New Internationalist

The power and the glory

Issue 432

Anarchy, violence and nostalgia for a golden age mark Iraqi politics in the run-up to the elections.

Whatever one thinks of Iraq’s nascent ‘democracy’, it’s hard to deny the enthusiasm of some Iraqis for elections. I am surprised to find that everyone – from a former newspaper columnist from Saddam-era Iraq, to the old conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra, to a Sufi Sheikh – seems to be running for office. And election posters now outnumber the old images of Saddam that once greeted you from every corner.

Iraq in the last seven years has been transformed from a secular police state to an anarchistic pseudo-democracy

I recall witnessing an ‘election’ in 2000, which Saddam won by 98 per cent (they were always careful to leave a few percentage points out for appearances). Interviewing Iraqis at polling stations, I was struck by how happy everyone looked. Whole families, dressed in their best outfits, greeted friends and neighbours as they cast their votes for the only possible candidate. The national holiday was a day out for beleaguered Iraqis: ‘It’s a way to pretend that everything is normal,’ my minder from the Ministry of Information, a young Kurdish Baghdadi, had told me.

Of course, with infant mortality rates sky-rocketing, near-daily bombings from US and British warplanes and embargo-induced isolation and poverty exacerbated by the excesses of Saddam’s police state, things were far from normal then.

And they’re far from normal now. With no laws on campaign financing, incumbents can use state funds to further their own re-election, and Maliki’s troops make regular sweeps through Sunni neighbourhoods, allegedly rounding up potential opponents as ‘trouble-makers’.1

Critics of the current regime point to the lack of reliable voter records, as well as the ongoing persecution of opponents and minorities, as some of the factors delegitimizing the elections. (When three members of the Iraqi LGBT organization were recently released after being jailed and beaten for several months, they were told: ‘You’re being released because of the benevolence of the Prime Minister. You must vote for your benefactor or you’ll regret it.’)2

In many ways, Iraq in the last seven years has been transformed from a secular police state into an anarchistic pseudo-democracy, where every minister has their own militia. And the damage done to Iraq’s civil society and social programmes after years of war, sanctions and despotism has been exacerbated by occupation and fundamentalist militias.

In this context, can the signs of returning ‘normalcy’ be taken at face value?

Most average Iraqis I meet are not optimistic. And neither are insiders like Ali Allawi, who describes the current regime as a blend of ‘the most corrupt of the old regime’ (old Baathists caught with their hands in the jar under Saddam, who then pleaded persecution to escape the rampant de-Baathification process first imposed by US Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer) and the most venal and incompetent of the returning exiles. He describes the current situation in Iraq as a ‘minimalist’ democracy, built around a ‘new class’ made up of élites who have learned to play party politics, comparing them to the British-backed Egyptian and Iraqi political élites of the last century.3

Emad al-Khafaji, a former talk-show host who moved back to Iraq from the US after the invasion, is now running as a Communist candidate in Kerbala (one of the country’s most religious Shi’a cities) as a secular Shi’a. With the growing gap between rich and poor, no campaign finance laws, rampant corruption and vote-buying, he says that ‘only the strong will win’. Often, they are those backed by US or Iranian money.

The day after the elections, Muwafaq al-Taei, a 68-year-old communist who worked as a town planner for Saddam and was wounded by US troops, will tell me:

‘The bombing4 really encouraged people to vote. Without the bombs turnout would have been much less. You know, Iraqis love a challenge. Allawi represents the bad Baathists and the religious parties are corrupt reactionaries, but still Iraqis will find their way to democracy in an anarchistic way.’

At the very least, he hopes for a ‘decent opposition’. ‘Iraqis love a good fight – something both Alexander the Great and Imam Ali observed.’

A few weeks later that fight will take the form of a stand-off: Iyad Allawi’s narrow victory against Maliki is threatened by the latter’s jailing of winning candidates from Allawi’s secular Al Iraqiya bloc and the disqualification of others by the de-Baathification commission, overseen by the infamous Ahmed Chalabi (himself a winning candidate). Later, bombs will kill over 100 people in Baghdad.

And with Muqtada al-Sadr – who could be courted by either candidate to form a government – setting up fake ‘election tents’ where he has asked his followers to decide on who will be prime minister, anarchy seems to be the order of the day.

But whatever the election’s outcome, making a difference in the lives of Iraq’s growing army of orphans and widows, the displaced and the dispossessed, will test the mettle of any politician. While the US and Britain are keen to see ‘democracy’ take root in Iraq, so as to justify their illegal invasion and occupation, average Iraqis are concerned with basic survival.

As the country’s fate hangs in delicate, chaotic balance, it’s not surprising that Iraqis are nostalgic for various golden ages.

A few days before the elections, a campaigner on Mutanabe Street – the heart of old Baghdad and its current literary centre – shouts: ‘Bring back the glories of old Baghdad! Return this city to its former greatness!’

While parts of Mutanabe Street – named after one of Iraq’s most famous poets – have been brought back to their former glory, other parts feel rather Disneyfied. It’s easy to forget that just a few hundred metres away in the old parliament building, a young Saddam Hussein fled a failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Qassim by galloping off on horseback and seeking refuge at the US embassy in Cairo.

At the Shabandar Café, an intelligentsia hang-out since 1917, newly recovered from a 2007 car bomb, I meet a Kurdish adviser to the Deputy Minister of Culture. He’s also a photographer and part of a mixed Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish group that has been documenting old Baghdad for the past year.

He self-identifies as a Baghdadi and his sense of Kurdish identity is miles apart from the sectarianism of Erbil, or the Iraqi crucible of Kirkuk – where oil and ethnic politics duke it out in a struggle for control.

‘Baghdad has always been cosmopolitan,’ he explains. ‘This sectarianism is very recent.’

He shows me a map from 1834, compiled by an English cartographer. ‘At this time, Baghdad was mainly Kurdish and Jewish. The Arabs lived towards the outskirts of the city.’

I am encouraged by this multicultural vision of Baghdad and his faith that it will rise again. But when I ask if he can take me to parts of the old Baghdad he has been documenting, he tells me frankly that it’s too dangerous to go there.

I wander out into the dirty streets past the t-wall, careful to cover up my cameras and slip on my hijab. Kurdish/Arab poet and ardent Iraqi nationalist Maruf al-Rusafi looks on impassively as wildcats pick at the garbage in the streets that surround his statue, and the Shi’a religious banners hanging from adjacent balconies flutter gently in the wind.5

In the wake of the invasion in 2003 there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the 1950s and the monarchy. Now, however, King Faisal II’s cousin Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein is running on the National Iraqi Alliance ticket, essentially a conservative Shi’a group whose key players include the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

So now it’s the ghost of Abdul Karim Qassim, whose Communist-friendly regime overthrew the monarchy and was in turn overthrown by the 1963 CIA-backed Baathist coup, that is dredged up when people want to think of a ‘golden age’. ‘There were jobs then,’ a man in his late sixties tells me, ‘and security.’

That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for, but in Iraq today, both remain elusive.

The last several decades have been challenging for Iraqis, to say the least. Some have managed to survive by fleeing, some by joining militias, some by making deals with the devil. And some have survived by that very indomitable Iraqi spirit – that roh al iraqiya.

I am reminded of this when I meet my old friend Ali, whom I befriended when he was working at an Iraqi embassy abroad in the 1990s.

Ali is keen to take me to his family home for lunch, but my driver advises against it for security reasons. ‘My daughter still has your photo from last time,’ Ali says. ‘She will be disappointed.’ His suggestion of a popular restaurant is similarly nixed. Our last resort is the armed compound. Ali bristles as we go through all the security brouhaha: name tags, passes, walkie-talkies. ‘This is my country,’ he says.

And so, due to circumstances beyond our control, our reunion lunch becomes a tea and interview in two chairs outside the control room of Fox News, in an armed compound piled high with concertina wire.

Ali tells me his story in a voice so quiet, it’s almost a whisper. When he speaks Arabic it’s louder, but when he speaks English it comes across like secret code.

‘During the invasion,’ he tells me, slowly, deliberately, ‘I took my wife and children to the countryside to escape the bombing, but my mother was killed by an American rocket.’

It’s time to move forward. Myself, I have no more hope. But I still hope for my children’s future. Maybe Iraq will recover in 10 or 20 years

Ali’s brother lives in Sweden, but Ali couldn’t arrange for his entire family to emigrate, so he stayed in Baghdad and tried to make the best of it.

Then in 2006 he received a death threat from the Mahdi militia. His status as a former Baathist outweighed his status as a Shi’a and he was forced to flee to Syria. But again, he couldn’t get his family out, so he came back in 2007, staying with cousins in Kut until it was safe enough to come back home.

Now he works for a US medical NGO.

‘We have to work with the Americans,’ he tells me. ‘They have a responsibility to stay here and fix things. Besides, if they leave now the Iranians will take over.’ Ali is a staunch federalist and says he will vote for Allawi: ‘The Shi’a that took power were religious, but they didn’t know how to govern.’

‘And as for these terrorists,’ he continues, speaking of those behind the bombings of public markets and ministries, ‘there’s no political goal – the old regime is finished. They just kill innocent people.’

‘It’s time to move forward,’ he says philosophically. ‘Myself, I have no more hope. But I still hope for my children’s future. Maybe Iraq will recover in 10 or 20 years….’

I offer Ali some more tea, which he graciously accepts.

‘You see, everything is broken here. We have lost so much. Not just our country, but our dignity.’ We pause for a minute as a Fox News producer walks by with a smile and a wave.

Ali is feeling uncomfortable in the armed compound, and so am I. Night is falling, and he has to get back home. Not far from here is the impenetrable green zone, where the new US Embassy looms large.

‘I don’t know now whether I will see you again or not,’ he continues, ‘or what will happen to me on the way home. Everything now is in the moment.’

I insist that my driver take Ali at least part of the way home, but he politely refuses. ‘I’ll just go out now into the street – where I feel free – and catch a taxi.’

We make an appointment to go to an orphanage in Sadr City – one that was abandoned after the invasion and is now run by the orphans themselves. Later, I will have to cancel, once again, because of security concerns.

I walk Ali out into the garden, say goodbye and watch the heavy iron gate close behind him.

I recall the beautiful folk melody Che Mali Wali (‘I’m an orphaned child’) that was sung to me a few days earlier by the assistant conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra. He is from Sadr City himself, and tells me that one of his brothers was killed by a militia. But he’s still persevering with his composition – fusing Iraqi folk songs with Western symphonic form.

Che Mali Wali could well be the theme song for this nation, which often feels orphaned by the world. But like Ali, I’m not quite ready to give up hope.

I’m heartened to learn that the next day, as I make my way through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport, complete with thuggish guards and German shepherd dogs, the same day that bombs rip through Baquba6, the Iraqi National Orchestra performed a triumphant concert of Beethoven and Brahms. An excited young music student skypes me. ‘It was amazing,’ he says of the concert performed by women and men who happen to be Shi’a, Sunni, Christian and Muslim, Kurdish and Arab. ‘It made me feel proud to be Iraqi.’

Hadani Ditmars
  1. Iraqi daily Azzaman, 4 January 2010, quoted on http://dahrjamailiraq.com/the-new-%E2%80%98forgotten-war#more-1753
  2. For more on gay rights issues in Iraq see New Internationalist October 2009 http://www.newint.org/issues/2009/10/01/
  3. Newsweek: Rebirth of a Nation http://www.newsweek.com/id/234281/page/2
  4. Explosions ripped through several polling stations, killing 33.
  5. Maruf al-Rusafi railed against imperialism and the tyranny of the hijab in the 1940s.
  6. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8546744.stm

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