Monday, November 28, 2005


Abu Khaleel

What's in a Name!

I have already discussed the 'Abu' part of the name in an earlier post.

Khaleel (sometimes written Khalil) is one word in Arabic, meaning 'close friend' – but also alludes to spending time together in companionship. Another form of the word is 'Khil', with almost the same meaning.

The letters “kh” refer to one letter in Arabic. The closest pronunciation is as in the Scottish “loch”.

The word “Khaleel” is commonly associated with Prophet Abraham who is usually referred to as "Ibrahim, Khaleel Allah". Abraham was born in Ur, in ancient Iraq. I would like to think that no other single individual had more influence on religious thought of the world. He is so revered in these parts that he is frequently referred to as "Abul Anbeya" - Father of all Prophets.

On closer examination, the name turns out to be composed of two parts: Khal-eel, or Khal-il. Khal is definitely a corruption of "Khil" or close friend. The second part is derived from the word "el" which is an ancient word for God.

So, in essence, Khaleel means "friend of God"!

Those two letters, el or il are usually associated with Hebrew. However, they seem to have been in existence long before Hebrews or Arabs became know as distinct races. They were used originally not only by the ancient Sumerians of Iraq (who were not Semitic) but also by the Semitic Babylonians. At one stage, Inl-il was the most senior of Gods of Sumer.

In Arabic, A god is called ilah or elah. Even today, the Arabic word for God – Allah is a modified word from al-ilah, the God.

Many other old and current words commonly known across the world whether in the Judeo-Christian or Islamic heritage begin to have clearer meaning. This fact sheds interesting light on a number of other common names.

Babylon – more commonly known locally as Babil or Babel (bab = door) - Gateway to God.
Israel (Jacob son of Issac and Abraham’s grandson) - Slave of God (=Abdullah!)
Arbil (a northern, Kurdish city in Iraq) – (arba’ = four) - City of four Gods.
The list is long.

I would suggest that names such as Gabriel, Michael etc... ending with 'il' or 'el'... have Iraq's signature in them!

If only Michael Ledeen or Ambassador Khalilzad knew!

Monday, November 21, 2005


My Iraq - This is where I want to die

[This post is dedicated to my daughter who is abroad at the moment and who keeps urging me to leave!]

"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have."

Abraham Lincoln


These stories and anecdotes I have been writing for a while are indeed a Glimpse of Iraq. A country that is more than 6000 years old that has given so much to humanity – and yet, it is largely unaccredited for it and unrecognized - a country that presents a harsh and a scruffy picture to the casual onlooker and to the observer with no penetrating mind or with a dead soul. But they are not really just a Glimpse of Iraq. They are in fact a glimpse of my Iraq and a glimpse of me.

Most people I know think, and sometimes say, that there is something wrong with me, staying in the unbearable hell-hole while being fully capable of leaving this sinking boat and making a good life elsewhere. I will not talk about duty. I will not talk about making a stand in the face of adversity and the forces of darkness. I will not talk about the many rational reasons that I feel I have. In this post, I will mention one ‘minor’ reason that I rarely state.


Some time ago, I chanced across a comment somewhere by someone discussing the Sunni Shiite issues and wondering why these people were so immersed in an issue 1400 years old in a country with a 6000 year history. Reflexively I wrote that those 6000 years are there but many people are not aware of them.

That is true.

All those 6000 years of glory, violence, suffering and achievement are there. I see them everyday in people's words and gestures, in their toughness and resilience, in their capacity to handle impossible hardships. I see those 6000 years in the features of little children… and I feel them in my veins.

Many people can only see the hardship, the dirt, the blood and the suffering. I can see a people who, unassisted, put a limit to looting and lawlessness. I see a people who refuse to kill each other and be drawn into stupid sectarian battles. I can tell you stories! I see people with patience that is legendary. I see people who try to go about their shattered lives amid the blood and the chaos and the suffering. I see people who spend all night and fast all day sitting in their cars, waiting for petrol… and when dusk sets in, they break their fasting with a cold sandwich.

I can see people who can tell jokes about it all.

All those 6000 years are there. I see them in little things people do, in their everyday gestures, in their unique way of handling impossible hardships. Those years are there. They come to the rescue… and most people don’t know it!

I see them in date palm trees, tall, proud and beautiful… with their fruit only accessible to the skilled and their beauty only maintainable through expertise and hard work. Yet, they can survive unendurable neglect, and be ready to shine again with care.

Yes! I feel sad and angry and bitter most of the time. But these people remind me every single day that I cannot lose hope. It is only a question of scale. We have to think in longer terms. And that, that is what this country is all about.

This country can be invaded, and it has been, more times than I would care to count. It can be ravaged, bombed, looted and ruined. But I know, in my heart, that it will never be permanently crushed. Six thousand years of experience tell me that it will rise again… and that it will be a lantern to show the world yet again the missing link between mind and soul, between knowledge and spirit… for the world seems to have largely lost that link.

This is where I want to live. This is where I want to be buried when I die… in the hope that my decomposed body will one day be food for a tall and proud palm tree.

Monday, November 14, 2005


Little Glimpses

[This post is dedicated to my son who is away. A taste of home, in case he misses it!]

Shopkeeper wisdom

I was talking to a shop keeper some time ago. He was relating an argument he had with someone. The other man had said that Saddam was better than the lot holding power in Iraq at present. The shopkeeper had a different view: he said that saying “Saddam was better” implies that both were good! The proper way was to say that this lot was “worse than Saddam”. That implies that they were both bad.

I can’t argue with that!

Illiterates with Mobile ‘Phones

Sometime ago, I met a farmer who was an old, illiterate man. He had a mobile ‘phone. I asked how he managed to use it. He said that it was quite simple. Some of his children stored his contacts for him on the ‘phone. He would fumble with the keypad and make a call to anybody at random. He would then ask whoever he was calling to pass on his message to the one he had in mind! Usually the one he was trying to call would call back… making the phone call also less costly!

The Lone Insurgent

He is a retired army officer in his mid fifties. He is totally convinced that America is an enemy. He has dedicated his life to expel the invaders. But he does not trust anybody, so he works alone.

He puts his AK47 machine gun and his RPG (rocket propelled grenade launcher) in the trunk of his car and roams the streets of Baghdad and the surrounding areas. He never acts rashly and waits for a good ‘hit’. When the opportunity presents itself, he makes that hit, and goes back home.

Putting the Prince in his Place

Iraqi ‘insurgents’ are usually called Mujahideen (holy warriors) in the countryside and in small towns whether they are religious or not. The Islamic insurgents are organized in cells or clusters. Each is led by what they call an “Ameer” – Prince. In some areas of Iraq they are a force to be reckoned with, feared and/or respected.

This particular “Prince” had a quarrel with a hard-nosed old farmer. The quarrel was purely social. They were distant kin. The old man took a few of his boys and they gave the Prince a severe beating.

The cell the Prince was responsible for issued an ultimatum for the old man and two of his close kin to move out of the area within three days. The old man took four car loads of his lot, set up a road-block in the area and kidnapped three of the Mujahideen. He did not release them until that particular cell issued a written apology to the old man… and promised not to bother him again.

I find the image of those fierce fighters who have been causing so much headache to the most powerful army in the world being beaten up and kidnapped by a simple farmer… quite amusing, almost hilarious!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


A Glimpse of Sistani

No other person in my memory was held in so much regard by so many ordinary Iraqis or had so much non-coercive influence on them since the late President Nassir of Egypt. What is amazing is that, while Nassir had a way with words that inflamed the nationalistic feelings of people, this soft-spoken old man has said so little in public….

Over the past two years, he has had more influence over Iraqi politics than any other figure in Iraq. For a man who rarely left his own house, or said a single word to the mass media, this is quite phenomenal!

Who is Sistani?

His full name is Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani.

Grand Ayatollah is his religious title, the highest in the Shiite clergy hierarchy; Ayatollah roughly means: “A Sign of God”. Ali is his personal birth name. Husseini indicates that he is a Sayyed whose lineage goes back to Hussein, one of Imam Ali’s two sons. Sistani derives from the town in Iran, Sistan, where his family comes from.

I did not pay much attention to Ayatollah Ali Sistani during the Saddam years but I knew was that he had good standing among devout Shiite laymen and clerics. He certainly kept a low profile and rarely left his home/office. I'm told he never left his house for more than 8 years!

When Saddam started targeting the senior Shiite clergy, most notably the defiant and outspoken Sadr (Moqtada’s father) he spared Sistani. The rumor in vogue at the time was that the government was eliminating troublesome competition to the moderate Sistani, whom they probably felt that they could do business with. However, Sistani himself was reported to have been ‘detained’ for a while later.

During the early hazy months following the invasion, almost suddenly, everybody started talking about Sistani. In those early days, he made a very good impression of being a moderate. I must say that many of his declared positions after the invasion of Iraq were admirable: an unequivocal stand against looting and chaos, a clear stand against Sunni-Shiite sectarianism strife and a firm stand for democracy. What surprised me was that he managed to say very little, but what he said made sense.

Unlike the late Khomeini of Iran, Sistani almost never communicates with people in public and does most of his business through small meetings, through ‘representatives’ making announcements on his behalf or through ‘Fatwas’. [A fatwa is a ‘considered’, usually written, religious opinion.]

Some people sometimes wonder why Sistani did not make any of his announcements himself. The reason is obvious. The reaction to his heavy Iranian accent would be negative in both ‘Sunni’ and most ‘Shiite’ quarters alike.

Report of a visit to Ayatollah Ali Sistani

This is the most authentic first hand account of an audience with the Ayatollah that I know of. It gives a good glimpse of Sistani [From a private communication, in 2004]:


It was a small delegation representing [… a few ‘Sunni’ Arab and Kurdish tribes]. A few other “Shiite” friends came along for the honour of seeing His Holiness.

We were an hour and a half late for the appointment (the traffic jams were something I have never seen the like of). Nevertheless, his staff, his son (and later, he himself) went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

We sat on the floor of a sparsely furnished room (very much like the reception room of a not-very-poor peasant), were served tea, had a pleasant chat with his son, a very bright (and obviously very ambitious), courteous young man of around 30.

He came in a few minutes later, didn’t shake hands and squatted in that way only clergymen know how. We were introduced one by one, his eyes were alive and alert and very much like an earthly man, examining each closely!

Nazar K. spoke first saying that his eminence was talking for all Iraqis when he wanted elections. As sunnis we were fully with him on that. Then he responded.

He had a heavy (and I mean really heavy) Persian accent which he didn’t (and couldn’t) hide. He used classical Arabic, but the structure of his sentences was not perfect.

He talked a lot…a lot! His response for 30 seconds of courteous pleasantries was a 10 minute monologue! That was when I was shocked!

The man was a secular! I have never heard a clergyman saying the things that we lot take to represent our secularism!

In response to Nazar’s statement, he went on and on about sunni’s and shia saying that these were doctrines differing on how to interpret Islam and they were all decent and good-intentioned. They were definitely no reason for bloody strife. He talked about the ancient pillars of the sunni doctrine and praised them all in detail and said how he respected them as men of faith and as scholars. The difference between the shia and sunna, he believed, was far less significant than the danger facing the Iraqi nation at present.

Well, personally that put him on my right side!

Then Omar S. sounded his fear that through democracy the shia would dominate Iraq, and consequently the Kurds.

He said that he didn’t believe there was much danger of that happening. The shia were not a single political entity. Some are atheists, some are secular; even religious shia did not all follow the same leader.

He said that he firmly believed that the clergy should not interfere with the running of people’s lives, with government or with administration (Now how on earth could you be more secular!). He had forbidden his followers from putting their noses into the state’s affairs. He said that clearly and categorically (several times to stress the point!)

It was my turn and I said something like “As an Iraqi I am grateful for Your Eminence’s honourable stand on democracy and I think that the country is fortunate to have you in this position in this particular instant of history.” (Yes I did!! And I meant it!!!!!!!)

I then asked him why he had requested the UN to examine the possibility of conducting elections. (I was partly moved by some fear I still have that the panel of UN experts may “conclude” that it is too soon or too unstable to have elections at present. Then we really would have a major problem in our hands!)

He denied that flatly and said that he never did and that my information was probably based on media reports (which was true!). He said he did not feel obliged to accept the UN ruling on elections. He thought the Americans wanted the UN involved because they were having difficulties! He was set on calling for elections as the only possible way for Iraq to regain its sovereignty.

Some of the other things he said (This is a rather loose translation!):

“The most important thing at this time is unity. Division of the people is treason! Even silence, in these turbulent times, is evil!

“Give my regards to your tribes and to the sunna clergy and tell them that Sistani “kisses their hands” and begs them to unite with all Iraqis, Shia, Kurds, Christian, Turkmen. You just unite, and count on me to stand up to the Americans! The worst that could happen is that I die! That doesn’t worry me!”

He mentioned the late de Milo of the UN and said he was “a good man”

He mentioned “the one who was killed in Najaf” and said that he had “talked to him”, meaning “advised him”. I took that to refer to Al-Hakeem. This was the only disguised statement he made in more than an hour of talking.

He mentioned the “Arab Nation” so many times! He evidently viewed himself as an Arab. Being born Persian did not affect the fact that he was a Sayyed. He made that perfectly clear.

He does not believe in “Wilayat al Faqeeh” as the clergy in Iran do (as you know, this is the cornerstone of Khomeini’s doctrine). He repeatedly stressed that religion has to be separated from government!

He was extremely humble in his talk, his attire and his mannerisms.

He was much younger than I had thought; looked like early seventies but quite agile and healthy-looking.

He talked so softly, almost in whispers, that I had to really stress myself to hear what he was saying. (Being the insolent person that I am, at one time during the meeting I said I wasn’t hearing him well !!!!! There were only three people between us! There was some space on either side of him which people left out of respect…and he invited me to sit next to him which I did!)

He didn’t use any of the rhetoric clergymen usually wrap everything they say with. He was quite plain and direct. I found that really odd for a person in his position!

We were late for our appointment. We stayed there for about an hour and a half. Apparently someone else was waiting to see him. So, his son (who was apparently managing the old man’s schedule) was obviously beginning to sweat, but was too polite to say anything. We finally took the hint!

There you are! I felt that I should share this experience with you and I have tried to reflect as much as I could of it in its true spirit…wil Abbas (non-Iraqis, this is a shiite oath)!

I now believe that the American Administration could not have wished for a better person at the head of the shia clergy hierarchy. Let’s wait and see how they handle him!

Those words were written nearly two years ago. Since then, he has had so much influence on the political process in Iraq. Personally, I did have more than a change of mind concerning him… based on his major political positions. The gentleman bewilders me!

Friday, November 04, 2005


The Eid and the Caterer

For some people in Iraq, today is the first day of the Eid. For others, it is the second!

After a full month of fasting from dawn to dusk, Iraqis like many other millions in the Muslim world, celebrate for three days. They call it the Eid. It is one of two religious festivals. The other, four days long, takes place after the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Because Muslims follow the lunar calendar, the Eid falls in different times every year – it shifts by about ten days every year relative to the solar calendar. This adds some variety to life! These years the Eid has been coinciding with the autumn – a wonderful time of the year for festivities, in most of Iraq. Our autumns are more like springs in other countries.

But the uncertainty of timing adds a bit of confusion to proceedings and to people’s ability to plan. For some reason, too many people are not yet convinced that the birth of the new moon can be computed ahead! There is also a traditional difference of timing between Shiites and Sunnis in determining when the new moon is born, and hence when to start the Eid. Shiites generally prefer to be extra sure and therefore they almost invariably start the Eid one day after the Sunnis.

For generations, Iraqis have learned to live with that. It has never caused any conflict or hard feelings. On the contrary, it has always been a source of jokes and amusement.
I also know many Shiites who start their Eid with the Sunnis simply for convenience. This tradition has continued through those two years of sectarian tensions. This year for example, Moqtada Sadr’s people (probably to spite Sistani!) as well as large segments of secular Shiites started their Eid with the Sunnis.

‘Mixed’ households, which are a lot more than most outsiders imagine, enjoy the superb benefit of sharing the festivities of first day gathering with both husband’s and wife’s families!! First they go to the Sunni spouse’s ‘first day’. The following day they go to the Shiite partner’s ‘first day’ family gathering. That, one has to admit, is better than any compromise solution!

The Eid, like Christmas, is a time of socializing and of visitations… only on a larger scale. It does not involve the immediate family only. Young ones you are taken (forced, sometimes) to visit uncles and aunts and parents’ friends. Naturally, this is a constant source of some resentment and a cause for rebellion!

The usual procedure is that all sons, and their families, will visit their parents’ home and have lunch together with something like an Italian wedding gathering. When the parents pass away, the elder brother usually acts as host.

The traditional Eid greeting is “Ayyamkum Saeeda” which literally means: “May your days be happy”… Happy Days!

A few days ago, I was at a caterer’s shop I usually go to. When I came into the shop, the proprietor, who is Christian, was having an argument with a patron. The patron wanted to order a Quzi, a traditional dish where a whole roast lamb is served on a large tray full of seasoned rice and other delicate additives.

The owner was repeating in an angered tone: “Don’t give me that ‘first day of Eid’ thing! Sunnis say this and Shiites say that. No, no, no! Give me a specific date”. The man kept saying that he couldn’t. He didn’t know when the Eid will be.

I couldn’t help laughing. They all smiled back… and then went on arguing.

I don’t know how many times I have heard that argument over the years! Always the same. The caterer will have to manage… like he always does, every year. But they still love having those arguments.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Najaf - Sistani’s City

River water is so important to life in central and southern Iraq that most cities are built immediately on one of two large rivers, or one of their branches. Najaf (like the other holy city, Kerbala) is not… although it appears to be so on smaller maps. The whole town was built around a tomb of Imam Ali.

For more than a thousand years, there have been two main activities in that city: religion and commerce. Commerce in the city derives mainly from its religious activities! Visitor hordes are there for the numerous pilgrims from other parts of Iraq and other countries, most notably Iran, doing ziaras (or holy visits)… or to bury their dead. So may people bury their loved ones in the holy soil of Najaf that the city ended with what is probably the largest cemetery in the world.

These activities naturally reflected on the nature of the city’s inhabitants. Najafis, as a result, have earned the reputation in Iraq of being good salesmen and formidable debaters.

The effect of religious institutions on the life of the city runs deep. Centuries of study, research and dialogue resulted in a rich literary tradition. Najaf took pride in producing numerous non-religious literary figures, poets and historians… as well as political activists and leaders. The city played a central role in the revolution against British occupation in 1920. The current leader of the communist part comes from Najaf.

The religious institutions and the literary tradition are so central in the life of that city that it is not unusual for a family to acquire its name from the title of a highly regarded book published by one of its members. Perhaps the best know example in the outside world is “Bahr il Uloom”. Mohammed was a member of the now defunct IGC. His son, Ibrahim, is currently the Oil Minister in the Ja’afari government. “Bahr il Uloom” literally means “Sea of the Sciences” and is in fact part of the title of a book authored by one of their ancestors!

The nature of the city was summarized so concisely by a famous Najafi poet, Ahmed al Safi who said:
My town’s imports are coffins…
… My town’s exports are turbans.

‘Turbans’ refer to the religious clergy. In that city, you see them everywhere. They are a sign of distinction. A scholar who is a Sayyed (a descendant of Imam Ali) dons a black turban. One who isn’t has a white one. Usually, the higher up in the hierarchy the person is the larger his turban! Non-scholars do not wear turbans; however, a Sayyed who is not a scholar usually has something green (or, much less frequently, black) in his headgear. Green headbands (worn by members of the Mehdi Army for example) are something else.

The University called Hawza

They call it The Hawza. The word derives from the three-letter verb ‘haz’ - to acquire. The acquisition here refers to knowledge – religious knowledge in particular. It is basically a university, complete with students and competing professors.

At any given time, there are usually a handful of scholars at the top of that hierarchy, known as Mujtahideen – people who can ‘interpret’ and give an opinion on religious issues. Lesser scholars, known as Muqallideen, or ‘imitators’, follow the teachings of the first group. They choose whom to emulate, and consequently determine the master’s scholarly status.

At the moment there are 5 such senior figures. Ali Sistani, is the supreme head of that ‘university’. They (or sometimes only the most senior figure) are frequently referred to as The Marje’ia, “The Reference” (or source of emulation) - the ultimate authority in a chain of command. And in Shiite religious, and sometimes not-so-religious, matters… they are.

All students are financially supported by the Hawza throughout their learning career.
Money comes from donations made by devout Shiites. Many such people willingly give 20% of their yearly income. That usually means a lot of money! Donors choose which ‘scholar’ they pay the money to, and hence have an indirect effect on the ‘popularity’ of that particular professor. Senior figures can have control over enormous funds.

People, and sometimes heads of state, constantly make donations to the shrine. These can be sizeable: great works of art, precious rugs, gold artifacts, etc. The shrine also holds many valuable treasures accumulated over a thousand years. The government put its hand on those funds for the past several decades. That significant financial resource was an undeclared issue in much of the conflict over the control of the shrine in Najaf after the invasion. Many Najafis believed that Moqtada was really after that control during the conflict; hence all that fuss about the keys to the shrine and Sistani’s refusal to receive them until the shrine was evacuated of Moqtada’s supporters.

Those clergy are quite influential, not just in Najaf and not just in Iraq. In Iraq, all Shiite mosque preachers and local religious leaders look up to them for guidance. Most devout Shiites follow their directives. Local leaders and tribal chiefs have to show sufficient respect.

For most of the past 1000 years, the Hawza was situated in Najaf. It had to move out several times, but usually came back again. That long tradition, in addition to the fact that the whole city was built around Imam Ali’s tomb, has given Najaf considerable edge over other contenders.

Kadhimeyyah, in Baghdad, has always had a Shiite scholarly tradition, but never came near achieving the status of Najaf. Qum in Iran had supreme status (in Iran, and has acquired considerable influence in Iraq following Khomeini’s reign and the Iran-Iraq war, as I have mentioned in an earlier essay). But, in Iraq, the Hawza in Najaf remains the Reference for most devout Iraqi Shiites.

A unique feature of the Hawza is that for more than a thousand years, it never enjoyed earthly power (like the Catholic Church for example). Most of the time, it was in a weak position of opposition. Yet it wielded enormous power on millions of people… purely through their faith… voluntarily. Much of that comes out of respect and social pressure. At the same time, the Hawza managed to keep its hierarchy relatively free from the interference of those holding earthly power, assisted no doubt by its financial independence.

In that city, the unchallenged head of the Hawza, Ayatollah Sistani, reigns supreme.

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