Iraq: In the War's Shadow
As is the case with all long wars that take place far from home, we’ve grown bored of Iraq, the epicenter of media attention during the height of a war that shook it to the core. We hear almost nothing now. There is none of the grueling news that was once part of our daily lives: the number of deaths, the complications, the incomplete transition – not fast enough, not positive enough.
I first went to Iraq in 2003. I kept returning throughout the decade – alone, without protection, at my own pace. For me, these ten years have passed in a flash, though this is surely not true for those who endured the war – those robbed of their lives, their youth, their old age – the same people I made a point of visiting each time I was here. Inquiring about how they were, understanding how they were surviving, supporting them for a moment in that disaster - that was my "mission." Having gained their trust, I tried to convey their plight in books, articles, on the radio, on TV. I repeated myself dozens, hundreds of times. Here, in the West, I often felt like I was talking to walls.
I realized I had been missing the images – not of soldiers dressed like robocops for battle with their armored columns, which is a pretty common sight – but those of "normal" life in war, scenes with Iraqis with whom I shared daily life. So I went back again this fall with a camera, to engage on camera with the people who have become my friends so that others might see and hear them, how they live.
Ten years on, the war is an ugly question always looming overhead: Does one live better in Iraq today? Was it worth it? With the Americans gone, it's almost as if they had never existed. No one talks about them anymore, or really wants to, even if their "shadow" still hangs heavily.
On Avenue Jadryia, the food stalls, grim by day, are decked out in multicolor neon at night. Solar panels ripped from their moorings hang along the dusty streets where trash collects in mounds, summited by goats and sheep grazing with total indifference. The ubiquitous din of televisions cranked to the max in all the shops mixes with scattered male-dominated conversations to deafening effect.
The noises of war are gone, and to the visitor, their absence is glaring. The hum of helicopters, always in pairs; the roar of aircraft; rockets; mortars; Kalashnikovs; the heavy thud of bombs – they’ve slinked off. It's the daily sounds that are mystical and poetic now - of the muezzin’s call stirring the still of morning; the horse carts collecting empty gas canisters; the harmless, almost reassuring hum of the air conditioners and generators.
US armored columns have disappeared as well (old Hummers have been sold the Iraqi police and army), but the chaos remains, unbearable and bewitching. Unprecedented frenzy has taken the place of the fear and despair of previous years: the frenzy of power; that of Prime Minister Maliki and those who work for him; the frenzy to consume. There are the wealthy of Baghdad in their show-off cars who park anywhere, in front of restaurants, as close as possible to where they are sitting; and the frenzy among the men to monitor their cars, not to lose sight of them for a second; to have the least distance to walk.
The atmosphere of perpetual informing and communal denunciation that transformed Iraqis into sub-humans during the civil war has disappeared, but the traces of this violence, this harshness, still bursts forth unexpectedly.
The residual trauma of years of war and the powerful divisions that drove it has circumscribed social progress, special interests, communitarian and local, triumphing in rebuilding of institutions along their exclusionary visions. The state is anemic and the government is unable to fulfill basic needs: establishing schools, drinking water infrastructure, pipelines or a continuous supply of electricity; a failure to breathe life into civil society. Corruption has tainted all social relations. Even to become a gas station attendant (and to thus position oneself to collect baksheesh from clients), one must pay at least $5,500 “to whom it may concern” – baksheesh up front. The country is an endless and unbelievable construction site. Only a few veiled women venture alone in the Dantean traffic of the megalopolis.
Which is, ironically, where I met Dante.
Dressed entirely in black, Dante, 21 years old, has shoulder-length hair and the face of an angel, aged only by a thin and pointed goatee. He listens to heavy metal and has a Harley-Davidson he rarely takes out of his garage, tired of being harassed. During the last years of the American occupation, a sergeant from Los Angeles noticed his drawing skills, taught the young guy the art of tattooing and gave him his nickname, Dante, which he adopted without knowing its literary implications. Within a few months, Dante’s shop, located in a mixed Sunni-Shiite-Christian shopping district, became a rallying point for Baghdad’s youth.
Dante’s is where young, straight, gay or "emo" (shortened from the English word "emotional") youth gather – the latter a Gothic wave which passed through the West ten years ago but has only recently arrived in ultra conservative post-war Iraq. Emo boys often adopt an effeminate look, and some girls, on the contrary, a masculine one. All flaunt their vulnerability in unconventional ways, which requires a certain courage in Iraq today: Since the beginning of 2012, emos and gays have been the targets of vile assassinations in the center of capital, particularly in Sadr City, where a disenfranchised Shia population lives cramped in extremely close quarters, and where the Mahdi Army rules, the ultra-violent militia of the most popular Shiite religious leader and politician, Muqtada al-Sadr. There have been more than 90 killings so far - some were even stoned to death, according to unofficial sources - without the Iraqi Interior Ministry stepping up to even condemn the violence.
Homophobia is common in the Middle East and Iraqi society today, and people I speak to barely suppress disgust at the simple mention of gays. Even the most open tell me that to "respect our religion" requires the rejection of homosexuality. They toss gays and emos in the same bag. However, in Iraq, the dangers of discrimination are compounded by the proliferation of weapons and excess violence: Here, whoever dresses or walks differently can be killed with iron bars, concrete blocks or defenestration.
Concealed on the first floor of an old mall between a trendy clothing store and a coffee shop where a football match between Iraq and Australia is being projected onto a big screen, Mohammed and Hussein stand against a railing, hand in hand, telling their stories. They constantly glance downstairs, fearful, making sure that the mall cop hasn’t taken notice. Hussein, 24, is studying law at a private university on Palestine Street, a main avenue in the heart of the Shiite neighborhoods near Sadr City. His friend Mohamed, 22, is married and the father of a toddler. He earns his living installing antennas for a local supplier of cell phones. Both have emo friends and are aware of the assassination campaigns. They smile, tensely, at the idea that people confuse emos and gays. The death threats are no laughing matter, but Hussein admits shyly that, "given the level of violence and our traditions," they are not completely abnormal" either.
In Baghdad, the pervasive post-war violence has created paranoia, especially since the killers, the narrow-minded fundamentalists who see these youth as "Satanists," have never been arrested. What lies behind this savage behavior is a desire to gain total control over society, to scare the majority by terrorizing a minority, since one of the major stigmata of war is the dull fear that strangles the country. The war of "liberation" has degenerated. Too young to have participated (they were ten years younger during the invasion), these emo and openly gay boys do not have the perspective to have understand what happened. As a result, they have, too naively, it seems, adopted Western culture. The behavior of emos is incompatible with "the walls of tradition," said Salah Al-Obeidy, an official spokesman for Moqtada Al-Sadr, in an attempt to rationalize the killings. It is the tribes that, first and foremost, reject the notion of a man being feminized, and it is common and just, he continued, for fathers to punish their sons so that their families will not have to bear the shame.
But these "rebels," still, are the product of a harsh Iraqi society that rejects them. Politicians protect their own personal interests, rather than these constituents. The religious are too bothered to take a stand. Parents are embarrassed and paralyzed. Their children’s discomfort and fear is emblematic of a devastated society, one locked in a stalemate after decades of dictatorship, international sanctions, a long foreign military occupation and a bloody civil war. Disillusioned, these young people want change without really believing in it, but more importantly, without a means of taking part. They do not get involved in anything and are not politicized. The “Arab Spring” uprisings marking upheaval in other parts of the region did not amount to much in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, where the repression was fierce.
Baghdad without the Americans remains suspended – hyper-militarized and semi-destroyed, yet not without signs of normality appearing in impressionistic touches. Take, for example, Doctor’s Fish Spa, a beauty parlor that deploys small fish to eat away dead skin, which opened in January in Mansur, a wealthy enclave. A supermarket, Maximall, attracts a crowd. An eight-story mall is emerging from the ground. Fast food restaurants in the city center are packed every night. A return of the red double-decker busses reminiscent of the British era is symbolic, but pleasant; having disappeared with the war, the buses, manufactured in Jordan, now meld into the capital’s enormous traffic jams.
Sad, disappointed and angry, the Iraqi youth I’ve come to know say they feel like prisoners in a society that is at once dislocated and frozen. Deprived of everything during the past ten years, ignorant of the very possibility of a peaceful life, emos, gays and other teenagers abandon themselves to a Baghdad that has become a violent temple of consumerist frenzy. They are distinctly reluctant to build a future.
"Iraq: In the War's Shadow" - a sneak Preview: Anne Nivat interviews a young Iraqi pharmacist, one of the main characters of her upcoming documentary film. Like many young Iraqis, Taghlub, who lives and works in a small town on the Iran-Iraq border, struggles with the notion of abandoning the perils of his beloved homeland for an uncertain life abroad...
Anne Nivat is an award-winning war reporter and author. She covered the Chechen war for the French daily Libération and was based in Moscow for ten years until 2005. Nivat has written pieces for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the International Herald Tribune and has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air, The Connection, and PBS's News Hour, as well as other radio and TV programs. She holds a doctorate in political science from Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, and was a Fulbright Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. For her first book, "Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya," she disguised herself as a Chechen woman and traveled to the war-torn region despite a Russian ban on journalists. Her books include "The View from the Vysotka"; "The Wake of War; Encounters with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan"; and "In the Fog of War." Nivat is based in Paris and travels extensively covering Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Translation from French to English by Kai Krienke.