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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.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

March 26th
The Girls’ Day Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 27, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 26, 2004

March 24th
The Southern Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.
March 24th
The Southern Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.
March 24th
The Southern Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also said watch out for the landmines in the garden which, as much as the manic workload, explains why the lawn is so overgrown.
March 24th
The Southern Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Twinning Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding practicalities, there’s no postal system here at the moment, though it is possible to send things by DHL. There isn’t internet access in most of these places but in some cases someone who works there has e mail access; otherwise stuff can be e mailed through an intermediary – me while I’m still here, a whole network of people once I leave and through the circus people again when it comes back in the autumn. Materials can be also be brought to and fro by people travelling in and out of Iraq and by the NGOs in the area.
March 21st
Bayaa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

March 20th
Peace Prayers

Part of the experience of Baghdad immediately before the war and often since has been the unexpected meetings with people from all over the world: the students from Congo and Chad, a young Serbian woman with stories of war and peace, the Vietnam vets, the refuseniks, the African American reverend, the Buddhist monks, the Japanese with their drums and the South Americans with theirs and yesterday the Siberian Shaman, the Native American chief, the Mexican Keeper of the Mayan Prophecy, the Kenyan mother and traditional teacher, the Israeli Jew, the Sufi men with their loud and soft rhythms and plaintive song for peace, the Shia and Sunni Muslim clerics and the Chaldean Christian preachers all in one room, all on one stage, all repeating together the words, “Assalamu aleikum,” [may peace be upon you] and “May peace prevail on earth.”

I think the bravest man in Baghdad on the anniversary of the start of bombing was Eliyahu McLean, a Jewish man from the Holy Land: “I refuse to use the politicians’ names for the land, to divide it into Israel and Palestine.” He talked on the stage about the need for spiritual solutions, that it won’t be politicians with their agreements who make the peace in the region but people reaching some kind of spiritual accommodation with one another.

He knows, of course, that the politicians have to be dragged along, that they have to withdraw their armies, knock down their walls, respect human rights and so on, but knows too that it’s the people who have to lead. He’s just come from the UK talking to various groups about what needs to be done.

I carefully mentioned that there’s a lot of prejudice against Jews here, as in, “We welcome anyone to our country. You’re not a Jew are you? Because you can leave now if you’re a Jew,” and as in, “Ya Yahud [Hey Jew] Mohammed’s Army is coming back” on banners in the street and Raed getting threats at his shop because someone who saw Luis arriving thought he might be Jewish. That’s before we made Luis shave his beard off.

Eliyahu started laughing. “Prejudice. That’s an interesting thing to call it. I’d say it’s more like intense hatred. Yeah, I have to admit I do feel a bit nervous here.”

But that’s what it’s going to take, in the end: brave people to walk into the places where they know they’re hated and say let’s talk this through, let’s not be divided and ruled by fear anymore. Let’s talk this through and work out a solution and not wait for a politician to sign his name on the bottom of another politician’s “peace plan”.

Jose is a Mexican man who has spent the last 50 years translating the Mayan Prophecies after their rediscovery. He talked both on stage and off about the cycles of time, about the ending of the current cycle in 2012. That’s not the end of the world, but a time of enormous change. Looked at in this context, Jose says, the increasingly intense rate and nature of events in the last few years is understandable and explicable.

The Mayan calendar, like a lot of others, has thirteen months corresponding to the average cycle of the moon: thirteen months of 28 days and a ‘Day Out of Time” on July 25th. Zabibu, the Kenyan woman who is the keeper and teacher of her people’s spiritual traditions agreed that living by a 13 month calendar fundamentally changes your way of thinking, releases you from lots of constrictions in your creativity and allows you to live much more in touch with natural cycles of time.

The use of a calendar which artificially splits the year into twelve sections of unequal lengths with random names is fundamental to the distancing of people from nature, the Mayans’ successors say, which destroyed our harmony with the world around us and allows us to pollute and abuse it.

I don’t know. I don’t know whether thinking in terms of a thirteen month calendar would change anything, anything within for the individual or anything global if it was widespread: I’m not sure whether a global consciousness shift is the end of the revolution or the beginning, but from Jose flows the kind of calm that seems to take what’s happening to the world in the certainty that positive change is coming, that we’re about to evolve, ready or not.

“What an extraordinary time to be alive on Earth,” he said. After four and a half months in Baghdad it feels good to sit next to someone like that.

It’s a short visit – they arrived the day before the anniversary and are leaving the day after so I didn’t manage to talk to any of them as much as I wanted, to Chief Looking Horse, like a man from a storybook in his full feathered headdress in Baghdad, and his daughter Grace, to Zabibu, to Jose and to Stephanie who works with him, about their lives and stories as well as their spiritual beliefs and practices and to Anis, the Siberian woman who travels the world as a translator for the Shamen from the Russian Academy of Esoteric Happiness.

I can neither pronounce nor spell the name of the Shaman she was travelling with so I’m just going to call him Alan. Born in Siberia in 1970 he first healed someone when he was about five years old but didn’t realise for several years that it was a talent, not something everyone went about doing. “In the town I came from you didn’t boast about what you could do. It was dangerous to boast.”

On stage he was in full costume, a thick fur coat covered in bells coming down close to his knees, fur boots also covered in trimmings and a tall fur hat with fringes and decorations so that when he moves he jangles and rattles and when he dances and drums he seems like a ball of furious energy in the middle of a whirl of flying stuff.

Healing is a big part of his life and work now as well as teaching. All Shamen do different things, he says. Some run businesses, some marry and have children, some live in monasteries. “You could not have two Shamen working together on something. They would have different ways of doing it, they would disagree and fight each other. But we have understanding. I have never met Chief Looking Horse before but he is a Shaman from the Americas, Jose too, and we understand each other without words.”

Someone once asked him how he knows which herbs to collect. He described leaving the city for Lake Baikal, an immense fresh water lake where the air is clear and cold and fresh and he can be alone, fast and clear his mind for two weeks and then he knows which herbs to pick. He can smell, he can feel.

There’s no elected or hereditary head of Shamen but when you meet someone who is stronger than you, you know and you respect them. He loves telling stories to illustrate the point and his blue eyes smiled as he started. “Once another Shaman met a man at sea who used to be in a circus. He could juggle 5 clubs but there was a man there who could juggle 7 clubs and to him this man was a god. Every day he practised for 16 hours a day but he could never do 7 clubs. There was no elected or hereditary head of jugglers but you just know when you meet someone stronger.”

And no, he doesn’t drink reindeer piss.


To find out more about Jose’s work: www.foundationforthelawoftime.org and www.tortuga.org

To find out more about the Siberian Shamen: www.bogomudr.org

To find out more about Eliyahu’s work I’m afraid you’ll have to do a Google on Eliyahu McLean as I’m rubbish and I’ve lost his card.
March 19th
Sanctuary

After the carnage of the bomb, after the much smaller bomb in the electricity box in the next street, our feet drew us to the Mother Teresa orphanage, maybe more for our sanctuary than for their entertainment, to a small group of children who are mostly, I am sure, unaware of the blood and screaming that daily happens outside their walls.

Sanctuary it hardly seems when you walk into a barrage of screams from three rows of cots, but they’re screams of glee. Only one of the children can walk, though Yasser can climb out of his cot and crawl after you. They called out our names, asked where was Donna, where was this or that person.

But I knelt down by Nana’s cot and waited. First her eyes widened and then she moved her body to the side of the cot where I was. Her hand began the journey, reaching for my face. Her small strong fingers arrived at my forehead and stroked, an odyssey from centre to temple, brushing my hair across to the other side and it was then that the smile started, spreading until it was as wide as her face, as wide as outstretched arms, wide enough to blot out the sight of the cracked walls, flooded craters and mangled metal as her hand made its way back to my forehead to stroke again.

Yasser came to be picked up, no longer able to walk on the braces on his legs but still at a crawling advantage over the others in attention scoring. When I put him down to hold Melaak’s bottle for her, the newest and tiniest of the kids, he sat beside me on the floor, undoing the Velcro on my sandals, shaking his head as I closed it again. After I left it undone a while he closed it himself, tutting as I undid it again and the roles reversed. He and Omar hoover up phrases of other languages, talking to me in English, throwing in bits of French and German.

The door flew open and a young Iraqi woman shouted, “Marhaba, atfal!” The kids bellowed and shrieked a welcome and she bounced from child to child, lifting Hussein out of his cot and over her head while he giggled, the same for Noor, an eighteen month old girl born without arms and legs, who uses the stump of her left shoulder, the closest she has to a limb, to point at the person or place she wants to go to.

We tickled, blew bubbles, made balloon dogs, elephants and giraffes while Maisan took one child after another to be cleaned and changed. A small girl called Zaineb sat quietly in her cot until it was her turn. Unable to look straight at me she played with the hand I offered, weaving fingers and weighing the touch.

Undoubtedly the children there are loved. They’re clean, healthy, happy. Omar and Yasser have some tuition. There are toys in their cots, a blue doll for the boys, a pink one for the girls and Winnie the Pooh hanging onto his balloon and Humpty Dumpty. But the fact remains that Omar, at twelve, spends most of his time in a child’s wooden cot because he can’t walk. The fact remains that Yasser has to crawl on the floor because he hasn’t got the right leg braces and crutches to prop him up.

The place and the people who work there do an extraordinary job in the circumstances but there are no wheelchairs, no physiotherapists, no specialists in helping children with perhaps only mild cerebral palsy to fulfil their potential. There are no materials, no spaces for them to come out of their cots and wriggle and roll on the ground, no art activities.

In a few years, perhaps four, Omar’s going to be too old for the orphanage. The only two places for him to go are the street or the mental hospital. On the street he will be unprotected and destitute in a country where it’s thought best to throw stones at anyone who seems ‘subnormal’. In the hospital he will be a child with enormous capacity to learn, to love, to grow, locked up, stopped up, halted in the company of old men who have been there a lifetime, no teachers, no future.

Anyone thought of setting up Physiotherapists Without Borders? Iraq needs you.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

March 18th
The Bomb

I set off for the internet. I’m wearing the poker face I’ve learnt from the Iraqi women to deflect harassment, staring straight ahead, slightly fiercely, not responding to any shouts or remarks, even greetings, because as soon as one man sees you say hello to another, you’re fair game.

The air seems impossibly full for a second and then bursts with a roar, sending a tremor through the ground that shoots up the leg my weight is on, unbalancing me slightly, but the poker face doesn’t flinch. Young men start running past me towards the direction of the explosion. That’s when the shock hits me: I’ve learnt to ignore things blowing up behind me.

A burst of gunfire sends a crowd of children and young men running back the other way. “Wayn? Wayn?” people are asking. Where? “Kahromana,” someone says, referring to the sculpture of Ali Baba’s wife pouring hot oil into the barrels where the forty thieves were hiding, which stands at the junction between Karrada Dahkil, Karrada Kharitj and Saadoon.

The shopkeepers scoop up the boxes of electrical goods, fruit and toys from the array on the pavement and haul down the metal shutters in front of the windows, if they’ve still got any. The less fortunate sweep and shovel the splintered glass. Towards Kahromana most of the windows even on Karrada Dakhil are destroyed; on Karrada Kharitj there’s barely one intact.

“Wayn infijar?” someone asks me. Where’s the explosion?

I don’t know but you can see smoke from the road towards Simona and Paola’s house. A raw clatter of gunfire, very close and very loud, drives another crowd of young men running. They’re saying it was a car bomb, saying it’s a hotel.

I carry on towards the internet, the old men ask me the same question. “Wayn infijar?”

I tell them the shebab say it was a hotel.

“Al-Sadeer?”

I don’t know, but they say it was a car bomb.

No, they insist straight away. It wasn’t a car bomb. It was a missile. One of them points to the sky and traces the arc of the thing just to make sure I understand.

It’s weirdly dislocating to find the next street live on TV, Al-Jazeera bring on the scene almost instantaneously because the hotel where they live and work is behind the one blown up. The men in the internet say it was the Funduq Burj Lubnaan - the Lebanon Tower Hotel, an apartment hotel used mainly by families from other Arab countries. No one can think of a reason why it was targeted. People speculate that the bomb was being taken somewhere else and blew up there by mistake.

Sam comes back in shock. He’s never seen the flames, the panic, the craters, the impossibly copious smoke. The mobile phone network is jammed so I can’t ring anyone to see if they’re OK, say we’re all OK. In the morning we walk over because Sam needs to see it in daylight, to know that the flames are out.

There’s no front on the hotel, the street a mire of bricks, puddles, foul stinking mud and craters filled with water. Smoke still limps out of windows and doors inside houses, their front rooms exposed to the world like dolls’ houses, men with shirts wrapped around their faces sweeping out the debris from a first floor room, the side wall split like a rotten trunk.

When they discover I speak a bit of Arabic, everyone wants to talk. I can’t find anyone who accepts that it was a car bomb. The US soldiers say it was a thousand pounds of plastic explosive wrapped in some kind of artillery. It’s impossible to see what’s in the crater, whether there’s any part of the skeleton of a car, because it’s full of water from the fire hoses.

Unanimously people insist it was a missile. It came from the air. I ask everyone, did you see it yourself? No, no, they all say, but as we’re leaving there’s one who says he saw it. He points to his right, my left, opposite the demolished hotel, but behind the row of buildings which faced it. He says he was standing close to where he is now and he saw it. He thinks it was the Americans, as do all the men around him, all the people who came to talk.

Of course, it could be denial, scapegoating, wanting to blame someone and something else, something foreign for all the problems, to avoid having to address them from within. It could be. Like the Ashura bombing, like dozens of smaller explosions, a lot of people think it’s a tactic by the US troops to foment troubles between Shia and Sunni as a justification for prolonging the occupation.

Either way it’s going to be hard to find anything out because a US military bulldozer rolls past us scooping up whatever forensic evidence there might have been. A CNN reporter swoops on a small child carrying a plastic doll, bereft of several limbs, and arranges them for the camera. Where is the truth?

A year after the war, where is the truth? Bulldozed and arranged for the camera, dead and buried under the rubble.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

I set off along Karrada Dakhil towards the internet. Women in Iraq adopt a kind of poker face, expressionless, not making eye contact, responding to none of the calls from men either side and I've learnt to do the same. The air seems suddenly full, somehow, for a fraction of a second before it explodes with noise. My poker face doesn't flinch but a spasm of tension shoots up the leg that my weight is on, unbalancing me slightly.

Young men start running past me in the direction of the blast. "Wayn? Wayn?" people keep asking. Where? "Sahat Al Kahromana," someone says. Kahromana Square. The end of Karrada Dakhil.

A burst of gunfire at indeterminate distance and a crowd of children and young men are running back the other way.

The men scoop up the electrical goods in their boxes from the arrays outside their shops, hauling down the metal shutters in front of their windows, if they still have them. Close to Kahromana, the beautiful sculpture of Ali Baba's wife pouring oil into the barrels where the forty thieves were hiding, no one has windows anymore and they're sweeping away the glass from the pavement.

"Wayn infijar?" someone asks me. Where is the explosion?

I don't know. Ahead, maybe. We start walking. It's in the direction of Simona and Paola's house but I think it was closer than them. People are saying it was a hotel, someone says the Baghdad Hotel, but that's the wrong direction and anyway it's already been destroyed. They're saying it was a sayara, a car.

More gunfire, loud and close, and there's a rush of young men running away, running towards us. We don't need to discuss it. We turn back. As the crowd consumes us, still running, we run too. It's not that there seems an imminent risk of being shot, but it's better not to wait and find out.

The shopkeepers along Karrada Dakhil are asking the same question. "Wayn infijar?"

I still don't really know. The shebab said it was a car bomb at a hotel.

"Funduq Sadeer?"

I don't know. The old men say no, it can't have been a car bomb. It came from above. He points at the sky and traces the arc of a flying missile to make sure I understand.

Three tanks roar out of a side street spewing black smoke and everyone laughs as the second one gets stuck on the central reservation, the third trapped behind it and the first twitching back and forth in a jittery indecision, whether it's less of a risk to stay still in the street, where everyone's jeering, or carry on alone. An old man shakes his fist and vents rage at a passing helicopter.

When I arrive at the internet, the scene just along the road is live on Al Jazeera and I ask the crowd of watching men the same question. "Wayn infijar?"

"Funduq Burj Lubnaan" The Lebanon Tower Hotel.

It's the second one today. Mid afternoon a bomb went off in an electricity box beside two Humvees in the street next to ours. It exploded away from the vehicles though and the only casualty was a child who ran screaming, a T shirt pressed to a shrapnel wound on his neck before his parents scooped him up and put him in a car.

A year ago today I was sitting in Baghdad waiting for Bush to make the speech, at 4am our time, where he would announce the 48 hour deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq or be bombed, wondering what he was going to say, whether he would announce the start of the war that night, whether he would unleash his weapons on us first and then announce that it had already started.

Now everyone is wondering what's going to happen on the anniversary and when he's going to take his war away.
March 17th
The Farm (2)

“We are farmers. We are farmers.” Fatima kept screaming it, over and over, cradling one child after another, the fourth dead in the rubble of the farmhouse they fled to for sanctuary from Baghdad. It was almost a year ago, March 23rd, at four in the afternoon. Three people were killed: Fatima’s 8 year old daughter, Zahra, her sister Hana and her brother’s new wife Nahda, who was 18.

Surviving family members and neighbours said they saw the plane circling overhead for some time before it fired three rockets, one of which hit the house, destroying the entire upper storey. Everyone said at the time that there was nothing military in the area, nor anything that they could imagine was the intended target. We always wondered though, even after we drove around the area and couldn’t find anything, whether they were told by the security services what to say to us.

The school we went to in the morning was in Diyala Bridge, near to where the farm was so we decided to go and look for them, find out what had happened. Taalib drove us there last time and he gave us approximate directions and said to ask when we were nearby for the house that was bombed in the war.

We drove down the track past a few houses, none of them familiar. We stopped and asked and were directed back to the first house we passed. We didn’t recognise the woman outside, nor the children who peered out through the windows. They talked about most of the family being killed. Their bombing was at midnight, demolishing three houses, on March 29th, six days after the attack that we knew about.

Layla pointed out the remains of the houses. Sixteen or seventeen people died altogether. She is the second wife of the brother of the owner of the house that’s now been rebuilt. The first wife was killed in the attack. He’s in the UK now staying with family members and receiving treatment after losing his arms in the bombing.

Mustafa Taha, a sixteen year old boy, listed eight of his family who were killed. Kamila Abid Kadem, his 50 year old mother, his sisters Muna and Abir Taha, 24 and 20, his 13 year old brother Mohammed Taha, 50 year old Ismail Abbas, 11 year old Abbas Smail and Mustafa’s cousins Ezhar and Sabiha, both 27 year old women. Mustafa had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder but he’s physically OK now.

“We heard the plane above us for about 15 minutes and suddenly we were underground.” He pointed to a smaller boy, fourteen years old, sitting on the edge of a step from the house. “He lost all of his family.”

Nabil Sabah stood up very straight. “I was at the house of my uncle and I came back at noon and the house was destroyed. My mother and father and all my five brothers and sisters were dead. The rocket hit the house directly.” Speechless, I looked around at the family, their faces still devastated, their bodies still weighed down with grief.

“Asafa” I said to Nabil. I’m sorry, although it was a pointless thing to say..

He nodded, dignified, and he didn’t cry but his little body slumped somehow as if something was crumbling inside him, consumed by the pain which was undiminished, still raw and unaddressed.

Taha Abbas, the uncle who Nabil lives with now, said, “We came back to the house and there were many people missing. We searched in the rubble and there were pieces of them everywhere. Some of them we found with their heads off. We are farmers. We have lived here since 1958.”

He’s rebuilt his own house and his brother’s. There are 8 in the house now, with water and occasional electricity. He thinks the military base three kilometres away might have been the intended target, although after 15 minutes of circling he’s unsure how they could have hit the house instead, how they could miss by three thousand metres.

“The tanks and troops come through here all the time. It is hard for us to like them after what they have done to us. We have nothing. We are just hanging around trying to live. The Iraqi government has never asked about us, nor the Americans. No one has come and asked about us until you.”

They had no knowledge of another house in the area being hit, so we crossed the river and asked more people. “Do you mean the house where two women and a child were killed?” someone asked. That was the one.

Though the house was in pieces last time, we knew it when we saw it. There’s a drop from the dirt track down to the house. I knew the man who came out. When I first saw him I thought he was smiling. He was on the far side of the emergency room, covered with blood and grime. An older man, his father, the owner of the house, was brought through in a wheelchair and he came to him, held the arm of the wheelchair, asked him a question I couldn’t understand. It was a grimace, not a smile, his face desperate.

Ajama shook his head and Khalid collapsed, gasping for breath as if his was tied to Nahda’s, still under the wreckage of the house. When we went the next day to get directions to the house, he was hunched in the corridor, still bloody, head on his knees, tears falling silently, endlessly.

They welcomed us into the house, Khalid, his brother Omar and their mum. Walking in I found the memory transposed onto the present, the rubble now swept away, the second storey replaced and the walls repainted, the windows whole and cushions laid around the outside of the room. Khalid fetched some photos of the house before it was repaired but for me, that was still more vivid than the clean building around me.

Among the photos was one of Hana, Khalid’s sister. “She was in the last year of her studies,” Umm Khalid said. “She was studying to be a teacher of Arabic. She would have finished in the summer.” Khalid hasn’t got any photos of Nahda. They were all destroyed in the bombing. The only one is a passport photo in her ID papers, a very young woman. “She was only eighteen years old and they murdered her,” Umm Khalid said and had to wipe her eyes.

“Can you imagine how we felt?” Umm Khalid asked. “It was the seventh day after the weeding. We brought the bride to the house at four o’clock and at four o’clock we were bombed.”

Umm Khalid talked about Nada, Fatima’s oldest daughter. She was speaking in Arabic but her gesture, a long sweep of the hand along the thigh, was unmistakeable, the gouge in Nada’s leg unforgettable and still, she said, causing her problems. How is Rana, I asked. Rana was eight when the bombing happened, suffering badly with concussion and struggling to breathe when we met her.

“Rana is alright. For us, we are all alright,” Umm Khalid said. “You can see we are alright. But for them, they are broken. Their family is broken.” Fatima has gone back to Baghdad with her three surviving children, Nada now 15, Rana 9 and Mohammed 5. “They came from Baghdad because their home was close to the Air Force Centre and the National Theatre and they thought the Air Force Centre would be bombed. Of course it was bombed, but how could they have expected that we would be bombed as well?”

We asked them again what they thought was the intended target. Still they said there is nothing military in the area, nothing related to communications or electricity generation. We’d driven all over the area looking for the house and again found nothing that explained the attack in terms of a mistake, an attempt to hit a legitimate target. We passed the Tuwaitha nuclear power station quite a distance away, drove around its heavily wired perimeter wall but, even had that been within ten kilometres of the farmhouse, it didn’t explain the attack. Even in the furthest reaches of lunacy I can’t believe anyone aims to blow up a nuclear power station close to a city they plan to occupy.

Ajama came back from a funeral. One of his relatives was killed in the crossfire of an ambush, some Iraqi militiamen, some US troops; he happened to be travelling along the road. He was friendly, polite, thanked us for coming. No one has been to ask about us since you last came, he said, not the new Iraqi government, not the Americans, nobody has offered any help.

“But we are afraid. We welcome you but I am afraid that if we are seen with foreigners in our home people will tell the Americans we are working for the resistance or tell the militias we are working for the Americans. They will ask who are these people, how did you have communication with them, how did they know where to find you to come and visit your house. I don’t know anyone who this has happened to but we hear stories. We hear of it happening.”

He runs a small company with a few employees. Khalid works as an engineer in the electrical plant which took him on after he graduated a couple of years ago, in Karrada, a long journey to work each day. They are somewhere between the traditional and the modern, still farmers but also working outside in professions. The entire area is Shia.

Before we left we had to know whether they were told by Mukhabarat, the security police, what to say to us. “They did not tell us anything. They did not come to us.” There’s no reason, now, to disbelieve him. Yet he is more afraid now that he was before the war, more afraid to talk to foreigners, more afraid to draw attention to himself. Ajama thanked us repeatedly, kept apologising for his fear.

We went looking for the bereaved family of three dead and found the still devastated remnants of the families of seventeen more. Raed worked on a survey of deaths and spoke to a doctor in Nasariya who gave him the details of casualties who came into the hospital but estimated that perhaps a quarter to a third of the dead actually came to the hospital; the rest were simply buried.

The survey was never properly published, thousands of forms still awaiting analysis. Marla, the American woman who set up CIVIC, the organisation which started the survey, is the darling of the US liberal media, utterly unchallenging to the status quo, but always willing to talk about her crusade for compensation for the victims. She talks about how she went door to door asking about casualties and deaths, a version which irritates the people who set up the teams of volunteers who actually did go door to door carrying out the research.

The result of it all has been a paltry $10 million (about 5.5 million pounds) to USAID, the US Agency for International Development, the department responsible for awarding reconstruction contracts for Iraq exclusively to US companies. It hasn’t reached, and will never reach, Nabil in his uncle’s house, still grieving for his entire family. It will not reach Khalid, widowed within a week of his wedding, Fatima, whose family was broken by the loss of Zahra at the age of nine, nor ease the disability Nada is still suffering with her leg, never mind the psychological pain that hasn’t healed.
March 16th
Schools

Headmaster Mohammed looked out at the horde of kids outside the school gate and mused that quite a lot of them might come back now they’d seen the circus. They wouldn’t want to miss it if it came back again, he said. Loads of kids dropped out because of poverty in the family, the dangers and difficulties of getting to school or the poor conditions of the school itself. Kids from other schools have been kidnapped for money or attackers have come into the school. There’s nothing to keep anyone out, Mohammed said, looking at the feeble gates.

Part of Mohammed’s problem is the lack of text books. They’re still working with the old ones, with Saddam’s picture in them and they haven’t got nearly enough for all the kids, so the teachers can only lecture. Unicef was close to giving contracts for the printing of new books to local Iraqi printers, who had started buying the inks and materials, before Unicef pulled out leaving nothing but ill-feeling between the different companies.

They’ve got no other teaching materials at all. There are a thousand boys in the morning shift and a thousand girls in the evening shift so there’s no time or space for any sort of training for the 30 teachers. Each child is allocated twelve pencils per year, an average of one and a half per month of school. “But the children do not keep a pencil for a month. They keep a pencil for a few days and then it is broken or lost or finished.” It goes without saying that there are no art materials in the school.

Mohammed has a masters degree in education and was studying for a PhD but the programme has been stopped so it’s on hold for now. To me, in pigtails, face paint, a silver dress and extra-long green, purple, yellow and orange trousers, he asked, “What are the latest methods and systems of education in the UK?” I did a few modules of education in a degree I finished almost eight years ago but that’s my limit. Part of Mohammed’s problem is that he’s so starved of professional support that he’s got to ask a clown.

Then there is the lack of running water, so that even the single hole-in-the-ground toilet is unsanitary. Classroom furniture is scarce. But Mohammed’s problems don’t end there. The teachers are only just, in mid March, being paid their salaries for February, which has left them broke for the last couple of weeks. As headmaster, working full time, with a masters degree, he is paid only the same as the cleaner; all the teachers struggle to live on their wages.

We talked about Unions and he said there have been thoughts of setting one up but nothing is yet established. I promised to bring more information and we talked about the kind of support he would like from teachers outside Iraq. “We need a teacher exchange with other countries, especially the UK, for a few Iraqi teachers to visit the UK and spend time with teachers there, spend time in the schools and learn about the latest methods and curricula. Those teachers can share the information with others when they return. It will be more effective than bringing teachers from the UK to Iraq because we need to see the way they work.” At the moment he does not even have internet access to communicate with teachers abroad.

We hadn’t expected to do a second show, hadn’t realised a second shift of children would be coming, but Adnan came in laughing, telling us the departing boys were all talking about the very tall woman and the men who made things disappear. We checked with Saba, Mohammed’s counterpart for the girls’ shift and began a second show.

The girls were incredibly loud. The noise of them shouting “Boomchucka” was immense, a huge buzz, a thousand little girls happy and excited. In the end they got a bit too manic and we cut the show short. The ones at the back, standing, were pushing forward, the ones sitting at the front and those squeezed in the middle looking likely to get hurt.

I thought the teachers would be furious with us but they weren’t at all. “They have never had anything like this, something happy, something fun in this yard. In this yard they used to have to sing songs praising Saddam. They are especially happy to see a woman in the show. They have never thought a woman can do this,” Saba said.

Bremer, she said, is not at all interested in women’s rights. He hasn’t done anything for women and nor has the Governing Council, overturning women’s paper protections. Too many groups have only lobbied for 40% representation of women on the Governing Council rather than taking on grassroots work with women. All urban schools have been segregated since 1999 when Saddam was trying to appease religious leaders. There’s no sign of that law being dropped under the new leadership.

She also talked about attacks on the school straight after the fall of the old regime, armed men storming in, making threats, accusing her and other teachers of being Baathists. Like Mohammed, she has seen a high drop out rate among her pupils because of security problems, both on the journey to school and within the building, which is unprotected. They would like an armed guard, one who could escort the pupils to school and mind the place while the kids are there. With a thousand children coming from a wide area of narrow streets, a school bus is impractical.

The “Green Zone” is the name given to the part of town occupied and fortified by the coalition forces and the accompanying civilian-military administration, the only place they feel safe and most commonly heard in the sentence, “They’re attacking the Green Zone.” Our contacts were unable to tell us whether there is or is not an Amber Zone but the Red Zone constitutes most of the rest of Baghdad and Sadr City is the wilderness, the Black Zone.

It’s not because I’m fearless or have some idea of my own invincibility that I’m so flippant, but just because it’s ridiculous. The people who are making the decisions and guiding the policies do so from the far side of a dozen checkpoints from Sadr City, or any other civilian district. Constantly under attack and barely allowed out of their own Zone, a lot of the people in there start to fear the Iraqi people.

And if our contacts were right, that Sadr City is really known as the Black Zone, then it’s a measure of how twisted this situation has become. Densely populated, entirely Shia, extremely poor and persecuted by Saddam, this district might reasonably be expected to be called the “We Love America” Zone but apparently it’s not.

Monday’s school in Afdhalia, likewise, had no windows, nothing at all to work with. A tank is graffitied on the playground wall. Teachers say the 800 or so kids won’t listen to anyone except the headmaster. They carry little blue Unicef backpacks, presumably given out to get them to come back to school if their parents couldn’t afford a bag for them to carry their books in. A woman in an abaya stood watching the show with one of the backpacks on her head. A dog barked in the school and small crowds of kids gathered at the ends of the corridors to look out over the barriers, high enough to see over the crowd. As I took off my stilts a boy came down the steps carrying a colourful cockerel to show me.

As we arrived at the school in Diyala Bridge on Tuesday, a teenage boy wheeled a barrow past full of neon squeaking things. I took them to be fluffy toys that squeak when shaken till a younger boy picked out a handful, paid a little money and left with his dyed chicks. It must make good business sense to colour them for the young ones who get sent out to fetch the chicks for the family.

As with the last two days there were dozens of primary school age kids on the way there, not in school. Skinny dogs scavenged in the rubbish heaps, the pickings still not rich enough even among all this debris. The toilet here had running water; constantly running, so the toilet was overflowing. Several of the women teachers had tiny babies like six month old Zahra in Soulav’s arms, her four year old brother Abdullah leaning on their mum’s knee. The English teacher has no choice but to bring them to work.

Away from the schools, a thousand bank clerks, mostly women, have been threatened with arrest over the money that’s been lost in the currency changeover. When the old Saddam notes were being phased out for the new money - Bremer’s money, as everyone called it in Kurdistan - the clerks were told to exchange all the notes, even those they suspected were fakes. In any case there was no real way of knowing which were fake because it was all just printed on ordinary paper without security marks of any kind.

Sixteen clerks have been arrested, fifteen women and one man. There’s no suspicion that they stole money or committed any fraud but there is a discrepancy between the amount of genuine money received and the amount of new money given in exchange. Now the clerks are to be forced to pay for the difference. Some have already, under threat of arrest, signed papers agreeing to ‘pay back’ the money in instalments from their wages.

The families of the jailed women and man have been trying to get all the papers signed, all the procedures fulfilled for bail. A Baghdad traffic jam prevented them getting the papers to the judge in time the day before yesterday, the judge was on holiday the next day, nothing has happened today either so they’re still in prison. Arrest, however wrongful, is shameful for a woman. Their families are devastated.

The Minister of Finance is a close associate of Ahmed Chalabi. His deputy is Chalabi’s driver, a former associate of Saddam. Chalabi is the man with the proven track record of embezzlement, defrauding Iraqi people of millions through the Petra Bank, convicted in his absence when he refused to attend court in Jordan and now a member of Iraq’s Governing Council.

Faleh Maktuf, the lawyer acting for the arrested clerks, says the legal procedures for bail are nearly done but it’s a tortuous process. There’s no legal basis whatsoever for the arrests but the still flimsy framework, without real laws and guidelines, allows police, ministers and judges almost unconstrained power to do as they like. Many, especially the judges, were part of the old regime.

Several of the squatter camps are under threat of evicition. There was a rumour that Shuala is one of them so we went to find out. Abu Ahmed at first said there was no threat at all but then told us a contractor came but they didn’t let him near the camp, threatened to kill him or his colleagues if they came back. He said they will fight for the place, they won’t leave just because they’re told to.

He said the man was from an animal welfare dept of the Agriculture Ministry. He believes the land belongs to the Ministry of Finance but is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture. Abu Abdullah, at the Workers’ Communist Party which has been supporting the squatter groups, explained that the land, which used to belong to Saddam’s son Uday, has now reverted to the Iraqi government, under the auspices of the Government Lands Department, part of the Ministry of Finance.

Abu Abdullah agreed there was no specific move to evict the camp though all the camps are under a general threat. The people at Al-Sheikh Nasser al-Sa’adi camp in Thawra were given till 10am on March 16th to leave. The building on Mudhafa Square used to belong to the Fedayeen. Hamed Selman Majid, a 33 year old father of ten, went out looking for alternative accommodation for his family but couldn’t find any. He came back, collapsed and died of a heart attack.

Proper housing, a legal framework, justice, security and schools with windows, sanitation and teaching facilities have still not been established.

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