[DEBATE] : Baghdad Burning: Summer of Goodbyes
Peter van Heusden
pvh at wfeet.za.net
Thu Oct 12 11:10:24 BST 2006
>From the excellent 'Riverbend blog' : http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/
Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city.
Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in
an envelope with the words “Leave your area or else.” The culprits
behind these attacks and threats are Sadr’s followers- Mahdi Army. It’s
general knowledge, although no one dares say it out loud. In the last
month we’ve had two different families staying with us in our house,
after having to leave their neighborhoods due to death threats and
attacks. It’s not just Sunnis- it’s Shia, Arabs, Kurds- most of the
middle-class areas are being targeted by militias.
Other areas are being overrun by armed Islamists. The Americans have
absolutely no control in these areas. Or maybe they simply don’t want to
control the areas because when there’s a clash between Sadr’s militia
and another militia in a residential neighborhood, they surround the
area and watch things happen.
Since the beginning of July, the men in our area have been patrolling
the streets. Some of them patrol the rooftops and others sit quietly by
the homemade road blocks we have on the major roads leading into the
area. You cannot in any way rely on Americans or the government. You can
only hope your family and friends will remain alive- not safe, not
secure- just alive. That’s good enough.
For me, June marked the first month I don’t dare leave the house without
a hijab, or headscarf. I don’t wear a hijab usually, but it’s no longer
possible to drive around Baghdad without one. It’s just not a good idea.
(Take note that when I say ‘drive’ I actually mean ‘sit in the back seat
of the car’- I haven’t driven for the longest time.) Going around
bare-headed in a car or in the street also puts the family members with
you in danger. You risk hearing something you don’t want to hear and
then the father or the brother or cousin or uncle can’t just sit by and
let it happen. I haven’t driven for the longest time. If you’re a
female, you risk being attacked.
I look at my older clothes- the jeans and t-shirts and colorful skirts-
and it’s like I’m studying a wardrobe from another country, another
lifetime. There was a time, a couple of years ago, when you could more
or less wear what you wanted if you weren’t going to a public place. If
you were going to a friends or relatives house, you could wear trousers
and a shirt, or jeans, something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear. We don’t
do that anymore because there’s always that risk of getting stopped in
the car and checked by one militia or another.
There are no laws that say we have to wear a hijab (yet), but there are
the men in head-to-toe black and the turbans, the extremists and
fanatics who were liberated by the occupation, and at some point, you
tire of the defiance. You no longer want to be seen. I feel like the
black or white scarf I fling haphazardly on my head as I walk out the
door makes me invisible to a certain degree- it’s easier to blend in
with the masses shrouded in black. If you’re a female, you don’t want
the attention- you don’t want it from Iraqi police, you don’t want it
from the black-clad militia man, you don’t want it from the American
soldier. You don’t want to be noticed or seen.
I have nothing against the hijab, of course, as long as it is being worn
by choice. Many of my relatives and friends wear a headscarf. Most of
them began wearing it after the war. It started out as a way to avoid
trouble and undue attention, and now they just keep it on because it
makes no sense to take it off. What is happening to the country?
I realized how common it had become only in mid-July when M., a
childhood friend, came to say goodbye before leaving the country. She
walked into the house, complaining of the heat and the roads, her
brother following closely behind. It took me to the end of the visit for
the peculiarity of the situation to hit me. She was getting ready to
leave before the sun set, and she picked up the beige headscarf folded
neatly by her side. As she told me about one of her neighbors being
shot, she opened up the scarf with a flourish, set it on her head like a
pro, and pinned it snuggly under her chin with the precision of a
seasoned hijab-wearer. All this without a mirror- like she had done it a
hundred times over… Which would be fine, except that M. is Christian.
If M. can wear one quietly- so can I.
I’ve said goodbye this last month to more people than I can count. Some
of the ‘goodbyes’ were hurried and furtive- the sort you say at night to
the neighbor who got a death threat and is leaving at the break of dawn,
Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were emotional and long-drawn, to the relatives
and friends who can no longer bear to live in a country coming apart at
Many of the ‘goodbyes’ were said stoically- almost casually- with a fake
smile plastered on the face and the words, “See you soon”… Only to walk
out the door and want to collapse with the burden of parting with yet
another loved one.
During times like these I remember a speech Bush made in 2003: One of
the big achievements he claimed was the return of jubilant ‘exiled’
Iraqis to their country after the fall of Saddam. I’d like to see some
numbers about the Iraqis currently outside of the country you are
occupying… Not to mention internally displaced Iraqis abandoning their
homes and cities.
I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever know just how many hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how
many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do
with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of
the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?
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