Najaf is about the size of Minneapolis, with a population of 400,000, but its cemetery is the largest in the world. Imam Ali, the cousin of Muhammad, is buried in Najaf. Many Iraqis want to be buried near him, so that he will be their advocate on Judgment Day. From all over Iraq, the dead are brought in their coffins to Najaf, first to the shrine of Imam Ali, and then to the cemetery for burial.
At the cemetery, we bought some rosewater and incense sticks from vendors. When we reached my mother’s grave, I knelt down and touched the top of the grave and recited Al Fateha, the first verse of the Koran. Then my sister Samiah broke down and started wailing. “Mother, wake up!” she cried. “Sami has arrived.” Following the tradition, we poured the rosewater on her grave, and lit the incense and candles, and spent half an hour reciting prayers before we left.
In Najaf, my sister Samirah had prepared a big feast and invited five families—at least thirty people, counting all the kids. But tradition dictated that I must first visit my oldest sister, Salimah. She doesn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call her, so I just went to her home and surprised her. When we get to her house, everybody shouted, “Salimah, Salimah, come on out, Uncle Sami has arrived!” Salimah is my most sensitive and emotional sister; during the period of the sanctions, she twice tried to kill herself, because she couldn’t provide for her eleven children. When she saw me, it was a very emotional moment. She wept and hugged me and wouldn’t let go of me for a long, long time. She is younger than me, but she looked much older; years of war and sanctions have taken their toll.
The first friend I wanted to see in Najaf was my old neighbor Rashad Khalifah. We used to talk about poetry and politics, when we were in college together, and he had often asked about me after I left Iraq. Tracking him down wasn’t easy, but I found him sitting in front of his auto parts shop across from the El Askeri mosque, deep in thought, staring out into space. He didn’t notice me, so I snuck behind him and sat down behind the counter. When he came back into the store, I asked him, “Can I help you?”—as if it was my shop and he was the customer. He did a double take, and then he recognized me, and we hugged and laughed, and then we sat down and talked for hours.
Rashad told me about the friends who are still around, but when he got around to our old friends Bassem al Har and Fadhel Sunbah, he stopped, looked down, and with a deep, sad voice said, “Sami, they were executed. Killed by the regime.”
“Why?” I asked. I knew Bassem was a communist, but last I heard, he was out of the country, living in exile in Hungary. Rashad said Bassem got very homesick, so he snuck back into the country to see his family. When he tried to sneak back out again, through the Kurdish area to Turkey, he got caught. When they found out who he was, they executed him.
Fadhel Sunbah was arrested with two of his brothers, Rashad said, in order to blackmail his fourth brother, who had fled to Iran and joined the Badr Brigades, the military arm of the Hizb Ad-da’awa resistance against Saddam’s regime. When the fourth brother didn’t come back, they killed Fadhel and his brothers. Their father died a few months later, of a broken heart.
Hearing the news, I felt sick. As soon as I could, I went to Fadhel’s family’s jewelry store in Najaf’s main market, now run by Fadhel’s nephews. I introduced myself, told them that their uncle had been my best friend, and offered my prayers that his blood, and the blood of his brothers, might help to build a new Iraq. Everybody in the shop wept.
Almost everybody I met in my native country has somebody in their family who was killed or is missing. When I met my cousin Aziz, the historian of our clan, he gave me a list of the names of fifteen men from the Rasouli family who have been missing since the Iraq-Iran war. And the tragedy continues: The week after I left Iraq, Rashad’s own son Muhammad was killed by robbers, who shot him and then stole his car.
Walking around Karbala, we saw few signs of the war or the occupation. The occupying troops here were Bulgarians and Poles, and there was a tacit agreement between the occupiers and the local population: You don’t bother us, we don’t bother you. (That lasted until December 28, when coordinated attacks on several sites killed seven occupation soldiers.) Najaf and Karbala have not seen the same level of destruction and violence as Baghdad, or the same level of resistance as Samarra and Tikrit. Everyone I talked to in Najaf and Karbala was glad that Saddam is gone.
A flood of pilgrims, mostly from Iran (home to most of the world’s Shiite Muslims), have pumped money into the local economy in Najaf and Karbala. The Iranians, now much wealthier than the Iraqis, pay for street cleaners, and have sent a fleet of sanitation trucks to keep the holy sites clean. Najaf and Karbala have little religious significance for Sunni Muslims but are the holiest cities for the Shiites, rivaling Mecca in their importance. When Saddam was in power, he charged Iranians $500 to enter the country, a sum few could afford. Now that he is gone and they can enter for free, Iranians rich and poor are flooding across the border. But you see many more beggars on the street than before, and more homelessness. There is plenty of food, but people complain about shortages of fuel, water, and frequent electricity blackouts. People ask, “Why can’t this great superpower restore electricity here after so many months, when they could restore power in the U.S. after the East Coast blackout within a few hours?”
Many people wait in line for hours to buy gas, some so they can turn around, siphon it out and sell it on the black market. The police can go to the front of the line at the filling stations, but they too sell their gas on the black market, for four or five times what they pay for it.
In Karbala and Najaf, you see lots of vendors on the street selling everything from dates and oranges to toys, shoes, and cigarettes. You see young boys who should be in school selling the gasoline on street corners. It is unhealthy work; when the boys siphon the gas from the tanks, they draw poisonous gas fumes into their lungs. Because I was well dressed and carried a camera, the vendors assumed I was a pilgrim from Iran, and called out to me in Farsi.
My brother-in-law Sayed Jamal, a stocky, jovial bearded guy in his early forties, strode through the streets of Karbala like a mukhtar, a mayor, with me in tow, greeting everyone we met. He used to be a jeweler, but now he is a partner in a small money exchange. I asked him what kind of business is good now in Iraq. Gold, he said. Under the sanctions, people sold all their gold, because they were in need. Now with the sanctions lifted, people want their gold back.
At the Roknil Bustan “Corner Garden” restaurant in Karbala, I struck up a conversation with the cook. “I understand you are an American,” he said. “If you can take me with you, I am available.” It is something I heard over and over again.
On the way to Baghdad, to deliver gifts for a friend, we suddenly found ourselves behind a Humvee guarding the rear of a convoy. We tried to pass, but two soldiers with machine guns in the back of the Humvee waved us back. So I stuck my head out the window and talked to them. One of them was named Sean, and the other was Bert. It’s okay to take their pictures, Sean said. He’s from Texas. Bert didn’t say anything, and he kept his finger on the trigger.
Sayed Jamal had met another American soldier, a few weeks earlier. The soldier said he was from Minnesota, so Sayed Jamal tells him his cousin has a coffeehouse in Minneapolis. “What’s it called?” the GI wanted to know. “Sindbad’s,” said Sayed Jamal. “Sami!” the GI exclaimed. “I know Sami! That’s no coffeehouse, that’s a restaurant.”
In Baghdad, unlike Najaf and Karbala, we see many Americans, and many concrete barriers. When we arrive at the Al Hamra Hotel to deliver our parcels, we are frisked and questioned by three Kalashnikov-toting Iraqi guards before being allowed to drive through a maze of concrete barriers. On our way back from Baghdad, we went to Mahmudiyah, a bustling small town thirty miles south of the capital. My friend Bahar, who lives in London, had asked me to give his mother $300 from him. We were received with unbelievable warmth. Bahar’s brother Nahrawan closed his shop for the day and rushed to the market to buy kebabs for everyone.