Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Iraq, from inside, from outside

Many left my country since the 1970s. Many writers. Most, if not all, were unknown to us. Us, the insiders. We, the insiders, were subjected to an intense media censorship. Books, magazines, newspapers, radio, satellite channels were all filtered by the previous regimen. It was only after the 2003 war when we start to know some of those Iraqi writers living abroad. Al-Kamel publications is a publishing company started in Germany by an Iraqi and developed to be one of the known publishing companies to the Iraqis after 2003. most of the Iraqi writers were unknown to me. Going to Al-Kamel publications in Bab-Al-Muathaam in the centre of Baghdad is always an adventure of discovery for me. I hold many books and start reading the notes on the back cover and few lines from the introduction. One day I bought two books.

I never heard of the writers before. Samuel Shamon was the first name to catch my attention. His book is entitled “an Iraqi in Paris”. It caught my attention because of the name of the writer. The name sounds like a name of an Iraqi Jew. They were a treasure those people. Most of them are productive people for the society. The first psychiatrist in Iraq was a Jew, dr. jacky shabi abboud. We lost them because our politicians were careless, or may be ignorant, or both.
The other book caught my attention because of its title “Juma’a is going back to his country” by a writer, I knew later he is the founder of Al-Kamel publications, named Khalid Al Ma’ali. Juma’a is a very lovely name to my heart. It means Friday.

The two books were biographies. Both about a young man leaving iraq and starting the life again from zero abroad. Sometimes maybe from below zero. Below zero means they got to erase what has been stuck into them from iraq to start again living. To format their brains out from the old retarded system and install a new version of windows so that they can live in harmony with their new society.

Samuel shamon tells us in his book about how he was a focus of attention and suspicion from the security system of the first few countries he tried to start to live in when he first leave iraq. He was interrogated and tortured. Isn’t this a start from below zero?

The story of his living outside iraq was the orchestral work upon which he played the concerto of his memories of life inside iraq. I think that the value of his book lies strongly on his narrative flow of memories of inside iraq. The first page of his book started from the last scene: the day when he reached the US, and finally be close to his dream of visiting Hollywood and starting his film making, in 2004. the next page heralds the start of his journey out from iraq in January 1979. this part contiues till page 195 (the whole Arabic version is a 311 pages book). In page 195 another chapter of his book starts. The concerto of his childhood in Iraq.

The first part of the book was written between 1990 and 2003, while the second part was written in 1989 as a scenario entitled "nostalgia for the English time".

"juma'a is going back to his country" is written by a poet, a modern one. Khalid Al-Maalie is referring to himself by a third person "Juma'a". his book is presented by 60 chapters. Each chapter is of about 5 pages. If I dare to say that Samuel shamon's book is a concerto, then I don't what to say really about Khalid Al-Maalie book. Is it a poetical realistic biography standing at the edge of dreams? Is it a new age music or maqamat? (maqamat is the plural of maqam which means a scale of notes played by traditional Iraqi musical instruments. There are about 100 maqam). Or is it intervened by some Hacha'a rigorously dancing musical pieces? (hacha'a is a dancing musical style in iraq. The word hacha'a came from the verb ihcha'a which means sit a half sit so that you are prepared to jump high, and it is believed that the names is associated with this dancing music because one usually yell "ihcha'a" to the dancing group so that they prepare themselves to the jump together). So was khalid al-maalie's soul playing some primitive hacha'a rhythms from south iraq to let our heart sit a half sit-down before it jumps racing its lyrical poetry? Some of his lines are so realistic to a degree that make you think it is a newspaper report, or a documentary one some Iraqi flavored relationships, till the words start march together, a little by little, to the edges of some kind of musical poetical Sufism which were my preferred lines. Well after all that can we say that Khalid Al-Maalie book is a concerto where the reality is the symphony and the poetry is the solo?

Finally to know a book you must have it and read it. What are unsaid remains floating between the lines. It is in the unsaid that we remain floating, or diving, in. I don't dare to say that I was logically presenting the books to you. I can say I was illogically presenting them to an area in your dreamland hoping that you can dream of what is iraq. And let me not stop talking and present you to those two men.

The two men are in black. shamon is to the right, Al Maalie is in the middle. The picture is taken from a very interesting arabic/english written blog http://imtidad.blogspot.com

Friday, September 26, 2008

....and Shahrazad is mute

The night in Baghdad is a hostage
Music played by drowsy flute
and Shahrazad’s mute

For all those musicians and singers who left Baghdad.

Pilgrimage To Hilla

Because my file “a file that contains information about my professional life (C.V.)” is present in Babylon Health Directorate, and because I cannot move the file to Baghdad until I finish my training as a board student, because of that I need to go to Hilla every now and then. For the last 3 years I never visited Al Hilla due to security causes.

There was some error in my salary. The clerk told me that she feels sorry that I must go to the place where I was working from 2002 to 2005 to bring some papers. My face stayed expressionless while my heart whispered to my ears “hilla!”. The clerk looked at my face and said: “I am sorry, we cannot fix it here. You must bring paper’s that…”
I interrupted her hesitant voice and said: “If I take there papers to Al hilla they can fix the problem?”
The clerk said: “sure”.

I went to my colleagues after few minutes and asked one of them to work instead of me for the next day. He agreed, he signed the papers of the OFF DAY and I gave it to the director of our hospital.

The next day I woke up very early and very energetic. There was a smile, an involuntary smile drawn itself on my face. I went to the garage.

“Hilla…Hilla….Hilla..” the driver standing near his KIA 11 passenger minibus is yelling with a lovely accent. I looked at all the faces for some longer than usual time while I greeted them “salam alykum” while I was taking my seat. They are the faces of people going to Hilla. Faces of calm and kindness. I swear they are.

I reached Al Hilla after running fast between palm orchards that I always fantasized of being having a lovely adventure in between. I thought about writing a novel of a lost child in the orchards found by the people there where they will let him grow. Fantasized about having a love story with a woman who lives there in a small house between the orchards. How it would be to sit there by the time of dawn to have some chatting and what it would be about? Fantasized about being a doctor to those poor people and having the opportunity to learn from their wisdom and to show them how much I care and love them.

I reached Al Hilla. There is a new building here. A huge one at the cross road. The police men here are more serious. They treat you with marked respect. Their attitude is really of security men. I liked how serious they are. In Baghdad the policemen are not that trustworthy as in Al Hilla.

The policeman at the gate of the hospital welcomed me very kindly: “hello doctor, we missed you, how are you”. He walked with me to the inner gate where there were new police men. He stood and said loudly so that the new police men hear him: “come in doctor come in!”. The new police men stood up and welcomed me. He did that so that the new police men don’t stop me. How kind.

I was walking in the corridor behind her. A cleaner whom I was wondering if she forgot me. She stood to take something. I greeted her by her name. She looked at me confused and then she put her hands on her cheeks and said: “oh God…..YOUUUUU…..” she hold my forearm with her strong fist and took me aside to let a wheel chair holding a patient to pass from behind of me.

All the staff remember me. Even those who were not saluting me before they did this time because we didn’t see each other since 3 years. I was happily confused. I ended my job there so quick. I hoped that it would take longer. I went to a walk in the market. I sat by the river. Shat il Hilla is a branch of Euphrates. Euphrates branch into two rivers at the north o Babylon. Tigris does the same but not in Babylon. The 4 branches were regarded by the Sumerians as the rivers of heaven. Some say that “the heaven” is a Sumerian concept that went out into other religions.

So I sat near my holy river. I was wearing off white clean trousers. I hesitate to sit on the floor near the river. But eventually I sat. A lovely donkey approached me.

And said:

- sami, you know nothing about al hilla till you get naked and jump in the river.
- To swim
- No, to suicide.
- …..
- Off course to swim you idiot. To swim. And you can hunt a fish if you want. Do you like fish?
- Yes, I will hunt one and we eat it together.
- Ehha ha haaaa…eat it? I don’t eat fish you human. I like to live with them. Actually I wanna be one. A colored one with an electric tail.
- Oh you like to be a fish.
- Sure. My theory about life is that we become what we want when we die. And I will become a fish swimming in Shat il Hilla someday. What do you like to be?
- Me?
- Yes you?
- Well….a donkey?
- Ehhee hhe haaaa…
- A donkey in Al Hilla carrying children and running till they burst into laugher.
- Hmmmm and would you carry women? Hmmmm?
- Only secretly.
- Ehhhe haaa heeee
- Ahhhe hooo heee
- Hey sami would you carry merchandise for the rich?
- No I will only bit there fatty asses.
- Funny sami…. I can say you are member of my group
- Your group?
- The group of…
- “hey come ..come here….hey”
- They are calling me my friend. You will go back to Baghdad?
- Yes, do you want me to bring you something when I come back from Baghdad next month?
- Yes, Taha Hussein novel “Shahrazad dreams”, see you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I was in Al Hilla in some hot summer in 2004 when I felt I need to talk to someone new. I went at the peak of the noon to an internet cafe to find it empty. I entered the Yahoo chat/ religion room, and found an Indian qween. She was so kind. She told me about India in a way that opened for me a new window to take my head out of it each time I feel I need to imagine and smell the fresh weather. The qween told me about the area where she lives in and that was Gujarat.

It was so hot in Baghdad especially when there is no electricity so that you beg the air conditioner to give you some fresh air. The windows are closed to get rid of dusty storms mixed with hot dry wind. It was 7 00 pm I went to sit near my neighbours so that we start together our symphony of complaining of electricity, noisy baghdad, the too much cars and bad drivers, the army, the parlament, the US army, the new laptop computers from china, the increase in prices.... I reached them then showed me a deep red juice and said : "drink gujarat!"...

I was still not in that state that I can know that they said this word "Gujarat". All I heard was something like "bujgraad" or maybe "sindibad"...What was taking priority in my mind is to taste the juice. It was cold and acidic. Something I really like. With some bitter/sweatness. WOOW.

- what did you say its name? (i asked)
- Gujarat!!
- Really? It is in India?
- Yes this one is from India.

I took another sip and opened my nose wide to smell the juice. The next day I bought Gujarat to make it at my home. It opened me a new window to look at my day. It can be served hot, like tea, or cold, like juice.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Baghdad: Moons and Whales

“Hey you sculptured whale
Leave our moon soon
And if you don’t leave it
We will strike for you with a tray”

I was preparing to present a paper entitled ‘affective disorders in Iraq: by Widad Bazzoui” when I thought about using some photos representing Iraq culture because the paper was about the cultural differences between western and Iraqi culture. I typed “Iraq” in the Google image search and all I saw was war. I typed “Iraq culture” and all I saw was war again. Hence I thought about publishing something talking about Iraqi culture.

They were waiting for the lunar eclipse. And because Baghdad these days is so much religious they only talked about how should they do the lunar eclipse prayers. They forgot about going into the houses’ roofs holding metallic trays and spoons to sing that song:

Hey you sculptured whale
Leave our moon soon
And if you don’t leave it
We will strike for you with a tray

The words in Arabic don’t go in rhyme as one may expect. Songs and poems which have no rhymes are the strongest. They are the most primitive. The most childish. The most true. Aziz Ali a very famous monologist in the early 20th century in Iraq had included this song in one of his monologues. Here is a picture where Aziz Ali is standing in the back. Picture is taken from an Iraqi Arabic internet site (www.alforat.org/showthread.php?t=21250) in the link you will see very nice pictures representing Iraq culture:

The origin of this song is a very complex one. First let us go to a visit to my friend Mwnqithe who will tell us: “There was a scientist living in Baghdad in the 11th century AD when the Mongols invaded Baghdad .They killed all famous men and women. That scientist I am talking about said to the chief of Mongols:

- Don’t kill me, I am a scientist and I can help you, I can know the weather during the coming days.

- And how I can that you are not lying on me?

- I know exactly when the coming lunar eclipse will happen.

The scientist told the Mongolian chief about that day and the chief ordered his guards to put the scientist in jail till that day. If a lunar eclipse will happen then the scientist will be free. If not, he will be killed.
That day did come and a lunar eclipse happened. The scientist told the guards to tell the Mongolian chief. The Mongolian chief was asleep; they told him and added that he doesn’t want anybody to wake him up. The scientist said loudly:

- Oh then it is the last time we will see the moon.

- What? (the guards asked frightened).

- There is only one way to safe the moon.

- Which is?

- It is a difficult thing to do…

- What should we do?

- The army should strike on its drums heavily urgently….NOW!!!

They did that. The Mongolian chief woke up and knew what happened. The scientist was released.”

- So the scientist did that to wake up the chief? (I asked Mwnqithe with a childish smile drawing itself on my face).

- Yes he did (Mwnqithe answered with a smile of a wise man).

Mwnqithe also told me that that scientist’s tomb is in al Kathumiya in Baghdad. He told me his name but I forgot it. I searched for it in the internet in vain. I phoned Mwnqithe hundred times but all in vain. His mobile phone is switched off. He is preparing for his final examination to have a Ph D in dermatology and be a fellow in the Iraqi Board of Dermatologists in few weeks. I thought I should not wait to publish this. The name may be added later.

I searched the internet in Arabic for Baghdadi traditions and what people do think about lunar eclipse. And found very wonderful stories. Here are two of them published in an Arabic forum by someone (http://www.shattalarab.com/vb/shatt120360.html). I don’t know how much they are true:

People from (kanbar Ali, an old quarter in Baghdad) think that the moon was searching for his lover (the moon in Arabic is masculine). He lost his way between deserts and mountains where the whale (a feminine in our language) was waiting for him. She swallowed him.

While people from Al Fathil (an old quarter from Baghdad) says: “oh no, the lady Amsha Um Sattoury, had seen the moon on summer night coming down to drink from the river Tigris. The whale came from the water and swallowed him. Amsha started yelling but people of Baghdad was drunk that day because they drunk ARAK of HIBHIB (Arak is an alcoholic drink classified as a spirit; Hibhib is a quarter in the governorate of Dyala).