Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Some Good News

Generator Sound on Vimeo

In the spirit of reporting the good, the bad and the ugly, here's some good news.
Thankfully, we repaired our generator a while ago, and are sleeping well at night. It cost about $400 for a new piece, and another $400 for one month's supply of diesal to run the generator. Very pricey for the diesal, which normally should have
cost one sixth of that price, but we're happy all the same. Here's a clip of the sound of our generator outside of my aunt in law's backyard (where it sits). Just so that you get an idea of the beautiful noise that our neighbors wake up to in the morning and sleep to at night. Just adds noise pollution to the whole mess here, but at the moment, it's music to our ears.

On a more important note, after a few days of having the electricity go down to one hour on every ten hours, we have improvement!!! For the first time in a loooong time, the electricity came on yesterday for two hours, off for four hours, the whole day. And today, we are experiencing the same improved schedule (On hours: 8-10 am, 2-4 pm, 8-10 pm, 2-4 am). We won't count our chickens before they have hatched, since we have had such highs before that are quickly deflated, but in the meantime, we are enjoying it and being thankful. If this schedule does keep up, then, this new Minister of Electricity has scored a major point with the Iraqi public!

Blown Out

There was a car bomb in Adhamiya on Monday which left many innocents dead and wounded. Our uncle-in-law's office windows were all blown out. His son was there at the time, but thank God, nothing happened to his person.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Date Palms

One of my favorite things in Baghdad is the numerous date palms that dot the landscape. Almost anywhere you look, you see these majestic trees in the distance.
This weekend, while driving under a palm tree, I noticed that the dates are starting to come in. It's an awesome sight, subhanaAllah. Here are some pics.

For those who don't know: dates are used in alot of different ways here, from date vinegar for cooking/salads, to date syrup (dibis) as a breakfast item.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I decided to take a walk this morning with my ten-month old daughter to buy some groceries. With the lack of parks/gardens here, that's about the only source of outdoors entertainment I can provide my little one with. But that's another topic for another time.
Anyways, as we stepped out the door into the bright sun, I looked to my right to see if I should go to a store that way. But I changed my mind, and my route, and decided to walk the other way to a different store. There was a black pickup truck standing at the head of our road, with a National Guardsman in full uniform, holding his rifle across his chest. Not an everyday sight on our little road, and kind of freaky. I had my camera with me, but I couldn't risk taking a picture of the guardsmen. You don't know how crazily they'll react, and you fear that you'll stick out in their mind, and have them decide to pick a fight with you. Their uniforms seem to give them a license to do as they wish. I can't say that this is the case with all Iraqi security forces, but many of them do abuse their office, and thus manage to keep us in fear of them.

So I continued the other way, and stopped by to chat with my husband's aunt. She was telling me that her 20 year old son, B, was standing in line for gasoline this morning, and saw some cars pull up and shoot some poor guy in front of his house. His body was left out in the burning sun for a couple of hours before anyone picked him up. Horrible, but sadly becoming a daily recurrence here. May God have mercy on the poor man and his family.
My aunt-in-law asked me if I wanted her younger son to come with me on my trip, but I declined. 'Aren't you afraid?' she asked. 'La, I'll be okay.' I've learned to bury my fears here and to move on. If I dwell on each little fear, life will become even more difficult.

I moved on up the street with my little one, and took some quick pics of one of my favorite scenes in Baghdad- the palm trees that cover the landscape (top). I had to take the pictures very quickly and without really focusing before anyone drove or walked by. As I've mentioned before, it's not normal for a person to walk around taking pictures in Baghdad with their digital camera. You fear that you will look out of place-and be marked as a foreigner (kidnappings!), and you fear that you might be robbed.

As I continued walking, I saw some guys hanging out near a house. I walked very quickly and purposefully. People here don't take walks for pleasure, or exercise, or just to enjoy God's creation. So I have learned to walk quickly and without looking around when I see people in the street. It's tough, because many times I want to just stop and show my daughter a leaf on a tree, a bird/helicopter flying by or a cat running under a gate. But again, I have to be careful of appearing strange and foreign in this country where everyone is game for kidnappings and murder.

We got to the store, bought what we wanted (except for cheese; this store stores it outside the fridge) and headed back home. I took a picture (not very clear, I apologize for that) of some of the roadblocks which our neighbors have set up as a security measure. Throughout our neighborhood and many others in Baghdad, residents have taken certain measures against kidnappings and assassinations, by criminals and Iraqi security forces alike. Anyways, off of our street, they have used old water tanks, palm trees and cement blocks to block off half the road so that any possible criminals can't speed away after a crime, or speed into a neighborhood before one. So here's a picture of a road half blocked on my way home.

Right before I entered our house, I took another quick picture of a neighbor's gate, which is covered with barbed wire- a reminder of the prevalence of robberies and lootings here. This particular neighbor had their oven gas canisters stolen on two different occasions from their doorstep. Since then, they have covered their gate with barbed wire, and put a spiky metal piece on top of their gate door. They had to take security matters into their own hand, because no matter how many times these thieves come to our neighborhood, more than likely, no policeman has the time, dedication nor ability to catch them. And so, chaos reigns.

Here ended my daughter and I's quick excursion outside the house. Notably, we did not hear any guns firing or bombs exploding on our way. Alhamdulillah, we made it safely home.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Some Beautiful Pics

Here's a link to a friend's photoblog. She just posted a few pics of a trip she took to Baghdad and Northern Iraq back in October/November. The shots of Kurdistan, Iraq are quite beautiful. Its one of my favorite vacation trips; getting away from Baghdad for a few days to the North. Its truly like going to another world.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

One Minute Later...

This past Thursday, my husband's cousin/neighbor/close friend drove over to the barbershop he and my husband are regulars at, in the Jami'a district. He parked his car and crossed the street. Just before he entered the store, and as he was turning towards something, a roadside bomb hidden in the median went off. Apparently, it was targeting a National Guard envoy driving by.
The barber shop cousin 'A' was heading into had its windows blown out, and its ceiling caved in. Bystanders were injured, and one man was killed. In the process, cousin A's driver's side window was shattered. Thankfully, he wasn't in the car at the time. He got away with one cut on his arm, but one of his friend's had his face all swollen from the shards of glass which had entered it. And many others were more seriously injured.
SubhanaAllah, that's the way things happen here, and everywhere else for that matter. You go on with your daily life, realizing that something might happen at any moment, and hoping that you are one minute earlier or one minute later.

NOTE: The National Guard (haras watani) are constantly under attack here in Baghdad, along with the Iraqi police and the American forces. The problem is, they set up patrols/checkpoints in areas that are close to residences, and when they get attacked (pretty often in Jami'a), they start firing their guns like crazy, without any concern for where their ammo lands. Numerous home/car windows have been blown out in this way, and needless to say, people have been injured. As I've mentioned before, in Jami'a district, it's a neverending cycle, where the insurgency attacks the Iraqi forces, so they move in and set up checkpoints and shoot around like crazy, and the insurgency continues attacking them in these residential/business areas. People stop coming to these areas, businesses start closing down, residents start moving out, and one more neighborhood has been closed down.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Reality of Contagious Diseases-UPDATED

I was given a major reality check about two months ago when our close neighbor and relative became sick with coughing fits that no one was able to diagnose. For a whole month, he would get these crazy coughing fits which racked his whole body, left him blue in the face, and after which he would faint for a good 30 seconds, numerous times a day.
Doctors told him it was an allergic reaction to his blood pressure medicine, so he stopped taking it. Others told him that he wasn't taking a breath during the coughs and that led to his fainting, so he tried to take a breath. They told him to get his blood sugar levels checked (he's diabetic), but they were okay. It wasn't until his nine month old granddaughter (my baby's playmate) caught the cough that an auntie doctor diagnosed it- whooping cough, better known in the world of diseases with an immunization as: pertussis.
My husband's cousin/neighbor called us to warn us as soon as he found out what his daughter had. He told us that it was better for those who had been exposed to take an antibiotic. I freaked. We went online to read up more on this disease.
At the time, my daughter was getting over a cold, with a lingering cough. Our online research freaked me out more, because many of the early symptoms of whooping cough are the same as those of the common cold, notably a light cough which turns into these crazy coughing fits, where one can hardly take their breath- potentially fatal for young babies.

In the US, people have the luxury of debating whether or not to immunize their children (growing debate on ill effects of immunizations), but having given birth to my daughter in the States, and knowing I was heading to Baghdad, I realized that I would probably be safer immunizing her. Truthfully, the need to immunize her never really settled in until this incident woke me up.
Part of the reason I was so freaked out when I heard about our neighbors' illness is that I haven't kept my baby fullly up-to-date on her immunization schedule. She got two rounds of DTaP/DTP shots (diptheria-tetanus-pertussis), both outside of Iraq (one set in the States and the other on a famiy trip to Egypt). I have yet to give her the third set (planning on doing it this summer in the States, inshaAllah).
I have been very hesitant about getting her immunized here, for two main reasons. One, part of the debate in the States over immunizations is that the older forms (pre-1990's) had mercury in them- affecting baby's health, possibly linked to higher autism levels in children. In developing countries, these older versions of the shots are still being used. I do not want to give my daughter sub-level medicine.
The second reason for my hesitancy is the issue of electricity. Yes, the never-ending topic of electricity- but it does really affect so many aspects of life. Immunizations must stay at very specific, cold temperatures to preserve their efficacy. In Baghdad, I am highly doubtful that strict measures are held to preserve such temperatures; not out of neglect, but out of inability. Hospitals which administer these shots usually have large generators that they keep on when electricity goes off, but, doubtless, there are times when these generators must be turned off; for repair, rest, etc. In fact, I live close enough to a private hospital to hear their generator. Electricity is off now, and their generator is not running (though they do turn it on much of the time).
In the end, I am thankful and lucky that my baby did not catch this highly contagious disease. I never thought that I would come in such close contact with one of those 'old' diseases that you read/hear about, but think have almost been wiped out. I had always thought that if I kept Suma away from public gatherings here, she would be safe. I now know that that is not the case.
On a side note, my cousin-in-law was telling me that immunizations here are the responsibility of the UN, and should thus be newer versions and well maintained. I really have no idea, so if anyone out there has a clue, please share.

UPDATE: I just read the following blog entry about children who have died following 'polio vaccines' that are given door-to-door here in Iraq (as well as in many developing countries). How much of these deaths are the result of intentional poisoning or of vaccines which have 'gone bad', I do not know. I do know that an American friend of mine who moved to Egypt was warned by her pediatrician not to let her children get vaccinated this way. Doubtless, it helps in cases were children from poor families can't get to doctors. But here in Iraq, it has proven fatal.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

On the Liquidation of... Grocery Stores

Yesterday, my husband went to our favorite 'international' grocery store for some shopping, and discovered that it was shutting down. Al-Barary is one of the few nice, large, clean grocery stores that sells alot of imported foods; Peter Pan peanut butter, Chips Ahoy cookies, frozen broccoli (the only place we've found broccoli here), Kleenex toilet paper, etc.

But unfortunately for Al-Barary, it is located in the Jami'a district; a mainly Sunni, business district that has been plagued by a lot of violence in the past few years. The main street in the Jami'a district, Rabee Street, used to be a very busy shopping street, but today, it turns into a ghost town by 5-6 pm (sunset at 8 pm). Police have closed off all side streets with large cement barriers, and numerous checkpoints stop cars along the way. It has become a deathly cycle, where the insurgency violence has brought in the police/National Guard for these checkpoints, and where the checkpoints attract more violent attacks against the police/National Guard.

Driving along Rabee Street, you find numerous shops that have closed down, and numerous buildings with their windows blown out. Barbed wires and large cement barriers keep visitors away from Jami'a district residents. And fear of car-jackers, theives and insurgency violence keep shoppers away after hours.

For Al-Barary, the last straw was a roadside bomb that went off in front of their store. The owner has hopes of reopening in a couple of months; perhaps then the security situation will get better. At best, that is doubtful.

There's an interesting blog entry by on the situation of Jami'a district. My husband agrees that there seems to be an attempt to liquidate Sunni merchants/business owners in Baghdad, as is seen on a small scale with grocery store owners, and on a large scale with wealthy businessmen kidnappings and assasinations. (We personally know two very wealthy businessman who were kidnapped last year, and released on large ransoms (tens of thousands of dollars); and we know two different wealthy businessmen who have sent their families away to the safer, Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyya, after being threatened).

This is actually the second of our 'favorite' grocery stores to close down. Another small, neighborhood store closed down a few months ago when one of the young, Sunni owners was murdered.

On a different note, we've had about three different vegetable stand owners in our fairly Sunni neighborhood killed this past weekend, all of whom were Shiites. So it's either tit for tat, by some crazy, vengeful people taking their anger out on simple people, or it's a large-scale plan to up the sectarian divide in Baghdad. The only 'good' thing that comes out of this insanity and lack of respect for human life, is that no one I know, Sunni or Shi'i, condones this craziness.

Another Night

Sorry to inundate you with news of my sleepless nights, but last night was worse than the night before, though I didn't think that was possible. Our large neigborhood generator is down for another ten days at least. In the meantime, my husband went out yesterday and bought a smaller generator for the house (12 amperes).

Supposedly, we should have been able to turn on the air conditioner unit in our bedroom on it; but that didn't happen. So we attempted to sleep in a hot bedroom with a fan sending hot air our way. Not easy.

Anyways, here are some 'Iraqi electricity facts':

* Yesterday, these were the times we had 'governmental' electricity in our area:
8:30-9:30 am
2:30-3:30 pm
8:30-9:30 pm
2:30-3:30 am
This has been the schedule for a few days now. But we never know exactly when electricity will come; it depends on the Minister of Electricity's whims. :)

* Most households own a small generator (for lights/TV/fans) and pay to use about 5-10 amperes of electricity from a neighborhood generator (not enough for an air conditioning unit) .

* Diesal prices (for the large generators, of which ours just broke down) have just skyrocketed from 80,000 ID per barrel a couple of weeks ago, to 130,000 ID recently (1500 ID = 1 USD). This is up from normal prices which are 25,000-50,000 ID normally. Our neighborhood generator (four families use it) goes through a barrel every 5-7 days; and that's on an average use of the generator).

* Generators need regular maintenance, and for major breakdowns, that can be costly!

* An Iraqi dentist makes about 300,000 ID monthly. As my neighbor (dentist's wife) put it, "The Iraqi salary goes to buying food and covering generator costs."

* An average Iraqi woman can tell you how many amperes of electricity a fridge uses.

* Many Iraqi children can switch their electricity source from the governmental source to the generator source. Many can also turn on/off generators (my 9 year old neighbor).
* The following terms have become a regular part of Iraqi lingo: 'wataniyah- governmental electricity', ampere, muwallida- generator, khatt- neighbor's electricity (see explanation below).

* Some Iraqis have a 'khatt', ie they have hooked up to a neighbor's governmental electricity line (electricity comes at different times in different neighborhoods; some neighbors have different schedules). Not very legal, but I guess tough times call for tough solutions.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sleepless in Baghdad

If you're wondering why there's road rage (to put it lightly) here in Baghdad, you don't have to look too far. Summer is here with a vengeance, and with no electricity to offset the 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, no one is getting a good night's sleep.

We've been of the lucky few who have been able to keep our generators on at night, with our air conditioner blasting. But last night, right before I was about to fall asleep at midnight, it broke down. I regretted not having slept a little earlier- I would've gotten a couple of hours of sleep before the heat woke me up. As it has it, I probably got around three hours of sleep last night, with no more than a one hour stretch at a time.

The electricity situation this year is much worse than it was last year at the same time. We're getting between 2-4 hours of electricity a day, not enough to cool down the house, keep the fridge/freezer cold, or get too many household chores done. And for the average Iraqi whose generator doesn't give out much electricity, its tough. Last night was a definite test for our neighbors and us. Even our babies aren't able to escape this heat. My neighbor's ten month old daughter, who doesn't handle the heat too well, kept her parents up fanning her all night long. Thankfully, my daughter was asleep by the time the electricity went out, and with a lot of tossing and turning, kept herself semi-comfortable.

Okay, I want to post this before the electricity goes off in a couple of minutes. Thank God for the simple pleasures of life- electricity!!!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Seeking Refuge

My cousin in law, 'I', had her first baby on Friday, and as with all new mothers here, went home the same day (actually, two hours after delivery). Just as her new daughter was entering the world, her parents' neighbor was leaving it. He was killed on Saturday, as is happening to a good number of Shiites living in the Baghdad district of Amiriya.

After having a neighbor killed, an unknown man killed and disposed of in front of his house, and being himself kidnapped (last year) and released for a $50,000 ransom, I's father has finally left home. He has gone into 'hiding', leaving his house and family until they can find another house, in a safer neighborhood. I's father is a Shiite married to a Sunni woman (my husband's aunt). In the explosive atmosphere of today, sectarian violence has led to Sunni deaths by Shiite death squeads, and Shiite murders by Sunni gangs. I's family is directly affected by this, as her Shiite father has struggled to survive in mostly Sunni Amiriya for the past year or so. Let's hope things go well with them.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Green Zone: A Bit of American Privilege on Iraqi Soil

I worked for a short while in the International Green Zone about a year ago. The Green Zone is a large section in the middle of Baghdad that has been cordoned off from the rest of the city for the American and British embassies and for the Iraqi government. No one can get into it except through one of the many highly guarded checkpoint entries around the city. American soldiers, Iraqi high-level officials, and those with a Department of Defense badge can easily drive in, without waiting in a lane for two hours by showing their badge. Iraqi citizens, with their red (red=stop) badge have to wait in line for hours to be searched and IDed. The Green Zone is basically a bit of unreality in the middle of Baghdad (electricity on all day, clean, quiet streets, no sewage flowing around, etc-though it does get hit very often by mortars and RPGs).

When I first started going to the Green Zone, I'd have my husband drive me in, with his Iraqi badges and our American passports. We'd show off our American English, and the soldiers would usually wave us in, ahead of the rest of the cars, after asking us which state we were from.

That was until the 'rules' toughened up a bit. After a few weeks, the American passport wasn't always enough to get us in front of the other cars waiting in the lane (depended on the American soldier guard, and what set of rules he had recently received, I guess), so my husband would drop me off at the 'pedestrian' lane and I would flash my English language and American passport and get in.

My Iraqi co-workers used to tell me about how they had to leave home at least two hours before work, because that was usually how long they had to wait in line to get into the Green Zone for work, and that with their Green Zone badges. My fifteen minute trip in made me thankful.

A while later, I had to sumbit my application for a Green Zone badge. Apparently, there are different colored badges, with different clearance privileges; basically depending on what your job is. The average Iraqi citizen working in the Green Zone gets a red badge- his car must be searched, his person searched and he waits in the regular lane (not the priority lane), amongst other things. Anyway, I submitted my application, and when I went in to get photographed for my badge, I discovered I was issued an orange badge- higher than the red one. The only real difference is that the orange badge gets you into the 'priority lane' instead of the regular one, but it doesn't make too much of a difference, because the women's lane is usually short anyway. I didn't have a high position job, so the only reason I can find for the fact that I was issued an orange badge instead of a red one, without even asking or fighting for it, is my American passport.

I always discussed this matter with my husband, telling him how this whole issue was really a reverse prejudice that him and I were benefitting from. We knew that we were getting treated this way for the sole reason that we were Americans. But at the same time, the fact that I wasn't a 'traditional' American (with my hijab) kept me from getting a 'higher'-colored badge and from driving in through the military lane without any search or wait. It was nice not having to wait two hours to get into work, but it just makes matters worse for the average Iraqi who is being treated as a second class citizen in their own country, on their own land.

I don't know how much things have changed in the past year, but I do know that the Green Zone remains a bit of non-reality in the middle of Baghdad- a true symbol of an ongoing occupation.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

War and Thunder

So, it has become difficult to discern between explosions/gunfire and thunder. It took my husband and I a few loud rumbles to distinguish a thunderstorm we were having last night at midnight.

Reminds me of spending July 4th in the States, after having lived here, and unconsciously mistaking the fireworks for explosions and gunfire. It doesn't actually bother me, just a thought that occurs to me.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Eyewitness Account: More Amiriya Chaos

Its not my purpose or wish to show a completely bleak picture of what's happening here, and so sometimes I try to steer away from recording all the sad/violent news that we see here. But this eyewitness account by my husband's aunt just blew my mind away.

Aunt 'H' was visiting us on Friday, and in passing (!), was mentioning that they were looking to move out of Amiriya, especially after the last incident with the 'corpse.' At around 4 pm the day before, they heard some loud noise outside their house, so her husband went onto the rooftop to check out what was happening. A 'Daewoo' car had driven up in front of their house, forced a guy out of the car, shot him to death and drove off. His body was thrown out of the car, in front of my aunt in law's house.
They called the police to have someone remove the dead body. An entire day later, the body was finally removed. I really have nothing to say about this incident. It just blows my mind away how the rule of lawlessness and chaos has enveloped this land. And how cheap the blood of a human has become, and how insignificant his God given dignity and honor.

On a side note: This same aunt was telling us how she was driving home with her daughter a while ago, when they noticed that up ahead, on the same street, a car had blocked off the street and started shooting at another car. She immediately put her car in reverse, trying to find a side street to turn into. Her 15 year old daughter was completely freaked by the incident.

Also, we visited my husband's grandmother this Friday in Adhamiya; the first time we've been over since the latest round of violence they witnessed. I forgot to take my camera with me, but they showed me one of their windows that had a bullet hole through the middle of it. The bullet tore through the thick curtain and ricocheted off the bed post on which a granddaughter was sleeping. She woke up immediately when she felt her bed shake, fearing that a thief was in the house. It was then that she discovered the bullet.