Saturday, December 25, 2004


In Iraq, Look beneath the Surface

Those Ugly Little Mounds

Iraq does not present a pretty picture. It looks scruffy, dusty and almost worthless to the casual onlooker. Also, it does not offer awesome or breath-taking views like the Egyptian pyramids or the Chinese Great Wall. None of that!

Iraq is literally littered with little ugly mounds of dirt locals and archaeologists call "tels" or hills. There are many thousands of these scattered all over the country – certainly more than any Department of Antiquities has resources to investigate. All they could do was fence some of what they think are important ones… and hope to look beneath them sometime.

To archaeologists, these ugly dirt mounds usually indicate early settlements. Generally, beneath… they still don't yield beautiful and flashy objects. There are only few breath-taking treasures of gold and jewelry to be found in most of them. Their cache is generally little ugly-looking tablets of baked mud with scribbles on them.

Iraq's central and southern plains, the areas where it all began, are sedimentary in nature, with no rocks or minerals. Those ancient, hard-working peoples had to make do with what materials they locally had to build some truly magnificent civilizations. They formed mud into writing tablets and used stems of reed for pencils. The tip had a triangular shape; hence their writing was called the "Cuneiform". Then they baked those clay tablets to preserve their records.

[I see this tradition of making do with what's available maintained to this day. It is so reminiscent of what Iraqi engineers had to do after the previous Gulf war where almost everything of any value was bombed to evict Saddam from Kuwait. In the field of power generation, entire power plants were leveled; many switching and control stations were obliterated. Sanctions meant no access to spare materials and components. It looked like an impossible task, but somehow they did it.

In one district of Baghdad, an electrical switching station was thus hurriedly re-constructed using boards of wood, "Dexion" frames and salvaged parts. It was a make-shift affair. It certainly looked offensive and unprofessional. Any self-respecting engineer would not touch it! This way, some electricity was restored within 3 months. This was 14 years ago. That horrible-looking station still works until now!]

Mother Earth preserved those baked-mud records for us, sometimes for more than 5000 years. They survived numerous invasions, ravages by savages and utter devastation to everything that was over-ground. In one site alone, in the remains of an ancient city called Sippar, more than 50,000 such tablets were discovered.

Some of those treasures were re-discovered by Westerners: British, Frenchmen, Germans and Americans. This is so fitting… the latest torch bearers finding out about where the torch was originally ignited! A full circle! Iraq's contributions were more global than most people realize. We all still use many of their concepts of time, of stars, words and of God.

Human civilization, although so many people are not aware of it, is basically the same creature– born here and started its long and arduous journey here in Uruk, Ur, Akkad, Babel, Nineveh, Mesopotamia or Iraq. A lot was added to it through so many centuries by so many peoples and nations around the world in so many foreign lands. It is truly global, whether in mathematics or in spiritual belief.

So, in those ugly tablets, lying deep under those ugly mounds, you can find record after record of man's dull record-keeping, boring business communications, calculations, written laws and glimpses of man's attempts at wisdom… as well as epics of glory, of the Flood and of man's seeking of immortality. They hold the roots of our common humanity.

All those treasures and all that beauty are there… beneath the ugly and unappealing surface.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Religious Anecdotes for Christmas

Little Sunni-Shiite Girls

The Sunni Shiite talk started "in earnest" in Baghdad after the 1991 uprising. Much of it was fueled by political reasons. Prior to that, so many people in Baghdad never bothered with it.

Here are two true stories - not fabricated jokes - that happened to people I know, from that period.


Our Christian neighbor's 10-year old daughter rushed into their house in a hurry following an argument with other neighbor friends to demand from her mother to tell her whether they were Sunni or Shiite.


A 14-year old girl was asked one day by her school friends whether she was a Shiite or a Sunni. She told them she was both. When they asked what she meant, she said that her mother was this and her father was that.

After school, she told her mother of the incident. The mother laughed because her daughter got it the wrong way around!



[I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following story.]

When Moslems are "religiously awed" by something, the usually exclaim: "Salawat ala Mohammed!" [Prayers be upon Mohammed].

When Europe "re-discovered" this corner of the world in the 18th century, naturally some missionaries followed the adventurers.

This missionary decided to go to some remote, backward village in the Marshes to convert those "savages" to Christianity.

After a long sermon outlining the basics of the Christian faith, and to impress those people, he went on to mention one of the miracles of Jesus Christ.

As soon as he did that, the whole gathering cried out in unison: "Salawat ala Mohammed".

Have a Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 11, 2004


The "Abu" Business

Rose recently published an interesting post explaining the meaning of the words Abu and Um as used in names in Iraq. I thought that perhaps an extension of the outline may be useful.

Regarding the ready-tags for names, it may be interesting to note the historic and religious spread they cover. In origin, they are not restricted to father-son relationships as may be seen from the following examples:

Ibrahim (Abraham) – Abu Khaleel – title (more on this in a future post, I hope))
Mousa (Moses) – Abu Haroon (Aaron) – brother
Yousef (Josef) – Abu Ya'goob (Jacob) - father
Isa (Jesus) – Abu Mariam (Mary) – mother
Qais – Abu Leila – beloved (Qais was a notorious poet, Leila was his Juliet)
Mohammed – Abu Jassim – son
Faisal – Abu Ghazi – son (Faisal was King of Iraq, 1921-1936)

As you can see, these name relations span a period of over 4000 years and cover all major religions and other facets of history. These were just a few examples for illustration. The list is long!

It is quite customary to use these name-tags as nick-names for young people too. Some people get so used to it that they give their son or daughter the same name, just to keep their nick-name!

In addition to Rose's description that "Abu" means "father of" and "Um" means "mother of", the words Abu and Um sometimes mean "the one with" or "owner of".

For some reason unknown to me, every soldier is called Abu Khaleel (and no, I am not a soldier and have nothing to do with any army!). Every policeman is called Abu Ismael (Ishmael).

In the early 1970's a serial killer who terrorized Baghdad was referred to in police reports as wielding a metallic tool. Baghdadis quickly nicknamed him "Abu Tubar": the one with the hatchet.

A man with unusually thick, "prominent" mustaches may be called "Abu" mustaches.

A Baghdadi family of cheese-merchants were given, and still retain, the name "Abul Jibin" (Jibin = cheese"; Abul is an abbreviation of Abu al ... al=the).

Job association: We say Abul-water (water-meter reader), Abul-electricity (electrician or electric meter reader), Abul-buawri (plumber), etc.

The English are usually referred to as "Abu Naji" by Iraqis. Naji al Karradi was a Baghdadi land-owner who was on very good terms with the British when they "liberated" Iraq. He was particularly friendly with the outstanding Miss Gertrude Bell, the influential Eastern Secretary at the British Embassy. He also benefited from these good relations and did well, materially and politically. He was later elected to the parliament.

This naturally brings up the question of what the Americans will be called by Iraqis in the future. Perhaps "Abu Allawi"?

Saturday, December 04, 2004


The Poet's Grandson

Amir was a young military officer. He was a captain in the old Iraqi army before it was disbanded. He joined the resistance in July of last year.

A few days ago, he and eleven others set up an ambush for a US army convoy. It was said that they had hit and destroyed six Hummers. It so happened that another, unexpected convoy came from the opposite direction and the group was over-powered. There was a lot of fire from both sides. The team withdrew. All the others made it to their rendezvous point except Amir. They couldn't go back and check on him while it was light, so they waited for nightfall. They found him dead.

Shakir was a young police officer in the old police force. He joined the new Iraqi Police force several months ago.

A few times he was warned by the "resistance" to quit. He didn't pay attention. Last month, his brother was kidnapped and then released a few days later with a warning message to Shakir, but Shakir didn't pay heed. A few days ago he was attacked while at home by several masked men with guns. They killed him and set fire to his car.

Amir and Shakir were distant cousins. They both lived in the same area in the countryside. They died within two days of each other. Some people may find it quite ironic, perhaps even incomprehensible, that Amir was a Shiite and Shakir was a Sunni!!

I was told of the two stories when I went to the farm yesterday. I didn't know either of the two young men personally, but I knew Amir's grandfather, Fadhil, rather well. Fadhil is a poet of some renown locally - quite an outspoken old man made of tough material. He is well over 80, judging by the events he remembers from his childhood. I had missed the Fat-ha [A reception of three days' duration where people go to express condolences to the deceased's kin]. So, on my way back to Baghdad, I stopped by Fadhil's home.

I found the old man sitting on a rug, outside his home, enjoying the afternoon sun. He was busy talking to a beautiful boy of around 5 – his great-grandson… Amir's only son.

I always enjoy chatting with Fadhil; he is usually full of stories. He has had a full life. Yesterday, he was so full of himself remembering how they fought the British in 1941 and must have recited more than a hundred lines of his poetry in the hour and a half I spent with him. He was so proud that many people from so many far way places came to Amir's fat-ha. It was so busy and full of people coming and going… unlike Shakir's!

He recited the poem he was busy teaching the little boy when I arrived. It was in praise of his grandson, Amir, and how he will always be remembered as a hero in these parts. When I told him that the boy was probably too young for all this and that he is not likely to remember the poem, he simply said: "He will. I will make sure that he does before I die!"

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