s only an hour away but I got the feeling that Khalid was a small town boy at heart His enthusiasm over a Baghdad outing was so genuine and endearing, it made me glad I had offered.
Did I mention I could really love this place?
ASK ME NO QUESTIONS, I’LL TELL YOU NO LIES
A recurrent question which soon becomes tiresome to expats is: How do I get to America? Firstly, because WE DON’T KNOW. All we have to do is show up at the border with passport in hand and they have to take us in. Or at least it used to be that way; I haven’t been back in a while. Secondly, the fact that an expat is someone who usually chooses to Uve abroad means they’re usually not up to selling you a bill of goods on how great things are in the old country.
In Iraq in particular, it’s a question you have to field at least a dozen times a day if not more. I usually tell them to go to Canada. It’s just like America without all the disposable culture, plastic, and drive-by shootings. You also fork over less tax dollars to fund other people’s wars.
In Lt. Khalid’s case, it was somewhat understandable. He had seen Bush’s storm troopers come in and make mincemeat out of Saddam’s stranglehold on a nation. He had been trained by the U.S. effort to make Iraq capable of policing itself. He had seen the brawny, tattooed GIs in the latest Jedi Knight fashions. He came from Falluja which didn’t have a single hotel, or cinema. Even the Arab mainstay of a coffee shop was noticeably absent Just looking for one could get you arrested.
It doesn’t matter how many times you try to explain that the America that is beamed into their homes via satellite and internet is a manufactured one. That even the window shoppers and homeless beggars in the latest Hollywood blockbuster are paid extras; and the “real” cars, window shoppers and homeless beggars have been relegated to watching the dream makers from behind barricades. That the myths broadcast over the Voice of America are just that: myth. And a very intentional and selective mythos at that When you start to explain that many Americans are worried about employment, housing and health care and if there’s time left over they can turn a worried glance towards the swift and Draconian curtailing of civil liberties once taken for granted; many aspiring immigrants turn a deaf ear. Why? Because they want their chance, if nothing else. They want the chance to try and to fail miserably if need be. Kegaled by the heroic exploits of a select few compatriots who made it; who got over, who worked the system – often by any means necessary – they are impatient when someone tries to mangle their dreams of a better place. For some, it may be all they have to make the here and now tolerable. You realize that to tamper with the fabric of such necessary illusions serves little purpose and that the information overload that the average “Westerner” carries around as baggage, is just one more chance they haven’t had. You learn to nod politely, offer the occasional encouraging comment and choke back that lump of postmodern irony you’ve had the chance to acquire. Sometimes, you just have to listen.
When U.S. aid is translated into anti-litter accessories and the Bush/Blair care packages for “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan” come in the form of cluster bombs, sanctions and belligerent militar}’ occupation, it’s hard not to be a bit cynical.
To your average Iraqi, such attitudes matter very little. Whether because of a thirty-year news blackout called “Saddam” or a worldview so prevalent in developing countries that says in effect – someone must give a damn, the rest of the world can’t possible be so blindly unfeeling; the question asked most often by the dispossessed is an anguished “WHY?!”
Another question expats hate to be asked.
You listen politely as people rattle off UN resolutions; review a modern history that is ethically unconscionable save to those who shaped it, and detail the Kafkaesque contortions that passes itself off as “living”. Then it comes. The “Why?” and the “What are we supposed to do now?’ which leaves you mumbling into your tea and humbly accepting seconds of Arabic sweets spiked with guilt.
Ali has less than a leg and a half, thanks to the war, and is a self-proclaimed beggar. He buys me tea, and then with extremely agile crutches, walks me to my hotel in the evening.
Abu Ahmed warns me not to take the train north. “Trains are sitting ducks,” he says in English, “Ali Baba comes into the train, locks all the exits and robs and kills, while the conductors arid drivers run away.” He himself wras robbed of over 30,000 dinar coming back to Baghdad from his village. Ali Baba set up a roadblock, and clad in balaclava masks, made off with millions of dinar from Abu Ahmed and his fellow taxi passengers. In broad daylight. He shrugs, smiles, and goes back to teaching me how to improve my chess openings.
A boy of seven, with his shoeshine box, restores my muck encrusted boots to a squeaky clean, polished, shiny black and tells me the price: 250 dinar . . . twenty cents. The correct going price for locals. He’s overjoyed when I give him a thousand and I feel like I got away with something. I rationalize realistically that if I gave freely to everyone who needed or asked for it I’d last a day and a half.
These are some of Mr. Blair’s “wretched, dispossessed” ignorants that sanctions of starvation and brute military force were supposed to free. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans of mice and corporate spread sheets can go terribly, terribly wrong.
Covering these events from a point of involuntary anonymity conveys a much different story than the one uncovered by pulling up in a CNN van with camera crew and microphone in hand. The lack of translators and private transport puts you at the mercy of situations Iraqis face every day. Having to travel third class and alone, and watching other journos and their local translators scuttle between the Meridian and the next press conference in a private car, I have no qualms or illusions about which side of the street I’m working. But the supposed cardinal virtue of objectivity tends to take a good thrashing.
I learned early on, during the first intifada in Palestine, that there are two kinds of journalists. The first is the fact gathering journalist whose goal is objectivity. If he got too involved he could no longer either A) feed the information mills with the cold facts needed by his paymasters to sway electorates or produce clinical reports for next year’s budget proposals; or B) expose corruption, scandal and wrongdoings which conflicted with subjective loyalties. One of the main arguments for an objective press is to allow John Q. Public the ability to sift through facts without being told what they mean.
The second kind is what Edward Said called ‘the journalism of solidarity” and what my first mentor – a journalist from El Salvador who’d been at the front lines in Salvador, Beirut and Jerusalem – called with typical candor: activism.
Remember that lulling first impression upon returning to Baghdad? As U.S. forces plan an assault on Falluja to wrest it from the militias, the Madhi’s Army – a fringe rejectionist Shi’a party under the guidance of Sayid Muqtada Sadr – remains holed up in the Kufa mosque complex, and an increasing number of attacks on the US military from Shi’a militias in Baghdad fill the headlines, you find the questions replaced by grim certitude – that leaden feeling that things are going to get much worse before it gets any better. In the meantime, most names on casualty lists are Iraqi.
Northern Iraq is haunted ground.
Except for the 10th of Muharram, the weather in the Baghdad vicinity for almost ten days had been sunny and warm. The sun that rose on Ashura had to fight through gray clouds and smog, appearing as little more than a flat white disc hung over the city; the heavens themselves conspiring to wear sackcloth and ash in mute protest over violences past and present
Now, heading towards Mosul in a shared taxi, I watched the skies fade to a brooding metallic hue and expected rain which never came. The journey had already been unduly prolonged by having to drive at tortoise speed behind first one convoy, then another. We spent two hours being stared at from APCs and tanks by weapon toting GIs who occasionally swiveled their gun sights in our direction if we approached tailgate mode. The line of cars behind us got longer. Wanting to take a picture, I was quickly dissuaded by my fellow passengers. “They might shoot at the car” they warned. I thought bitterly of how over twenty years of Saddam had given way to an occupation force intent on keeping the blinders on.
As we left the outskirts of Tikrit the traffic loosened up, the checkpoints became more infrequent and the signs of war receded from view. The terrain became more rolling while the skies darkened. Somewhere around Kirkuk I saw a huge mountain of smoke billowing into the air and immediately thought of a massive aerial bombardment The weather wasn’t cloudy, it was smoke. No one else seemed to notice so I waited till we were close enough to see.
Oilfields. An occasional oil well belching flame. I thought simultaneously of New Jersey and the furnaces of Nebuchadnezzar.
We eventually passed out of the oil belt, or at least its more noxious aspect and the sky began to lighten. It was a sunny day after all. The strong feeling of a shift in spiritual geography persisted though as the rolling hills became mountainous and I began to flash on all the history this land had seen.
Go due north for an hour or so and take a left and you could picnic at lhe base of the ancient, leering colossus of Pazzuzu; demon of pestilence and the south wind. Ancient imperialists had taken the Babylonian god and made it a demon. Located in Hatra, its legacy survived mainly through a brief appearance in Freidkin’s film The Exorcist.
It seems the demon which frightened a generation of moviegoers thirty years ago by doing extremely nasty things to a twelve year old Linda Blair in Georgetown wasn’t quite finished with Washington DC just yet.
Further north were the ruins of Nimrod, then Mosul and what was left of Nineveh. The prevalence of signs and adverts in Turkish reminded you that the Northern Highway was Turcoman territory. North and East of Mosul was autonomous Kurdistan.
Aside from the obvious historical and journalistic interest in the region, I had pointedly vowed to myself before leaving Jordan that I would visit the maqam of the Prophet Jonah. Something about trying to flee from the responsibilities God has laid upon us spoke to me with an uncomfortable resonance.
Watching the landscape roll by, recalling the amount of travel required just to reach Baghdad and the vast amount of territory south of Najaf on the way to Basra and the Gulf, I keep thinking: Jonah had some major reservations about calling his people to God. Even in this day and age, the trip from Nineveh to the sea involves some serious fleeing.
You’d think the fear struck into the heart of a prophet about doing God’s work, at the command of God himself, would give some of today’s pulpit pushers a second thought.
Fortunately we arrived at the city limits of Mosul before I got too deeply involved in further speculation …
In many ways, Mosul is similar to any large Arab city that doesn’t have to live up to the reputation and responsibility of being the capital. Tripoli in Lebanon or Syria’s Aleppo come to mind. Particularly Aleppo, since they both broach the Turkish border and have a large Kurdish population. These provincial centers are often more laid back and intimate than their cosmopolitan cousins.
In Mosul, you could forget you were in Iraq. Electricity was generally available and generators were primed for the occasional brief lapses which seldom lasted more than twenty minutes. Men, and women surprisingly, were out on the street – often as late as ten p.m. There were no warnings about being out after dusk.
Only the sporadic palrol of low flying copters or the occasional pop of distant gunfire would nudge the word Iraq to mind. All things, like I said, being relative. Like Aleppo in Syria, there was a grey, dingy quality about the city center. The string of cheap hotels and numerous taxi stands and bus stations that characterized the wasit-al-balad section of Mosul said little about the rest of the city. It was only when wandering the suqs and thoroughfares that 1 noticed most main streets served to camouflage the back alleys and twisted by-ways of residential neighborhoods. Hidden behind the store fronts and traffic jams were a multitude of tiny, ancient streets full of old Arabic houses and courtyards which had remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
I asked the hotel proprietor for directions and planned to set out in the morning for the mosques of Prophet Seth and Prophet Yunus and the remains of Nineveh. The city also boasted mosques housing the remains of Prophet Girgis (St. George) and Khidr but so did a lot of cities in the Middle East. The fact that no one really could explain who “St. George” was and that the Khidr of Islamic tradition never died made the idea even more questionable. Then there were the accounts – mostly in Orientalist and Grail seeking circles – stipulating that Khidr was St George.
It would be enough, I thought to visit ground hallowed by the maqam of Prophet Seth, son of the Prophet Adam. Prophet Jonah was across the river square in the middle of what used to be Nineveh; the ‘exceeding great city of three days journey.”
In the still hours before dawn, Mosul groaned with the weight of history.
Now the word of the Lord came unto
Jonah, the son of Ammital
Saying: Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great
city and cry against it;
For their great wickedness has come up
before me …
THERE’S virtually nothing left of Nineveh. I began my search from the citadel – like maqam of Prophet Yunus, or Jonah, and found myself being led by a gang of kids through a village of mud brick houses crowned by graveyard hills in the shadow of the mosque. The ruins? This way! they promised. We finally topped a small rise at the base of the maqam complex and they pointed: Athar! Buins.
It was a large brick. A Volkswagen sized brick. Getting closer, I saw the winged lions so prominent in Assyrian ruins covering the side. There was a small cave like opening and a timber scaffolding nearby that said someone had been excavating but hadn’t gotten too far. Given the sanctity of the maqam site looming over us, there was little chance of the spot becoming an archeological dig. I asked one of the older kids again. Nineveh? Nargus Gate? He understood and we went off to hail a taxi.
Directly in front of the two massive gates to the ancient city that still survive was a barbed wire and sandbag checkpoint. I thought it prudent to ask the guard in military casuals and an AK-47 whether I could take pictures. He pointed to the building behind him and I noticed the sign: The Assyrian Association for a Democratic Iraq. A militia was guarding the site. A very nice militia but a militia nonetheless. He gave me a brief digest of the last six thousand years of Assyrian history and advised me to walk up the paths to the gates rather than climb the grassy hill. “The police station back there,” he pointed, ‘might see someone climbing around the site and shoot.”
Given the heterogeneous mix in Mosul of religion and ethnicity, I decided not to ask if they were guarding the site from anyone in particular.
Modern day Assyrians are Christian, and in light of the current situation I thought there might be more than one variation of a turf war in the works. Most people in this region had at least a dual identity; whether it was Arab Christian, Kurdish Muslim, Christian Assyrian, Arab Yazidi or … you get the picture.
Some photographs at sunset then back to the hotel for an early night Tomorrow morning was time to leave for Kurdistan.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN KURDISTAN
I don’t know why I expected Kurdistan to be such a wonderful place. Perhaps it was the fact that since 1992 the Kurds have enjoyed a hitherto undreamed of degree of autonomy. Scattered throughout Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria; the Kurds comprise the largest ethnic group to be officially stateless. Then, in Saddam’s Iraq of all places, a new era of history began. Iraq was practically the only nation with a sizeable Kurdish population that did not ban the use of the Kurdish language. What is more, the concept of a Kurdistan was actually concretized by the granting of autonomy to a large region in the north of Iraq. The dream was brought to life in the wake of the first Gulf War by the establishment of a safe haven and the implementation of no-fly zones by the victorious Allies. A capital was established in Arbil and the two largest political factions – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – now had a place to govern. Never mind the that when the two parties weren’t fending Saddam, they were busy fighting amongst selves for control of the burgeoning state. Or that neither side was particularly choosy in looking for allies to help rout their rivals. Barzani’s KI)P and Talabani’s PUK bounced between Iran, the U.S., and Turkey among others in order to oust the competition. Certainly a low point in the internecine wars was reached when Masud Barzani enlisted Saddam’s aid against the rival PUK; which led to KDP dominance in the western of Kurdistan.
The fact that – at last – there was a chunk land, larger than anything seen by Palestinians since biblical times, for the Kurds to call their own led me to believe; albeit foolishly, that Kurdistan would be a nice place to visit.
Live and learn.
I was fully aware of the atrocities and humiliations heaped on the Kurds by the twentieth century. The brutal decimation of the civilians Halabja by chemical weapons in 1988 was not a first Saddam may have gotten the idea from the British who had gassed the Kurdish population in the twenties during the Iraqi Revolution against British rule.
The U.S. had helped inspire more than one Kurdish rebellion against Saddam, only to bail out when Saddam retaliated, leaving the Kurds to face the wrath of Baghdad alone.
Stories like the following, which took place in the U.S.-inspired rebellions of Shi’a and Kurd forces in 1991 are legion:
The Republican Guard divisions … moved northwards to Kurdistan, where they joined other guard divisions … Hundreds of thousands of Kurds walked over the mountains in the freezing temperatures . . . There was no food on the way. Most felt they had been utterly betrayed by the Americans and British who had done so much for a million Kuwaitis and so little for five million Kurds.
In some places Turkish soldiers opened fire on the refugees … At the Iski veren camp near Uludeere … the Turkish soldiers played a game with the Kurds: if the aid packages dropped by allied planes landed near the refugees, they could keep them. And if they landed near the soldiers, the soldiers could keep them. The Wars Against Saddamby John Simpson).
On February ist ten days before I arrived in Iraq, the relative calm of Kurdistan was rocked by another of the random terror attacks plaguing the rest of Iraq. Like the bombings in Kerbala and Baghdad, the terror struck on a religious holiday: Eid al-Adha.
Twin suicide bomb attacks in Arbil claimed the lives of a hundred and left more than two hundred and forty injured. The entire region underwent three days of official mourning. Among the victims was Deputy Minister Sami Abd al-Kahman.
Another religious festival, this time The Feast of the Sacrifice, was cloaked in the blackest irony.
In spite of Kurdistan’s bloody history and countless attempts from its neighbors at ethnic cleansing, I looked forward to the visit Till I got to the border.
March 7, 2004
If you’re expecting a land of happy, laughing people . . .forget it. Welcome to KDP country, welcome to Stalin’s secret banana republic.
There’s a border. A bridge checkpoint where the nightmare begins. My passport is taken, and I’m frisked … repeatedly. With no introductions and even less explanation, a Kurdish GomerPyle and his mukhabarat sidekick get in the car.
Arriving in Arbil, the driver makes a quick getaway and I’m taken to the Ministry of the Interior. The plainclothes is fairly civilized and seems embarrassed by the whole thing, but GomerPyle in his uniform that resembled pajamas – or vice versa – is insisting I give him 4000 Iraqi dinar to return to his border post. I tell him no one asked for his company in the first place. Try walking.
One grubby office after another. Bureaucrats literally shuffle papers. Lined A4 notebook paper they call documents. At one point my latest interrogator has trouble finding his phone which is ringing under all the “documents”. Then he attaches a “document” to my passport.
Given their behavior I’m wondering if I’ve shown up on Interpol. And for what? Finally a translator is brought in. I mention that his black shirts are trying to get baksheesh “Yo u didn ‘t give them anything , did you?!” was his response. I’m not sure if he was relieved when I said no.
He explained the reason for all the security. The suicide bombings. I was reminded that travel in Iraq was dangerous. I reminded him I was in Kurdistan.
After a friendly talk with more security people I was directed to a hotel, and accompanied by another soldier.
The hotel manager was adamant. No. No foreigners without permission from the Mukhabarat.
Back to the Ministry of the Interior where Sami, the translator, made a few calls. Seems I have to go to the Security headquarters for a visa, I guess the Ministry of the Interior doesn’t have as much clout as they used to.
Off in another taxi to the other side of Arbil. I get to sit on a box outside the barbed wire, sandbags and large metal gate that protects the national security force from foreigners. Someone comes back out and explains I can come back tomorrow to get my passport. They give me a yellow paper and tell me to bring three photos. “For what?” I ask. For permission to travel in Kurdistan.
“And what if I’m stopped and asked for my passport before tomorrow?”
They don’t have any answer save: “that’s the way it’s done here. You must get an iqama, a travel permit.”
The yellow paper is supposed to get me into a hotel.
Welcome to Kurdistan, he says.
More like Stalin ‘s Russia, I reply.
Another taxi, back to the hotel. My bags are getting heavy and I’m dripping with sweat under the jacket that – when I left – was easier to wear rather than jam into an already overpacked travel bag. The sun is cutting through the haze and the temperature is rising.
Back at the hotel, the manager is all smiles. Makes me wonder who the scowling and refusals were aimed at the first time. The strong feeling that all this ‘security’ wasn’t good for business, or worse, that he felt he was being set up. A classic case of entrapment. If he let me in without a yellow paper, which the soldier accompanying me tried to convince him to do, the “security” folks would come down hard. Had I just wandered into a police state where even the locals were at the whim of military juntas?
I was shown into a dingy pit of a room with a broken bathroom, no window and dimly fiickeringfiuorescent lights.
Arbil, I had been told, was KDP territory. The PUK has just gotten another supporter by default.
I soon realized that Kurdistan was a land of “special prices”; of the petty rip-off. There are places where every door opened with a smile, every taxi ride, every single interaction is potentially laced with greed and revenge on the “haves” by the “have nots.” It usually strikes in heavily touristed but poverty struck countries. Logically, if you come from outside, you are richer than the residents … or so the thinking goes. You can expect it in impoverished countries with spectacular ruins from Mexico to India. I expected it in Iraq, where not only wasn’t there much of an economy, there wasn’t much of an infrastructure. I was pleasantly surprised when the occasional attempts in Baghdad were so easily dismissed, and the importunate demand quickly turned to a sheepish, oh-well-I-tried shrug. In Kurdistan it was often, and in earnest
How bout a room with a window and a working bathroom? 2000 more a day.
Give me 4000 dinar so I can go back to my post and harass someone else.
Foreign? Give me money.
In heavily touristed areas it’s a symbiotic thing. Tourists, totally out of touch with local economy, throw money around like it was Monopoly money. The locals become accustomed to easy marks, and the smooth talking bargaining games. In heavily touristed areas.
But this is Iraqi Kurdistan.
The next day
More of the same. My visa wasn’t an “arrive, pick it up and leave” affair. For two hours I went back and forth between three different offices that looked like someone’s garage at least twice. Maybe three times, iforget.
Questions like: Are you a member of any terrorist organization such as Al-Qaida or Ansar al-Islam filled much of the time. I found myself starting to wonder. Maybe I was and I just didn’t know it. I was brought back to reality by uniformed hayseed grunts asking for money: You are foreign? American? Gefme mooney!
I finally got a three day visa to visit Kurdistan. This was day two.
And if I have to stay longer? If I’m in Sulaymaniyafor more than a day?
You have to come back and get a visa extension.
Even when the sun is shining, Arbil is grey and oppressive. The occasional resident that would stop to talk at any length usually painted such a bleak picture of unemployment, poverty and statelessness that I had to wonder where all the money from those Kurdish oil reserves was going. Or what good autonomy was doing for those not on KDP or PUK payrolls.
I don’t know about Sulaymaniya but in Arbil, the stench of nationalism and tribal warlords decked out as national heroes made it difficult to breathe. The KDP was on its third generation of Barzanis and things were not getting better. Often described as opportunist and corrupt by the media, Masud Barzani, in the form of framed portraits is everywhere.
I hope things are better in the east, where Talabani’s PUK rules the roost.
But I’m not holding my breath. The air is already too thin.
I HAVE never seen nationalism for its own sake put to any constructive ends. On the contrary, whether it be in the form of Zionism, Aryanism, Balkan or Bwandan ethnic cleansing or the American “war on terror”; it remains a short term, myopic goal that produces long term tragedy. How can the ground we were whelped on be – in and of itself – a cause for pride and an assertion of moral dominance?
Like most ultra-nationalist movements, the dread word Greater can be heard in Kurdistan. A Greater Kurdistan with a border running from Sinjar in the west, all the way through Mosul, veering south to include Kirkuk and then to Sulaymaniya and Halabja along the Iranian border. On my exit from Kurdistan, I saw flags flying as far south as Tuz on the Kirkuk/ Baghdad highway.
Did anyone ask the Yezidis in Sinjar, or the Arabs or Turkomen or Assyrians in Mosul and Kiruk how they felt about being absorbed into a “Greater Kurdistan”?
Am I oversimplifying when I see nationalism as a ‘some people are never satisfied’ construct?
Staring out the car window on the way to Sulaymaniya at the increasingly mountainous and rugged terrain, I see occasional fortress-like structures stranded in the landscape. They seem to be abandoned prisons or medieval castles. I get the uneasy feeling they might still be in use.
Postcards from the Land of Mordor.
WHEN, or should I say “if, Kurdistan gets onto the beaten track of places to see, then Sulaymaniya will be the showpiece and the resort center. Surrounded by mountain peaks it is a small city full of narrow, tree lined streets and little traffic circles adorned with metal sculptures. The overall impression is muted; it is neither ultramodern nor distinctly ancient. I found myself comparing it to a small Tyrolean town at the base of the Alps, or odder still; Woodstock NY. Like the New York town, it shows its best face to the world in a way that is self-consciously quaint and pleasing to the eye.
When it came to finding a hotel, though, it seems there was no room at the inn. Asking around for the nearest place to stay, you are unfailingly steered to the Sulaymaniya Palace. Set dead center in the town it’s easily the tallest and most conspicuous building. But there’s no sign.
Asking the security guards out front meant surrendering to another frisking.
Once inside, I was told there were no rooms. I began to wonder what might be going on that would cause a media circus, or international conference to descend on this idyllic backwater.
I was steered toward two hotels nearby and when they weren’t booked solid, they were still in the 40-50 dollar a day range. Looking around the lobbies, I noticed how crowded and busy these places were.
If you have to stay in Kurdistan, you might as well go in style. I cursed the lack of funds so near the end of the trip, and the magazine that had me humping my way like a refugee through such bourgeois comforts in the latest “middle of nowhere” scenario. I trudged on till I found an affordable dive.
An hour later, taking a picture of two old Kurdish men in traditional turbans and sashes sitting on a traffic circle bench, I thought of staying an extra day. Focusing the lens, trying to make the most of the setting sun on this pastoral scene, I was interrupted by the police.
I showed them my passport. My visa.
I was ordered in no uncertain terms into the back of a police truck with half a dozen other convict types. They drove at speed to the police headquarters, no doubt praying I wouldn’t blow myself up en-route.
The commanding officer took one look at my papers, barked something suitably vicious at the arresting officers who didn’t know a visa when they saw one, and shook my hand. There is no problem. Sorry. Welcome.
Then I had to convince the guards at the gate that I was free to leave. They asked where I was from. They asked what I thought of Kurdistan.
“I don’t see any difference between your idea of security, and Saddam’s.”
I expected a response. They had none, I decided to leave in the morning.
Most, if not all of us, have a strange sympathy for the underdog. The ones who refuse to lie down on history’s rubbish pile. The fact that the Kurds are a sore spot on many a national conscience and their history has been a series of humiliations, exiles and double-crosses, predisposes one to empathize with their cause and to overlook faults you would condemn in a more developed nation. Yet-even taking into account the occasional kind gesture; from the taxi driver who refused to take any money to the young photographer who spent an hour helping you find an affordable hotel – you walk away from Kurdistan with a bitter taste of xenophobia. The collective fear of outsiders produces an equal and opposite reaction. At a time in Iraq’s history when many are seeking someone to blame; ethnocentricism is not advisable.
For tangible proof of this bullish, nationalistic fervor one need go no farther than the TV. In the hotel in Sulaymaniya, the TV was turned to KurdSat After a half hour discussion featuring a single talking head in front of a map outlin|ing the plans for a Greater Kurdistan, the news came on. Top story? Local delegates discussing the future of Kurdistan and emphasizing how democratic that future would be. Two seats in the National Assembly to represent the Christian residents who do not fall under the Kurd banner. Out of a hundred seats. Two.
I’m sure the Christians, Assyrians, Turcoman and other non-Kurds are overjoyed.
This was followed by story number two. Three school children in traditional costumes singing an ode to Kurdistan. Someone grab these kids before North Korean PR men whisk them away to do endless promos for Kim Jong II.
Despite claims that the song of the future is democracy, human rights and a healthy respect for pluralism; the song ringing loudest in my ears was: “I Hear You Knocking, But You Can’t Come In.”
AFTER living in the Middle East for twelve years, the impossible has finally happened. You gel used to being suspected of spying if you carry an American passport What else would you possibly be doing in the blighted region? You eventually take it in stride and realize that most people in this part of the world would rather be safe, than sorry.
Suddenly, a shift in the cosmic and temporal order of things has turned the “foreigner’ – particularly the Muslim foreigner – into a terrorist From the Mediterranean to as far as the subcontinent if not further, the face of terror is the face of the outsider. A Muslim outsider? All the more suspect. The’ suddenness of this ironic turn of affairs had me reeling and reminded me of the cynical adage:
If you think you know what’s going on in the Middle East … you haven’t been properly briefed.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
When most people hear you just returned from Iraq, they usually ask: So how is it? Most of them, you realize, want a sound byte answer they can replay at a later date. Something succinct and tangible from ‘someone who was there’ to bolster any one of a multitude of saving-the-world schemes or conspiracy theories.
Coming back to Amman, there were questions from friends, an interview or two and some writing to get done.
So how is it? What’s it like now?
In the beginning you answer but quickly realize the word answer is not appropriate. What adjective aptly covers the next Lebanon; the latest Vietnam? You want to say: It’s simple, get a taxi, go there. See for yourself. The people are very nice. They won’t kill you for being a Westerner but they may arrest you a lot. You might get blown up but it’s nothing personal. At the end of the day in a country of 26,000,000 … there are still about 25,999, 984 survivors.
You might even say just that. Once or twice. Then you get quiet. Wonder when the latest visit will sift itself down into usable memory and you can go back and catch the next installment. The world is seldom shook in a mere ten days. For Iraq, this is still only the beginning.
A week or two after leaving and Falluja is under siege from the Coalition forces. The stop and go nature of such conflicts has once again shifted into high gear. It probably shifted while I was there, beginning with the Ashura bombings but when you’re in the midst of the chaos it seems more routine. It will no doubt, fade after a bit from the front page for a few weeks of exhausted, forced calm. The worst part of war is the waiting. Ask anyone who’s been to one.
AT HOME, the pile of newspapers and internet printouts grows but sheds little light. Turning on the radio to catch the BBC news, 1 am surprised to hear what sounds like the “special English’ of VOA; that over-enunciated and slowr English supposed to help non-native speakers. I realize it’s George Bush Jr. And what he has to say is no surprise. Gone is the 100-day countdown to Iraqi self-determination. It looks like the U.S. is in for a longer haul.
The rest of the press conference would be comic if the fate of 26,000,000 didn’t depend on it. Promises of peace for Christians and Jews and “Muslims who want peace”. A peace he compares to the peace and freedom “we” brought to Kosovo and Afghanistan. Someone give the man a newspaper.
Bremer, when asked who exactly would take over when sovereignty was returned to the Iraqi people, answered: “That’s a good question …”
Iraqi police forces are seen on international television fleeing from the fighting which only seems to be spreading. Caught between the heavy handed cowboy tactics of the Americans and their equally intractable fundamentalist foes; do they have any choice?
One thing is certain. Too many politicians and commentators alike are trying desperately to present us with variations of a mythological good versus evil saga. Hoping no doubt that “good” will triumph as it must in all epic fantasies. Such monochromatic absolutes not only degrade the situations they seek to describe, but also negate the possibility of reality-based solutions. It also leaves out a color that is spilling out all over Iraq. Red.
At this point in time, Iraq is so far from such black-and-whites that any attempts at analysis or policy making which insists on such reductionism will be akin to trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Before we even try to find villains, shouldn’t wc at least find out who’s in the game? At last count, there were no less than seven. Without counting factional differences and internecine warfare you have:
The Coalition, Le the Americans, the Brits, and their allies. Whatever their motivation for entering Iraq, they are now stuck. The good news is that all those weapons of mass destruction never existed so they won’t be attacked with those. The bad news is that no one likes a military occupation to begin with and this one has been going on, in its way, since 1991. Resentment is fierce and many Iraqis are no longer content to sit around and mope as this phase of occupation drags on and on. Most ground troops have little or no knowledge of Arabic, Islam or Arab culture. Who needs Berlitz when you have superior firepower?
The Shi’a. The country’s majority. The problem is they were denied much of a voice in Iraqi self-determination under lhe iron fist of Saddam. Massacred, oppressed, displaced and relegated to the shadowy fringes of the old Baathist regime; they feel their time has come. Democracy? Majority rule? Sounds good. Thanks to the past attempts by the U.S. to foment antiSaddam rebellions and then abandoning their local agitators to face the consequences; they are understandably cold towards any American plans for a new Iraq. And America’s worst nightmarc scenario is an Islamic Republic of Iraq. It’s already had enough trouble with Iraq’s neighbor: Iran. Oneofthe biggest mistakes anyone can make al present is to view the Shi’a population as a homogenous entity. The factions are too numerous to count and they range from Coalition supportive clerics to outright rejectionists. The news of the day is happy to center on Coalition-tolerant Sistani and his large following as the “good guy’ and the young upstart Sadr with his fervent anti-imperialist pro-jihad rhetoric as the bad guy. Fortunately, the bad guy has a smaller following. Then why are the troops having so much trouble catching him? It is his rhetoric helping to inflame young militias in Baghdad to strike at U.S. troops.
The reality of the situation is that most Shi’a I met were decidedly secular in their views on Iraqi politics. A name that came up repeatedly was Ibrahim Jaffri as a political hopeful. One Shi’a politician, among many, trying to make a go of things by working within lhe political process. Does this make for titillating headlines? Of course not Stick to the mullahs and madbombers if you wanl to sell papers. The highest concentrations of Shi’a are in the South. Current headlines point to the possibility that American bungling may turn Najaf into the next Fallu ja.
The Sunnis. The minority by a handful of percentage points. For decades they enjoyed the backing of Saddam. In theory. Saddam himself comes from Sunni dominated Tikrit, but had as much to do with religion as cows do with siding. Such favor afforded the Sunni population with most of the choice government positions and the chief role in policy making. Should any Sunni individual or group become too Islamic such favor would dry up. Sunni and Shi’a under Saddam became ethnicity. The so-called Sunni Triangle may be comprised of mostly Sunni’s and the cities that lie in its area may be a bit more provincial and backward than say Baghdad, or Mosul; but the attempts Io portray lhe region as a hotbed of fundamentalism is a convenient oversimplification. To obtain a reliable analysis of the current power struggle would have to take into account questions of tri bal loyalty, decades of political infighting and lhe role that religion has played in the area before the ousting of Saddam. One question noi being asked enough is “why are Iraqis so suspicious of foreigners these days if they arc brewing a homemade revolution. Why are foreigners traveling alone suspected of terrorism?”
It might have something to do with the fact that when terrorism hits, it is often carrying a “foreign” passport. Zarqawi – a Jordanian – is still apparently the prime suspect in the Ashura bombings. Iraqis wouldn’t have the name of Osama bin Laden on the tip of their tongues if lhey were indeed sponsoring their own liberation struggle.
The Kurds. A sizeable majority in parts of Northern Iraq. In the recent past, they took breaks from warring with Baghdad so they could carry on factional and tribal warfare among themselves. An old Kurdish saying says that the mountains are the Kurd’s only friends. They have however made some fairly friendly deals with any number of outside forces ranging from Turkey to Iran, Baghdad to Washington if they thought it would provide an upper hand over rival factions. Within Autonomous Kurdistan it is a fairly homogenous demographic but talk of a Greater Kurdistan has many in Mosul, Kirkuk and even Baghdad nervous. The refusal of Shia representatives to sign onto a provisional Iraqi constitution (and the bombings which followed the refusal) claimed Kurdish demands as prime cause for the breakdown in negotiations.
The Turcoman. A small popula tion of Turkic ethnicity hailing originally from Turkmenistan., the Iraqi Turcoman live mostly along the MosulBaghdad highway. Not appearing overly threatening to anyone, their sympathies with Turkey and use of the Turkish language probably does not endear them to the Kurds – whose history in Turkey is long and bloodstained. Any conflicts centering on the Turcoman population is usually related to either tribal warfare or Kurdish nationalism.
Assyrian and Arab Christians. Another minority. Centering mostly around Mosul; the decades under Saddam created a melting pot effect where people were often Iraqi first, denominational second – if at all. Like most Christian populations in the Middle East there is a constant low grade fear that lhey will be subjected to becoming second class citizens in the wake of an Islamic revolution. Either that or they will become unwilling scapegoats in the aftermath of a Western Neo-con Crusade. Never mind the fact that many Christians are just as leery of an American occupation as everyone else. As is the case with members of other religious persuasions, the vast majority of Christians are not pushing for a theocratic state.
Other minorities. Whether they are Iraqi Yezidis – a small and secretive religious faction some consider to be descendents of the Qur’anic Sabeans, while others ascribe to them, rallier unfairly, the epithel of Devil Worshippers – or Muslims from other countries ranging from Egypt to Iran, or foreign workers of all persuasions; you’re bound to run into a large number of expats in Iraq. Those from Europe, America and Asia are being told to get out. Now. Foreigners are becoming prey to hostage laking for use as human shields in the face of increasing military aggression. WTien not fearing being kidnapped, they are often being frisked for explosives by overwhelmed Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
It doesn’t help that-while I was in Baghdad-three Filipino “journalists” were stopped outside the Meridian Hotel with bags full of explosives.
It’s easy to blame foreigners but the Iraqis are having their suspicions juslified on a daily basis. Whether it’s explosive journalists from the Philippines or the steady influx of Saudi Wahhabis and Mujahidin or Iranian militants; Iraq is taking more shrapnel wounds now that Saddam is gone than they ever did before.
A story told to me by a Yezidi in Mosul may illustrate part of a larger picture. His brother, among many others, was approached and offered money to become Muslim. When the money, or the theological proselytizing, or a combination of the two convinced him to follow Islam; he was trained in the basic tenets of the faith which turned out to be distinctly Wahhabi / Salali based tenets. In other words, heavy on the tokfir or heresy hunting aspect. When the man saw where it was leading and wanted to back out, he was killed. It is notan isolated report.
In Falluja, the police informed me that although they didn’t have concrete proofs – they knew that a large number of agent provocateurs were lending a hand to the rising tide of mayhem.
Many months ago, the first reports out of Iraq were that the Ansar al-Islam were Iranian backed. Very shortly after it changed to Saudibacked and unless the present world is warped beyond any reasonable logic whatsoever, the notion of Saudi-backed is synonymous with the Wahabbi/Takfiri agenda.
If Iran is involved, and no doubt she is, I imagine they would be going about such subversive activities with a bit more caution and sense. One of the last major blows that Iran aimed at the U.S. was to flood the international market with counterfeit dollars. Very subtle and very destabilizing. The last time the Salafi mind-set grabbed world headlines, they flew passenger jets into downtown Manhattan and Washington DC.
So how is Iraq now? you ask. How much time you have?
If you’re looking for a simple answer you’re wasting your time. Yes, there are hidden Western agendas full of greed, mercenaries and geopolitical ambitions. There are also hardcore reactionaries ranging from Salafi jihadis to hard line communists to nationalist warlords. The Iraqi dream is a splintered mirror of every- thing from a dictatorship of the proletariat to the emergence of the twelfth imam to a theo- cratic Sunni rival to Shi’a Iran. Maybe because dreaming is about all they have left. Given the miserable state of affairs we have to realize that it’s too late to unwind the woven threads and pick out a culprit; one culprit. In times of extra- ordinary events, reality takes the place of imagi- nation, and for the Iraqi people the fabric bet- ween dreaming and waking has been torn. Awake or asleep, the constant heart pounding, irrational helplessness of nightmares is a dish served daily. America has fried this game once too often to think that, this time, they will win. The Iraqis are beginning to realize it as well. The recent targeting of foreigners is no more than a natural instinct to rid oneself of what causes pain.
It’s sad to hear so many people in Iraq already reminiscing about how much better things were under Saddam. Or the sybaritic thrill the death of an American can produce in the most kindhearted Iraqi who lost too many friends and family members to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
What’s even sadder are those who look forward, at the end of the day, to winning. When a wretched mix of imperial arrogance, sycophantic opportunism and blind fanaticism collides head on with the greatest sin of all – despair we’ve all lost far too much already. ?