July 09, 2020

Basrah a mix of optimism, anti-U.S. ire

Editor’s Note: NEWS staff writer Alicia Anstead is sending periodic dispatches from Iraq and points along her itinerary to Baghdad, where she is traveling with fellow journalist Peter Davis of Castine, who is on assignment for The Nation magazine.

BASRAH, Iraq – Here is the job you do not want in Iraq: brick maker. On the seven-hour drive from Baghdad to Basrah, with temperatures steadily rising on the journey south, more than half a dozen brick factories interrupt the incessantly flat desert. The bitter black smoke from stovepipes crawls across a white sky, and the very thought of the two raging fires meeting – sun and oven – is enough to make you look the other way.

Where you also will see desert. But you may catch a glimpse of the Tigris River, which occasionally flows along the highway giving sustenance to farmers and villagers whose mud-and-brick homes do little to break the straight line of the horizon.

A few days ago at a former police academy in Baghdad, I visited with Staff Sgt. Sean Parisian, who grew up in Eliot, Maine. We sat on a terrace overlooking soldiers playing volleyball and reminisced about cool summers in Maine. Parisian used to swim at York Beach, where, he recalled longingly, the water was a refreshing 53 degrees.

“With this heat in Baghdad, to hit water like that would be nice,” said Parisian, and I confessed to him that I had been daydreaming daily about my favorite lakes in Maine.

Such reveries were helpful on the Basrah Highway of endless sun as well as palm trees, camels, sheep, women crossing the highway with buckets of water on their heads, and abandoned Iraqi military tanks left like the dead dogs I sometimes saw in the middle of the road. The dogs undoubtedly stepped out in front of a car traveling at unstoppably high speeds. Like the dogs, the Iraqi military faced a powerful force against which it never had a chance.

During the war, Basrah itself did not put up much of a fight against the British troops who now are overseeing the security, reconstruction and local politics of this bombed and deteriorated city of approximately 1.3 million. As in Baghdad, change is coming slowly, but at least there is regular electricity and the phones are working. The market here is bustling after sunset with vendors selling watermelon, eggs, tomatoes, meat, doves, greens, grains and bread.

“The south has suffered from a decade of chronic underinvestment and mismanagement from Saddam Hussein,” said Col. Iain Pickard of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Basrah. “People here are genuinely getting more than they’ve ever had. Reconstruction has been slow and there’s no question that the U.S. government raised expectations. And I’ve been very shocked by the way your government has done business here. There has been a lot of arrogance and ignorance. It’s very critical that the U.S. get its act together. In the good old American way, when they do get going, it will be in a big style.”

In the meantime, some Basrah businessmen are riding high on the rampant free trade taking place in this country. Boxes of stereo equipment, TVs, air conditioners, washing machines and satellite dishes line the commercial streets. At the moment, there are no taxes and no customs fees.

“Getting rid of Saddam was good for business,” said a former civil engineer who now runs an appliance store in the market area of Basrah. “They will throw a bomb at me tomorrow for saying so,” he joked and quickly asked that his name not be used. As a Shiite Muslim, he knows the particular wrath of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim who treated the Shiite branch of Islam with disdain and frequent brutality.

I asked him if he is happier now than before the war.

“It is not a matter of happiness,” he said. “Saddam was a heavy weight on us, a heavy burden. He strangled the people in the south. So I consider the American and British forces will help us. But at the same time, we don’t want them to stay long. Our country is dear to us.”

Later, when I showed up for an angry anti-occupation rally at one of Saddam’s palaces, where the British troops have set up headquarters, I was stopped by a man who said one word to me: hejab. He wanted me to cover my head with a scarf. My driver, a decorated air force pilot, advised me additionally to wear my flak jacket. Unlike the American soldiers throughout Iraq, the British troops do not wear flak jackets here, and I was being asked to stand out further in a crowd. An unhappy crowd.

Gunshots pattered in the distance. “A celebration, maybe a wedding,” the driver said. “It’s normal.” But not for me. Sensing the mood was too angry for me to be safe – they were raging over a rumor that American troops in Baghdad had surrounded the house of a controversial Muslim leader – I left the area.

Instead, I stopped at a promenade along the Shatt-al-Arab River to watch boys jump from the deck – maybe 50 feet high – of an old ship. They crashed with delight into the water. My thoughts turned back to Sgt. Parisian and the cool waters of Maine.

“If I wanted to jump into the water, too,” I asked my driver, “would I be able to?”

“No,” he said. “It is not possible.”

We were interrupted by one of the teen boys.

“Sister, sister!” he screamed at me in English. “Saddam Hussein is Ali Babba! Sister: Saddam Hussein is donkey! Sister: Saddam is …” Here he stomped his foot on the ground as if he were crushing an ant. Then he and his buddies laughed and asked if I would come back in the morning and take their photos as they jumped from the ship again.

The next morning, however, I was back crossing the desert, squinting at the brick factories that now reminded me of the inflamed men from the night before, and of the tenuous promise of industry for this country. But, I must admit, I also was thinking about the freedom to jump into the Shatt- al-Arab.

Alicia Anstead’s “Notes” and articles she plans to write after her return from Iraq will be based on conversations with Mainers and Iraqis with common ties, and her perceptions of daily life in that troubled and volatile region.

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