Ten years on from the invasion, what has changed for ordinary Iraqis? In this double feature, we share the perspectives of two writers on what it means to live in modern-day Iraq.
“Akhooya! My brother! Your little girl doesn’t seem comfortable in her shoes. I think they’re too big for her.” – “Don’t worry, we’ll pass by a shoe shop just now.”
“Ukhtee, my sister. Hold your abaya up like this. You don’t want its corners all muddied.”
A single stroll around the streets of Iraq will be enough to tell you how perfectly normal and acceptable it is for strangers to interfere in each others’ affairs. It’s called concern in Iraq, and it’s a trait that the typical Iraqi personality cannot help but displaying.
Iraqi people are an opinionated lot. It is difficult to bring up an issue in front of an Iraqi and not get a multitude of view-points, no matter how mundane. Climb into any taxi and you will know what I’m saying: in a matter of minutes, you will be bombarded with the driver’s opinions on every politician in power, every other driver on the road, and even a couple of pieces of advice for you thrown for good measure. “Get your families’ papers done all at the same time,” a driver once yelled in the direction of my father, who was busy discussing details of transactions on his phone. Bottled-up opinions and Iraqis don’t go hand-in-hand. This makes them, in addition to being opinionated, brutally honest. If you have gained a couple of pounds since the last time you met an Iraqi, chances are you are going to hear about it.
Yet beneath the mask of sometimes seemingly-offensive remarks and alleged prying is genuine warmth and interest for one another. You will see it in the dishes women hurry to cook as soon as they hear of a sick neighbour, in the doctors and nurses treating wounded for free, in the anxious expressions on faces if they see you in an unsafe area.
The last time I was in Baghdad, heavy rain and disorganized traffic systems left us stuck for a long time in a jam, where the level of car-horns and stress in the air was increasing by the minute. It didn’t stop drivers from rolling down their windows to make witty remarks, or the police-man from jokingly telling us it was all our fault when he passed by our car. I’ve heard many Iraqis state that part of what helped them get through their dark times is that side that’s able to turn almost anything into a light situation. I would say the other part is due to their tough love: that ability to transcend their suffering for the sake of each other, and for the sake of their land.
But it is both nature and nurture that make a personality, and just because the Iraqis have used their character traits as tools to deal with their history, it does not mean that history will leave them alone. To say that the events Iraqis witnessed have shaped their personalities in turn would be an understatement. Decades of war and terror have left them bitter. The typical Iraqi may continue to pass jokes and take care of his friends and family, but he looks at the world through rusty eyes – pessimism and distrust clouds his vision, and everybody is a liar or a thief until proven otherwise. Complaints saturate the air, and grief has blended in the culture, become absorbed in it, in a way that leaves tragic notes in every piece of art, song, poem and conversation. Sad songs, like those sung by the Kurdish-origin artist Ilham Madfa’ei, have proved to be the most popular reflections of the suffering felt in the audience’s personal lives. Hopeful talk is still heard, but deep down, Iraqis are tired of believing in promises that let them down.
Many Iraqis have given up on their country ever returning to normality. Most of them are from other corners of the world – people like myself, whose families left as a result of the diaspora and have settled comfortably elsewhere, but whose acquired passports do not prevent a continuing interest in Iraq’s affairs. To me, these pessimistic thoughts seem more forgivable coming from residents in Iraq. Naturally it is much more difficult for them to stay optimistic from the midst of the battlefield and easy for others to make observations from the comfort of their new homes.
Yet inside or outside of Iraq, we cannot let these events blotch our character so markedly. We cannot let them take hope away from us, nor can we underestimate the power of positive thought. ‘How can Sunni and Shia Muslims, for example, continue living together in peace after they have blown up each others’ mosques?’ some think. The fueling of sectarianism by the media and the multitude of political parties acting in their own interests certainly does nothing to sooth the fire. Most Iraqis, though, are wondering how they ever reached this stage. This divided Iraq is not the one they have known all their lives. The Iraq they know screams diversity from every angle: its food, people, clothing, religions and languages are a multitude of intermingled elements, blended together over time, to form a culture that cannot be disintegrated. An American journalist living in Baghdad testified to this nearly a century ago, writing that:
‘the 180,000 inhabitants show a striking variety, almost justifying the tradition which locates the “Tower of Babel” near Baghdad. Certainly the mixed races in Baghdad produce even now a striking “confusion of tongues.”…The mixture preserves a peace balance, undoubtedly, and saves Baghdad from the race wars and massacres common in Asia Minor, where Moslem meets Christian.’1
The aftermath of the 2003 invasion has seen a segregation of Iraq that seems difficult to combat. Areas have been labelled pre-dominantly Sunni or Shia, and odd-one-out dwellers continuously feel at risk. Other minorities no longer feel safe in their own home. Yet the strange thing about this segregation is the lack of hatred towards each other. Circumstances may have forced the Iraqis apart, but they continue to embrace all their country’s ethnic groups. Iraqi families still carry mixtures of Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen flavours on their taste buds. A single glance at a football game, with the assortment of Iraq’s team players and the range of supporters in the field, is sufficient a reminder of how wonderfully we work when we stay together. Like the fable of the bundle of sticks, we will get through this gracefully, if only we remember how easy it is for the sticks to be broken when brought apart.
For an alternative perspective on life in contemporary Iraq, read Luke Coleman’s article ‘“Better to be a Rose than a Thorn”: Finding Kurdistan by chance‘
1. F. Simpich & M. Simpich, ‘Where Adam and Eve Lived’, National Geographic, 26, 6 (1914), pp. 546-588.