Monday, June 27, 2005


Naeem Jabbar

I have already mentioned Naeem in an earlier post. He is a share cropper who has been working on my farm for the past six years… and is worth a more detailed mention!

Naeem is a tribesman from a southern province called Qadisseyya. He is a Shiite. When Naeem first came to work at the farm, I noticed that some people called him Abu Sattar while others called him Abu Qassim.

When I asked him about that, he said that he had been married for 25 years before he decided to get married again. His older wife and her sons were so angry with him that they threw him out! So he had to leave his own plot of land to that wife and her sons and seek employment. He moved from farm to farm for several years until he finally settled down on mine.

His new wife insisted that everybody called him Abu Qassim, the name of her eldest son. People who knew him before kept calling him Abu Sattar out of habit. Hence the confusion!

Naeem can’t read or write. I have already mentioned that Naeem has an affinity to numbers. He constantly keeps an updated record of all his income and expenditure in his memory.

The question of share-croppers’ cattle is a recurring problem. If the share-cropper favors his cattle over the crop (which is a natural thing to do) he tends to feed his cattle on crop that is shared with the land owner. People also tend to neglect the shared side of business in favor of the side they own fully. About 15 years ago I solved this problem on my farm by sharing the cattle with the cropper (If you can’t beat ‘em…). I would buy cattle to equal value of his. He would then be able to feed the shared cattle on shared crop without being unfair to anybody!

When Naeem first came to the farm he was penniless. He wanted to have a cow for fresh milk, yogurt and butter for his family. So he convinced me to buy a cow out of my pocket. A couple of years later, he was able to pay me back ‘my half’ of that cow. And now, six years later, is the proud half-owner of a herd of three good cows! I sometimes tease him by saying that he started this business using my money. He always smiles craftily and contentedly!

Naeem is also a political animal in the extreme. I reckon that he listens to his portable radio around 10 hours a day, with the BBC Arabic service getting a good share of his attention. He is quite fond of political analysis… and usually gives me a good run for my money when we discuss politics. I was so impressed with an analysis that he made once that I told him that he probably had more brains than President Bush! The others present, mostly his neighbors, were furious with indignation. They thought that I was encouraging him to pester them on matters of politics.

I usually have to struggle hard to keep Naeem off politics to be able to concentrate on our farming business. During the past two years, Naeem has been having a good ‘political season’! With literally no electric power or irrigation water at the farm, there is so little to do! I must admit that I enjoy his debates. Had he had some formal education, he would have made a good political analyst. That would probably have made him less useful to society though! He actually manages to stay clear of the rampant conspiracy theories so many locals find as the only plausible explanation to the almost unbelievable things that they see happening to their country and to their society.

Naeem was a bit anxious during the invasion of Iraq. He asked me what I recommend that he did. I suggested that he raised a white flag over his hut. If Baathists enquired, he would tell them that he had a circumcision party (as it still is the custom in the countryside to raise a white flag for happy events and a black one for sad ones). If the Americans arrived, they would automatically take it as a sign of surrender and would probably not bother him! I could see him contemplating the merits of the idea… but he never implemented it.

It was at that time that I made the blunder of predicting what would happen. In response to a question from him, I said that I expected him to live better, but we would not have much collective free will for some time to come. He snapped back: “That should be an improvement. I don’t have much free will now anyway”! He and others never stopped reminding me that my prediction was less than accurate. They not only lost what was left of any dignity that they had… but were also living under worse conditions than those of Saddam’s regime.

There was a time, after the invasion, when Naeem was a supporter of SCIRI – the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (not that he was a religious person… but that’s another story!) and was fond of Mr. Abdul Azziz al Hakeem. This led him into some heated arguments with people who were prisoners of war in Iran and who were tortured by the Badr Brigade people either because they were Sunnis or were Shiites but refused to join them! It was only when Mr. Hakeem became president of the now-defunct Iraq Governing Council and announced that he was for compensating Iran for that war that Naeem turned against those people. At the moment, he is against all imported neo-politicians.

Monday, June 20, 2005



A zaffa is a wedding procession.

In conventional Iraqi weddings, the proceedings are intricate and involve several ceremonies and parties. The final step is the zaffa: A procession of cars of the groom’s friends and relatives go to the bride’s home to escort the couple to the bridal home, to a hotel where the couple may spend part of their honeymoon, to the airport if they go abroad or to the outskirts of the city if they were going by car to some resort.

You cannot miss a zaffa. They are so noisy; you can hear them from a distance! The couple’s car is usually lavishly decorated with colorful strips and flower bouquets. The bride’s mother usually rides with them on the front seat. It is followed by a car full of musicians with half of their bodies protruding from the windows (there is always a trumpet and a drum). They play rhythmic popular music, rather loudly. These are followed by a dozen or two of an assortment of cars (minibuses sometimes) with horns blasting and full of people noisily clapping and singing. Customarily, there is also the women’s distinctive ‘shriek’ of traditional joy – the halhula (hallelujah?)

They usually cause a small traffic chaos en route. They are given priority at traffic signals (in the days when we had working traffic signals) by traffic policemen and other motorists… so as not to break the procession. Whenever the procession stops, several young men sometimes get out of the cars and start dancing on the street! This actually has been a new development introduced during the past 15 years.

When the procession reaches its destination, there is usually a party, more loud noises and then dinner.

Zaffa in the countryside follows similar lines and is equally noisy… but instead of the dancing, they are usually accompanied by sporadic gun shots in the air. The final destination is invariably the bridal home which is most frequently the groom’s family home. It is still common practice for the couple not to move out until a few years later.

Some people like zaffas. I don’t. I find them too noisy and chaotic. I didn’t even go to my own zaffa when I got married decades ago!


Baghdad, Saturday, April 5, 2003

It was slightly before six in the morning. I was sitting in my study in my dishdasha (traditional robe) listening to news on my transistor.

I started hearing a strange, faint, distant rumble… which I realized was very intense firing. I remember thinking that this did not sound like something for which a dishdasha was suitable! So I shaved and changed.

That noise was getting louder and closer, clearly distinguishable by now. It was coming towards Baghdad from the south-west. I dashed to the (flat) rooftop. Over what I figured was the airport, there were two A-10’s (anti-tank airplanes distinguishable by their very wide wing span and incredibly slow speed!) they went around in two large circles. Behind and below them were balls of fire at regular intervals. A neighbor who was also on his rooftop following events explained that they were anti-missile flares.

The noise was much louder now. The intensity was terrifying. My doctor son, who had not graduated yet at the time, had volunteered to spend the night at one of the hospitals nearby.

I dashed frantically to my elderly mother’s next door. She was in her doorway, bewildered. I escorted her at a maddeningly slow pace to my house and installed her with everybody else in the stairwell, the safest place we had.

I then ran to my widowed sister’s home about a hundred meters away. She, her daughter and her young son were just leaving, on their way to my place. We were joined by another niece who lived nearby clutching her two young children.

By then, the sounds of tank tracks on the pavement were distinguishable. But machine gun fire and a variety of explosive sounds were so close that you could feel the earth shaking. All that violence was only about 200 meters away with only a single wall, 3 meter high, shielding us. It felt like you were being shot at and bombarded at close range. No one looked back; I was at the rear; my nephew was missing. I was beginning to move back when he showed up. He had gone back inside to fetch his gun (as if that would be any use).

When we got to our stairwell fortress, my brother and his three sons, who also live next door, had already joined the others.

[Thinking back to that morning, gathering like that in one place under those conditions was probably not the most prudent thing to do. Putting all your eggs in one basket as it were… but I suppose that the unspoken decision by everybody was either to make it together or die together! Death was indeed so close.]

By then the house was literally shaking with the blasts. We had been through wars and bombardment before, but never this close to so much sustained intensity.

My curiosity got the better of me. So, oblivious to yells from everybody, I ran to the roof again… and it was the most bizarre scene: explosives everywhere; tanks that I couldn’t see with tracks ticking fast on the pavement; planes overhead, A-10’s flying ahead of the tank column apparently clearing the way … and lots and lots of fire power!

A few times the explosions were so close that I reflexively sheltered behind a wall!

Finally, the noises and the explosions began to move away. The American army was on its way to Baghdad Airport. Later, a neighbor who was closer to the scene told me that he counted 36 tanks.

Ever since then, I always referred to that day as the day of the zaffa, the American zaffa.

Monday, June 13, 2005


Iraqi Forefingers

The purple-colored finger became a sign of participating in the new ‘democracy’ in Iraq. But there is another telltale forefinger that was a sign of something quite different in another violent episode of Iraq’s recent history.

There has been compulsory National Service (draft) in Iraq for more than 60 years. However, traditionally, there were some exceptions. No one who was the sole supporter of a family was conscripted. Not all brothers of a single family were simultaneously drafted.

As the Iraq-Iran war (1980 – 1988) dragged on, human fodder was badly needed. Consequently, most of those exceptions were ignored. Even physically or mentally handicapped people were subjected to considerable ordeals before specialist medical and military committees were convinced that they were actually handicapped. It was not unusual to find all brothers of a family serving in the army at the same time. And because of the duration of that war, there were even cases of both father and sons serving concurrently.

There was a time when the bodies of those killed in action were sent to the local police station to deliver them to their families. I still vividly remember the incident related to me by a girl who worked in the same government department with me who went to receive the body of her dead brother. She saw three coffins of three brothers, all killed in the same battle. The policemen there were having difficulty to find a volunteer among themselves who had sufficient impertinence to go and inform their mother!

Anyway, back to the business of forefingers!

To avoid combat deployment for a variety of reasons, some people amputated their own right-hand forefingers, the one that pulls the trigger. I have met at least 10 people over the past two decades with missing fingers, easily noticeable in handshakes.

One man I knew used a bench saw to severe his own finger in an almost authentic ‘accident’. But the most common method used was for the person to hold the barrel of a shot-gun with his right hand so that the index finger is placed on the barrel’s outlet. He fires the gun and… half the finger disappears! This was a lot more common in the countryside where it is ‘manly’ not to fear pain.


During the chaos and the lawlessness that followed the invasion, a truck driver who worked for a government establishment was stopped on a deserted road and his truck was hijacked by a group of masked, armed men. Before leaving, one of the villains shouted: “This is what traitors and collaborators get” to give the impression that they were resistance people. The poor driver was baffled; he was only a driver working for the Grain Board.

During the proceedings, the driver noticed the missing finger of one of the hijackers.

He and his kin were fast on the trail of the hijacked truck. It took them less than 24 hours to determine the small area associated with a locally known tribe where the trace of the truck disappeared.

Farmers in that area use what they call “nylon” - plastic tunnels to force growing summer crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines in cold weather. Something like greenhouses that use steel rods (a quarter of an inch in diameter and about 3m long) that are inserted into the soil on either side of an irrigation ditch and covered with plastic. Quite a practical and a cost-effective method! It requires a great deal of hard work, but can be quite rewarding. It is customary for farmers who, for some reason, do not wish to use their steel rods in a given season to hire them out.

So, our hero the poor truck driver had some of his relatives tour that area going from farm to farm on the pretext of seeking to hire steel rods for their plastic tunnels. Within a week one of them had a glimpse of a missing finger of one of the men in the area. Further inquiries confirmed that that particular man was not too distant from other unsavory undertakings!

That did not constitute conclusive proof. But the trail, the missing forefinger and the suspect’s reputation were very strong evidence for suspicion. The truck driver’s people came out into the open. He now had a sufficient case to ask the suspect’s clan to take up the issue to clear themselves.

Meanwhile, our truck driver used every possible trick to postpone his own trial for the missing truck. If the judge is not convinced that there was actually a hijacking, he may force the poor driver to pay back the value of the truck to that government department.

At the moment he seems to be well on the way of having his tribal case won! Based on the circumstantial evidence that he obtained, the other clan is under considerable social obligation to come up with a convincing denial or to admit wrong-doing by the suspect and pay compensation.

Monday, June 06, 2005


An Insurgent Called Spark

I was on my way back from the farm to Baghdad last week when I received a telephone call telling me that the boys had been released from prison.

They were Nihad’s brothers. Nihad was a young man who was ‘accidentally’ killed by the US army. I have already told the story in another post. His father was compensated financially. He gave the blood money to the resistance.

Nihad had five brothers ranging in age between 30 and 15. A few weeks after that incident, the father and four of the brothers were ‘detained’ by the US army. Only the youngest, Abbas, was spared.

First they were sent to Abu Ghraib and later transferred to the Bucca Camp down south. They spent some months there, uncharged. That telephone call announced to me their release and arrival home. Their home was on my way, so I decided to drop in and say hello.

I only intended it to be to stay for a short while, but found myself listening to their account of their imprisonment and the numerous anecdotes people usually gather from such experiences… that I stayed there far longer than I had planned.

They said they were generally treated well but had a constant feeling of ‘humiliation’. They were not asked a single question in interrogation or interview. They were released uncharged and untried. Their father remained behind, using his time to memorize as much as he could of the Koran.

Some of the stories they told me were truly fascinating and I certainly hope to relate some of them in this blog sometime. But one of them amused me so much that I find myself giving it priority. It was about an insurgent they met in prison.


The American army in Iraq has been plagued by something they call IED (Improvised Explosive Devices). These devices come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: in rubbish heaps, in dead animal corpses, in little inconspicuous objects thrown on the side of the road in their path. Some are detonated remotely, some are detonated by wire.

One particular insurgent lived in a district called Aamil in western Baghdad close to the road to the airport (or what is now called the Irish Route by the American soldiers). He specialized in filling old tin cans with some dirt and wood sticks and inserting a piece of wire and leaving the ends protruding. He placed those devices on the route of American patrols and convoys. They looked suspicious enough to be taken seriously. Usually the procession was held up until experts examined those devices and declared them safe!

He was called Sharara (Spark).

His game went on for about a year. Finally the US army caught up with him. Late one night, the district was surrounded, helicopters monitored the scene from above and Sharara’s home was encircled. The front door was smashed. There was panic in the family. The man of the house was told that the army wanted Sharara. The man said that his son was asleep, but he would fetch him. Escorted, he came back with Sharara who was half asleep. The soldiers stood bewildered.

Sharara was only a 10 year old boy!

Sharara ended up in prison. This was where Nihad’s brothers met him. It was one of them who told me this story.

Sharara was apparently a character fit for Dickens or Twain. He was the darling of that camp. He kept busy transmitting news and messages between prisoners and coordinating things. And he never stopped ‘targeting’ the Americans. The unit their lot was in was called a ‘caravan’ and housed 25 prisoners. The prisoners were counted at 6 pm and again at 7 am. Every now and then, before the count, Sharara would climb into a small ventilation duct and hide there. The soldier doing the counting (not bothering with those awful sounding names) would find the number one short. He would go and fetch others. Sharara would climb down. On the second count, the number would be complete!

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