Monday, October 16, 2006

Everyday people in Iraq

During the months and years that I lived in the Middle East, I became friends with many of the merchants that I encountered on a daily basis. I would discuss Quran with the owner of the little grocery store near my apartment as I made photocopies letters and lessons. I talked about the Archbishop with the Christian bakers who made pizza. I talked about Sufism with folks at one bookstore; the educational system with the staff of another book store. A dear and true friend was from a merchant family who had a presence in the big souk for centuries. I knew his wife, children and siblings. He knew my husband and had met my parents. From him I met many other merchants and small manufacturers. Another man who over the decade I knew him became like a surrogate father to me is part of an extended family that started with just a single candy shop in a small provincial town, now they are wholesalers; trucking sweets all over the rural provinces to supply small shops. So it is with a sense of great poignacy that I read about the slow destruction of the small shop owners in Iraq.

First to go was the pastry shop next door. That was early last spring. Since then, Alaa al Janabi, 46, has watched as Baghdad's epidemic of violence drained the life from his street, one store at a time.

Not long ago, about a dozen shops lined the one-block stretch of road in southwest Baghdad's Saidia neighborhood. Now only Janabi's computer-game arcade and the barbershop one door down remain, and the barber sneaks in for only a couple of hours each day, at a time whispered like a password to longtime customers.

Along a nearby section of a bit more than a mile, where 140 shops once stood only 23 remain. So many merchants in the area have been killed - or fled in fear that they would be - that the result of staying seems obvious, especially for a Shiite Muslim in a neighborhood that's being methodically cleansed by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the area.

"I am here waiting to die," Janabi said.

Jay Price and Mohammed al Dulaimy
McClatchy Newspapers
Small shopkeepers are a key component of the middle class in Iraq. Insurgents target them because in doing so you target a whole family, a whole network of small supplies, an entire social and economic ecosystem. What will happen? Look at Afghanistan. The war with the Soviets damaged and crippled the country but it was what came after, the endless civil war, the battles between warlords that drove away first the professionals, the doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors who could find work abroad; then the big merchants, those with access to capital left; then the small merchants; eventually anyone with any type of skill left Afghanistan to escape the civil war, the plumbers, the machinists, the mechanics, the tailors, the barbers, the butchers. Only farmers on their land, the very poor, and the most radical were left. They welcome the Taliban as a force that might restore order and morality to a devestated and abandoned country (Please go read Ahmed Rashid's book The Taliban). But that lies in the future (God willing, Iraq will escape that horrible fate altogether). Today the loss of each shop, each merchant, makes the calculus of daily survival more difficult and inevitably more people -- the very people who are our best hope of rebuilding the country will leave.
In Baghdad, the loss of neighborhood stores is more than an inconvenience. With electricity only a sometime thing, refrigeration is impossible, so many people must buy food daily. Traveling even a few extra blocks can mean running a gantlet of death squads, illegal sectarian checkpoints, common bandits, kidnappers and random bombs. Showing up in a strange neighborhood, even just to buy tomatoes, can draw the wrong kind of attention.

Iraqi and U.S. officials here are painfully aware of the problem. Restoring normalcy to troubled neighborhoods is a goal of their current district-by-district military sweep through Baghdad.

It's unclear yet whether it's working; it hasn't reached Saidia yet.

I don't know what the model is for restoring normalcy, how it can be done without either massive increases in troop levels (along with language and cultural training for the US army on a mass scale) or a complete withdrawal. But I weep for each merchant, for each family that the shop supports, for each neighborhood, and each city in Iraq. Ya Iraq! How has it come to this?

Thanks to Iraqnam for bringing the San Jose Mercury article to my attention. The author of Iraqnam also has a piece up at Daily Kos on "The week that was" detailing the events of the last week, October 8-14, for each year 2001-2006. I'd blog about it but it is almost too painful just reading it. Every year it is the same except that every year it gets a bit worse; how long is this war going to go on?

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