... I'll meet you 'round the
bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...
A Royal Visit...
Unpacking the summer clothes and putting away the winter clothes is a process that takes about a week in our household. When the transition from winter clothes to summer clothes is finally over, the house ends up smelling of naphthalene, and unused hand soap, which is sometimes used to store clothes or linen in order to ward off insects.
Besides the usual 'spring cleaning', etc. the last few weeks have been volatile, even by Iraqi standards. The area of A'adhamiya in Baghdad has seen some heavy fighting, especially during the last week. There's almost always some action in A'adhamiya but a week ago it got to the point where there was open fighting in the streets between Ministry of Interior militias and guerrillas. As a result of this, we have an elderly relative staying with us. Her son, my mother's second cousin, dropped her off at our house with the words, "Her heart can't take all the excitement. Some bullets shattered the windows on the second floor and we thought she was going to have a heart-attack."
Apparently, prior to this latest outbreak of violence in A'adhamiya, there was a 'silent agreement' between the guerrillas and the Iraqi police that no attacks would be launched against Iraqi security forces in the area as long as Iraqi special commandos (Interior Ministry militias) would not attack homes in the area as they have been doing for the last year.
So we've been spending the days with Bibi Z. ('Bibi' being a Baghdadi word meaning "granny" or "nana") We don't know her exact age, but we estimate she's well into her eighties. She has a deceptively frail look about her- soft, almost transparent skin, a small face framed with long wisps of white hair. Her dark eyes are still very alive and have a look of permanent fascination because her brows are so white, they barely show up against her skin.
Having the distinction of being the oldest member of an Iraqi family has its privileges. Bibi Z. has installed herself as temporary reigning queen of the household- moving from room to room with the grace and authority of royalty. Within ten minutes of arriving at our house, she occupied my room and I was promptly relegated to the uncomfortable sofa in the living room. She spends the hours supervising everything from homework to housework, and inevitably advising on the best ways to store winter clothes, roll up the carpeting, and study algebra. Although she no longer cooks, she sometimes deigns to sample our cooking and always finds it in need of a spoon of this, or a pinch of that.
It's always fascinating to sit with one of the older generation of Iraqis. They inspire mixed feelings- they've seen so much tragedy and triumph living in a country like Iraq, that it leaves one feeling both excited at the possibilities and frustrated with what seems to be a lifetime of instability.
Bibi Z.'s first memories are of the monarchy and she clearly remembers all the other subsequent governments and leaders; she even has gossip about some of the ones making a comeback now. "That young fellow wanting to be the king," she says of Al Sharif Ali, "I think he's the result of an affair between one of the princesses and an Egyptian palace servant." She confides, as we watch him in a brief reportage on one of the Iraqi channels.
At around 10 am this morning, the electricity went out and it was too early for the generator. I commented that we wouldn't be able to see what had happened overnight unless we listened to the radio. Bibi Z. told us about the first television she saw- in 1957. One of their wealthier neighbors had acquired a television and as soon as her husband headed off to work, the ladies in the area would gather at her house to watch an hour of television. "We would put on our abbayas when the male tv presenter was speaking," she laughed. "It took Umm Adil two weeks to convince us that the presenter couldn't see us just as we saw him."
"And were the politicians just as bad?" I asked later as we watched Jaffari make some comments.
"History repeats itself... Politicians are opportunists... But they don't worry me- they were bad, but Iraqis were better." She continued to explain that through all of the drama and change that combine to form the colorful mosaic of the Iraqi political scene during the previous century, one thing remained constant- Iraqi loyalty and solicitude towards one another.
She talked of the student revolts during the years of the monarchy. "When Iraq signed the Portsmouth Treaty, the students revolted and organized demonstrations against the king- they were chased throughout Baghdad. My father was a police officer and yet when they chased the students into our area, we slipped them into the house and helped them get away by jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Iraqis were Iraqis and we had our differences, but we took care of each other... And women and children were sacred- no one dared touch the women and children of the house."
The one unforgivable sin back then was to have loyalties to the foreign occupier. "Today, the only ones who can guarantee their survival are the ones with the loyalties to an occupier- and even they aren't safe." She sighed heavily as she said this, her prayer beads clicking gently in her thin hands.
"For the first time in many years, I fear death." She said last night to no one in particular, as we sat around after dinner, sipping tea. We all objected, wishing her a longer life, telling her she had many years ahead of her, God willing. She shook her head at us like we didn't understand- couldn't possibly understand. "All people die eventually and I've had a longer life than most Iraqis- today children and young people are dying. I only fear death because I was born under a foreign occupation... I never dreamed I would die under one."
- posted by river @ 11:54 PM