10 years ago I visited Baghdad, protected by American soldiers. “Please tell that fellow”, said I to their commanding officer, “to turn his gun away from me. I don’t want to be another victim of American friendly fire!”
In March 2013, I re-visited the city of my birth and needed the same protection, but this time from Iraqi soldiers. Progress has been made, so was I told; yet I was disturbed by all the guns around me. “Don’t worry,” said my companion, “Their guns probably don’t work. Haven’t you heard of the detection instruments sold to them by a rogue British businessman? They don’t work either.”
I saw the soldiers using the much publicised rogue detection devices to inspect our vehicle. They also know that they don’t work. But showmanship is very important in the Middle East, just like democracy and the rule of law.
In our five star hotel, I saw some delicious-looking cakes in the glass cabinet and ordered one. “Sorry Sir, We have no cakes.”
“But they are there. Don’t you see them?’ said I. “No Sir. These are only for decoration.”
However, the old qushla clock, which is taller than London’s Big Ben I am told, does work and faithfully struck the hour on the hour. The old ministries, the Tappu (land registration office), the Courts of Justice and most of the government buildings around the qushla clock tower are now turned over to tourism, home to art and craft galleries, small museums and assembly halls. In the lush gardens, some old Ottoman artillery pieces and the historical carriage of the British High Commissioner are properly displayed. Old people were sitting in the sun enjoying the view of the Tigris River and children and their mothers played on the well-kept lawn, totally oblivious to the danger threatening the normal life of the city. I couldn’t help hoping the hands of the terrorists leave these people alone to go about their daily lives.
I was walking with Sir Terence Clark, the former British Ambassador in Iraq, who was wandering around freely among the crowds without qualms or fear. But he had to endure the frequent interventions: “Mister, can you help me to get a visa to England?” Despairing of his help and seeing me talking to him in English, one of them turned to me and asked me for the same favour. I answered him – saying I was unable to help – in my typical Baghdadi Arabic. “Oh! You speak good Arabic, better than your friend there”, he replied, unfazed.
How to get a visa to Britain is an obsession. Most of the middle class people I spoke to were thinking of nothing but how to leave the country. One of them, a man of letters, cursed the Islamists who tarnish the name of Islam and Muslims by their uncivilised acts and make it difficult for all Muslims to come to Europe. With the departure of the more educated and sophisticated Baghdadis, mostly Sunnis and Christians, the face of the city and even the life of the country have changed. Rural provincialism prevails on most aspects of life. One can sense the shift by listening and watching Iraqi state television and radio broadcasts. So often, I couldn’t understand what they sang or what they said in their rural dialects, indeed, I felt at times a foreigner in my own city.
Another understandable obsession is the fear of violence and terrorism. This seems to be the main concern of the government as well as the citizens. With the heavy presence of the army and myriad road blocks gumming up the transport system, the city looks like a town at war and is clearly forbidding to any foreign or local entrepreneur who might venture to invest his money here. Hence, while many minarets break the skyline of the city, there is not a single crane to be seen. I saw no evidence of building work going on any where.
The country cannot begin to move forward without first breaking the back of terrorism. And how they can begin to succeed in this effort, when even members of the government and deputies of Parliament are accused of being behind the terrorists, is anyone’s guess. A real problem is the fact that the men of violence belong to so many different groups, and receive their money and equipment from so many diverse and often opposed sources. The only thing that unifies them being the single aim of disrupting the life of the country. Nouri Al Maliki, the head of the government, has a formidable problem in hand. To meet terror with terror and fight lawlessness by violating the law, which while customary in the Middle East, undermines the claim of democracy and destroys the credibility of his slogan ‘A State of Law’.
Yet, against the odds, the country is slipping gradually back to a sort of normality. Electricity is almost back to normal and more power stations are commissioned throughout the country. Hordes of young people, males and females, were spending the evening alongside us in the masquf fish restaurants along the famous riverside of Abu Nuwas Street, The ordinary daily life of the people does not appear unduly affected by the occasional distant explosions. The famous Mutanabbi Street, which witnessed many outrages, is still teeming with book sellers and customers. We visited the Shabandar Café at its end and found it full of artists, journalists, poets and writers, busy as ever, deep in discussion, sipping strong tea and playing backgammon. The walls were covered with historic pictures, including a rare one of Colonel T.E. Lawrence in Arab woman’s attire.
“This is the Shabandar Cafe, but the signboard says, ‘Cafe of the Martyrs’, how come?” I asked the waiter.
“A terrorist explosion destroyed the café and killed three young men. The boys decided to give it this new name,” he told me.
Tourists are usually exploited in most countries, but in Iraq it is the tourists who exploit the natives. Wherever we sat and ordered refreshment, the owner refused to take our money. “You are our guests, how can we take money from you?”
I heard that two thirds of the city’s Christian community have left the country, so it was very encouraging to see so many of them attending the Easter celebration at the Ittihad Church in Baghdad. The service was relayed by Iraqi television and was attended by many prominent Muslim members of the establishment. The hymns sung, to the accompaniment of a local a band were very moving and the priest gave an eloquent sermon urging forgiveness, peace, unity and brotherhood of all Iraqis. If only, was surely the unspoken wish of all of those present.
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