Saturday, October 30, 2004


CIA Waasta

Waasta [Literally: means] In Iraq, nepotism, favoritism and lobbying are all usually lumped into this word which generally indicates using some means to obtain preferential treatment.

I was told of this incident by a friend who owns a tannery on the outskirts of Baghdad. A few days ago, they were raided by a party of American soldiers who told them that they were looking for insurgents. All those present were ordered to lie, face down on the floor in a single room while the soldiers searched the premises. Nothing was found.

The owner noticed the disappearance of money in a plastic carrier bag from a cabinet in his office. Through an interpreter, he told the officer in charge, mentioning that it was pay day and he needed the money to pay his staff. The officer went to have a word with the soldiers and came back to tell the man that there was no such thing. The soldiers had denied any knowledge of it.

So the man told the soldier that he lived next door to a CIA station in Baghdad, and that he was on good terms with them! The officer thought about it for a moment and asked him to sketch a street plan of the location of his home. The man duly did.

The officer went out again. After some time, one of the soldiers came into the office, placed the carrier bag with the money in it on a desk… and left without saying a word.

This is a true waasta by the CIA for the tannery man… unwittingly of course!

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Mischief and Revenge

I never met Salman. I was told that Salman was 25 in 1982, good looking, married with one 2-year old baby, Uday, and lived in the countryside. He used to visit a neighboring village populated mainly by people from a different tribe to call on friends.

He once apparently made some advances to a married woman in that village. She complained to someone. An elder from her village paid a visit to one of Salman's older relatives and had a quiet word with him about Salman's conduct. The old man, in turn, warned Salman about such behavior and advised him not to go to that village again. Salman did no pay heed.

The next time Salman went to that village again and, apparently again made a pass at the same woman. Her husband was away at the time. So, a cousin of his, Fadhil, killed Salman. Being a lawyer by profession, he knew he couldn't live as a fugitive, so he drove immediately to the police station in a nearby town and surrendered himself.
He was sentenced to 14 years.

For 10 years, there was bad blood between the two tribes. The prison sentence was not enough! There was a state of semi-permanent tension. You couldn't even say hello to a friend or share tea at the local coffee house in town if he was related to Fadhil.

Before Fadhil finished his sentence, incredible mediation efforts were made to arbitrate the matter so that scores were settled before Fadhil left jail. Efforts finally bore fruit in 1992 and there was a Fassul [arbitration council] between the two tribes in the presence of some intermediaries.

It was during that council that I came across a most peculiar doctrine: apparently what made many of Salman's people angry most was that Fadhil had no right to kill Salman; he was not the woman's husband. It turns out that even the husband did not have automatic right! The doctrine simply says: "The bone does not leave its kin". The woman's blood kin had priority in defending her honor. If somebody else does, it implies that they may not be honorable enough!! The proper thing to do in such cases is to inform the woman's kin first. If the woman errs, all her husband can do is to send her back to her family.

I find that doctrine amazing – yet it is so little known. I have met 'experts' on tribal matters who have never heard of it. Nevertheless, it is there… to be used when needed!

To cut a long story short, the matter was tribally settled. Fadhil left jail and everything was back to normal. However, I could notice people averting their eyes or grinding their teeth when Fadhil was around!

One day in 1997, Uday, Salman's son, now a young man of 17, was playing football with some friends. Fadhil walks by. Another young man (who apparently had a problem with Uday) yelled at him: "Hey Uday, there goes your father's killer walking tall!"

The next morning, Uday goes into town, walks into a real estate office where Fadhil was sitting and says: "Fadhil, I am Uday… Salman's son!" and shoots the man at close range.

Uday fled his home and village the same day. His folks claim not to know his whereabouts. Some claim that he is in Syria; it has also been rumored that he has visited his mother a number of times late at night.

To date, the matter still stands. Fadhil's tribe refuses to even consider arbitration, even as "agba" [breach of agreement which automatically carries a penalty 4 times the original one].

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Reporter in Baghdad

I thought I should publish a reference to an article by a lady reporter who is the main correspondent in Iraq for The Wall Street Journal. She recently wrote a private email to a number of friends describing her perception of what was really happening in Iraq today. One of her friends posted the email without her permission and it has been circulating around the web ever since.

The article was sent to me by a reader inquiring if it is accurate. By and large, it is… but I have a few reservations about some of her conclusions and predictions. It gives a fairly good glimpse of the present situation in Iraq (Compare her account with that of the Australian lady I posted only 18 weeks ago).


WSJ reporter Fassihi's e-mail to friends, excerpt:

9/29/2004 2:58:10 PM
From: [Wall Street Journal reporter] Farnaz Fassihi
Subject: From Baghdad

Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference.

Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When asked 'how are thing?' they reply: 'the situation is very bad."

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The ituation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war. In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking that the ministry of health -- which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers -- has now stopped disclosing them.

Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

Saturday, October 09, 2004


Beautiful Death!

Homage to an unpublished Iraqi scholar

He went abroad to study engineering on a scholarship in the 1930's, switched to Economics after his first year in college and came back to Iraq with a Ph. D. during WW2.

After a short career in academia, teaching economics, he joined the then-young Iraqi civil service. For 25 years he contributed a great deal to giving this country its modern shape and held senior posts in that service. He was put to early retirement in the 1960's and spent the best part of the following 30 years studying history and economics.

I sometimes feel that no one knows of the existence of that incredible man. He certainly was one of the most outstanding people I have known. Throughout the 1980's and half of the 90's I never tired of talking to him, discussing things with him and listening to him for hours on end. He never ceased to amaze me with the depth of his universal knowledge and profound philosophy.

He actually lived beyond love and hate, certainly beyond trivial aspects of sectarianism and petty issues in politics; beyond the worlds so many people spend their lives in. His was a world dominated by concepts and the movements of history, economy and the forces of reason! At the same time he was watching like a hawk every little detail (including everything written in almost every newspaper he could lay his hands on and every word Saddam said on TV… and they were many!) But he was not a happy man.

He spent the last 30 years of his life reading and taking notes. He never shared those with anyone! After his death, I couldn't make sense of those notes – hundreds of notebooks packed with scribbles (I have no right to pry deeper). For some reason, he was convinced he would never be published! Only once in the 1970's, when I was in England, he sent me a manuscript of a paper (which, to me, looked more like a book!) for publication. He insisted on two journals specifically for some reason. I duly sent the manuscript… and it was promptly rejected by both! He never discussed the subject.

I still have a copy of that "paper" and it certainly makes very enlightening reading. The basic idea, as ever, is that the ancient Iraqis were creatures of reason and good book-keeping. He starts with several of the available ancient Sumerian "King Lists" and, through beautiful reasoning, demonstrates that the "unit" to measure the year changes over time. This naturally puts some rationale into those incredibly long years the ancient Iraqis and the Biblical figures lived and reigned (!). He produces a new, modified "king list" that looks more reasonable and goes back to the "beginning of time" in Iraq!!

A truly magnificent piece of investigative history! I often wonder what gems his writings may hold.


It was early in the morning of a pleasant autumn day in 1997 that I received the telephone call announcing his death; he had been having heart problems for several years. He was 83. I went to see him. He was lying in bed on his back, his right arm lying casually across his chest… and there was a definite trace of a smile on his face. He looked so peaceful. That peacefulness and that smile took away much of the pain that usually accompanies the death of a dear one. I remember thinking: now this is a beautiful death!

I had known that wonderful old man for decades. I sat with him and discussed all sorts of things with him for many, many hours. But now, seven years after his death, I can only remember his face in death, with that smile on it.

Saturday, October 02, 2004


Art of Compromise

It is always amusing to listen to people (including some Iraqis) accusing the Iraqis of not being able to compromise. These people evidently know little of Iraqis!

Anyone who has seen a tribal arbitration council [Fassul] in the countryside cannot help but smile at this. When a problem reaches the stage of arbitration, it usually means that the two sides involved are ready for it. No such council can be held without the consent of both parties. This usually happens after a long-drawn process of mediation conducted by acceptable intermediaries- either from well-doers' initiative or from the efforts of one of the parties that wants to contain the conflict… or, sometimes, after both sides have had enough of the conflict! This usually involves the intermediaries to listen to the same story and claims several dozen times!

There are generally two types of such councils. When both parties claim that they have right on their side, this is held on neutral grounds – such as a mosque a Husseynia hall or the house of a local dignitary -usually in the afternoon.

The other type of Fassul involves what is known as [Mashya – literally: a Walk!] where the guilty party sends a sum of money [known as Farsha] several days ahead of the meeting through one of the intermediaries to cover the meeting's expenditure to the host. A lot of people who are well off, well known, a sheikh or a hamoula [a house of good repute] frequently don't take any Farsha and regard taking it as being beneath them! I find the Farsha a good practice; if the guilty party does not show up to the meeting for any reason, they lose their money, and the others can have a good free lunch! Nevertheless, it remains a grave offence not to show up for such a meeting.

The meeting usually takes place at the house of the injured party. The guilty party takes a number of dignitaries that they think that the other side holds in high regard. The meeting is usually held in the mornings at 9 or 10 am and ends with lunch. Lunch is served after the noon prayers.

It is absolutely fascinating to observe the etiquette, maneuvers, verbal skills, allusions to previous similar incidents, fables, religious and social references at play in these discussions. An intricate framework of beliefs may sometimes be displayed during those discussions, depending on the incident being debated.

The nature of the discussion naturally depends on the nature of the offence. An insult, a traffic accident, a land-border dispute, a hit-and-run incident, theft, robbery, revenge, murder, multiple murder, rape, etc., etc.

To the casual, inexperienced observer the proceedings may seem to be chaotic! But almost everything said and every gesture has some significance. Sometimes, someone makes a blunder. Immediately somebody else jumps into the "arena" to try and "fix" it! These proceedings can be extremely exhausting to anyone taking part in them.

Usually the tribal sheikhs or elders do the negotiations – watched by hawkish eyes of their own kin. When someone doesn't like what his own sheik is saying or about to say, a well-behaved person squats in front of the elder and whispers his concern or opinion. Ill-mannered people don't - sometimes they do that on purpose to show the other side the extent of their anger! When one of the sides is not headed by someone they respect then you can expect things to turn chaotic in earnest!

Sometimes things seem to get out of hand with people getting really angry and leaving the negotiations. In such cases, it is usually the intermediaries' responsibility to jump to prevent them from leaving and to convince them to come back. Sometimes, tempers run extremely high.

But, almost always, sometimes almost miraculously, a solution is found in the end that satisfies all sides… sometimes one of the sides is coerced or even "shamed" into accepting the settlement terms by the intermediaries!...and almost always in time for lunch! Noon prayers usually act as some sort of an alarm bell to announce the expiry of time left for discussions.

Settlement varies according to the offence. Most of the time, things are settled through sums of money to be paid by the offender. Sometimes, an offender may be banished, alone or with his entire household, for up to 7 years if his offence is unforgivable and if he resides in the same area as the injured party. Sometimes the wrongdoer of a particularly ugly offence may be disowned by his people [meaning that they will not avenge him if he is killed].

In all these things, precedence is extremely important; existing penalties of the area or those that exist between the two parties involved are followed as far as possible. People try to shy away from making new rules. It is frowned upon but not unheard of.

If the penalty involves a sum of money, deductions are usually made in the honor of the dignitaries present or even the guilty party's tribe. Farsha [the meeting's expense] is not deduced from the final settlement in central and northern Iraq, but usually is in the south. The Farsha is sometimes returned as an extra gesture of good will or benevolence.

If the law is involved, the injured party usually goes to the police station the following day and waives what is known as "personal rights" in the case.


This art of arbitration and compromise is still practiced today in rural areas of Iraq. It is an integral part of a complete social system that works whether or not there is a central government, a police force or law courts. When these are present, they are easily accommodated within that system!

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