In Basrah and Kurdistan during the first nationwide elections since the US withdrawal.
By Julia Harte | Six months in jail and a $100 fine: that was the penalty for owning a satellite dish in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Jassim’s brother was caught twice with satellite dishes, but paid an extra fine to avoid jail time on both occasions. The third time he bought an illicit dish, it was to view international forces expelling Saddam from power in the spring of 2003.
So when I met Jassim 10 years and one day after Saddam’s statue face-planted in Firdous (“Paradise”) Square, he still had a vivid memory of what it had been like to watch the war begin. On April 5, he left his home in Babil to visit his brother outside of Baghdad, where they watched foreign networks broadcast the invasion of their country. Four days later, Jassim drove to Baghdad amid fleets of tanks, and watched from the window of his office as the US-led coalition declared victory and the city erupted into jubilation. Then, since the roads out of the city were closed indefinitely, he set out to walk 100 kilometers back to Babil. In the chaos of Baghdad’s outskirts, he hitched rides with a US convoy and a woman retrieving her wrongfully imprisoned daughters from one of Saddam’s prisons. He got home only to learn that another relative had just left for Baghdad to look for him.
In the years that followed, Jassim moved his family back to his birthplace, the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq, where he had no trouble finding me when I arrived in the Basrah airport along with my friend Anna. His slight frame enveloped in a baggy gray suit, glasses bouncing atop a gleeful grin, he waved us toward a customs officer whom he promptly persuaded to let us out of the airport ahead of the other passengers.
Anna and I had come on a National Geographic Young Explorer grant (with additional funding from the Center for Investigative Reporting) to document a looming water crisis brought on by drought and upstream dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Jassim worked for an environmental NGO, and acted as our guide. Though the news was full of reports of sectarian conflict during our stay, the Iraq I saw was divided by different sets of fault lines: north versus south, rich versus poor, the powerful versus the disenfranchised.
I couldn’t help noticing some traces of the US occupation in southern Iraq. The occasional tank still slumps in the grass beside the highway. Bullet scars pockmark the walls of the Basrah Museum, a former palace of Saddam used as a US base from 2003 to 2009. The facade is now decorated with murals of American soldiers wielding assault rifles, posing valiantly under eagles and in front of rearing horses, and protecting flower-bearing children—an odd counterpoint to the rash of political violence and car bombs that was breaking out elsewhere in the country.
From our perch in the marshes, however, I never even heard an explosion. Jassim escorted us everywhere, breezing us through every checkpoint with a chirpy “Ha-biiii-bi!” at the guard. We feasted with sheikhs, watched water buffaloes romp in the marshes, and visited the house of Abraham in Ur, in all the glory to which Saddam had restored it in an effort to entice Pope John Paul II to visit (the trip never occurred because Saddam refused to guarantee the pope’s security). Jassim whiled away the long drives singing poetic riddles made up on the spot.
What I did see clearly was the strict social hierarchy that reigns in southern Iraq. Tribal leadership passes from sheikhs to their sons, and most wealth is concentrated in these families. We spent two days visiting a sheikh named Abbas, in his palatial, air-conditioned home northeast of Basrah. As he escorted us around the region to visit farmers hit hardest by the water shortage—families who barely had enough water to drink, let alone grow crops—it was difficult to ignore the contrast between the sheikh’s plenitude and their squalor. In miniature snow-white robes, his grandchildren gazed at barefoot children with flies perpetually clinging to their eyes as Abbas handed out stiff dinar notes to the parents, shooting meaningful glances at Anna and me.
At night, I caught a glimpse of the way the women in a sheikh’s household pass their lives. Abbas’s nine-woman bevy of daughters and daughters-in-law filed into our room clutching albums. One by one, they showed us photos from their weddings—alongside shots of their husbands hunting, fishing, visiting friends, and generally enjoying themselves outdoors. Then they switched on the television and indicated that it was time to dance. While their husbands lived freely, their world was restricted to a few indoor amusements: soap operas, their children, dressing up, and gossiping about each other.
With the rest of Iraq moving slowly toward a more democratic society, I wondered how long economic and gender inequalities such as these would last. To be sure, most Iraqis have more violent crises on their minds nowadays. As I was hobnobbing with sheikhs, Iraq was undergoing its deadliest month in five years. More than 700 people were killed and more than 1,600 injured in Iraq in April 2013. Several of those killed were candidates in the provincial elections held April 20, the first nationwide election since the US military pullout. Armed groups with political agendas in the election were behind many of these attacks. So it was all the more troubling that most Iraqis I met were utterly apathetic toward the elections. I didn’t meet a single person who had voted.
Najla, a friend of Jassim’s who accompanied us to the ancient city of Ur, grinned and whispered, “They’re all thieves!” when I asked why she didn’t support any of the candidates. Secular parties were the only groups that could possibly improve over Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-oriented State of Law coalition, she explained, and the secular candidates had no chance. (The election results bore her prediction out.)
After two weeks in southern Iraq, Anna and I flew to Iraqi Kurdistan, the northern region that has maintained autonomy from central Iraq for the past two decades, growing stable and wealthy largely thanks to its oil reserves, which are the world’s sixth largest.
At first, Kurdistan’s major cities seemed impossibly cosmopolitan. International brands and names loomed across buildings and billboards. Only after several days in the capital, Erbil, did the big-city veneer disappear and more provincial quirks become apparent: the small handful of ATMs in the city, only one of which seemed to work at any given time; the slightly awed pride with which locals described their major shopping malls; the taxi drivers who said, “As you like,” when asked the fare.
Still, entering Kurdistan felt like entering a different country, an impression reinforced by Iraqis who had migrated there from the south, seeking safer lives for themselves and their children. Anna and I visited one such émigré at his home in a gated community in Erbil. A university professor whom I’ll call “the doctor,” he had moved his family out of Basrah in 2006 after he began receiving death threats from Shia militias for working with US companies.
The doctor’s children had benefited most from the move. The two daughters we met were 13 and 18 years old, spoke fluent English, Kurdish, and Arabic, and were learning more languages in school. Most precocious, however, was their appreciation for the educational and social opportunities they had in Kurdistan. With obvious relief, they compared their freedoms—riding bicycles, walking outside alone—to the restricted lifestyle of women in southern Iraq. (I had a vision of Sheikh Abbas’s daughters.) Yet they still described southern Iraq with wistful pride, and showed us two waist-high date palm stumps in their yard, one of which still bore green shoots: a reminder of their origins.
Nobody in the family wanted to return. The economic gap that I had noticed between Kurdistan and central Iraq was growing wider, explained the doctor. Kurdish politicans had transformed their region on a meager budget, while central Iraqi politicians only offered assurances of putting their funds toward important causes. “Their pockets!” he suggested, laughing. Like Najla, he had become deeply skeptical of central Iraq’s politicians after witnessing too much corruption and too few accomplishments. I couldn’t blame him, though it was depressing to see how reactions to Iraq’s first autonomous elections were split between violence and apathy.
For all the comforts Kurdistan afforded the doctor and his family, they had not fully escaped the instability of their country. When I asked whether he had ever considered leaving Iraq altogether, my gracious host grew gloomy. Because the family was from Basrah, they couldn’t get Kurdish-issued passports—and because they were no longer residents of Basrah, they couldn’t get passports from the Iraqi government either.
“So we’ll be staying here for a while,” he said with a grim smile, “to see if there’s going to be light at the end of this tunnel.” A good metaphor for modern-day Iraq, I thought: stuck in limbo, waiting for its brighter future to begin.
Julia Harte C’09 is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.