Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Any Day Now

A couple of days ago, I caught myself lamenting the fact that our family home in Baghdad lies within a heavily Sunni area and would probably be lost for good, along with all our stuff, should a civil war break out. Even though I come from a mixed Shia-Sunni background (the Sunni component being Kurdish), and have many Sunni Arab relatives and friends, I don’t think that those credentials would be enough to sway the sentiments of whichever warlord would eventually take possession of Hai Al-Atiba’—a neighborhood of academics and professionals hugging Airport Road. In the former regime’s waning years, our area was enveloped by housing developments for Saddam’s military and security officers and their families.

I’ve always associated returning to Iraq with living in that house; built by my folks in the late 1970s but never becoming a home in any real sense since my family never felt it was safe to come back and make a life in Iraq under Saddam. When I first got to Baghdad in April 2003, I realized that I had never lived in this city as an adult and consequently didn’t know my way around—in a car. A satellite map was a handy tool, but I ended driving on the wrong side of a highway. But it was Baghdad right after liberation, and as limp filaments of black smoke crowded the skyline, anarchy was the order of the day. I eventually found our home, shattered and broken from all the fighting that had gone on around the airport.

Some relatives of my mother’s—rural Kurds displaced from their ancestral village after it had been leveled by the regime in the late 1980s—had been living there as custodians while we were away. They left during the height of the fighting and had only recently returned, sweeping up shards of glass as I walked in.

After a while and some renovation, I moved back into the house, and it finally began to feel like home. A weird sort of home though; the kind where one has to make the calculation that the mortar explosions that seemed to be coming closer were still far enough to warrant staying in bed, dispelling the fear of being torn to bits by flying glass. My ‘view’ was an open field that gave an excellent vantage point of Airport Road—a point that went unmissed by both the Americans and the insurgents. The authorities had built a little observation shack for the Iraqi Police in that field, but one night in April 2004, I returned to find it ablaze. One could tell that the situation had changed drastically when neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government felt that they could rebuild that shack and keep it manned by soldiers. Our area was now an insurgent stronghold.

It kept getting worse: returning late most nights, I never knew who would mow me down while opening the garage door in the near-total darkness, especially when the electricity was cut, which was most of the time. I’d fidget with the lock, trying to get that little key into that tiny slot, while my shaking hands gripped a pistol. Our street corner became a regular launching pad for mortars and RPG-7s. One some mornings, I’d be having coffee and listlessly listening to music, and then a wild bang goes off outside and the street is lost in a swirl of dust. For a millisecond, it would be unclear whether we were on the receiving end or not, and one’s first instinct was to run to the storage room (it had the smallest window) and hide. Otherwise, the next course of action would be to take out the Kalashnikov and strut around outside with other armed neighbors trying to gather information as to what happened and sort of reclaiming our street. But these incidents usually happened in under a minute: a car would stop, and militants would yank out their wares from the trunk and lob a mortar somewhere into the distance and then buzz off.

Some time had passed, and less and less neighbors would come out. After placing obstacles in the road to close off a hasty retreat for the bad guys who were inviting American retaliation against our homes, threats poured in that had these same neighbors dismantling our new arrangements. One day, while driving back, my mom called and told me to hold off until the fighting outside had subsided. So I decided to go pick up some groceries along the way. Turning our street corner, I found American soldiers milling around a car—the same make and color as mine—that had been ‘mistakenly’ riddled with bullets about 15 minutes earlier. Two young men, from the looks of it, were dead inside. I was glad that my mom had not seen this sight, and lost her senses. The balance of fear was now in favor of the insurgents who had turned our quaint neighborhood into a battle-zone, and our home was becoming unlivable.

I decided to take shelter in a second exile, waiting it out like most Iraqis who could afford it.

I feel disjointed when I travel Iraq nowadays, since I don’t stay at our home. I went to visit, and even did that quickly so as not to alert whoever was watching on behalf of the bad guys, and before giving them a chance to do something about it. After two robberies, and several American ‘searches’, as well as insurgent snipers using our roof for a perch, the house was a total mess. The windows had all been blown-in and sand claimed every surface. My desk, my books, my files, and the little niche and shelter that was supposed to be my permanent anchor, were fiercely damaged, aesthetically and sentimentally.

And they—relics of my life back in Iraq—keep calling these days, telling me Baghdad is burning, as if I can do anything about it. The price for a Kalashnikov bullet is 1000 Iraqi Dinars, up from 400 last month. People are preparing, but for just what, nobody knows. What is an Iraqi civil war, especially in an urban reservoir like Baghdad that holds a quarter of the country’s population, supposed to look like? Beirut could be divided into East and West, but where does one draw the line in Baghdad? Along the Tigris…But what Adhamiya and Kadhimiya?

I have a Shia last name, but some of my first cousins have Sunni Arab last names; am I supposed to kill them? Are Sunnis supposed to be expelled from mixed areas and be compensated with ‘Shia homes,’ like our own, in their own sectarian cantons?

And yet, we keep hearing from the Americans and the Iraqi political elite, that if a civil war has not broken out so far then it is unlikely to happen, which is a license for all parties involved to keep acting and speaking irresponsibly and provocatively. The saga of the Spanish Civil War shows that the ever-menacing embers were set aflame by the sharp words exchanged in the democratically-elected Cortes, or parliament.

I can’t shake the feeling that Iraq went from a state of civil strife to one of civil war without anyone, least of which the Iraqis themselves, realizing it. Sunni political debutantes keep rhetorically pushing the envelope, while their adjuncts in the insurgency keep pouring oil on the fire. The Shia leadership, ensconced within multiple layers of security details, seem to have missed that the street-level refrain that used to say “give us the signal to fight” has shifted to “go f*ck yourselves, we’ll do this on our own.”

I hear of happy-go-lucky Baghdadi kids—groups of six or seven—organizing themselves into mini-militias. One such group that I know of, killed a militant Sunni preacher in Hai Al-Jami’a last week. Only last year, these guys obsessed about the latest hairstyles and the fanciest cell phone models. Recently, they’ve resolved to kill before getting killed.

What is going on? If this isn’t civil war, then what is the proper technical term for it? I fear that no one can control it at this point—not Sistani, not Badr.

And after the bloodletting subsides, how do you bring a ‘nation’ back together?

Any day now, and my home in Hai al-Atiba’ could be situated in a country other than what we knew as Iraq.


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