Monday, April 25, 2005


Family Matters

We are surrounded by Death and violence to an unbelievable extent. People who follow the news of the various atrocities and violent incidents are sometimes shocked, sometimes bewildered and sometimes repulsed. Being on the inside, close to these happenings is much worse. It also feels differently.

After a while you somehow get used to many new feelings. Being at risk of being killed or blasted or finding yourself in the middle of violence that you were not part of becomes such a reality that you find yourself accepting it as a ‘natural’ part of life. That can happen anytime, any place. Finally you do not care anymore.

That by no means means being careless. I still carry a gun in my car when I go to the farm, risking a $1000 fine and six months in jail!

This is certainly the case with me. I have reached a stage some time now that I do not worry much about dying. When you’re dead, it’s over. There is no rational need to worry about it much.

The problem is that you cannot extend this apathy. You never stop worrying about those you love and care for. It consumes you and makes your life literally intolerable. This is because I am not talking about a single incident that you can come to terms with; it is a constant feeling of worrying; day and night, day after day for hundreds of days. You can’t sleep at night for fear that something happens while you are asleep that you were not prepared for. You can’t settle down during the day while the children are out at school, college or with friends. I hope no one fully understands this feeling and that no one has to. It is the constant anticipation of catastrophe that kills you a 100 times a day.


My aging mother lives next door. She has her own daily rituals that she has no desire to change. She wakes up around 4am in good time for her dawn prayers, has her breakfast around 5, her lunch around 10 and her dinner at 4pm! She goes to bed between 8 and 9.

Her rhythm is different from most people I know, but she is happy with it. It doesn’t affect anybody else.

Some time ago, she heard some noises around 3:30 am, looked out from the window to see the head of a tall man at her front gate. He apparently saw her for he disappeared. She then heard the sound of a car moving away.

Since then, she has been coming over to spend the night at our place. She spends the day at her home as usual and, with sunset, she comes over, spends a few hours sitting in our living room chatting a little (and she does extremely little talking as a nature) with us and with her grandchildren, watching television and going to bed before we even have our dinner.

She feels much safer knowing that one or two of us are awake while she is sound asleep. She does not worry much anymore about little sounds she may hear in the night. As a result, she has been sleeping more soundly. She seems to be happy with this arrangement.
That is a reason for my own happiness.


My youngest son is a teenager, fifteen and a half as he would say, at what you call 10th grade. His school is some distance away from where we live. A minibus collects him from a point about a mile from our home. I take him there in the morning and wait for the minibus to call before leaving. In the afternoon, he takes a taxi back.

It was his last day of what they call quarterly exams. He was a bit late. His mother called him on his mobile and he said he will be back soon. More than half an hour later, he had not shown up. We were waiting for him to have lunch. She called him again.

She came into my study, visibly trembling, face yellow… and handed me the ‘phone. All I could hear was the muffled sound of violence. He must have had his ‘phone in his pocket. I though I could distinguish the sound of his voice. He must have been kidnapped. There was little doubt about it.

I motioned to my daughter. She brought my shoes and put them on for me while I was concentrating on those sounds. Following another prompt, she fetched my jacket and revolver. I was ready. Ready for what? I did not know what to do next or where to go!

My wife and daughter started frantically calling all his friends.

Finally, one of them turned out to be with him.

They were at a billiards parlor celebrating the end of those exams for an hour before going back home.

I cannot even begin to describe the feelings I had over those ten or fifteen minutes. Half an hour later, my wife had one of the strongest migraine attacks she has had for a long time. I had to give her an injection of valium followed by Stematil for nausea. Her pain was terrible well into the next morning

And all because our son was careless about coming home immediately after school and switched his mobile on instead of switching it off because he didn’t want to be distracted from his game.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


Search Parties and Changing Attitudes

I have had several personal encounters with US army search parties. Two of them reflect a certain trend.

One was in June of 2003, two months after the fall of Baghdad. I was at the farm, sitting with some of my share-croppers, discussing things. Three Hummers came in; three soldiers came out and walked toward us. I went to meet them. I asked if I could help them. The most senior said that they were on a routine search and asked if we had any weapons. I said that I did have an AK47 at the farm and that everybody else did. He smiled and asked me how I happened to speak English. I asked him where he came from… and that wherever that was, I was sure it couldn't possibly be that hot.

There are many storerooms at the farm for grains, fertilizers, machinery, etc. but they didn't ask to inspect them. We just exchanged some small talk, shook hands and they took off. Before leaving the main gate, a girl soldier leaned out of the side window, face flushing red from the heat, smiled and shouted: " Hey, we want to be your friends!" and waved. After translation, one of the younger men there remarked that he didn't mind being friends with her!


Last November, we were visited at home in Baghdad by another search party. Four soldiers came into the house, the others remained outside. One of the guys asked if they could search the house. I said of course (it would have been silly to ask if they had a search warrant!). He then asked if we had any weapons. I said "Yes, everybody does". He then asked how many we had and I said two, one mine and the other my son's. So, he asked to see them and I took him to where they were stashed. He inspected them (apparently for having been used recently). The others were roaming the house, looking around.

The whole procedure took around 10 minutes.

The difference was that we all had our stone-faces on; there was no small talk and no smiles. Everything was cold, professional and business-like.

Of course, I don't know whether they were aware that during the time they were searching our home, word of what they were doing in the neighborhood must have traveled at least three blocks ahead of them.


There was quite a difference in approach and attitude between the two encounters. The first time at least that particular group of soldiers tried not to behave like an army of occupation. The second time… there was no question about it.

But also, the change of attitude was not just from their side, it was from mine too.


Less than half an hour from their visit to our home, that second party literally ransacked the house of a neighbor – an old lady living alone.

(Moral: it can be useful to be able to speak English in Iraq today ;)

Monday, April 11, 2005


Tale of a Small Town

Who is the Enemy?

During those days of chaos and lawlessness that followed the US invasion of Iraq, the locals of a small town I am familiar with successfully managed to assemble a town council.

That council was constructed in the most unseemly, undemocratic and chaotic manner of Iraqis, but almost everybody was represented and everybody was content with it. The whole process took only three days.

For more than a year, that council kept the town running: security, services, etc. They even managed to retain a small police force that restricted itself to Law & Order.

During October of last year, some "resistance" people from another town raided the local police station, threatened the small police force and took their cars away. The next day, the local "resistance" people chased the raiders and found them. They threatened them not to come near their town again, took the cars back and re-instituted the police force!

The Interim government heard of these bizarre happenings and replaced all the personnel of the local police force. Within a week, one morning, around 10, the new police were attacked by some group using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The police were cornered into the "attic" of their building. The attackers then suddenly left.

On the same day, in the early afternoon, the US army showed up in force accompanied by an Iraqi National Guard unit. The town was put under siege. According to reports from locals, the US boys were better behaved than the ING. Those shot at houses, at shops and at anyone they saw, almost at random. All night long, they toured the streets shouting obscenities like "Come out you scum… You -----"… One particular ING major was said to be more viciously insulting.

Taking advantage of the availability of a live phone line (which was a rarity at the time) I called to inquire after some people I knew. The young man I talked to told me that at the minute he was talking to me some ING men were looting his shop in broad daylight while one of them was firing bullets in the middle of the street to keep people away.

A few days later, that major was kidnapped together with two others. No trace of him was found.

Recently, as the Iraqi security forces became stronger, the situation was tackled not through the installation of administrative bodies but through raids: every few days, a section of the town or the surrounding countryside is sealed and a number of young men were arrested almost at random (or according to tips given by mostly unreliable informers or by people with personal vendettas to settle). They were locked up, interrogated with some cruelty. Most of them were then released.

Now, more than six months later, that small town is still in chaos and its people in turmoil. Last week alone, there were three violent murders and four kidnappings. Lawlessness reigned. It was only through social connections and ‘tribal’ norms that total breakdown was averted.

A few weeks ago, a new Iraqi army officer was put in charge of the area. The man quickly made a name for himself for being fair and decent. Last week, a delegation of about a dozen local elders decided to go and meet that army commander. They sought the release of 11 of their boys still in custody after more than a fortnight of their arrest. The gentleman obliged and released them all immediately!

A channel of communication was established.

During that meeting, the man said that he joined the new army because he had to support his family. Under the previous regime and the UN sanctions, he had no savings or possessions left that he could fall upon. He also said that he didn’t feel it was his duty to protect the American army. The US army was the most powerful army in the world and should be capable of looking after itself. The hint was acknowledged!

According to someone who attended the meeting, the man’s personal story brought some tears into the eyes of some of those present. His 17 year old son had been kidnapped and he had no idea by whom or for what purpose… or what happened to him. He confessed that he dreaded going home after work and face his wife. He had already lost a 7 year old son who was kidnapped and then killed several months earlier.

[Update April 18th 2005: It was confirmed today that the officer’s 17 year old kidnapped son was found murdered.]


Monday, April 04, 2005


New Words

[This post is dedicated to "Liminal" and other expatriate fellow Iraqis, just to keep them in touch with things that are never reported on the media!]

Colloquial language is so much more dynamic than the classical language. It is always amusing to watch new words come into everyday language. It happens all the time in probably most countries. In Iraq under the present conditions, these take on a special flavor. A few words may illustrate this:


The 'u' in Buri is pronounced like in “poor”, “sure”

This word (which literally means “pipe” in Iraqi slang) appeared suddenly in the first half of the 1990’s in Baghdad and then spread out. One started hearing things like “Oh, I was hit by a buri!” or simply “Buri”, which sounded rather odd. I actually found it baffling.

After some investigation, facilitated by my contacts in the farming field, I traced it back to green-grocers!

The story is like this: Farmers traditionally used opaque sacs to market some produce such as potatoes. They generally place the better samples on top. They call it “presentation”, not cheating.

In the late 80’s netted plastic 50-lb. sacs came into use. They made seeing the whole sac of produce a lot easier. Those who wanted to cheat apparently inserted a 12-14” plastic tube into the sac. They poured the poor samples inside the tube and placed the good ones outside. The tube was then withdrawn and some more good samples were put on top! Anyone looking at the sac would only see the good items. The poor green grocer only discovered that “he’d been had” after partially emptying the sac. After that “technology” was discovered, the grocer would exclaim: “Damn! I was hit by a buri!”. The usage of course extended to other similar situations.

Reverting to today’s issues. I often feel that both unsuspecting, poor Americans and Iraqis have been hit by a buri.


During the UN sanction years, the government had to relax its grip on the economy. Three new sources of enormous income were introduced: commerce (importation of foodstuff and much-needed consumer good), oil (under-the-table oil export contracts) and smuggling (of a large variety of items with neighboring countries, both ways).

It was during that period that we began hearing the word “tugg”. It is a slang verb that means “burst or exploded”. It meant that somebody suddenly became extremely rich.


Saddam Hussein had a name for every major battle! There were so many of them: “The crown of all battles”, “The day of the great victory”, “The proclamation of all proclamations”, “The crown of battles” and of course "Um il Ma'arik - The mother of all battles”...

He called the last war “Um il Hawassim – The mother of all arbitrators”. This was meant to end it all.

So much material was looted after the invasion. Much of it began to surface on the market a few weeks later; cars, carpets, air-conditioners, food… you name it! People who suspected an item of having been looted would call it “Hawassim” stuff.


New Job Opportunities in Iraq - Informers for the new Mafia.

The new job is lucrative and appealing.

You go to an office in Kifah Street in Central Baghdad. You give them details about someone you know to be rich enough to pay a good ransom. They take the data down and ask you to come back in a week. During that week, they make their own investigation to check the authenticity of your information and decide whether “project” is worth pursuing further. You go back to the office. If they are interested, they pay you up to $2,500 in cash. That’s it!

You are called "allaass" - which is derived from a verb meaning "to chew or grind and then swallow".

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