Baghdad Street Scene
Jude Wanniski
February 25, 2005


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.

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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 is 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.