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April 2008 Archives

April 18, 2008 3:08 PM

Dying to Escape Iraq

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The last time I wrote about Haider, he had just arrived in Amman, Jordan after fleeing for his life from southern Iraq. The story of his narrow escape from the Mahdi Army’s death squads is worth repeating, not least because Haider’s struggle represents the continuing plight of thousands of Iraqis who are desperately trying to leave.

Haider worked as a translator for British forces in Basra, but the list of those targeted includes doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers. Their aggressors are, more often than not, poor, uneducated Shi’a from the slums of southern Iraq. Many were themselves victimized by Saddam Hussein’s regime; they found in the Mahdi Army’s leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, an angry voice that echoed their own. The fact that Sadr clothes his message in Islamic rhetoric gives them an additional sense of legitimacy, and a brutal, reductive vision of Islam to enforce.

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April 21, 2008 11:30 AM

(Dis)honor Killings

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Lina Nabil was writing glossy features for a Middle Eastern women’s magazine when she found the story that changed her life. In the 1980s, while she was working on an investigative report on the situations of Jordan’s imprisoned women, she was shown a cell in the Central Jail in the capital of Amman. It was packed with women in their early to late teens.

“I asked, what had these girls done?” recalled Lina. “I was told they were being held for their own protection because their families had tried to kill them. Some of them had been there for years. Others were released and later murdered. I knew this was a story I had to tell, whatever the consequences.”

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April 25, 2008 1:29 PM

Competing Visions for Iraq: Clerics or Commerce?

“We¹re going to build a city to rival Dubai,” says governor Assad Abu Galal as he unrolls sheaths of architectural plans in his offices on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. The 64-year old former exile, who usually cultivates an air of quiet, grandfatherly detachment, becomes suddenly animated as he traces the lines of new roads, housing projects, tourist complexes, and five-star hotels.

The centerpiece of his plan is the renovation and expansion of the Imam Ali Shrine, the golden-domed tomb that houses the body of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and draws millions of pilgrims each year. In one of Galal’s blueprints, a large swath of the old city has been cleared away to make way for shopping boutiques, underground parking and a sweeping piazza.

The proposed new shrine complex in Najaf, Iraq.

Sure, his audacity is surprising; he’s dreaming up schemes so out of touch with the realities of this dust-blown Iraqi city, where pools of sewage collect in the streets and there are only a few hours of electricity a day. But what struck me even more about the governor’s vision was that it represents a transformation in how the world of Iraqi Shi’a Islam sees itself.

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April 30, 2008 10:45 AM

Love Blooms in Baghdad

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Love has been one of the more unusual casualties of war here in Iraq. Young men and women have kept to their homes, and families have turned to older tribal marriage customs as a bulwark against the insecurity. But as a tenuous calm has returned to Baghdad, there’s been a brief blossoming of so-called “love matches.” Newlyweds and groups of young single men and women spend weekend afternoons strolling through the Baghdad Zoo, featured in this video.

There aren’t many ways to find love in Iraq. There are few such public spaces in Baghdad where couples can meet, even if little more happens than a platonic holding of hands. The majority of marriages are still arranged within families, often between cousins, reflecting the conservative view of marriage as a strategic union that keeps wealth inside the family, and guarantees the good reputation of the bride.

Sami, the subject of this video, says he couldn’t have married Sejwa if the security situation hadn’t improved in recent months. For starters, he found a job with a government office last year, his first since the U.S. invasion, which allowed him to save up the US$5000 needed for the marriage. An Iraqi bridegroom are expected to provide an apartment for his bride with all the modern conveniences:¬ refrigerators, televisions, kitchenware, beds, air-conditioning units. That makes for some of the most detailed pre-nuptial agreements in the world, and means many families take a businesslike view of marriage.

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