Monday, June 26, 2006

Leaving Baghdad

We made it safely to the States. Here is some background information on what it's like travelling out of Baghdad.

I first travelled to Baghdad back in June 2001, during Saddam's reign, when I was visiting my husband's terminally ill grandfather. Back then, we had to fly in to Amman, Jordan and then rent a car to drive into Baghdad. Baghdad International Airport was closed because of international restrictions, and so no one could fly into the country. Whoever wanted to visit their family in Baghdad made the average 12 hour drive (including tme spent at the borders) from Amman. I made this car trip about three times, once during Saddam's time, and twice after that. During that first car trip, the time at the Iraqi border (Traibil) was quite scary for me. I remember having to be careful of the books that I brought with me, of the gold I wore, of the money we had on us. I remember having to pay off one of the border guys not to give me a required ($50) AIDS test; I was too worried that their needles would give me something. I felt the terror grip that Saddam had on his countrymen most during that border search.
My next two car trips were after the fall of Baghdad. During the first one (October 2003), we drove right through, without anything but our American passport. No luggage search or body search or visa. But we faced the first signs of Iraq's chaos during that trip when our driver told us of the very real danger he faced of car jackers around the Ramadi/Falluja area. During one stretch of a one-way highway, we saw some cars that had turned around and were driving 'wrong side' as the Iraqis say. The driver saw this and told us that this was a sign of a car jacking that had happened, so the cars turned around in fear of the same fate. Our driver turned our car around, but after a while, when the danger subsided, turned back around and we continued on our way.
The second time around(December 2003)at theIraqi border, our car was given a mirror search from the outside, and my husband had to show his father's Iraqi citizenship. It was still quite easy to get into the country, but the fear of car jackers was just as real. We had to stop our car outside of the Falluja/Ramadi area because we reached it after dark. We slept in the car that night, along with a bunch of other cars stopped for the same reason. Around sunrise, we continued on our way to Baghdad.

A few months later, airport traffic was opened for limited useage, and plane tickets went for about $600/one way from Baghdad to Amman on Royal Jordanian. To put that in perspective, you pay about $200 for a roundtrip flight from Cairo to Amman, about the same distance as Baghdad to Amman. So the prices are about six times the regular fare. Today, more flights are available out of BIA, but the prices continue to be high because of security issues (cheapest fare from Baghdad to Amman is $350/one way on Iraqi Airways. RJ is still around $600/one way). Flights are not yet available to Western countries, so to fly to the US, I had to take a flight to Amman, and then pay for another flight from Amman to the US for the following day. Security-wise and comfort-wise, its much better than the car ride across the border. (Flights open now to Cairo, Dubai, Damascus, Erbil, Istanbul, Tehran. Erbil Airport has flights to London and Frankfurt.)

Driving to the airport, you pass through about 4-5 different checkpoints. The first couple of checkpoints you just show your badge/ID card. For regular cars (non-military/non-VIP), there's a long line that you have to wait in to get to the search points. One is a dog search, another a mirror search and then a body search. Outside the airport, there's another dog search of each piece of luggage before you enter, followed by another body search. The same occurs inside the airport. So, taking into account the numerous searches and long car lines, an average Iraqi has to give himself a good four hours to make it to the airport before his short flight. An additional security measure is taken by all planes flying out of and into BIA: planes must spiral up into the air, instead of ascending at an angle, to avoid RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), etc. There's another really weird measure for non-Iraqis: the exit visa. To leave the country, I have to get an exit visa, and not from the airport. I don't know if any other country has this added bureaucratic measure. But all of that is a step forward, from a country which had its major international airport shut down for the 13 years of sanctions (the airport itself is quite nice/modern from the inside).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Patriotic Graffiti

Graffiti in Iskaan area of Baghdad

When I first saw this sign, I missed one word on it and thought it read, "From Falluja to Kufa, Leave this country" (min al falluja ilal kufa, hatha al balad '3ufa). So, I took a picture, thinking that here was a sign expressing ultimate pessimism and the great wish that many Iraqis have for leaving their country. When I uploaded the photo to my computer, I noticed the word, 'man 3ufa', ie. 'we won't leave/let go of.' So the sign actually reads, "God is Great. From Falluja to Kufa, we won't let go of this country (won't give up on this country." So its actually an expression of the patriotism and optimism of the artist.

On the subject of travel, my husband was looking at plane tickets from Baghdad International Airport to Amman about a month ago. The ticket office told him that all flights out of Baghdad, to Amman, Cairo and Damascus were booked for at least a month ahead. Iraqis are leaving their country in droves, some just for a short break from the difficult life here, and many others for good, or until the situation gets better here. People threatened by death, kidnappings, arrests, and all of the above are seeking security and a better life in other countries. May God be with them all and allow them to return to their homeland secure and happy in the near future.

On that note, I will be travelling tomorrow to spend the summer with my family in the States. I will continue posting some of my thoughts, experiences and some older journal entries of mine from before I started blogging. God willing, travelling alone with my ten month old won't get the best of me. Peace and Salaam.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Bird Flu Impact in Baghdad

Abandoned chicken coop in my grandmother in law's garden.

I was grocery shopping the other day in a new supermarket, and I saw a sign that read, "Sterilized Tray of Eggs" (tabaqit bayd mu'aqqam). It kind of amused me and reminded me of one of the many effects that the bird flu has had on Baghdad, especially since a death was blamed on it in the north of Iraq back in mid January of this year.

Some of the effects of the bird flu in Baghdad:

* Many families raised chicken in their home gardens, even in urban Baghdad. Since the scare, most people have gotten rid of these chicken, including my husband's grandparents, my cleaning lady and most importantly, our neighbors. (Their chicken (coop right behind our house) woke me up at the most random hours of the night.) :)

* Egg and chicken prices have hit the highest and lowest prices in ages. Before the bird flu scare, a tray of eggs (36 eggs) cost around 3,000 ID (1500 ID = $1 USD). During the highest point of the scare, when people stopped buying eggs, the price plummetted to 750 ID. Since then, as demand has increased and egg availability lessened, prices have slowly climbed to 4000 ID. Today, my aunt in law told me that her husband bought a tray yesterday for 5000 ID. From 3000 ID to 5000 ID in less than a year!

* The same has happened with chicken meat prices, which were relatively affordable pre-bird flu at around 1500-2000 ID per kilogram. The price plummetted during the scare to 750 ID/kg and has since reached 4000 ID per kilo of Iraqi chicken meat and 5000 ID per kilo of imported chicken meat.

* When people stopped buying eggs because of the scare, stores tried to find innovative ways to sell them. They started cleaning or 'sterilizing' (ta'qeem) the outside of the eggs. Usually, eggs here are sold very fresh, with all the marks of the chicken on them (stuck feathers, chicken poop, etc). So, generally, this is a good step. But my aunt in law was telling me a while back that one tray of eggs they bought all tasted like bleach when cooked. So some people are 'sterilizing' the eggs with bleach, but others have started using vinegar.

* I was informed today that the Iraqi government is not allowing the import of chicken or eggs anymore, likely as a preventative measure. I think that's comforting, but I don't know how many measures are being taken to ensure that poultry here are healthy and 'flu-less.'

* Hoping that the virus does not mutate and start spreading from human to human, because the Iraqi government at the current time would not be able to handle such a crisis.

Some links on the subject: here, here, here and for a good round up here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Blossoming Fruit Trees

Pomegranate tree

Miniature pears- I'm not a big pear fan, but these were super-tasty!

Beautiful grapes- black when they're ripe.

See "Grandfather's Garden."

A little something for your enjoyment. These are pictures of beautiful fruit trees from my husband's grandparents' garden in Adhamiya.

Did you know that during the embargo years, bananas and peaches were quite rare and very expensive in Iraq? When I first moved here, I was surprised at how many Iraqis loved bananas. They would serve them in dinner parties and engagement parties, almost as a delicacy. That's because for thirteen long years, most Iraqis were forbidden this basic fruit. I've known about bananas for quite a while now, but yesterday, while enjoying a juicy peach at our aunt's house, she told me that peaches were also quite rare during those years.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Proof of Life- Part Two

The second major kidnapping in our family occured a few months ago, on February 11th, 2006. This time, cousin in law 'M' was taken. Cousin M is married to cousin 'S,' a good friend of mine and my husband's first cousin. We see them all the time when she comes to visit her mother (my neighbor and our closest aunt). On Friday, February 10th, we visited S to congratulate her on the birth of her one week old baby boy. On February 11th, her husband was kidnapped. We were shocked.

M's kidnapping was a bit different than Uncle S's. Whereas Uncle S was kidnapped from the street by an organized criminal gang (possibly old Baathists), M and another store employee were 'arrested' from the store he manages by men in Iraqi police uniform.
M's store is owned by his well-to-do cousins, one of whom was kidnapped from the same location almost exactly a year earlier (though not by 'police'). In fact, M was with them at the time of this earlier kidnapping, and guns were pointed to his head, but he was let go when they found out that he was not an owner (ie. not rich). It came as a surprise when the store was targetted again, and that this time, M, the manager, was taken. I remember thinking that the store owners should have learned a lesson and kept their employees armed, but in reality, what are you supposed to do when a policeman arrests you or takes you in for 'questioning'? How do you know the real from the fake, the corrupt from the upright?

Cousin 'A,' M's brother in law did most of the negotiations with these kidnappers as he had with Uncle S. I remember seeing the great stress A was under, telling the kidnappers that there was no way possible for his family to pay $200,000 to ransom M. He got to speak with M a couple of times, as a proof of life, but he didn't tell his sister, S, that her strong, believing husband was crying each time, begging them to come up with the money in any way possible.

I remember seeing S, who had just given birth to her fourth child, who was going through her hormonal ups and downs, and postpartum blues, cry her heart out for the four days her husband was gone; four days in which she did not know if she would ever see him again. I watched her looking at her newborn son, wondering if he would grow up an orphan, if he would only know his father through the stories of others. I remember seeing her completely lose it on the third day, when she walked in on her brother talking to the kidnappers. They had given him M to speak to, and A was telling him, "Stay patient, Abu ___, you are a believer." S came back to the living room where we were sitting and crumpled to the floor. "I know they're beating him," she wailed. Her mom, forced to be the strong one for her daughter and grandchildren said, "Let them beat him, as long as he comes back to you alive and in one piece."

I remember seeing his two young daughters, ages 5 and 7, playing innocently with their 9 year old uncle, as if they trusted that their father would eventually come home. It was only in the dark of night, or when it fully dawned on them, that they would shed their tears. I remember seeing the nine year old uncle coming out of his room, rubbing his averted eyes. "He's really upset about M," his mother told me.

And I remember the happiness we all felt when news of M's release came out. The kidnappers had finally agreed to a ransom of $30,000. Thankfully for M, the store owners would pay this ransom; "anything under $50,000" they had told 'A', doing the negotiations.

I remember watching M walk through the door of his mother in law's house, soon after he was released. He was bruised, scratched, and dirty; his usually bright smile which he shared all the time had become timid, embarrassed. After four days of heart-wrenching, living on the edge of your seat negotiations, not knowing if your insistance on lowering the ransom would be the killer of your loved one, he was finally released. M came home safely, thank God, but in great pain afer having been tightly blindfolded the entire time, with his hands tied behind his back. Just imagine trying to sleep, eat, drink, sit, use the bathroom like that, for four long days and nights. But he did come home in one piece, and that is the most important thing.

Nineteen days later, his friend who had been kidnapped at the same time was found in the city morgue. His family had never even had the chance to dream of paying a ransom for him. He left behind three young children and a young wife who had no family to go back to. And he left behind a shocked friend who imagined what it would have been like had the outcomes been switched.

NOTE: There's a good article in the NYT, published on May 10th, 2006 that discusses part of this new kidnapping style amongst other things ("Alarmed by Raids, Neighbors Stand Guard in Iraq"). NYT has it in paid archives now, so I had to link with another page.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Disappearing Act

The satellite channel Baghdad, IIP's TV channel is reporting that one of its own has disappeared inside of the Ministry of Health.
The Director General of the Diyala Health Directorate, a member of the Sunni Tawafuq bloc, was invited for an interview with the Minister of Health, as a possible Deputy Minister candidate. En route, before he reached the Minister, Dr. Ali al Mahdawi disappeared along with his Chief of Staff. Inside the Ministry. They have been missing for two days now.
The Ministry of Health is known as a 'Sadrist' ministry, with the minister and many of the employees followers of Muqtada al Sadr.

Only in Iraq.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Proof of Life- Part One

I watched the movie, Proof of Life (Meg Ryan, Russel Crowe), the other night for the second time. I remember the first time I saw it was right after the kidnapping of my uncle in law back in March 2005, and it really hit home. It goes into the rebel kidnapping of an American in a South American country, and the subsequent negotiations for his life and release. It embodied alot of the emotions that we had just felt and many of the incidents we had just lived through. The fear that the family left behind lives, the not knowing if your loved one will live or die, the 24 hour a day wait for the phone to ring, the huge ransom that you have to find a way of coming up with, the humbling of oneself to ask for a loan to pay off the ransom, and the inability to report the crime to authorities for fear that they are mixed up in it. The movie shows all of those feelings that many Iraqi families live through daily. In my husband's immediate extended family, we've had two such kidnappings this past year.

The first kidnapping occured back in March 2005, when my husband's uncle in law went missing on his and his wife's way back from their medical clinic. He left Aunt H halfway home and contined walking to a nearby butcher shop. When he didn't make it home a few hours later, Aunt H knew something was seriously wrong. She had neighbors ask around, and heard that a man had been seized near their neighborhood stores. His glasses had fallen to the ground, and were brought to her.
Two long days later, she received her first phone call from the kidnappers. And twelve days later, Uncle S was finally released for $50,000 USD.

That's the short version of it. The long version includes the great turmoil and suffering that the family went through, on a minute by minute basis, for 12 long days, waiting for news from the kidnappers; delicate, nerve-wracking negotiations that my husband, his cousin and aunt carried out with the hardened criminals, and short-term and long-term physical/emotional effects suffered by our uncle in law after his release.
Just as the movie portrays, we lived and we watched Uncle S's four daugthers (ages 10-24 years) and wife live on the edge of their seats for two weeks. We watched his daughters and adult brothers lose their cool and demand that Cousin A (doing most of the negotiations) agree to the high ransom costs or 'their brother's blood would be on her (his wife's) hands.' We watched strong, patient Aunt H break down and lose it. We watched her finally agreeing to a ransom price way above her head, $50,000 USD, while she makes less than $400 monthly.
We watched the celebrations when Uncle S finally made it home safely, and we watched him slump into post-traumatic stress for a while after his ordeal. But he made it home alive and in one piece, Alhamdlulillah (Praise be to God).

Here's an excerpt from my journal written back on March 25, 2005 before I started to blog:
A took the phone and spoke with the man, insisting that they couldn’t go above twenty thousand, but that he had just gotten $1300 from his aunt in Mosul and would raise another $1000. He told the guy, “After all that you have put us through, do you also want me to go out onto the streets and beg for money?” He’s really a good speaker/negotiator. Anyway, apparently the man told him that he had other ways of pressuring them and shut the phone in his face.
The whole time I was sitting there listening to the conversation, I felt just a sliver of what Khala (Aunt) H and her family are going through every day. It was so nerve-wracking just sitting there. I felt the huge risk that they are taking, will these kidnappers accept the negotiations, or will they hurt Ammu S? If its this scary for me, how must Auntie and her daughters be feeling??? Allah Kareem, wa Huwa fawq kull ‘ibadih.
I had a long talk with E, Khala H's oldest daughter. She was telling me how she can’t do anything, she can’t study for her USMLE’s, can’t go to work, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate on anything. Everyday, morning to night, they wait for these phone calls, and race to the phone every time the phone rings. SubhanaAllah. I can just imagine.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Zarqawi's Death

I just read some breaking news that Iraqi Prime Minister alMaliki has announced the killing of Zarqawi Wednesday night.

How do I feel about that? Or more importantly, how does my Iraqi family feel about this?
Iraqis have been suffering for decades now, going from war to war to war to sanctions to war (Iraq-Iran War, Kuwaiti invasion, Gulf War '91, sanctions, invasion). They are tired. They want to move on. They are not happy that their country has been invaded, and much less so that the situation has only deteriorated after this invasion in terms of security and peace.

Zarqawi and his operatives added to this mess. Perhaps they meant to fight the occupation, but their fight did not discriminate between Iraqi and non-Iraqi, occupier and occupied. Their roadside bombs, car bombs, mortars, etc killed more Iraqis than they did Americans. Their kidnappings and public beheadings hurt the image of Islam in the West.

I can safely say that most Iraqis are happy, even ecstatic, with this news, but skeptical. Zarqawi was not a lone worker. He had a following, and they can continue their work without him. Iraqis will remain wary in their daily life, and aware that anything can happen. In fact, I would not be surprised if his followers decided to prove a point tomorrow and in the coming days, with some major bombings.

I remember one of the times that had me really angry at these people. During the first Iraqi elections, January 2005, many Iraqis were ready to vote for the first time in their lives for the party they really wanted. But for Sunnis especially, this process became dangerous, as they were warned that they would be targeted and killed if they joined in this process. I remember the morning of the elections, seeing the fear in my neighbors' eyes, as they sized up the situation before risking their lives and walking to the polling centers. I remember them coming home, all happy that they were still alive. I remember them washing their ink-marked fingers with bleach to remove the sign that they had voted. And I remember that many others of my neighbors, especially the women, stayed home from the polling centers, because there was no need to risk death for it. That was one of the many times I was angry at him and his forces.

I remember when the Iraqi Islamic Party decided to join the new Iraqi government, decided that their resistance to the occupation would be a political one, instead of an armed one. I remember Zarqawi coming on television warning Sunnis not to follow this 'misguided party.' I remember that the next day the sister of this party's president was killed in broad daylight (Maisoon Al Hashimi, April 27th, rahimahaAllah).

I do not wish death or punishment on anyone, not even those who hurt me. I only wish them guidance. I think Zarqawi thought he meant well, but he did it in all the wrong ways. May God show us what is right and allow us to follow it.

UPDATE- Some other thoughts:
* Just watched part of the press conference that Maliki held to make the announcement. Evidence of Iraqi happiness: Iraqi reporters starting cheering, ululating and chanting, 'Allahumma salli ala Muhammad wa ali Muhammad.'

* Arabiya channel reported that Iraqis are celebrating with gunfire (unfortunately, normal form of celebration here). Haven't heard anything in my neighborhood, yet.

* The timing of this announcement is a bit suspicious. Came right before announcement of Iraqi Defense and Interior Ministers and during Haditha investigation. Timing seems to be everything in the political order of the day.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

War and Ethics: Gunning Down Unarmed Women

Even in war, there is a code of ethics that should be followed. Whether this war exists between American soldiers and the insurgency, criminals and their Iraqi/non-Iraqi hostages, or some unknown force and the thousands of gunned down Iraqi civilians, this code of ethics in nonexistant in Iraq.

On the one hand, we have the case of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians who get caught in the middle, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by mistake. The case of Haditha, all over the American media now, is sadly not news in Baghdad, except that such a situation is finally getting covered by the American media with such frenzy. If you take a look at most Iraqi bloggers and their sites, they make no mention of the Haditha affair. Why? Because thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens have been killed by American soldiers since the start of the war, and thousands of homes have been damaged and thousands of innocents have been jailed. Every day you hear of men, women and children killed and/or shot while driving somewhere, or while sitting in their homes. As my husband's cousin was saying around the dinner table this past Friday, 'What's the big deal with Haditha? Why is this massacre getting such coverage and attention?'
Undoubtedly, there are some differences between this massacre and others, running from the deliberate shooting of unarmed women and children, to catching this evidence on tape. But here in Baghdad, this massacre in not top news.

What is top news here is a growing trend to gun down unarmed women in public. Some new force out there in the streets of crazy Amiriya has decided that it is NOT okay for women to drive, use cell phones or walk uncovered in public, but it IS okay to assassinate these women in broad daylight, in front of anyone unlucky enough to be around at the time.
About two weeks ago, Iraqi bloggers started reporting news that leaflets were being left in certain neighborhoods in the Amiriya district with 'guidelines' for staying alive, including no cell phone use in public for women and no goatee wearing for men.

Today, I got a call from our Amiriya relatives. Cousin 'I', whose Shiite father went into hiding about a month ago (see May 7th post), was telling me why she hadn't been able to go out yesterday to buy some earrings for her new baby. While her mother (my husband's aunt) and I's husband were at her medical clinic yesterday afternoon, they heard a loud commotion in the street. I's husband, M, ran outside to lend a possible hand.
He found one woman in a 'Khaleeji' style abaya dead with a bullet hole to her head, and heard that another woman walking with her had run away from the assassins. Unfortunately, they caught up with her and she was also killed. No one knew why these women were targeted, nor by whom. Their bodies were left for American soldiers to pick up in a bodybag and send to the city morgue.

Again, it has sadly become normal to hear of such killings in broad daylight with no guilty party captured or questioned. But that the targeted ones have become women is a new and horrific situation. In all cultures, through out time, in war and peace, there has remained a code of honor that the killing of women is to be avoided at all costs. We hear of soldiers who find that they are fighting a woman in disguise, and refuse to kill her, though she fights them. In Islamic history, we know that the Prophet (saaws) warned his men not to kill any civilians, no women, children or monks in their monastaries.
And yet, here, we have a growing situation where women do not feel safe anymore; and I'm not talking about on the battlefield, but in their own homes and cities.

It continually pains me to see the utter chaos that has engulfed Iraq, where a man or woman walking in the street is killed in front of others, and his killers get away, with no worry of being captured or questioned. It pains me to see that this merciless killing has gotten even more merciless, if that is possible, targeting women, for God knows what reason. It pains me that bystanders watch these crimes happen, and are powerless to do anything about it. And it pains me that human life has lost its meaning, its honor and its dignity.