Monday, March 28, 2005


Sparks of Revolution

Sparks of any revolution cannot be considered in isolation of the prevailing environment. They only ignite when the conditions surrounding that spark are already volatile, much like the "Boston Tea Party".

When the US administration discarded direct rule of Iraq through the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority of Ambassador Paul Bremer) and decided for rule by proxy. The initial date for handing over sovereignty to the Interim Government was set for June 30th. The ceremony was later moved to June 28th. Somebody probably told those geniuses that the original date was actually the anniversary of the nation-wide revolution against the British liberation of Iraq. The memory of the revolution is still fresh in the collective memory of Iraq.

In that revolution, much like during Fallujah-I in April of 2004, all Iraqis were united against the British. Feelings of bitterness and resentment actually ran high before the violence. But the violence itself was sparked, almost simultaneously, by two separate incidents.

One spark took place near Fallujah. The famous British colonel Leachman – who was actually well versed in tribal affairs, insulted Sheikh Dhari (Grandfather of Dr. Harith al-Dhari, the chairman of the Islamic Cleric Association). According to his contemporaries, Leachman used to disguise himself as a Bedouin and spend considerable stretches of time with the desert people. He once came back to the British Embassy in Baghdad in such a disguise. His camouflage was apparently so good that he was promptly refused entry by the guards at the gates. Dhari's son, Suleiman, (Dr. Harith's father) was actually the one who shot Col Leachman. That spark started things in the western countryside.

But the first spark took place when the authorities arrested a local tribal chief, Shalaan Abul Choan. While he was being taken away by the British soldiers, Shalaan yelled at one of his companions: "These people may deport me to Baghdad. Send me 10 good gold coins tonight".

That night, ten warriors of his tribe attacked the jail he was held in and freed him. That was the spark the southern areas needed!


Many years later, General Glubb Pasha, another famous British Arabist, who helped establish, and for quite a while headed, the young Jordanian army (and was generally known in the area as Abu Hnaich, the one with the jaw… probably because of his prominent jaw!) visited the area. While going to some function with Sheikh Shaalan with him in the car, the latter remarked, pointing at the surrounding land: "Did you notice, Sahib, that this land is slightly pinkish in color?... well, that is due to all the blood of your young ones that were killed in the 1920 revolution. What insolence and bad taste!


That particular tribe, known as al Dhualim, part of the larger tribe, Bani Hchaim, were famous for their lyrics as well as for something that is called "Hischa" in Iraq, which means saying something innocent and meaning something else, usually less innocent. In fact, these people can make someone who is unaware of their ways look quite foolish!

During the battles, a young man was killed. He was carried by his maternal uncle on his shoulder to take him back home. As he approached their hut, he saw his sister, the boy's mother, churning milk. From a distance he called out in rhyme: "As if you never rocked and lullaby-ed!", referring to the rocking cot those people used for babies. She chanted back immediately in the same rhythm: "I rocked and lullaby-ed for this!", probably meaning "for such a day" or "for such an honorable death".


Coming back to our present situation, I can see so many sparks flying around, some of them foolishly initiated, in a situation that is already volatile.

Monday, March 21, 2005


Iraqi New Years

We have three of them! All three are public holidays.

The "Christian" New Year

First, there's the 'regular' New Year, like in many other countries... though this is mainly a city affair. It goes almost unnoticed in small towns and the countryside, were it not a public holiday. Even then, it only means that people who have business at government departments cannot go there on that day.

In Baghdad and some of the larger cities, the story is different. On New Year's Eve, most restaurants social clubs are solidly booked. Parties are thrown with song and dance. People spend the evening out with family and friends. Many others who do not go out, make an occasion of it by spending the evening with friends.

For a few decades, it has become a tradition for the young to gather in one particular street in Baghdad, Arasat, and spend the evening and the early hours of the New Year generally making an assortment of loud noises to 'express themselves'.

But somehow, the masses of the poor working classes have never been quite a part of the festivities... apart from enjoying the various festivities shown on television and the public holiday.

The Islamic New Year

Second, there is the 'Islamic' New Year. Because the lunar year is about 10 days shorter than the solar year, this date is different every year. This is a more somber occasion, more like a religious ceremony than a joyous event. People go to mosques, listen to or read the Koran, etc.

Indeed Muharram itself, the first month of the Lunar Islamic calendar, was a holy month even before Islam, where fighting and wars were traditionally prohibited.

In Iraq, for large segments of the population, it is a sad occasion marking the first of the ten holy days of Muaharram. Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed's grandson had come to Iraq from what is now Saudi Arabia in the hope of enlisting supporters for his cause. On the tenth day he was killed. Religious rituals are observed to a greater degree. In Husseineyyahs, the evenings are spent reciting Imam Hussein's tragic story, hardship and ordeal in quite moving, sad and musical tones with frequent exaggerations thrown in. Those first 10 days of the New Year are regarded as days of grief and remembrance.

This reminds me of an old joke, which is in fact a true story. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Even non-religious people are expected to abide during those holy days. On the third of those holy 10 days, an old woman living with her aging brother walks into the living room to find him having a drink with a friend. Being a religious person, she looked aghast. But before she could say anything, her brother cried out: “Hold your horses sister! It's only the third day. The Imam hasn't even crossed the border into Iraq yet!"

The Ancient Iraqi New Year

This one takes place on March 21st and is generally referred to as the Kurdish New Year, called Nawruz. It is an occasion of great joyous festivities in the north of Iraq. It is also celebrated in Iran and Armenia. For the rest of Iraqis, it is called "The Year's Turnaround". There was a time when most people celebrated that day, but over the past three or four decades popular interest has dwindled.

It is also of course "Mother's Day" and the official "Tree's Day".

The celebration is truly old! The ancient Iraqis first used the Lunar Year. The Sumerians had to introduce an intricate system to match the shorter lunar year with the seasons. The Babylonians, with the advances they made in Astronomy, switched to the Solar Year. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the idea of the month is essentially based on Iraq's weather (Perhaps more on this in a future post). There have been many stages in the development of the calendar.

In any case, at one stage in their development, the Babylonians had twelve months for the year. Each month had 30 days (much like their contemporary ancient Egyptians). But they knew that the year was slightly more than 365 days long. The result was that they had 5 extra days. They solved this problem by making those days into a long religious holiday celebrating the end of the year. The New Year begins on March 21st.

This five-day transition is still practiced by the Sabaeans of Iraq to this day. They call it “Panja”.

In ancient Babylon, the New Year’s festival, Akitu, was celebrated at the time of Vernal Equinox (the beginning of Spring). Akitu was a ritual enactment of a battle between the new god Marduk and the old goddess Tiamat. The myth was the story of creation, and the ritual enactment of this battle between the gods was for the purposes of bringing heaven and earth, macrocosm and microcosm, back into proper relationship and synchronization. Putting it more simply, it was a yearly ritual performed for the purposes of starting over fresh with a brand new clean slate.

The traditional celebration of the "year's turnaround" that I remember was quite straightforward: A tray is filled with a number of items:

• Several lighted candles - sometimes seven but usually one for each member of the household
• A few branches of Yas (Myrtle - an evergreen shrub with scented leaves which, for some reason, is used in almost all old Iraqi ceremonies)
• Several small traditional earthenware water jugs (called tungas) filled with water… one for each member of the family; miniatures for the younger ones and regular ones for the older members. Those for males differ in shape from those for females!
• Seven items (preferably seeds) with names starting with "s" such as (simsim - sesame)
• A few coins
• Some colored eggs (very much like Easter eggs) are sometimes added

Children have a lot of fun collecting and arranging those various things. The tray is left untouched overnight.

That is it! No ceremony. No mumble jumble stuff. I barely remember hearing things like “this year, it is turning on an ox’s head” for example! I never knew what all those items signified! I hope to look into it one day.

Again, this is basically a city affair. I have not heard of a similar ceremony in the countryside or the desert. The closest thing there is the slaughtering of one of the earliest and best new lambs... and having a feast with family and neighbors!

Friday, March 18, 2005


The Ugly and the Bizarre

The latest distraction in Iraq has been a series of 'interviews' with terrorists on TV publicly confessing their crimes. Every night, around nine, most Iraqis switch to the official channel for the 'series'. A wide variety of characters are shown: Jihadists, rapists, criminals and robbers.

In that series of 'interviews' with terrorists and confessions made by them, one could see an astonishing variety of people with an even more astonishing variety of mentalities, motives and means of committing murder. Some of them really make you sick to the bone. But there are some bizarre, almost unbelievable things to see.

The Cheapest Terrorist in Town

The road going south from Baghdad became known as Death Road for the past year. Numerous senseless murders were committed there. Many of them took a sectarian nature.

One character who operated on that road was a man in his mid-twenties. He looked almost normal! He admitted killing two people for money using a sword. He was paid the equivalent of about $7. Yes, seven US dollars per head. No religious fervor, no politics, just money... and so little of it. A casual laborer's daily earning... for killing a human being.

Before this man's confession, the running average going rate that we were hearing was something like $200 per killing, with explosives operators who targeted Iraqi civillians getting around $5,000 per operation. that man must have been the cheapest terrorist in town!

In addition to his own story, he told of another murder of two truck drivers whose trucks were hijacked, the two poor men killed and their bodies dumped in the Razzaza Lake near Kerbala. The trucks were sold near the Saudi border for $10,000. On their way back, the villains were caught by American soldiers who stripped them naked, spent a good portion of the night beating them up, took the money and left them stranded in the near-desert area.

Another character who was active in that area as a Muslim jihadist from Lebanon who went by the name of Abu Ali turns out to be Christian with the name of Haikel Lewis.

Terrorist Human Rights?

A few nights ago, on March 8th, and within the running series of 'interviews with terrorists' there was one particular such person that caught my attention. He was a policeman working for the terrorists. From his own account, he seemed to be quite a nasty character. He had cold-bloodedly killed several people by shooting them in the head at close range... and was paid $200 each time. What was troubling, was that the man had several bruises on his face, two particularly bad ones around the eyes and was having extreme difficuly talking. He was obviously in much pain. I could only guess at the amount of torture and beating that he had received.

This is not the first time that we have seen such things on the TV in Iraq. It was common practice during the previous regime's early years. But those people never exhibited any detectable signs of torture; interrogators were always careful to avoid the face and other visible parts of the body. They never showed any person who 'confessed' giving any hint whatsoever of having been tortured. But this was different. It was so clear that the man had been badly tortured. They could have at least given him a few days to heal.

The question is: why? It could not have been an oversight. The only rational explanation I could find is that they wanted it to be seen as such. It showed a government that was ruthlessly firm with the terrorists. Perhaps this is the message the government wanted to get across!

But what about human rights? Both Human Rights Watch and the US State Department in their latest reports on human rights had some harsh words for the Iraqi Interim Government regarding their conduct in unlawful detention, bad treatment of prisoners and detention conditions. This public display of harsh treatment only confirms those charges.

Perhaps getting that message across was more important than those human-rights considerations. From what I hear, the message does indeed seem to be "selling" well with large segments of the population.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


A New Mood in Baghdad

Criminals and orqanized gangs are still at large in Iraq. Kidnappings and armed robberies are still common place. Yet, for the first time in nearly two years, the number of blasts and violent incidents we hear in Baghdad is less than the number reported by the media, bad as they sound or look on the news.

Since the elections, more than six weeks ago, there has been a different mood in the city. You can see it in people’s faces, in the number of women drivers and in the number of boys playing soccer in football fields. Perhaps even more significant is the number of teenage girls walking to school, unescorted! It is also evident in people staying outside a bit later after sunset and shopkeepers staying open slightly longer in the evening.

Even the police seem to have found some useful things to do; only yesterday, I saw a detachment of policemen evicting peddlers who have trespassed onto the pavement of a busy road. A few days ago, near the Internet shop where I usually go I saw four policemen chasing a young man. One of them was firing some shots in the air (probably to frighten him into stopping). All cars naturally came to a stop. A man in his mid thirties, with his wife sitting next to him, left his car and hindered the getaway of the young man. The policemen therefore caught up with him, overpowered him and took him away. I have no idea what that young man had done, but the scene made quite a contrast from the approach of shooting first... that has become almost familiar over the past two years!

Generally, a more relaxed atmosphere. Yet, the situation seems so fluid.

Playing the democratic game of elections despite its many shortcomings, the Iraqis have made some surprising statements. I think they even managed to surprise themselves. Yet, so many people with their own agenda are hastily, and perhaps unwisely, drawing erroneous conclusions.

Monday, March 14, 2005


Sectarian Assault II

The first Sectarian assault on Iraq started immediately after the invasion and lasted up to April of last year. It was shattered by Fallujah-I and most Shiites’ stand of solidarity with their Sunni brethren. That also coincided with Moqtada’s people’s clash with the US administration.

Assault II started in October of last year just ahead of Fallujah-II. It was more vicious. Moqtada’s ‘rebellion’ had been diffused by Sistani. Many anti-Shiite noises started to be made from supposedly ‘Sunni’ quarters, particularly Fallujah. We began to hear about ‘sectarian’ killings. People were being killed simply because they were Shiites or Sunnis.

There is no doubt now that many of the violent incidents in which Iraqis are hurt are designed to look ‘sectarian’ in nature. They were, and still are, increasingly less ‘random’ and more ‘sectarian-looking’.

It amazes me, amuses me and makes me proud that ordinary people, ignorant people, people who grumble about Sunnis or Shiites all day long… did not fall for it!! Any fair-minded person who follows the news of ‘sectarian-looking’ violence in Iraq must give those ordinary people the credit they deserve.

A few anecdotes:

There was much talk for some time during the past few months about a group of villains killing people supposedly on sectarian grounds in Latifeyyah south of Baghdad on the road leading to the holy Shiite cities of Kerbala and Najaf. That caused considerable ill feelings. A group of these villains was recently caught and they were definitely not local! Many people in Iraq now know that.

In a small mixed town, the son of a person building a Husseineyyah (a Shiite mosque) was kidnapped. His father was told to demolish the Husseineyyah if he wanted his son back. Links to a Sunni tribe in the area were suspected. Things started getting out of control. There was much ‘sectarian’ bitterness. The accused tribe met to discuss the problem. The head of the Sunni tribe offered himself to replace the abducted young man. The gang changed the demand to ransom money. They were exposed to be simply a criminal gang. The ‘sectarian’ aspect vanished.

On the eve of the Shiite holy day of Ashura, the day commemorating Imam Hussein’s tragic death, people usually spend the night cooking huge meals and distribute the food to neighbors and to the poor. Some Sunnis also do it. The day after Ashura, my grocer was telling me how his Christian neighbor also took part in this activity. This was the first time I heard of such a thing. It made me smile. It also reminded me of something I once heard long ago. It was said that a Christian with the name of John stood with Imam Hussein to the end and was killed with him.

During the day of Ashura, there were many incidents targeting people taking part in the rituals. In a mixed district in Baghdad called Bayyaa', a would-be suicide bomber asked someone on the street whether the commotion on that street was a Fat-ha [wake] or an Ashura ritual. Only a foreigner could not tell the difference. That particular fellow was caught. Another one succeeded. He bombed a Sunni Fat-ha! It was on the news!

On Election Day, a middle aged man, living in a neighborhood which was predominantly anti-election wanted to vote. He and his wife carried a couple of bags to pretend that they were going shopping. A cluster of his neighbors was on the street. They started making jokes about the shopping bags and teasing him about them. The man smiled, exchanged small talk with them and went on with his errand! No one wanted to have a fight. No one wanted to kill anybody else.

People and their indigenous leaders have, yet again, shown an enormous degree of restraint, tolerance and wisdom. Sectarian Assault II is by no means over yet... but so far, the people, wisdom and tolerance are winning!

Not a single major sectarian incident involving ordinary people was recorded or even heard of.

This is the country I know and live in, not the one portrayed to you by the mass media.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


The Iraqi Baptists

I was born and raised in Baghdad. Our home was right on the bank of The Tigris. In my early childhood, I was always fascinated by people who performed what seemed like funny-looking rituals in the river.

They invariably came at dawn… groups of less than 20 people clad in white. Some of them waded knee-deep into the water and stood there making graceful, studied motions. On several occasions, I could signal out a small group of three people: a young man and a young woman facing an old bearded man who orchestrated the rituals. Obviously a wedding ceremony. There was always an atmosphere of tranquility and dignity surrounding the proceedings.

Later in life, I had the chance to meet a number of these people, have the acquaintance of a few and cherish the friendship of at least two. Invariably, they portray a peaceful non-aggressive attitude towards life and other people.

Iraqis colloquially call these people “Subba” [Sabi’a in classical Arabic] – The Sabians, Sabaeans or Mandaeans. It is noteworthy that although the name is reportedly rooted in Aramaeic, the word in Arabic is also related to the ‘pouring’ of water.

The origins of both the people and of the religion are a mystery. Their language is Semitic. In any case, they are definitely an integral part of the rich Iraqi mosaic.

It is estimated that there are around 50,000 of them. Their communities tend to concentrate near the major rive basins in southern Iraq because natural running water is central to many of their religious rituals. As I remember, they were only allowed to use tap water for the rituals in recent decades. This central role of water in their faith has led many people to believe that they are followers of John the Baptist. There are a number of other aspects that give that impression.

They are definitely monotheistic and have several holy books. They believe that they descended from Adam, but have no ‘founder’ for their religion. They believe that their teachings were received by Adam directly from God [The Great Life or The Eternal Life]. They have several Prophets, notably: Sheet and Sam son of Noah. Their “last” great teacher was Yahya bin Zekaria (or John the Baptist).

They have fasting days, a rigid dietary system, a holy day (Sunday), but their faith goes beyond simple rituals; It is a complete system and a way of life. It regulates personal conduct and social structure. Family and children are precious. Life is sacred. The Mandaeans believe that all things return to their origins and beginnings. A distinguishing feature of their religion is that they have no idols or images used to pray to. The abstraction of worship is a significant sign of sophistication of concept.

Their most distinguishing belief is that no one except God has the right to take away life. This is perhaps a surprising attitude to hold (and keep) in harsh and frequently violent surroundings. It should certainly be a lesson to the rest of us!


Prohibitions in Mandaeasim:

3- Adultery
5-Telling lies
6-False testimony
7-Disloyalty and dishonesty
9-Magic and witchcraft
11-Alcoholic drinks
13-Crying over the dead
14-Eating dead animals, pregnant animals or animals attacked by other furious animals and blood
15-Divorce (save in some exceptional cases)
16-Suicide and abortion
17-Self-torturing and body-hurting

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