Thursday, July 30, 2009
I fell in love with these paintings throughout Baghdad. There are concrete walls, built for a variety of war related reasons, and in certain areas they are covered with paintings. The City Beautiful Movement...sort of. I tried to get more pictures, but they all happened to be within very close vicinity of a military checkpoint, making photography pretty much impossible.
I still haven’t gotten used to waking up to military helicopters, though I have accepted that they're for my safety. The Iraqi helis fly overhead throughout the light of day, and the American jets fly above, invisible to the naked eye, only under the safety of the night. Whenever helicopters startle me, those around me tend to laugh and talk on and on about the worst of the war. Stories of doing laundry when vibrations of a bomb shattered on a pregnant cousin. Stories of families hunched in corners of masonry houses incase a bomb caused the structure to collapse.
Though the situation is more calm than it was, Baghdad is peppered with constant reminders of reality. An average morning, while walking through Kadhimiyya, Haidoori jumped between and over barbed wire to grab a plate of food that was being handed out. I had a minor heart attack. “HAIDOOOORI! ARE YOU OK?!” The Iraqi soldiers that surrounded us laughed, and I turned red. Clearly a foreigner…unable to recognize Baghdad’s nuances from Baghdad’s real problems.
Back in 2006, the worst year according to locals, random men kidnapped by 15 year old cousin Ali and drove him to a mysterious location. They arrived at a house and threw him in a dark room, door locked. “We have your son. Don’t tell the police...or we will kill him. Don’t tell your family...or we will kill him. Don’t tell anyone...or we will kill him. $50,000.”
“Where can we possibly get $50,000 from?!”
“That’s not our problem. Sell your jewelry. Car. House.”
His thirty-some year old father managed to work the money down to ten Gs. He wanted proof that his son was alive. Ali got on the phone, worried for his father’s health and his own life, he said “Dad, I am doing great. These guys are treating me well. Please don’t worry.” His father was told to go to a certain alley, alone, at 2 pm the following day. My uncle and his family spent the night stressed and unsure as to whether or not they would see Ali again. The next day Ali’s father met the man in the ally and handed him the cash. “Go find your son. Good luck, he should be around here.”
Abu Ali searched the whole neighborhood only to give up by 8 pm. He went home, in sorrow, to tell his family that Ali was gone. By 11pm, the doorbell rang. It was Ali, with eyes blackened. The random men had given him a couple of dinars and dropped him off at a random neighborhood. A young man saw him roaming the streets, and he asked the young man for his cell. The man heard Ali’s story, trusted him, and swore he would take him home.
That’s one story out of three of kidnapped cousins. Ali's story is unrelated to sectarian violence completely--as my dad's family falls ambiguously between Sunni and Shia lines.
Though kidnappings have decreased, they are the main reason why we were very careful to admit that we lived abroad. The wrong people may see moneybags when they look at foreigners--since, as I've quickly learned here in Baghdad, desperation leads to crazy actions.
All the chaos and tragedy results in an unwelcoming environment for major construction or improvements in infrastructure. Consequently, one may assume that the [sub, sub, sub] sub par quality of life may lead to frustrations and increase chaos and tragedy.
Where does one begin in rebuilding an entire country?
Or the soldiers close to my house who saw me walk alone once took the opportunity to figure out who I was. "Where are you going and where are you from?" None of which are questions related to their job.
"Down the street and Dubai," I responded as I continued to walk with my head down. The soldier smirked at me as I continued to walk. The next day I walked through the same checkpoint with my entire family, and the soldier yelled "Hela' ib'Dubai!" (Los Angeles equivalent: What up, Dubai!) across the check point. I couldn't help but laugh while my mom urged me not to laugh in a muffled voice. She's always worried about the Indian movie love story that she's convinced will happen on this trip. Beats me, I just tease her about it. Me and the Iraqi military man with a mind like Rumi's who talks me into eloping and crossing the border to Iran on a donkey. How romantic.
As we walked, I teased under my breath "You know, I can not only get you hooked up in LA, but now I can get you past Baghdad's checkpoints. Holla!"
Another day, moms and I went to the soog, as she had to go to the tailor for something or another. I, of course, took the opportunity to roam around and take pictures of the buildings that I knew so well. “Lady! Stop! What are you doing?!” Two Iraqi military men stopped me. “I am taking pictures, uncle—what else?” I said lightheartedly.
“You aren’t allowed to take pictures here.” One officer took my camera. “Ok, sure, I will stop—but please, give me one rule and I will stick to it! I know for a fact that you can take pictures here, but you cant take pictures at the Kadhimiyya’s mosque. I am a Kurdish traveler and I just want pictures of my mom's old hometown.” “So you are saying you weren’t taking pictures of the military?”
“Uncle, look through all my pictures. You can get to know each and every one of my relatives at every angle. Don’t be offended when you don’t find your picture.” I teased. One officer cracked a smile. “Give me my camera. I will show you.” The man started to walk away with my camera and expected me to follow. “Listen, I am not walking with you. I am sorry. I am a girl, alone, and you know how the situation is. I will call my mom. She’s around that corner getting something or another tailored. Take us both. I promise you will be thoroughly amused as we walk through memory lane.” The officer couldn’t hold his laughter in anymore.
“Give me your ID card.”
“Amu, won’t you tell me who on earth brings an ID to a bazaar? Can't a girl take a couple sentimental pictures anymore?!” The officers were laughing at that point and returned my camera. “Listen, you are right. You can take pictures. Don’t take pictures of the military. Or at the mosque. And be careful, lady. Just be careful" the officer warned with care. I walked away snapping pictures as not to look scared as I remembered why 24 year old girls don’t walk these streets alone. Of course, lesson so not learned...because I love these run-ins. Each and every one of them, along with the hilarity that tends to ensue.
I finally found my mom. "Moms...I was stopped by the police..." She looked worried for a second, until she realized that I was standing infront of her safe and sound. I don't think she worries much about me--I tend to be a magnet for sticky situations, and have learned to gracefully dance my way out of them. Kind of...
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Friday, July 17, 2009
Iraq is currently experiencing a religious undercurrent. Under Saddam, religious repression forced Muslims to practice in secret—especially those of Shia traditions (Sunnis also felt Saddam’s wrath. Nobody was safe). With the war, the quality of life fell dramatically for those lucky enough to hold onto their lives. Those of you who are not Iraqi or Muslim, don’t be alarmed—a proper religious current does not involve suicide bombings or any sort of violence. Rather, Iraqi civillians have dedicated their lives to praying and supplications. Rather than hello, “Peace/Salam,” rather than thank you, “May God bless your parents.”
I was discussing this topic with my brother, and he asked how I came to my conclusion. "Simple..none of the girls wore hijab, and now they do...and all of the guys used to holler, and now they don't."
Today marks the day of death for one of the Prophet’s grandsons (Imam al-Kadhium). Though, technically, a Shia tragedy, Iraqi Sunnis have also been known to partake in rituals. With religious freedom, Iraqis walk from all over the country, in a pilgrimage, to the mosque that the Imam is buried. My grandmother’s home is in Kadhimiyya, jokingly referred to as the Beverly Hills of Baghdad due to the 252 military gates and checkpoints throughout the city. “It’s a gated community,” my mom teases.
“Halloween,” replied Salar.
“Wallah. I’ve been tired. Losing my hair. 2006—that was the worst year. Ever since they kidnapped my brother, three years and a month ago, I have been really tired. I just want to know if he is dead or alive…” Shedha, our beautiful neighbor with an uncanny resemblance to Liv Tyler, chatted with me over tea. “You know that the day he was kidnapped was the same day that they pulled the bullet out of me.”
“You didn’t know? The refrigerator saved my life. I was sitting here, in this same place, waiting for my husband to come home. A bullet came through the gate, wall, and refrigerator into my stomach. I thought I was stung or bit—I was not sure what had happened. I looked down to see blood—a trail of blood from my waist to the floor.”
I stood in shock while Shedha ran upstairs. She came back down and dropped a bullet in my hand. Heavy and cold with scratched edges, the bullet’s tip was deformed. “I haven’t been able to throw it away. They traced it and it wasn’t American. No, this was a bullet by a fellow Iraqi. There are animals. Back in 2006, sectarian violence was high. They came to our neighborhood and paid attention to the mosques we would attend and decipher our sects. They didn’t like what I was and they shot me.” She continued, “that was the same year that they burnt our house you know.”
“Our house was burnt. That’s why I am living here with my in-laws. My brother’s room was the only room that didn’t burn, I think that’s why he was kidnapped.” By then, I realized that she had been speaking of the other sect. “Layla, Baghdad was never like this. Sunni, Shia, all. We were Iraqi. Boys did not have to walk the streets with two identification cards, one Sunni and one Shia, in order to save their own lives. But it has gotten better. Much better.”
It seems like with every cup of tea, regardless of who I am sitting with, there is a story. A life that has been ruined.
My aunt asked me if I was still collecting money for orphans, as I had been doing in high school, as she knew of a house for children of war. I had an epiphany; a week ago, life's biggest problem was forgetting my bedazzled shades while working out in a 34th-storey Dubai gym—the blinged out buildings can be harsh on the eyes under the desert sun. I couldn’t be happier to be back in Baghdad.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Iraq’s holiest cities include Karbala and Najaf, as both have shrines of grave importance to Muslims (grave importance--pun intended. Kidding! So tacky, sorry!). Though it may be argued that the shrines are more important to Shias, Iraqis of all sects have traditionally visited the shrines for over a thousand years. The Prophet Mohammed’s family is buried at the shrines. My grandmother is also buried in Najaf, the home of Iraq’s most famous graveyard. The graves look like an ocean without an end, and house impoverished locals. A couple of graveyard residents have mental catalogs of the dead for visitors. “Hassan and Gulistan Mandilawi,” we asked an elderly man. “Yes, it’s been a while since you have visited.” He walked us to the site. The graveyard had clear remnants of gunshots, as graves were used as barracks by either side
We passed by hundreds of thousands of graves, some damaged by time and others by bullets, to arrive to two mud and masonry graves, side-by-side in eternal liss. Bibi and Jidu. Allah yerhamhum (may God bless their souls).
My street circa 2009
I heard through the grapevine where to find the neighborhood internet—and it was at our lifelong neighbor’s home! The neighbor, who had grown up with my mom and watched me grow up, was in a chat room when I arrived. Emoticons galore. IrAq4LoVe or something of that sort. “Layla, please pick up the headphones and talk to my chatroom in English! I told my friends that we have a guest who speaks English! Please! And don’t say my name. I have an alias.” I awkwardly picked up the headphones and said “Hi. I hope you are all well,” trying desperately not to look rude or uninterested. She told me what to say, "I am getting my degree in architecture. I am Arabic and Kurdish..." Apparently, Habibi332 wanted to get to know me, according to the neighbor who is my mother’s age. She told me to come back later so that I could speak more English to her friends. I never went back (and believe me I paid for it upon the next visit).
In the meantime, my garayeb (relatives of some sort—who knows how), a 12-year-old boy named Haidoori was standing by. He has assumed the position of my bodyguard since the first night that we arrived. Actually, he just called me to let me know that he would be escorting me to dinner at his house down the road and it wasn't my choice. The kid knows every soldier in town, and walks through checkpoints like he’s commander in chief. “Haidoori!” yells each and every soldier, as my little Kurdish blondie, at 4’9”, confidently strolls through. In fact, one night while sitting in the middle of town, he tried to convince a soldier to let me sit in the barrack because he thought I was tired. Without a clue about what was going on, I turned around to see his arms flailing as he yelled at the unconvinced soldier. Somewhere between holding my stomach out of laughter and wanting to vomit out of fear, I managed to call him over. “Haidoori! Don’t push your luck, and pleeease don’t tell anybody we are American!” Unfortunately, kidnappings for ransom are common around here--and the wrong person just needs the right peice of information for a kidnapping to occur.
So, back to the original story. We left the neighbors house to go back to Haidoori’s house, where my family and his were laying around. Suddenly, the boy had an outburst. “Auntie! Layla has an internet boyfriend! I saw her talking to him, I swear I saw it! She was voice chatting him. She talks to him all day, I am sure! I swear I saw it! I heard it! I am sure that’s all she will do while she is here. Talk to her internet boyfriend. What is this?! Did you know? Now you know!” Not sure how to explain that he was partially correct, but mostly not, without embarrassing the neighbor, I turned bright red. Somewhere in the corner of the room, I noticed my sister Zayneb nearly pass out from laughter as the other ten garayeb sat perplexed.
So, folks. Here is the deal. Yes, I have internet. Obstacles include lack of availability, lack of electricity, and, of course, avoiding internet boyfriends. As a result, posts may be inconsistent. Likewise, the grammatical integrity may also be compromised. I will post pictures upon my return to the land of freedom and wifi, US and A.
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Monday, July 13, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Day 1, failure 1. Laughing in delirious hysteria at 5:45 am at Salar in her green Chuck Taylors and abaya (abaya is the long, black dress that women in the east traditionally wear in the name of modesty, culture and/or style). I discovered we weren’t the easiest targets in line—there were two British guys, late twenties. “Layla—after a Amoori’s lecture, you will not talk to them. This is practice and you will restrain yourself.” My cousin and uncle had spent the previous night begging me to be inconspicuous, and preferably mute. "Layla, you will get kidnapped. And when pretty young things get kidnapped..." Feeling curious (and gregarious) as ever, I found myself drawn to them like a magnet. Military? No, wrong luggage. Journalists? No cams. Tourists? Highly credible, as Iraq must be on the Travel Channel’s Top 10 Destinations. What did they want from my Baghdad?
Suddenly, I had a realization. This war--the topic that always comes up when people ask me about my background in the same fashion every time--was finally going to take a turn. "If you don't mind me asking, what is the appropriate name for that on your head? I always see you girls, and I don't want to be un-PC. It is just so gorgeous! Oh my, is that embroidered? You must be from Iran. Are you from Iran? I have an Iranian friend who looks just like you! You all have such big eyes." says the liberal and spiritual Californian. The typical profile consists of a good looking mid-aged lady who has spent a lot of time to looking like she hasn't spent much time at all on her appearance. Overpriced flip flops and designer sweatsuits.
Sometimes I bring it up. Whenever I see a man in uniform, I am drawn without return. "Hi--pardon me. Have you been to Iraq?" I painstakingly try to get every glaring detail from the adolescent, generally lost and confused and unwanting to return.
Suddenly,this realization. May be trivial, but the next time that I have a conversation about Iraq, the following part may be omitted:
Everyone: Where are you from? Are you Persian?
Layla: No, no. I am Iraqi. My mom's Kurdish and my dad is Arab--I am totally Iraqi.
Everyone: Oh, wow! When did you come to USA?
Layla: Born here.
Everyone: When's the last time you went?
Layla: The summer before the war...2002...but...we used to go quite often....
At which point, there is an awkward pause as the person ponders how I am "totally" from a country that I wasn't born and and haven't visited in nearly a decade. As our visits came to a halt, I remember being asked when I had last visited my home. With time, my answer drifted from "last summer" to "a couple of years ago" to "the summer of 2002," however long ago that may have been. I would grow more defensive about the emphasis on my heritage while time would drift us apart. Well, ask me now baby! Summer of 2009! And no, it wasn't that scary.
Anyways, back to Baghdad. At this point, we hired a driver to take us out of the airport, controlled by America and limited to travelers, into the free-zone. The 10 km journey consisted of barracks and sand. “This is the safest place you could possibly be,” I told Salar. “Do they have hotels here?” She replied. I will get to intros later, but Salar is known for being the nervous one. Sixteen years young and generally overly cautious, her meticulous ways tend to pay off mainly in the kitchen. Her adventures involve egg substitutions in red velvet cakes, so Baghdad was a bit of stretch for her adolescent soul. I laughed and she looked down at the pocket behind the driver’s seat and froze. “Layla, a gun.” she whispered.
I went to my grandmother’s room only to find an empty mattress and pictures of my sister and me along with other grandkids. I stared in disbelief, and slowly grew more and more depressed. The electricity shut off, setting off a feeling of nostalgia. I lit a candle and roamed around the home alone. Rooms without furniture or life. Where was my wealthy uncle and my amazing cousins and their perma-party house? Where even the 70 year-olds wouldn't sleep before 3 am? Oh yea, Dubai. It was all wrong. So wrong. I slept in my grandmother’s room that night.
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Sunday, July 5, 2009
"I'm feelin' rough, I'm feelin raw, I'm in the prime of my life. Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives..." The words are rolling off of my tongue in a karaoke session through the arrivals terminal of our LAX-DXB journey. Participants: 1, with an 8 person entourage. I can be a little inconsiderate at times. I walk out of the exit gate. LA family? Check. Luggage? Check. SLR? Around my neck, baby. Was it Oscar Wilde who wrote that we all lay in the gutter, but some of us choose to stare at the stars? Because I have a panoramic view of the sky from here, baby! I'm in Dubai, every architect's guiltiest pleasure! As I exit the gate and embrace my displaced Iraqi cousins in the glitzy land of more, it hits me. Everything is different. Everything will be different. Everything will stay different.
Flashback 2002, during one of our annual Iraq trips. My cousins received us, the same way...but in Jordan. In the hours that ensue, we would rent a couple of orange and white GMCs, chain smoking driver included, and loathe the 12 hour journey from Amman to Baghdad. I would stare at the stars for most of the drive, never able to sleep, and debate whether the repercussions of bumming a cigarette off the driver would be worth it. No. Never. Moms would kill me. By the way, I wasn't listening to the Dead Kennedys with my punk crew. I definitely did not have my Misfits tee on. I left my skateboard back home. I had no one to impress. Yes, I definitely went through a bit of a rebellious patch. The bulk of our time was spent at checkpoints, where moms would bribe the guards with American cigs to get us through quickly and smoothly (I never got used to my mom dealing with cigarettes, as she has never been a supporter of any smoking habits). Under the unspoken contract of the ciggarettes, mom's dozens of suitcases, overflowing with clothes and medicine for impoverished locals, would always cross the border untampered. Likewise, the border patrol would refrain from drawing any mandatory blood for tests. Mama always feared the needles, as Iraq had been under sanctions, preventing the import of needles and many other necessities for vitality. God bless that cowboy in those grimy commercials, because them all-American Marlboros got 'em every time. We would carry on with our journey, and eventually pass the dune with the blown up Jeep from some Gulf War, abandoned and antiqued. From that landmark, I would understand our relative location in the lonely and vast desert.
Reality, 2009. My family has migrated. Everywhere, anywhere. The cousins who I would have been staying with in Iraq live in Dubai, and are picking me up from the airport. What a spoiled, first-world brat. Here I am, crying over the fact that Iraq wont be the same for my little vacay. People's lives have changed. Masses have been killed. Depleted uranium and other sorts of chemicals have led to a surge of cancer patients (and that is a repercussion of the Gulf War that was decades ago, only God knows what's to come with the current turmoil).
Reporting live from that gutter, and the mood is slowly growing anxious...
Thursday, July 2, 2009
My iPod is stocked---MGMT, a whole lot of Tiesto, the Ataris album I was addicted to the last time I was in Iraq at the ripe age of 17, TV on the Radio, Rolling Stones discography, gotta have my Daft Punk, Killers, some Sinatra, and my boy Brother Ali. Not to mention enough indie to make me want to rock Baghdad nights in cowboy boots, pink jeans, and dreamcatcher necklaces...not good...but oh, so good. My iPhone is off. My Flickr is up and in use after an incredibly long hiatus. Baghdad, here I come.
Baghdad? Seriously? Victory! It took six years of the same run around before my mother finally agreed to allow me to go back home! I built my reputation as the wild child who would disappear in the middle of the night and take random strolls around Baghdad with perfect strangers. I was the one who gave her mother ulcers every summer due to an unquenched thirst for adventure in a land of dictatorship. I, the one who pleased her mother by fitting into the rural villages without electricity or infrastructure like a local, would reunite with my Iraq. War torn and tattered. This is the first of many journeys to Baghdad in hopes of rebuilding. With the grace of the Frank Israel Memorial Scholarship, and with great thanks to my inspirational mentor (or semi-pro surfer, depending in which side of the waves you've seen him on) Professor Mitchell De Jarnett and the generous (and ultra cool, btw) Callas Shortridge Architects, I am a woman on a mission. I intend to study construction materials and methods in Iraq. Focus: vernacular Iraqi architecture.
I must also thank the dedicated scholarship committee--Dr. Bricker, Dr. La Roche, and Professor Axel Schmitzberger--you are amazing!
So, hold onto your cowboy boots--I will be irockin' your world!
Layla Karim Shaikley
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