Baghdad Street Scene

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Memo
To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Here Come the Iranians

Our
friend "Baghdad Betty," as I call her, posted this on
her website earlier
this week and I was impressed with her bird’s-eye view of the economic,
cultural and political scene and how well she puts it all together.
She starts out with a sidewalk vegetable vendor, but as you will
see, the young woman takes us on quite a trip.

Groceries
and Election Results…

Yesterday,
one of our neighbors stopped by the house. She was carrying a hot
plate of some green beans in a tomato sauce. “Abu Ammar has
some wonderful green beans,” she confided. “But you have
to tell him to give you some of the ones he hides under the table –
the ones on display are a little bit chewy.” I added green
beans to the grocery list and headed off with E. to Abu Ammar.

Our
local grocer, Abu Ammar has a vegetable and fruit stand set up about
400 m away from our house, on the main street. He has been there
for as long as anyone can remember and although you would not know
it to see him, Abu Ammar is quite the entrepreneur. He wears a traditional
dishdasha all year round and on cold days, a worn leather jacket
and a black wool cap he pulls down over his ears.

We,
and almost every house on the street, buy our groceries from him.
He sets up his stand early in the morning and when you pass it by
at just the right time, there’s a myriad of colors: the even
brown of potatoes, deep green of spinach, bright orange of citrus
fruits and the glossy red of sweet Iraqi tomatoes… And Abu
Ammar is almost always there – come rain or sun or war, sitting in
the midst of his vegetables and fruits, going through a newspaper,
a cigarette in his mouth and crackling out of his little transistor
radio are the warm tones of Fayrouz. On those rare occasions when
Abu Ammar isn’t there, you can tell something is very wrong.

Abu
Ammar sat there in his usual place. I could tell he was doing a
crossword today because he kept making marks on the newspaper. Abu
Ammar rose to greet us and handed me a few plastic bags so I could
pick and choose the vegetables I wanted. “I have some very
good lemons today,” he declared, tucking the newspaper under
his arm and pointing to a pyramid of small greenish-yellow fruits.
I wandered over to the lemons and inspected them critically.

I
feel like I have my finger on the throbbing pulse of the Iraqi political
situation every time I visit Abu Ammar. You can often tell just
how things are going in the country from the produce available at
his stand. For example, when he doesn’t have any good tomatoes
we know that the roads to Basra are either closed or really bad
and the tomatoes aren’t getting through to Baghdad. When citrus
fruit isn’t available during the winter months, we know that
the roads to Diyala are probably risky and oranges and lemons couldn’t
be delivered. He’ll also give you the main news headlines he picks
up from various radio stations and if you feel so inclined, you
can read the headlines from any one of the assorted newspapers lying
in a pile near his feet. Plus, he has all of the neighborhood gossip.

“Did
you know Abu Hamid’s family are going to move?” He took
a drag from the cigarette and pointed with his ballpoint pen towards
a house about 100 m away from his stand.

“Really?”
I asked, turning my attention to the tomatoes, “How did you
hear?”

“I
saw them showing the house to a couple last week and then I saw
them showing it again this week… they’re trying to sell
it.”

“Did
you hear about the election results?” E. asked Abu Ammar. Abu
Ammar shook his head in the affirmative and squashed his cigarette
with a slippered foot. “Well, we were expecting it.” He
shrugged his shoulders and continued, “Most Shia voted for
list 169. They were blaring it out at the Husseiniya near our house
the night of the elections. I was there for evening prayer.”
A Husseiniya is a sort of mosque for Shia. We had heard that many
of them were campaigning for list 169 – the Sistani-backed list.

I
shook my head and sighed. “So do you still think the Americans
want to turn Iraq into another America? You said last year that
if we gave them a chance, Baghdad would look like New York.”
I said in reference to a conversation we had last year. E. gave
me a wary look and tried to draw my attention to some onions, “Oh
hey – look at the onions – do we have onions?”

Abu
Ammar shook his head and sighed, “Well if we’re New York
or we’re Baghdad or we’re hell, it’s not going to
make a difference to me. I’ll still sell my vegetables here.”

I
nodded and handed over the bags to be weighed. “Well…
they’re going to turn us into another Iran. You know list 169
means we might turn into Iran.” Abu Ammar pondered this a moment
as he put the bags on the old brass scale and adjusted the weights.

“And
is Iran so bad?” He finally asked. Well no, Abu Ammar, I wanted
to answer, it’s not bad for you – you’re a
man… if anything your right to several temporary marriages,
a few permanent ones and the right to subdue females will increase.
Why should it be so bad? Instead I was silent. It’s not a good
thing to criticize Iran these days. I numbly reached for the bags
he handed me, trying to rise out of that sinking feeling that overwhelmed
me when the results were first made public.

It’s
not about a Sunni government or a Shia government – it’s about
the possibility of an Iranian-modeled Iraq. Many Shia are also appalled
with the results of the elections. There’s talk of Sunnis being
marginalized by the elections but that isn’t the situation.
It’s not just Sunnis – it’s moderate Shia and secular people
in general who have been marginalized.

The
list is frightening – Da’awa, SCIRI, Chalabi, Hussein Shahristani
and a whole collection of pro-Iran political figures and clerics.
They are going to have a primary role in writing the new constitution.
There’s talk of Shari’a, or Islamic law, having a very
primary role in the new constitution. The problem is, whose Shari’a?
Shari’a for many Shia differs from that of Sunni Shari’a.
And what about all the other religions? What about Christians and
Mendiyeen?

Is
anyone surprised that the same people who came along with the Americans
– the same puppets who all had a go at the presidency last
year – are the ones who came out on top in the elections? Jaffari,
Talbani, Barazani, Hakim, Allawi, Chalabi… exiles, convicted
criminals and war lords. Welcome to the new Iraq.

Ibraheim
Al-Jaffari, the head of the pro-Iran Da’awa party gave an interview
the other day. He tried very hard to pretend he was open-minded
and that he wasn’t going to turn the once-secular Iraq into
a fundamentalist Shia state but the fact of the matter remains that
he is the head of the Da’awa party. The same party that was
responsible for some of the most infamous explosions and assassinations
in Iraq during the last few decades. This is the same party that
calls for an Islamic Republic modeled like Iran. Most of its members
have spent a substantial amount of time in Iran.

Jaffari
cannot separate himself from the ideology of his party.

Then
there’s Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He got to be puppet president
for the month of December and what was the first thing he did? He
decided overburdened, indebted Iraq owed Iran 100 billion dollars.
What was the second thing he did? He tried to have the “personal
status” laws that protect individuals (and especially women)
eradicated.

They
try to give impressive interviews to western press but the situation
is wholly different on the inside. Women feel it the most. There’s
an almost constant pressure in Baghdad from these parties for women
to cover up what little they have showing. There’s a pressure
in many colleges for the segregation of males and females. There
are the threats, and the printed and verbal warnings, and sometimes
we hear of attacks or insults.

You
feel it all around you. It begins slowly and almost insidiously.
You stop wearing slacks or jeans or skirts that show any leg because
you don’t want to be stopped in the street and lectured by
someone who doesn’t approve. You stop wearing short sleeves
and start preferring wider shirts with a collar that will cover
up some of you neck. You stop letting your hair flow because you
don’t want to attract attention to it. On the days when you
forget to pull it back into a ponytail, you want to kick yourself
and you rummage around in your handbag trying to find a hair band…
hell, a rubber band to pull back your hair and make sure you attract
less attention from them.

We
were seriously discussing this situation the other day with a friend.
The subject of the veil and hijab came up and I confessed my fear
that while they might not make it a law, there would be enough pressure
to make it a requirement for women when they leave their homes.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well women in Iran will
tell you it’s not so bad – you know that they just throw something
on their heads and use makeup and go places, etc.” True enough.
But it wasn’t like that at the beginning. It took them over
two decades to be able to do that. In the eighties, women were hauled
off the streets and detained or beaten for the way they dressed.

It’s
also not about covering the hair. I have many relatives and friends
who wore a hijab before the war. It’s the principle. It’s
having so little freedom that even your wardrobe is dictated. And
wardrobe is just the tip of the iceberg. There are clerics and men
who believe women shouldn’t be able to work or that they shouldn’t
be allowed to do certain jobs or study in specific fields. Something
that disturbed me about the election forms was that it indicated
whether the voter was ‘male’ or ‘female’ – why
should that matter? Could it be because in Shari’a, a women’s
vote or voice counts for half of that of a man? Will they implement
that in the future?

Baghdad
is once more shrouded in black. The buildings and even some of the
houses have large black pieces of cloth hanging upon them, as if
the whole city is mourning the election results. It’s because
of “Ashoura” or the ten days marking the beginning of
the Islamic New Year but also marking the death of the Prophet’s
family 1400+ years ago in what is now known as Karbala. That means
there are droves of religious Shia dressed in black from head to
foot (sometimes with a touch of green or red) walking in the streets
and beating themselves with special devices designed for this occasion.

We’ve
been staying at home most of the time because it’s not a good
idea to leave the house during these ten days. It took us an hour
and 20 minutes to get to my aunt’s house yesterday because
so many streets were closed with masses of men chanting and beating
themselves. To say it is frightening is an understatement. Some
of the men are even bleeding and they wear white to emphasize all
the blood flowing down backs and foreheads. It’s painful to
see small children wearing black clothes and carrying miniature
chains that really don’t hurt, but look so bizarre.

Quite
frankly, it’s disgusting. It’s a quasi political show
of Sadomasochism that has nothing to do with religion. In Islam
it’s unfavorable to hurt the human body. Moderate Shia also
find it appalling and slightly embarrassing. E. teases the Shia
cousin constantly, “So this your idea of a good time, ha?”
But the cousin is just as revolted, although he can’t really
express it. We’re so “free” now, it’s not good
idea to publicly express your distaste to the whole bloody affair.
I can, however, express it on my blog…

We’ve
also heard of several more abductions and now assassinations. They
say Badir’s Brigade have come out with a new list of ‘wanted’…
but dead, not alive. It’s a list of mainly Sunni professors,
former army generals, doctors, etc. Already there have been three
assassinations in Saydiyeh, an area that is a mix of Sunnis and
Shia. They say Badir’s Brigade people broke into the house
and gunned down the families. This assassination spree is, apparently,
a celebration of the election results.

It’s
interesting to watch American politicians talk about how American
troops are the one thing standing between Sunnis and Shia killing
each other in the streets. It looks more and more these days like
that’s not true. Right now, during all these assassinations
and abductions, the troops are just standing aside and letting Iraqis
get at each other. Not only that, but the new army or the National
Guard are just around to protect American troops and squelch any
resistance.

There
was hope of a secular Iraq, even after the occupation. That hope
is fading fast.

February
26, 2005

Jude
Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service Wanniski.com.

Jude
Wanniski Archives

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