Back to Iraq

He told us to make sure to park close to the house—otherwise our car would be stolen—and sent one of his sons twice to check on it. In a vacant lot nearby, vendors had set up an open-air thieves’ market, selling pipes, wiring, and construction materials stolen from government sites. Nobody tries to stop them. The family lives in fear, the mother said; they hear stories every day about robberies and kidnappings. Everybody knows that she has money, because she has sons who work abroad. Before, life was a nightmare because of the regime, but at least they had security. Now things are less stable, and everything is more expensive. My family in Najaf and Karbala also lives more comfortably than many of their neighbors, but with less fear; the holy cities are farther away from Baghdad, and less dangerous. Outside Nahrawan’s house, we see a teenage boy in rags, huddled against a fence. Perhaps he lived in an orphanage before, but now he lives on the street, surviving on handouts from Nahrawan and his neighbors.

Heading back to Najaf, we ran into a traffic jam, and then the sound of distant gunfire. Later we learned that half a mile ahead of us, resistance fighters had ambushed two vehicles, killing seven Spanish intelligence officers.

There were few outward signs of the war in Najaf, but I visited one large clothing factory that was bombed three times during the war. Nobody knew why it was bombed; it was a clothing factory that produced school uniforms. Nobody could tell me if anyone was injured, but more than 1,750 employees, including 1,500 women, were out of work. The director told me that after the war, U.S. military personnel came, inspected the damage, and said the coalition would help them rebuild. But that was months ago, and the promised assistance had not arrived.

On Laylet al Qudr, the anniversary of the death of Imam Ali, who was murdered in Kufa and is buried in Najaf, hundreds of bare-chested men marched through the streets, beating themselves bloody with chains and chanting their devotion to Imam Ali and the Twelve Imams. It is believed that if you worship God on this night, it is better than a thousand months of prayer. On the street people gave away tea and temmen wa qima, a traditional dish of rice, lamb, split yellow peas, dried lemon, and spices. Thousands of people were out on the streets, many gathered around televisions, watching a drama about the martyrdom of Imam Ali.

Later that evening, at Salimah’s house, I pointed to a picture on the wall of Imam Ali and the Twelve Imams, and asked, do you think Imam Ali really looked like that? Some said the portraits were based on visions of the imams from dreams. But nobody knows what the imams looked like. I asked them how much of the pictures are true and how much is imaginary. Why should we spend this tremendous energy on these three days and commit ourselves to ideas that we are not sure about? It’s just like a mirage—we keep going toward that mirage assuming that it is water because we are thirsty, but we never get to that water because it is a mirage, a figment of our imagination, and meanwhile we neglect other things like our city and our children and our future.

The reason that the Sunnis were able to control the country is that they live in the present—they joined the Baath party and the army, while we Shiites keep reliving ancient history. I told them, the deceased imams will be really upset if they come back to life and see how backward we are. They don’t want us to keep crying and mourning and neglecting our living standards.

One day in Najaf, Sayed Jamal arranged an interview for me with Ayatollah Ali Assebzawari, in his office, across the street from the Shrine of Imam Ali. After noon prayers, we waited our turn while he met with a man who has asked him to resolve a family dispute over an inheritance. His verdict will be based on Shariah, Islamic law—and for the faithful, it is the only law that matters, especially now, with the official legal system in shambles.

The learned Sayed Ali al Mousawi Assebzawari was a handsome, soft-spoken man of medium build in his early forties, wearing a white dishdasha and brown aba (a clerical vest) and the black turban that indicates that he is a direct descendent of the prophet. His office is furnished with a big colorful Persian carpet, cushions, and a low desk on the floor. He is a religious scholar and the author of a recent book on the Islamic view of cloning (permissible, he says); a shelf in his office is lined with Islamic texts.

He was willing to be interviewed, but he politely refused to allow me to take his picture; he didn’t know anything about this magazine, The Rake, and he didn’t want his picture or his words to appear next to pictures of naked women. I assured him that it is a very proper magazine, read by sophisticated, well-educated people. But I wonder whether he had looked up the definition of “rake” in a dictionary.

I asked him what the U.S. had accomplished since the end of the war, and he said “nothing.” The American forces had a good plan to get rid of Saddam, but they didn’t have a plan for how the Iraqi people should start their new lives. After six months of occupation the system is still the same as before, he said; he didn’t see any improvement. They changed the currency, but the economy is still corrupt, there is no economy, no reform, there are thousands of police assigned by the American authority, but those police have no teeth. There is no place to go and complain if there is a crime, so crime is spreading everywhere, especially kidnapping and robberies.

I asked him, what do the Iraqis owe the Americans for removing Saddam’s regime? He answered, “Who installed the regime in the first place? They just removed a regime that they installed, a regime that tortured us and caused pain and agony for the past thirty-five years. They didn’t do us any favor—they installed him, and then they removed him. They knew for the last thirty-five years that this was a brutal dictatorship and they didn’t do anything to help the Iraqis get rid of him, and in 1991 when the Iraqi people rose up, they didn’t help the Iraqis but they condoned Saddam’s brutality. To liberate Iraq now is nothing, for all the suffering the U.S. allowed to go on for thirty-five years.

The so-called resistance in the Sunni Triangle isn’t a real resistance, he said. That’s just acts of desperation by supporters of the old regime who have lost their power and privileges, but if the occupiers stay and become colonizers, you will see a real resistance; the whole Iraqi people will participate. We have been told that the coalition force came to eliminate the old regime and leave, so we are expecting no more than that. By a certain time they should leave. “We are waiting and watching, and I hope we will not need to confront each other.”

There is a lot of death in Iraq. But it isn’t just Saddam or war. The risks to Iraqis’ health are legion. Many of my friends, I learned, have died from car accidents, or heart attacks, or other diseases. In Najaf, I visited my cousin Haji Hassoun in his tailor shop. I walked in unannounced and asked him impatiently when my dishdasha would be ready. Puzzled, he asked when I’d brought him the fabric. I said, “Thirty years ago!” Then he recognized me, and laughed, and we talked about old times. But three days later, I attended his funeral; he died suddenly of a stroke.

There are also many deaths and killings that go unreported. My brother-in-law Mudhar, Salimah’s husband, who used to be a butcher and now works in a funeral home, said that they get the bodies of two or three former Baathist officials every day. One recent arrival had been decapitated.

Two young children were killed at an elementary school while I was in Karbala. At first, people said it was a terrorist attack, but now they think it may have been an unexploded American cluster bomb, picked up by one of the kids. Nobody knew. The principal didn’t want to talk about it. If he said it was a cluster bomb, he would be accused of being against the Americans. If he said it was terrorists, he feared being killed by the Baathists. The parents were angry because there was no police investigation.

On one of my last days in Iraq, talk turned to the future, which for many Iraqis is both hopeful and heartbreaking. The future is, in many ways, up to the women alone.

Salimah’s oldest daughter, Nadia, twenty-nine, lost her husband in a fire at his workplace. The chances she will remarry are very slim—there are lots of women with no husbands. My sisters asked me, Sami, is there any chance that we can find you a nice woman? They surprised me with the question. It took me a minute to think about it. I told them I might marry again if I move back to Iraq. I am not sure if a woman from Najaf would fit very well in American society. “Sami,” they said, “if you decide, seriously, that you want to get married, you just let us know and we will have for you a parade. All kinds of women, the women of your dreams. If you want, we can find one for you, college educated, twenty or twenty-one years old.”

I laughed and joked, “Younger!” “Sami,” they said, “if you want one even younger, you can have a younger one. There are many families that would give you their daughter. All they care about is that you protect her.”

I may return to Iraq someday—not to stay there forever, but perhaps for a few years. I would like to work with the ministry of education, or perhaps as the mayor of a town, where I could help build the new Iraq. As an Iraqi-American, I would like to be a link between the two countries, and heal the relationship between my two homes. They could use another father, brother, uncle.

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