Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Baghdad Burning

Baghdad Burning is a blog I like to read. This young Iraqi woman doesn’t post much—electricity is spotty, and internet access is rare indeed in Baghdad. You just don’t hear this perspective in the media—about how daily life has changed on a deeply personal level, the amount of effort required to shop for food or get across town to visit a friend. I’ve been reading her since 2003, when she started out hopeful that the Americans brought a better life with them. Now her writing is filled with anger and sadness—and she is a highly educated, moderate woman, not some easily-influenced, uneducated slum-dweller in Sadr City. The illiteracy rate among Iraqi women is over 80%—and that’s for Arabic. For English, it’s not measurable—but suffice it to say, this young woman is very unusual, to have the education required to write English so eloquently. Most English native-speakers don’t write this well.

This post really touched a nerve for me—it’s so beautifully written, so wistful, and such a sad snapshot of what life has become for most Iraqis, despite most Americans’ good intentions:

Summer of Goodbyes...
Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words “Leave your area or else.” The culprits behind these attacks and threats are Sadr’s followers- Mahdi Army. It’s general knowledge, although no one dares say it out loud.

In the last month we’ve had two different families staying with us in our house, after having to leave their neighborhoods due to death threats and attacks. It’s not just Sunnis- it’s Shia, Arabs, Kurds- most of the middle-class areas are being targeted by militias.Other areas are being overrun by armed Islamists. The Americans have absolutely no control in these areas. Or maybe they simply don’t want to control the areas because when there’s a clash between Sadr’s militia and another militia in a residential neighborhood, they surround the area and watch things happen.

Since the beginning of July, the men in our area have been patrolling the streets. Some of them patrol the rooftops and others sit quietly by the homemade road blocks we have on the major roads leading into the area. You cannot in any way rely on Americans or the government. You can only hope your family and friends will remain alive- not safe, not secure- just alive. That’s good enough.

For me, June marked the first month I don’t dare leave the house without a hijab, or headscarf. I don’t wear a hijab usually, but it’s no longer possible to drive around Baghdad without one. It’s just not a good idea. (Take note that when I say ‘drive’ I actually mean ‘sit in the back seat of the car’- I haven’t driven for the longest time.) Going around bare-headed in a car or in the street also puts the family members with you in danger. You risk hearing something you don’t want to hear and then the father or the brother or cousin or uncle can’t just sit by and let it happen.

I haven’t driven for the longest time. If you’re a female, you risk being attacked.I look at my older clothes- the jeans and t-shirts and colorful skirts- and it’s like I’m studying a wardrobe from another country, another lifetime. There was a time, a couple of years ago, when you could more or less wear what you wanted if you weren’t going to a public place. If you were going to a friend’s or relative’s house, you could wear trousers and a shirt, or jeans, something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear. We don’t do that anymore because there’s always that risk of getting stopped in the car and checked by one militia or another.

There are no laws that say we have to wear a hijab (yet), but there are the men in head-to-toe black and the turbans, the extremists and fanatics who were liberated by the occupation and at some point, you tire of the defiance. You no longer want to be seen. I feel like the black or white scarf I fling haphazardly on my head as I walk out the door makes me invisible to a certain degree- it’s easier to blend in with the masses shrouded in black. If you’re a female, you don’t want the attention- you don’t want it from Iraqi police, you don’t want it from the black-clad militia man, you don’t want it from the American soldier. You don’t want to be noticed or seen.

I have nothing against the hijab, of course, as long as it is being worn by choice. Many of my relatives and friends wear a headscarf. Most of them began wearing it after the war. It started out as a way to avoid trouble and undue attention, and now they just keep it on because it makes no sense to take it off. What is happening to the country?

I realized how common it had become only in mid-July when M., a childhood friend, came to say goodbye before leaving the country. She walked into the house, complaining of the heat and the roads, her brother following closely behind. It took me to the end of the visit for the peculiarity of the situation to hit me. She was getting ready to leave before the sun set, and she picked up the beige headscarf folded neatly by her side. As she told me about one of her neighbors being shot, she opened up the scarf with a flourish, set it on her head like a pro, and pinned it snuggly under her chin with the precision of a seasoned hijab-wearer. All this without a mirror- like she had done it a hundred times over… Which would be fine, except that M. is Christian.

If M. can wear one quietly- so can I.

I’ve said goodbye this last month to more people than I can count. Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were hurried and furtive- the sort you say at night to the neighbor who got a death threat and is leaving at the break of dawn, quietly.Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were emotional and long-drawn, to the relatives and friends who can no longer bear to live in a country coming apart at the seams.

Many of the ‘goodbyes’ were said stoically- almost casually- with a fake smile plastered on the face and the words, “See you soon”… Only to walk out the door and want to collapse with the burden of parting with yet another loved one.

During times like these I remember a speech Bush made in 2003: One of the big achievements he claimed was the return of jubilant ‘exiled’ Iraqis to their country after the fall of Saddam. I’d like to see some numbers about the Iraqis currently outside of the country you are occupying… Not to mention internally displaced Iraqis abandoning their homes and cities.

I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever know just how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?

August 8, 2006

Iraqis don’t care to move around like Americans do—they tend to stay near their families unless some great turn of fortune, for better or worse, befalls them. I cannot imagine the grief that each and every citizen of that country must feel.

That said, I remain deeply ambivalent about where to go from here. More and more, it’s becoming clear that security in Iraq is simply unattainable. The Washington Post reports that Col. Pete Devlin's assessment, written in mid-August, says that "there is almost nothing the US military can do to improve the political and social situation there,” speaking specifically about Anbar Province from the perspective of the Marine Intelligence Chief there. But, as we’ve seen, what happens in Anbar, generally foreshadows or mirrors events in Baghdad. And where the capital goes, so goes the entire country.

I don’t have much hope and I’m furious at this Administration for getting us into this mess in the first place (for reasons many of us still don’t understand and never will), then refusing to listen to the people who had the experience to know how best to conduct the operation. The decision-makers only cared to listen to the yes-men (including the intelligence community yes-men) who lacked the operational experience to dispense competent advice, and any military leader ballsy enough to speak truth to power was systematically humiliated and driven out of their long and distinguished careers. It’s no coincidence that nine of the Army’s best Generals Officers chose early retirement over the appointment to Secretary of the Army—no one wanted to work for Rumsfeld. Can you blame them, after what happened to Shinseki, Powell, and White?? It’s also no coincidence that many of these same General Officers have come forward to condemn Rumsfeld—and believe me, as a former officer, I know that takes some serious cajones. The climate and structure of the officer brotherhood rewards compliance with commanders and strongly discourages (to put it really mildly) even the appearance of discord with anyone of superior rank. This dynamic cannot be overstated and does not diminish in applicability after leaving the service.

So what now? I don’t know, I honestly don’t know. Iraq is already looking more and more like Afghanistan under the Taliban, where militias rule, terrorists galvanize and train, and absolute interpretations of the Koran dictate policy. If we leave, does it descend into complete chaos, or are we already there? Will the Iraqi “leaders” step up, or will a bloodletting pave the way for an even more permissive environment for terrorist training and recruitment? I don’t like what I think will happen if we leave (another Afghanistan, no real government and a Whole Lotta Terrorists), and I don’t like what’s happening while we stay.

What I do know is that I can barely stand to watch the news, when one or the other of the Administration Monkeys stand there and talk about how well it’s going. I can’t help but picture a tantrum-throwing child with hands clamped over both ears to the deafening roar of Evidence to the Contrary, shrieking, “We’re making progress!!! The Iraqi people chose Democracy when they voted!! You can’t vote and be a terrorist at the same time!!”

Really? Does anyone know whether Timothy McVeigh ever voted? Why is that a contradiction? When it comes to voting here in the Land of the Free, one thing is abundantly clear—a single-party controlled trifecta of White House and both elements of Congress is clearly not a good thing, not in any respect of what government is supposed to do for its citizens. There has to be some balance, or there are no checks. Even many conservatives feel it’s time to break the single-party stranglehold.

Sunday was the day the house was truly set back up again—I could have company without walking behind them saying, “It really doesn’t normally look like this, it’s still under construction, it’s usually much nicer…” I’m enjoying myself out here, but looking forward to going home to Mississippi next week, insha’h Allah. God willing.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Holy Card-Sharking Whore of Babylon, Batman!!

This is the pile of money I won last night playing poker in Tunica. I spent ten bucks on the initial buy-in and never bought more chips. I took second place in the weekly tournament I've come to enjoy so much. The reason I like tournaments so much, is that you only stand to lose your buy-in, which is never more than I'd spend at a bar or restaurant. There is no danger of losing large sums of money, which seems like it would cloud your judgement and serve as a distraction. The other reason I like these tournaments is that I'm getting to know the regular players fairly well, and it's a great group of folks, very friendly game where no one gets pissed when the girl who still accidentally says "Raise" when she means "Bet" cleans them all out. I still don't have the etiquette and terminology down, which leads to charges of card-sharking from the boys who show up wearing headphones and sunglasses, all business. It is great fun--I'm getting really good at punking people out, bluffing them when needed, and padding the pot--that is, getting them to put large sums of money on the table when I do have a winning hand. But that's probably not the correct term, either, I just made that up.

This is Tigger. Well, his track name was Chestnut, and I suppose I should be calling him RC Cola, since it looks like I'm going to keep him as Moonpie's companion. So his official name will be RC Cola, nicknamed Tigger--it just fits him so well, he's tall and skinny, red and black striped, with that funny-looking Roman nose. He had a rough time of it--got into a fight at the track and his shoulder was ripped up. He had surgery and kept tearing the stitches out--so when I got him, I had to keep him in a crate 24/7, walk him outside on a leash for potty breaks. He's only 18 months old, so life in a crate was miserable for him. But now he's paroled and a sweetheart of a pooch. I love walking the two of them together--they make a striking sight.

Wonder how he'll adjust to the back and forth between here and Oxford? I may need to leave them both here or there, pick one, and quit lugging the poor beasts around.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Week in Pictures

I just got a new camera--it's small and takes lovely pictures. The Mondavi Vineyards--a perfect 72 degrees. And later in the day, into a different microclimate:

I tried to catch the condors that flew out from these cliffs--too far away. Someone tried to tell me they were pelicans--no way, these suckers looked prehistoric.

Damn, I have to go to work--I'll post more later...