Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the November/December 2004 issue

Iraq Stories

Journalists who visit Iraq hear many stories, yet they are prevented from recording the majority of them because they must chase after the hot story, the quick journalistic news piece. A journalist might sit down in her hotel room to record the things she has observed, but in the frenzy of filing her report, not only will she forget these stories, but they will appear to her afterward as something faded, having lost its luster. It might even-and this is quite conceivable-appear to her that all of those simpler stories are a luxury that can be abandoned in the interest of big news. It is not strange therefore that people in the world today, especially in the United States, know only the "hot" stories in the daily news. And so today, when Iraqi people show up in the news, it is not as human beings who think and love and hate and experience joy and sadness like the rest of humanity.

It wasn't easy for me either, after twenty-three years of exile, to reconnect with people back in Iraq. The rift was clear to both sides, even on an emotional level. For instance, I found that my sister, with whom I had been closest before my escape from Iraq in October 1980, was completely different from the person I had known. I felt that something had died or been extinguished between us, and I'm sure that she felt the same way. I don't think it happened (as I first thought) because her sentiments were now directed elsewhere, due to the fact that she has become a mother of many children. Nor do I think the difference is due to a change in me, my "new" mentality, resulting from my long residence in the "rational" west. Never did my strong feelings for her falter or dwindle in the least. Rather, I believe (and this is the general situation I have observed among the majority of Iraqis who had a relative living abroad) that for those who stayed in Iraq, their ability to communicate with others was hampered in general, and in particular because of the daily police pressure that they had to deal with. For they were always having to fill out special forms indicating the number of family members living abroad, and specifying why they were outside of the country. In order to protect themselves, they had to claim to have nothing to do with exiled family members, even their own children. My sister, who is married to a B'athist, a mother of four, and a teacher in a secondary school, moved to Baghdad to teach two months after the coalition forces entered Iraq, because of her husband, who is also a teacher. It's true that he was not exposed to any direct threat, but like many of his peers who served the B'ath party at any level, he knows that one day he will face reprisals at the hands of those who destroyed the B'ath system along with the dictator Saddam Hussein. So my family, which rejoiced at my return after twenty-three years of exile, was saddened at the same time by the loss of a daughter.

This is just one story of rupture, one of many similar stories which I jotted down in haste, and others which I carry in my memory, awaiting a time to record them, and still others waiting to be fleshed out. They are simple stories, most of which have nothing to do with blood or death or disappearance or mass graves. Rather they are gaunt like a body exhausted by disease, and describe the general situation in Iraq.


It was difficult for the friends who were seated there in the lobby of the hotel to recognize her, for she was veiled now, full figured and middle aged, whereas when they had last seen her she was a young woman who surpassed them all in both beauty and zest for life. She had been the most cheerful of all of them. She said that she missed them terribly, and had no other friends but them-not because she had anything against other friendships, but because she simply had not met anyone else like them. The city had changed, and people had changed more, and friendships were no longer easy, she said. Everything was watched by the Party and the Security Forces. The few seconds that it took to examine her, to confirm that this was their friend Dallal, whom they had left years before, were long and heavy. And when they wanted to embrace her, Dallal began to cry, a silent, bitter crying like a wail. Maybe those moments were the first occasion she had had in all that time to see herself now as if in a mirror, old beyond her years, and discover the magnitude of the pain that had clung to her all of these years. For their part, her friends remained silent, listening to her sobbing, and to the few words that emerged from her crying. She didn't say much about the years of her life in Iraq. She said that she wore the hijab [the veil] because it was a form of protection in the wake of losing all protection after her friends' departure. And that she had gotten fat because life was over for her.

The Boy Who Speaks English

Those who didn't know young Walid's family at first thought him advanced for his age. It was said that his grandfather, the religious Shaykh Sha'alaan Sayed Kadhim, was one of the first big religious "nationalists" to speak out against the British Mandate during the forties. I remember that my grandfather never once spoke of him amicably. My grandfather considered him a hypocrite, propagandist, and opportunist. This was a natural position, because my grandfather was the president of the landscapers and gardeners who worked in the British soldiers' cemetery in Amara. And of course the Shaykh considered my grandfather's work haram because he cultivated land where kaffirs [infidels] were buried, kaffirs at whose hands Muslims had been killed during World War I. In any case, this story is not about what happened between my grandfather and the turbaned shaykh. It is about the developments that took place among this family of "believers," all of which served my grandfather's opinion to some degree. This "nationalist" family passed down its principles against the "colonialist" west. Shaykh Kadhim's son, Abbas, was in charge of one of the principal mosques in the city, and would organize "official" protest demonstrations against Israel and America. Thus it seems that the family passed on its infectious "nationalism," which it seems, perhaps not surprisingly, came to an end on April 9, 2003. Young Walid, Abbas' grandson, now helps his father Muhsin run the first English language institute in the city. The teenager affirms innocently and happily that he is very glad to see his young colleagues coming to the school to learn English. The school was opened with private funds from his grandfather. Its name: The School of the Future, for English Language Study. If only my grandfather were still alive to see this!

Ghazi the Lucky Man

I never thought that I would see him again. Surviving in Iraq has become a rare occurrence, if not a miracle. He's an old friend of mine, Ghazi, the owner of a small bookstore, who used to specialize in the sale of comic books, medical textbooks, and sailboat magazines. Most of them were in English but nevertheless they sold-we would buy them for the pictures they contained. Ghazi tells me that until April 9, death was Iraq's foundation, and life was a faraway dream, and that when he would wake up in the morning and feel around himself and realize he was still alive, he would feel an unbelievable happiness. For he, as I have said, should have died at least a hundred times-he is very lucky. Every night before he went to bed he would pray that he would wake up in the morning to see the fall of the dictatorship with his own eyes. It is true that they arrested him numerous times; they were at a loss about how to classify him politically because they didn't understand why he sold magazines in English, especially considering the oppressive religious trend at the time. Maybe at first they thought he was attempting some sort of political camouflage, and a political man is always under suspicion of belonging to one of the dangerous secret organizations. Every time they would get worried about him they would send him to the Iranian front, to confirm his loyalty and to get rid of him by getting him killed. However, to their surprise, they discovered that the soldiers loved him, and the officers favored him as well, so they decided to bring him back to the city, out of fear that he would influence the troops at the front, and damage their conviction for the war. They thought that he was a political activist-they had no idea that he was a favorite of the soldiers, and especially the officers, because of the sex magazines that he brought with him, which he got from a friend of his who worked in the censorship office. Ghazi says that he was thrown in prison several times for "trivial" reasons-once because he read a novel in English, specifically Catcher in the Rye by Salinger. Many times only a thread separated him from death. These days Ghazi has become an old treasure that has been rediscovered in the city, because of the rare "global" goods he owns. His customers are now coalition soldiers who find old comic books in his shop that were discontinued in Europe long ago.

The Taxi Driver Who Is Afraid of His Daughters

Aboud, a friend of my father's, has been working as a taxi driver for a long time. My father was born in 1936, Aboud in 1939. Aboud's first wife died of cancer. I was in Iraq at that time. His second wife died when the city was bombed by the Republican Guard after the revolt that broke out in southern Iraq, which was crushed in March 1991. Since that time, Aboud has lived in a small two-story house with his daughters. They are married except for the three youngest ones, the oldest of whom is thirteen. Aboud confided in me that he is thinking about marriage again, and he can't understand why I, whom he believes lives a life of "ease" in the "rich" west, still have no children. Aboud says that he doesn't want to marry again because of his own need for a woman in his life, although he believes that is natural enough, but rather because he wants a woman to take care of his daughters, and look after them. But his daughters have said that he must seek their approval of any potential new wife before he makes a choice. How quickly times have changed, he says. Six months after the Americans got here, the girls have started talking about freedom and expressing their opinions. Who would have believed it?!

The Gypsies

The Gypsies have lived on the edges of Amara for a long time, since 1975 to be exact, the date of the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon. Up until that time, the Gulf Arabs used to go to Beirut for fun, to visit the amusement parks and brothels there. But Beirut had become a dangerous city, so Saddam Hussein's government decided to build recreational cities, on the model of Las Vegas, all along the southern border of Iraq, so that the Gulfies, and especially the Kuwaitis, would come, not only on holidays but on long weekends as well: Thursday night to Friday. The Gulfies would come in their cars, as it was only a short drive for them to these resort towns, two hours at the most. Thus, over time, neighborhoods known as "Revelry Neighborhoods" developed. Pleasure seekers would find two kinds of gypsies there: the first type "for song and dance", and the second type "for sex"-specifically sex with young girls who were supposed to be virgins, under eighteen years of age. Deflowering a virgin cost 500 dollars. The economic boom in these neighborhoods soon came to an end, especially in cities near the Iran-Iraq border, where the war was taking place from 1980-88. But because of Saddam Hussein's interest in protecting these cities, his love for the Gypsies (the source of his love for the gypsies has always been unclear), and the B'ath Republic's need for an influx of Gulf petro-dollars, the cities far from the front were left alone, while those close to the border were closed. The Gypsies in Amara benefited from the new situation, and got rich quickly by satisfying the demands of the market and their new customers, most of whom were officers and infantrymen from the military who were on active duty in the region, a circumstance which forced the gypsies to resort to importing their "entertainers," experts in prostitution, from other places. For almost three decades, the inhabitants of Amara had to put up with throngs of rich visitors coming for the "official" brothels. It was a mixed crowd made up of Gulfies and officers from Tikrit and Falluja. Today, the gypsies are reaping the vengeance of the city, for their houses and belongings were looted after April 9, 2003, and they don't know what to do. Over and over again they have tried to explain that they are just people who don't know any other business, and that they didn't collaborate with the B'athists for political reasons, only as customers. Their leader, Hamadi Ta'oos, asked me, as a citizen of the West, to talk to those in charge of Amara, or to bring their problem before the Romani World Council, and he doesn't hesitate to use the word "genocide" to describe what they are facing.

The American Garbage Dump

Until recently, those who lived next to the garbage dump were the poorest inhabitants of the city. According to what people say, the families that live there all came from outside the city, fleeing poverty and hunger, searching for somewhere they could eke out an existence. No one knows when they arrived, and it is impossible to find old pictures of them, or to find their names recorded in Amara's municipal archives, not because the archives were burned after April 9, 2003, but because the B'athists didn't recognize their existence, and didn't allow any foreign or local journalist to talk about them, forbidding documentation of their lives on film as well. As far as the government was concerned, they were part of the region's trash. Things weren't much different with the rest of the city's population, who looked down on them with scorn and disdain. Today, however, the residents' view of them has changed, not because the system that isolated them has disappeared, but because they have become principle players in the new market, since the contents of the dump that surrounds their homes has developed into something new.

"The American Dump" is what the people now call this place that was scorned until a short time ago. And they don't say it with contempt, but rather with envy. For the first time, new commodities are coming into the dump. Where residents of the dump used to spend entire days with their children searching for something "valuable" among the garbage, now they easily obtain valuable items from the "American Garbage Dump": old clothes of all varieties-shirts and shoes and pants-used electronics that still work- some that can be repaired for use that day, some that can be repaired in the near future-machines and motors; canned goods whose expiration dates have passed; medical supplies; leftover drugs; sex magazines, and other valuable "American" goods . . .

The change which has descended upon the residents of the dump is easy to see. Now the barons of the "American Dump" go around town in elegant suits, dealing with the other citizens haughtily, showing their wares in the market: supply and demand. However, competition has begun to spring up among them. It is not surprising that there is rumor of a settling of accounts among the dump-walkers themselves, about who will control the world of the "American Dump." But astoundingly people say "American Dump" and forget the "British Dump"! There are new marriages and alliances taking place between the families of dump barons, and the families of the city's merchants. And all of this happened incredibly fast. How quickly garbage can change . . .

Read more from the November/December 2004 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.