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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

October 13th 2004
Clowns to Kurdistan

We made a load of plans for the Boomchucka Clowns to go back to Iraq this autumn, compiled an info sheet for people who wanted to join the circus, planned for some fundraising, made a list of useful stuff and people to blag it off, agreed who was going to do what.

And then Ghareeb was dead; Ghareeb who took me to Falluja, who took countless foreigners to the places he thought we could make a difference, Ghareeb with the fiery temper that drove me nuts, who sometimes liked to exaggerate, who always loved to gossip – Ewa used to say a big bird told her everything, Ghareeb whose cigarette end lit the way through the pitch dark streets of Falluja, who drove the ambulance that was shot at with us in it, who I called Azzam in the stories from there, who doesn’t need a disguise any more, who seemed to know everyone, who’d fled his native Palestine after working for freedom there, making his home in Iraq instead, is dead.

Surely someone so big couldn’t die, but it seems like bullets don’t discriminate. He was driving with the convoy that included foreign journalists and activists and Italian Red Cross workers in late August. Enzo, a Red Cross volunteer, freelance journalist and blogger, was kidnapped and killed. Even though I spoke to him on the phone only a couple of weeks before and he was fine, all it took was a bullet and now he’s dead.

And then the two Simonas, Mahnoaz and Dr Raad were kidnapped, seized in broad daylight by unmasked, smart, well-fed men, apparently working on some kind of covert operation rather than the usual chaotic opportunistic roadside bandit episodes, and we knew there was no way the clowns could go back as planned.

The current Iraqi government, under Ayad Allawi, is aping the last in terms of information control. Foreigners are to be kept away, their interactions controlled. Visas are coming back into use not to protect national security but to filter the opinions of those admitted. Journalists who write the wrong thing are shut down or threatened and NGO workers who consistently make sure medical supplies get through sieges to the populations of Falluja and Najaf are to be forced out.

Allawi was a Baathist, turned CIA operative sent back to Iraq to destabilise the Saddam government with covert bombing campaigns that included a cinema and a school bus. He hasn’t changed. My friend Abeer, one of the Baghdad University girls, wrote me a desperate e mail. Confined to her home, she begged me to call the embassy and find out if, having been born in the UK while her mother was a student here, she can come and live here.

Even Zaid, the King of post-occupation optimism, e mailed today to tell me things are very bad. Zainab, his sister, got married two weeks ago, he’s got a job with a newspaper, Mimi is in pre-school. They carry on as best they can. Farah we haven’t heard from and can’t reach.

Waleed is out and safe. He got a scholarship to Canada, as did Majid. For months the Canadian embassy in Jordan refused him a visa, for months until he missed the start of term and we all bombarded them with phone calls and e mails. The objection was primarily that he’d been in a metal band. I’m sorry. A teenage boy band might be a bit noisy, might even be slightly bizarre when it can only play in a bingo club with streamers on the ceiling but it’s not a threat to anyone’s national security or public order.

He says Canada is quiet. It feels all the time like it must be the calm before the storm but the storm keeps on not coming. There’s water everywhere and loads of animals. Waleed isn’t keen on little animals. He’s worried about waking up one morning to find that a raccoon’s peed on his desk.

Layla says the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq is getting a lot of threats from political Islamist groups. The squatter camp at Shuala – the one the circus went to a lot, where we built the drain and still hope we can build a school – is in the middle of a lot of fighting, helicopter gunships and tanks from the US side, Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers from the resistance.

So the clowns are not going back to Baghdad and the south but we will be despatching two, maybe three, to Iraqi Kurdistan in early November. Anyone who’s been reading a while might remember the villages near Erbil and the refugee camps of Iranian and Turkish Kurds, the deaf boy at Maxmur who had never heard music in his life till he felt the sound of Luis’s didgeridoo. Things are not as desperate in Kurdistan as elsewhere in Iraq but they still suffered a lot under sanctions and Saddam and we still found a lot of kids and adults who needed to remember what it felt like to play and laugh.

The plan, initially, is that Peat and Luis will go there for a month, perform, teach and identify projects and solidarity work the circus can usefully do. It might end up going on for longer, as it did last time, if the results are positive and it’s – relatively speaking – safe to work there, both for them and the local people who work with them.

If anyone wants to help – yes, it’s time for the blag – what we want is as many parachutes as we can get for parachute games, ideally so they can leave a few in appropriate places with instructions translated into Kurdish, as well as some magic tricks and such like. Peat tells me it’s £66 a parachute. They’ll travel in through Turkey and it’s relatively cheap to get there – about £180 per person for a one month return flight, more by train. The cost of living in the Kurdish area is pretty low and the main expense over there will be paying translators and drivers.

We also want them to be able to identify and fund small scale projects created by local people – like the drain in Shuala – which allow people to empower themselves and improve their own living conditions. If possible they’ll also train some local folk to teach circus skills and look into setting up a youth centre or two through other organisations which can give the kids a chance to play all year, not just in Boomchucka season. OK, it’s possible that this is all going to take longer than a month.

I won’t be going this time, sadly. I’m in university now, for a year. I’m studying to be a barrister and rally really enjoying it, really appreciating being alive in a gorgeous autumn and having the chance to be a student. It’s fully full-time though, which is why you’ve heard nothing from me in a while and, typical student, when you do I want money, but the circus last time around was incredible so please be part of it this time. Check out some of the pictures and stories on www.circus2Iraq.org if you missed it.


Speaking Dates:

October 16th – at the SchNews conference, Camden Centre, near Kings Cross station

November 5th – Peace Party in Bristol, fundraiser for Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Union of the Unemployed in Iraq. I’m talking about 9pm. Not sure of venue.

November 18th – London, evening. Not sure of the venue and time yet.

December 5th – Iraq Occupation Focus one-day conference, London


Saturday, April 03, 2004

March 31st
Basra

Basra starts suddenly, as you approach from Samawa. On one side of the railway tracks there is nothing but desert, immense trails of oil tankers oozing along the highway, similar sized hordes of camels traipsing the other way, the Japanese troop carriers on the way out of Samawa giving way to British ones further south.

On the other side are houses, densely packed, expanding to fill all available space, washing and children and bricks erupting out of them and the cars slicing through, its central reservation, pavements and part of the road covered with stuff for sale, old kitchen ware, old clothes, old electrical goods, like a giant drive-through car boot sale without the car boots. After a while, stalls selling new goods start to intersperse and in a while you reach the centre of the city.

Security is getting worse in Basra, people say, as unemployment rises, electricity remains erratic, on for eight or nine hours a day but cutting out at unpredictable intervals, and power struggles drag on. There have been a few attacks on British troops in recent days as frustration and the heat intensify. The soldiers used to walk the streets, much less under fire than the ruder Americans, but have stopped since the sniper incidents started.

Explosions, people say, are daily now and the BBC doesn’t report the killings of individual soldiers. Kidnappings of contractors are on the increase. Security firms are making things worse by calling themselves NGOs because they think it’s safer for them. They travel armed and create uncertainty about what it means to be an NGO, exposing organisations to increased risk.

Rehab just wants to leave. She lived in Cardiff for ten years while her dad was studying for a PhD in civil engineering. What’s wrong with Iraq, I asked, for her point of view more than because I didn’t know. She pointed at the headscarf on my lap. “That’s one thing,” she said. “I don’t wear it. I won’t.” in Samawa women have been threatened for not covering their hair. Not here, Rehab said. “They just whisper and point, but I am defiant. I drive a car as well.”

A computer engineer from a Shia family, she wants to get a scholarship for a post graduate degree in the UK and escape from Iraq for a while. Her dad would let her leave if it was to take up a scholarship, she thinks. He wouldn’t go back himself though: “He says he likes being able to say hello to everyone in the street.”

The first show had to be cancelled. The newly opened play space set up by Intersos is suffering the effects of the wranglings over power. The sheikh who lives and rules near the centre thinks he ought to have control over everything and has tried to get all his friends and relations jobs in the centre, to have the teachers fired, has forced the centre to do without a theatre and a music room, such as the centre in Bayaa, in Baghdad, has got.

Instead our first Basra performance was in a school for deaf and dumb children. Rehabilitated by Save the Children after a comprehensive post war looting, the school caters for 119 children altogether. From the show in the deaf school in Samawa, we learnt that though they can’t hear, the kids still recognise and respond to noise and to variations in noise, so we made lots.

Luis’s didgeridoo was a big favourite again and instead of communal shouting, they signed approval and disapproval in unison, very politely suggesting that I on my stilts ought to give back Luis’s hat when he started to howl. A little girl called Hanaan was the star translator, signing for the kids less adept at lip reading. The headmistress told us at the end that she’d never seen the kids so animated.

In the old days, Ali said, deaf people were singled out for special persecution because they were harder to control. Using sign language, they couldn’t be listened to the way everyone else could and the security police couldn’t tell whether they were up to something or not. They weren’t allowed to wear hearing aids because Saddam thought they might be secret communication devices and people shunned them, even taxi drivers wouldn’t stop for them, for fear of being implicated by association. In times of war they were tortured to make sure they couldn’t scream properly, to make sure they really were deaf and mute.

Zaid's brother-in-law is deaf and has worn a hearing aid since he was a small child. "No one has ever told him you cannot wear it," Zaid said. Vehemently against Saddam, and unequivocally happy that he was removed, still he said, "None of this happened to him. Perhaps it was only in the south, or in the north."

The next new challenge was a show for blind children and orphans in the Ministry of Social Affairs. One of the women working in the Ministry showed me a booklet of phrases and quotations which formed an exercise for teaching English, including a line about how it’s possible to look without seeing, to listen without hearing. It reminded me that the reverse is also true: the deaf kids heard us through some other sense. We didn’t know how the blind children would see us, how they used other senses to compensate, so we did exactly the same show we always do.

A boy of about twelve with a scarred face looked intently into the top corner of the room. His friend beside him had one eye which hardly opened at all and another which was fixed, the pupil rolled back so it was barely visible. The two sat with an arm around each other’s shoulders, laughing frequently and turning sometimes to hug one another. Two little girls whispered in each other’s ears for the entire show, giggling.

It was different. They loved the boomchuckas at the beginning and the didgeridoo. They could understand the music box routine and enjoyed it. The juggling was a little lost on them, but the presence of the kids who could see, from the orphanage, was helpful because their excitement infused the whole atmosphere. Again their teachers said they could hardly believe the effect the show had on them.

When they left the children walked in clusters, arms around each other’s shoulders, the almost-blind leading the blind. Not one of them had so much as a stick to guide them. Eman said the kids at the corresponding institution in Baghdad have sticks but here there is nothing. There is a little teaching and a new project to teach them some gymnastics, but no real resources.

Outside, Rafaa watched her boy, Abdullah, laughing at Fisheye’s magic tricks. In English she told me his father was dead. “They cut off his head,” she said. “Saddam cut off his head.” It was in 1991, after the uprising, when Abdullah was a baby. She has brought the kids up alone since then.

One of the men outside wanted to talk about the British troops. I was curious, because in Baghdad they believe that the British troops are much better than the US ones, much more polite, fairer. “Noss oo noss,” was his opinion: so-so. The Spanish and Japanese soldiers were good, he thought, in Samawa and elsewhere in the south. “The Americans,” he made a brushing away gesture with his hands. “No. No good.” He said he was glad Saddam was gone, but were things better now, he asked himself. Human rights were not respected and the soldiers still caused many problems.

Basra has thousands of displaced people living in camps. The bombing in 1991 destroyed countless houses. In the mid 1990s a movement formed to overthrow Saddam. The young men were arrested and killed, their homes burned in punishment. The latest bombing made still more people homeless. The biggest city outside Baghdad, Basra has also seen an influx from the smaller and poorer towns and cities in the south.

Abeer works in the logistics department at Save the Children. She used to work in the community participation programme but left because she believes that one of her superiors was misappropriating funds. Before that she was in the IDP [Internally Displaced People} team at Save the Children but the programme came to an end when its funding stopped. As with IDPs throughout the country, no one is responsible for them and noone has funding to look after them. There are moves to evict them from a lot of the squats and compounds where they’re living without services but no real alternative housing on offer.

Like Samawa, Basra’s so-called ‘youth centre’ is in fact a sports club for boys with a theatre for religious lectures. Two girls came in, hidden behind the abayas of mothers who work there as cleaners. When I sat down to take off my stilts, Abeer came to bring me a message. “There is a little girl there who was really happy to see you. She told me to tell you she loves you, but she was too shy to come and say it.” In the end, though, Suha did come for a photo with me and a chat.

Abeer says life is better for women in Basra than elsewhere in the south. A bigger city, close to the border with Kuwait and to Iraq’s only port, it has been more influenced by the people passing through and women are freer, safer to walk about, though she still couldn’t smoke a narghila in public, and it’s easier for them to find work, but still since the war she and her friends are more afraid to walk outside, more afraid of kidnapping, violence, robbery. Like everywhere, “security” is the first concern, the first word on every woman’s lips.

Abeer is clever, funny, gorgeous, cheeky. She, her sister and another woman run an organisation called Women for Peace and Democracy. “I don’t like the word democracy in the name but my sister insisted,” Abeer explained. Her sister said you get more money for projects with the word ‘democracy’ in the title and it’s true. Their funding so far has come from different sources including the CPA. They don’t like it but don’t have much choice.

They’ve been running computer classes, first for housewives and then for women in unskilled jobs with little education, to improve their prospects. Later they started English and literacy classes as well as providing clothes and abayas for poor women in rural areas, which helps them feel more able to go out. The classes were full immediately they were advertised. “You couldn’t do that in Nasariya or Amara,” Abeer said. “The women would want to go but they wouldn’t be allowed and you would find the classroom empty every week.”

They do it quite quietly, but these women set the world on fire, Abeer and Rehab and Maha. And then it was over and we were driving back to Baghdad, the time in Basra far too short.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

March 29th
Samawa

At sunset swallows dive among the washing lines and satellite dishes on the flat rooves across the town of Samawa, about 120km north of Nasariya, and the market comes to life, dead chickens lying in trays, the insides of half sheep hanging in doorways, pungent fish and bags of sour yoghurt and cheese curd, cages of pigeons, fruit and vegetables, a tea stall here and there between clusters of stalls or shops all selling the same thing, a whole row of trays of eggs, a few selling buckets and hoses, a few selling stationery.

The taxis are the same as everywhere, white with orange panels, and the fire engines with “Sides” printed on the sides so you wonder if they came in self assembly kits until you realise it says the same on the front and back. All the women are in black from head to foot, yet there are headscarves of every colour in the market. I stopped to buy a couple and talked to the man in the shop about what we’re up to. I don’t bother to bargain any more, just tell the shopkeeper about the circus and wait for the foreigner tax to be cut.

Peat got one of the black things that wraps around the head to hold the kaffiyeh, the men’s head covering. It only led to trouble though because when he and Luis went for a narghila later, they got arrested and dragged away by four police men with guns. Apparently someone reported that there were funny looking foreigners in town, one of them wearing his kaffiyeh like a terrorist.

Ali and I went to get them out of the police station, where there was also a big bucket of cold beers seized from “Ali Baba”, and he promised to show Peat how to wear the kaffiyeh the non-terrorist way. How considerate of the terrorists to adopt a different way of dressing so as to protect other people from suspicion.

It was the second time today that the police had come to take us away, the first being outside the Department of Youth and Sport, which has organised some shows for us. They took Peat and Fisheye because they wanted to watch the film on Fisheye’s camera, drove them to the police station, gave them tea, didn’t notice that Fisheye was still filming and let them go again. They have to check up on all the foreigners, find out who they are and what they’re doing.

Apparently kidnapping people is something of a habit with the police down here though. They once picked up three of the Dutch soldiers and kept them in the cells overnight. It’s impossible to imagine the Baghdad police doing the same with an unsuspecting group of US soldiers.

The Dutch soldiers walk around otherwise unmolested in small groups on patrol. The Japanese soldiers I’ve only seen in vehicles. Saad said as they passed, “They are afraid of the Iraqi people.” In Nasariya, the first guess on nationality is Italian. Here people ask if you’re Japanese or Dutch. In Baghdad, for some reason, the first assumption is that you’re Russian, then American. Either way, it feels much safer here than Baghdad, much quieter. There are no bombs here. A bit of gunfire earlier had everyone looking out of their front doors.

Our street is sectioned by ditches of dirty water, the kids hopping over them, the cars slowing down to bounce through. A footbridge across the Euphrates is partly collapsed and people pick their way carefully across. The main urban centre in Muthanna province, Samawa has only about half a million people, mostly Shia, as is the case throughout the south, and you’re quickly out of town.

On the road to the rural youth centres we’ve been to each afternoon are small groups of men carrying vivid green, red and black flags. They are walking to Kerbala from all over the south for the end of the mourning for the Imam Hussein. Tents of all sizes, surrounded by the same colours, offer food and rest for the pilgrims. Cars hoot in support as they pass. Mr Abu Zina tutted at the continued playing of the devotional music in Salam’s car on the way to a school: “Ashura is over,” he pointed out, apparently tired of the chanting and crashing of cymbals to mark the time for chest beating.

The youth centres are each used by about a hundred boys and no girls, with no facilities for anything except sport. Today about three girls, yesterday about nine, made little rows at the back of the theatre. A family of swallows had made its nest at the front of the theatre and a pile of turd on the stage, swooping in and out of the absent windows. The day before that there was no theatre, only a improbably hot tarmac games court with boys playing basketball barefoot and a crowd of non participants leaning in the shade.

There were coaches for basketball, volleyball, handball and football, one of them the sports teacher from the boys’ school, who volunteered the information that his father had died a month ago. The manager, one of three albino men I’ve seen in as many days in Samawa, who must suffer agonies in the heat of summer, looked shocked at my asking whether any girls used the centres.

The girls are in the fields either side of the road with the women, picking stuff in rows, carrying it down the dirt tracks. It was notable for its rarity when two women came into the internet and talked to Fisheye after he did some magic tricks while he was outside smoking a cigarette. Conservatism and fear mix thickly.

Yesterday’s first show was supposed to be in the big sports hall on the edge of town but there were no kids. The head of the Department of Youth and Sport in Samawa insisted that the heads of the schools knew about the show, but the heads said there was no way they could take their children there: they were too scared for the kids’ safety if they walked them through the streets.

Instead we went to them, to a girls’ school with about six hundred pupils. Through the gates, as we got ready in the headmistress’s office, came a constant stream of boys, two by two, holding hands, until the original crowd had doubled, the visitors packed into the balconies around the inside so it looked like the kids were all crammed into shelves around the yard. There were far too many of them, all edging forward as the ones at the back pushed to be able to see, like at Sadr City, so we had to keep stopping for the teachers to coax them all back again and make room for us to perform in, which makes it all a bit chaotic, but the kids loved it.

This morning we finally managed to do the stadium show, with a school full of girls’ packed into the stands. The headmistress told them before the show to be quiet and keep still. It lasted a couple of minutes before we got them shouting and laughing, all leaning forward together when they yelled.

Much quieter, in fact our quietest show yet, was the school for deaf and dumb children. We left out the ‘boomchucka’s but the advantage of a show that’s not based on language is that it’s quite easy to adapt for people who can’t hear you. They can still laugh out loud though and do the gasp of amazement when Fisheye shows them the multicoloured pictures that have magically appeared in the colouring book.

There are 71 pupils aged up to twelve, after which there’s nothing for them in Samawa, studying the same primary school curriculum as all Iraqi schools teach, using lip reading and sign language. The headmistress is keen to communicate with teachers of deaf children outside Iraq to improve their methods of working with the kids.

There are no other activities or arts, although the school’s in a better state than a lot we’ve been in, with pictures on the walls, running water and carpet. The Dutch military have embarked on a lot of school rehabilitation, but there are still no facilities for making food or for sick kids, which means there are a lot of deaf kids in the area who aren’t coming to the school because they can’t be looked after enough.

Saad has had four contracts from the Dutch military for school rehabilitation. He doesn’t have much time for the likes of Bechtel who take contracts at inflated prices and just siphon off the money and don’t do the work properly but he’s more irritated still with the translators working for the Dutch army, who are diverting the contracts to their own relatives and friends, he said.

Yesterday a contract worth $91,000 was given to the brother of the translator, a nineteen year old with no experience as a building contractor or engineer. The money is good on these contracts and the translators know they can get away with securing them for their own families, even when they’re not professionals. As a civil engineer with twenty years of experience, Saad felt aggrieved and decided to go and challenge the decision in court.

I was dubious that there were any processes through which he could challenge it, any system of judicial review for procedural impropriety, any appeals process. Sure enough, when I saw him later, he said nothing happened in court because the translator was a friend of the Dutch military.

But Saad says that everything is better now Saddam is gone. He doesn’t care how long foreign troops stay or what they take, he says, as long as the Baathists are gone. It doesn’t matter to him who runs the country so long as it’s not the Baathists. He spent four months in the jail in the security police headquarters in 1994, showed us the scar on his ankle where a cigarette was put out. He pointed out the jail where he was held. “I burnt it with my own hands, “ he said, miming striking a match. Bush, he said, is a gentleman.

The men and women in jail now without charge, trial, lawyers, without their families knowing where they are, he insists, are all from Falluja, Ramadi or Tikrit. Nothing will convince him that there are detainees from anywhere else in Iraq, nor that merely to be from those places is not a valid reason for internment. Everyone from the three towns was directly oppressing the people of the south, he says, every one, including the children.

Sometimes reconciliation seems a long way off.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

March 26th
The Girls’ Day Out

“This was a Baath party building. The girls have never been in this hall before,” Maha said by way of explanation for the ones who burst into tears and went and hid. “Only three girls come to the youth centre and they only come for sewing lessons.” For the last couple of weeks she’s been visiting the girls’ schools and talking to their parents, negotiating and reassuring for them to be able to come to see the show. Still she was surprised at how many were allowed to come.

“Some of these girls, I have not seen them smile since the war and today they were laughing. It makes me think there is still hope.” Maha is the computer teacher for the centre, which has two computers. She’s well respected in the community for her honesty which is why she was able to persuade the parents to let their daughters come to the show and also why she’s able to convince the manager to let the girls use the centre. Less popular with the staff and community, he’s known as “Little Saddam”.

The girls, like they always are, were excited to see a woman in the show, like the women who work there, mostly as cleaners and cooks, clustered at the back of the room. Maha is hoping today will be a precursor to more of the girls coming regularly. There’s nothing else for them apart from school. There’s some kind of plague that claims them around 11 or 12 years old. They disappear.

A lot of them have very poor coordination and spatial awareness because the physical side of their development is neglected. They don’t get to run around and become aware of their bodies and the space around them and consequently they have trouble even with things like writing, arranging things in a room, stacking stuff against a wall, convinced that it won’t fit in the space available. The kids in the kindergartens are developmentally delayed too by the lack of activities and materials. They just sit in rows with their hats on while the teacher talks.

There’s a youth centre in every town in Thi Qar province, around Nasariya, run by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, every one exactly the same, from the basketball hoops in the yards to the layout of the rooms and backstage area. The only difference between the stages in each of the identical theatres is the precise location of the holes in the floor underneath the standard burgundy carpet.

In each of the first two, Al-Nasur and Al-Rifa’ie, about 130 kids, mostly boys, use the centre each day after school. The director of Al-Rifa’ie came and whispered nervously to Rifaat, whose eyebrows shot up in alarm. “There is an important religious man here,” he said and launched into a list of things we mustn’t do in case we offended him.

They wee worried the kids might jostle him and make him angry, worried that a woman on stage with uncovered hair might provoke him. He crept out a little before the end, still laughing, leaving a message thanking us for coming, for making the kids happy: the official approval of the Sistani camp.


Qala Al-Suka has one sewing machine, two computers, a sparse library and, alongside the basketball hoop, a lone football goal frame, denuded of its net. War Child has just had a grant awarded for the youth centres in Thi Qar, so they’ll be able to raise the standards in all eight centres.

Maha said she’d been thinking of leaving because of Little Saddam but now that new resources are coming she’ll stay. Otherwise stuff will disappear. Besides, the girls might not be allowed to come back if she left. It’s not just about giving the kids something better to imagine than guns and bombs, it’s also about bringing hope to the adults who live and work with them.

Women’s Centres are the latest thing with the CPA. Since the US decided it was losing too many people and was after all going to hand over power when it said it would, all the funding is for ‘democratisation’ and if a project couldn’t remodel itself to include that then its funding was cut. Likewise there’s money for projects in the marshes because they’re politically hot but much less for the other towns and villages in the province where there’s more malnutrition and poverty.

Democratisation means teaching people, women particularly, about voting and why its important. The local women don’t use the centres, don’t feel they’re representing them, see them as Western-imposed things with no relevance to their lives. Meanwhile women’s rights are getting worse. Women have been receiving specific threats for being seen without abayas and hijabs, even for wearing a hijab that’s not black. [The hijab is the head covering and the abaya is the loose cloak over the body.] Conservatism and restriction are tangible and increasing.

People start off by only telling you the good things, giving you the positive. Anyone who’s been here a while will tell you that it only lasts until they’re sure you’re going to stay. After that they tell you about the problems, both those which have carried over from the old days and the new set. Nasariya was badly bullied and badly neglected by the old government. Sattar, our driver, spent two years and four months in jail for being part of the 1991 uprising against Saddam before being released as part of a general amnesty.

Azzam left Iraq for the US years ago and continued opposing Saddam through a group called the Iraq Foundation, a human rights group. His uncle used to get arrested every couple of weeks. His jailers would phone Azzam so he could hear his uncle being tortured, begging him to stop his political activity. Azzam refused. “I did not want to let them intimidate me and if I gave in then next, well, probably about 99% of people did give in and keep quiet.

“Now my uncle won’t speak to me. I have lost that relationship. But I had to carry on. I did not want to have to do everything under a pseudonym like some people did. Maybe that’s why he won’t speak to me because I did not protect him.”

He hates war but couldn’t see any other way of getting rid of Saddam. He said dropping sanctions would not, alone, have been enough to empower people to get rid of Saddam by this time last year. Arming the Iraqi opposition groups would, in his view, have led to more deaths. He talked about lightly armed people facing the Iraqi army, whereas the army just disappeared as the invasion happened. I suggested that, given support, given a population in revolt, the majority of the army would have turned against Saddam. For him, none of it matters now Saddam is gone.

He’s working now with an international group on the re-flooding of the marshes. An Italian consultant and a French engineer are among the experts training Iraqi workers to break the dams which were responsible for the draining of eighty percent of the marshes between 1991-97.

Nasariya’s press consists of a friendly group of men who are also actors, directors, film makers, academics and writers. What began as a press conference around a long table ended with an exchange of ideas and e mail addresses. Mr Yassir is a drama director and a founder member of the Nasariya Group for Acting, set up 12 years ago to produce drama in the city.

He wants to make links with drama groups and theatre companies in the UK, is setting up a puppetry programme for the children over the summer and hopes to increase the output of the Acting Group. Mr Ahmed is a cinematist and the only one with e mail, so he will be the intermediary for all the communications. Mr Amir is a translator. He translated the Acting Group’s 10th anniversary booklet into English and will help with translation for any link set up with acting groups overseas.

Also a linguist, interested in the relationship between words and democracy, his most recent article is about the need for people to use precise expressions, saying what they mean rather than using vague and emotive language as was favoured by the old regime.

Mr Haider is head of PR for Nasariya University which has just had a computer centre opened by the Korean ambassador, one of six new centres in the city courtesy of the Korean government. The centre makes it possible to establish links with universities in other countries for the existing colleges of education, science and arts and the two new colleges, of medicine and engineering, which will open in the next academic year.

Yassir said his seven year old son Ammar saw our show at his school. “He talked about you the whole day and he does not only talk. He tries to imitate the clowns. Always when you give the children things to draw with, their pictures have tanks and aeroplanes and guns in, but now he is drawing pictures of clowns.”

Our last show in Nasariya was at the old aluminium factory compound where War Child’s overseas workers and dozens of families live. Just before the show, an old man outside started haranguing Luis and the kids, trying to send the children home, telling Luis to go away: “You’ve got nothing to do here. You’re Jewish. You’re all Jewish. Go home.” It seems that’s the first assumption about every NGO and every foreigner.

The kids, though, loved the show and the parachute games that followed, despite being a bit squashed between the house and the empty swimming pool, the garden being off limits because of the aforementioned landmines, the road outside because of the grumpy old man and the football pitch because it was too dusty for shaking a parachute on.

There are thirty nine political parties in Nasariya now and a significant split between the followers of Sistani and Moqtada Al-Sadr, the former apparently commanding the more support; the latter, son of the revered cleric killed by Saddam, commanding a militia brigade. Sistani though is said to be an old man. “We will only have him for a short while,” Rifaat said. “It all depends who takes over from him.” Some of the possibilities are more moderate than others.

Already in Nasariya it’s sweltering by 9am, unbearable in the middle of the day, and it’s only the end of March. But I think I’m coming back. There’s something about the place and there’s something about Maha and all her girls. I think I’m coming back.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

A sign on the wall opposite says “Idle Association Thi Qar”. Thi Qar is the southern governorate which includes the city of Nasariya and the road in front of the Idle Association is closed off every morning by a couple of vehicles of Italian troops, dark blue carabinieri in tight trousers and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes out of the roof hatches, a few more on foot and some Iraqi police, while hundreds of men gather outside looking for work.

Next door on the other side of the hotel is the police station. Within a minute of the front door we were accosted by an Iraqi police officer and told to come and speak to his superior who told us we couldn’t walk down that road. Why not? Because it’s dangerous. OK, no problem, we’ll go the other way. No, the officer said. Go back to your hotel and stay there. Don’t walk anywhere.

Less than an hour in Nasariya and I was already being sent to my room. Disobediently we carried on past the hotel door and into town. The hotel manager said it was safe to walk anywhere in Nasariya. As ever, people were curious, friendly, protective, asking were we Italian, what were we doing here and did we want chai. In the streets of Baghdad you don’t see a lot of foreigners but here we’re properly rare.

Another time police came over to the bench we were sitting on outside a tea shop and asked what we were doing. I held up my glass of tea and stated the obvious. They demanded our passports. “It’s in the hotel,” I lied, because otherwise they’d wander off with it, pass it around, find things to ask pointless questions about. “Is there a problem?” No, the first one conceded, eventually, there was no problem, except that by now his colleague was eyeballing the men on the bench and had to be coaxed away.

In Baghdad people told us not to go to Nasariya. It’s dangerous, dirty, full of Ali Babas and all the rest, but everyone in Erbil told us not to go back to Baghdad, for precisely the same reasons. Nobody’s fighting the soldiers down here, Rifaat says. It’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about them – in fact I haven’t managed it yet - but people just want to get on with things, to live in peace now Saddam’s gone

Over tea and narghila, Yusef said things are better now Saddam’s gone but he doesn’t trust Blair and Bush either and doesn’t like the Italian troops. He thinks they’re arrogant, rude and treat people harshly. Worried about offending me, he added that he was sure the British soldiers in Basra were better.

In the playground between here and the shops there’s a hand-turned big wheel with all its pods hanging off at awkward angles, a peeling eagle standing guard in the entrance. The streets are filled with heaps of rubbish, festering in the heat, emitting clouds of black flies when a child or a flock of sheep tramples through. A small boy stood in one, picking at the bits and pieces, raising a piece of pipe to his open mouth as he gawped at our passing. Like everywhere, there are children traipsing between the cars selling things.

Mustafa claimed us and is very particular about who he will admit to our company. We’re his friends, he says, but still there’s a point in the road when we’re nearly home where he starts asking us for money. He waves at the troops as their vehicles pass but then tells me all the things he doesn’t like about them. He just waves because then sometimes they give him sweets. Even the young boys here, from about nine or ten years old, start out by shouting sexual insults and suggestions before they find out I can speak a bit of Arabic and then they come and chat.

The big roundabout in town is surrounded with tea and narghila shops where the men sit smoking and playing dominoes. You don’t see the women unless they’re hurrying from shop to shop, fully covered. They stare as if they’ve never seen a woman smoking a narghila before and in all probability they haven’t, at least in public. Rifaat says about a million people live in Nasariya, but he calls it a small town where everyone knows each other.

Certainly everyone knows Faisal, a man with Down’s Syndrome. Delighted to meet strangers, he stopped to say hello while the young man with him tugged at his hand, a bit embarrassed. Another time we were smoking a narghila on the roundabout and he stopped, in kaffiyeh and dishdasha, no one to chivvy him along this time, and sang us a song. People tease him a bit but I haven’t seen anyone being cruel to him as so often happens to people in Baghdad.

Everyone knows us too now. The first couple of shows were in the schools in the centre of town and we were also on that evening’s local television. Plenty of the kids are not in school, like Duha and Wafaa, two wild haired little girls in sparkly frocks who accompanied us to the internet, but they’ve heard the stories from the other children.

The first school was all girls, really excited girls. Most of the teachers were women and also really excited. I was bombarded with questions, trapped in the toilet while they all asked at once about the circus, England, me, everything. It’s getting too hot to have kids sitting in the playground watching the show. It’s getting too hot to be out in the playground doing the show. A couple of the bigger girls crept away from the audience and peeped around the door where I was getting ready for my next bit and sneaked me away to their classroom upstairs, from where you could sit in the shade and see over the crowd.

The second school was all boys. It was looted after the war and though things are better there’s still a bit of a void where the chairs and tables and books ought to be. We had to cut the show short because the parents were outside waiting to collect the kids. They come even if it’s only a short walk home because of security worries and equally the women were scared to be standing waiting.

The third school was very poor, a few kilometres out of town, the playground guarded by armed police for the duration of the show, no pictures on the wall except Sistani, the religious leader who advocates separation of church and state whom most of the people here seem to follow. It’s a strange gap. Some people will tell you there are no problems even as they stand among a load of armed guards who they will also tell you are necessary for protection.

Rifaat is one of these. He’s a water engineer who teaches English to subsist. His wife, Rafaa, teaches at the fourth school we worked in, where his eight year old daughter Zaineb is a pupil. While I was off stage, Alia, the PE teacher, came in to talk to me. There were bits I couldn’t understand so later I asked Rifaat to translate for me the problems she was talking about.

“No, no,” he said smiling. “There are no problems in this school.”

Alia contradicted him with a litany of difficulties much the same as every school faces. There are not enough books, they are the old text books, there are no teaching materials, no art materials, no pictures on the bare walls, there is not enough furniture, there is no running water at school so the children bring water in bottles from home and the teachers bring flasks because the children can’t carry as much as they need for a hot day.

She does the security patrols around the school. “In front here, always I get bad words shouted at me, even here.” A lot of teachers have been attacked, threatened and killed throughout the country. “Because they are free now they can do anything. If the school says we do not have room for your child, or if the child fails the exams and has to stay another year in the class, sometimes the family come with the gun and make the teacher change it.”

Rifaat said it’s safe to walk on the streets. Alia said no, women don’t go out on the streets unless we have to. Rafaa agreed with her colleague. Rifaat said there were no health problems. Alia told me she got typhoid from unclean water. A lot of the children are depressed, she said, and the women are very very tired. Again Rafaa agreed. Passing two bits of grafitti addressed to Paul Bremer, he told us that “We will rise up” was not the prevailing feeling in the city. He wants to focus on the positive, to show other people the positive. Saddam is gone and that, for him, is enough to outweigh any other problems.

Alia explained that she doesn’t expect or want the rights of women in other countries, just security, just a government. “We are religious,” she said. It’s difficult to discuss things like that through a male interpreter so we didn’t go into that fully. Rafaa, though, when there are no men around, likes to take off her hijab and abaya and do cartwheels.

The only international NGOs working in Nasariya are War Child and the International Medical Corps. There are a couple of others in Amara and a few in Basra. War Child organised the shows for us and also runs a bakery which employs several people and bakes bread each day for thousands of people through a couple of hospitals, some orphanages and other avenues for reaching poor people. They’re soon going to open a street kids’ drop in centre, as well as a whole pile of other projects.

Nasariya is much more conservative than Baghdad, Alex says, tangibly so. Before coming here she worked in Haiti, where the infrastructure was less developed. Among other things, they brought physiotherapists over to do short courses of training for those working with disabled people. She said all the alcohol shops in Nasariya were targeted and closed down so now the wine supply depends on the schedule of meetings in Baghdad.

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.

Friday, March 26, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

A sign on the wall opposite says “Idle Association Thi Qar”. Thi Qar is the southern governorate which includes the city of Nasariya and the road in front of the Idle Association is closed off every morning by a couple of vehicles of Italian troops, dark blue carabinieri in tight trousers and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes out of the roof hatches, a few more on foot and some Iraqi police, while hundreds of men gather outside looking for work.

Next door on the other side of the hotel is the police station. Within a minute of the front door we were accosted by an Iraqi police officer and told to come and speak to his superior who told us we couldn’t walk down that road. Why not? Because it’s dangerous. OK, no problem, we’ll go the other way. No, the officer said. Go back to your hotel and stay there. Don’t walk anywhere.

Less than an hour in Nasariya and I was already being sent to my room. Disobediently we carried on past the hotel door and into town. The hotel manager said it was safe to walk anywhere in Nasariya. As ever, people were curious, friendly, protective, asking were we Italian, what were we doing here and did we want chai. In the streets of Baghdad you don’t see a lot of foreigners but here we’re properly rare.

Another time police came over to the bench we were sitting on outside a tea shop and asked what we were doing. I held up my glass of tea and stated the obvious. They demanded our passports. “It’s in the hotel,” I lied, because otherwise they’d wander off with it, pass it around, find things to ask pointless questions about. “Is there a problem?” No, the first one conceded, eventually, there was no problem, except that by now his colleague was eyeballing the men on the bench and had to be coaxed away.

In Baghdad people told us not to go to Nasariya. It’s dangerous, dirty, full of Ali Babas and all the rest, but everyone in Erbil told us not to go back to Baghdad, for precisely the same reasons. Nobody’s fighting the soldiers down here, Rifaat says. It’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about them – in fact I haven’t managed it yet - but people just want to get on with things, to live in peace now Saddam’s gone

Over tea and narghila, Yusef said things are better now Saddam’s gone but he doesn’t trust Blair and Bush either and doesn’t like the Italian troops. He thinks they’re arrogant, rude and treat people harshly. Worried about offending me, he added that he was sure the British soldiers in Basra were better.

In the playground between here and the shops there’s a hand-turned big wheel with all its pods hanging off at awkward angles, a peeling eagle standing guard in the entrance. The streets are filled with heaps of rubbish, festering in the heat, emitting clouds of black flies when a child or a flock of sheep tramples through. A small boy stood in one, picking at the bits and pieces, raising a piece of pipe to his open mouth as he gawped at our passing. Like everywhere, there are children traipsing between the cars selling things.

Mustafa claimed us and is very particular about who he will admit to our company. We’re his friends, he says, but still there’s a point in the road when we’re nearly home where he starts asking us for money. He waves at the troops as their vehicles pass but then tells me all the things he doesn’t like about them. He just waves because then sometimes they give him sweets. Even the young boys here, from about nine or ten years old, start out by shouting sexual insults and suggestions before they find out I can speak a bit of Arabic and then they come and chat.

The big roundabout in town is surrounded with tea and narghila shops where the men sit smoking and playing dominoes. You don’t see the women unless they’re hurrying from shop to shop, fully covered. They stare as if they’ve never seen a woman smoking a narghila before and in all probability they haven’t, at least in public. Rifaat says about a million people live in Nasariya, but he calls it a small town where everyone knows each other.

Certainly everyone knows Faisal, a man with Down’s Syndrome. Delighted to meet strangers, he stopped to say hello while the young man with him tugged at his hand, a bit embarrassed. Another time we were smoking a narghila on the roundabout and he stopped, in kaffiyeh and dishdasha, no one to chivvy him along this time, and sang us a song. People tease him a bit but I haven’t seen anyone being cruel to him as so often happens to people in Baghdad.

Everyone knows us too now. The first couple of shows were in the schools in the centre of town and we were also on that evening’s local television. Plenty of the kids are not in school, like Duha and Wafaa, two wild haired little girls in sparkly frocks who accompanied us to the internet, but they’ve heard the stories from the other children.

The first school was all girls, really excited girls. Most of the teachers were women and also really excited. I was bombarded with questions, trapped in the toilet while they all asked at once about the circus, England, me, everything. It’s getting too hot to have kids sitting in the playground watching the show. It’s getting too hot to be out in the playground doing the show. A couple of the bigger girls crept away from the audience and peeped around the door where I was getting ready for my next bit and sneaked me away to their classroom upstairs, from where you could sit in the shade and see over the crowd.

The second school was all boys. It was looted after the war and though things are better there’s still a bit of a void where the chairs and tables and books ought to be. We had to cut the show short because the parents were outside waiting to collect the kids. They come even if it’s only a short walk home because of security worries and equally the women were scared to be standing waiting.

The third school was very poor, a few kilometres out of town, the playground guarded by armed police for the duration of the show, no pictures on the wall except Sistani, the religious leader who advocates separation of church and state whom most of the people here seem to follow. It’s a strange gap. Some people will tell you there are no problems even as they stand among a load of armed guards who they will also tell you are necessary for protection.

Rifaat is one of these. He’s a water engineer who teaches English to subsist. His wife, Rafaa, teaches at the fourth school we worked in, where his eight year old daughter Zaineb is a pupil. While I was off stage, Alia, the PE teacher, came in to talk to me. There were bits I couldn’t understand so later I asked Rifaat to translate for me the problems she was talking about.

“No, no,” he said smiling. “There are no problems in this school.”

Alia contradicted him with a litany of difficulties much the same as every school faces. There are not enough books, they are the old text books, there are no teaching materials, no art materials, no pictures on the bare walls, there is not enough furniture, there is no running water at school so the children bring water in bottles from home and the teachers bring flasks because the children can’t carry as much as they need for a hot day.

She does the security patrols around the school. “In front here, always I get bad words shouted at me, even here.” A lot of teachers have been attacked, threatened and killed throughout the country. “Because they are free now they can do anything. If the school says we do not have room for your child, or if the child fails the exams and has to stay another year in the class, sometimes the family come with the gun and make the teacher change it.”

Rifaat said it’s safe to walk on the streets. Alia said no, women don’t go out on the streets unless we have to. Rafaa agreed with her colleague. Rifaat said there were no health problems. Alia told me she got typhoid from unclean water. A lot of the children are depressed, she said, and the women are very very tired. Again Rafaa agreed. Passing two bits of grafitti addressed to Paul Bremer, he told us that “We will rise up” was not the prevailing feeling in the city. He wants to focus on the positive, to show other people the positive. Saddam is gone and that, for him, is enough to outweigh any other problems.

Alia explained that she doesn’t expect or want the rights of women in other countries, just security, just a government. “We are religious,” she said. It’s difficult to discuss things like that through a male interpreter so we didn’t go into that fully. Rafaa, though, when there are no men around, likes to take off her hijab and abaya and do cartwheels.

The only international NGOs working in Nasariya are War Child and the International Medical Corps. There are a couple of others in Amara and a few in Basra. War Child organised the shows for us and also runs a bakery which employs several people and bakes bread each day for thousands of people through a couple of hospitals, some orphanages and other avenues for reaching poor people. They’re soon going to open a street kids’ drop in centre, as well as a whole pile of other projects.

Nasariya is much more conservative than Baghdad, Alex says, tangibly so. Before coming here she worked in Haiti, where the infrastructure was less developed. Among other things, they brought physiotherapists over to do short courses of training for those working with disabled people. She said all the alcohol shops in Nasariya were targeted and closed down so now the wine supply depends on the schedule of meetings in Baghdad.

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Twinning Opportunities

The circus has made contacts with lots of groups of kids in schools, youth centres and orphanages of various kinds. We want to set up twinning links with groups of kids in the UK, so the kids can get to know each other, talk about their lives and their countries and their ideas.

Possible activities include exchanging letters, via a translator, which I can organise, exchanging drawings and photos, maybe doing fundraising at the UK school to buy art materials for the kids in the Iraqi school as a lot of them are too poor to have any – even pencils. I think making peace depends on people getting to know each other and future peace depends on the children getting to know each other.

There’s also a need for teachers here to be in touch with teachers outside, to know about the teaching methods in other countries, to find out more about independent trade union organisation and to build friendship and solidarity.

There are a number of schools in and around Baghdad which are interested in twinning, lots of them very poor. I think it will also be possible to make links with the schools in Nasariya, in the south, perhaps also further south, and with those in and around Erbil, in Kurdistan.

As well as the schools there are the youth centres like Bayaa and those run by Childhood Voice, which might suit after school clubs or youth groups. For example, one link is progressing with one of the Childhood Voice Centre and a children’s arts project in the UK.

I’m not sure what groups in the UK might be interested, but I was thinking a link would be positive for the Mother Teresa orphanage for disabled kids in Baghdad – see March 19th, Sanctuary. It’s all open to ideas – I can put groups in touch and coordinate contact but the way it develops is completely up to the groups involved. I don’t envisage mayors shaking hands once a year and a signpost on the edge of town.

Regarding practicalities, there’s no postal system here at the moment, though it is possible to send things by DHL. There isn’t internet access in most of these places but in some cases someone who works there has e mail access; otherwise stuff can be e mailed through an intermediary – me while I’m still here, a whole network of people once I leave and through the circus people again when it comes back in the autumn. Materials can be also be brought to and fro by people travelling in and out of Iraq and by the NGOs in the area.

March 21st
Bayaa

The kids painted a mural on the wall outside what used to be a Baath party building, a harp, the tower in Samara, a lion and now it’s a youth centre. There are three different age groups who use the centre on different days: six to ten, eleven to thirteen and fourteen to eighteen. The Children’s Council consists of four boys and three girls elected by the other kids from all the age groups.

Marwan adopted me on arrival. A 13 year old member of the Children’s Council, he’s enormously proud of the place. Khatar gave him the bunch of keys: “He’s the only one who knows which one is which,” he shrugged.

Shiny, beautiful multicoloured fabric covers protect the six computers from dust. They’re networked, with a printer, but there’s no internet because viruses would plague them. The covers were made next door in the sewing room where a dozen black sewing machines sit on work benches along the walls. The work benches were made in the carpentry room another door along, as were the display shelves for the pottery room. The kids all pointed out a horse’s head, painted gold with wild green eyes and flared nostrils.

“Saddam made this,” they said, showing us the picture of the boy modelling the head on the centre’s leaflet.

“And this is me,” said Omar, a thirteen year old boy with strikingly blue eyes, indicating the photo of a couple of kids learning some martial art and then they all took turns to identify themselves in the football team photo.

The last room off the yard which serves as volleyball court, football pitch, play space and anything else is the music room. Marwan and Omar picked up hand drums and fell into rhythm together, the other kids diving in to join them. Opposite the youth centre is the theatre where we did the show, where the kids do drama. It was a holiday for the Kurdish festival of Nawroz, the Tree Day, the Goddess Day, the beginning of the year and the spring, so no one was in school.

If anyone ever doubted the value of creativity for kids, the smiling faces and shining eyes at Bayaa ought to make it clear. I wish there were enough of these for every child in Iraq.

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