An activist, clown, trainee lawyer and writer from England. I was in Iraq several times, most recently Nov 03 to May 04, still writing about Iraq and passing on my friends' stories from there.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

January 28th
Day Trip to Baquba

The sheep were making some kind of effort at grazing on mounds of sand and heaps of discarded plastic while people crouched weeding out carrier bags in plots of green. A woman in black with a stick in one hand and a donkey on a string in the other hurried slowly into Baquba town centre, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The letters on the board labelling the Iraqi Grain Board premises were peeled so as to look like Chinese style decorative writing, in front of a building devoid of windows.

And mud and mud and mud: three wedding dresses sparkled out front of a roadside shop, hovering above the bog like the spangles were holding them up. The writers who were taking us there asked the way to the children’s hospital, calling it by its new name, which I forget. “You mean the Saddam hospital,” was the firm reply, before directions were given. Resembling a building site more than a hospital, the hospital is bare.

The two ladies’ toilet cubicles were without water. One, a sit-down arrangement, had a tin can wedged in the bowl. The other, a hole-in-the-ground affair, was overflowing. We occupied the police office as a dressing room, the desk too low, really, for getting onto the stilts, doing our make up in the mirror on the back of a pink hairbrush borrowed from a policeman, besieged by women asking to borrow Peat’s juggling ball case for carrying presents for the kids, a man in an army uniform requesting the loan of some make-up (he was part of the show) and assorted security officers bringing large automatic rifles in and out of the room.

The new shaving foam pie routine went down well. We used it first in Hilla, a policeman being the apparent target of the pie-in-the-face that time, though in fact it goes in Peat’s face in the end. Today it was the reporter from Diyalla TV. Lots of sick kids had a good time, which is what matters, and it was good for an over-tired and somewhat burnt out clown to be cuddled and kissed by a crowd of smiling children at the end.

Mohammed’s nine-year-old daughter Farah adopted me as her friend which was great because it meant when we were taken for lunch afterwards I could run off to the playground instead of smiling nicely and trying to make polite conversation. A small donkey by the playground fence made her nearly fall off the slide by shouting loudly right behind her and I practised some trapeze tricks, upside down on the climbing frame, between pushing them all on the swings.

Baquba is generally seen as another of the hot spots to the north of Baghdad, not as wild as Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and the small towns around them but nonetheless a bit spicy. Uzma and I went out to talk to people and found that no one wanted to talk. No, there was no resistance here. Yes, everything’s fine here in Baquba. It’s all outside of Baquba city. Objectively this is not true and the same people who were telling us Baquba was calm and peaceful were also telling us the centre was too dangerous and we should go back.

There was a fear in people’s eyes I used to see when anyone asked them about Saddam in the old days. It’s the look when they know there’s an official line and that’s what they have to tell you. The eyes glaze over and they repeat exactly what the person before told you, the tone flat. Things are fine. No, no resistance here. Deny the visibly obvious. You point out the inconsistency in what they’ve said and they lead you round in the same circle.

Finally Khalid and Mohammed begged us to give up: “They think you are American soldiers.” Well, that explained why no one wanted to talk to us.

“There are many house raids and they destroy everything and take everything and then they come and say it was a mistake,” Khalid said afterwards. He’s the leader of the Diyala Young Pens Association, an arts and cultural group set up in 1998 to encourage upcoming writers and artists and to make contacts with those in other provinces and countries. Since the war they’ve helped establish the Iraqi Woman Rising organisation, based in Baghdad, which I haven’t encountered yet, as well as the new popular poets’ and writers’ unions in Diyala.

“Everyone in Baquba is opposed to the occupation, both Shia and Sunni,” Khalid told us. Consultation brought forth a guess of about 60% Sunni, 40% Shia in the local population. “The resistance so far is Sunni. The Shia are opposed to the invasion as well, but they were so badly brutalised by the past regime that it has taken them time to recover. People feel shame because it was not the Iraqi men but foreign invaders who deposed Saddam. They are against both Saddam and the occupation.”

And with that we were shovelled back into the van and driven home. I think we have to go back without an entourage of writers and worried people to find out more about what’s going on in Baquba.

This is dedicated to the family of Odai, who was killed last night working for the foreign media.

Also to Kathy Kelly, Jerry Zawada, Scott Diehl and Faith Fippinger, all jailed for 3-6 months in the US for demonstrating against the School of the Americas, or whatever Newspeak name they’ve tried to rebrand themselves with.
January 27th
Ghosts and Clowns

Small hands held out four, five, six coloured glass balls, picked a prize piece for the contest, lined up the rest of the marbles, flicked one from an open palm at the row on the road by the stone wall. Crouching between puddles on the crumbled road, Fatima directed play, a feisty, dark skinned twelve year old girl.

Hanging over the wall they watched Fuad and Mustafa from the Happy Family kids’ theatre project teaching us a dance for the show in the National Theatre in a few weeks. Fuad was jailed for a year for refusing to join the army, then conscripted anyway. When the war started he did a runner, hiding out in Safa’s house till it was all over.

Safa’s house doubles as the group’s base, their logo in English and Arabic on the wall, a concrete patio with a canopy serving as a stage in a garden with chickens pottering between tall straight palm trees, a busy main road just visible beyond the house, the only sign that we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. A screen hid the part of the garden that was all puddles and bits of dead cars and a curtain marks the border between the office and storeroom and the rest of the house.

The group started a few years ago. “We were the first group to perform in the burnt out remnants of the Al-Rasheed Theatre in the days after the war. It was a kids’ play with the fox and the rabbits, no lighting, heating, décor or anything. Safa was the fox.” Raed translates, as the only member who speaks a significant amount of English. He runs a music and sound recording shop and does all the music for the performances. There’s a video disc of their show in the National Theatre. The lighting was poor and again there wasn’t much decoration but the kids were loving it.

I like that we can join up with Iraqi groups trying to do good stuff for themselves and each other and the country with minimal resources. Of course, like most of the grassroots groups, they’ve got no funding other than what they earn themselves and most are students and workers at the fine arts college. They’ve got a Tweetypie costume and one of Sylvester the cat and they wanted to know if we could get them any “muppets”, i.e. any big cartoon costumes.

We’re swapping roles, joining in their ghost play and including them in our clown routines. I’m slightly concerned about the dancing thing: I want to do it in clown costume so if I spin in the wrong direction it looks like I’m just being daft, instead of incompetent. They’re really into it though and I know 1000 kids are going to have a wicked time.

We’ve encountered a child psychologist by the name of Dr Ali who’s more or less a one man operation, trying to train child care workers and teachers and raise awareness in parents around the country about the symptoms of post traumatic stress in children. He thinks play therapy is the best, if not the only, way of diagnosing and treating their problems. He doesn’t know the exact extent of the problem but it’s self-evidently enormous, with bed wetting, nightmares, inability to concentrate and behavioural problems endemic among the child population. He’s coming to see us soon so I’ll write more about his work then.

The lads walked us over, between cracked houses and more marble playing kids among the roadside rubbish heaps, to the Kurdish House where the boys are, the ex- and the not-so-ex-street children. Five left last night and went back to the basement where they used to sleep. Adapting isn’t easy. Peat and Donna went to Bab a-Sherji to look for them. One refused to go back at all to the house. Four agreed to go back but one of those was talked out of it by the gang that supplies their drugs and solvents.

The three who came back were told they weren’t welcome by the child psychologist there because they said “nasty things” to him last night before they left. He was persuaded though. I know, I know, it’s difficult for the workers too, taking on a group of very troubled and needy boys when they’ve no experience of working with kids in a practical setting.

Good things are happening too though. We played parachute games with the boys, went through all the familiar ones and there was still some running under it when they’re not meant to and scrapping and stuff, but we gave them a try at lifting each other up on the parachute to run around on top of it and it worked. I got goose bumps, remembering them that first time in the crisis shelter.

They have to work together; they have to trust each other and look after each other, because all the kids round the outside, holding the parachute, have to keep it taut or the one running on it will fall. For sure, it was hard to keep them there, holding it for another kid after they’d had their own turn but Baghdad wasn’t built in a day.

The older Ahmed – Gypsy Ahmed, they call him – is learning karate at the Magreb youth centre. He showed us, a bit shyly at first but glowing with the attention and praise and his own achievement. It was wicked. Little Laith from Abu Nawas Street has a new haircut, really short all over and big tuft at front like a very small punk. Imad, they still remember the game you taught them with the hand clapping.

From there we walked to the main road for a taxi, bouncing and kicking the football with the kids we passed. On every street, every verge and every piece of waste ground there are boys playing football. There’s something sad about the dirt football pitches with metal goalposts and yet more rubbish piles stacked all around them. We picked up a grown up too, a man in his forties, or thereabouts, his amble home with shopping brightened and delayed by the meeting, absorbing a second man, in his dishdasha (the long garment some of the men wear) whose eyes twinkled as he abandoned his reserve and joined in the bouncing.

We went to Uzma’s “family”, who have adopted her. Mum’s in hospital for a hip operation after she broke it in a fall. She’s only 58 but looks about 80, deeply depressed since her three sons were detained by the Americans. I first met Yasameen and Baba (Dad) on the march for the rights of detainees. The first son, Younis, was taken in a raid on the house. When the troops burst into the house they came into the women’s room where Yasameen and Stobruk had been sleeping. They went to get their headscarves and the soldiers pointed guns at them. They said very firmly, no, we’re going to get our scarves, and they did it.

The second son was seized from his workplace and the third was detained when he went to enquire about his brothers. Though Younis has never left Iraq, the ostensible reason for his arrest was “plotting to kill Tony Blair”. Stobruk was back from work in the bank, but Yasameen was staying overnight in the hospital with Mama. The Americans promised to release a thousand of the people jailed without charge but so far only a hundred have been let out. Eid starts in the first couple of days of February. They’re still clinging to a hope the boys will be back with them for the holiday

The last few days have been busy. We went to perform in Hilla, invited by the National Association for the Protection of the Environment and the Child. About a dozen kids and maybe 60 adults filled the theatre – not the ideal ratio. The grown-ups got into it in the end but it was the least inspiring show we’ve done here – an unfortunate coincidence as it was also the one that Reuters came to. We weren’t let into Babylon, the ancient site itself, now occupied by the Polish and US troops. “They will shoot you.”

The Human Rights meeting was interesting: a recently formed coalition of Iraqi human rights groups and international organisations and individuals was joined by 25 – 30 relatives of detainees and shooting victims. It took a while to get through all the anger and emotion and make them understand that all the ten or so foreigners in the room already knew the situation, knew dozens, if not hundreds, of similar stories of random shootings, house raids and property thefts, detentions without charge, etc, and to move on to what we were going to do about it.

Someone talked about the way photos were used in Central and South America during the disappearances there and the families decided to bring photos and other affected families to the next meeting to plan weekly demonstrations. The hope is that there will be a similar weekly protest outside US embassies all over the world. Most of the people searched or jailed and then released still have the bags that were put over their heads during the raids.

There was an earth shaking bomb last night as we walked to a friend’s place, then another a bit later, followed by the weirdest sounding sirens that made the air vibrate, which turned out to be from the CPA, or the green zone somewhere, though I’m not clear whether the complex was actually hit or not. The streets rattled with intermittent gunfire. The calm after the storm of new year seems to be over these last few days although here, at least, it’s not as intense as it was then.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

January 24th
The Drain

There was a tent up as we drove back into the camp at Al-Sha’ala: long and semi-cylindrical, open both ends, with people inside drinking tea, eating together on the ground or sitting against the walls drinking chai. It’s a traditional Shia mourning tent for two month old Mariam. “She died of the cold,” Abu Ahmed said simply.

It’s been raining the last two days and the place is a quagmire of mud and shit, sluiced through the camp from the lakes it normally festers in. Barefoot and barely shod children waded through it with us, following Abu Ahmed to the spot where the pipes will go. They’ve managed to buy three six metre lengths of pipe, and need another three which, at 30,000 Iraqi Dinar each, makes 90 thousand for the second 18-metre line.

The first will go from the puddle where the waste water currently collects, the second from the shacks at the end of the camp, under the wall which marks the edge of the camp. It’s not the full link up to the sewage system but it’s the best available. The main expense is the machine to dig the ditches, at 250,000 Dinar a day for two days, because the ground is concrete and they can’t realistically dig it with shovels.

So the total cost for 120 families to build basic sanitation for themselves is $460 at today’s exchange rate, or about 300 pounds (for some reason there’s no pound sign on this keyboard). We told Abu Ahmed we couldn’t promise anything but we’d do our best to get them the money. He said even the government hadn’t bothered asking after them. If you can help us with it, please e mail and I’ll send you the bank account details and a huge cyber hug.

It’s not directly challenging the occupation. On the face of it, it’s nothing more than charity, although by giving them the money we’re empowering them to change their own environment and it’s impossible to stand in that place, among the animal sheds they call home, and not help in any way possible, knowing that a drain will save some of their lives; knowing it, because there can be no doubt about it, on a day like today when the sewage is flowing freely past the funeral tent for the tiny girl

We talked a bit more about the school with Abu Ahmed as well. There’s a farm building on the site with no roof, where several families are living, which would form one wall of the school house, so they’d save money by only having to build three walls. It’ll be for girls and boys from 6-10 years and the Workers’ Party will give them furniture if they can get a building sorted.

These are reconstruction projects from the people, without Bechtel, Halliburton and USAID, in solidarity with people who want health and education for their children and themselves. So in an indirect way, it is a challenge to the occupation and who knows what seeds we plant?

Friday, January 23, 2004

January 22nd
The Making of Legends

The meeting was supposed to be with the Environment and Foreign Ministers; the former was off sick and the latter abroad but dozens of journalists were there, nonetheless, to hear Kerim Hassan announce that his group, the National Association for the Protection of the Environment and Children, is about to bring one of the most famous circuses in the world to perform in Babylon and Diyalla.

And he smiled and gestured towards me.

And all the cameras pointed my way.

“Um… hello. Yes, we just came to meet the Environment Minister actually and talk about the organisation that Dr Husni and I are part of.”

It’s pure wilful exaggeration. He’s seen us perform. He knows we’re four people with varying levels of skill but plenty of colour and life, which the kids enjoy and get a lot out of and that’s the end of it.

Then we met the Iraqi journalist who saw us perform last week at the Al Talia theatre, Luis, who’s French, did an interview in Spanish with him. The reporter asked him how many countries have you been to. He used the word ‘tu’, which is singular. How many countries had Luis personally, individually been to? He gave a rough guess.

What he meant by the question, and the way he interpreted the reply, was the number of countries the circus group had been to, transforming us into an internationally renowned troupe of performers with a tour of 26 countries behind us.


One might’ve thought the name “circus2iraq” would have given a clue to how many countries we’d been to but he’d hurdled the obvious by writing that we’d changed our name to that in honour of the Iraqi people. Now he wanted to know what our name had been before.

“I’ve no idea,” I said, in English. “He invented the international circus troupe, he’s going to have to invent a name for it as well.”

Husni declined to translate. He said he didn’t want to upset the man by telling him that he had his story completely arse-backwards. This is the stuff that news is made of. This is how I became part of a world famous travelling circus.

If you could turn this kind of comedy into a 5 minute clowning act without language, maybe we really would be one of the most famous circuses in the world.
January 21st

You drive out the far side of Al-Ghazalia into Al-Sha’ala [Flame], through a thoroughfare of listless sheep and squashed chickens, pied fruit and veg stalls and rancid shit, past the man blowtorching a cow’s head, for no reason that was obvious to me, over a concrete bridge and you follow a dirt track into the farm compound. You ask the teenage boys whether there’s someone in authority, because usually there is and it helps if you go to them first. Abu Ahmed, they tell you, without hesitation, and go to fetch him.

You tell him you’re a bunch of clowns and would like to play with the kids for a couple of hours. He leads you to a patch of cracked earth with spiky plants here and there. A few of the men get shovels and hack out the thorny patches, scraping them out of the way, while the kids cluster around you, then you get them to help you pull a big red parachute out of its bag.

Some of them hang back, bewildered, till the excitement sweeps them up and they grip the edges of the parachute, the littler ones lifted off the ground, bouncing with the shaking of the parachute, shrieking with glee as they help to turn it into a tent, rocking it and themselves and each other with the movement of their own bodies.

This was the camp I came to a couple of months ago (see November 17th – Asking the Fairies). Marwa remembered my name when we arrived. I haven’t stopped thinking of her since the last time, over two months ago, the bright, beautiful little girl who wanted to go to school and become a doctor. Things are a little better than they were then.

The clinic receives a visit from a doctor once a fortnight but it still takes another five or six days to get the drugs prescribed. There’s still no one with overall responsibility for them. The German organisation, HELP, gave them blankets and other stuff and the Workers’ Communist Party has been giving them gas and other basics, but they have problems with ‘the mafia’, as Abu Ahmed calls them, stealing some of what they’re given. He wanted to ask the military for protection while the goods were being distributed but the party opposed it.

Abu Ahmed explained how they’d built themselves a small temporary bridge to make it easier to come and go, by collecting 1500 D from each family and making it themselves. I don’t know how it operates in practice or how much say women have, for example, but there’s a meeting every other day in a reed house where everyone can participate in decision making.

120 families live there, many of them from near Amara, from Maisan province in the south, Shia who left because conditions were so dire under Saddam and before him, under the monarchy, but weren’t allowed by Saddam to settle in Baghdad. They returned to Maisan, jobless and homeless, but came back to the camp after the war. Some said they would be into going home if there were jobs and security, but there’s more chance of finding work in Baghdad and now they want the security of knowing they can stay in the camp.

For the first time in Baghdad we played the game where one kid lies in the middle of the parachute and the other kids lift them off the ground by leaning back and pulling it taut. The kiddie in the middle stands up and runs around on the parachute. I think it worked because they’re already used to co-operating with each other. One time they started bouncing the boy up in the air by shaking the parachute. It looked really fun but we had to stop them doing it because it’s not safe.

It was hard to get the girls to join in the games, where either parachutes or skipping, a change from the day before at Magreb, the Childhood Voice youth centre, where a small tribe of pre-teen girls kidnapped me and made me play basketball, which I’m astoundingly bad at. Some of the Sha’ala girls played at the edges of the parachute but wouldn’t be a cat or mouse or run around on the chute. Dads encouraged their daughters to try jumping the skipping rope but there are cultural factors at work that will take more than a circus to sort out.

So, after a while you go for a wander around, between reed houses, tents and breezeblock shacks, living spaces cobbled together out of junk and the pre-existing farm buildings, like all the other camps, into the courtyard where Jamila is feeding Ali. He’s 9 months old with no nappies and torn clothes. Everyone’s clothes are torn, the kids’ and the adults’. There are only three goats left in the courtyard, the others sold for essentials. None of the kids has toys to play with and some have parents who work, so they’re on their own in the day. The rumble of the explosion seems to echo in the sudden silence which cuts through the clamour and chatter of the kids.

Amal is making bread balls of dough, tossed and spun between her hands until they’re broad and flat and round and then puts them onto a round cushion-like thing and presses them against the inside of the oven, with flames in the bottom. When they’re done she reaches in and retrieves them. She hands you one, warm, smoky, soft and gorgeous. She asks you to come back and perform again at Eid, in early February, because there’s no money to give the children treats at Eid and it’s important to them.

The kids are getting a lot of diarrhoea and other illnesses because there’s an open lake of sewage in the camp. There are no toilets. They just dig pits and cover them over when they’re full. They need a drain to take the waste outside the camp. As with the bridge, they’ve got a plan, but it would cost half a million Iraqi Dinars to dig it, cover it and pay some of the men to work on it.

That’s more than they can collect by asking every family to contribute but it only translates to about $300 so we’re thinking we’ll give them a real present for Eid as well as the show. It means an income for some of the men, from building it, improved health for all of them, but especially the kids, and it’s their project not something being done to or for them.

Abu Ahmed brought us to the home of one of the Sheikhs and we went together to the reed meeting house to drink sweet chai and discuss things. The place filled with people but still these two did most of the talking. Elections, they said, were a priority. Bremer is wrong to talk about delaying them. They will support Sistani. Whatever his policies are, they will follow him, but they don’t mind who wins, even if he is not a Moslem, as long as he is elected by the Iraqi people, not chosen by the Americans.

Less than 200 of the camp’s 800 child residents are registered in school. ‘Child’ refers to those under maybe 13, 14 years old. None of them go when it’s raining because they can’t get out through the mud. School and proper houses are emphatically at the top of the list of needs.

They’ve talked to the Ministry of Education, who say they will provide teachers if they can get a school built, but it needs to be purpose built and a brick structure. We talked through some other possibilities: what about a reed house, like this one? What about just a big tent to start with, so you can get moving.

Peat talked about a community in Albania who had no school and lived, likewise, on state owned farm premises. He got them a tent, someone else got them a couple of teachers and, when another organisation came along a few months later, they were so impressed with what the community had already achieved that they built them a proper school.

They said they couldn’t deal with the extremes of weather in a tent or reed house and didn’t think the Ministry would give them teachers for such a structure. There are issues over the desirability of building a permanent structure in a squatted place which is without proper services. It starts to create a permanence which has positives and negatives.

They don’t know whether they will be allowed to stay or whether the government will demand they vacate the complex. They don’t much care whether they stay all together in that place or split up and move into housing elsewhere in the city, just as long as they’re housed. There is a feeling that a permanent structure like a school building will help their claim to stay.

But if they remain where they are then, like the Palestinian refugee camps, the slums might remain so for decades without anyone taking full responsibility for their welfare. Jamila pointed out the tap that supplies them with water, cold only, and the electricity cables, amenities brought in for the farm animals which used to be bred here. “We don’t have any facilities for the humans. We are living like the animals.”

Unlike the homelessness problem in the UK, there actually isn’t enough housing in Baghdad for everyone, so there genuinely is a need to build houses to accommodate the displaced people, in which case a drainage system and a school will be a good start. A horse drawn cart trundled into camp. Luis failed to escape being hauled onto it and galloped through the bumpy farm.

We managed to get the BBC World Service on the radio last night just in time to hear about the Peace Rights case about to be filed to the Attorney General and the International Criminal Court. Phil, Di, Juliet, Mark, and everyone else involved, for what it’s worth, I’m really proud of you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

January 19th
May The Farce Be With You

The first floor hallway was full, when I got in, of people who came round for a couple of drinks on Amber’s last night and men with big guns and Iraqi Police armbands, asking for beer and arresting Tom for having a beard. Well, you can have a tin if you let Tom go. Perhaps he could go for a shave while you’re drinking it.

“Lawyer,” It’s what Wisam calls me every time he sees me, even though he’s already a qualified lawyer and I’m not. “Lawyer, we need you.” Iraqis, even legally qualified ones, sometimes, are reluctant to question the police.

Tom was accused of looking like “an Israeli” by the Iraqi Police and “a terrorist” by the US authorities. He was arrested a couple of nights ago with Jim, a stencil graffiti artist, whose work he was writing a story about. They brought him back to the apartment to collect his press credentials, refusing to believe he was a journalist.

But in all seriousness, for all the freakish comedy of the episode, for all the fact it was easily sorted this time, because it involved two westerners, it’s also an illustration of the chaos and crisis of Iraq’s legal system, how the absence of an adequate structure leaves Iraqi people unprotected from the whims of people given power, such as the police.

Let me make this clear. If they were arrested for criminal damage, or some variation on the theme, breaking a law that said you couldn’t paint on walls in public places, that would be one thing. But the stencil of two boys, life-size, by a cigarette stand, next to a real bomb hole in a building, was of no concern whatsoever to them.

A particularly tense officer pointed his pistol at me, primarily because I was there. I started blowing bubbles and he relaxed a bit. It was, he said, a “six hour” pistol. It was a blip in translation. “It’s a Glock” had somehow morphed in his head to “six o’clock” and thus to “six hour”. None of this mattered much to me, as long as it wasn’t pointing my way any more.

It felt like a precedent was in process. One of the independent journalists was stopped and robbed by Iraqi Police a few days ago. If Jim and Tom’s arrest proved equally lucrative, then any of us might’ve been next. We needed to make this more trouble than it was worth.

It’s not just because they were fellow westerners and activists. If I was ever there when an Iraqi person was getting arrested, I’d try and do what I could to support them as well. But what happens to Iraqis is usually hidden. It’s not a tactic Iraqi people are realistically able to use, following their mates to the police station when they get picked up on suspicion of plotting to go for a haircut, or something equally bizarre, whether by Iraqi Police or the US forces, because they tend to find themselves sharing a cell with the friend.

So we all went in the pick up, a blue light flashing on the roof, two other cars following. Someone shouted. A third car was left behind. We banged on the back windscreen of the pick up. “Stop, stop, wait a minute, there’s another car.” Surreally, they waited, even though they didn’t want any of us with them.

Down Karrada Dakhil, the length of Sadoon Street, no other cars in sight, the four vehicles racing, weaving. under the underpass beneath Tahrir Square, aquaplaning through the flood, onto Rasheed Street, into Bab Al-Sherji, fires burning on the roadside, Outside Bab al Mouadam police station they unloaded us from the pick up and got us to walk the last 25 metres to the door so it wouldn’t look like they’d brought us.

Tom was put back in the cell with Jim and we followed, filming, shouting, chatting. Baffled, they let us get away with blowing bubbles and handing more in to them. The cell was clean and pleasant enough. The men in the next section stuck their heads out to watch. As we were shunted out we turned to see a cloud of bubbles billowing out through the bars.

“Officer could you explain to me what they’re being charged with?”

“They are under suspicion”.

“Suspicion of what?”

“They will be taken to court in the morning,” the police told Ahmed to tell us. “The judge will decide.”

“Yes, fine, but what charges will the judges decide on?”

I know there is no law. I know due process means nothing here. But something in me needed to argue the point that arrests ought to rest on a specific suspicion rather than some ethereal, generalised, theoretical expectation that they might have had a thought of doing something that could be disapproved of. Iraqi people are still being arrested this way: accused without anything to be accused of, so there’s nothing for them to demonstrate innocence of, much less for the prosecution to fail to prove them guilty of. Even if the discussion was inevitably circular, it’s worth planting the seeds of the idea that those protections, those structures are needed for the Iraqi people.

“Someone was shooting at the guards.”

“Do you have any reason whatsoever to link them with that? Was the shooting coming from where they were standing? Did they have guns? Ammunition?”

Apparently not, but they would be taken to court in the morning and the judge could decide.

The officers outside the station were busy waving their guns about, threatening and posturing, till I offered them pots of bubbles to blow. I sometimes wonder if I put more faith in bubbles than is really warranted by a few globes of soap solution, but the growls and grunts turned to giggles and the stiff presentation of rifles gave way to bubble popping, guns hung loosely at their sides.

The taxi driver in the morning refused to drive up to the police station, nervous enough even to pull over on Rasheed Street for us to climb out opposite the relevant side street. The court in Wazeeria had no translators, no idea what the men were being charged with, if anything, and no idea when the judge might arrive. They would call Judge Rabina, the American senior advisor to the Ministry of Justice, and ask him what was to be done with the two foreigners who nobody could think of a charge for.

Perhaps they were planning to rob the bank?

Perhaps they were planning to fly to Mars. Do you have any reason to suspect that they were planning to rob the bank?

But you see, nobody walks around at night, so when people see someone walking at night they are suspicious.

So that was it. The final accusation: walking around at night. There’s no legal curfew any more, but there’s still some sort of expectation, the court – CPA Liaison Officer said, in his green suit. So it’s OK to spray on the walls? Does that mean if they were stencilling by daylight it would be alright?

Yes, he said. As long as you do it in the day, you can paint on the walls.

So that’s alright then.

And then the same lawyer proceeded to take statements from both the arresting police officer and the two “accused”, although even he was unable to say what they were “the accused” in relation to. Tom gave his statement in English, which was transcribed into Arabic and then verbally re-translated into English for him to sign, by which time Jim had been transformed from a graffiti artist to a clown. Jim’s statement consisted mainly of the lawyer asking him whether his story was more or less the same as Tom’s, and the scribe copying the document for Jim to sign.

They’d gone out for Jim to paint and Tom to observe. There was a shout in Arabic, immediately followed by two shots. They began walking away. Several shots were fired at them and they started running, after which they were caught by security guards, held for a day and then turned over to the police.

“As I think,” the lawyer said, “there is no evidence, but we will take them to the judge and he will decide if they can be accused of anything.”

The traditional way is to decide what to accuse people of and then bring them to a judge to decide whether they did it, but here still no one is willing to be held responsible for a decision, especially one about foreigners.

“I think you are lucky,” Liaison Man said. “If your friends were Iraqi they would be in prison maybe one month before coming here.”

Eventually they went to a judge, who eventually noted that there was no evidence on which to base anything and gave back the stencil and the spray paint. This being his second arrest though, Jim’s friends and neighbours are hoping, as much as they like his artwork, that he will consider suspending the project for the meanwhile.

There is more than one way to run a legal system but here, instead of a system, there is a void into which countless people have fallen. I know, from interviews with families of detainees, that Liaison Man was telling the truth when he said an Iraqi person could wait a month in jail and more, under unspecified suspicion, without charge, legal advice or family visits and before getting to see the judge. It’s not working.

Monday, January 19, 2004

January 18th

Today’s bomb woke us with a sound the shape of a rugby ball, starting from a point, swelling to a full bellied roar and tapering again with perfect symmetry. It was surprising less as an alarm call than as a reminder. I haven’t heard one in a couple of weeks. Peat and Amber haven’t heard that sound since they arrived in early January, although the headlines on the internet daily list deaths and attacks.

It was at the CPA, across the river, which means it must have been huge to sound so loud from so far away. We thought at first it must be another blast on Karrada, just around the corner. Peat went to look. I stayed in bed. Eighteen Iraqis and two Americans killed was the first figure I was given. The US toll, officially at least, stayed the same. I think the Iraq deaths are now at 55.

A bus was passing when the car bomb blew up at Checkpoint One. It’s said that the Americans then opened fire, killing more of the passengers on the bus. Opening fire after an explosion is what they often do, hence the high level of random shootings of civilians by US troops here, although I’ve no direct evidence that it happened this time.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Yippee!! After days of trying, I managed to post some circus photos.
January 17th

“I used to smuggle my poetry outside the country, to friends in Canada who would publish it for me. I was caught by the security police. I was in hiding and they arrested my relatives then my wife and my two-year-old son, so I was forced to go to them. Even then they did not release my family straight away. They were not tortured but while I was questioned they kept them in jail for about a month, as a form of pressure on me to answer all their questions.”

Bashir Al Majid is a poet and was a member of an Islamic organisation which opposed the former government. He was tortured for nine months in the Mukhabarat [security police] prison and transferred to Abu Ghraib under a twelve year sentence. “I am sorry. I still cannot talk about that time.” Instead he took out a laminated card bearing his name, year of birth, 1962, the length of his sentence and the insignia of the Independent Political Prisoners’ Association, based near the National Theatre in Karrada.

“It is too difficult to explain life in jail. The most time that I suffered was when my little son came to visit. He could not understand that his father was in jail so he asked me always a lot of questions which I could not answer so I was forced to lie to my own son. It was impossible to write during the nine months in the security jail. There was not even a pencil.

“But even in Abu Ghraib, where there was some sort of comfort after the security prison I could not write. Even in the prison there were spies and there could be searches at any time. I was not in the same section as most of the political prisoners. I was in a special section. I tried to write in my mind instead and to repeat the poems in my head to remember them. I would like to publish them now but there is no money.”

He had served three of his allocated twelve years in jail when Baghdad fell. “To remove Saddam is good but to invade the country is a violation of our beliefs and thinking. It is nice to feel free and not invaded, but unfortunately this is invasion. Freedom has no meaning here. There was no freedom with the invasion.

“The gamble of removing Saddam wasn’t dependent on an external power but on us, because Saddam always ran away from things. He always backed down under pressure. The Iraqi people could have removed Saddam, even if it took a long time. There was no way for people to help me. Even when human rights groups visited, we were hidden so no one would know about us.

“Yes, I would have been in jail for longer, but there are other people. I knew Saddam was a dictator and a criminal. I was under his crimes and dictatorship, but it was up to us. The French freed themselves with the French Revolution, not by US invasion. Bastilles fell by revolution, but this is a new way to colonise a country.”

I asked him nothing about his feelings about Saddam’s capture, just let him talk, his eyes burning with the same sadness I saw in those of the political prisoners in Suleimania. “I was tortured by the past regime but when I saw Saddam on television, captured by the Americans, I was sad because this wasn’t the way it should happen. I can’t agree with showing him that way. As a human being I can’t agree. As an Iraqi I felt suffering when I saw him, even though I know he was a criminal, but he was my president and we had to remove him by ourselves, not by US invasion.”

Did he ever regret writing the poems that got him into trouble? “Ani, akeed la. For sure, no. As a human being I had to do it and even if I paid with my life, I have to stand by my beliefs. Voltaire said [and here we debate the translation] if I stand in the dock for a moment, I shall forget a thousand books I have read about the meaning of freedom.

“I say, if I stand for one second in the dock knowing that I am innocent, I shall write a thousand books about the meaning of freedom.”

Mr Bashir is a member of a group of around 1000, many of them writers, artists, musicians, journalists, religious figures and teachers who were opposed to the former government, called The National Association for Children and the Environment. It was created on May 1st and first campaigned for a ban on the import of militaristic toys, like replica guns and tanks. They met with the Minister for Health and persuaded him to extend the milk ration for children from one year to two and to make all hospital treatment for children free.

They made a film about damage to the environment before and after the war and met with the Minister of Justice to ask him to indict the former Ministers of Education and Health. Last week they asked the Minister of Trade to test imported food for fitness for human consumption. There’s also a problem with imported toys being already used and unsafe.

They have been meeting with the Environment Minister, asking for environmental legislation, for families of newborns to plant a tree, for the new government to sign the Kyoto treaty. They asked the Minister of Agriculture to ban the use of pesticides in summer and to licence pesticides for use only after testing the levels of poisons in them. Disastrously, for the soil and water, there have never been any limits before.

“We asked for a law preventing anyone from cutting down any trees at all, even the Americans,” said Kerim Hassan, a famous Iraqi writer and one of the group’s founders. “My philosophy is to ask for everything and get what we can.”

We talked about the environmental organisation Husni and I and some others are setting up, the possibilities for working together, our research informing their lobbying work. They invited us to the next meeting with the Environment Minister, about how to use information to improve the environment.

The group meets in the garden of an art gallery I went to back in 2001 when the owner invited us over to eat fish and sing songs among the sculptures. Most of them opposed the former regime in one way or another. He introduced Mr Sami, a musician, Mr Wisam, a sign writer, Mr Ziyad, a clothing designer, Dr Hanaan, who used to teach childhood education. Several of them met in the political prisoners’ wing of Abu Ghraib prison: Kerim described it. “There were many high religious people there as well as writers and politicians. We taught each other, to avoid being cut off from society. We were 25 or 30 men to a room but we were able to meet with prisoners from other rooms as well in the daytime.”

This was not the same part of the jail Bashir was in. “I wrote many stories in prison and five plays and gave them to my family to smuggle out when they visited me. Two of the plays have been performed and Iraqi newspapers and magazines have been publishing the stories. We secretly had paper and pens and books about politics. We got them sneaked in and his them under the beds and we cut the water barrels to make secret compartments.”

Kerim was arrested in 1996 for membership of the Wafaq Watani party, led by Ayad Al-Awi, in opposition to Saddam, sentenced to death after a year in Al-Haqmeeya, a Mukhabarat prison, then transferred to the political prisoners’ wing of Abu Ghraib, where his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He held out his arms to show the uneven bones where his wrists were broken.

“I was surprised that the place where I was most abused was a place where we used to publish magazines about children. When I was first taken there, on November 8th 1996, I remembered working there with my friends, but the regime changed in from a place for education to a place for torture. I was kept in solitary confinement for the whole year there. I did not see sunlight.”

Unlike Bashir, Kerim’s party believed Saddam could only be removed by force, by a strong power like the US but he acknowledges the role of the US in keeping him in that position. “I agreed with the invasion because there was no other choice. The US let Saddam stay in power in 1991 because their main aim was to prevent a Shia government like in Iran. The sanctions helped Saddam because they made people weak. They were just on the people, not on the government and Saddam’s policy was also to keep the people thinking about food and not about political change.

“They kept him in power because they needed him to stay, to prevent a Shia state, but the policy to remove him began long before September 11th. The CIA and White House did not need him any more, like Anwar Sadat: they kicked him out after he fulfilled his purpose of making peace between Egypt and Israel.

“But the US did not do anything except remove Saddam. Why did they destroy ministries and everything, allow looting, stop the army? This was the main mistake they made and the other was to disrespect the Iraqi people and our beliefs and rights. What we need now is an independent government, not one named by Bremer. I am against Bremer’s view that Iraqis are not ready to lead the country. He wants to delay elections.”

Of the armed resistance, Kerim says this is not the right time: “Non co-operation through peaceful means is the best way, because the US is strong and it is impossible for us to kick them out by force. Personally I think they did not come to stay as a military force but as an economic one. I don’t believe there would be a civil war if the US troops left. For 6000 years we lived together without civil war. We were the first people to have words for peace and freedom – salam and hurriya. We are part of history.

“We are not writing now, just talking, talking. The US does not want the writers to work now. The budget for the Ministry of Culture is only $1 million for the year. It’s not enough for a month and the money is only for maintenance of Ministry buildings damaged during the war. It’s a disaster for Iraqi culture.”

They are trying to use the Association as a writers’ and artists’ group as well but we got onto discussing setting up an artists’ and writers’ collective or union, the way the actors have, through which they can support each other, co-operate with counterparts in other countries and receive financial help that can be shared between them.

Mohammed Jabar Hassan was an accountant in the Ministry of Oil. Now retired, he writes books for children: to date, three of stories and twelve of poetry. He translates the gist of one. I’m afraid it loses something in translation, notably its rhyme and rhythm, but I liked it anyway:

The Birds Don’t Pay Rent

How beautiful the trees are
Around the nests and birds
Through day and night
They do a lot for us freely and with love,
They give us wood and shade and fruit
But the best thing of all
Is they don’t ask any bird or pigeon to pay the rent.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

January 16th
Pictures of Smiling Children

We got into our clown kit in Eman’s place behind the barrier made out of metal locker doors in the camp at the air force centre we went to a few days ago to arrange the show. There’s a curtain across the gap in the barrier and another across the doorway into Eman’s room. Inside are a couple of rugs on the floor, a gas cooker and a picture of Al Sadr on the wall, the Shia cleric killed by Saddam. The ceiling is a patchwork of pieces of wood, gappy, so the place is impossible to keep warm. The building houses an indoor swimming pool, no longer fully enclosed, and Eman’s family’s space is concocted out of such walls and ceilings as are left and whatever junk they could seal it with.

The space we picked last time looked better, more or less clear of rubbish, people leaning out of the windows in the accommodation overlooking the square as we started playing parachute games, 40 or 50 kids gripping the outside of it. The first thing is shaking the parachute, then lifting it and stepping in, underneath the red canopy. Next we turn it into a tent, by lifting it up, stepping in and sitting on the edges. Throughout all of this there were squealing, giggling children running under the colour and billowing noise.

The circle is split into Baghdad City and Baghdad United for parachute football. A goal is scored whenever the ball goes off the parachute over the head of a member of the other side. Usama became our helper, getting the other kids in order, explaining the game, a ginger haired seventeen year old with natural charm and gentle authority. With his guidance the kids were the first group yet to manage the game of rolling the ball round the circumference of the chute – near enough anyway.

We started the show with the music box act, a clown with a broom and a magic box that makes music when it’s opened, a mean, grumpy boss who keeps taking the box and making the clown carry on sweeping, lots of face pulling, the kids joining in with the shh-ing, nodding when the bad boss is out of sight, but still cheering when she jumps up and down on the box and squashes it into the rubbish bin, then again when the bin lid is lifted and the music still plays.

They loved Luis’s didgeridoo, especially when he made it sound like an elephant, trumpeting through its trunk. Peat and Luis’s juggling act went down a storm as always. Luis has the perfect face for a clown, sort of gnome like, with a pointy beard, the two of them stealing the balls from each other out of the air.

There was a near catastrophe as Amber and I made our way over to the “stage” on our stilts, on the rough tarmac, when one of her wooden legs snapped at a knot in the wood. Hayder, the driver, caught her as she fell, saving her head from hitting a metal stump sticking up, the two of them landing in unhurt in a comedy heap of arms and legs. To distract the kids from bundling the two of them, I started the chants of “Wo-oh” and “Boomchucka” that Peat brought us from Kosova (thanks Paddy, whoever you are) and added some “Oompah”s that went down well.

Peat stepped in with his solo juggling act, fascinating the kids with the devilstick and balancing Joe the stuffed clown on a stick on his nose. He chatted away in a mixture of English and nonsense all the way through and the children laughed at the sound of it. The BBC had arrived by then, delayed by a bomb somewhere nearby that none of us had noticed till someone pointed out the eruption of black smoke which wasn’t there before.

The kids danced the birdy dance with us, me on stilts, jostling for the camera’s attention, then swarmed for a go at skipping the rope, Amber on the ground this time after the stilt-snapping. Usama was the star skipper and the star organiser, keeping the other kids back far enough for the rope to turn and making them take turns. We finished with more parachute games, a few rounds of Cat and Mouse, where one of the kids crawls under the parachute, the others shake it to hide the mouse while the cat crawls on top of the fabric, hunting.

The women watched laughing, babies cradled inside their abayas, none of them uncovered, asking me to take their photos with their babies, tiny Abbas, a months old, with a woolly bobble hat, beautiful Sabreen, six months pregnant, barely more than a child herself, with shining brown eyes and a dazzling smile.

Husni always wants to protect us from the kids, ward them off from our stilt-bottoms; they’re wild, they’re crazy, those are not kids, but yesterday at last he got caught up in it, started to play himself. One of the women asked him to play with her kids while she went to make their tea. Two men hugged each other beside the locker-door wall, caught up in the atmosphere too.

The kids were still shouting “Boomchucka” as we left, chasing the car, asking us to blow more bubbles, to come back tomorrow. Arriving the way we do, we’re cushioned from the real grind of it all because people start to smile quite soon after we get there, but once you look at their surroundings, nothing really detracts from the fact they’re living in half destroyed complex of buildings without adequate walls and roves, never mind amenities and stuff to play with.

The day before, we met some Iraqis working in the IDP teams [Internally Displaced People – the official term for homeless people and refugees within their own country]. There are about 800,000 IDPs in Iraq.

In the Al Talia Theatre the day before, we performed with a group called Happy Family, who are doing theatre projects with kids and want us to work with them over the coming weeks. Another group called the National Association for Children and the Environment saw us there and wants us to work with them in Hilla / Babylon and Baquba, in Diyalla province. There’s soon going to be a website for Iraqi NGOs which are setting up, because its hard for them to set up sites without credit cards to pay for the registration.

The boys from the shelter and some of the kids from Childhood Voice’s Magreb youth centre were among the audience at the Al Talia theatre so we were already popular and got huge cheers from the kids. It felt wicked. The Happy Family group did a couple of play, which Laith was in, a long way, it seemed from his days sleeping on the road outside the Palestine Hotel. The karate group from the Magreb youth centre did a display, a small pony tailed girl among them.

Away from the theatre, an artist called Nasir Thamir has an exhibition of paintings inspired by the stories of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights: Alf Layla wa Layl, a thousand nights and a night. Two pictures hang side by side, one with incredible intricacy, gorgeous calligraphy and stunning colours, the other with holes in the canvas, the colours tainted and the detail destroyed.

The exhibition folder is not translated into English, as a protest against the occupation. Nasir was going to put a single sentence in English explaining that, but finally decided not to. Instead there is a passage in Arabic telling the story of Iraq, of how those Iraqis who collaborate with the occupation are betraying their history.

He explained the difficulties of buying materials and framing, paying for exhibition space, which have prevented artists from creating, never mind displaying their work since the war. There is no artists’ union or collective at the moment and the Ministry of Culture has no funds to support them. They don’t want support, he says, from the occupying forces and groups associated with them.

Sheherezade never cried in all the time that she was under threat of death from Shereyare, the King. She just kept telling him stories, fantastic stories, for 1001 nights, ending each night with intense suspense so that he couldn’t kill her. He had to wait for the next night to find out what would happen next. The picture was painted in the months after the war. When Sheherezade came back to Baghdad in 2003, she cried, a torn and dirty book beside her, from the national museum which was looted, Baghdad burning in the background.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Welcome to the world, and blessings and peace, Kimetz Mantxo Fleming, born on the 12th. Congratulations and huge hugs, Paula and Martin. I miss you loads xx
January 14th
Haifa Camp

How did she come here? Asmaa sighed. “It is a very long story and I am tired and sick.” She lives in a tent with UNHCR stamped on the roof in the grounds of the old Haifa Palestinian Sports Club, among twelve thousand homeless families. “I was born in Iraq and brought up here, married here and had my children here, but my father was Palestinian so I am Palestinian. I have no nationality, no identification, no right to own property.”

After the war the landlord came to the house and threatened to douse it in petrol and burn it if they didn’t leave. Her four sons live there with her but her two daughters have been squeezed into a relative’s house. “There are so many young men here. I am too afraid for them here. But they had to stop going to school because of the situation. It is not safe.”

For a time they were supported by the UN and aid agencies, she said, but there has been no constant assistance for some months now. Half of the aid is taken anyway by the people inside. She and her friend gestured towards the buildings and offices of the club. “They sell it outside the camp. But Dr Qusay owns the club and if he did not let us live here we would be on the streets.”

Fifteen families arrived back at the camp today, Eman said. They were put in house and the UN promised to pay the rent but, after three months, without any rent being paid, they’ve been evicted. They returned to greasy puddles between the tents, no electricity and little gas. Gas heaters inside the tents are dangerous in any case but there are no other options for warmth. The kids can’t study when they come back from school because it’s cold and dark, Eman said.

Those who could sent their children to other relatives during the winter, splitting families, because it’s too cold for them to live in tents without even a hot water supply. “We go to our relatives every two weeks or so to do washing,” Eman says, indicating the lines of clothes drying between tents. “We cannot remember what it feels like to be clean.”

Our Iraqi colleagues were stuck in traffic and the kids were waiting so we started the show without them, then filled in while Haider and Fadhil and the others built the set for their play. We taught them the Birdy Dance, as if they hadn’t got problems enough, spared them the Macarena, started a Mexican Wave with sound effects around the room, played a game involving splitting the room in two and lots of shouting “Wo-oh” from one side and “Boomchucka” from the other.

The kids have a football and almost nothing else to play with. The swimming pool is best described as manky but then, it is winter. We were required outside for clown football afterwards and stayed, talking to the mothers, playing with the children, juggling, spinning them round, turning them upside down, dancing to imaginary music. They renamed Amber and me “Patata” and “Tomata”. I think I was Tomata. Helicopters and tanks pass frequently and the kids stopped whatever they were doing to look at them.

Dr Qusay says it’s a myth that Palestinians were better treated than anyone else under Saddam’s rule. “We weren’t allowed to own any property. It is not true that Iraqis hated Palestinians and that the Iraqi government protected Palestinians from them. It was the other way. Our Iraqi friends protected us from the government. Iraqi friends used to help us by putting a car or a house or a business in their names so that we could buy them.”

Still the kids showed me tatty pictures of Saddam from the old banknotes. “Saddam Zain,” some said. Saddam is good. I had to disagree. For me, I don’t like Saddam, I don’t like Bush and I don’t like Blair. One of the boys was angry with me. No, he insisted. Saddam was good. I suppose at least he had a home in Saddam’s day.

We went back to the boys’ house to negotiate a regular time to see them. The first man we spoke to thanked us for coming the day before. “It was beautiful to see them so happy with you.” The second man wasn’t so keen on us. It’s all very well but it’s something for later on. We need to educate them first. He wanted to know our backgrounds. Peat talked about the work he’s done in the Balkans and Ireland with Children’s World International, Balkan Sunflowers and others.

“Yes, but what’s your scientific background?” We’d been warned beforehand that the people running the place were well qualified academically but had no experience of working with kids.

“Well,” Peat said, “I lived on the streets for ten years. I get on well with street kids.”

Little Ali was inside the place, dressed in clean ironed clothes, a bright coloured T shirt and crisp jeans. He smelled free of solvents as he hugged me, already a change from the day before, hovering between the worlds in the street outside the home with a cloth soaked in thinners in his pocket.

Fadhil told us they’ve set up an actors’ union. We talked more, as we often do, about the need to explore through drama what’s happened and happening and for there to be an outlet for playwrights and artists. We talked about the possibilities of links with Equity, which Peat’s a member of, and other actors’ unions, theatres and performers outside Iraq. It will cost $2500 for them to produce Haider’s play, “Burning of Violet” by Jack Odeberti. We want to help them set up a website to publicise what they’re trying to do, exchange ideas with people around the world and find sponsorship for actors, writers and projects. There’s no bank account yet but one is in the pipeline. As ever, if you think you might be able to help, get in touch.

January 12th
Playing in the Street

There are those who advise keeping a low profile as a foreigner in Iraq and wisely so, I expect, especially if you’re a business contractor. But we needed to practise a new plot involving stilts and skipping ropes and even now the ceiling fan has departed there isn’t room in the apartment for spinning a ten metre rope, so we went outside to the forecourt.

We had all the kids from the street taking turns to jump over the rope, one at a time, in pairs, then threes. We gave Hussein a blindfold and told him to jump on the sound of the kazoo, then held the rope out of the way. The women didn’t come out on the street but laughed and waved from the balcony. Fatih and his little girl, Fadia, who we had chai and dolmas with yesterday, hung out of their window opposite, cheering everyone on. Men tried to get each other to take a turn, each with an excuse for not having a go himself – I’m too old, I’m too fat, until Coco braved it, managing 6 or 7 jumps over the rope before getting caught in it, giggling, to huge applause.

Peat stood on the balcony doing the thing he does with ping pong balls in his mouth, where it looks like he keeps taking dozens and dozens of them out, then he and Luis did their new juggling act. We had to go and get our kit together to go and see the street kids we worked with the other day, but when we left they were playing in the street, kicking a football between themselves, running about blowing bubbles, the men as well as the children. A bit of play transformed the street.

The boys were glad to see us in their new home, grabbing our hands to tow us on a tour of the building, run by Save the Children Kurdistan. This is my bed, this is the office, this is the garden. They’re in clean clothes, their hair cut and their faces clean. They’re starting to realise that there are stricter rules in the new place – they can’t just come and go like they could before. Smoking has been abruptly banned. Ali, a tiny 11 year old, hangs about outside, reluctant to detach himself completely from either the new home where his old mates are or the cloth soaked in thinners that he’s still addicted to.

Saif came with us, one of the boys who used to hang out outside the Al Fanar / Palestine / Sheraton part of town with Ahmed and Laith, both of whom are now in the new house. They hugged each other and ran off to play, none of them smelling of glue. We played rowdy parachute games, then Peat and Luis did their juggling act again. We had them skipping in the street between stilt walkers, along with the boys and girls from the other houses on the road, and little Ali, still a little high on thinners, joined in.

Perhaps it won’t influence his decision on which of the two worlds to commit to, the home or the drugs and the street and the gang that controls them. The hardness of the concrete he sleeps on has never changed his mind and there aren’t many chances left, if any, so the last hope is that something attracts him more to staying with the other boys than going back to the gang.

Peat taught them some juggling. The older of the two Ahmeds picked it up like he was born to do it. In the crisis centre he didn’t speak. He didn’t respond, he didn’t hug, he didn’t laugh, fight, anything. He was just there. When we arrived he was painting a sign. He hugged Donna and chatted happily.

There was an e mail from Tamsin, who went to Bosnia in 1993 and 1999. She talked about the mood of hope and enthusiasm she found there when the long war was over and the desperate disillusionment six years later with the international community, the politicians, the economic reforms. People were still talking, though, about the sound system convoy and the arts group that had come through years earlier, how much it meant just to know someone cared enough to come and play.

Then as we walked home in the rain from the internet centre a voice called my name from a doorway. Hussein appeared. “Bacher?” he asked hopefully: tomorrow? Would there be another circus in the street tomorrow. and the men popped out of other doorways to ask the same thing, still laughing, still playing. It was good.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

January 10th
Small People on Stilts

Exhausted. Today I tied seven thousand* children to stilts, helped them up, walked them round, fended off the hordes of other kids dancing around my feet and their stilt bottoms and tried to remember which order I promised the next few kids a go in. Peat is a superstar. Luis did funny stuff with a didgeridoo and chains.

(* A small exaggeration for dramatic effect.)

One of the boys in the youth centre in the afternoon joined in with my tumbling show, taking a run up for a cartwheel that ended with a jump, landing in the splits, followed by a somersault, landing on his arse. When we left the kids were begging us to come back tomorrow and if not then when? In the morning we had dozens of kids playing parachute games on the roof of the Childhood Voice school. I think that counts as a good day.

It’s interesting having new people around, because they see all the things I’ve stopped noticing, like bombed buildings. We passed the remnants of the Ministries of Industry and Higher Education – you can see how the latter would be an essential military target – and the others were asking what they were. Strange how soon you would forget that bombed buildings weren’t always the backdrop to your life, which I suppose is why it’s so important to bring childhood back to the lives of kids whose entire existence has been war.

Nadeem came by for breakfast. He quit his job and went to university this year but, he says, he wonders whether there’s any point in being a biology student where there is no lab equipment. A couple of months ago, he says, people were torn between wanting to leave Iraq because of all the difficulties and wanting to stay to rebuild the country. Now, he says, people just want to leave. They’re too depressed, too sad, too tired.

Fadhil showed us the primary school near the Korean embassy, next door to his office. Now officially a target, the embassy is surrounded with concrete walls, sandbags and tanks. He acted out what he was saying, the way he always does. “The children used to come along here skipping and singing. Now they creep along with their eyes on the tanks.”

There are a lot of fighter jets overhead tonight. The local power brokers within the Abu Ghraib area have read the report on the health survey we were doing, decided we weren’t from the CIA and welcomed Hekmet home.
January 9th

Zainab helped me sew a 2 metre long skirt for stilt walking, sitting in the garden waiting for the pick-up to crawl through the traffic to get us. The morning’s show was in a clean, pleasant orphanage, mainly for very young children, with some older girls staying to help look after the babies and toddlers. Fadhil, Eman and Zahra did the cat play, the one with two cats tormenting the chef by hiding all his fruit and playing with his glasses, then starting to blame each other for all the naughtiness, trying to get each other into trouble, before finally agreeing that love is better than war.

Peat did his thing, juggling and making balloon creatures, popping ping pong balls in and out of his mouth; Amber and I did ours, clowning on stilts. Along the way we acquired an accordion player, a Frenchman by the name of Matew, who works for the NGO Premiere Urgence, which supports Fadhil’s group. We got some of the kids up on stilts and they did some juggling. A gang of boys gathered along the railing outside the orphanage to watch and we wanted to give them a go too, sitting them on the car to tie them into the stilts, but it was already half past one and we needed to get to the boys’ shelter.

After the war, the US troops went into Baghdad’s children’s homes. Seeing children in military type uniforms, they assumed them to be prisoners of Saddam and set them free. Terrified, the kids fled to live on the streets and in derelict buildings. In all the chaos, there was no one to protect them from the violence of the street and each other, no one to feed them, no shelter from the searing heat of summer. A friend sent e mails about a horde of them living on the patch of grass near the Palestine Hotel, one of them with a broken leg, in a cast but without crutches.

Later, Iraqi groups and international NGOs started setting up orphanages and taking in kids who were without parents or without one parent, those who were thrown out by their families for various reasons and some whose families were simply too poor to look after them. Children are often referred to as orphans here when they have lost only one parent: if it’s the mother there’s no one to take care of them and if it’s the father there may be no income.

Ahmed, Laith and Saif used to live outside the Palestine, sleeping in the street on a blanket, all huddled underneath. Imad and I taught them a counting game which they loved. The staff of the hotels gave them leftover food sometimes. Journalists and sometimes the soldiers would give them money. Within the fortress surrounding the big hotels was a relatively safe place to sleep. Often they would be moving in slow motion, inane grins plastered over their faces, as they floated over for a hug.

Even as you told them that sniffing glue was no good for them, you wondered whether, in their position, you wouldn’t do exactly the same – fill your head with a solvent that made the ground feel less hard. Yet they couldn’t make the sudden transition from the complete freedom and independence of the street, the solvents they were addicted to and the dirt and the grime, straight into a pristine, sanitised orphanage with strict rules and controls, where they couldn’t smoke and swear and fight.

“Our Home” started taking some of the kids the orphanages wouldn’t or couldn’t. Some of them were turned away because of persistent glue habits or antisocial behaviour, others weren’t ready to live in them. Understandably, a lot of the groups prioritised getting girls off the streets and into safe places, so some of boys fell through the gaps. The crisis centre was something in between, in Bab a-Sherji, close to the basement where several were already sleeping. They took in 20 boys about 6 weeks ago and so far four have moved on to long term accommodation and care.

The cold, ramshackle building had a mezzanine level so there was loads of space for stilt walking. Some of the kids are without shoes because when they were given new ones they sold them. “Then they’d have tantrums because they had no shoes and they’d ask for more and we’d tell them if you sell your shoes then you won’t have any, and we’d leave them a few days without any and then when they get some more they don’t sell them.”

The rules include prohibitions on drugs and violence, enforced with breath tests to detect solvents. Sometimes they’ve kicked one of the kids out for a night for one reason or another. The majority came back the next day and asked to be forgiven. As we drove up Donna said they’d had trouble the night before with a local gang, threatening them and the boys with knives. They said they’d be back at 6.

In fact they were there when we arrived but the kids came racing out to hug us and carry our stuff in, even the stuff we didn’t want carried in and had to bring back out again. Ahmed was there, his eyes clear and bright, free from the glue that he used to sniff outside the Palestine. Now he’s one of the vigilantes, breath testing the other boys to check none of them are using glue.

We started with parachute games, shaking it, looking underneath it, creating a tent by sitting on the edges of it, playing cat and mouse with one boy underneath the chute that everyone else is shaking; another chasing him on top of the billowing cloth. The gang members joined in for a while, some of them, but they were mostly high on drugs and more aggressive than positive, so Peat started juggling and doing his act, silencing the chaotic kids with contact juggling one ball and when he inserted a long stick into Joe the toy clown, balanced the contraption on his nose and played a tune on the penny whistle.

The gang left and we had a short stomp on the stilts before getting the boys up on them. At first only a couple were into it, but then they all wanted to try, tying them onto bare feet. They have to be tied on tightly but they’re all too tough to make any fuss about the severing of their circulation. Hussein was the star, as far as it went. The queue of kids wanting a go was getting longer, but the gang was back making threats. “Yeah, OK, we’ll leave now, but we’ll be back later, and if we see any of these boys on the street we’re going to kill them.”

I promised Mortada and Ahmed with solemn handshakes that we’ll come back and he can do it then. We emptied the circus car of all the gear, packed in all the boys and moved them to the house that they were meant to be moving into for long term accommodation. The managers there had been saying the place wasn’t quite ready for some time, so the emergency forced the issue. “Maybe a few of them will drop out,” Donna said, “but I hope most of them will stay.” We’re going to see them in their new place on Monday and work with them all day.
January 8th
Thawrat al-Seerq

Our first performance was in a hospital in Thawra, which means revolution. Hemce ‘thawrat al-seerq’ is the circus revolution. We went with Fadhil and performed after their play, clowning on stilts, just me and Amber, blowing bubbles and dancing, playing the kazoos and getting the kids to clap and dance along.

Fadhil is into the idea of putting together some kind of pantomime with us, using very little language, for adults more than kids. “We are waiting for the writers to start documenting and discussing the situation here now and the history of the last decades but they are still… “ He put his hands across his mouth. “They are afraid. They are afraid of all the different leaders, the different parties.”

Fadhil kept shaking his head as we clambered into the camp at what used to be the air force barracks. “All this money. All this money. Damn Saddam. He did not feed the people but he had money to build this. And all bombed by the Americans. Why?” Among the opulent rubble were two swimming pools, one indoors, one al fresco, likewise two theatres, their backstage doorways bricked up and a baby crying in the shack created behind one of them.

It would only take about an hour with some shovels to clear the outdoor one enough to fill with people and perform in. The indoor one is a ruin, stripped of everything by people desperate for a living. Four hundred homeless families live here. A baker called Abbas is acknowledged as the head of the camp. Fadhil teased the kids who were leading us to his house, a few rooms in the officers’ quarters. “Whose house is this?” “Abbas.” “Where does Abbas live?” “Here!” “Where is he?” “I don’t know.” “Oh. So whose house is this?” “ABBAS’!”

Abbas was in the bakery, but was into the idea of us coming to do a show, so he sent Mohammed with us to pick a place. The garden was too uneven for stilt walking. Fadhil didn’t fancy the stage dynamics of the concrete space where the boys were playing football. There was another open concrete space with people living in the remains of the buildings at one end, an enclosure built out of metal locker doors sealing one end of the accommodation.

Rubbish heaps bordered the area, where barefoot children were playing. Women came out and complained about the habit people had of dumping rubbish there. Fadhil was excited about the dramatic effect of having us pop up on stilts from behind the locker door contraption and, with his easy charm, asked permission from the woman who lives behind it.

I started doing cartwheels, inciting the kids to try. Some of them picked it up straight away, others just enjoyed flinging themselves about. One of the boys wears a baseball cap to partly conceal burns to his face and a damaged eye from the bombing. His home was burnt when a hospital nearby was hit. He didn’t join in the cartwheeling, but repeatedly shook our hands and thanked us for each cartwheel.

We made a deal – the older kids will clean up the square and we’ll come back and perform. Fadhil and his group will do the play about the tree and we’ll do the circus show and teach them some juggling and stilt walking and play parachute games. The square will be clear of rubbish and broken glass, which will make the women happy. Maybe there will be more dumped, but you never know.

Maybe the act of clearing it themselves gives them some pride in their place, such as it is, some feeling of control, responsibility, ownership, and maybe that means they keep the square as a community space and maybe the kids carry on practising whatever we teach them and maybe it gives them some hope, some fun, something. Maybe.

January 7th
The Cancer Registry

One of the problems with CanReg3, the international standard computerized cancer registration system, is that it cannot accept Arabic script. There is no standard form of transliteration for writing Arabic names in English. Some people would spell ‘Mohammed’ with one ‘m’ and some with two. The cancer registry team in Baghdad have made a dictionary of four hundred names. They require the hospitals to submit names in Arabic, so that they are transliterated only according to the dictionary and patients cannot be duplicated on the register or lost within it due to differences in the spelling of names.

Professor Dr A. Hadi Khalili is vice chair of the Iraqi Cancer Board and head of the Department of Neurosurgery at Baghdad University College of Medicine. The Board, he says, “is a unique organisation. It was established in 1985 but it has been latent, more or less, until 2002. The head is the Minister of Health and it consists of experts in the field, representatives of other ministries, like the Ministry of Higher Education, and other government offices, to coordinate and improve diagnosis, registration, early detection, rehab, palliative care, nursing, everything.”

It also runs the national cancer registry, which was started in 1974 and first operated in 1976. It’s been improved since then, computerised in 2000 and for the past three years it has used the international registration criteria of the WHO – the CanReg3 system, soon to be updated to expecting version 4. Prof Khalili believes the new version will be capable of accepting Arabic script. Previously they used a manual system of case reporting on standard WHO forms, covering all the cases in government hospitals and private diagnostic labs.

There is always an underestimation of the total cancer prevalence in the country because not all the cases are reported. Some patients can’t afford to get to the hospital, others are never diagnosed. Some are clinically too advanced for effective care, so are never admitted as in-patients. The team has careful procedures to prevent duplication, for example, if a patient is diagnosed in Basra and then comes to Baghdad for treatment.

Dr Ahmed, a cancer epidemiologist working with Prof Khalili, says they are currently reviewing all of the information registered since the computerisation in 2000. They moved into the Shahid Adnan hospital in the first days after the war when no one else was working, and managed to save all their data. Everything was on files which were kept safe from the fires and looting. They hope to complete the analysis within the first half of this year but they believe that both the number and behaviour of cancers has changed since the early to mid 1990s. Leukaemias have shown the biggest increase.

Breast cancer overtook bronchial and urinary cancers as the most common tumour. Brain, colloidal and colo-rectal cancers have also increased with a 5-7 fold increase in those types up to 1999. The biggest increases in patients presenting with cancers have been in the south of the country, up to 1999. The statistical predictions for increases by 2008 are massive based on that data.

Prof Khalili explained that the increasing aggression of cancers over the last 10 years means they see many ‘museum cases’ that would not be seen elsewhere, clinically advanced in a short time. He opened pictures on his computer, one of the few in the hospital, and showed me pictures of eye tumours and, with pride, the after picture, the eye saved.

Why? “Cancer is increasing throughout the world. Here the environment is full of carcinogens, in the air, the water, the soil. There have been three toxic wars using all kinds of weapons, including uranium weapons, and there have been explosions in weapons factories and dumps. There is also excessive use of canned food and the introduction of genetically modified food. Malnutrition increases susceptibility.

We do not know whether there is a statistically significant link between DU and cancer. We were planning to do a proper study with the WHO starting in march 2003 with six projects but it was delayed by the war and now it is on hold. So there is no solid evidence of a link, only presumptive evidence, because the biggest increases have been in the areas where the greatest amount of DU was used.”

Dr Ahmed points out a desperate need for training for epidemiology and diagnostic processes. Both agree that help from outside the country is urgently needed but needs to be coordinated through the Cancer Board, not on an ad-hoc basis.

Prof Khalili thinks the most urgent need is for experts in epidemiology and statistics. “We can do our own analysis but we know there is more to be done. We need to have experts analyse our data and help with planning strategies, to stay for two or three months and go into depth with our figures. One of the problems used to be that the government would not release any census information – it was forbidden for anyone to know how many people were living here. I don’t know why. So the two WHO experts who came could not do proper statistical analysis.”

January 6th

Waleed’s band played their first post-war gig yesterday. Acras Sicauda, named after the Latin classification for the black scorpion, is an Iraqi heavy metal band. No longer compelled to mention Saddam in their songs, instead they sing about death, teenage angst and against the occupation.

The improbable backdrop to strobes and headbanging boys included coloured streamers, a dangling strawberry and a bingo game board. An unrebellious sounding 4pm start was necessary because it’s impossible to get a taxi late at night.

The five strong band started in 2000. Waleed and Faisal have started a few bands before. Marwan, the drummer, dropped out of school. Tony has been doing teacher training. Firas is at the college of fine art. Waleed and Marwan do most of the songwriting between them.

It used to be that the government was keeping an eye on what they did. Waleed said he once supplied the Ministry of Information with approximate translations of the songs. The ostensibly pro-Saddam song was in fact, Waleed says, critical, while others had concealed attacks on the president. Younger people are sometimes less self-censoring than those who have had more time to internalise the fear of retribution.

One of the new songs, joy of retribution, includes the lines:

“They want a war for the rest of the future
They said you don’t need it much longer
They want a war but you want peace
But you know you got to kill that beast

This stone is cheap and it’s all I need
One step for victory, one step for death
Yes, it’s worth it.”

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Last night i learned to walk on stilts, with only one small but significant kick to delicate bit of Amber - sorry.

Tonight we're stuffing bean bags.

"Circus revolution" in Arabic is "Thawrat al-seerq".

Sunday, January 04, 2004

It seems the bombing a couple of nights ago was in the Ad-Dora area again. Apparently they're bombing "empty fields". I'm not clear whether this is because the fields are believed to be working against the occupation, or part of an attempt to intimidate, or a vital means of disposing of spare bombs.

Friday, January 02, 2004

It's 10:52 pm here in Baghdad and there's a full on bombardment going on somewhere nearby. There's nothing up on Al Jazeera or Reuters about it. Don't know where it is but there's a lot of heavy cannon fire and loads of bombing.
January 1st
New Year in Baghdad

A fluorescent orange cigarette end tumbled down the street like a single bead from the occasional necklaces of fairy lights put up for new year, shaken loose by the force of the bomb, gunfire echoing in its aftermath. It was close enough this time, at the expensive Nabil restaurant on Arasat. Why? I don’t know. People say, because it’s expensive, people from the CPA go there, but of course Iraqi people go there too.

“What do you call those people?” Omar asked. “I mean, they are not the resistance. They are killing more Iraqi people than Americans. The ones who attack the CPA, of course they are the resistance, but why are they bombing restaurants and killing so many Iraqis?”

Mohammed was the same, full of sadness, unable to understand. How does this random killing undermine the occupation. The last couple of days there have been attacks on convoys of humvees which have killed an undisclosed number of American soldiers and at least one Iraqi child each time. “It is chaos. No one has control now.”

Again the Iraqi people are caught between violent forces over which they have no control. Long crushed between Saddam and the violence of sanctions, now they are trapped between US military and the armed opposition. Of course when you invade a country you have to expect people to fight back but, whichever side you are on, it’s not legitimate to be careless with the lives of innocent bystanders and civilians.

The US responds with mass arrests, detention without charge and collective punishments as in Samara where about 100 men were rounded up from all the buildings surrounding one which was damaged in a bombing a couple of days ago.

Midnight was celebrated, nonetheless, with gunfire, flares and fireworks and Hamoudi’s news that they are waiting for confirmation that his wife is pregnant with their first child.

Web administrators in one of the military bases in Baghdad have blocked access to the Electronic Iraq website. They do this for sites deemed “unnecessary”, including those of “advocacy groups”, which they’ve decided that eIraq is. Any soldiers reading may be interested to know that, unless they’ve also blocked Google, you can still get access to blocked sites by clicking on the cached version of the site, essentially a giant mirror of the internet. This was a trick we learnt just before the war, shortly before the Iraqi government discovered it too and firewalled Google as well.

If they do block Google then you’ll have to do what the Iraqis did and develop some hacking skills, unless of course you accept that there are certain things which, for the good of your country, you simply can’t know or think about.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

This is something I wrote for a magazine called Venue in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, that wanted my new year resolutions for the end of year issue. Thought I’d share it, just for the laugh.

1. Do you have any resolutions for 2004?

First and foremost, I resolve to carry on not getting shot or blown up for as long as possible.

It’s a bit of a weird one, being asked for my new year resolutions, sitting here in Baghdad typing by candle light because, as usual, there’s no electricity. Yesterday I took statements from queues of people whose relatives have been detained without charge, trial, legal representation or visits from their family – lots of them don’t even know where the relative is, if he’s dead or alive.

The day before, I had a meeting with families of three men who were shot dead, while face down on the ground, by US soldiers who were raiding their house. The next day the soldiers came back and said they were sorry, it was a mistake. They’d raided the wrong house.

And so it goes on, day after day after day until I wonder what could I possibly do, what could I possibly resolve that would have any impact on the desperate need in this place. But then I see yet another thing so outrageous, so appalling, that I resolve, again, never to give up nipping the heads of the people responsible, never never never.

2. What are your plans for the year, personally and professionally?

I plan to be in Iraq till May, writing and trying to set up links between schools, universities, hospitals and so on, here in Iraq and in the UK, so people in the UK can help rehabilitate those institutions here. I'm also filing cases against the British government for human rights abuses and carrying out a health survey where depleted uranium weapons were used.
Personally- as above, I suppose, staying alive and trying to do something positive here and lots of mead, mushrooms and snogs with Tommo when I get back at summer solstice..

3. What are your hopes for the future:
That I'll pass my bar exams, become a kickass human rights lawyer and smear metaphorical egg all over the faces of the forces of darkness.
That a vegan chocolate cake factory will open at the bottom of my garden.

for Bristol
That the developers who have so much control of the city and the council will be kicked out in a popular uprising and the people will retake the city

for the world as a whole?
The same as for Bristol really, but on a global scale - that we all stand together as people, take back the power and start organising the world around human concerns rather than economic ones.
I know it sounds like a pipe dream but when you see the disastrous consequences of the way the world is controlled now, really you have to believe in it.
That George W Bush’s trousers will fall down in the petrol station.
December 31st

Haider once put on a play called something like Checkmate, about a dictatorial Chinese emperor from the olden days. He gave a poster to an ageing theatre worker and asked him to put it up outside. Later the security services came to arrest him and investigate the whole production. That he wasn’t taken in handcuffs is maybe testament to his fame and popularity as an actor here.

It turned out the old man’s sight was fading badly and he’d inadvertently (presumably) put the play bill over a portrait of Saddam. The other actors and the Minstry of Culture all tried to help Haider and he was released after a day, having convinced the authorities that neither the play nor the positioning of the poster was intended as a challenge to Saddam.

Plays had to be licensed. All drama had to be a celebration of the regime, Fadhil says. You could say you were against the war in your work but not that you were against the regime. There were no specific things that were symbols of opposition, no animals or figures that were widely understood as representing Saddam in theatre or literature – you would be killed – but there would be things in the background that the lights would linger over.

Fadhil showed us round the National Theatre, the huge stage in the main auditorium, the echoing backstage, talked about the plays and operas that used to be held here. The theatre was looted after the war. Even props were stolen, never mind valuables like the lights. Fadhil excused himself to go and collect his Ministry of Culture salary from upstairs but came back empty handed.

He was paid by the Ministry of Culture before the war as well. Haider and some of the others were freelance or private. Plays are still going on but there is little of any quality, Fadhil says. There’s soon to be a programme of plays about Al-Sadr, an important Shia figure killed by Saddam, so the front of the National is covered with pictures of him. There was a week-long festival of children’s theatre and another of Iraqi theatre but he’s not seen any new work of real coherence and power. People are still too bewildered, he says.

Haider is working on a project to make a play from a book called “Death of a Violet” (I think – Fadhil wasn’t quite sure of the title in English) by an Italian writer called something like Jacoberti. It’s about a house which is left standing alone after bombing which destroys all the surrounding buildings. The Generals want to know how this one withstood the demolition and the play is about their attempts to get in and to destroy the family inside. Haider is translating and adapting it to fit the Iraqi situation. He hopes to have an invitation to perform the play at a Moroccan theatre festival.

Things are uncertain now for the theatre, Fadhil says. It’s not clear whether the ministry will go on supporting actors. “We need the theatre, we need drama, to preserve our ancient culture and also to move forward, to express and debate democracy and freedom and the future. It is important because the problem is with the Iraqi people. It is difficult for people to feel they have any control over the country and their lives so they don’t take responsibility. Of course the problem is with the Americans as well – they came here and destroyed and they did not understand the culture or anything. They got rid of Saddam but they haven’t done anything.”

He went north to the Kurdish zone to present a film about historical sites. When he asked a question about northern Iraq, the interviewee stopped him. “He told me this is Kurdistan, not northern Iraq. I found it really sad.” We talked for a while about how oppression turns people towards nationalistic, religious and fundamentalist movements.

But today’s play wasn’t about politics. They created the stage out of a leafy mat, tables making way for a tree and a fountain, branches concealing the hall’s usual function as a lecture room in a hospital. Kids and families crept in uncertainly. A woman in an abaya, her husband in a wool hat, a toddler in dungarees between them, huddled in the very middle of the block of chairs, as weighed down as human beings could look. And, about halfway through, they started to laugh, and it rocked them and it shook them and it made the sun shine on them instead of just dazzling their eyes.

There are some men who want to cut down the tree and some people who protect it. There’s a man who gets turned into a cockerel and can only crow; another who turns into a giant yellow monkey. One of the smallest boys burst into tears, ran away and watched the rest of the show just peeping out from behind a chair with encouraging cuddles. And there’s Mohammed, about three and a half, maybe four, feet of comic wizardry. The kids love him because he’s their height.

The actors have been performing all over Baghdad for about the last month, supported by Premiere Urgence, a French NGO. Fadhil talks about a school for autistic kids where they performed the other play. He’s a chef, trying to keep control over two mischievous cats who keep hiding the apples. The children, when they arrive, are introverted and isolated. He says he asked one of them if he knew where the cats had hidden the apples. “And he looked at me and said ‘I c-can’t tell you. The cats are my friends.’ He was relating to them. It was great.”

In between a US military base and the Turkish embassy there’s a building belonging to the city council, which an Iraqi organisation called Childhood Voice has filled with kids, computers, musical instruments, art materials and teachers. There’s a kitchen, a woodwork room, a sewing and knitting workshop, a ping pong hall, a theatre and outdoor volleyball and basketball court, football pitch and a karate training space.

Odai pointed in one direction: “This area is reasonably wealthy. They are not rich people but they are OK. Over here they are very poor. You can tell where the children are from by their clothes.” They all mix together in the youth centre. Apparently it’s unusual, though the opportunity is there, for the girls to choose to do woodwork or the boys to do cooking.

Childhood Voice runs the Seasons Art School as well, a smaller facility which takes more handicapped kids, running two shifts a day, morning and afternoon, because that’s how the schools are running now. A lot of the kids wouldn’t have access to computers and musical instruments if it weren’t for the centres but, maybe more importantly, there’s a psychologist available to help with trauma.

It was started by a group of Iraqi people in August with financial support from Unicef and Norwegian Church Aid. The building that houses the youth centre is owned by the interim city council. It was damaged in war so it had to be rehabilitated for the project. Part of the condition of using the building was that it should have a manager from the council, but in March the operation will be handed over to Childhood Voice.

Odai says the location, between the base and the embassy, is a safety concern which is exacerbated by US soldiers coming into the centre. They have asked them not to, for the sake of children, because they are a target, but they keep doing it.

On the way we passed what sounded like a wedding, the drums, the bugle, the hooting, the shots in the air. Weddings don’t happen on Wednesday mornings. A translator working with US military was killed about 3 days ago. If the dead person was never married, they’re dressed up as if for a wedding and taken to their funeral with a procession, so they can be a bride or groom in the next life.

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