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Iraq’s Sacred Assemblies Part 2

April 30, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Classrooms are not normally perceived as a backdrop for cultural exchange, a setting vital to preserving tradition. If they are not, what is an assembly of fourteen twenty-year olds doing, Iraqi in this case, engaged in analytical discourse in their college seminar room? They could be aspiring filmmakers, young writers critiquing a novel, journalism interns reporting on an assignment, or medical students in an anatomy class. The latter example is not anomalous. Consider where medical education fits into civilization, how it identifies both intelligence and compassion, and how essential medical research and healthcare are to a society’s well being.

            What I am leading up to is justifying my inclusion of a dialogue I witnessed at Kerbala University Medical College within my account of the survival of Iraq’s culture and intellectual standards. My earlier essay on Sacred Assemblies describes two gatherings:-- a Baghdad tea shop where writers congregate every Friday, and the audience of an evening concert at the Iraq National Theater.

            Classroom dialogues among medical students are, along with those encounters, public affairs too. They point up the essence of cultural development. Culture cannot survive in private, behind walls, in fear and in private. Studying may be solitary, but learning needs exchange and open debate. (It is astonishing and a testament to Iraqi resilience and love of learning, that given the oppressive atmosphere of Saddam Hussein’s rule, any cultural spirit existed in Iraq those years. But some did.) And now, following years of destruction, plunder, turmoil, and emigration in the wake of the U.S. invasion, many citizens who remain are moving forward, however haltingly and painfully.

             In January, I decided to return to the city of Kerbala to meet colleagues at Al-Hussein General Hospital, a place I reported on during the 13- yearlong blockade. Iraq’s once highly acclaimed medical system was among the most debilitated by that embargo followed by the 2003 U.S. invasion, the military occupation, sectarian strife and the ISIS threat.

            Today, I am gratified to find not only a much expanded hospital, but a new medical college. Founded only in 2004, Kerbala University’s Medical College has established itself as a leading facility in the country, graduating 800 doctors since it opened, with another 162 expecting to graduate this year.   

            When the college’s Dean Zubeydi and Professor Al-Naffi invite me to visit their classrooms to observe seminars underway, I accept without much expectation. ‘What can I learn watching a class in session?’, I think. Without interrupting the discussion underway, we take our seats behind a circle of 14 white-coated second year students. I can easily follow the discussion since it’s in English. (Medical education in Iraq has for many decades been conducted in English). But it is not the content that moves me, not the informality of the exchanges, not the predominance of women doing the talking, not even what the dean points out is the application of integrated teaching methods here. It is an ambiance, an atmosphere of devotion, determination and self respect. It is intangible, yet undeniable. It is more than remembering agony and pain, more than overcoming countless obstacles to reestablish and nourish this dialogue. (This is why I refer to these gatherings as ‘sacred assemblies’.)

            From long experience, often after missteps, I learned that a moment arrives when an anthropologist or journalist has to cease her constant questioning and put aside her notebook. This is one of those times. It resembles that huddle of chatting writers at Qaisairriyeh Hanash in Al-Mutannabi Street-- unbidden assemblies imbuing each member with their past, their present and their future.

            I round off my stay in Kerbala with a revisit to Al-Hussein Mosque, Shrine of Imam Hussein. Here again I am content to watch and listen. I decide not to pray inside the magnificent mosque itself and instead to imbue the quiet, prayer-like devotion of the people around me outside. Strolling with other worshipers around the shrine, I admit I’m occasionally tempted to stop at a group dressed in Pashtu robes, or to engage with people I overhear speaking in Lebanese dialect. But I relax and allow myself to silently join the casual yet distinctly devotional mood embracing us all.

            From the time when we arrived, near sunset, until well after dark, I and my companion circumambulate the mosque, gliding along the tiles of the vast esplanade. Small clusters of families, tour groups, a couple, a man and boy alone; they each move about with no apparent agenda beyond awaiting the call for salat al-‘isha, gazing from time to time at the stunning façade of the mosque, its myriad of lights accenting the green, white and black of Qur’anic inscriptions across the walls and arcades. Some visitors relax seated on the tile floor, snacking; others converse quietly as they wander through the open space.

            As the sky darkens more worshipers arrive. I can distinguish people from South Asia, others from Sudan, still others from The Maghreb, South Africa and Nigeria; I suppose Iranian worshipers move among us too.

            Leaving this sacred assembly, these pilgrims will take with them the cultural and historical roots of their faith.

            Those moments in Kerbala are in contrast to my attendance at the final public affair of my stay. It’s the opening of an art exhibition in the capital. While art galleries in Baghdad are much reduced, the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society is a well known locale for exhibitions, and today’s opening is a lively, celebratory event so dense with visitors that the paintings are difficult to see. More than one television crew is interviewing visitors as well as exhibiting artists. Children accompanying their parents are here as well. Eventually the crowd thins when visitors move outside to the garden where they are served snacks and drinks; a three centimeter thick colored catalogue is available without charge as well.  

            Slowly, cautiously, the risk is taken to do more than exist.  END

[ Iraq’s Sacred Assemblies Part 2 ]

Iraq Then, Syria Today: A Strategy Remix

April 14, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When will you get the message? Comply, as Jordan, Egypt and others did, and we’ll protect your leaders, ensure favorable press, shore up your economy, secure energy needs, and engage your businessmen. In short: abide by our imperial diktat.

            Alternative advice to a marginal (but an ambitious) nation determined to follow an independent course might be: build a solid self-sufficient economy; lure home your best expatriate talent in IT, engineering, medical research and media. Having done this, you may survive if: if you keep your head down, if you don’t ally yourself with another strong power, if you abandon all regional ambitions, and if your people don’t try to excel? Above all, never do anything nasty “to your own people” allowing human rights specialists to declare at the appropriate moment, your “threat to humankind”.

            Whichever is the best strategy for survival, neither Syria nor Iraq found a way to avoid the wrath of the American-Israeli-British bloc. 

 

            We could make lists of ‘did’ and ‘didn’t do’, one for Syria and one for Iraq, to assess their relative compliance. In any event, they’ll both earn “F”. So they have to be starved, humiliated, desiccated and demonized. Then, when this doesn’t produce a sufficiently convincing “F-minus”, they’re bombed, and bombed again.

           It’s Syria’s turn. The only reason I can imagine how Syrians feel today—those citizens who are somehow managing to survive within its borders-- is because I was in Iraq in February 2003, in the days preceding the US invasion there. Women and men and children and soldiers and medics and teachers and diplomats and journalists—everyone-- mutely awaited the blows. Finding themselves at that threshold stunned the whole population. Why now? Why: because Iraq had begun to get back on its feet after a decade of brutal embargo and exclusion. The cost to the nation had been huge. But (by 2000) Iraq managed to lessen its diplomatic isolation; it even expected the United Nations might lift the US-imposed sanctions. Citizens commenced determinedly to rebuild. They could glimpse the end of the tunnel.

            We know what happened next. And we know how that invasion was fabricated on phony evidence to “finish the job” (an idiom common to cowboys and gangsters).

            Now to Syria fourteen years on. As recently as December 2017, ISIS was in retreat and citizens began to return to areas liberated by an exhausted but still viable Syrian army. Territories occupied by ISIS and other rebels were retaken by Syrian troops. Some inter-city roads reopened, heating oil was available, food prices seemed lower, and a few foreign groups dared to visit the capital. Gasps of hope emanating from the besieged people were palpable.

            In the case of Iraq, by 2002, it started to rebound after a decade of decline due to the embargo. The entire nation had been fractured and impoverished; bodies and nerves were battered by pollution, disease and scarcity of medicines--all precipitated by the blockade. Iraq lost millions of its young; its wheat fields had been destroyed, first untreated by pesticides, then firebombed by foreign aircraft; its diplomatic energy was exhausted, and its Kurds had secured a protected territory which forecast the nation’s possible breakup. Iraq had an army but no air force, its planes in disrepair, its pilots gone. The nation’s oil revenues, controlled from outside, were of little use in addressing its massive civilian needs.

            Starting in 1998, with astonishing fortitude, Iraq had begun to erode the blockade, extracting itself from that deadly vortex. Baghdad hosted an international trade fair. Building cranes reappeared on the city’s skyline; regional airlines began regular flights into Baghdad airport.

            Just when Iraqis felt they might actually beat back the embargo, they were confronted by another war—a blanket military assault. And no one doubted how defenseless Iraq was.  

            Worldwide, acknowledging the inevitability of an invasion on Iraq, a few million people roused themselves in protest. That day, February 15, 2003, I was in Mosul in north Iraq and I witnessed firsthand the public’s bleak mood. Those far off demonstrations, instead of offering hope, only confirmed to Iraqis the veracity of the military plan against them. (Who cares what those panicky demonstrators shout; they are 13 years’ late.) That dissent, they muttered, was disingenuous, driven only by Americans’ fears for their own fighters.

            Now, Syria. In 2010, more restrictions were added to earlier sanctions that had already marginalized Syria globally and impeded its economic development. Wikileak’s published diplomatic documents, reveal that by 2006, Washington had a stated objective to overthrow the Syrian government. The uprisings in North Africa (the so-called Arab Spring) may have provided an impetus for the burst of public dissent in Syria. After a merciless crackdown by security forces, civil unrest spread until the country devolved into a sectarian war that spread more quickly than was experienced by Iraq. Syria’s once robust and proudly self-sufficient economy began to collapse; youths and professionals left, emptying its universities and hospitals of staff and students. 

            Foreign observers surmised Syria would fall within six months, that Al-Asaad could not withstand the forces mobilized against his government. They didn’t know Syria.

            With Russian support, but drawing on its willfulness and military power, Syria surprised everyone. Although the toll on its troops has been staggering, Syrian forces recaptured land lost to its foes. It kept major roads open, and secured unfailing support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon.

            Losses to the nation are immense, the staggering civilian toll graphically recorded day after day. Although terribly crippled, the country managed to regain territory and defeat ISIS on several fronts-- successes lamented by the western press. Syria’s defeat of ISIS notwithstanding, American generals declare that they will remain in Syria “until ISIS is defeated”, then announce that additional fighters will be sent to the country. 

            After the US president muttered something about disengaging from Syria, the press challenged him to demonstrate resolve, to show real leadership, how the job was left unfinished. Saturday, the bombing began, silently applauded by Israel, and bolstered by the UK and France.   END

[ Iraq Then, Syria Today: A Strategy Remix ]

Iraqis' Diet Fifteen Years After the US Invasion

April 12, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Some Iraqis might assert that today everything is available in their country. That’s true to a degree; if you exclude self-sufficiency. And trust.

            Traveling throughout Baghdad and into the south I recognized the same models of vehicles one finds in the US, along with some Chinese-made trucks. We pick up tasty BBQ chicken from street vendors. Fresh vegetables and fruits, shoes and garments and cosmetics of all varieties and qualities are available; furniture and linens and toys for any age are plentiful, as are electronic goods. Communication by FaceBook and Whatsapp are unregulated. YouTube is heavily used.

            You have fast food bistros serving salads and french fries. Pizza is popular, and a few upscale family restaurants moored on the banks of the Tigris are well patronized. You can linger at wifi-connected coffee shops, and find bars and discos open until early morning. Fresh baked fish and roasted chicken plates can be delivered to office or home.

            To all appearances the Iraqi economy is just fine, if you observe only consumption habits.

            A simple, more accurate way to judge economic conditions is to turn from the sparkling facades of Chevrolet show rooms and decline a pizza lunch to instead stroll through a local supermarket.

            Doing so in Iraq, I am reminded what I found 20 years ago inside a Palestinian food store in Al-Bireh village nearby Ramallah. Two-liter soda bottles stacked outside the shop were not only for American teenagers visiting their grandmothers. Soda had become everyone’s preferred beverage. Those columns of orange and green bottles may add color to the street and signal modern tastes and available surplus cash. At what cost?

            Leaning closer to examine the labels, I see they’re in Hebrew. With no attempt to camouflage their origin, Israeli products are exported for Palestinian consumption. Inside the shop I note how canned and packaged foods likewise originate in Israel. Why should I be shocked therefore when I find Al-Bireh’s lebaan, yogurt, labeled in Hebrew? Lebaan, the staple of Arab breakfast enjoyed with olives, sliced cucumber and tomato, and unleavened bread, is (was!) the traditional produce of Arab herders and farmers throughout our history. Olives are the last surviving sign of Palestinian agriculture, and this industry too is in decline.

            The fate of Palestine’s olive industry is paralleled by Iraq’s date production. Iraq’s legendary 40 million date palms, provenance of California’s successful date production, once Iraq’s primary and unsurpassed export after crude oil, are wasting away today.

            Which brings us back to Iraqis’ diet and my visit a few weeks ago to a Baghdad supermarket. I pause on the residential street in Karrada’s middle class neighborhood where I stay, to slip into a food store. Here too the shop’s entrance is constrained by stacks of bottled soda. Pepsi seems the most abundant brand; others with names I do not recognize are plentiful too. Moving into the entranceway, both sides are piled with boxes and trays displaying generous supplies of chips and cookies (labeled in English and Arabic, or English only).

            Inside the store, I saunter along one isle perusing canned and bottled items. Pickled olives and mayonnaise, salad dressings, tang and apple juice, cheeses, olive oil, pasta, canned tuna and tea-- almost all of them imported. Not Israel here, but Spain, Turkey, Columbia, China, Thailand, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia supply Iraqis with most of their food. Foreign company names appear on all packaged food items I examine. Moreover, prices here (where 1,300 Iraqi dinar = one dollar) differ little from US supermarket rates. The cost of a ‘Pringles’ package or a can of tuna in Baghdad, for example, is what I pay in the U.S.

            When we turn to fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, the situation is even more alarming. Here too most produce is imported. Even oranges (in this land of orange trees). Beets and cabbage are marked ‘Iraqi’, but pomegranate, okra, eggplant, bananas, cucumber and other greens are from Jordan, Turkey and beyond. The nicest looking tomatoes (a staple in Iraqi dishes) are foreign produced.

            Why these imports when Iraq is still largely rural? Foreign produce is less expensive than that grown by Iraq’s farmers, I’m told. Why? Because they are priced to undercut Iraqi production. Why? Because import licenses are awarded to foreign suppliers. And why is this? Because ministry personnel who negotiate these contracts receive handsome kickbacks. This, at the same time, when: a) electricity supply in Iraq is so weak and unreliable that local production is impossible, and b) ministries responsible for agriculture and manufacturing don’t function in the interests of Iraqi producers. Iraq’s once thriving agricultural base is woefully neglected and derelict.

            These conditions are a direct result of government policy and a heavily corrupt bureaucracy. In the case of the bankrupt Palestinian economy, declining production and joblessness are to a large degree imposed by the occupier, Israel, implemented through a compliant Palestinian bureaucracy, oversupplied with wage earners whose disposable income supports a consumption economy and reliance on imports.

            In Iraq, the US government still wields enormous influence on Iraq’s administration. From the start of its occupation of Iraq, the U.S. has thwarted attempts to rebuild the nation’s electricity grid and build and install machinery essential to a functioning manufacturing base.

            (Significantly, some energy is available to ensure that communications function so that Iraqis can access television and their phone apps. Most homes and small businesses augment a patchy, inadequate government electrical supply with batteries and generators, imported of course.) 

            These conditions, in both Palestine and Iraq, are bald ‘disaster capitalism’. They exhibit what Naomi Klein identifies in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Her influential 2007 study was followed in 2015 by Disaster Capitalism, offering irrefutable evidence of these insidious foreign-directed processes which enrich outside powers while directing responsibility onto incompetent corrupt local governments.

            At every level, from reliance on underwear for its soldiers to pharmaceuticals to tangy beverages, Iraq’s decline into a consumer nation is unarguably the policy of outside powers. It works with a compliant merchant class of suppliers, happy to take a narrow slice while its foreign partners enjoy the prime cuts. It’s a process well know to every Iraqi.

BN Aziz recently returned from a two week visit in Iraq. Swimming up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq, based on her work in Iraq between 1989 and 2003, is published by University of Florida Press, 2007.

[ Iraqis' Diet Fifteen Years After the US Invasion ]

"Enough Is Enough" (on guns) by John Whitehead

April 02, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

While we congratulate ourselves on March 24 "March for Our Lives" across the US, consider the context of guns offered by attorney and writer John Whitehead. Below are excerpts from his article: "Enough is enough..."

 “Excerpts “…The day before (tens of) thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington DC to protest mass shootings  …, President Trump signed into law a colossal $1.3 trillion spending bill that gives the military the biggest boost in spending in more than a decade.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Here (we witness) passionate protesters raging… about the need to restrict average Americans from being able to purchase and own military-style weapons, all the while the U.S. government—the same government under Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton and beyond that --continues to act as a shill and a shield for the military industrial complex—embarks on a taxpayer-funded death march that will put even more guns into circulation…

There are now reportedly more bureaucratic (non-military) government civilians armed with high-tech, deadly weapons than U.S. Marines.

…the (US) government is arming its own civilian employees to the hilt with guns, ammunition and military-style equipment, authorizing them to make arrests, and training them in military tactics. Among the agencies being supplied with night-vision equipment, body armor, hollow-point bullets, shotguns, drones, assault rifles and LP gas cannons are the Smithsonian, U.S. Mint, Health and Human Services, IRS, FDA, Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Education Department, Energy Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and an assortment of public universities.

Seriously, why do IRS agents need AR-15 rifles?

Under the auspices of this military “recycling” program, which was instituted decades ago and allows local police agencies to acquire military-grade weaponry and equipment, more than $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies since 1990….

[ "Enough Is Enough" (on guns) by John Whitehead ]

Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead

March 26, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Will Saturday’s astounding "March for Our Lives" become the defining protest of our time? Some say it’s comparable to Vietnam War era anti-war marches. Not actually comparable, I hope. Because it took daily news of American deaths month after month to sustain those protests.

March 24th’s nationwide event was led by youngsters, Americans even younger than the 1960s’ protesters. It is certainly a stirring event to witness-- unarguably inspiring for millions like me viewing it on television. Saturday’s rally demonstrated the leadership of ‘just’ teenagers. (We generally only hear about our youths’ drug habits or sports and cell phone obsessions, their sex lives or their music and clothing trends.)

I hope the political work these new leaders have launched is sustained. I hope this movement doesn't need further killings anywhere to keep the issue alive, to activate media interest and to swell the numbers of activists. It is essential too that America’s adult responses are not technical, namely: not calling for still more security devices to sell to schools and municipalities, not commissioning more experts to invent even more bizarre safety measures.   

Whenever a massacre at a school or concert hall or other public event occurs, there’s ample television footage to demonstrate how authorities respond— police, FBI and other armed forces ‘secure’ neighborhoods and control onlookers with massive military-like tactics and equipment. (Only recently have Americans realized how much like a military occupation of our streets, local police forces had become.) Unquestioned is the  associated tactic called “lockdown”.

Following the end of deadly sieges, we witness survivors of an attack emerging from “lockdown”, moving in single file, hands above their heads, stripped of any bags or backpacks, obediently proceeding down a path past armed guards. (This presumably after they’ve been frisked to ensure they are not part of a terror group.) This scary procession is now a common procedure executed without questions about what affect these practices have on those innocents.

Every school in this nation is geared for terror. With the powerful testimonies of the March 24 speakers in D.C. last week, those who may not normally visit schools hear how children are taught lockdown drill, procedures they must practice and then follow if their school is under threat. One 17-year old at a "March for Our Lives" event in Detroit confesses: “The fire alarm at Trenton High School is scary,  …We don't know if it's an actual drill or if someone's actually inside the school, going to take your life."

As a journalist I have occasion to visit local schools. When I do, I can secure entry only if I’ve made an appointment with a staff member who knows me and is expecting me. My name is listed beforehand, and when I arrive at the (locked) school door, a security guard, usually armed, calls the staff person I’m to meet, who then comes to the reception desk to accompany me into the school. I’m given an ID which I must wear while inside and relinquish when I leave. (Every schoolchild wears his/her special ID all the time at school.) This is the same process I go through when I visit a prison!

Not to deny our youths their credit and our gratitude for their initiative today, one wonders: what took us so long? That is, what took so long for youths to dump any expectations they had of leadership by adults: —elected officials as well as community leaders, teachers and other educators, social workers, police and trauma experts, journalists and celebrities. How many deaths by gun-loving, angry, disturbed and embittered young men does it take for a sensible strategy to emerge? Maybe these youngsters stepping into the forefront marks a watershed, a turning point not only in gun reform but in American civic action.

Regarding solutions: look what some in the (political) room have been advising in response to gun violence. (We know the U.S. president’s suggestion.) Even clear-headed, mature leaders have little to offer beyond assigning more money to build more safety mechanisms into schools. (This in addition to adding more on-duty armed officers inside and around schools.) When a recent threat of violence at undistinguishable school in my own semi-rural neighborhood occurred, the director announced measures including retrofitting every door in the place. This is an educator’s all-too-common solution in an institute already patrolled by two armed guards!

From what we heard from school-age activists in their fearless and unequivocal statements these past weeks, they are not demanding more security measures in classrooms and hallways. They want their teachers to teach; they want political their leaders to enact gun reforms; they want to hold elected representatives accountable to the citizen, not to special interests.

One may be unable to expect any reduction in safety measures. While the downside of increasing them is twofold: first, our places of learning become hazardous zones. Students report how they move through their classrooms in a state of fear. The educational budgets of public schools are already inadequate. From teachers’ rallies in Virginia and Arizona, we learn that teachers’ salaries are low and getting lower, with many teachers working at a second job. Core curricula are threatened by educational budgets cuts or freezes. If more funds are allocated to military-like solutions, basic educational facilities will suffer. Second, the main beneficiaries of all those technical solutions will be security companies who provide guards and who manufacture safety devices— part of the mammoth American arms business. The security industry is equally involved in diversionary costly solutions as is the NRA.

[ Let Teachers Teach, and Insist Our Leaders Lead ]


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Katsuko Saruhashi, Japanese Geochemist; 1920-2007

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