Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- No Iraqi would pass by another fellow citizen without asking him/her the perpetual question “Shaku maku?*” regardless of the circumstances. According to the renowned Iraqi archeologist Fawzi Rasheed, the term is originally Babylonian and was exchanged as a greeting.
Today, the question is reiterated more often than ever, following four years of occupation and the fall of the former regime. The same Iraq that has made invaluable scientific, artistic and literary contributions to the world now lies in darkness and is covered in smoke and dust.
Slowly and with caution our plane flying in from Amman landed in Baghdad. The old plane, chartered from South Africa by Royal Jordanian Airlines, circled the air several times before alighting in Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), formerly known as Saddam International Airport. The time was eight in the morning but that didn’t matter. In present-day Baghdad, time is measured in accordance with the number of bombings, strewn corpses and teary eyes: The time now is 10 bombs, 45 corpses and 30 injured.
The arrivals hall is always silent; no voice announces the departure and landing times over the microphone. The security authorities, both Iraqi and American, deny access to any Iraqi who does not hold a ticket and passport. Those waiting for arrivals usually wait in an area that lies close to the Abbas Ibn Firnas Motel, which has been shelled several times despite the strict security measures and high-level inspection procedures.
Airport trolleys are locally manufactured out of scrap iron and can be hired for steep prices that may reach up to five dollars per trolley. Those in charge of renting them out will not offer to help you carry anything or push the trolley as they do not see this as part of their job.
Once outside, I found a driver who appeared to be in his late forties; I was shocked to learn that he was only 35 years old. “These hard times have made our hair and souls prematurely grey,” he said.
I posed the conventional Iraqi question, “Shaku maku?” to which he replied with a ghost of a smile, “There is everything car bombs, explosive devices, suicide bombers, snipers, wholesale explosions and corpses lying on the streets and rising prices.”
“If all this exists in Iraq what does not exist?” I asked.
As though he was expecting the question, he promptly answered, “No government, hope, security, or stability,” and then added, “Imagine how excited we were when they told us they were going to hold elections; we went out with our families at dawn to elect the members of parliament who were going to represent us. Those individuals whom we elected first defended their rights then their salaries and their material and moral privileges and then their holidays, forgetting about the people they represented.”
“Practically speaking,” he continued, “we have transformed ordinary citizens into first-class citizens but the real travesty is that we never see any of these MPs and we cannot get in touch with them to relay our problems. We don’t know how they can be representing us. Most of the parliamentarians live in the affluent al Qadisiyah compound with all its luxurious villas that were built by Saddam Hussein for his ministers and his political and military leaders. Some Iraqi MPs live in the Green Zone, enclosed behind its fortified concrete walls, while others choose to stay at the al Rasheed Hotel when they arrive in Baghdad from their villas in Amman. As for the minority of MPs living in security-protected residential areas in Baghdad, they bar their streets with concrete blocks, barriers, barbed wire and security personnel who are authorized to shoot at any moment. These MPs are impossible to reach and the citizens who voted for them can never get in touch with them.”
Although he was Christian and his name was Sami, the taxi driver had three identity cards with him at all times; his real one, and one with a Sunni name and another with a Shia one. Sami had graduated as a medical assistant but had to work as a taxi driver to be able to survive in these trying times.
Along the main road that connects the airport to the city center we were stopped three times. Formerly known as ‘Death Street’, it used to be considered Baghdad’s most dangerous road; however, the ubiquitous presence of US armored tanks has rendered it somewhat safer.
During Saddam’s reign this street was one of Baghdad’s most beautiful but also the most off-limit to Iraqis because it was frequently closed off as the Iraqi president shuttled back and forth between his palaces in the nearby Ar Radwaniyah compound. However; today, the street like many others around the city is pitted and scarred from the explosions resulting from mortar bombs, explosive devices and car bombs. The surrounding parks have become infested with mosquitoes and insects living in rotten stagnant water.
Sami stopped the car to let a US convoy get through. A long stretch of armored cars and Hummers drove past, each marked with a clear warning to maintain the 200-meter separating space that the Americans have insisted on maintaining from civilian traffic. The words explicitly carry the warning that anyone venturing within that limit would be shot.
“These people do not kid around and do not know the meaning of a joke,” he said. “Just last week they fired at our neighbor Abu Mohammed, an old man in his sixties on Haifa Street, while he was on his way to his son’s shop.”
We had to wait another three times for US vehicles to get through; a duration of 10-15 minutes each but even after that we were interrupted by other obstacles in the form of checkpoints and convoys of officials that pass amidst a barrage of gunfire from the first vehicle to force all other vehicles on the road to stop.
Near the Baghdad International Book Fair grounds in al Harithiya was another checkpoint. We waited as part of a long queue until we finally got through after the car was searched and after having presented our identity cards.
When asked about the frequency of militia-controlled checkpoints on the road, Sami said that prior to the enforcement of the US security plan there used to be many more, adding that the majority of checkpoints now were government-controlled.
But opinion is divided on the streets of Baghdad, some uphold that the neighboring countries are responsible for this security upheaval; mainly Iran. In Baghdad, you will encounter some who adamantly insist and will take the most solemn of oaths to swear that they had been interrogated by Iranian officers in the al Jadiriyah bunker. It is the same detention center that was discovered amidst a huge scandal during [Ibrahim] al Jaafari’s term and in which some maintain that they were brutally tortured using the cruelest of methods at the hands of officers infinitely more proficient in Farsi than in Arabic.
Further to that; a former officer in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, who goes by the epithet al Nuaimi and who was fired and dismissed from the ministry, recounted that his brother was tortured and assassinated in a similar manner. This came to light after the body was discovered along with 14 others all of whom were found on the Zorbatiyah border, which lies in close proximity to the Iranian-Iraqi borders. The reason behind al Nuaimi’s dismissal was his disclosure that there was a whole floor in the ministry headquarters that had Iranian elements working on it.
Others have pointed to Syria, holding it responsible for all that has happened and will still happen in Iraq starting from the dissolution of the army and the security forces to the bombings and the security collapse in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Those who uphold this position are the same as those who maintain that, “the US wants Iraq to remain in chaos and ruin so it can prolong its stay there and benefit from Iraqi oil while continuing to control a strategic area in the region.”
But, diverse and contradictory opinions are rife in Iraq and in Baghdad in particular. Those who accuse Iran of interfering and reject its meddling are countered by those who advocate it and consider it to be a safe haven for the Shia. Likewise, for whoever accuses Syria, there are those who defend it under the claim that it opened its borders to all Iraqis seeking asylum there. Moreover, those holding the US forces responsible for all that has transpired in Iraq are opposed by those who say that the US forces have liberated Iraq from a regime it could not have been rid of on its own.
However, what unites all Iraqis, and is a central preoccupation for them, is the absence of the government’s imprint on the street and its equal lack of sovereignty or laws to be implemented in public life.
An employee in the Ministry of Finance, Eman al Shakarji said, “How can we feel reassured when we fear for ourselves [when confronted] by the state bodies, whether the police or the National Guard? When a citizen fears for their life from the state security apparatuses or the state itself, then how can he/she have faith in, or trust, the state or the government?”
Eman al Shakarji, who is seeking to retire in her fifties so she can leave Iraq with her family, added, “When the government fears for itself from the people, separating itself behind fortified concrete walls that are guarded by the US forces in the Green Zone, and the public avoids the government because it has no faith in it, then how will that reflect on the security situation or on the Iraqi public? Personally, I am afraid to consult the police even if my house is completely robbed. Presently, if I was physically assaulted or even killed in the street, I would not be able to find anybody rushing to my aid, even in the simplest way, and that includes the police.”
The sad truth is that in Baghdad it is not out of place to find people warning you against going to the police station when you encounter any problems. They will say to you, “Who will guarantee that you will leave the police station? You will be transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold. They will bargain you in return for a ransom, the sum of which only God knows. And in the end no one will know if the story will end after the ransom is paid or not.”
The head of operations at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Major-General Mohammed Neama confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the kidnappings have not ceased but that they had decreased by nearly half. Furthermore, he revealed that the groups behind the abductions were divided into three groups: “the first are referred to as the “Saddamists”, the second are known as the “takfiris”, and the third are gangs of organized crime many of who had been previously convicted.” This third group includes convicts who had been sentenced to execution and a lifetime of imprisonment for committing heinous crimes under Saddam’s regime but who had been released by the late Iraqi president prior to the US invasion [to further the chaos].
However, as bleak as the picture may seem, there still exists a steady ray of hope in the form of Baghdad’s vibrant cultural traditions and its art scene. Testimony of these words is proven on a daily basis through the work of renowned visual artists such as Nuri al Rawi, Fahmi al Qaisi, Qassim Sabti, Dia al Khazai, Abdel Qahar Abdel Shadad and ceramics Professor Maher al Samerai, to name but a few. Many painters and plastic artists did not abandon their art or stop exhibiting their work despite the hardships the ravished city is enduring, and the bombings, assassinations and abductions that target some artists.
Likewise, on the stage, legendary Iraqi playwright Joseph al Ani, 80 years old, still continues to write and perform his plays through his troupe the ‘Modern Artistic Theater’ after nearly a half century of exemplary artistic contributions. Shaza Salem, daughter of the great playwright Taha Salem who is a renowned theater actress in her own right and a lecturing professor at the Fine Arts Academy, along with her sister, Suha Salem who is also an artist, advocate the importance of art in daily life.
This will to live and endure in Iraq is a common denominator that can be tangibly sensed in schools and universities as well. Students put on a brave face and challenge the existence of car bombs, explosive devices and suicide bombers every day by continuing to seek their education and trying to resume their daily life.
* Shaku maku is an Iraqi colloquialism that means “What’s new?” A rough literal translation would be “What’s happening, what’s not happening?”