Saturday, December 31, 2005


The Mess Pot

The Greeks were here too. Iraq was known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia: the land between the two rivers. This is such an apt name; much of Iraq's long history is influenced in one way or another by those two rivers: Tigris and Euphrates. Alexander the Great himself also ‘liberated’ Iraq. He actually died here (reportedly from an overdose of the local liquor "Araq" – a powerful drink made from palm dates and never drunk straight).

When the British ‘liberated’ Iraq during the First World War, the British boys began calling Iraq jokingly “The Mess Pot”.

A mess pot it is.

Now that the Americans have also ‘liberated’ Iraq", it is their turn to learn what a mess pot they have got themselves into! Somehow, they even managed to add a bit of an extra mess to it themselves!


This blog has been my attempt to give a tiny glimpse of my tiny glimpse of Iraq. I hope that I have been truthful.


Baghdad Taxi Dance

I was watching a short documentary on one of the many new TV channels the other day. The crew was accompanying a taxi driver around a day of ‘usual’ business in Baghdad describing his experiences with people, traffic jams and dangers.

The man, who seemed to be in his late 40’s, was an engineer who had left for Britain in 1989 and then went to Malaysia for a better jib. He was laid off and took another job as a calligrapher of Qur’anic verses that took him to Abu Dhabi. He missed Baghdad and, according to his narrative, was prodded by his wife’s nagging. He came back home. The only job he found he could do was using his own car as a taxi.

This reminded me of the many taxi drivers I met over the past few years. In fact, taking a ride in a cab in Baghdad, and in other Iraqi towns, is almost always a unique experience.

Although there was always a law prohibiting the use of private cars as taxis, nobody bothered to enforce that law since the onset of those sanctions in 1990. You therefore meet all sorts of people working as taxi drivers; teenagers, granddads, university professors, civil servants, engineers, jobless army officers… and occasionally, the professional taxi driver.

Before the invasion, I rarely took a cab. Although I always hated traffic congestions, those were usually manageable before the unchecked rush of new cars, the total abandonment of traffic signals, traffic laws and the absence of traffic police rendered driving in Baghdad almost a unique and detestable experience. Now, the traffic police are back, but the numerous roadblocks, the various check points and the continuing disregard to all traffic laws still makes driving in Baghdad a nasty experience.

After the invasion, I began increasingly relying on taxis for a variety of reasons in addition to avoid driving. I used to take long walks for the benefit of my bad back, go to the internet shop etc. and then come back home in a taxi.

Taking a taxi in Baghdad has its own rituals. As soon as the taxi stops, he is told of the destination. If he doesn’t like it, he says so… sometimes apologizing, sometimes he just drives off. The price is then negotiated. Once that matter is settled, you get in. Men invariably take the front seat next to the driver and chat all the way to the destination. Women take the back seat and keep to themselves.

Following the usual greeting of “Allah bil Khair” the dance begins. Both driver and passenger start making tentative small talk to gauge one another for extreme views… or simply to determine where the other guy stands on the most important issues. The idea is to just touch on a few subjects and see the other’s reaction to them. This ‘dance’ usually takes about three minutes. Most people are very efficient and get that ritual out of the way in the minimum of time.

The driver is usually the more cautious party. He usually has to keep a long list of dangers in mind. Drivers know of too many stories of taxi drivers being stabbed or killed for their cars. Having an old run-down car is no guarantee of safety. Once that is done, a wide variety of topics, depending on the two people and their moods and interests, are talked about.

Like barbers, taxi drivers are usually full of stories. They meet so many different people everyday from all walks of life. If you can identify their personal filters and biases, you can learn a lot about the pulse of the street from a half hour taxi ride.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Cultural Differences and Respect

How can chewing gum be lethal?

There is no shortage of cultural traits and behaviors Iraqi people have which give cause to despise these people. I can list hundreds of such traits. This essay is not about that; it is a view from the other side.

These little glimpses depict some of the cultural differences that led to enormous consequences following the American invasion of Iraq. Different people simply react differently to similar stimuli. What can only be seen as perfectly normal actions in one culture can convey unintended images to another. In many instances, society expects a certain mode of behavior.


It was a short video clip on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005. There was a ceremony where the US army was handing over Saddam’s palace in Tikrit to the Iraqi authorities. The American Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad was present, in addition to other dignitaries, Iraqi and American.

There was a thud. The place was targeted by a mortar shell that didn’t explode. The clip showed a small glimpse of the chaos that followed: Men in expensive suits hiding themselves behind chairs; Men in army uniforms, some started to run, some crouched, and some moved rapidly to protect their superiors and their charge. One soldier threw himself to the ground, face down.

But, for a few seconds I noticed a group of four Iraqis in traditional Arab dress who remained sanding quietly. I thought that was fascinating! I am almost certain I saw one of them smiling! Weren’t those people afraid? Of course they were… but they couldn’t show it.

This brought to memory a tribal sheikh I knew who used to take his only son with him to the weekly tribal gathering - a routine assembly where tribal kin met and discussed things of common interest and solved some of the conflicts that needed addressing. For most part of a day, that young teenager had to endure long sessions of what must have been boring proceedings and discussions. If the boy as much as turned his head quickly following a sudden noise such as a slamming door or a shattered glass of water, that man, would scold the boy on the way back home. Sudden, undignified movements like those were simply unacceptable for a future tribal chief. Perhaps this example is a somewhat extreme, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make.

It also reminded me of a news conference given by Saddam’s Minister of Defense, Sultan H. Ahmed shortly before the fall of Baghdad. The man was sitting at a table; behind him was a curtain or a tent wall. Those who saw that briefing may remember it for something else: This man said that he expected the American army to reach Baghdad within five days at the same time when the infamous Information Minister, Sahhaf, was declaring victory. During the interview, there were several very loud blasts; the curtain shook. The man, either when listening or while talking, did not even blink an eye!

In much of tribal Iraq, which includes about half of all Iraqis, people in positions of leadership or authority are expected to remain calm and collected at all times, including times of crises. Posture is of utmost importance. This of course is not unique to Iraqis.


One of the major impressions that killed the halo of invincibility of the US army in Iraq was the perfectly normal reaction of crouching or running for cover when under attack. Time and again, I heard things like “they are not men; they panic”. This of course does not refer to the absolutely unforgivable act of spraying bystanders with bullets when, and sometimes after, being attacked. In a country so used to bangs and bombs going off (that frequently children take off to the street to watch planes sending missiles and bombs) such an action may be seen as ‘unbecoming’ to say the least!

The other “image killer” was soldiers with hands on triggers with guns pointing at people. Those postures were dictated by the need for readiness; however, they conveyed an image of fear, aggression and disregard, which most people found offensive.

It is probably perfectly normal for an adult American to be seen chewing gum in public. In traditional Iraqi society, the act of chewing a gum is reserved to women, but never in public. Country folk utterly despise city boys when they see them chewing gum. They regard it as feminine. Even little children are discouraged from doing it. The sight of grown, armed men chewing gum must have been one of the causes of many people losing their respect for those armed men! It simply conveys an unintentionally ‘undesirable’ image!

This also reminds me of a young US soldier manning the Iraqi side of the Iraqi-Jordanian border. He glanced at our passports with a lollypop in his mouth. I couldn’t help but notice the reaction on the taxi driver’s face: Utter contempt!

I really cannot blame those American boys for doing some things that are completely natural and normal. There was no way that they could have known that those little normal acts could be misinterpreted by others. But here I am talking about how perfectly normal actions can be seen from across the cultural divide. I cannot address the rights and wrongs of this. People’s cultures are different; we may see some of their attitudes as wrong or detestable, but that view will not change those attitudes, especially if they hold to them in their own environment and in their own country.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Tribal Pact

Before the invasion, tribal resolution of major criminal or violent incidents only followed and complimented normal legal procedure. The tribe of the offending party employed ‘tribal’ relations and procedures to pacify, compensate or appease the injured party.

When this takes place, the heavy hand of the law was usually reduced by foregoing ‘personal rights’ to leave the ‘public rights’ take their course. Also, it was normal to seek the help of local (or sometimes central) police forces to pursue villains.

Over the past two years since the invasion, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding tribal responsibility towards numerous issues of enormous importance. This has taken a special significance in the absence of any real government presence, particularly in rural areas.

It must be pointed out here that the authority of the tribes in most of Iraq before the invasion was more ‘moral’ than physically affirmative.

Under the present circumstances, with the lack of any true muscle of the law, there was a great deal of confusion: cases of armed robbery; politically-induced violence; incidents of sectarian strife; common criminals claiming to be resistance fighters; people killed by ‘mistake’ by the resistance; collaborators killed intentionally by the resistance; terrorist (and other forces of darkness) acting completely outside tribal bounds.


It stared with one tribe. About 20 elders of that tribe met one morning to address these issues. They agreed on a pact defining their tribal responsibility. The pact was agreed and signed in the same morning.

They then made copies and distributed them to neighboring tribes so that others knew where that tribe stood and what they saw as the limits of their responsibility (for their own tribesmen or kin) and in relation to other tribes.

Abbreviated Translation:

Tribal Manifesto

During these difficult times that our beloved Iraq is going through, times characterized by the weakness of the authority of the state and the attack of numerous forces of evil and darkness, Iraqi tribes have an important positive role to play in reducing damage to our society.

The Iraqi tribes have indeed played important parts during the numerous periods of devastation and occupations that Iraq went through between periods of civilization. Those tribes had an important effect on preserving our country’s culture and noble values, despite the frequent charge that tribalism is a contributing factor to backwardness.

This positive role would be more effective if the criteria and the limits of tribal contributions were clear and well-defined.

For these reasons, the following guidelines have been approved and agreed by the signatory tribes:

Basic Criteria: All positions will be based on our traditional values and religious beliefs that are common to all of us.

Religion: Tribes cannot address the question of religious conflicts as the issue of religion much wider than tribal bonds and jurisdiction.

Sectarianism: Most of the tribes in Iraq have members who belong to one of the two major sects in Iraq (Sunni and Shiite). Consequently, tribes cannot be associated with any sect. That would lead to conflicts within the tribe itself… which would be like strife within a single household.

Politics: Political belief is a personal matter. It would be unthinkable for a whole tribe to be Baathist, Communist, Socialist or Capitalist. It is therefore outside the bounds of tribal relations what a person’s political beliefs are as long as actions do not violate criminal or social codes.

Criminal acts: A tribe is responsible for any criminal act or misconduct by any of its members as is the norm in tribal relations. Resolution of acts such as robbery, assault, murder, etc. and their consequences should follow normal procedures tribes have always used. The only way a tribe can absolve itself of any responsibility of the wrongdoings by any of its members is for that tribe to disown that member. Members of that tribe would then be not accountable for that person’s deeds. That means that this tribe will no longer have any right to defend or to avenge that person.

Resistance: The Iraqi nation is larger and more important than any single tribe. National aspirations are wider concerns than tribal ones. People who see themselves as fighters defending their country against invasion or subjugation do not usually consult with their immediate tribes. Iraq becomes their larger tribe. Their immediate tribes cannot therefore be responsible for their actions.


This pact has found favorable response with other tribes and soon there was a meeting of tribal chiefs of the area (county) and the pact was discussed and approved in principle.

It was distributed to others so that they can suggest modifications or additions. Another meeting has been scheduled so that the modified version can be endorsed by them all so that it will be binding to all signatories in future conflicts.

Monday, December 05, 2005


World of Three Letter Words

[This post is dedicated to my good friend Cecile. Although Dutch, she is more of a southern European in disposition… if we follow Fredrick Nietzsche’s categorization! I hope it may be of some use in her frustrating efforts to learn some Arabic.

The train of thought that led to this particular post was initiated by a message I received some time ago from a correspondent who was surprised that there were more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”.]

The word Semite generally refers to one of the human races. The prevailing idea is that people of this race are descendants from Sam son of Noah. However, the word, as used by historians and anthropologists, generally refers to a group of languages which have common features. The most prominent of these features is that most words of the language derive from roots.

I am not familiar with other Semitic languages, but in Arabic, the roots are usually three-letter verbs. The immediate question that comes to mind is how could three letters of the alphabet generate a sufficient number of words to cover the very diverse human communication needs? The answer is simple: by cheating!

There are three vowels in Arabic and they come in two types: short ones and long ones. The short ones are not normally explicitly written (although, strictly speaking they should) but are usually inferred. They are therefore not counted! And this is what I mean by cheating!

Those short vowels are not considered letters; they are called ‘movements’. There are three main ones: a short “a”, a short “o” and a short “i”.

As an illustration of the derivation of words from those roots, consider the Arabic verb corresponding to ‘to write’: kataba. All three vowels are short ones in this case and the verb is written: k’t’b’ : ﹶﺏﹷﺘﹷﻜ or, less formally, ktb : ﺏﺘﻜ
Hence it can be regarded as a three-letter word.

The interesting feature is that many words can be derived from these three letters. For example: (I will denote short vowels by one character and long vowels by two.)

Kataba – he wrote
Katabat – she wrote
Katabaa – they (two, male) wrote
Katabataa - they (two, female) wrote
Katabu - they (male) wrote
Katabna – they (female) wrote
and so on for numerous verb variants for past, present and future tenses like…
Yaktubu – he writes
Taktubu – she writes
Yaktubaan – they (two, male) write
Taktubaan – they (two, female) write

Iktub – write (command tense, male)
Iktubee – write (command tense, female)

Other verbs can be derived from the original verb root, for example:
Kattaba – to dictate
Kaataba – to correspond with
… these become roots for the same derivations of verb tenses similar to those mentioned above!

Apart from verbs, numerous other words are derived from those ‘three’ letters (similar to, say, ‘writer’, ‘writings’, etc. in English). Below are some examples to illustrate the concept.

Kitaaba – writing
Kaatib – writer
Kaatiba – writer (female)
Kitaab – book
Kutaib – booklet
Maktoob – letter
Maktab – office
Maktaba – library
Mukaataba – correspondence or contract
Kuttaab – school (old form)
Kitba – fate

This actually leads to a profusion of words that can be derived from almost every verb. The result is a wide variety of words that refer to the same basic thing but with slightly differing shades of meaning.

There are indeed more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”. Now I hope you know why. There are also hundreds of words for things like walking, running, smiling, crying, the camel, the horse, the sword, rain, clouds and many other items and feelings. The greatest benefactor has naturally been Poetry. It has to be mentioned though that some of those subtle differences in meaning are being lost, perhaps forever, in these times of utility, speed, junk food and junk words.

I have mentioned before that my own favorite poet is someone called Al Mutanabbi who lived about 1000 years ago. Another great poet, Abul ‘Alaa, was so fond of Mutanabbi that he once wrote something like: “When I read through the collected works of Mutanabbi, I find that I cannot replace a single word of his with a better one”. He then goes on to painstakingly demonstrate his point. This, to me, is perhaps the greatest compliment paid to a Poet by a great critic.

Finally, and while on the subject of language, it may be worth mentioning that because of the ‘flowing’ shapes of Arabic characters they lend themselves naturally to the beautiful art of calligraphy.


Readers who are not confused enough by this post should have a look at the link sent to me by a reader. It is written by an American trying to come to grips with the Arabic language. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it made me chuckle a few times… but I’m sure most non-Arabic readers will have a different opinion!

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