[Note: the Christian Science Monitor has been kind enough to run another of my articles, this one on the religious parties who now dominate Basra. When you read this, keep in mind that for various reasons--not the least of which were safety concerns--the piece only scratches the surface of what is happening here.]
Dear Lisa --
Down Basra way, the country most preoccupying the locals is not Amrika, but that brooding, seething, over-cleric'd Mordor to the east, Iran. Whether its supporting religious parties, smuggling oil and gas, sabotaging the energy infrastructure, orchestrating sectarian assassinations or other neighborly deeds, Basrawi detect the stealthy hand of Tehran in nearly every aspect of their lives. "We don't talk about this in public," a professor at Basra U. told me. "Get too explicit and you get 'disappeared.'"
Give such sensitivity to their ancient Persian adversary, its not surprising that many Basrans were peeved to read a few weeks ago former defense minister Hazim al-Shalan's contention that Iranian soldiers had occupied a small Iraqi island in the Shatt-al-Arab near Fao. Scandal! Dishonor! Shades of Quemu-Matsu! What's next, Ayatollahs promenading on the Corniche?
So it was I recently found myself storming the beaches of Um al-Rasas Island, searching--hoping--for signs of Iranian infiltration. To my disappointment, I discovered nothing but ducks and weeds and bull rushes and dirt paths meandering off into yellowing papyrus reeds. Turns out, the car trip 40 kilos south of Basra and a boat ride halfway `cross the Shatt was little more than an op for some Ministry of Defense official to photo with a cadre of security guards and prove that Um al-Rasas remained free of the minions of Tehran.
Aside from pondering the unchanging ways of the Iraqi fishermen, plying their nets in the Shatt-al-Arab in the venerable ways of their ancient ancestors (actually, fishermen these days use dynamite to WMD whole schools of fish into oblivion--when, that is, they're not fighting territorial waterway battles with their Iranian and Kuwaiti counterparts...) there wasn't much for us journalists to do except crowd into a tiny concrete blockhouse and interview the seven border patrol cops cooped up on Um al-Rasas like an all-male Gilligan's Island. But that was when things got interesting.
As I listened to the Iraqi cops and reporters chat away in Araby and tried to stay awake in the soporific heat, I noticed affixed to the wall of the station a picture of...well, let's call him The Leader. You've seen The Leader. He's a young, under-educated but extremely canny tire-head with chipmunk cheeks and a perpetual scowl who nevertheless possesses the adoration of millions, particularly among the poor. This only-in-Iraq cross between Thomas Muntzer and Al Sharpton has caused many headaches for the Coalition and the Hawza, not to mention countless young women who must suffer the humiliation of his "monitors" scrutinizing their clothing and make-up to insure they meet their standards of Muslim propriety. Meanwhile, The Leader's beady-eyed mug appears everywhere in Basra--on the street, on the campus of Basra U., in business offices, in the vestibule of the Appellate Court building ("We're afraid to take it down," a judge told me). I got to wondering why his picture was adorning a police station, and so I asked.
"We believe in him, he is a great man," enthused one cop, a rangy, smart-alecky kid with an Eddie Haskell smirk. "Seventy-five percent of Basra's police follow him!" . Actually, that's 25 percent more than the city's police chief admitted last May to a U.K. Guardian reporter (the indiscretion cost the cop his job), but I figured the young buck wanted to impress the foreign sahafee with the prowess of his Leader.
As I've written , the fact that many, if not most, of Basra's constabulary harbors primary loyalties to the city's religious parties is--as you might imagine--a serious problem. To the despair of many secular-minded residents, the British are doing a cracker-jack job of teaching Iraqi police cadets close-order drills, proper arrest techniques and pistol marksmanship, without, however, including basic training in democratic principles and a sense of public duty. As a result, our Anglo allies may be handing the religious parties spiffy new myrmidons to augment their already well-armed militias. Worse, the knowledge that a cop's sympathies may lie more with the Badr Organization than the Basran citizenry erodes general trust in the police. "If someone, say, stole my car, I wouldn't go to the police to get it back," an Iraqi journalist told me. "I'd negotiate directly with the thieves."
Back in the concrete blockhouse, Eddie Haskell had evidently decided to add to his day's busy agenda an effort to irritate the American journalist. "Amirka muu zayna," he informed me. ("American no good.") Not once, or twice, but like one of the flies buzzing around the station, he wouldn't stop, giggling "Amrika muu zayna, Amrika muu zayna," glancing at his buddies for their nods and approbation. He continued to relate this insight as we trudged back to the motorboat, me smiling & shrugging & adopting the typically American toleration of criticism--hey, you want to attack my country, well, gee, okay, I guess we somehow deserve it...Just as we were boarding the vessel, however, Eddie grabbed my arm and, smirking and snorting, shoved his cell phone in my face, where prominently displayed on its call screen was a mini-image of...the Twin Towers burning. "Zayn?" he snickered.
No, asshole, muu zayn. Gritting my teeth, I worked my way to the boat's stern where the AK-'d cops'd gathered, there to pondered my response to Eddie's anti-American glee. But how do you retort to an armed soldier when neither you nor his comrades speak the same language? The vessel lurched off and as we chugged across the water, I noticed how my friend was sitting with his rifle barrel jutting up between his knees, and knowing a little about locker-room humor, made a familiar gesture that suggested what Eddie does with his "gun" off duty, then offered to photograph him in commisso. After a moment of silence--during which I imagined I was about to join the dynamited fish of the Shatt--his pals suddenly burst into laughter and, snorting and slapping one another, initiated a series of more increasingly graphic pantomimes at Eddie's expense--boys will be boys, you understand--until everyone was in rollicking good spirits, clapping and shouting "Na'am, na'am!" ("Yes, yes!") as they ridiculed their bewildered compatriot.
This is my weapon, this my gun...
The boat approached the mainland, and as the hilarity reached a peak, I took the opportunity of our male-bonding to evoke The Leader's name and--avoiding descriptively apt but possibly familiar Anglo-Saxon phraseology--offered my estimation of his effect on Basra. Na'am, na'am! The cops chimed in, unsure of what I was saying, but responding to the Great Man's name with smiles and nods and double-barrel thumbs-up. Even Eddie, eager to reclaim face and re-establish his peer position, joined in the general approval of my comments. Pleased at this unanimity of opinion toward The Leader, I flashed my new friends a Chesire grin and a score-one-for-the-Amriki wink. Immature? Yep. Dangerous? Possibly. Satisfying? Na'am!
It's called Qasr Sultan--the Sultan's Palace--and its a decent restaurant on the corner of Jazar and Tamouz Streets. A few weeks ago, an Iraqi journalist spirited me out of the hotel for a night on the town--actually a drive through what passes for nightlife in downtown Basra (basically restaurants, ice cream parlors and narghile cafes) and dinner at the ma'taam. What follows is a verbatim selection of the delicacies this fine establishment offered on its menu.
For starters, begin with a steaming plate of
- Sultanate Arabs
- Fleshy & Homs or the ever-popular,
Follow that with a main course of
- Wishing & Flesh
- Flesh Stuffed
- Make bread & Flesh
- The hen of my curry
- Kream chab flesh
- Steak is by the pepper
- A drawstring Fleshy
- Corden blo Chickens
- Chickens Cabbage & Cheese Whiteness
- Ordinary Fish Hammer
- Shrimp Osteoblast
For dessert, may I suggest
- Vassal banana, or the house specialty
- The plate of a fruit is problematic
Yours from the land of the breakfast-time Mixture & Flesh, with a side dish of Whiteness.