... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend,
where hearts can heal and souls can mend..
Saturday, March 18, 2006
It’s been years since the beginning of the war that marked the end of Iraq’s independence. Three years of occupation and bloodshed.
Spring should be about renewal and rebirth. For Iraqis, spring has been about reliving painful memories and preparing for future disasters. In many ways, this year is like 2003 prior to the war when we were stocking up on fuel, water, food and first aid supplies and medications. We're doing it again this year but now we don't discuss what we're stocking up for. Bombs and B-52's are so much easier to face than other possibilities.
I don’t think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I’m so tired of it all- we’re all tired.
Three years and the electricity is worse than ever. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it’s on the brink of chaos once more- but a pre-planned, pre-fabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots.
School, college and work have been on again, off again affairs. It seems for every two days of work/school, there are five days of sitting at home waiting for the situation to improve. Right now college and school are on hold because the “arba3eeniya” or the “40th Day” is coming up- more black and green flags, mobs of men in black and latmiyas. We were told the children should try going back to school next Wednesday. I say “try” because prior to the much-awaited parliamentary meeting a couple of days ago, schools were out. After the Samarra mosque bombing, schools were out. The children have been at home this year more than they’ve been in school.
I’m especially worried about the Arba3eeniya this year. I’m worried we’ll see more of what happened to the Askari mosque in Samarra. Most Iraqis seem to agree that the whole thing was set up by those who had most to gain by driving Iraqis apart.
I’m sitting here trying to think what makes this year, 2006, so much worse than 2005 or 2004. It’s not the outward differences- things such as electricity, water, dilapidated buildings, broken streets and ugly concrete security walls. Those things are disturbing, but they are fixable. Iraqis have proved again and again that countries can be rebuilt. No- it’s not the obvious that fills us with foreboding.
The real fear is the mentality of so many people lately- the rift that seems to have worked it’s way through the very heart of the country, dividing people. It’s disheartening to talk to acquaintances- sophisticated, civilized people- and hear how Sunnis are like this, and Shia are like that… To watch people pick up their things to move to “Sunni neighborhoods” or “Shia neighborhoods”. How did this happen?
I read constantly analyses mostly written by foreigners or Iraqis who’ve been abroad for decades talking about how there was always a divide between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq (which, ironically, only becomes apparent when you're not actually living amongst Iraqis they claim)… but how under a dictator, nobody saw it or nobody wanted to see it. That is simply not true- if there was a divide, it was between the fanatics on both ends. The extreme Shia and extreme Sunnis. Most people simply didn’t go around making friends or socializing with neighbors based on their sect. People didn't care- you could ask that question, but everyone would look at you like you were silly and rude.
I remember as a child, during a visit, I was playing outside with one of the neighbors children. Amal was exactly my age- we were even born in the same month, only three days apart. We were laughing at a silly joke and suddenly she turned and asked coyly, “Are you Sanafir or Shanakil?” I stood there, puzzled. ‘Sanafir’ is the Arabic word for “Smurfs” and ‘Shanakil” is the Arabic word for “Snorks”. I didn’t understand why she was asking me if I was a Smurf or a Snork. Apparently, it was an indirect way to ask whether I was Sunni (Sanafir) or Shia (Shanakil).
“What???” I asked, half smiling. She laughed and asked me whether I prayed with my hands to my sides or folded against my stomach. I shrugged, not very interested and a little bit ashamed to admit that I still didn’t really know how to pray properly, at the tender age of 10.
Later that evening, I sat at my aunt’s house and remember to ask my mother whether we were Smurfs or Snorks. She gave me the same blank look I had given Amal. “Mama- do we pray like THIS or like THIS?!” I got up and did both prayer positions. My mother’s eyes cleared and she shook her head and rolled her eyes at my aunt, “Why are you asking? Who wants to know?” I explained how Amal, our Shanakil neighbor, had asked me earlier that day. “Well tell Amal we’re not Shanakil and we’re not Sanafir- we’re Muslims- there’s no difference.”
It was years later before I learned that half the family were Sanafir, and the other half were Shanakil, but nobody cared. We didn’t sit around during family reunions or family dinners and argue Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. The family didn’t care about how this cousin prayed with his hands at his side and that one prayed with her hands folded across her stomach. Many Iraqis of my generation have that attitude. We were brought up to believe that people who discriminated in any way- positively or negatively- based on sect or ethnicity were backward, uneducated and uncivilized.
The thing most worrisome about the situation now, is that discrimination based on sect has become so commonplace. For the average educated Iraqi in Baghdad, there is still scorn for all the Sunni/Shia talk. Sadly though, people are being pushed into claiming to be this or that because political parties are promoting it with every speech and every newspaper- the whole ‘us’ / ‘them’. We read constantly about how ‘We Sunnis should unite with our Shia brothers…’ or how ‘We Shia should forgive our Sunni brothers…’ (note how us Sunni and Shia sisters don’t really fit into either equation at this point). Politicians and religious figures seem to forget at the end of the day that we’re all simply Iraqis.
And what role are the occupiers playing in all of this? It’s very convenient for them, I believe. It’s all very good if Iraqis are abducting and killing each other- then they can be the neutral foreign party trying to promote peace and understanding between people who, up until the occupation, were very peaceful and understanding.
Three years after the war, and we’ve managed to move backwards in a visible way, and in a not so visible way.
In the last weeks alone, thousands have died in senseless violence and the American and Iraqi army bomb Samarra as I write this. The sad thing isn’t the air raid, which is one of hundreds of air raids we’ve seen in three years- it’s the resignation in the people. They sit in their homes in Samarra because there’s no where to go. Before, we’d get refugees in Baghdad and surrounding areas… Now, Baghdadis themselves are looking for ways out of the city… out of the country. The typical Iraqi dream has become to find some safe haven abroad.
Three years later and the nightmares of bombings and of shock and awe have evolved into another sort of nightmare. The difference between now and then was that three years ago, we were still worrying about material things- possessions, houses, cars, electricity, water, fuel… It’s difficult to define what worries us most now. Even the most cynical war critics couldn't imagine the country being this bad three years after the war... Allah yistur min il rab3a (God protect us from the fourth year).
Sunday, April 2, 2006
After an internet absence of a few days, I returned to find my inbox flooded with dozens of emails with the subject “Congratulations!!!”. In mid March, “Baghdad Burning” won Best Middle East and Africa blog and received a Bloggie so I thought the sudden surge of congratulatory emails was for that esteemed blog award (we would like to thank the academy…).
But, I was shocked to find out the BOOK “Baghdad Burning” had made the short list for the Samuel Johnson Prize- a prestigious, British award for non-fiction!! I didn’t even know it was on the long list for that award so it came as a huge surprise… I kept telling myself it was some sort of mistake because the other names on the short list are so illustrious but I got confirmation from the British publisher - Marion Boyars.
I’ve been walking around in a bit of a daze since I found out. I feel like it’s all happening to someone else and I have to keep reminding myself of it- while filling the water tanks, while cleaning out the kerosene heaters for storage and while changing the newspaper in the parakeets cage (“I hope you know the person cleaning out your cage is a Samuel Johnson nominee…”)
I just want to say it doesn’t matter if the book wins or loses- just to have it on that list is, in itself, an incredible honor.
“Riverbend” is a 26 year old Iraqi Woman. Her blog address is http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com. She has been blogging since 2003 and all the archives are there.