Sunday, May 30, 2004


The Day We Were Raided!

A few months ago we had a visitor: - a lady from an organization called UK Universities whom an English friend had asked to contact me to discuss the state of Iraqi universities.

I had sent her a map of our house’s location so that her driver would know how to get here.

We had lunch and a good time discussing universities and how to improve them, etc. She stayed for about two hours.

What we didn't know was that there were two cars and some security guards with her...and the entire neighborhoodd was in a state of high alert thinking that the Americans have raided our home!!!!!!

* The boys in the neighborhood had tried to misdirect them so that they wouldn't find our house, sent word to give us some warning...and filled the street thinking it was an emergency.

* Mother, who lives next door, was visiting her sister when she was told that we were raided by the Americans and, sick with worry, rushed to check!

* My nephew, who also lives next-door, was at the barber shop when he was told by someone that the Americans had raided their-, and their uncle's houses. He shoved the barber away, had his face cut in the process and rushed running for a mile to check!

* A young man in the neighborhood, passing them, spat at them and they chased him for a while (or so it was said).

* One of my neighbors was going back and forth in front of my house to keep an eye on developments. When our guest left I had a chat with him to calm him down, he asked for details and, finding out that the lot were actually British, finally said that he knew that something was different: those people somehow didn't look like Americans!!

* My niece, who also lives nearby, was hysterical with worry...…and was finally told by her genius husband that since they were taking so long in there, there was nothing to worry about!

* Another neighbour who was a big shot of the old regime went immediately under-cover, hiding his car and then himself for three hours!!

Such commotion... it was the funniest thing that had happened for a long time!!!

Saturday, May 29, 2004


Parents and Schools

So many people (mainly in the cities) have always considered their children's education as something almost "sacred". The government started the corruption process in the 70's (and it was a full-fledged war after '79) by making sure that all school teachers were Baathists by refusing all others admission to colleges of education. It was an undeclared war and, fortunately, many of the people taking part in it (on both sides) were not even aware that it was a war! It was something that took its toll from people, particularly during the 90's: many people spent unreasonable hours helping their children with their studies; many suffered considerable financial pains to provide their children with private tuition. Students, whose parents could do neither, had to rely on super-human efforts of their own if they wanted to get into a good college. It was a hardship, but the people won!! It is one of the unrecognised victories of people over tyranny and destruction! The most important "sacred cow" that remained almost intact up to now is the "Baccalaureate": the nation-wide general exam at 18+. All the government could do was to give extra marks (using various flimsy pretexts) to the sons of their cronies for purposes of college admission.

Now consider the following: during those times, education was almost a dead-end for future employment and livelihood prospects. The pay for university graduates was a laugh and by all standards there was no economic justification for pursuing one’s children’s education. In fact many, if not most, people in the countryside – being more practical creatures - turned their back to the whole business. The following story should be read with this background in mind:

True Story

When my youngest boy finished primary school in the summer of 2001, he got a sufficiently high score to encourage us to consider sending him to Baghdad College (still one of the best intermediate and secondary schools in the country).
Baghdad College had its own admission exam for which students had to get prepared, so we enrolled our son into one of the summer courses for that purpose. I had to drop him off to school and then fetch him back a few hours later.

It was July and the heat was something non-Iraqis have no idea of! Every single day, I noticed a woman in her 40’s holding her boy’s hand and walking him to the same school. The distance from the main road (where they evidently left the bus) was more than 2 miles.
When I went back to collect my son at noon, there was the same woman sitting on the stairs of the school waiting for her son to finish (apparently her journey home was too long to make it twice… so she preferred to wait on the stairs for 3 hours!) so she could walk back with him those two miles in the noon sun to the main road again to take a bus. Noon in July!


Man on the Bicycle

One of the most touching stories I knew of happened during the invasion.

Two young brothers were shot dead in their car in the Saydeyyah district in Baghdad by the Americans a few days before the fall of Baghdad. No official business whatsoever! They were simply going to check on a sister.

An old man riding a bicycle was passing by, he stopped and took the two boy’s watches and wallets.

Examining their ID cards, remembering vaguely that their family (who happened to be an old Baghdadi family) lived in the Shawwaaka district of Baghdad (about 8 miles away), he went there on his bicycle under heavy bombardment to look for them. He was told that they had moved to another district, Hartheyyah – about 4 miles away.

He finally managed to locate the two boys’ family after two days, told them of what had happened to their sons, gave them their belongings and refused to take anything for his effort!

Friday, May 28, 2004


Deaths and Weddings!

Abu Raashid (Literally: Raashid’s father. People are traditionally called by their eldest son’s name) was my neighbor at the farm. He was a peasant with his own small plot of land (given by the government in 1959 during the agrarian reform). For the period of more than twenty years that I knew him, Abu Raashid never once planted more than 10% of his land for lack of water (…but this is another story!). He was an unusually quiet man who spent much of his time fishing and hunting unlike most people in the countryside who spent theirs talking!

Abu Raashid’s elder son, Raashid, was killed in the war with Iran at the age of 19. He had one boy left, Taha.

One day, sometime in 2000, Abu Raashid sent word that he was ill and wanted to see me. I stopped by his place on my way back home from the farm. He told me that he was rather unwell and that a doctor had told him that he needed an operation urgently. He wanted me to ask a doctor I knew for a second opinion.

That same evening, a friend dropped by and I gave him Abu Raashid’s x-rays. The following day he showed the pictures to his brother-in-law (a specialist doctor) who said that the man was in the final stages of an advanced lung cancer and did not have more than a week to live.

On my way to the farm, I stopped at Abu Raashid’s and rather bluntly told him the truth and that he doctor who had advised him to have an operation was a criminal (some criminal-doctors did that in those sanction-years, for the money! A few still do). He had less than a week to live. It was a Monday.

On Thursday I was in the farm again. I heard some shots coming from the general direction of Abu Raashid’s house (which was about 3 km away). I was promptly told that Abu Raashid’s son, Taha, was getting married and there was a wedding! Abu Raashid had insisted on seeing his son married before he died.

The following Monday, Abu Raashid was dead.


Iraqis and Traumatic Situations!

Iraqis spend much of their time complaining about the “Iraqi people” and expressing dismay, disappointment and disapproval of people’s behavior under the present conditions of lawlessness. Well, I couldn’t disagree more!

The way these people have dealt with, and survived, the impossible situations they have found themselves in during the past decades is simply magnificent! It never ceases to amaze me that, through noise and apparent chaos, these people find a way to live, and even thrive, through catastrophic situations!

This realization came to me after years of observation. Initially, after coming in contact with this society after years abroad, my attitude was one of repulsion and disgust, to be replaced a few years later by a feeling of admiration towards their truly incredible natural intelligence, resilience, ability to survive (and even benefit from) adverse conditions. I then found myself realizing with some humility that I could not judge these people from a “survival ivory tower” and criticize their recipe for surviving which they perform without even being conscious of and which has been fine-tuned for thousands of years!

In any case, for these things to begin to change, society must be put on a track where there is proper system of ethics and something that can put things right when wrong-doings are made. We cannot ask people to let go of an existing system of values that has preserved them for thousands of years without giving them a decent and tangible alternative that works on the ground…and definitely not empty promises and lies.

On the question of handling hardship…This is such a difficult subject to tackle! I can tell you that the whole of Iraq’s history is one long trauma lasting for at least six thousand years! I cannot begin to try and unravel this issue; what I’ll do instead is to tell you a number of true stories that have impressed me. This might help understand these people… and understand why I have come to love them, chaos, violence, ignorance… and all!

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Baghdad - Through Foreign Eyes

The following was forwarded to me by a friend. It was a message written by an Australian lady on life in Baghdad. I have no idea who the lady is, so I’m taking the liberty of publishing it without her consent hoping that she will forgive me.


As I head home, I want to give you an idea about what every day life in Baghdad has been like these past six months. The crazy, the comical, the everyday, the tragic.

You know you’re in Baghdad when…
One of the hazards of walking down the street is getting your skirt caught in razor wire.

- When you hear the fourth loud explosion during the night, the response is to roll over and go back to sleep as you mutter:… “Mmmm … that sounded like an R.P.G on The Palestine Hotel….”

- You start using acronyms such as R.P.G (Rocket Propelled Grenade) in everyday conversation with friends, and in your sleep!

You know you’re in Baghdad when…
- Mosques and churches live side-by-side in harmony.

- Most young people (under 30) I meet have a Masters Degree and are working on their Phd. (I’ve heard that Iraq has the highest ratio of Phd's per population in the world.)

- Hot water systems are called ‘giesers’.

- The smiles of children are wide, warm and cheeky.

- A glass of tea is tiny, strong and is served black with at least 5 sugars! Coffee is
smaller, stronger and served with 10 sugars!

You know you’re in Baghdad when…
- You are body searched at three separate checkpoints and forced to walk through a concrete jungle, razor-wire labyrinth just to attend a meeting at the building of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority, the polite name for the occupying force). I think someone is paranoid…

- Queues at petrol stations can stretch up to 2 kilometres long, often meaning 8-hour waits. In an oil-rich country? I don’t get it!

- Black market petrol is sold by the side of the road in plastic jerry cans with a 7-up bottle cut in half and a rubber hose used to siphon fuel into cars. I really don’t get it!

- Fancy hotels or any building that houses foreign contractors or media are barricaded with at least 100 metres of massive grey concrete blocks topped with rows of ugly razor wire that make the surrounding neighbourhood look like the plains of Mordor leading to Mount Doom. Not real subtle if you ask me!

You know you’re in Baghdad when…
- You plan your day’s activities according to electricity cuts.

- Children’s Amusement Parks are now military bases.

- There are demonstrations every day.

- University Professors, Lawyers and Engineers are taxi drivers.

- Rumours say mobile phones are bugged, but generally they don’t work because (ironically) the world’s largest capitalist system gave the contract to a corrupt, inefficient monopoly. One of the company director’s must have a relative in the White House?

You know you’re in Baghdad when…
- Crisps are bought by the kilo. They are stored in huge clear-plastic sacks displayed on the footpath outside the shops, the site makes you want to dive into one and eat your way out!

- It's the men who flock to ‘salons’ to be preened and get their eyebrows plucked.

- The tall, tall, palm trees sway with grace in front of the large red sunset when the evening breeze comes.

- Like my country, everyone is crazy about sport, especially the blokes, and especially about football, (what I call soccer!) Which is played around Baghdad on dusty fields without nets.

- Green-grocers take pride in their produce –fat bunches of Bananas are arranged on ropes that surround the fruit shops, oranges and apples sit in colourful neat rows.

You know you're in Baghdad when…
- The screeching roar of generators sitting on the footpaths makes you feel like you're at a lawnmower expo when walking down the street.

- Major roads, highways and bridges are randomly blocked without notice for the convenience of the military, causing traffic jams that make New York peak hour look like a country lane on a slow day.

- A trip that should take 10 minutes can take three hours because of said traffic jams.

- Wild excuses for being late for an appointment such as “five American tanks cut off the bridge near my house” are plausible and must be accepted.

- Successful businesses have closed or struggle to survive because the US has permanently blocked several major inner-city roads. Customers no longer have access to the shops, but there is no compensation for loss of livelihood.

- Cars drive on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic, across medium strips, the wrong direction at roundabouts, basically anywhere really. Why? Because they can. “This is my freedom!”, the young boys cry from a battered old pajero that
should’ve gone to the wreckers 20 years ago.

- Said freedom and resultant chaos, means traffic lights, stop signs, and all road rules have long been abandoned so that every trip in a car becomes a ‘demolition derby’ experience and you just pray that your taxi driver comes out on top!

- Said freedom, and resultant chaos, means that crossing the road involves a ritual of making peace with your maker, taking a deep breathe, stepping into oncoming traffic and hoping the drivers care enough about their car to stop. I’ve been hit twice.

You know you're in Baghdad when…
- The thunderous sound of military helicopters ‘coming and going’ drowns out the
conversations in your living room.

- Watching Black Hawks swoop as you eat your lunch makes you feel like you’re on the set of a Russell Crow movie, or was it Tom Cruise?

- You make bets about ‘which variety of bomb or gunshot was that?’ with your friends.

- Every household has a gun. Women carry guns on the street.

- Large reconstruction contracts are always granted to foreign companies rather than local ones.

- Parents are so fearful of lack of security, many don’t allow their children to go to school.

- A by-product of freedom has meant an influx of pornography, hard drugs, prostitution, and a dramatic rise in armed robbery, kidnapping and rape.

And you know you’re in Baghdad when…
- The ancient River Tigris flows with a confident dignity despite its years of neglect.

- You can buy one egg at the shop. But not less than 2 kilos of rice.

- Locals say ‘chicken’ when they mean to say “kitchen’, and vice versa.

- Locals say “hallo!” when they mean ‘goodbye’

- I start saying ‘hallo!” when I mean ‘goodbye’!

- You can get all the latest computer software for free, because there are no laws – anyone need anything?

- Juicy barbecue chickens rotate over hot coals in glass cabinets outside restaurants with tables and chairs set up on the footpath!

- Hommous is always good. So is falafel.

- The domes of mosques shine with beauty and pride.

- Piles of rotting rubbish grow on street corners and encourage the spread of disease because there is no local council to come and pick it up.

- Everyone you meet is exhausted about having to cope daily with the above conditions and wonder how on earth they will cope another day.

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