Brief encounters in an anxious land

Ayub Nuri
15 July 2003

No future

Barzan Ahmed Aziz is an elementary school teacher. He came over to my place, very fed up, to tell me about his feelings on the current situation and his expectations in life. He is teaching in Aruzar, a village about 150 kilometres outside Sulaimaniya.

“It is not encouraging. A few months have gone past now since the conflict ended in Iraq, and everything is worse than ever. Whether from an economic or social or security point of view – whichever way you look at it, the prospect is bleak.

By now I expected some clear signs of a better life, especially for government employees – since most Iraqi people work for the government one way or another. And for many years we have been deprived of everything that makes for a good and comfortable life. What we urgently need is a government to be set up which can redress the situation, and make amends for all these years of hardship.

For myself, why should I want a lifestyle which is less than an American citizen or the citizen of any other country? I also want to be free, to travel and see foreign places and raise myself up in life. I am an elementary school teacher and I love my job, but I am not at all satisfied with the salary and the living I can make from it. To be honest, I can’t see any future with this job in this situation. If post-war Iraq makes some change to my life and job prospects, I will carry on teaching and serving the country in this way. But with no hopes, I just feel it isn’t worth the effort.”

Playing the currency card

Barham Hassan keeps a stationery shop in Goran street, Sulaimaniya. When I went in there the other day to stock up on notebooks, I found the shopkeeper counting a wad of Iraqi dinars, talking to himself all the while, grumbling and complaining:

“What with this currency and the dollar rate – we are in real trouble. The currency fluctuates like nobody’s business, changing its value every hour. Just now the local Iraqi dinar may be worth something, but in a few days time, when they start paying salaries to state employees in particular, there will be a run on the market again and people will play the market at the expense of poor people – and shopkeepers! The shop is now full of new stock with good bargains over the past few days, but in no time I may lose it all again, thanks to the constant shift in the dollar exchange rate. If it would just stop still – even at 100 dinars for 100 dollars, so be it. Just stop and let us get on with our work!”

Arabs and Kurds

A friend of mine and I took a white and orange Mazda from Mawlawy street to the College of Commerce in Sulaimaniya the other day. We were mulling over what was in the newspapers, when the driver – a 60-year old man – interrupted.

“Yes, there are a lot of Arabic newspapers interviewing Iraqi people and encouraging them to speak out against the Americans, to articulate their disappointment at the situation in Iraq. That can’t be right. I am a Muslim and call myself a very pure and steadfast Muslim, but I would prefer to take one American soldier any time rather than one thousand ignorant Muslims. We ought to welcome the Americans and cooperate with them, so that they can lay the foundations for change here. And then, only then, we can very calmly and firmly invite them to get out of the country.

We, the Iraqi Kurds have been loyal allies to the Americans: but it is quite beyond the Arabs amongst us to avail themselves of the same opportunity. I can see us simply missing this chance thanks to their attitude, and no one giving us Kurds the credit for having a different view of it.”

Iraqis and Americans

Going back to my hotel in Karada street in Baghdad, we heard through the car radio that a number of unknown men had opened fire on some American army vehicles and killed an American soldier and injured some. This taxi driver, who was an Arab, gave us his reaction to what had happened.

“May God destroy them. Why do they shoot at the Americans? They will spoil everything. We are the only ones who will lose by these evil actions, not the Americans.

As far as I am concerned, let them make Iraq the fifty-second state of the United States of America. What use have we Iraqis made of our oil or any of the other riches in our country? This street was one of the very roads built by the Iraqi regime for their sole use. Normal civilians were not allowed to drive down it. Just like the entire wealth of the country!”

When I arrived and wanted to pay the fare, he said, “No need to give me money! Saddam is gone, and that’s enough for everybody. That was all we asked!”

Tired of suffering

In the next taxi – a red Volkswagon taking me to an internet café – I heard a quite different view. In Karada street, two green American Humvees were wending their way in the opposite direction, when my driver looked at them and began shaking his head, and waving his left hand. On enquiry, he said, “A country full of thieves and criminals! The day will come when they will be forced out of our country. Inshallah! Yes, it will – you’ll see!”

He fell silent for a while, then continued, “All of us Iraqi people, not just me, we are just biding our time until we can rise against them. We have suffered for thirty-five years non-stop and now it seems it will continue just the same as ever. We are sick and tired of nothing ever changing.”

Saudis and Kuwaitis

My next taxi driver was formerly a colonel in the Iraqi army. He began talking to me and my American friend as follows.

“The English are better than the Americans. They have been in Iraq for many years, and have long experience of the Iraqi people: their culture, their religion. They are quite shrewd about how to deal with things in this part of the world.

But the Americans are new to us, and they all seem to be merciless criminals – the whole pack of them! If they try and dig in in Iraq, they will be fought and killed with their own weapons. Make no mistake, we will get them out of this country by hook or by crook, even if we have to turn American soldiers into the very oil they came here for!”

In the middle of this conversation he asked me if I could give him the name of any foreign-aided hospitals, saying, “I have a sick child and do not know where to take her for treatment.” I told him that I knew of one or two hospitals sponsored by Saudi Arabians and Kuwaitis. He frowned and rejected the suggestion on the grounds that ‘Saudis and Kuwaitis’ were the meanest liars in the whole world and that Iraqis should know, because they had once been their leaders. This further depressed him.

“Once, we were the most hospitable people in the world. But it was Saddam who put us all in such a shameful position. His fatal policies have let the Americans loose in this country, heaping indignities on our heads before the eyes of the world.

We will fight these Americans and bring them to their knees. The anger of the people is stronger than any power or technology in the world. We must kick them out and take back whatever they have stolen from us for so many years. Saddam and his family have gone, and it is time now to see a new beginning, and all the promises down the years fulfilled.

Take George Galloway! Now, there is a man who really feels the pain of Iraq and the Iraqi people. He has humanitarian feelings. Why don’t all British people feel and react as George Galloway does – willing to speak out on our behalf? Yet, for his pains – the whole world seems to blame him.”

If there were any chance that the Americans would keep their promise and get out of here, we would be eternally grateful for their intervention. But how likely is that? My father got killed in the Iran-Iraq war in 1982, so I know what America is. The Iran-Iraq war, like every other war amongst the 20th century nations was instigated and fuelled by America.

So, tell me why an educated man keeps company with an uneducated man; a good man and a criminal; a law-respecting individual with a proud history and a rogue with no respect for any law and order – why should they become partners in any kind of venture? I am astonished that Britain co-operates with America.”

The cancer of Ba’athism

In the University of Sulaimaniya I have a friend from Hawraman, the area under the control of the radical Islamic group of Ansar al-Islam for about two years. Hilal Ibrahim is studying in the college of law. A few days ago, I ran into him coming out of an exam. He wanted to tell me something:

“How can you say I am free as long as there is another person thinking instead of me and telling me what to do? Ba’athism may have been eradicated as a political system, but what about Ba’athist culture, what about everyday fantasies and life values? Ba’athism is still very much alive. Saddam Hussein planted this ideology deep in the minds and behaviours of all of us Iraqis, and it is handed down to generation after generation.

So the Iraqi people are Ba’athists, but they just don’t recognise it! How come they don’t see it? Look at the way they live and treat each other! Go and talk to your average teacher, politician, mullah, a checkpoint – and see how ruthlessly they treat you. That, in fact, is Ba’athist treatment. It’s brutal and brutalising.

So America is working on behalf of our own deepest interests by being here.

Saying this, don’t imagine that I deceive myself that America is different from any other dictatorial power there has ever been in the world. America is as much of a dictator as the Saddam regime: but in spite of all, its presence in this country at this time is absolutely essential for us. It is imperative that they should stay here for as long as it takes, until we see ourselves safely delivered from the threat of religious sects and the Arab and Kurdish problems that have been building up for such a long time. These problems are just lurking, waiting for the first day after the Americans leave here, when there will be nothing but trouble and fighting between the religions and the languages.

What is vital now, if we are to avoid this fate, is food and money. This is what the Americans need to be able to provide for everybody on all sides, so that they can feed the people up in an atmosphere of cooperation. For the process called regime change in Iraq will have to end up removing Ba’athism root and branch from our midst, if it is ever to be successful.”

The violence of frustration

Finally, I met Abu Haidar, a medical assistant and former teacher in a nursing training-school in Baghdad:

“The people are hungry and poor. At one and the same time, we are suffering from a lack of electricity, water and food. Everybody is disappointed and angry. Those who are launching attacks on American soldiers and bases in this country can take full advantage of these people’s anger and frustration. They can easily recruit them to their ‘anti-colonisation’ campaign.”

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