Tuesday, September 20, 2005


The ‘Iraq’ Business

Is Iraq an Artificial Construction?

[Time and again I come across statements that Iraq was a state ‘artificially’ constructed at the end of World War I by the occupying French and British out of the three separate Ottoman regions of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. These statements are frequently made by ‘experts’ on Iraq! I have come across such assertions only too often… I would like to elaborate on this, at least to have something to refer people to in the future!]

In a nutshell

Iraq’s habitation goes back at least to the end of the last ice age. As a single country, it has been in existence for about 4,400 years. In addition to the long history, the country has been defined by geography: The two rivers of Mesopotamia clearly define a geographically unified region surrounded by mountains on the east and desert on the west in which people have been freely mixing for several thousand years!

The two rivers in ancient Iraqi mythology

To the ancient Iraqis… it started, not with Creation, but with putting order into Creation… The following passages are from Enuma Elish , the Babylonian Myth of Creation:

[Long before the time of the new gods, and long before our human world... there was nothing in existence but chaos. This chaos was ruled by the old gods Apsu (fresh water) and Tiamat (the sea). So a new or younger generation of gods were created for the purpose of bringing order to chaos.

One of the young gods, Ea, the god of wisdom, slayed the old god Apsu. This made the goddess Tiamat angry at Ea and all of the other youthful gods. Tiamat, who was a dragon like goddess, successfully waged war against all of the younger generation Babylonian gods until finally, in the nick of time, Marduk was born. Marduk, son of Ea, was to be the strongest and wisest of all the gods. As such, he was chosen to deal with Tiamat once and for all…

Summoning all of the other young gods, Marduk went to war against Tiamat. Finally, in a one on one battle, Tiamat was no match for the great Marduk, Lord of the Four Quarters. Cornering Tiamat with the four winds at his command, Marduk caught Tiamat up in his net. When Tiamat opened her mouth to breath fire at him, Marduk let loose the Imhulla, "evil wind" or hurricane. The many winds of Marduk filled her up. The winds churning her up from within, rendered her defenseless. Then Marduk speared her with a lightning bolt.

Splitting Tiamat (the sea) in two, Marduk then raised half of her body to create the sky and with the other half created the earth. In the process of this splitting apart, Tiamat's eyes then became the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In the realm above (heaven) Marduk set Anu, the sky god, and in the realm below (earth) Marduk set Ea, the earth god. Between the two, Marduk set the air god, Enlil. Other gods were then given their places in the heavens and then the stars were formed in their likeness.

The Sun, the Moon, and stars were at that time given special courses to run, and the constellations were to mark the passage of time. Through the measuring of time by the revolutions of the planets, order was established for ancient humanity.]

[It is perhaps comforting to know that the present-day god Murdock is attempting a similarly mammoth task of putting order in this world through Fox News and other ‘winds’ at his command!]

The Tigris and the Euphrates; it was those twin rivers that gave us Mesopotamia. Geography defined Iraq, even before history, and created that region… not the French and the British.

The earliest days – dawn of civilization

It started with city states, more than 7000 years ago. For a few thousand years Iraq was the birthplace of quite a number of them. They reached a level of sophistication by the standards of the time, unequalled except by Egypt.

Those city-states were then a new experiment in mankind’s history that produced sophisticated government, writing and record-keeping, the first written laws and work management that allowed people be freed from food gathering and production for personal consumption and allowed many to specialize in crafts. This was the spark that ignited technological and other developments. The very concept of organized society (the first step towards civilization) was started in Iraq through the creation of those early city-states. It seems that these were triggered by two major factors: abundance of produce in the fertile plains of southern Iraq (which allowed farmers to produce food more than their families needed) and the collective effort needed by the nature of irrigation in that region.

Those city states came and went, flourished and dwindled, expanded and decayed for a few thousand years in different parts of Iraq.Most of the time they were in competition and combat with neighboring cities. One of them was called ‘Uruk’ – a splendid civilization that flourished around 3000 BC - which I believe gave its name to the country.

Unification into one country

Then Sargon came along… Sargon, king of one of those city-states called Akkad, was the man who unified Iraq for the first time around 2400 BC and then went on to create the first known empire in the history of mankind.

Incidentally, the story of Sargon’s early childhood bears a disturbing resemblance to that of Moses .
1. Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkadê am I,
2. My mother was lowly; my father I did not know;
3. The brother of my father dwelt in the mountain.
4. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the bank of the Purattu [Euphrates],
5. My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth.
6. She placed me in a basket of reeds, she closed my entrance with bitumen,
7. She cast me upon the rivers which did not overflow me.
8. The river carried me, it brought me to Akki, the irrigator.
9. Akki, the irrigator, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out,
10. Akki, the irrigator, as his own son brought me up;
11. Akki, the irrigator, as his gardener appointed me.
12. When I was a gardener the goddess Ishtar loved me,
13. And for four years I ruled the kingdom.
14. The black-headed peoples I ruled, I governed;
15. Mighty mountains with axes of bronze I destroyed (?).
16. I ascended the upper mountains;
17. I burst through the lower mountains.
18. The country of the sea I besieged three times;
19. Dilmun I captured. [Dilmun is believed to be present-day Bahrain]
20. Unto the great Dur-ilu I went up, I . . . . . . . . .
21 . . . . . . . . .

The last 4000 years…

Iraq then went on from unification to disintegration so many times! Civilization after civilization rose, produced magnificent achievements and then crumbled and succumbed to local or foreign invasions… and then rose again.

Anybody who mattered in the old, and the not-so-old, world came here. They were all either repelled or ultimately dissolved in this 7000 year old melting pot.

The Greeks were also here, represented by the outstanding Alexander the Great, who died in Iraq. They certainly viewed it as a single country: Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers. People in the west still use their corruption of the names of those two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates, Dijla and Furat [Furattu].

Before, during and after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century, the word “Iraq” was used to refer to this country. It was known as a single country throughout. It was certainly referred to as such in numerous official documents and much poetry. The Arabic alternative description of Iraq: Bilad al Rafidain (country of the two rivers) is still in common use to this day in Iraq and throughout the Arab world.

Later, Baghdad became the capital of an enormous and a glamorous empire under the Abbasids. Iraq was still a single region throughout their reign.

When Baghdad crumbled to the attack of the Mongols in 1258, it did not rise again. Invader after invader came from the east and north.

For several centuries, Iraq was the favorite battleground between the Ottoman Turks and the Persian Iranians. The Turks prevailed.

The Turks divided Iraq into three regions for purely administrative purposes. They were the zones around the three major cities of Iraq Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. There was nothing ethnic and sectarian about that division. All three were mixed Arab/Kurd and Sunni/Shiite. Yes, the southern region was also mixed. It was only during the 19th century that the southern basin of Tigris converted en masse to Shiism.

Then, the ‘Experts’ came…

That was the state of Iraq when adventurers, company and empire representatives and tools and probes of the European conflicting interests ‘discovered’ it to the West. This is why they were not lying when they wrote that Iraq was three-state contraption. They did not lie, but they did not even know part of the whole story either. They were ignorant of all that long history. Thus was the myth of an ‘artificial’ country created.

Look at the map of Iraq: Only the borders on the west and south-west are straight lines; lines drawn in the sand.

The rest were lines defined by a very long history of long bloody conflicts. The northern and eastern borders were dictated by a history that was too long to ignore. But the French and British were at liberty to draw the western and the southern lines of the map of Iraq in the vast areas of sand. Little did they know that those areas of empty desert were riddled with a history of their own. Except for the early Sumerians, most of the other people who produced all those wonderful civilizations came across those deserts. There were no borders there… until the end of WWI. But that is a different story.

This is how the map of modern Iraq was drawn. And this is why many ‘experts’ honestly believe that modern Iraq was so constructed… ‘artificially’ from the three Ottoman provinces at the end of World War I.

They were only in error of ignoring about 7000 years of history.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Baghdad Summer Days

With summer drawing to a close, I feel I can write about summer in Baghdad with less steam in my words!

Is the world getting warmer as people keep telling us? I don’t know, but Baghdad certainly is! Baghdad summers were always excessively hot. Yet we are told that the second Abbasid Caliph al-Mansoor, who decided on this location for his capital 1240 years ago, chose it for its fair weather!

And yet there may be a grain of truth in this. Baghdad was much smaller. It was built on both sides of the Tigris in a location rich in orchards. Anyone who goes into an orchard in or around the Baghdad region can immediately sense a significant drop in temperature. It has to do with the dry nature of the air. Trees begin to act, through evaporation of moisture from their leaves, like natural air coolers.

This dryness of weather is a blessing. This is why some people in London, Rome or New York can die if the temperature reaches 40 (100 F), while in Baghdad the temperature can exceed 50 (120 F) in the shade… and people go about their normal business (apart from the fact that these people are practically indestructible!!)

We now know that the region of central Iraq, the valley of the two rivers (Mesopotamia) lies in a large depression. The desert is also quite close.

Traditionally, in the days before electricity, people had numerous ways of dealing with the intolerable heat. Noon siesta was one. Passive approach in architecture was another. I still remember thick, amazingly thick, external walls of old Baghdadi buildings, more than 1 meter wide… two walls of brick with more than a half a meter cavity filled with dried mud reinforced by straw, as an insulator; Very few, if any windows on the outside of the house, naturally for privacy but also to reduce heat gain; The rooms in the house face inward towards a small open yard, usually with a tree or two; Before cars, the residential areas did not have wide roads but very narrow alleyways (usually less than 2 meters wide) called ‘darboona’, to maximize the shade for people who walk outside.

In the summer, life after sunset used to be centered around the flat roof. It was sprinkled with water. Earthenware jugs were placed on the perimeter walls and let to sweat and cool their water.

In the sixties, noons in Baghdad were still intolerably hot. People avoided the noon sun. But life usually started to flow again in the afternoon.

The lunar year is about 10 days shorter than the solar one. Ramadan, the holy month of Muslim fasting shifts from year to year. Fortunately, Ramadan and fasting have been taking place in fairer times of the year. I remember times when Ramadan fell in summer months. That was a real test of faith! Even before all this religious revival, I used to be absolutely amazed by the devotion of poor laborers working in the noon sun (construction labor hours were, and still are 8am to 4 pm, with a one-hour break for lunch) in Ramadan, fasting all day at the same time and not drinking one drop of water until sunset!

There were also some jokes about it. One that I still remember had to do with someone who always talked ill about other people. His friends wagered 5 dinars if he could keep his mouth shut for a day. But they arranged for someone wearing a heavy coat to parade before him on purpose on a hot day. The man could not take that and yelled. “I will give you 10 dinars instead if you can see this @#$^&* and manage to keep your mouth shut!”

During the Iraq-Iran war, there were stories about soldiers amusing themselves by frying eggs on the metal work of their tanks and other vehicles!

And of course, I can tell you stories about elevated tempers!! It is perplexing that during these, hard two summers, people’s tempers are much less than those I know!

Breathing can feel like scorching your lungs! Going outside from a cool place may feel like opening an oven.

Water tanks are also kept on the flat rooftops. It can be a real test of endurance to take a shower at noon!

A wicked man once remarked that Iraqis do not have the fear of God in them because they already live in hell!!

I had a heat stroke sometime in 1980’s. I think it was my fault: too much enthusiasm in working on my farm and not enough respect for the summer noon sun! It left my temperature-regulating mechanism faulty so that to date I still suffer from excessive heat! Anyway, when I was ill, I started reading some medical books about it. An article mentioned something interesting. It appears that in some African country (or was it India?) they had a saying: "Only Englishmen and mad dogs go out in the noon sun". Well, I knew for certain that I was not an Englishman!

As elsewhere, to many people progress meant utter disregard to Mother Nature. Now, Baghdad like most other large metropolitans is a jungle of concrete and cars… and very hot indeed!

Sleeping on rooftops has largely been abandoned; too many stray bullets and shrapnel. I know of at least one fatal accident and three serious injuries that resulted from sleeping on the roof. In one of them a man was awoken in the middle of the night by a sting in one of his toes. Half asleep, he assumed that it must have been an insect, and went back to sleep, only to be woken up again by the pain and the wetness of the sheets!

It is rather difficult to convey the constant feeling of heat-exhaustion; the unbelievable amounts of water needed to compensate for all that sweat; the unending feeling of thirst; the anger of waking up in the middle of the night soaking wet; the annoyance of taking a shower before going out, changing into a new set of clothes only to have them soaking and wrinkled before leaving the house; the pain of touching metal with a temperature of 80 C (170 F); the constant feeling of shortness of breath; the agony of waiting for anything even for a few minutes under the noon sun; the agony of having a car break down in that heat; the fury of seeing loved ones red in the face, sweating and in pain, while there was nothing you could do about it.

So, with all those power cuts, you can imagine how happy and grateful all those poor inhabitants of Baghdad feel.

I still hate the summer noon in Baghdad.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Tragedy on a Bridge

Some people call it pilgrimage. Iraqis call it a “ziara” – visit! In these zizaras, people pay homage to their divine Imams (religious leaders).

Shiites have 12 Imams as I have mentioned earlier. What most people outside Iraq don’t know is that at any given time, a ziara has anywhere between 5 and 10% of Sunnis! People, particularly country folk, take part in these activities across sectarian lines.

On that tragic day, more than a million people made their way to the shrine of the 7th Imam, Kadhim, to commemorate his death. Most people go on foot; many choose to go barefooted as a sign of devotion.

That particular bridge is called the “a-imma” bridge (The Imams’ Bridge)… as there are important Imams’ shrines on both sides. It links two northern districts of Baghdad, Adhameyyah and Kadhimeyyah, about which I had also written earlier in this blog. Both districts are ‘religious’ and traditional in character; one is predominantly Shiite, the other is mainly Sunni.

People going on foot from the eastern side of Baghdad have to go through Adhameyyah to get to the bridge. Residents of that district were outside in large numbers during the procession to offer water, food and even the use of their toilets to people going through their neighborhoods. To Iraqis, there is nothing unusual about that… but it doesn’t fit with the flat, two dimensional sectarian image of much of the media and of some ignorant bigots!

The bridge, according to the army general in charge of the security of Kadhimeyyah, was closed to all traffic. It was obstructed, for security reasons, by large concrete blocks on either side that allowed only one or two people to go through at a time. However, due to “certain pressures” that bridge was opened to the public on that particular day.

A rumor was started within the crowd that there was someone with an explosive belt or that there was a car full of explosives. People started running in a stampede. The exit being blocked, the hysterical congestion killed many against those concrete blocks, some people jumped into the river, but the congestion caused the side railings of the bridge to yield. People kept pouring; many fell to their death onto the river bank and into the water.

Was that tragedy avoidable? Naturally! Under the present precarious conditions, it would not be safe for people to converge in such high numbers for any reason. Imam Kadhim was not going to go anywhere. However, still influenced by Khomeini’s effective show of strength in Iran through demonstration of the massive bulk of the faithful, many ‘religious’ leaderships and parties quite irresponsibly encouraged people to converge to Kadhim on that frightful day! They should have done otherwise. Anyway, an enquiry is supposed to be underway. I doubt that anyone will be blamed, although the minister of health has asked for the resignation of the ministers of Interior and Defense.

More than a thousand people, mostly women and children, lost their lives.

Names Tell Long Stories in Iraq

That Imam’s full name was Imam Moussa (Moses) al Kadhim. He was generally known as “al Kadhim” (the Suppressor) because he was famous for containing his anger.

He died during the reign of Haroun (Aaron) al Rasheed (the Judicious) one of the most famous of the Abbasids Caliphs of Baghdad, the spread of the empire in whose time was so vast that he was reported to address a cloud in the sky and say: “Go where you please. Your taxes will come back to me!”

The Abbasids relentlessly fought Imam Ali’s descendents. Kadhim was reportedly poisoned in jail by Haroun al Rasheed. He was buried on the west side of the Tigris just north of Baghdad, more than a thousand years ago. The area became known as Kadhimeyyah.

Kadhim’s father, Ja’afar al Sadiq (the Truthful) was the 6th Imam in the Shiite faith and was also a religious scholar who gave the Shiite sect its philosophical and theological framework.

Moussa was not in fact Ja’afar’s eldest son. The eldest was called Ismael (Ishmael) who, for some reason was seen less fit to be the Imam. Ismael went away and started his own following in Iran and Afghanistan… hence the Ismaelites, whose head figure is the ‘Agha Khan’.

One of Imam Ja’afar’s students was a man called Abu Haneefa who went on to found Hanafism, one of the major Sunni sub-sects. Many centuries later, it became the official religious sect of the Ottoman Empire. Abu Haneefa was quite fond of Imam Ja’afar and spoke and wrote very highly of him.

Abu Haneefa was buried on the opposite, eastern, bank of the Tigris. The area became known as Adhameyyah (in reference to the title Abu Haneefa’s followers gave him: “al Imam al Adham” – the greatest Imam!)

Baghdad kept expanding through the centuries and Adhameyyah and Kadhimeyyah became suburbs of the city, but they retained their religious and sectarian flavor.

Othman Ali al Obaidi… What’s in a name?

During that disaster of a day, Othman (or Uthman) who was a young Sunni man from Adhameyyah who, with many others, kept plunging into the water and managed to save six people from drowning by pulling them ashore. The seventh was a heavily built woman who apparently pulled him down with her… and they both drowned.

People, including some Iraqis, who were ignorant of the real Iraq, were full of awe at this Sunni risking his life to save Shiites. I wasn’t. I know better. I have been trying to explain aspects of this in this blog for quite a while. This time the answer is in the poor hero’s name!

Let’s have a look at his name again: Othman Ali al Obaidi (First name followed by the father’s first name and then the surname- in this case, the name of his tribe).

Othman was the third Caliph (Successor) after Prophet Mohammed. He was a rich aristocrat and resembled everything people would call a right-wing in today’s nomenclature. He was a generous and a peaceful old man who did much to strengthen the original call of Islam. Prophet Mohammed gave him his daughter in marriage… and when she died, gave him another.

Common Shiite folks however do not generally think highly of him. He beat the more deserving Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son in law to the Caliphate. More importantly, being rather tribal in disposition, Othman favored and strengthened the Umayyads, the governors of Sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) - Imam Ali’s archenemies and the people who later killed his son Hussein in Kerbala, Iraq. To this day, most devout Shiites bitterly mourn the tragic death of Imam Hussein and his family.

Imam Ali is of course the Supreme Patriarch of the Shiite faith. The name Shiite actually refers to the cohorts or followers of Imam Ali.

Late Othman’s surname is al Obaidi. The Obaid (or Ubaid or Ubayd) is an Arab tribe whose ancestors came with the Islamic conquest to Iraq 1400 years ago. Most of its members settled in the Kirkuk area around 1600 AD.

Around 1750, the Obaid tribe revolted against the Ottomans. Their warriors surrounded the northern and western sides of Baghdad. Their main camp was in the area of Adhameyyah. After that revolt was quelled, many remained put. Up to the 1950’s probably around 80% of the Adhameyyah district were Obaidis!

I have met many of those people. Hala Fattah has made some interesting observations at“History News Network” about one of them she had met by chance in a library in Baghdad. The vast majority are not only Sunni, but they feel quite strongly about it. Many are proud Arab Nationalists who fought fierce battles in the 1950’s and 1960’s against the spread of Communism and against the Communist Party which became influential for a time after the fall of the monarchy in 1958. That area was so conservative that I well remember a time in the 1960’s that anyone passing through their inner streets was liable to be stopped and asked what his business there was!

Many of the Obaidis in Adhameyyah have relatives, some of them considered close kin, on the other side of the river in Kadhimeyyah… and devout Shiites. The bickering of those kin about sectarian issues is always something to witness!

During that siege of Baghdad in the 18th century, the Iranians invaded and occupied the southern city of Basra. With the Ottoman Empire rather weak at the time, people of Basra sought the help of Iraqi tribes to liberate them. A major fraction of the Obaid tribe went south to help. With them went two large, mainly ‘Shiite’ tribes. Basra was liberated. Many of the Obaid tribe settled along the route to Basra in towns and on river banks as well as in Basra itself. All, with time, became Shiites. Many maintain to this day close relations with their mostly Sunni kin in other areas in Baghdad, Kirkuk and all the way up to Mosul. All in all, about a third of the Obaidis in Iraq today are Shiites.

Othman Ali al Obaidi.

What’s in a name? Good old insightful Shakespeare! Sometimes names tell long stories in Iraq.

The weld still holds.

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