Hail Mary, full of grace

Maria, a Christian woman in Baghdad, has faced post-invasion harassment and is desperate to leave the country.

Hadani Ditmars

At the same time as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has organized a mass rally for his State of Law coalition, where bands of men carrying Shi’a religious flags chant his name in a stadium, I go to mass at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Karradah, East Baghdad.

The last time I was here, in the wake of the invasion, there were more people at mass. But a few months later, extremist groups began fire-bombing churches. The priest tells me that he has since lost half his congregation to emigration. He is very concerned about the recent killings of Christians in Mosul.1 He grew up and attended seminary there. ‘I remember it well,’ he says. ‘There was no problem between Christians and Muslims then. We lived together in peace.’ But that was before post-invasion violence, mainly perpetrated by newly empowered extremist Muslim militias, drove out most of Iraq’s Christian community, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Babylon.

When I mention that Bush and Blair both consider themselves to be men of faith, he displays an Old Testament wrath. ‘They cannot dare to call themselves Christians,’ he scoffs.

A group of women approach me after mass and are eager to speak. But the priest is wary. He lets us sit together in a room across from his office. ‘You have only 15 minutes,’ he pronounces. No-one likes to stay long after mass these days.

Two sisters in their thirties and a woman in her sixties tell me their tales in a torrent of tears and broken English. They start talking before I’ve asked any questions.

One of the sisters says that just a year and a half ago, the supermarket where she worked was robbed by a Shi’a militia. ‘I was working at the checkout when these men came in with beards and guns. They came this close,’ she says, moving within inches of my face. She chokes back tears now, remembering. ‘But thank God they didn’t hurt us, because the police came by – there had been an explosion somewhere else in the neighbourhood – and the gang got scared and left.’

I realize this is the only positive story I’ve heard about Iraqi police.

The older woman, Maria (above), wears a headscarf. ‘You see this?’ she says. ‘I only wear it now because my neighbours harass me and say I will go to hell if I don’t.’

But Maria already seems to be in hell. ‘I am all alone here,’ she relates, beginning to cry. ‘I have no-one. My family have all left the country.’ Maria tells me that her husband deserted her and simply disappeared sometime in the mid-1990s. She fled to Syria in the midst of the sectarian violence of 2007 but could not maintain herself on the small stipend she received from the UN as a refugee. When her neighbours told her that her Baghdad apartment was being broken into by displaced people, she returned home to claim it, as well as her pension from the Government ministry where she had worked for 25 years. But now she is desperate to leave Iraq again. Her neighbours call her a ‘bad woman’ and she stays inside her apartment most days. The church is her only refuge.

‘Can you help me get out of here?’ she pleads. ‘Please, help me.’

The priest interrupts us, saying it is time to leave. But the women insist that we pose for a quick photo in the courtyard in front of the shrine to the Madonna, before the priest locks the heavy iron gate.

‘Shlama ilalkh Maryam mletha na,’ says Maria in Chaldean.2 Hail Mary, full of grace.

Maria still emails me regularly from Baghdad. She is still trying to get out.

  1. http://tinyurl.com/yb3lqsj
  2. The ancient tongue close to Aramaic.

The art of survival

Making a stand: a recent performance of a play at the Baghdad Fine Arts College. Photo: New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars.

The airport offers a taste of what is to come. A curious combination of vaguely Orwellian security (managed by a British company) and chaos (managed quite generously by Iraqis) greets me. Various fixers, drivers, boys with carts offer their wares.

An Indian engineer selling water purification systems and I share a taxi to the main airport checkpoint. There I am met by Showket, a young man who works for the Journalistic Freedom Observatory (JFO), and Ahmed, a 21-year-old English student who has been chosen as my translator.

Ahmed is about six foot four, a rather imposing figure in his freshly ironed shirt and tie, who entertains me with Beyoncé ballads as we drive along the airport road. Ahmed has had some experience working with foreign troops. But his English is a little odd. I will soon learn that all the good translators are gone, casualties of the brain drain and the ongoing violence against academics and professionals.

It takes me a while to realize that when he says ‘we will be towering the city’, he really means ‘touring’. In some ways I suppose we really are towering the city, in the black JFO SUV, the car that has become the new status symbol in Baghdad, where the traffic has become something fierce, and the city an ever-ready battleground.

At first we pass through an area where Saddam once built many palaces, now controlled by US and Iraqi forces. It was the scene of bloody battles during the invasion, its periphery an al-Qaeda stronghold. Now the thick concrete t-walls that protect its perimeter are decorated with murals of happy Iraqis working in factories and ploughing fields.

The next part of the road cuts through a strongly Sunni area that the Government only laid tenuous claim to for many years, making the drive in from the airport a life-and-death ride – one that drivers charged up to $3,000 to undertake.

Ahmed is from the new generation, and refuses to divulge whether he is Sunni or Shi’a, strictly on principle. ‘I am a human being,’ he responds nobly, and tells me of a couple he knows at college, a Shi’a girl and a Sunni boy, who ‘are in love and don’t care what their parents think’.

Perhaps the hopeful murals on the t-walls, the Beyoncé songs and the sight of the Tigris as we drive into town, lull me into a false sense of security. Within minutes I’ve been stopped by a policeman under suspicion of having filmed incorrect images. An unsmiling milita patrol had spotted my small video camera.

When I replay the benign touristic images of the Tigris for him he lets us go. But Showket and Ahmed are clearly unnerved. I only realize how lucky we were when I am detained by some less-than-friendly Iraqi police a few days later, for the crime of snapping a photo of a masgouf (grilled fish) seller in a market – one that was deemed too close to a checkpoint. Unfortunately, since Prime Minister Maliki began his ‘law and order’ campaign – apparently to crack down on out-of-control militias (while maintaining his own small army) – there are checkpoints every few hundred metres in Baghdad and journalists can only photograph barbecued fish on a stick at some personal risk.

In the bad old Baathist days, it was oddly easier to film and photograph street scenes and public life if you had the right minder. I remember a series of photos I’d taken in 1998, right after a three-day Clinton-instigated bombing campaign. A woman whose house had been bombed let me in to her ruined living room, and later made me some sweet strong chai. A man whose wife had gone into labour and delivered their son stillborn due to the stress of giving birth under bombing posed for a poignant photo with the death certificate in hand. And a crowd of mischievous schoolchildren – boys and girls – had posed with me in the street, all grins and hand waves and excitement.

The mood now is different. Pervasive, all-powerful ‘security’ concerns mean that meetings are brief, many areas are ‘no-go’, and foreign hacks are mainly forced to live in armed compounds, hermetically sealed off from Iraqis, especially since the hotel bombings in February. The t-wall has become the visual symbol of the new Iraq. It separates neighbours, walls off foreigners from the teeming masses, and makes moving around Baghdad a logistical nightmare.

*Blank canvas*

But in this former cradle of civilization, it has also become the latest canvas for Iraqi artists.

I ask if we can stop off at the Akad gallery in Abu Nawas, which is on the way to my armed compound. Showket and Ahmed, who came of age in the cultural vacuum of war and sanctions, have never been here. Happily, Hayder Hashim, who’s been the owner for years, is there to greet us.

Not surprisingly, given the way the surrounding roads have been shut down by the t-walls, barriers and checkpoints, the gallery is empty. Hayder tells me his is one of only three galleries left open in a city that once boasted dozens. But he is happy to show me around. On display is a series of inoffensive, folkloric scenes of Iraqi village life – popular with the mainly foreign clientele that had once been the gallery’s mainstay.

Hayder then takes me upstairs to a storage area, and shows me the work of Ahmed Nasaf – a powerful series of mytho-poetic riffs on the t-wall. Limbs and other body parts fly over t-walls stained with blood that fades into a red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes US flag. I feel heartened that Baghdad is still a place where you can find a fairly immediate cultural response to whatever awful political reality is at play. Another artist at the gallery – a native of Basra – wryly notes: ‘Iraqis will be ok. I know this because, after the invasion, in my home town, a mob of people rushed to pull down all the statues of Iraqi army officers [an infamous series commissioned by Saddam featuring officers pointing across the water to Iran] but they left the statue of Badr Shakir al Sayyab [one of the best known contemporary poets in Iraq] intact.’

After this pit-stop, we reach the armed compound I’ve reluctantly agreed to stay in; it’s a safe house for journos run by a rather raffish bunch of former SAS types. My favourite Iraqi hotels have recently been blown to smithereens and it would be unsafe for both me and my Iraqi friends if I accepted their kind offers of hospitality. I find myself sharing quarters with a group that ranges from Fox News to Finnish Public Broadcasting, all forced into common protective custody by circumstances beyond our control, all complicit in the crime of spinning stories. Before, there was the police state that we found ways to circumvent. Now there is a whole new fear factor: kidnappers, gangs, militias, Iraqi police and various other bogeymen; plus the worry that you might get trapped in a traffic jam and be a sitting duck for an IED (improvised explosive device).

Still, there are dozens of sparrows that sing through the barbed wire that surrounds the compound. There are roses in the garden that bloom blood red, intoxicatingly fragrant as if to provoke the mud and dust and t-walls and men with guns by their sheer beauty. And there are brave Iraqi wild cats that break into the compound at night to demand supper.

There is freedom here now. Freedom of expression and freedom to kill

I cannot afford the men with guns, the armoured vehicles, body armour and fixers who speak English with newly acquired US accents; the preserve of my almost exclusively male colleagues. In this land where laminated badges and acronyms like CNN convey credibility, no-one has heard of New Internationalist. This means I can slip under the radar and ‘pass’ – most of the time.

But it also means I am subject to some of the same harassment by Iraqi police enjoyed by Iraqi journalists. As I am reminded by the head of the JFO, hundreds of Iraqi journalists have been arrested, beaten, imprisoned and killed since I was last here.

Your money or your life: the Ministry of Finance was bombed in 2007 and again in 2009. Photo: New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars.

*Death threats*

‘There is freedom here now,’ smiles Haydar Daffar, a bad-boy Iraqi filmmaker, whose documentary Dreams of Sparrows recounts the chaos and tragedy of post-invasion Iraq. ‘Freedom of expression and freedom to kill.’ In his late thirties, Haydar is the kind of guy who likes to make provocative political statements, punctuated by recently acquired English cuss words, drags of his Camel cigarettes and melancholic glances. He is currently working on a script about a journalist who finds himself trapped in a morgue, but supports himself by making commercials for the likes of Iraqi mobile phone companies.

As we drive through Baghdad’s toxic traffic – it can now take two hours to cross town – he tells me his story. ‘I was threatened by a Sunni militia,’ explains the nominally Shi’a yet agnostic filmmaker, ‘via my wife, who is Sunni and works in a Government office.’ Shortly afterwards, he received a death threat from a Shi’a militia, apparently offended by reference in his film to Baghdad’s enthusiastic, if somewhat underground, drinking culture, and he had to flee. But that was back in the bad old days of sectarian militia terror, which – depending on whom you ask – lasted anywhere from 2004 until very recently, although most agree that 2006 and 2007 were the worst years and that Maliki’s security initiative/military crackdown has made things safer. Haydar has been back now for the better part of two years.

He drives me to an old Ottoman villa on the banks of the Tigris, recently converted to a theatre. Here a group of young actors and dancers rehearse for a new play about Mudaffer al-Nawab, the communist writer imprisoned after the 1963 Baathist coup, who now makes strident statements against both US occupation and the Iraqi Government from his home in Syria. The play fuses theatre, film and dance, juxtaposing images of recent bombings with ones of Nawab reciting poetry about ‘resisting the global forces of darkness’.

When I dance I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here

Iraq, like Cuba, always had strong state funding for the arts and, brutalist monuments commissioned by Saddam notwithstanding, the music and ballet school, where young people from all walks of life could train for free, is a happily enduring legacy of that old state support. Given the horror stories of artists threatened by militias, of music and dancing being banned even at weddings, this rehearsal is an encouraging sign that the indomitable Iraqi spirit I’d come to know and love is returning.

Today their choreography is a mix of Twyla Tharp, breakdancing and Iraqi chobi (folk dance). Their enthusiasm and the general air of liberation compel me to put down my notebook and, with their encouragement, jump right into their dance. Later they tell me their stories.

A 21-year-old from a poor Shi’a neighbourhood reveals that he was threatened by the Mahdi militia (an Iraqi paramilitary force created by the Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003) a few years ago for ‘having long hair’ and ‘being an actor’ but that now ‘the situation has improved’.

One of his colleagues, an 18-year-old named Ali, who does a mean moonwalk, tells me that his father was killed by Saddam for belonging to the Dawa Party (a hardline Shi’a party whose members, persecuted by the old regime, include Prime Minister Maliki). Ali says his two brothers are quite religious and disapprove of his theatre work, but his mother is ‘very proud’ of him and comes to all his performances. Ali would never give this up. ‘When I dance,’ he tells me, ‘I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here.’

Starring in the play as al-Nawab’s mother, Bushra Ismail is a veteran of the Iraqi theatre scene. ‘Under Saddam we suffered from censorship,’ she recounts, ‘but now it’s the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There is a whole new set of “red lines” we can’t cross.’

Still, everyone is excited about their opening night at the National Theatre, which began evening performances again (after a long period of security-minded daytime ones) at the end of 2008.

Theatre manager Nabeel Taher tells me that, although there is insufficient arts funding from the Government, he feels hopeful about the future of Iraqi culture. ‘We feel much freer than before,’ he says, despite the fact that the theatre was bombed twice in 2008, once on the opening night of anti-militia play Hey – give me back my house that criticized rampant property confiscation. He cites a recent political satire by Iraqi playwright and director Hayder Monather that lampooned then head of parliament Mahmoud al Mashhadani. ‘He sent the actors flowers and a congratulatory card,’ he explains, noting this would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Another precedent was set, he recounts, when a celebration of International Theatre Day in March 2008 took place at the same time as a huge anti-occupation demonstration led by Muqtada al-Sadr – right across the street from the National Theatre. ‘Some militiamen crossed over and threatened to hang us from a pole unless we stopped our celebration. But I tried to reason with them, saying: “Look– we are just artists, not politicians, and we are all Iraqis, after all.”’ The end result was a National Theatre-sponsored play in Sadr City about the life of Imam Hussein (the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a key figure in Shi’a Islam) with a mix of professionals and local amateurs – including a few militia members.

One of them, explains Taher, became so enamoured of the theatre that he actually left his militia to become a professional actor. ‘But you can’t interview him,’ he cautions, ‘because he doesn’t like to dwell on his past.’

Iraq in pieces

Gerry Judah’s Jewish-Baghdadi roots and his sense of despair and hope for Iraq inspired this piece about ‘the rupture of place, lives and architecture by violence’.

Photo by: Gerry Judah / www.gerryjudah.com

I am back in Baghdad after seven years away.

Since 2003, a million people have died in Iraq in the wake of post-invasion violence.1 Sectarian wars have torn the country apart, foreign troops have established huge military bases, and politicians who have sworn to crack down on militias have their own private armies. This once secular nation has been scarred by extremism, with terrible consequences for women, gay people and religious minorities. As Government ministries remain feeding troughs for cronyism and sectarian patronage, national reconciliation remains elusive.

With $53 billion in ‘aid’ seemingly evaporated into bloated projects that only served to line the pockets of foreign contractors and local officials, 70 per cent of Iraqis lack potable water, and unemployment hovers near 50 per cent, officially, and much more, unofficially.2,3 Today Iraq is ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. And while security has improved somewhat in the last few years, it has come at a huge cost. Sectarian cleansing has changed the character of individual neighbourhoods – divided by the now ubiquitous concrete barriers known as ‘t-walls’ – and the face of the nation. Over two million Iraqis are refugees, and almost three million internally displaced – roughly a fifth of the population. Many are simply too frightened to return, or too heartbroken by what they have survived to believe the posters that now, from every corner, promise security, electricity, jobs and even national unity.

I am here on the eve of elections. By the time you read this, there will have been horse-trading between the minority Government and other leading parties. Alliances will have been formed. Deals brokered between those professing secular, US-backed ‘unity’ and those with powerful Shi’a militias on their side (for those keeping score in the sectarian wars, the majority Shi’a have ‘won’ and many Sunnis have fled). Killers will negotiate with killers and almost certainly the violence will continue, whether in the form of mortar rounds fired from Baghdad suburb Sadr City into the heart of the ‘green zone’ (the walled-off international area, home to a US embassy the size of Vatican City), bombs in markets, or the pervasive sense of fear that descends in many neighbourhoods when night falls. Fear of the police knocking on your door or of local militias or young thugs. The line between officialdom and criminality remains blurry and faith in the army has trumped faith in the nation.

But how life will change for Iraq’s beleaguered citizens remains to be seen. Will the corruption that has plagued the country be stymied? Will divisions be healed and a cohesive sense of national identity regained? Will security and basic infrastructure be restored? And will heads of households, among them Iraq’s one million widows, be able to feed their families? Or will the promise of democracy remain a hollow one, as the gap between rich and poor widens, and basic services and social welfare programmes remain nostalgic memories of a now rose-coloured ancien regime?

These are difficult questions to answer. When I asked Ali Allawi, former minister in two post-invasion Governments and the author of The Occupation of Iraq, what might save the country he said this: ‘The Sunnis must abandon the illusion that the old Iraq was not a sectarian state. The Shi’as must abandon fetishizing their victimhood. And the Kurds must decide whether they are Iraqis or not. You can really only blame the Americans for the current situation up until about 2006. After that, the fault lies with the Iraqis.’

Later I will ask women in a Baghdad beauty parlour – among them Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Muslims – how Iraq can be saved, and they will say: ‘Khelas, we are sick of this lack of security. Before, we could walk in the streets alone and now we are imprisoned in our homes. We need another Saddam to get things under control.’

Multiplying divisions

These are questions to contemplate as I fly into Baghdad from Amman in neighbouring Jordan. Ones to perhaps pose to my seatmates. To my left is a handsome Iraqi man with a humble yet vaguely patrician air. To my right is a tall, blond, tattooed American, in civilian clothes but sporting combat boots. I make the usual assumptions about them, until I strike up a conversation.

‘When I was here before,’ I say to the American, ‘I never asked people whether they were Sunni or Shi’a.’ Indeed, it was considered somewhat bizarre and rather impolite in those days before the US empowered Shi’a death squads (dispatched by the Ministry of Interior) – most notoriously the Wolf Brigade – to pick off opponents, and also supported extremist Sunni militias.4,5 Often referred to euphemistically as a means of ‘counterbalance’, such policies paved the way for civil war, to say nothing of the post-invasion rewriting of the old secular constitution along sectarian lines. Iraq survived the fallout of the Cold War and the games played by Russia and the US only to fall into dangerous divide-and-conquer politics played out this time between the US and Iran. Extremist religious leaders, gaining strength from the chaos that followed the invasion and the power vacuum left by a toppled police state, found easy foot soldiers in a generation of disenfranchised young men who had come of age knowing only war, sanctions and Saddam.

It turns out that my American seatmate has embraced Islam, after a few years spent as an occupying soldier in Iraq. Now he works as a security liaison for the State Department. But he is anti-occupation.

‘It’s still a puppet regime here. Our presence is not helpful,’ he tells me, ‘but if we leave, things could get worse. We have a responsibility to rebuild this place… this place that we have helped destroy.’ I will hear many similar opinions from Iraqis over the next few weeks. Everyone is anxious about what will happen in the aftermath of elections. In 2005, when most Sunnis boycotted the elections, civil war broke out. Now with the withdrawal of half of the remaining 100,000 US troops slated for August, the stakes are even higher.

I turn to the Iraqi on my left, who has been observing my conversation with the American. He turns out to be the director general of the Date Palm Sector at the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. Before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war destroyed not only an entire generation of young men on both sides, but hundreds of farms as well, there were 30 million date palms in Iraq. It is practically a national symbol and Iraqi dates are among the most sought after in the world. But years of war, over a decade of sanctions that crippled the economy and stopped the importation of agricultural chemicals – not to mention an ongoing drought – have decimated the date palm population.

Now the Ministry has a plan to attract foreign investment by offering sweetheart deals to would-be date palm farmers. Planting new farms would in turn help stop the encroaching desertification (if peace ever comes to Iraq, it will be a thirsty one) that has plagued this once-fertile land.

The director general explains all this with some enthusiasm. The American is listening in now and it’s smiles all round as we drift into secret fantasies about the salvation of Iraq. But sadly, later in the week I must cancel a much-anticipated trip to one of the Ministry’s new date palm nurseries because it is simply too dangerous to travel there. Only a short distance from the farm, an entire family will be shot and beheaded by a gang of masked gunmen.

What has happened to this country?

Dog days of the embargo

I remember my first trip here in 1997. It was during the dog days of the UN embargo imposed to punish Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. I had a commission to write a story on the lamentable state of healthcare. A nation whose public health system had once been the envy of the Arab world had seen its infant mortality levels rise to sub- Saharan standards after the first few years of sanctions.

A man in Karradah rebuilds his home, damaged by Desert Fox bombing in December 1998.

Hadani Ditmars

Since the no-fly zone was still in place, my entry point was not the Saddam International airport, frozen in time like some aviatory Sleeping Beauty, kept alive by dedicated Iraqi Airways staff who practised their English and taught eager young flight attendants via in-flight simulation. It was the land border, an eerie, lunar desertscape, made creepier by the ‘I’m watching you’ larger-than-life portraits of Saddam. On the Jordanian side, huge images of King Hussein smiled down, as if you were being handed over from a kindly uncle to a slightly scary one.

After being interrogated by border police and accused of being a Kurdish separatist (all settled for a $10 baksheesh), I drove in a shared taxi through what became known as the ‘Sunni triangle’ – then just a series of hard-scrabble dirt-poor towns on the edge of Baghdad.

Indeed, the Americanized post-invasion ‘map’ of Iraq that seemed to want to separate the multicultural nation into three neat sections – the Kurdish north, the Sunni middle bit, and the Shi’a south – would seem as foreign to me as it did to most Iraqis. Besides the fact that members of Saddam’s inner circle and high-ranking officials of his notorious Baath Party were Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’as and Christians and intermarriage was commonplace, the struggle to survive the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam united most Iraqis in a kind of siege mentality that belied any nascent sectarianism.

Once in Baghdad, I spent several days in the company of a charming doctor in his sixties who had studied in California in his youth. At the private Catholic hospital where he worked – run by a tough nun who bartered with black marketeers for basic medicines – I sat in his office for hours, as patients from all over the country came in and out. Young and old, rich and poor, Kurds and Arabs, even Afifa Iskander – the former star of Baghdad’s old cabaret scene and mistress of Abdul Karim Qassim (the Iraqi leader who flirted with Russian Communists and was overthrown in the 1963 CI A-backed Baathist coup) – came in for a visit. She was in her eighties then and being treated for dysentery, in a neighbourhood that, less than a decade earlier, had been middle class.

But while the embargo destroyed what economy and middle class there remained after the eight-year war with Iran, it only served to entrench Saddam Hussein’s power. With the private sector in ruins, and a siege mentality at play, the state-issued ration card seriously dampened any remaining appetite for dissent. After all, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.

Return, after the invasion

After returning to Saddam-era Iraq several times, I made my first post-invasion trip in August 2003. Arriving at the old Saddam International that had resurfaced complete with makeshift gulag and Burger King, I had my passport stamped by a young Marine, not with the old Iraqi eagle, but with a nondescript Coalition Provisional Authority emblem.

Researching my book Dancing in the No-Fly Zone, I arrived just before the security situation would have prevented me from reporting the way I like to – from markets, churches, mosques and theatres, from people’s homes and neighbourhoods. Despite some close calls, I was able to enjoy a certain freedom of movement and mobility and managed to catch up with many of my old friends and contacts.

Before, we had one Saddam and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have dozens

My friend Ahlam, a widowed mother of two, had managed to open her own beauty salon, but had very few customers. She had pulled her 13-year-old daughter from school because the walk there and back was just too dangerous. Less than a year later, fundamentalist militias would begin firebombing beauty parlours and churches. My old friend Karim Wasfi, a talented young cellist, had taken a job at a US-backed NGO called the Iraqi Institute for Democracy. And the Jordanian woman I’d met on that first journey in a shared taxi would re-emerge at my strange new hotel as the mother of the internet café manager. Her son Marwan was a plump mama’s boy who after the shock of seeing his university labs looted in the wake of the invasion, had become a newly reborn Muslim. He politely objected to my swimming in the hotel pool, while his moon-faced mama told me that after recent abductions of women in her neighbourhood by armed gangs, she had learned how to use a gun.

When I left the country, I still followed its failing fortunes from afar, documenting its continuing brain drain, as professors, artists and doctors were killed by death squads, and as extremist militias offered fresh new terror. ‘Before, we had one Saddam,’ a playwright friend had told me, ‘and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have dozens.’

But I never thought I’d come back here. In fact, I nearly didn’t, concerned by the bombings over the past six months, and stymied by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s clamping down on journalists’ visas. It was easier to get one in the bad old days of Baathist apparatchiks. But at the eleventh hour, an Iraqi NGO called the Journalistic Freedom Observatory saved the day, and miraculously arranged for my visa.

Now, after landing, I wait with a group of Tamil workers and a couple of French oil executives to get my passport stamped, this time by Iraqis. Within minutes, I step out into the sunlight of a brave new Iraq, where dozens of potential Saddams stare down at me from election posters.

  1. http://www.brusselstribunal.org/Lancet111006.htm
  2. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18091.htm
  3. http://www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/AcademicsDossier4.pdf
  4. http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=31639
  5. http://www.newint.org/features/2009/10/01/blowback/

KPFA Radio Interview

Have a listen to my interview with Berkeley's KPFA Radio on my recent trip to Baghdad, to research the May issue of New Internationalist - all about Iraq, 7 years after the invasion.

Culture from chaos

We hear plenty about the horror of Iraq. There are bombs in market places, at hotels and official buildings. There are sectarian rifts, dozens of militias and politicians who claim to be fighting terror yet who have their own private armies. Fifty-three billion dollars has been spent on post-invasion aid, and yet 40 per cent of Iraqis are without drinking water. Iraq is currently ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

Freedom isn’t, perhaps, the first word that springs to mind when you think about Iraq. But it is the word used by Haydar Daffar, an Iraqi film-maker in his late 30s, whose 2005 documentary The Dreams of Sparrows recounts the chaos and tragedy of post-invasion Iraq through the eyes of its artists. He supports himself – like film-makers everywhere – by making commercials. ‘There is freedom here today,’ he smiles when I meet him on a late February afternoon at the Hewar Gallery, one of the beleaguered city's remaining few. ‘Freedom of expression and freedom to kill.’

I returned to Iraq after seven years away, a few days before last weekend’s election. The last time I was here, it was in the wake of the 2003 invasion; I was researching my book Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Now I'm here as a co-editor at New Internationalist planning our May issue on Iraq. As gangs of journalists in full body armour roam the streets of Baghdad looking for stories on the election, I’m on a different mission entirely: to find signs of cultural life in a place that was once called the City of Peace.

As Daffar and I drive through Baghdad’s toxic traffic in our beaten-up old car – it can now take two hours to cross town, if you don’t die of exhaust inhalation en route – he tells me his story. He was threatened by both Sunni and Shia militias and forced to flee. He’s not sure why, but suspects it’s because The Dreams of Sparrows contained references to Baghdad’s thriving underground drinking culture (one that he thoroughly enjoys, he lets slip). Admittedly, that was back in the bad old days of sectarian militia terror – days that, depending on who you ask, lasted anywhere from 2004 until very recently.

As we drive past a plethora of election posters depicting candidates promising peace, prosperity and even national unity, those ideas seem very far away. Pistols with silencers are big these days in Baghdad, as are mortar rounds lobbed at the green zone, car bombs and police violence. A whole family was recently beheaded here by an unknown hit squad, and a university professor gunned down in the street.

But at an old Ottoman villa on the banks of the Tigris – apparently once inhabited by Gertrude Bell, who was here with TE Lawrence in the 1920s and, amazing as it sounds, helped draw up the borders of present-day Iraq – I encounter a parallel world. The building has recently been converted into a theatre, and a group of young actors and dancers are rehearsing for a new play – a fusion of dance, drama and film – about Iraqi poet Mudaffer al-Nawab. Imprisoned after the 1963 CIA-backed Ba’athist coup, al Nawab, a communist writer, now makes strident statements against both US occupation and the Iraqi Government from his home in Syria. The play’s choreography carries echoes of the jazzy yet balletic style of diva Twyla Tharp, as well as breakdancing, and even the Iraqi folk circle dance called chobi.

Their enthusiasm is so infectious that I put down my notebook and join in. Afterwards, I get talking to the cast. A 21-year-old from a poor Shia neighbourhood says that he was threatened by Mahdi militia a few years ago for ‘having long hair’ and ‘being an actor’, but that now the situation has improved. One of his colleagues, an 18-year-old named Ali from the same neighbourhood, who does a mean moonwalk, tells me that his father was killed by Saddam Hussein for belonging to the Dawa party. He says his two brothers – both religious – disapprove of his theatre work, but his mother comes to all his performances.

Another actor, Bushra Ismail, is a veteran of the Iraqi theatre scene and recently won the award for best Arab actress in Cairo. ‘Under Saddam we suffered from censorship,’ she recounts, ‘but now it's the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There are a whole new set of red lines that we can’t cross.’ Still, everyone is excited about opening night.

In the nearby neighbourhood of Karradeh, the National Theatre (a once-grand, now slightly derelict building, built during the Iran–Iraq war) is closed for restoration when I visit. Now surrounded by colourful election posters, the theatre began evening performances again at the end of 2008 (safer daytime performances were the norm following the invasion).

The National’s information director Nabeel Taher, a serious-looking man in his 40s, tells me that although there is still insufficient arts funding from the Government, he feels hopeful about the future of Iraqi culture. ‘We feel much freer than before,’ he says, citing a recent political satire by Iraqi playwright–director Haider Monather that lampooned the then head of parliament Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. ‘[Al-Mashhadani] sent the actors flowers and a congratulatory card,’ he explains. Such a thing would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

The theatre, which under the Ba’ath party provided much-needed relief from the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam, met with hardships after the 2003 invasion. It was bombed twice in 2008; the first time during a production of an anti-militia play, and the second when the organization’s celebrations for International Theatre Day 2008 clashed with a huge anti-occupation demonstration lead by Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr just across the street.

‘Some militiamen crossed over and threatened to hang us from a pole unless we stopped our celebrations,’ says Taher. ‘But I tried to reason with them, saying: “Look, we are just artists, not politicians, and we are all Iraqis after all.”’ The result was a National Theatre-sponsored play about the life of the Shia Imam Hossein, produced on location in Sadr City with a mixture of professionals and local amateurs – including a few militiamen. One even left his militia to become an actor, Taher reveals, but won’t talk to us about it because he doesn’t want to dwell on his past.

Dwelling on the past is a big deal at the Iraqi National Museum in Karkh, an area of Baghdad that shares borders with an old quarter of the city turned tough inner-city neighbourhood. The museum was famously looted after the invasion – as US tanks stood by – although several of the artifacts stolen were allegedly part of an inside job. It officially re-opened last year after extensive repairs and renovations, with at least half of the objects yet to be found.

Making my way past security checkpoints flying Shia banners, I meet up with Muwafaq al-Taei, an architect and town planner who was both lionized and terrorized by the old regime. He was the designer of some of Saddam’s more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist. He walks with a limp after being shot by US forces a few years ago while working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the south. Now 68, he possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for his country’s heritage.

As it turns out, Taei is to be my guide around the museum – valiantly stepping in when the official curator refuses to do the job without a $500 fee. What follows is a fascinating two-hour lecture on Iraqi history, from the Babylonian queen Semiramis, who successfully dammed the Euphrates for both irrigation and defence purposes, through to caliphs who made deals with various sects and factions to stay in power. ‘You have to understand the past to make sense of the present,’ Taei says.

Sadly, the glories of Iraq’s civilization are displayed for a lonely few. Any hopes of a surge in cultural tourism have been quashed by the precarious security situation. There are far more people working at the museum – including a swarm of middle-age men smoking and chatting in the lobby – than there are visitors.

Later, Taei takes me to Sheikh Ma’rouf, a tough neighbourhood only 500 metres from the museum, to see the tomb of Zumurrud Khatun, a caliph’s wife. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style Abbasid architecture should be, by rights, a Unesco world heritage site. Instead, it lies derelict in a neighbourhood full of guns and garbage. When the keeper of the tomb makes threatening noises, Taei saves the day through sheer charm.

Iraqis always seem to find a way of rising to the occasion. The next day, as I made my way through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport (the same day that bombs ripped through Baquba), the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed a triumphant concert of Beethoven and Brahms at the Institute of Fine Arts in the Mansour neighbourhood, attended by several hundred people, mainly students and families. An excited young music student Skyped me. ‘It was amazing,’ he said. ‘It made me feel proud to be Iraqi.’

This article originally appeared in the Guardian:

Reproduced with permission.

Here’s to narcissists, neo-cons and a brave new decade!

‘Top Ten Scandals of the Decade!’ screamed a glossy magazine cover at my local shop. I was buying tea and biscuits, gingerly making my way into a new year, a new decade even. But I wasn’t quite ready for this.

‘Scandals’ of the past 10 years included Britney Spears shaving her head, various other celebrity escapades, and yes, the ubiquitous Tiger Woods saga.

Tiger Woods

But nowhere was to be found, say, the invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, or the disastrous NATO campaign that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans.

There were no photographs of Iraqi widows and orphans peering out from amongst the Hollywood swirl of heavily medicated stars, no outraged headlines like: ‘$53 billion spent on reconstruction in Iraq and 40 per cent of Iraqis lack clean drinking water!’

And conspicuously absent were mug shots of those nefarious neo-cons that had cheerled the invasion of Iraq, and then seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth when things went badly. I secretly longed for a tabloid recounting of their tale – something like ‘Perle and Wolfowitz found living in remote Arizona town, together with Elvis and aliens’. Of course, the next likely scenario would be an underground campaign by Perle and Wolfy to ‘liberate’ one of the aliens’ resource-rich home planets and assassinate their cruel dictator Zargon, a once earthling-friendly ally.

Paul Wolfowitz

But back here on the blue planet, things look less than promising for the next decade. Thankfully we can always turn to pop culture for inspiration.

Consider for a moment, if you can stand to, the Tiger Woods story. It’s really rather instructive.

Like so many cracks in the façade of the American dream sagas, this one has all the elements of a classic potboiler: sex, drugs, infidelity – and in an of–the-era twist – text messaging.

But look a little deeper – or say, have coffee with a young feminist psychiatrist (no, apparently not a contradiction in terms) friend and you will find the perfect 21st century illness lurking at the scandal’s seedy core: narcissism.

According to said psychiatrist friend, there are a lot of Tiger-like high performance narcissists out there (she’s actually convinced there are a rather high percentage in her own profession). I’m willing to concede there are some in mine as well – the classic example being the great John Cheever (who, unlike the vast majority of clinical narcissists who suffer from delusions of grandeur, really was a genius).

The thing about Cheever that intrigues me is that, like most narcissists, he suffered from an essential inability to reconcile his vision of himself – an elegant New England country squire with the perfect marriage and family – and his actual self – an alcholic who had illicit affairs with young sailors. Apparently he became enraged if anyone called him on the disparity between his real and imagined, idealized self.

In a similar vein, Tiger Woods and his entire ‘branding’ process were dependent on the image of him as a happy family man living in domestic bliss, a multi-racial success story – black father, Asian mother, married to a gorgeous blonde Scandinavian. So why was everyone so shocked when his American dream devolved into a nightmare of bimbos, lies and pharmaceuticals? 

Male narcissists, it seems, are also often misogynists, who compartmentalize women into variants of the ‘Madonna/whore’ complex. Women are either Monoandric – the stable, often sexless nurturing type who help perpetuate the narcissist’s ideal image of himself, or the Polyandric type – the young, pretty and often pretty vacant types they habitually seduce and abandon, in an effort to keep a continual narcissistic supply, the constant adoration they feed on.

If you read the work of Doctor Sam Vaknin,  an expert on narcissism (and author of Malignant Self Love), it’s hard not to draw political parallels with say, American foreign policy or, beyond that, the entire minority/majority world relationship.

Vaknin describes narcissists as cunning, immoral extortionists, control freaks intolerant of dissent who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, including lies, deceptions and tellingly, demonization of their victims. They never admit their mistakes, and the only thing they respond to are threats of sanctions or punishment for their immoral behaviour. Intriguingly he also says that narcissists are often ‘media-obsessed’.

He writes: 

To the narcissist, other humans are mere instruments, Sources of Narcissistic Supply. He sees no reason to consider their needs, wishes, wants, desires and fears. He derails their life with ease and ignorance. Deep inside he knows that he is wrong to do so because they might retaliate – hence, his persecutory delusions.

These are the victims of the narcissist’s deceiving emotional messages. The narcissist mimics real emotions artfully. He exudes the air of someone really capable of loving or of being hurt, of one passionate and soft, empathic and caring. Most people are misled into believing that he is even more humane than average.

They fall in love with the mirage, the fleeting image, with the fata morgana of a lush emotional oasis in the midst of their emotional desert. They succumb to the luring proposition that he is. They give in, give up, and give everything only to be discarded ruthlessly when judged by the narcissist to be no longer useful.

Riding high on the crest of the narcissist’s over-valuation only to crash into the abysmal depths of his devaluation, they lose control over their emotional life. The narcissist drains them, exhausts their resources, sucks the blood-life of Narcissistic Supply from their dwindling, depleted selves.

When confronted with better alternatives – which more efficiently cater to his needs – the narcissist annuls or violates his contracts without thinking twice.

Moreover, not all contracts were created equal in the narcissistic twilight zone. It is the narcissist who retains the power to decide which contracts are to be scrupulously observed and which offhandedly ignored. The narcissist determines which laws (social contracts) to obey and which to break.

Essentially, writes Vaknin, because of his inability to reconcile his ideal, imagined self and his actual one, the narcissist is emotionally shallow and unable to experience empathy for others. In his lack of self-awareness he projects his very shortcomings onto others.

Hmmm…let’s review again the scandals of the last (several) decade(s).

Help create the Taliban, then bomb the hell out of Afghanistan in a supposed effort to defeat them, kill thousands of Afghans and plead humanitarian intervention.

Boiling the kettle in a bomb hole

Arm and abet Saddam Hussein for years, entrench his rule while making average Iraqis suffer through 12 years of draconian sanctions, carry out an illegal invasion and disastrous occupation with a chillingly casual arrogance, exacerbate sectarianism by arming rival militias and then blame the Iraqis for their unfortunate fate.

I always say the only thing worse than being an enemy of America is being a former ally. Just ask Noriega, the Shah of Iran, Saddam or one of those mujahadin turned Taliban commanders. I wonder if any of them believed the presidential sighs and promises of devotion or if like Tiger Wood’s waitresses and aspiring reality TV stars, they tried to play a player and lost the bet.

But we in North America needn’t worry our pretty heads about such treacheries. We can avoid contemplating the million plus Iraqis dead since the 2003 invasion, or the thousands of Afghan casualties, or the Nobel Prize-winning President who favours massive aerial bombardment of villagers – or hey – even the Canadian Prime Minister who prorogues parliament, bleeds dirty oil from the tar sands, and bombs Afghanistan.

Iraq - bomb destruction

By wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of narcissistic complacency, hiding our head in the sand and avoiding discussion of anything deemed too ‘political’, we can easily contemplate a fun-filled decade of perfecting our bodies at the gym, while watching CNN and catching up on strangely cathartic celebrity scandals (note to sponsors: perhaps you can cleanse Tiger’s image by resurrecting him as an Afghan war hero).

Ah, the unbearable lightness of being.

Happy 2010!

When Hadani Ditmars isn’t busy being an NI co-editor, she enjoys working out, meeting narcissists and reading cheap tabloids.

Wherever you go you take your ancestors with you

The words of a wise Hawaiian kahuna – or elder – echoed in my mind as I walked through a torrential downpour brought on by a sudden pineapple express – a storm system from Maui. I was headed, with an industrial-strength umbrella, towards a gleaming office tower where I would soon be interviewed and fingerprinted for my UK work visa.

Fittingly, the tower was located right nextdoor to Christchurch Cathedral, where my great grandparents, Ruth and Arthur Jones, were married in 1908.

They met on the steamer from Liverpool and fell in love. Later, Arthur would return to England and never come back, abandoning his young family to the whims of the Depression, while Ruth ran a rooming house to feed her three children.

Meanwhile, my great-grandmother Martha Ann, born in the West Midlands to a coal mining union organizer and his wife, who left for a better life in North America, met my great-grandfather Bryant, himself the son of a Midlands miner, in a place called Coleville on Vancouver Island. The mining town is now known by its Indian name, Nanaimo.

There was a family story about an ancestress, a certain Lady Beauchamp, related to the Earl of Warwick, who had been disowned after she’d either 1) eloped with her coachman or 2) in a slightly racier version, taken up with a highwayman. Whichever it had been, the end result was that she and her family were reduced to living on the edge of the family estate in a thatched-roof hovel.

A few generations later, after lifetimes of dawn-to-dusk mining and misery, Canada beckoned like a lifesaving beacon, and soon their descendants bore children with the peoples of the Blackfoot and Similkameen nations, organized new world miners’ insurrections, and even went to Hawaii to recover from winter-rain-induced pneumonia.
And now here I was, plucky great-granddaughter, going to great lengths to return and live and work in the old country that everyone had been so glad to leave.

I thought about all these ancestors now, in the waiting room of Worldbridge Visa Services, where I would soon offer up my biometric data to a clerk, which would then be signed, sealed and delivered to the British High Commission in Ottawa on a street named after Lord Elgin.

I thought also of my Mussallem great-grandparents who had arrived here in 1908 from the Bekka Valley – Orthodox Christians fleeing the Turks. Since Canada was then part of the British Empire, my English ancestors needed no special permits to arrive in Coast Salish territory. But my Lebanese great-grandparents – who then lived in Greater Syria – had their passports stamped Asiatic when they arrived in the New World.

I also remembered my great-grandfather Ditmars, who had journeyed here from Nova Scotia, after his ancestors, who had arrived in Long Island from Denmark in 1630, were loyal to the crown and came north after the Revolution. His mother, Josephine Soulis, was a French Huguenot (whose family had fled Catholic persecution in Bordeaux), who had married his sea captain father, Jeremiah Vanderbilt Ditmars (in old photos I saw he had a white beard and smoked a pipe).

But those were a lot of ancestors already, and the waiting room was getting crowded. (Auspiciously, I’d received this appointment on Remembrance Day, after a walk on the beach and a prayer for my great-uncle Rex who died in the war, and after seeing an eagle land on top of a totem pole.)

Still, it was time to honour ancestors – or at least consider them – as I offered up my fingerprints, unique, as are everyone’s, to a peculiar confluence of destiny and DNA. (Fingerprints and visas, they beg the questions: Who are we, where did we come from, where are we going and who grants us permission to be there?)

The clerk was a middle-aged woman with long blonde hair named – I kid you not – Sunshine. At first she seemed rather aloof, almost suspicious, and I felt a bit nervous. I remembered the stories about Ellis Island from elderly Lebanese relatives who had fled the Turks, guns a blazing. Names mis-spelled, or simply changed. Bribes and hidden valuables. I thought about my ancestor Cornelius Bryant who had been banished to the colonies for allowing a work gang to queue jump where he worked at the old East India docks, and his subsequent sea journey round Cape Horn, where a third of the passengers died on route and he recorded descriptions of now-extinct flying fish in a journal. I thought about the last time I’d travelled to America and been put through a decompression chamber.

I thought about why I was going to England, four generations after my ancestors had left it. About how newspapers here were dying, and about how reportage on important global issues – especially anything about (God forbid!) the Middle East – was either non-existent or gutless, neutered and overwhelmed by lifestyle stories and celebrity news.
Of course there is a fine tabloid tradition in England – but even that has a sort of folksy, narrative quality (I remembered a recent tabloid story about a prolific council flat lad who had fathered children with seven different women – it was headlined Sunderland Shagger in Love – and presented him as quasi folk-hero). 

And perhaps that was what attracted me to England. Storytelling had not been overwhelmed by consumerism, or technology. It had a long tradition, and narrative journalism – and a keen interest in stories from around the world (rather than stories about how to cocoon a safe distance from that world) – were a part of that.

The clerk observed me coolly from behind her big desk. But when I told her about New Internationalist and the issue on bees, her face lit up and she began a long monologue. First it was about bees and colony collapse, then about her bee-friendly balcony garden that the neighbours complained about, then about a chestnut tree – planted in honour of two men who had died in World War One – she had saved from being chopped down.

Soon it was about her English ancestors who, as it turned out,were Welsh coalminers (and, who knows, with all my Jones ancestors, could well have been related). And then finally, after all that, she took my fingerprints.

At first they did not take. I wasn’t pressing hard enough, she said. Perhaps I was hesitant to have such an intimate bit of biometric data, really the story of me and all my ancestors, recorded for some clerk at the British High Commission. What happens to all the stories that led up to the fingerprint, I wondered, when all that data is compressed, stored, digitized? Will they still be honoured?

But finally, it took, and I pressed my fingers down firmly – perhaps with a certain confidence now that I was taking my ancestors home.

Escape from Vancouver: the call of the wild

Twenty-five per cent of global warming is caused, not by greenhouse gas emissions, but by the destruction of wilderness.

This sad statistic was brought home to me at a recent meeting with Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver.

So, it seems, no matter how we may try to remedy things by recycling and cycling and minimizing our footprint, as long as forests are being destroyed, as long as pristine areas are being ruined, we’re in trouble.

As a Western Canadian, the value of wilderness is something I’ve always taken for granted. As someone who grew up on Burnaby Mountain, on the Arthur Erickson designed-SFU campus, playing in forests and walking on beaches, the natural environment was part of my childhood, my culture, my very being.

Living in cities around the world and working in urban war zones has not seemed to change my elemental need for wilderness. And wherever I travel I try to seek out wild areas. From nature reserves in Italy to taking tea with Bedouin in the Iraqi desert, I often learn more about the culture of a place by exploring wilderness than by exploring cities.

Even in Vancouver, which prides itself on being a relatively ‘green’ city and one that is surrounded by natural beauty, the lure of the wild can be strong. Especially in rainy November, when the smell of snow on the mountains can be a powerful call to a higher elevation.

But a recent attempt to get up the mountain proved instructive. Being a car-less urbanite, I planned a Sunday cross-country skiing outing to Hollyburn Mountain, well in advance. Hollyburn is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. Back in the 1920s, before there were so many cars, roads and bridges in our Pacific town, my grandmother and her brothers used to take a ferry to the North Shore, hike up the mountain and then ski down it. Now there is a paved road to the mountain and the downhill area will be an Olympic venue. But it is still a relatively pristine area with ancient and second growth forests and abundant wildlife.

Last summer, when I went up the mountain to pick wild blueberries, my friends and I met a black bear on the way down. We were in a car, and he was on the side of the road, contentedly eating berries, and not really paying any attention to the humans 30 feet away from him. One friend from Buenos Aires was absolutely enthralled. As a fifth generation Vancouverite, this was in fact my first close encounter with a black bear. I knew they were there, grew up with stories about bears in suburban gardens, but somehow never really thought this was anything special. We humans sat on the roadside and stared at the bear for five silent minutes, and then drove off. It was a powerful encounter that stayed with me for some time. I later learned that British Columbia is globally unique in that it still provides habitat for all the large animals (like grizzlies, wolves, cougars and wolverines) that were present at the time of European colonization (and yet we’re one of the only places in Canada that lacks a stand-alone endangered species protection law). 

So, with memories of the bear and the vaguely narcotic alpine air, I lined up a friend with a car, put on my best woolly socks and got ready for the mountain experience I’d been pining for. Sadly, the friend cancelled at the last minute with the flu. I was able to get another friend on board on short notice, and off we went in her Mini, heading downtown, and then towards the Lions Gate Bridge which would take us to the North Shore. (It’s here that the Coast Mountains – the tallest and among the most glaciated range in North America – begin there sweep upwards to Alaska.)
Foiled again! Just as we arrived at the turn off to the bridge, we saw that it was closed. As it turned out, someone was trying to jump off it. 

Now I should explain that November in Vancouver is possibly the most challenging time in terms of mental health. It rains almost constantly in the unseated Coast Salish territory and it starts to get dark around 4pm. The very fact of our settler culture status is rimmed in sharp relief as the city becomes a dark, wet, angry place full of gridlock and impatient drivers, all trying to get out of the city – to someplace quieter, calmer and with better air. In the summers the antidote to urban stress is the beach walk. In the winter it’s the mountains.

Trapped in some dark comedy, (this was the kind of thing – a bridge-jumper foiling an idyllic trip to the mountains – that would happen to Larry David, if Curb Your Enthusiasm were set in Canada) we tried in vain to take an alternate route. But in our quest for a higher realm we ended up (along with hundreds of frustrated drivers) in a kind of endless Buddhist vehicular wheel of suffering and so decided to call it a day.

Despite enjoying the very urban pleasures of a jazz bar that evening, I was profoundly aware that I had missed something vital, life-affirming and hugely important to my sense of well-being. I tried to quell the urge for wilderness the next day, by delving into deadlines and paperwork, but when I awoke the following morning to gleaming sun-kissed, snow-capped peaks, calling to me from across the water, I could no longer resist.

I jumped into my dorky cross-country outfit (layers, woolly socks and hiking boots) and headed for the nearest public bus. Compared to the slick fashionista world of downhill skiing and places like Whistler (a resort that often feels like it’s had an upscale shopping mall and wild west bar scene plastered on to a mountain top), cross-country on Hollyburn – the domain of elderly Norwegians and fresh-faced school kids on rossignols – has an undeniable air of innocence. With its original log cabins and 1920s’ wooden ‘lodge’ (complete with wood-burning stove and a small gallery of paw prints of local animal residents – deer, beaver, coyote, lynx and bear) still in place, Hollyburn is all about communing with nature. Saved from logging and extensive development by its designation as a provincial park back in the 1970s, the area is still passionately defended by locals

As I caught two separate buses and raced towards the once-a-day ski-bus in West Vancouver that take you up the mountain for 10 bucks, I felt a mild sense of panic. It was a kinder, gentler, West Coast version of Escape from New York

I knew I just had to get up on that mountain or I would somehow spiritually expire.

Thankfully, I made it, with seconds to spare, and joined a ragtag group of sleepy young skiers. Most were off to the snowboarding area, and I was the only one dropped off at the cross-country trails. I was blissfully alone. I rented some equipment, and skied into the lodge area. I stopped in for some hot chocolate and sat for a while by the log fire, chatting with the young woman who ran the modest canteen and meeting the resident chipmunk – ‘Chippy’ – who regularly stole packages of peanuts and chocolate bars. With the city of half a million people far below, and no mobile phone reception, I had entered another realm. Far from any traffic snarls, or news from Afghanistan, I was floating in a suspended Canadian ideal.

I skied hard on the trails, encountering only a few other humans, but thousands of tall, snow-covered fir trees, and dozens of frozen alpine lakes. I returned happily exhausted to the lodge for some vegetarian chili and the warmth of the log fire. I chatted with a retired environmental studies professor and a teamster who was escaping his job at the Port of Vancouver, its heavy industry and crates of heroin from China way down at sea level. Here we were all high on the tonic like air, on the breath of fir trees and the peace of the mountain. All my urban worries were now reduced to a few simple human needs – fresh air, warmth, food, and companionship. I felt like I was imbibing the wilderness at a cellular level and a huge shift was taking place in my sense of perspective and priorities.

I returned to the city with a renewed sense of inner grace, as big and powerful as the mountain that had given me space to breathe. This is the gift of Canada, I thought, as the bus drifted into rush hour city gridlock, and I sat next to a young Mexican immigrant from Vera Cruz, still mildly in awe of the great Canadian outdoors. As a Canadian I can carry this sense of inner space, of distilled mountain, inside me wherever I go. Of course, this is also the gift of other places with vast swathes of forest, lake, desert, rainforest, of wilderness.

But when people ask me what it means to be Canadian, I like to cling to this feeling of breathing space that allows for peaceful co-existence. (It’s a feeling that’s expressed in the music of Bruce Cockburn and the architecture of Arthur Erickson). Especially at a time when our national image is shifting from peacekeeper to warrior and a distinct sense of claustrophobia is descending on our national psyche. In our Conservative Government’s new citizenship ‘guide’, ‘Canadian values’ like the military are espoused. There is nothing about wilderness, or the sense of freedom and openness it contains.

Meanwhile 10,000 square kilometres of wilderness forests are clear-cut every year in Canada, and 500 square kilometres of forests are lost forever. We forfeit these gifts at our peril.

People need wild places. Whether or not they think they do, they do. They need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and ice ages. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of whom love their lives as much as you do, and none of whom could possibly care less about your economic status or your running-day calendar. Wilderness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence future generations, we ought to choose carefully.

(Preface to Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place, North Point Press, 1998)

NI in the news

Check out this interview about NI on Canadian television, with veteran journalist Fanny Kiefer:

And here's a recent broadcast of my interview on Resonance FM's Middle East Panorama, hosted by Nadim Mahjoub, about the October issue, Islam in Power:

Sfiha and gingerbread vs. monoculture and extremism

Andalucia is a long way from Vancouver, I thought, as I prepared for our official West Coast Canadian launch of the October issue, which explores the cultural diversity, political complexities and social realities of majority Muslim countries.

Our fir-heavy rainforest by the Pacific town is about as far from the olive and almond trees of Granada as you can get. We have no Andalucian arabesques. We’re a city of shiny new green-glassed towers. Freighters just in from China sitting in the harbour dream of future greatness while the stories of the Peoples who have lived here for thousands of years are paved over by amnesiac sea walks, where the good citizens of Vancouver can jog themselves silly.

But despite our new world sense of dislocation, the cultural and religious pluralism so key to the Andalucian experience is alive and well here. An important point in my October issue keynote is that monoculture breeds extremism, and pluralism and mutual respect go hand in hand. I also call for a re-invigoration of the universalist interpetation of the umma or Muslim community – as extending to all of humanity.

These are concepts at ease in Canada’s third largest polyglot city, where mosques and Buddhist shrines, churches and Sikh temples peacefully co-exist, and where half our populace were not born here and do not speak English as a first language.

True, we have no Alhambra, but we do have stunning Arthur Erickson concrete masterpieces, buildings that evoke the mountains and sea that surround our city in a singular modernist vision. And we do have one good flamenco bar in town. But what we lack in passion, we make up for in diversity.

I thought about this as I prepared two dishes for guests who would soon be arriving at Sophia Books, the book shop/cultural emporium run by a French man from Africa on a street called West Hastings. 

One recipe was for sfiha – the Bekka Valley lamb and pinenut meat pie – I’d inherited from my Lebanese grandmother, whose parents had fled the Turks 100 years ago and settled in a North West Coast town called Prince Rupert, where they were adopted by a Haida chief. The other was my English granny’s recipe for gingerbread, one she’d inherited from her Welsh/Liverpudlian mother, who’d met her father on a steamer to Vancouver in 1908 and married him at the high Anglican Christ Church Cathedral.

Just getting the ingredients was a bit of an expedition. Finding the right amount of ground lamb at my local supermarket offered an interesting foray into culinary anthropology. At the meat counter, I was met by a First Nations lady who called to her Anglo colleague in the back, ‘Hey Rodney, where do we keep the ground lamb?’ to which he frowned, ‘we don’t carry that here’. To which she replied ‘Yes we do!’ Soon she led me to the frozen food section where she proudly handed me half a kilo of frozen New Zealand ground lamb – it was halal to boot. (Vancouver’s growing Muslim community – 55,000 plus – it seemed, had caused a sea change in the merchandise available at my local grocery store, hitherto a  halal free zone.)

I’d told her that I was preparing one of my Lebanese grandmother’s recipes for a special event and she smiled at me with a certain familiarity, even complicity.

The exchange made me think of my great-grandparents’ store in Prince Rupert, one of the only ones at the time that allowed First Nations people inside and did not harass them by having security guards monitor their every move. When I went up north several years ago to interview native elders who had known my great-grandparents, one lady smiled and said ‘Yes, the Mussallems. They had good meat!’

And now, a hundred years after they opened their store, I felt a kind of primal satisfaction in this simple yet powerful retail exchange, with a Haida woman who worked at my neighbourhood Safeway.

I carried the meat home happily, and thawed it overnight. The next morning I began to prepare everything – gingerbread makings in one corner of my kitchen, sfiha in the other. Amidst the various kinds of dough making, bread rising, baking, sautéing of lamb and pinenuts in olive oil, there emerged a kind of culinary harmony. Even some of the spices crossed over. There was cinnamon in both the sfiha and the gingerbread, and in my tiny kitchen, the allspice called for in the Lebanese recipe wafted into the aroma of cloves in the gingerbread and they embraced in mid air.
I baked all day, as the West Coast rain socked in the city, and emerged from my kitchen, some six hours later, slightly dazed, with dough on my fingers, smelling of lamb, olive oil and cinnamon.

I arrived at Sophia Books and was greeted by owner Marc Fournier, who was serving mint tea to his guests, and playing Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan’s latest musical offering – qawwali meets Jamaican reggae/dub.

Already assembled were First Nations film-maker Loretta Todd, Israeli/Quaker activist and author Maxine Kaufman Lacusta (whose book Refusing to be Enemies explores anti-occupation non-violent activism amongst Israelis and Palestinians) and Loring Bohach, a Ukrainian-Canadian member of the local Friends of the Library. There were a dozen other people – already a good crowd for a rainy night in a small Vancouver bookshop. (The intimacy of this event was a nice contrast to the successful event we put on last month in London’s Asia House, its grand Georgian interiors hosting a panel of contributors and a crowd of 200 – check this site for video soon.)

Marc introduced me and said: ‘In our own ways, we are all trying to re-create little Andalucias.’

After speaking about the history of New Internationalist in Canada (we’ve had offices here since the 1970s and used to receive funding from CIDA as part of their public participation programme), I spoke about the October issue, highlighting dispatches from Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider, gay Iraqi activist and practicing Muslim Ali Hili, and Jewish-Iranian American writer Roya Hakakian. I also spoke about the article by Ziauddin Sardar on how the whole concept of the ‘Islamic state’ – inspired by the Western idea of the nation state – is un-Islamic, as the faith is a universalist, not a nationalist or parochial, movement. And I spoke about author Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent piece on the continuing post-Cold War complicity between Western intelligence agencies and ‘Islamist terror’. (His article makes the ‘war on terror look like a make-work programme for the military.)

Then I invited Aziz Khaki, a long time interfaith activist and father of El Farouk Khaki (founder of the gay Muslim group Salaam) and Imam Fode Drome, a West African Sufi, to join me for a discussion. Aziz – the consummate story-teller – spoke of his experience inviting a German friend to pray with him in the mosque, and later entertained with tales from his native Zanzibar, where the rich cultural mix is epitomized in the tarab music that combines the local Omani, African and Indian traditions. ‘Islam is not a monolith,’ he commented. ‘My experience of Islam is rooted in my African culture and is different from the experience of a Pakistani or an Indonesian.’

Imam Drome, with his deep, mesmerizing baritone, spoke about the Sufi tradition in West Africa, and said that ‘Jesus is revered by Sufis – and Muslims in general’. Imam Drome runs the locally based Al-Zawiyah foundation, where meetings with Jews and Christians are regular events and the original role of women in Islam – as equals to men and community leaders – is being reinvigorated. 

Imam Drome also spoke of the diversity of the Muslim community and his shock when he travelled to Yemen with his wife, only to discover that there was no place for women to pray in the local mosque. ‘She had to wait in the car, while I went inside to pray,’ he said. ‘It made me feel uncomfortable.’ In early Islam, he related, men and women prayed in the same area. 

He also spoke of Andalucia as being a model of cultural and religious pluralism and said: ‘in some ways Vancouver really is a new Andalucia.’

Imam Fode explained that the concept of the umma originally referred to Jews, Muslims and Christians and in fact extends to all of humanity.

Indeed all the great faiths – in theory if not in practice – speak to the reality that we are all one human family. From the Prophet Mohammed’s statement after conquering Mecca ‘I trample under my feet all distinctions between man and man, all hatred between man and man’ to ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ to the First Nations’ ‘all my relations’.
I thought about this as we all finally broke bread – er… gingerbread – together, sharing stories and connections from all of our backgrounds.

There was a universal rush for the sfiha, and a general sense of satisfaction as we left Sophia Books with smiles on our lips, and food in our tummies. 

As we parted ways, Imam Drome invited everyone for an Eid feast, as it happened, on Halloween. ‘If you come in costume you might win a prize,’ joked Aziz. And then we were off into the warm, wet Vancouver night, momentarily a West Coast Andalucian idyll.


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