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The boy from Mutanabe Street

Boy in Iraq

I write this as Iraq’s fortunes hang in a delicate, dangerous balance.

While the UK has resolved its hung parliament in a matter of days, and without the threat of, say, rival militias backed by Iran and Saudi duking it out or bombs in public markets, the Iraqi saga goes on.

Some two months since Iyad Allawi’s nominally secular, Sunni-friendly Iraqyia party won a slim majority over Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, there is still no clear winner. With the exception of, perhaps, Iran, whose hefty funding of sectarian Shi’a parties will ensure a divided and weak Iraq, especially in the wake of the imminent US withdrawal (now delayed again by a month due to continuing instability).

And so the power struggle between Allawi – the former CIA asset, ‘butcher of Falluja’ turned rehabilitated good cop – and Maliki – the Dawa party (a hard line Shi’a movement with ties to Iran) head honcho who cracked down on militias (most notably those loyal to Moqtada al Sadr, hence the Sadrist snub of any coalition offer) while maintaining his own private army –  plays on.

It will likely end badly, with Iraq’s beleaguered Sunnis sidelined yet again, and the triumph of sectarian cronyism over national unity. But what will the political upheaval mean for Iraq’s growing numbers of displaced and dispossessed, for its army of widows and orphans? How will Iraq’s new leadership address the humanitarian disaster so often overlooked by Western media in the frenzy of violence and political horsetrading? 

While 53 billion dollars in ‘aid’ – mainly benefiting corrupt officials and foreign military contractors – has been spent since the invasion, almost half the population remains in abject poverty. Seventy per cent of Iraqis don’t have clean drinking water and an equal percentage are unemployed. Almost a fifth of the population live as refugees or are internally displaced, due to the wave of post-invasion sectarian cleansing. 

Until the basic needs of the population are addressed, there will be no peace, no matter who is at the helm of what many Iraqis still believe to be a puppet regime (although these days the puppet masters are just as likely to be Iranians as Americans).

As the May issue of New Internationalist – that took me back to Baghdad for the first time since 2003 – hits the stands, I remain haunted by the cover photo.

I took this a few days before Iraqi elections began in early March.

This young boy with adult eyes, a map of his homeland pinned close to his heart, and such a serious, troubled yet ultimately proud and defiant look, was photographed off historic Mutanabe Street, the centre of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual scene. He was attending the opening of a photography exhibit in a newly renovated Ottoman villa, where Communist candidates – including the daughter of the famous poet Muhammad al-Jawahiri (who quoted her father’s line Shout at the poor and the hungry, but only if you first insult their tormentors whose bellies are full) – were out campaigning. 

Some 50 metres away is the Shabandar Café, an intelligentsia hang-out since 1917, recently re-opened after a 2007 bombing that killed five of the owner’s sons. The tank in the background belongs to the Iraqi MOD. Normally filming any kind of military apparatus is strictly forbidden, but this slipped in unnoticed by authorities. (I was not so lucky when I was detained by Iraqi police a few days earlier, for having snapped a photo of mazgouf – grilled fish on a stick – deemed too close to a checkpoint).

He and I have become strange co-ambassadors for a country under siege. As I organize panels and launches and give interviews on the fate of Iraq, everyone asks me about this boy, whose name, scrawled on a notebook that didn’t make it through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport – escapes me. But his eyes speak volumes.
What does the future hold for him and his traumatized nation?

A big poster of the boy with the eyes and the heartland map, surveyed the scene two weeks ago at the Hellenic Centre in London, where New Internationalist held a panel discussion on the fate of his country. 

He looked on as I read from a piece in the magazine on my encounter with a troupe of young actors rehearsing for a play about communist poet Mudafer al-Nawab, an ardent Iraqi nationalist who spoke out against the tyranny of Saddam as well as the invasion and occupation. One of the actor/dancers – a 21 year old from Sadr City whose Dawa party member father had been executed before he was born – told me his brothers belonged to a Shi’a militia and he pursued a career in the performing arts at some personal risk. But he remained defiant, saying: ‘When I dance I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here.’

Ali Hili, founder of Iraqi LBGT spoke in a shaky voice of the ongoing gay pogrom that has accompanied Iraq’s post-invasion slide from a nominally secular to thuggishly theocratic state, where militia rule has seen violence against the LGBT community skyrocket. Ali, who is still seeking asylum in Britain after a death fatwa was issued against him by the Ayatollah Sistani (see our October issue Islam in Power), attended despite the threatening phone calls he’d received earlier that day.

Hassan Abdul Razzak read a moving piece he’d written on ‘the price of democracy’ – and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead who, unlike the victims of 9/11, will likely never have a memorial built for them. And Haifa Zangana presented a selection of Iraqi songs of resistance, some of which combined old folkloric melodies with strident political lyrics about the fight against occupation.

In London's Hellenic Centre, Haifa Zangana talks about Iraqi songs of resistance, as Hadani Ditmars, Hassan Abdulrazzak, and the boy from Mutanabe Street look on.

At the end of the panel I played some video footage of the cast of the Mudafar al Nawab play dancing together at an impromptu party, held in the same Baghdad Fine Arts College theatre where the performance took place. There was really nowhere else to go, as the college remains a tiny oasis of secular culture, while bombs and militia violence explode nearby.

Dancing with the young actors was an uplifting experience. To find so much joy and hope in the midst of despair was inspirational, and reminded me of the defiant dancing I’d encountered in late 1990s Iraq, when despite US and UK bombings, and the twin tyrannies of sanctions and Saddam, Iraqis shimmied and chobi-ed at weddings and parties. (See my book Dancing in the No-Fly Zone.)

For many years the music – and the dancing – died in Iraq, as fundamentalist militias forbade it, even at weddings. 

The fact that there is music and dancing again is a good sign – but things could slide backwards in the flick of a wrist or the shimmy of a shoulder.

Poster for Cowley Road event

Last week in Oxford, the boy from Mutanabe Street stared out at passersby on Cowley Road, from the window of Café Nour. In the intimate souk-like space, where our Egyptian host and long-time New Internationalist subscriber Ali Mohammed served up mouthwatering mezze, I told stories from Baghdad and showed images from my March journey.

An international crowd of Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Egyptian, Nigerian, French and Oxonian (and even a filmmaker friend from Birmingham!) listened to a piece I’d written called Sacred Ground. It’s about a Baghdad neighbourhood – home to Sufi shrines and tombs of old Testament prophets – now marked by the aftermath of sectarian turf wars, where the tomb of Zubaida – an Abbasid monument that should be a world heritage site – sits opposite a garbage dump and a shanty town for the displaced.

As everyone took in the beauty and the tragedy of Iraq, in Café Nour’s very Middle Eastern surroundings, I felt briefly transported back to Baghdad. But the pang in my heart for my friends in Iraq dissolved nicely into some end-of-the-evening dancing, as Ali put on some makam and a Nigerian New Internationalist subscriber – himself from the oil-addled delta – joined me for a few songs.

Dancing at Café Nour

Dancing in an Egyptian café in East Oxford, I remembered the Tigris, and those old nights in Baghdad, when whole families would sit together in Abu Nawas, smoking narguile and eating mazgouf. But soon it all dissolved again into the damp English night air. I rolled up all the posters, and the boy from Mutanabe Street and I went home.

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