Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Two Middle Eastern Interpretations of Valentine’s Day

America celebrated Valentine's Day last week in all its commercial trappings, meanwhile back in the Middle East, love was expressed in two very different ways:

Love in the Time of Bird-Flu

Here is a translated story from last week’s official Iraqi newswire:

The various security agencies in Maysan Province [South-east of Baghdad] are in full alert as they hunt down a professional mutayirchi who was able to escape to an unknown destination after gathering his birds.

The media spokesman for the Maysan Health Department has told the National Iraqi News Agency (NINA) on Monday that, “the mutayirchi known as Abdul-Sadeh who resides in the Aradhat Square area, sensed that he would endure a great loss because the veterinary agencies intended to collect all the birds and chicken in the province and execute them since the area that he lives in has been placed under quarantine, and thus all birds there will be put to death.”

He added, “this bird-raiser escaped with his birds for whom he has spent his youth raising and for whom he left his studies, and he went to an unknown destination to provide care and comfort for them there.”

Unofficial sources from the [neighborhood] also stated that this mutayirchi owns some very rare varieties of birds that are very expensive and he feared for them therefore he took refuge somewhere else rather than stay home.

And now for some cultural background: the mutayirchi (“he who makes [them] fly”) is an important character in Iraq’s popular folklore and the “-chi” suffix almost gives it the respectability of a trade. However, mutayirchis, who in the main raise and train pigeons—flying rats in the west, love-interests in Iraq, and a grilled delicacy in Egypt—have a bad rap. According to urban myths, they are alternately peeping toms who peer over rooftops and unto courtyards where the womenfolk of other households can be glimpsed, or they are treacherous and greedy because they employ devious methods to attract (that is, steal) pigeons from rival flocks.

The pigeon coop is normally kept on the roof of their homes, and mutayirchis seem to get their kicks by releasing their flocks and directing their flight with flags or whistles. They are even supposed to have their own vernacular for this hobby; differentiating varieties of pigeons, their eating habits, their diseases…etc. Their hub in Baghdad is the Sug Al-Ghezell, which used to be the old Jewish-dominated textile market (that moved to Sug Danial) and then over time became re-incarnated as a pet market, with birds, dogs, cats, flamingoes, rabbits, monkeys and anything else that would fit a menagerie.

Nowadays, the alleyways into the old market (distastefully renovated under Saddam) that lead away from the Khulafa’ Mosque are too dangerous for customers beyond 1 PM; that is, when the druggies and Fayli gangsters (ethnic Shia Kurds or Lurs, the jury is still out on origins) from the nearby Kifah and Shorgeh markets wake up and claim their turf. My first memory of the place was when I was 13 and it was a wondrous place, but returning to it last year, I had to be armed with a little shooter pistol hidden in right-hand sleeve, and I walked down deserted streets strewn with the carcasses of baby rabbits while troops of glue-addicted children, some of them toddlers, hid in the shadows. It was surreal and heartbreaking.

But back to Abdul-Sadeh the Mutayirchi, and his pigeons: isn’t it romantic, that he would risk a national epidemic that would result in millions of deaths, including his own, just to save his chicks? Recently a local Iraqi TV station aired an extremely touching ‘reality’ show about mutayirchis, and it basically followed one of them around as he went about his day. He was a very engaging fellow that decried the fact that he and his ilk were denounced as social pariahs. He said, “on the contrary, society should honor us, for we are so gentle, that we cannot bear to watch a bird or an animal suffer, and we spend our lives taking care of them. Our hobby is about love of all of Allah’s creatures.” The episode ends with him sitting with his mother who is sobbing because her son’s reputation as a mutayirchi prevents any of the good families from giving their daughters to him in marriage, and when one of them did, he adamantly disappointed his mother and refused, and the show ends by him saying, “but mother, that girl was against my bird-raising and would have come between me and my heart.”

Maybe more radical conservationists and animal-rights activists will be inspired by Abdul-Sadeh and join the ranks of the Avian Resistance, especially as the cruel species of man tries to save its own hide by eradicating our runaway hero’s feathery sweethearts.


Romeo & Juliet; a Jihadist Interpretation

Well, this time around it is a recently released Al-Qaeda video with the title of “Fatima’s Fiancée” about a pudgy Saudi teenager with barely a wisp of hair for a beard and mustache, and his fiancée Fatima. However, Fatima is dead after having been jailed in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Mu’awiya Al-Shamali, our Romeo, is a suicide bomber who asks Allah for Fatima’s hand in marriage—to be literally made in heaven.

Here’s the plot: the 9-minute video open with Arabic text set against a wavy crimson background. It is supposed to be a letter from a certain “Fatima,” a woman supposedly being held by the Americans in Abu Ghraib. These are excerpts from what she writes:


“My brothers the fighters in the way of Allah…We are your sisters in Abu Ghraib Prison…The sons of monkeys and pigs have attacked us and have torn up our Korans and mutilated our bodies and humiliated us…By God, one of us gets raped a multiple of times by those monkeys and pigs in a single day…We are 13 unmarried girls here and they prevent us from wearing clothes…One of us committed suicide by banging her head on the cell wall after an American dog raped her…Kill us with them so that we can rest.”

The first red flag as to the authenticity of this letter is that Fatima dates it on “Friday, December 14, 2004” that happens to be the one year anniversary of Saddam’s capture. Clearly, this was a propaganda tool meant to incite the mujaheddin to attack the Americans. We are later told that Fatima died under incarceration.

A little over a year later, the Consultative Council of the Mujaheddin (Majlis Shura Al-Mujahhedin, Zarqawi’s new umbrella organization to coordinate jihad in Iraq) rises to the challenge, and we, the viewers, are introduced to Abu Mu’awiya Al-Shamali. With his thick glasses he looks every part the geek, yet this geek is reciting poetry that includes a couplet describing “destroying the tower” on 911. He asks God to marry him off to Fatima.

Next, we see him in a German-made Opel car, hugging a Kalashnikov. There is loud chanting in the background, which gets muted every time Al-Shamali says something. It is as if they were making a home video of a young guy on his bachelor party: he throws kisses in the air and waves goodbye and seems generally ecstatic. The camera zooms out to show the explosives wired up around him on the front passenger seat and in the leg room of the backseat. Al-Shamali points to the explosives and says, “this is all dowry for Fatima.”

Then we see him sitting somewhere reciting a prayer, in which he repeats these two phrases thrice: “God do not give my body a grave to entomb it” and “God receive from my blood today until you are satisfied.” The background chanting contains these stanzas: “Oh nymphs of Eternity, the martyr has arrived for you, blanket the earth with flowers, and give him happiness.”

Under cloudy skies, the camera gives a hazy wide shot of an American convoy of trucks with Al-Shamali’s Opel appearing as tiny red blob near the bottom left corner of the screen. We hear the cameraman reciting the “Allah is Great” mantra over and over again, and then, after the explosion, he breaks out into sobs.

A text appears in the end claiming that “approximately twenty soldiers from the American Army” were killed.

One can be glib and poke all sorts of fun at this perverted necrophilia, but this sort of pathos must be closely studied. I don’t even understand how Al-Qaeda thinks that this sort of plot is even remotely Islamic: a living man asks God to betroth him to the soul of a woman who is already dead? Is there any legal religious text would allow such a thing to happen, or even be contemplated? Isn’t it sort of blasphemous to cast almighty God in a propaganda production as a matchmaker? And does this fictional Fatima character have a say is accepting Abu Mu’awiya as her spouse?

This video is an incredible revelation in the “sex sells” annals of jihadist marketing. It is completely out-of-bounds with Islam. Yet, it doesn’t generate the outcry that we’ve seen as a response to the Danish cartoons. Why is that? If there were any smart propagandists in the anti-jihadist camp, then they would have had a field day with this Al-Qaeda video. It can be analyzed and discredited from many angles.

It is yet another example as to how Zarqawi’s cult of death is entering new ideological ground that, if left unchallenged, would earn him more and more recruits such as this overweight horny Saudi geek.

For the time being, I take comfort that the traditional Middle East, even with the available distractions of X-Boxes and glue-sniffing, is still putting up a fight through the likes of Abdul-Sadeh—a man risking his life for a silly, centuries-old hobby, and a zest for life.

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