[Note: readers interested in more of my missives from Basra might wish to check out Arthur Chrenkoff, whose been kind enough to offer some space for my ramblings.]
It's hot in Basra these days. How hot? Hot enough to prevent car passengers from resting their forearms on the bottom of an open window--the metal soon begins to blister the skin. Hot enough that even without air conditioning drivers often roll up their windows because the wind outside is too scorching. Hot enough that the air burns the inside of the nostrils when you breathe. Hot enough that the hammer blows of heat on a long afternoon make it difficult to stay awake. And summer hasn't even started yet...
But that's not what I want to talk about today. Rather, it's tamer--or dates.
A few afternoons ago, I dropped by the British Consulate at "Basrah Palace"--as I've mentioned, one of Saddam's Xanadus, built alongside the Shatt-al-Arab--where I met an Iraqi man named Taha Z. Aubid. Taha is the head of the Date Palm Department of the Agricultural Directorate of Basrah Governerate--in other words, the province's go-to guy for dates.
Dates were once one of Basra's main industries. In 1968, over 10 million trees grew in the province. Judging by the vintage package labels I saw displayed in one farm in Abu Al-Kaseeb, a palm-profuse area south of the city, this region supported numerous companies with names like "Babylonian Lion" and "Eastern Sun Dates" ("a product of al-Basrah"). Then came Saddam, war, bad irrigation practices salinizing the Shatt and environmental atrocities against rebellious Shiites--all of which decimated Basra's date groves. Today, only three million trees are left, and most of them are dying. Taha promised to take me out to one of the largest remaining farms, owned by the illustrious Musawi family of Basra--and by the way, did I want to meet the family tomorrow at their mosque? Of course, I said, and we made arrangements.
While waiting for my driver to motor me back to the hotel, I fell into conversation with a young British officer who was assisting with Basra's new emergency "115" line--the equivalent to our "911." Now, the British being British, they humanely designed the system to allow a person to contact help even if his mobile lacks a SIM card--in effect, making 115 calls free to the public. (Land lines are few and unreliable, so Basrans live by their cells, requiring them to purchase expensive "scratch" cards to replenish their minutes.) Iraqis being Iraqi, however, the latest fad in town is to remove your SIM card and make prank calls to 115--worse, the system lacks a "release" mechanism that permits the switchboard from cutting off hoaxes, meaning fun-loving Basrans frequently tie up the lines all night. "Only five percent of 115 calls are real emergencies," the officer said, as we both shook our heads. Sometimes, all you can do is sigh...
The next afternoon, Taha swings by the funduk and takes me over to the Musawi's mosque. This ain't any mosque, mind you, this is one of the largest structures in town, an enormous gold and blue-green multi-domed affair built in 1981 and named after the late family patriarch Sayyid Ali Musawi, leader of the Shaykhi branch of Shiism. And standing at the entrance to the jaami' are two elders from the clan, waiting to shepherd me in.
They are Abdul Redha--the family leader, or so I gather--and his cousin Ibrahim. Both are in their late 60s or early 70s, dignified, patrician, quiet-spoken men, spiffily-attired in neatly-pressed slacks and short-sleeved shirts--picture a pair of well-heeled Palm Beach retirees about to hit the links. We sit in a vestibule, where they relate the family background: about two hundred years ago, English-speaking Ibrahim relates, the clan fled Saudi Arabia one step ahead of the Shia-hating armies of Ibn Wahhab (the same fanatical Muslim who bequeathed Wahabbism to the world), eventually settling in southern Iraq. They became farmers--specializing in dates--bought land, moved into Basra and over time emerged as the city's aristocrats. They are wealthy, non-politcal, powerful (recently, the bandit Garamsha gang--with whom Layla and I have twice had tea, but that's another story--kidnapped one of their members, compelling the Musawis to send several hundred men into Garamsha turf to secure their relative's release) and dedicated to the betterment of Basra. And with that bit o' backstory out of the way, we rise to tour the jaami'.
Funny thing about mosques, and this one in particular. The first floor is a vast, clean, white, spacious, air-conditioned expanse, illuminated by dozens of small golden candelabra, its basketball court-breadth paralleled by a second floor over which depends a crystal chandelier whose opulent profusion of lights is reminiscent of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters. The mosque normally accommodates some 7-8,000 worshipers--10,000 on religious holidays--the majority of whom, Ibrahim notes ingenuously, are men.
Of course they're men. Men are the only people allowed to utilize the vast, clean, white, spacious, air-conditioned floors. Women have to use two narrow, undecorated, un-air-conditioned, shabbily-carpeted areas, the access to which is up forbidding concrete steps in a darkened corridor. Worse, these prayer pens possess opaque windows that prevent female worshipers from seeing into the main floor and witnessing the imam lead the Friday services (they can watch him on wide-screen TV, though). They can't see even view the Spielbergian extravaganza on the second floor. This gender discrimination is not limited to the Musawi mosque, of course. Many, if not most, jawaami' short-shrift female Muslims with entrances, facilities and salat areas that are separate and unequal.
I asked Layla--a fairly devout moderate Shia herself--why this should be. "The dominate interpretation of Islam does its best to dissuade women from going to mosques to pray," she explained--rather diplomatically, I thought. "In this view, women's prayers are best said at home--where women should be all the time." Like I say, sometimes all you can do is sigh...
Another point about the Sayyid Ali Musawi mosque. Nearly every business in Basra is family-owned: there is no public ownership, no stock market, few joint ventures. The Musawi's various enterprises include a construction firm, which built the jaami'--and because their laborers perceived jaami'-building as religious duty, Ibrahim noted, they worked on the mosque for free. Not much circulation of capital on this project, it seems--rather, we're in the realm of modern religious feudalism.
To finish up my tale of the Musawi (I actually did accompany Taha to their date farm, but that, too, is another story), we strolled a few hundred yards from the mosque to the tallest non-oil sector edifice in Basra--the Musawi Hospital. Yes, the family also built the largest, cleanest, most modern medical facility in the city. One of their relations, an optamologist named Zaineldin al-Musawi, directs the institution, which boasts 36 beds, serves about 250 patients and costs a small fortune to utilize. (Private hospitals are expensive, but the alternative, the medicine- and equipment-deprived public facilities are medical horror shows, so I'm told.)
It was pleasant, I admit, to meet Basrans who didn't--on the surface, at least--seem traumatized by tyranny and war (especially the impishly-humored, Paris-educated Dr. Zaineldin). And it was a relief to spend the afternoon in surroundings that weren't dirty, hot, dilapidated and beset by periodic blackouts. Perhaps this is the emotional pay-off for feudalism, I mused. Amidst the collapse of civilization--and Iraq is nothing if not a collapsed civilization--people who possess resources and offer protection against catastrophe become objects of admiration, respect and obeisance. And for their part, with their mosque- and hospital-building, the Musawis exhibit the noblesse oblige demanded of the feudal lord. Barons, barbarians, religious fervor--and cell phones. Call it Basra, call it medieval modernity.
One final observation. According to Dr Zaineldin, his institution lacks the one facility you'd expect in a well-equipped Iraqi hospital--an emergency ward. "The British asked us to close it down," he explained. Why? Seems it was encouraging young tribal bucks to go out a-feuding, get themselves shot up, then receive top-notch treatment in the most advanced medical center in town. Which means that should you have an accident in Basra today, don't try calling 115 for help, and don't bother going to the hospital. Better to do what Iraqis have always done--shut your mouth, suffer in silence and hope for better days.
Sometimes all you can do is sigh...
Yours from the land of the Mosqueteers and Hospitalers.
June 6, 2005