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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