The introduction and part 1 of Sea Changes are here.
In the second chapter, we meet Iraqi Ibraham Nassouf, and gain some insight into his and his country’s life, blighted by authoritarianism, criminality, corruption and war.
Ibraham left Basra forever just as the first hard, yellow dates were appearing on the newly green palms. It was always at this time of the year that he most longed to travel, when even in the driest and dirtiest parts of that dry and dirty city some djinn entered into men, to make them look up from their work for a moment, and think wistfully of fresh leaves and being young, of the sap rising in everything and moving at will across unbordered spaces.
Whenever Ibraham looked back over his unsatisfactory life, he would sometimes marvel he had so long delayed departure. He had almost left it too late. But then he had really had very little choice. It was partly a question of destiny—–wasn’t everything? But it was also a matter of duty—–his duty as boy and man, son and brother.
The proximate cause of his procrastination was that during the confusion of the ’91 rising against Saddam, Ibraham’s father had, for never identified reasons, been bundled away by never identified men in uniforms. And he had never been bundled back. After several days of wondering and waiting, at 12 his only son had perforce become prop and stay and spokesman for three younger sisters and a mother who had mislaid her wits along with the shock of mislaying her husband. In a city rich only in history, and that history held in low esteem, Ibraham suddenly bore sole responsibility for the Nassouf name and fortune on terrifyingly slender shoulders.
With these salient considerations always central, he resigned what remained of childhood, and found the only work for which he was qualified—labouring on what passed in that tired country for farms, toiling for time beyond computation from pre-dawn until dusk in scrubby sorghum fields just beyond the city limits. He never even tried to total the seconds or the sweat he poured out onto the ungrateful earth, libations to that insatiate deity interrupted once daily by bread, goat’s cheese and cigarettes—before more spine-cracking hours as mosquitoes danced in perfervid patterns and his Cradle of Civilization shadow streamed far out in front.
Reeling with exhaustion, he would go home day after day, month after month, Ramadan after Ramadan, to a breeze-–block house leaping with life–—poor Mother and his sisters, quietly proud that he could just support them with his wage plus profits from gleanings riskily concealed. By the time he’d reached 13, he felt he was decades older than his siblings—a bowed, burned patriarch with a foreshadow of a beard, more like his grandfather than his father, exhausted in the evenings, nodding taciturnly at his mother’s babble while an asteroid shower of sisters screamed and scratched and hurt themselves, wiped away sweat or tears, called names, stole from stalls and fondled flea-full cats.
Meaningless days and nights blended, became an era—the same tasks each day, similar things said to the same people in the same sad fields, the same dust-draped bus home past the same statue of Saddam, through kilometres of ochre one-storey squalor, along roads rustling with rubbish scavenged by cats and children. As he delved wirily in the dust, Ibraham would feel the bulk of things weighing him down, bands binding him to the land, a clod-like dullness that made everything ochre. In the evenings, he went early and uncomprehendingly to sleep—–but on rare remembered nights he would float high above everything, dreaming of dubious journeys and landfalls in auspicious countries.
He got a job after some years at an oil depot, as laborious but better paid—–mowing barely-there lawns, killing rats and scorpions, superstitiously protecting the hoopoes’ nest in the date-palm near the gate, sweeping small stones across hectares of baking bitumen, painting vast metal silos in battleship grey, retracing faded signal red warnings, firming up the fencing, cleaning the drains.
He watched the fuel lorries materializing out of the sun-shimmer, and tried to visualize where they were coming from or going to—–down first to Umm Qasr, where his father had once taken him to see the huge tankers lolling at anchor kilometres out in the haze waiting to be connected to submarine pipelines, receiving tribute from tugs, moving mammothly into position, departing discreetly in the night, down to the Straits and the oil-esurient world. Basra was, after all, “the city where many paths meet,” as the proverb put it, and Ibraham loved this idea of connection to exoticism. Those ships would be visiting America–—and London–—and—–here cartography would betray him.
In the middle of work, he would find himself fantasising about the countries beyond the borders, and he dreamed of one day going to see them, leaving these dirty drab disreputable streets, setting out like Sinbad across the sewage-smelling waters to the fabulous kingdoms.
The outside world was a cool and clean confection condensed from controlled media, pages from which he kept folded up carefully beside his bed, to be pored and puzzled over before he toppled into nightly oblivion.
Those were gorgeous, glacial images—–the White House, the President at a baseball game, the Queen at the ballet, red-uniformed cavalry cantering with their horses’ breath hanging in the air, Big Ben, football fans, big houses, big cars, and women simultaneously sluttish and sexy.
Sexy–—as he passed into puberty, he would goggle at the local girls as they passed, apparently oblivious to the sun-punished youth with the avaricious eyes, but sometimes giggling, certainly about him, the silvery, unreachable melody cutting into his hungry heart. How he wished he had the courage to go up and speak to one of these girls, first as supplicant and then her lord!
And if these local girls, the daughters of manual workers and shopkeepers, were beyond a prospectless labourer wearing clothes too obviously bought at the market stall at the end of the road—–how much more remote were the clean, pale-skinned girls he had seen in pictures from the West, whose scandalously undressed state was contradicted by their cool hauteur and the emptiness of their lovely eyes.
Even through the censorship, this outside world seemed open, a place where a man and his family could have what they needed, and everyone lived in houses crammed with unnecessary things. He liked to imagine himself in an interior like the one pictured in the Dubai edition of Kitchens Today, which he had once found in the gutter. Almost as interesting as the long-legged blonde with the short skirt were that room’s fittings—the brilliancy of chrome, ceramic and marble, the cool curves of the taps, the array of appliances, the warm glow of perfectly- placed lights–—not to mention the overflowing fruit basket, piled breads and cakes and racks of bottles. Through the window of that kitchen could be glimpsed an impossibly verdant hillside that he guessed was probably not in Dubai. He wondered how it would feel to be in that room, with that girl—–and whether he would dare to touch even the furniture, let alone the girl. He would look at his dusty plimsolls and grimy hands and find them hateful.
Any country which contained lots of rooms like that one was clearly a place of prospects, a place where money was there for the taking for those who worked hard as he worked hard, a country where there was no need to fear the law. It seemed amazingly uncircumscribed, and when he wasn’t too tired to think he itched with curiosity.
He sought out foreign news as family and workmates smiled behind his back in kindly contempt. He had not read since he had quit school; now, he borrowed books and newspapers or picked them out of rubbish piles, and read slowly with his finger tracing and his lips sounding out the words. He asked everyone what they knew about England and America—but few could tell him anything new and he guessed shrewdly that much of what they did tell him was inaccurate. But still he liked to have it all told to him again, and in any case the image was as important as the information.
He looked longingly at banked televisions in shop windows. In between Saddam’s speeches, documentaries about Israel and Iran, and the soap opera catchphrases (“I cannot believe you said that, Tariq!”), there would sometimes be enticing international exotica—football and concerts; elections and scandals; writers and celebrities, rain and snow and green fields, huge houses and shops crammed with things everyone could afford.
According to the TV announcers, Western women were virtually whores, while their menfolk were hypocrites and oppressors, seeking as in the Bad Old Times to re-extend their pale imperium to snatch the oil wealth from Iraq’s children, to arm the Jews to attack the faith, to loot the treasures of Mesopotamia. They were in league with the Iranians, the Kuwaitis, the Kurds or the Israelis—or all of these at once. The West was an unhappy place, racked by riots and crime; the economy was always on the edge. Yet like everyone else in Iraq, Ibraham disbelieved most of what he was told. Baghdad’s distortions were counterbalanced by a public perception distorted in the opposite direction—that far from being on the verge of catastrophe, the West was surging in strength, and it was Iraq that was out of touch, in decline. People muttered that Westerners were impossibly wealthy, all had their own houses, cars, holidays, beautiful clothes, rich foods. Even their pet dogs received birthday presents. They had economic security, free elections, free speech, and it didn’t matter who your father was, or what tribe or party he belonged to. The most tantalizing stories of all were about newly arrived strangers being given public money and even houses. It couldn’t be true, Ibraham told himself—–but if it were? Could even someone like him possibly stake a claim? And if he could, didn’t he owe it not only to himself, but his family?
He had some small savings, hidden under the house’s earthen floor in a tin box that had once held DJ Cigarettes. Maybe, just maybe, some day this could help him get out of the shabby Here, to that fabulous There.
But then he would think about his responsibilities, the distance, the language and the logistics, how he would miss things he had thought he hated–—and the lovely idea would flit away, like a jewelled bird darting for cover in the undergrowth. But it would stare back at him with glittering eyes.
One significant morning, as Ibraham was painting a wall near the depot gate, a Volkswagen minibus was waved through by the guard. That bristle-chinned, heavy-sweating functionary stood beside Ibraham, staring after the vehicle as it headed towards the administration block. “Americans! I wonder what they’re doing here?” he asked rhetorically, and spat before shuffling back to his sweat-smelling booth.
Ibraham loitered for hours until he finally saw the bus return, and then wandered over as if casually toward the gate. As it stopped in front of him where he stood slender and sweaty in orange overalls, the brown- eyed, narrow-nosed embodiment of Middle Eastern manhood, he saw right into the vehicle for several always-remembered seconds.
He registered six fair-skinned foreigners–—sleek bodies and physical ease, smiles and untroubled eyes, short-sleeved, crisp, white shirts, ties, and briefcases—and he wanted all those things so sorely that he had to stop himself reaching out to stroke the fortunate vehicle. Instead, his hands closed tightly on the wooden handle of his paintbrush–—so tightly that his too long fingernails actually made tiny indentations in the soft wood. Then the van had gone, jolting down towards the harbour, leaving behind a swirl of dust and exhaust—and a sudden sharp focus.
Time rolled on, ignoring Ibraham completely. The army rolled into Kuwait, only to exit abruptly afterwards, which was apparently what Saddam had always intended. The streets took a more jaundiced view. A new word was heard—–sanctions. The few foreigners who had been in Basra disappeared or became more discreet, the Waterway was empty, and ever fewer trucks bumped along the deteriorating roads. The shops often had empty shelves, and people had to gather litter or droppings to feed fires. Sometimes army trucks would park at the corner of their streets, and well-nourished soldiers would dole out sacks of flour, drums of oil or vegetables to pushing crowds.
The oil depot closed down, and Ibraham was made redundant. Now he was constrained to kick round on corners while the cigarette box under the floor got lighter–—worried tedium occasionally interrupted by foreign jets hurtling over, like falcons flashing from fantastical realms.
Then his sister Ayesha began to cough and it was getting worse, and he could not afford the medicine unless they went without food. He had a solution, but it was one that went against all his inherited morality. But after a night during which he could hear Ayesha coughing incessantly on the other side of the insubstantial wall, he made up his mind as the first of the morning fingered through the window-shades.
The job had been vacant for months because no-one else cared to take it. It was well-paid and the conditions were said to be good—–but by taking it he was effectively stepping outside not only the local community, but the moral code they all professed. It was working for the vastly wealthy and therefore hated Tariq Kemali, an Adnanite gang boss who owned one of the Old Town’s loveliest private houses—a man doing well out of sanctions, who had foreign visitors and knew ministers socially, and worked all the hours Allah or the Devil sent, while the aircon whirred and the sweat-patches under his pudgy arms grew melon-sized. He controlled almost half of the city’s organised crime, and had an informal understanding with his Qahtanite counterpart whereby they kept away from each other’s “territory” and only preyed on their own. He was known to be cruel and unscrupulous. If Ibraham’s neighbours had guessed what he was doing, he and his family would have been ostracised. So Ibraham had to make up a cover story about being a private security guard for even family consumption. They were too young or, in the case of his mother, too indiscreet to be told the truth. They were, after all, women, he told himself.
Hating himself but disguising it like a man, Ibraham attended at Kemali’s house, where over several months, he was instructed in such necessary tasks as driving, using a pistol, searching visitors, padding watchfully alongside his employer when he went out, being menacingly omnipresent while Kemali talked and flashed his chunky jewellery, and how to gather protection money from shopkeepers. Always now cleanly dressed externally, Ibraham felt inwardly dirty extorting from these men–—so bowed-down in their booths, uncomprehending children or too-comprehending wives peering malevolently from behind coloured nylon curtains as Ibraham collected “insurance” from their ostensible overlords. But their loss was his family’s salvation.
One awful day, he had to attend as a rival to Kemali was “interviewed,” in a lock-up garage regularly used for such private conferences, in a distant suburb where people looked down at the ground or went ostentatiously indoors whenever their BMW rolled up. The man had screamed loudly and for a long time, but the sounds had been muffled by the heat and the street’s frightened complicity. He was a Mandæan, and would probably have done the same to them had the circumstances been reversed. But Ibraham was nonetheless appalled by the stretch and creak of the Mandæan’s muscles, his shrieks as the chair had been kicked away again and again to leave him hanging by macerated arms from the rusty iron hook in the stained concrete ceiling. Then the blowtorch had been brought... It had not been needed for more than a few seconds, but those seconds had filled the garage with such overweening horror that Ibraham had puked in the corner–—for which he was ridiculed by his harder-edged workmates. He told himself often that evening that he would quit. But he had looked into his sisters’ faces in the small hours while they slept, and had trooped defeatedly back to work that day and all the days afterwards.
Three more years were thus added to Ibraham’s account, with irruptions like his mother’s phlegmatically accepted death and interment in the barren city-fringe enclosure. (They could not afford to send her home to her Marsh village–—and in fact the village scarcely existed since Saddam had drained the surrounding area to teach them obedience.)
Then there was the time Saddam inspected the buildings built by his cousin’s firm to receive imports that were never imported. Ibraham saw Saddam from hundreds of metres away–—a stocky, brown-tuniced mannequin taking tank commanders’ salutes, while all roofs sprouted snipers and the streets boiled with police.
There was also lust, which he could not assuage honestly because the girls from decent families would have nothing to do with Kemali’s men (his secret had leached out). His clumsy attempts at coupling were made down at the docks, where girls who no longer had foreign sailors to service had diversified into new types of client. Ibraham was ashamed of these encounters, and terrified of catching the pox–—but there were times when the need became overmastering.
One day there was a bulging envelope with his name and address typed on the front. It was the first letter he had ever received; and when he had read it, he wished the sender hadn’t gone to the trouble. But he valued his ears too much to demur, and in any case reflected that it could mean a new start for him–and a means of leaving Kemali’s service without incurring his dangerous displeasure. Buoyed up by the thought that he could leverage his patriotic duty into subsequent respectability, he sent his sisters to live with their aunt and shook off civilian life outside No 4 Barracks (Basra District).
The training was cruel, with conscripts sometimes forced to beat each other almost to death–but he had expected no less. The sergeants were of course pigs, but it wasn’t personal. Some soldiers had an easier time of it, but that was just the way of things. Someone had slipped someone some money. Ibraham was a capable enough recruit not to get any special attention, for which he was very grateful, and because he knew how to drive, he soon found himself as an army driver, which meant higher pay.
After the training was over, service life contained much boredom–but there was also compensatory camaraderie, whole afternoons when he and his comrades could get away with standing around holding mops, smoking and telling filthy jokes, and evening illicit drinking sessions, when they would share several bottles of arak, and Ibraham would tell them how one day he would go the West and they would all laugh.
There was even some excitement, like the time they were patrolling the mountains along the Iranian border at night and were allowed to fire their AK47s in defiance over their arrogant neighbour’s black bulk. At such times, watching the tracer rounds curving through the darkness, Ibraham felt almost proud to be Iraqi. He liked being part of the most powerful and respected group in the country. He swaggered and swore like the others, went home to visit wearing his uniform, and tried to cut a dash with respectable women, who were as terrifying as they were tantalising. It seemed as if he had just become used to instant respect when he was once again a civilian.
But although he was glad to have got national service out of the way, he was back where he had started—except that he had lost two more years. The opportunities of learning new skills he had hoped might be afforded by the army had failed to materialize, or he had failed to take advantage of them. Now here he was again–another healthy but unskilled young man amongst many others in a depressed economy, with women to look after and not enough money coming in. It did not take him long to puzzle out what he needed to do, and two days after leaving the army, he found himself knocking at the door of the Kemali house.
Further tickless years telescoped in the old handsome house, with its jasmine-hung jalousies and narrow parquet corridors, gliding geckoes and murmured conversations heard through half-open doors. Were all lives like this, Ibraham occasionally asked himself, wondering at the complexity of things–millions of feelings merging into a vast nothing, a constant sense of being on the cusp of something that would never come?
Mild sun in the mornings, the smell of mint tea, fat flies tracking across ceilings, a girl’s averted eyes, the tang of bad breath, a rumbling gut, an arak-related headache–did such things amount to anything? He seemed always to have been watching his employer’s waistline expand and his fingers riffling through the Rolodex.
But now there were two filled DJ Cigarette boxes, and he had started on a third. He would often unearth them at night when everyone was asleep, and play with the notes, smoothing them endlessly and re-folding them, memorizing every detail and character. He wished the nice girls of the neighbourhood knew how much he had. The dock-side liaisons were all very well, but he often felt incredibly lonely for someone to confide in, do some of the drudgery, and give him the children that someone of 22 was expected to have. Over time, and utilizing his work connections, he exchanged the dinars for U.S. dollars, reckoning that even at a disadvantageous exchange rate dollars were likely to hold their value better. And somewhere in his mind was always the notion that dollars would be more helpful when he was finally underway.
Then there was the Great Blow against the Great Shaitan, which horrified the world beyond the West Bank. Even Saddam distanced himself from the killers, whom he had expelled from Iraqi territory. Ibraham was amazed that such things could happen in New York, although he felt nothing for victims he had not known and could not comprehend. He wondered sometimes that so many rejected Allah–but knew that there was something indecent, idiotic, about killing for him.
The briefly sympathetic mood switched surprisingly soon. Newspapers now said the Americans were threatening to work out their desire for vengeance not on the terrorists but on–of all places–Iraq. They said the Americans had an unaccountable grudge against Saddam, despite the Great Leader’s longing for peace and dialogue. The Yankees had already thwarted Iraq’s legitimate claims to the corrupt and un-Islamic Kuwait. The bumbling bully Bush–who, they said, was in the pay of the Israelis–was denouncing Saddam (furtive cheers from many Basraites).
Saddam, Father of the Nation, Defender of All Arabs, Inheritor of the Mesopotamian Mantle, was alternately avuncular and defiant. The Americans would rue the day they attacked Iraq, he assured them, bareheaded and brave on a podium, his head thrown back, his sons ranged behind, Ba’athist crown princes heirs-apparent. The Yankees were decadent, and the bodies of their young men would carpet the country if they attempted anything. The people would fight, and they would be fighting for their country, for freedom, for Allah. The Americans had underestimated the power of the united Iraqi people. This would be another Vietnam for them–a Little Big Horn, Suez, Dien Bien Phu, Tsushima or Isandlwana. Bush was a fool, and a dangerous fool. It was the Americans whose unjust and illegal sanctions had denied your children medicines and food. Now they want to destroy our independence and pride. What do they know about civilization? We are the heirs of Babylon. When we were civilizing the world, they were dancing naked in their freezing forests. We want peace, but if it comes down to it, I shall lead you to victory, he swore, as banners bellied, soldiers threw up their caps in joy and passing tanks shook all buildings.
Handsome boys carrying Kalashnikovs were interviewed on TV–“Yes, I am willing to die rather than cede our sacred soil to the invader. Allah akbar!”–“Our President has moral right on his side, and moral right must surely prevail. Long live Saddam!” The women were co-opted– from professors to peasants, the womenfolk of Iraq would never give in to imperialist aggression. Iraq’s Jews and Christians–strange but sensible blooms—demonstrated in support of the Leader. There were pictures everywhere of Palestinian camps and Israeli airstrikes–French police attacking Mahgrebi protestors–a black man who died in police custody in London. There were documentaries on Bush and Blair’s secret-society connections and Jewish antecedents. There were visits by outspoken MPs from many countries, specialists in Jews and world conspiracies, arms dealers, technicians, Second-World solidarity-seekers, PR firms, and journalists interested only in the truth, and in blaming American foreign policy. There were patriotic public denunciations, rumours and counter-rumours, straight-talking and diplomacy and photo- opportunities of Saddam in a mosque (the first time in 20 years, went the joke). Sometimes, he was Saladin, or Mehmet II–defending the kernel of civilization against the pallid barbarians. Or he was saintly and misunderstood–a simple family man, at home among his gold taps and blackamoor torchières–a reasonable man, puzzled and hurt by American intransigence.
Afghanistan was invaded, the Taliban thrown down–and there was talk of invasion, incursion, insult to our great nation. The ungrateful Kurds (demon-worshipping Yazidis all) were seething, and the Republican Guard rumbled northwards in the night. There were muttered tales of betrayals and secret deals, midnight arrests and sabotage, strangers caught crossing the borders or seen near oil installations and railway bridges or suddenly appearing, asking questions and offering dollars. It was whispered that the Fedayeen Saddam were in the area, and the city’s criminals hunkered down for the duration–with the protected protector Kemali one of the few who carried on as if nothing was happening. MPs, press spokesmen, bureaucrats and army officers rose into or fell from view. Iraqi jets screamed defiantly over, the Waterway became busy with mine-layers and patrol boats, anti-tank trenches and air raid shelters were built in Basra’s streets. There were curfews and tests of sirens. Dusty troops secured and scoured junctions and jetties, then climbed back aboard lorries to race along to the next strategic point. Trees and buildings were levelled to improve fields of fire, and barbed wire groves grew up by the river. People made stockpiles, and tried to work out what was really being said by the TV announcers or the tinny radios perched on thousands of café counters and workbenches. Cafés were electric, as coffee, cigarettes and high politics imbued the air. Lights burned all night at police headquarters. Half-tracks overflowing with bored soldiers drove ceaselessly up and down the embankment, while small boys watched enviously.
The tension was ratcheted up until it became part of the noise of life. Like everyone, Ibraham sometimes nearly forgot about the prospective Mother of All Battles, while his employer was busier than ever–making and breaking deals, chins wobbling while he laughed, his rings glinting as he riffled his Rolodex, his ear red from the telephone receiver. More long, boring days like so many others in his life, everyone’s lives–the menace-mongering become like mosquito noise–coffee, cigarettes and cards contested and conceded across the marble-topped table in the sun-tigered corridor.
He was jolted awake by far explosions. Royal Marines had come ashore at Umm Qasr just as it was getting light–and the army reservists were in full retreat, dropping their weapons in panic, bowling over their NCOs and officers as they fell back towards Basra.
Within minutes, all Al Hayyaniyah was out of doors, and the city was a-thrum with engines revving up and moving out, shouted commands, the snap of boot heels and rifle breeches. Roads were closed and papers checked, barbed-wire augmented and redeployed, sappers turned up in trucks, trains of supplies passed through, and ammunition was opened and issued. Soldiers and police patrolled for saboteurs and deserters–while radio vans broadcast news of American defeats at the hands of the valiant army. The Yankees and English would soon be pushed into the sea–their illegitimate war denounced by the UN and unpopular at home, their troops more interested in Coca-Cola than combat–except for the gangster SAS, who were raping and bayoneting children and women behind the lines. Beware of saboteurs; distrust the stranger; report the stranger. A Free Islamic Legion was on its way, volunteers from all the Muslim nations of the world.
But the crusaders’ jets were often overhead, and when they passed even the army winced and sought shelter. Civilians streamed out of the city like an ants’ nest broken open–to camp out in the fields and wait for the British or, in the case of Ba’athist loyalists and Ibraham’s suddenly unsure employer, to head north towards Baghdad, which they knew or hoped could never fall, or to seek refuge in their home villages–followed by trucks heavy with papers, money, jewellery and the more easily portable museum exhibits, and accompanied by large numbers of minders. Ibraham was never asked if he wanted to go with Kemali, but was summoned cursorily into the outer office by the secretary and given a month’s salary in lieu of notice before being pushed out of the house for the final time. Whatever would come later, Basraites were glad to see people like Kemali go–and some evacuees’ convoys were jeered and pelted with rocks.
Sinews were strengthened by the arrival of red-booted Republican Guards belonging to the Al Nida and Hammurabi armoured divisions and commandos from As Saiqa, who roared down from the north in war-chariots like their historical predecessors— a comparison constantly made. Their hard faces radiated confidence, and their capable hands caressed brand-new Brownings. About half went down upon the fold of Umm Qasr, while the rest took up positions all over Basra–evicting civilians from their houses, turning shops into bastions, dragging camouflage nets over hissing vehicles, smoking as they cursed or laughed, practising their small-arms aim on roaming dogs (and civilians who could give no good account of themselves).
The Red-boots relished a few swaggering days before their comrades who had gone to Umm Qasr reappeared unexpectedly–disorganised, demoralised, disarmed, decimated. They carried panicky stories, disjointed tales of being outflanked, outgunned and outwitted– of swift and responsive British armour, the constant pounding of aircraft (no sign of our fliers!) and the unseen but always-sensed SAS. Ammunition, food, water and fuel that had been promised had never arrived, they said. Officers and NCOs had made catastrophic mistakes. The regulars had refused to fight, or had been cut down whenever they attempted to make a stand. Even among the Red-boots, whole platoons had vanished–some killed, more injured, scattered or deserted or gone behind enemy lines, to snipe from foxholes, or creep into camps to cut Coalition throats. The British were right behind them, they said.
And they were right. Within 48 hours, the 7th Armoured Brigade was snapping at their heels, thrusting up from Abdaliyah and Manawi Al Loyim towards Al Basrah. The dismayed garrison found that their tanks were slower and less powerful, their supplies undependable, and almost everything they did was spotted and stopped by planes. The commands from Baghdad, when obtainable, were inconsistent and incoherent, exhortative rather than specific.
Once more in its history, Basra blew up in fire and disaster–watched from kilometres away by the Nassoufs and all their neighbours, camped out near the pockmarked airport. Everything they knew–people they had known–had been cast into the crucible where Iraq was being broken and remade. They were glad to see what was obviously the end of Saddam, but looked constantly citywards, wondering and waiting. They cooked over common fires, scavenged for food and water, and worried about contagion. Some who were old or sick died, hastily bemoaned and buried–the least casualties of the conflict.
The downfall of Baghdad was announced in early April, although Saddam and sons were still at large. As the conflagration was tamped down, Ibraham and thousands of others filtered back to where their lives had been. They came back sometimes to rubble where there had been houses, cafés, garages and mosques, littered with twisted metal and spotted still with red-booted dead. But many areas had not been damaged at all. The Nassoufs’ place was mercifully intact and–a wryly comic touch–Ibraham’s call-up papers were lying outside the locked door.
Tall, blue-eyed liberators with Union Jack flag flashes (or unidentifiable flashes from unknown countries) on their uniform sleeves began to be seen, rolling regally up and down the roads in light Landrovers, handing out food, coffee and medicine from trucks teeming with goods. Some moved amongst the civilians, their new best friends–Kevlar helmets replaced by berets, smiling and doling out chocolate and cigarettes, shaking hands and being photographed with locals. There were weeks, whole months when the troops seemed to be supremely, sensitively in command.
But then the bombs came back–making people look up in panic, followed by sirens and screams and racing engines, sometimes sporadic gunfire, as British soldiers or newly deputised police chased suspects through narrow alleys or shot down roads. The berets were replaced again by helmets, and tanks were seen again on the streets. Districts would be suddenly surrounded, as snatch squads combed confusing complexes and courtyards for elusive insurgents. Shi’ites and Sunnis separated out from each unclean other. Bombs were aimed not just at the occupiers and their police-creatures, but at doctrinal opponents. There were innumerable unrecorded killings in back streets, and doors burst in residential neighbourhoods by masked riflemen–Mahdi Army or gangland enforcers, killing for Prophetic lineage, tribal loyalty, private grudge or money.
Every conversation, every transaction was tinged with trepidation. The police were incompetent, or worse. Everyone muttered about the Jameat men, who wore police uniforms but worked for the militias–stealing weapons and money, marking targets, taking over rackets or starting new ones, removing people in police vans for “questioning” rarely to return, their maimed bodies sometimes turning up in ditches or thrown outside the doors of their houses from cars that didn’t stop. Echoes of Ibraham’s father–Ibraham was grateful his mother had not seen all this, but was constantly on edge about his sisters, and worried all the time when he couldn’t see them. The British did not know what was going on–or they did not care–or they could not stop it.
Old structures and understandings were gone, in a frenzy of de-Ba’athisation. The hated had been brought low, but some of the low brought a lot higher than they deserved. New bosses were using unwitting foreign soldiers to work out old feuds. Important jobs were given to classless, contextless incomers from Baghdad or Kurdistan or to foreigners–the latter efficient, and laden with gifts for the asking (or taking), but who lacked local knowledge. Tensions were raised by seeing local girls with the foreign troops, girls who suddenly had expensive clothes, or scent, or mobile phones. It was speculated that they must have paid a high price for these items. Iraqis knew they could never compete with this–and this helped fuel the insurgency. The occupiers’ promises to bring proper drainage, new houses and new jobs fell drastically short. “Hearts and minds? They can’t even give us electricity!” was the gloomy verdict of the Nassoufs’ normally easy-going neighbour.
As month became years, even in Basra people started to look back on the Saddam years with something like fondness. Everyone said life had become much worse, that decent men or women couldn’t go about their business without the risk of being blown up. It wouldn’t have happened under Saddam. He was bad, but we had order. You knew where you stood with Saddam. Now everything was random, vicious. Not even his capture and trial stopped the violence–and he had at least died like a man, more of a soldier than his disguised destroyers. Rumour had it there was civil war in the north and east, with guns and volunteers coming over the borders from Iran. More GIs arrived, and it helped for a time, but what would happen when they pulled out, as America’s new (black!) president had promised would happen soon?
As their money dwindled, and he waited in line with thousands of others for food parcels and buckets of warm water from standpipes, Ibraham constantly revolved his old dream of going to the West. Except that somehow–he wasn’t sure when–the dream had become a scheme.
He would do it. He had to do it. There was nothing for him here. There never had been. In fact, there was nothing in Iraq for anybody and would not be for many years, if ever again. He would go, now, while he was still youngish and fit, while he was still uncommitted–to live out his fantasies after so many years of self-sacrifice.
It would be good not only for him, but for all of them. He imagined himself sending huge cheques home, and Ayesha and the others receiving them and blessing his name—kissing the precious paper while their eyes sparkled in well-fed faces.
He had no choice—and he was glad. He felt a tremendous soothing calm washing over him, and all the annoyances and inconveniences of life were softened. He looked at the dirty water in the bucket, the bad food on the cracked plates, the faces of the dirty and shrivelled people and he knew, with a joyous, frightened clutch at his heart, that very soon he would not see them any more.
One spring evening, marvelling at his own temerity, Ibraham met a chain-smoking lorry driver in a café across from the idle cranes by the Roka Channel. The man was to bring a cargo to the capital in a week’s time and, for US$100, would be prepared to let Ibraham travel as his truck-mate. And when he got to the capital, he would put him in contact with people who were in the business of getting people into Kurdistan, “or even further.” He winked, accepted a $20 deposit, and they toasted the deal in apple tea. It seemed too cheap, too casual, too easy, too quick. In such an amazing and life-altering instant, Ibraham was surprised to feel so detached. He walked slowly and thoughtfully home, through crowds that were already merging into memory.
Next Tuesday - Chapter 3
Copies of Sea Changes are available from Amazon (a few copies of the first edition still available)
…........................................................................................- Derek Turner has appeared in a number of top-notch news outlets, including Taki's, Chronicles and the Times.
Follow him on Twitter: Follow @DerekTurner1964 or e-mail to: email@example.com
Some recent articles from Derek Turner:Taking back the city
FALSE FLAGS, AND TANGLED GROWTHS
FLIGHTS OF FANCY