Saturday, August 28, 2004


Radhi's Pride

Allah bil Khair:
In Iraq, when someone enters a room or joins a gathering, he salutes all by saying "al Salaam alaikum" [May peace be upon you]. This is practiced not just in Iraq but all over the Muslim world. One of the social etiquettes unique to Iraq is that as soon as the person sits down, those present would say "Allah bil Khair!" [A truncated form of a sentence that means: May God bless you with a good morning, evening, etc.]. The person would respond with the same words. For some reason, this procedure is followed mainly by men and not often by women.

In farming in Iraq, tenant farming and farm hired labor are virtually unknown. The traditional form is known as share-cropping. The land-owner provides the land, management, working capital, irrigation water, seeds, fertilizers, machinery for working the land or harvesting. The share-cropper, who lives with his family on the land, contributes his labor. Once a year, usually after harvest, accounts are settled. After deducing all expenses, the net profit is shared 50-50. If the share-cropper bears the expenses, he takes two-thirds of the profits. This is the system most commonly used in central Iraq.


Radhi is a share-cropper at my farm; he is in his late 30's, mild-tempered and poor. A few years ago I noticed that Radhi was somehow unhappy, and even cross; he remained so for a number of weeks. I finally decided to find out what was bothering him. After a long and an oblique conversation, he came out with it: he reminded me that on one occasion, about a month back, he had come to join a gathering where I was too busy discussing something with somebody and I did not say "Allah bil Khair" to him!

I really had to work hard at convincing him that I had not intended to insult him or to imply in any way to others present that he was too insignificant!

I was reminded of this incident by someone who commented on an earlier post and was apparently angered by my contention that army officers felt bitter about being humiliated. His or her thesis was that life is more precious than pride.

You cannot ask these people to change their structure of values overnight… no more than you can ask Americans to do so. As a matter of fact, Islam, as does Christianity, frowns on pride and vanity… and it could not change that aspect in 1400 years of trying!

The issue is really even more compound. I think there are a lot more people in this country who can live with feelings of guilt than those who can live with shame!

Saturday, August 21, 2004


Who is What

Sunnis and Shiites (3)

Much of what people (including some Iraqis) think are differences between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq are usually in fact differences deriving from geography and not from the two sects… very much like, say, the differences between Texans and Californians. It may well be worthwhile to expand on this subject in this blog sometime.

I hope that after all that I have written you cannot yet tell whether I am a Sunni or a Shiite or, for that matter, whether I am a Muslim or a Christian. Don't worry. It definitely isn't due to any lack of perception on your side. At the moment I am all three. I have never, never felt out of place with any of those "categories" inside Iraq.


About this time last year, and two weeks before that horrible terrorist blast at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, I went to see a UN representative from the Election Assistance Division. A friend of mine came along. One of us was a Shiite and the other a Sunni.

The naïve hope was to advocate the idea of Rapid Democracy in Iraq to the UN. After more than an hour of a very good discussion, the matter naturally went into the Sunni-Shiite question. We argued that this insistence on the issue had very considerable danger of polarizing our society.

To demonstrate the point, we challenged him to tell which one of us was which. He guessed wrong!

Everything else aside, he had a fair, 50-50 chance. I'm glad he was unlucky. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write this post to illustrate this point!

Monday, August 16, 2004


Englishman in Baghdad

Justin Alexander is an Englishman who works with Jubilee Iraq, a volunteer organization committed to the cancellation of odious Iraqi debt and putting an end to reparations payments.

Against all advice, he decided to come to Baghdad during these turbulent times in his effort to help the Iraqi people through means other than bombing them. Below is an excerpt from his blog post describing his visit. He left Baghdad last Wednesday.


The last 5 days in Iraq have been tough and on the few occasions where I've had 15mins to blog I've felt overwhelmed and therefore wimped out. Apologies to friends who've been worried by the silence...

Would you believe I only managed to write that first paragraph when there were five heavy explosions so I quickly quit the hotel internet cafe (to avoid flying glass if a mortar rounds lands outside, and more importantly to avoid all the excited journalists scurrying around with a hungry look on their faces) and headed up to my room. It's quieted down now, so I'm going to have another go!

Iraq, as you may guess, is hot and chaotic. Until last night I was staying in a cheap hotel without air-conditioning (and often without any electricity most of the night) which meant I got no sleep but did get a little understanding of how exhausting and frustrating it is just trying to live a few nights in Baghdad at the moment - quite a few people have suggested that I'm brave coming here but I reply that what takes real courage is to live out here permanently and remain as friendly and self-giving as so many Iraqis are.

However the situation has changed considerably from my last trip in October 2003 when I used to travel alone around the city by foot and taxi, chatting with so many people along the way. Baghdadis whose opinions I respect have insisted that I can no longer do this. It is heartbreaking not to be able to interact so freely now, and my schedule is difficult to juggle as I am dependent on friends to pick me up and drive me around Baghdad's gridlocked streets. One change for the better is a reasonably functioning mobile network, although that results in another variable to juggle - keeping one's phone charged is not easy when the electricity supply is so hit and miss, and the stakes are much higher if the battery suddenly dies (as mine did yesterday evening when I was trying to arrange a pick up at night in a dodgy area).

But anyway, life here still goes on of course. And not just the daily chores and tasks. Love is in the air. I kid you not. …


No, Justin! Those people have to live here. It is their home. Most have no choice. You are the brave one, willingly choosing to come and help, taking so much risk in doing so. I am happy that you are back safely. Hamdilla ala assalama.

Saturday, August 14, 2004


If You Can't Beat Them...

I was asking a businessman I know about his business the other day and he said he was coping. I knew that his business required steady shipments from Jordan.

When I inquired about the dangers and the kidnapping problems on the Baghdad-Amman road, he said "Well, that is no longer a problem. The Jordanian company is now only employing truck drivers from Fallujah"!

Sunday, August 08, 2004


Neighborhood Vanguard

Even the bleakest of times may have their lighter moments.

During those awful days of total government collapse, lawlessness and looting, as I have already mentioned somewhere in these blogs, young men took it on themselves to defend their neighborhoods.


This incident happened in the early afternoon of one of those days. Someone with an 18-passenger bus full of loot was making his way through the streets. He was challenged by some of the boys but didn't stop. They fired at all four tires; he kept going. However, the shots and the funny noise those tires started making brought many people of the neighborhood out – most of them armed! Seeing that he had no chance of getting away, he leapt from the bus and started running. He got away with a few kicks and slaps from the boys who let him run for his life leaving the bus and the loot behind!

For some inexplicable reason, the sight brought some joy to my heart.


The young men organized themselves into groups to take shifts at night duty. My two boys (24 and 14) and my three nephews who live next door (16, 18 and 20) had a night shift from 3 to 6 am. They were all armed with AK47 machine guns except the youngest, who had a revolver (there was no question in his mind about being armed; I thought a revolver was a "safer" weapon).

These young men stationed themselves at road crossings and arranged with others to signal every once in a while to each other with flashlights to make sure that everything was alright. They even agreed on a password.

I sat on a chair behind our main iron gate within hearing distance just to be close by and decided to spend the time listening to the BBC, as was the usual routine during those nights.

Less than an hour into their shift, I suddenly heard the unmistakable clatter of AK47's being loaded and shouts of "Stop"…"Friend"… and something. I was with them - gun in hand - in no time! There was this man, some distance away raising his hands as if trying to lift himself to the sky. His machine gun was hanging on his shoulder.

I went forward to see what all that was about. It turned out that this fellow had taken it on himself to make a tour of the "stations" like an officer would make his rounds. Unfortunately however, he had forgotten about the password!!!

I really didn't know whether to laugh or to be angry. The fool was so close to being killed – and it would have been murder by my own boys!

Monday, August 02, 2004


Belated Thanks

The following is an e-mail message I sent to a number of friends living abroad in February 2003, a few weeks before the war, expressing gratitude to people who made a stand against the war. It is unlikely that it reached many of those people. I now feel that I have a duty to post it in the hope that some of those it was directed to may read it. They have been proven correct. There is no such thing as a clean war.


Dear All,

Following the events of February 15th, I was bewildered and amazed at what happened and I feel a need to share with you my feelings about what I think is a unique world event and to express to someone my gratitude!

Such a memorable day! Millions of people, all over the world took to the streets on the same day to protest against war on Iraq.

Even if war is not prevented, thousands of lives have already been saved! By making such a stand, people have let the bomb droppers and missile launchers know that they will be closely watched by a large number of people who care. So, when the bombs fall, they will not be as carelessly destructive as they would have been otherwise.

And all this took place before the event! People saving the lives of other human beings by going out to the streets to protest against a probable war!

It’s a new era in human history and development and the nucleus was our own misfortune!

On a personal level, this event has ignited some hope that my children may one day live, not in isolation, but as part of this world- in peace. A world in which people care about Planet Earth and the people on it no matter how far. A world in which, although governments may still have their own agenda, calculations and priorities, people have other, more humane priorities.

The past few months have been spent hectically making provisions for the worst and then brooding over probabilities and what-ifs concerning family, loved ones, country, … hundreds of possibilities! Suddenly, millions of people in far away places march to tell you that you are not alone! I am deeply touched.

A Special Note for Britain:

I lived in Britain … … at a time when the image of an Arab was an unpleasant one, to say the least.

That image was not improved by the oil embargo of the early 1970’s or by the Arab-Israeli conflict and some Arabs’ acts of misguided violence bred out of despair and ignorance. During all those years I can hardly remember any instances where the mass media had something good to say about my country or people.

Being rather proud of my heritage and my country’s contribution to human civilization (albeit very long ago), I felt a great deal of bitterness and resentment at that image.

Nevertheless, people -individuals- were generally civil, decent and compassionate. It is to the credit of the country and the people that I left Britain with mainly warm feelings for them.

And now, I have no idea of whether that image has changed or not. For decades, we have been isolated from the mainstream of life in other countries and those feelings were relegated to almost forgotten corners of memory.

Last weekend, this message came along loud and clear: the country is still full of decent and compassionate people!

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