An oasis from politics amid turmoil in Baghdad

In deeply divided societies, places of cross-community trust
are oasis indeed. Worthwhile article in the International Herald
Tribune: An oasis from politics amid the turmoil in Baghdad

. Also check out the accompanying photo album

.

An oasis from politics amid the turmoil in Baghdad

By Sabrina Tavernise and Karim Hilmi
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BAGHDAD: At its oldest spot,
a small dusty strip of dirt road near a mosque, the neighborhood of Bab
al-Sheik – a maze of snaking streets too narrow for cars – dates from a
time, more than a thousand years ago, when Baghdad ruled the Islamic
world.

At that time, orchards and palaces of Abbasid princes unfolded in stately splendor not far away.

Ten centuries later, Bab al-Sheik is less grand, but still
extraordinary: It has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted
other neighborhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians live
together here with unusual ease. It has been battered by bombings
around its edges, but the war has been kept from its heart, largely
because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of
intermarriage.

“All of these people grew up here together,” said Monther, a
suitcase seller. “From the time of our grandfathers, same place, same
food, same everything.”

Much of modern Baghdad sprang into existence in the 1970s, when oil
nationalization drew Iraqis from all over the country to work. The
city’s population more than tripled over the course of 20 years, and
new neighborhoods sprawled east and west.

The war and civil conflict have seemed to take a heavier toll in those areas than in some of the older neighborhoods.

No one knows this better that Waleed, a rail-thin Bab al-Sheik
native who 10 years ago moved his family to Dora, a newly built
middle-class neighborhood in southern Baghdad.

In Dora, residents were from all over. That never seemed to matter
until the basic rules of society fell away after the U.S. occupation
began. The only bulwark left against complete chaos was trust between
families, and in Dora there was not enough.

“We didn’t know each other’s backgrounds,” said Waleed, sitting with
Monther in a barbershop in Bab al-Sheik, rain spitting on the street
outside. Neither man wanted to be identified by their last names out of
concern for their safety.

“Here, he can’t lie to me,” he said, jabbing a finger in Monther’s
direction. “He can’t say, ‘I’m this, I’m that,’ because I know it’s not
true.”

In Dora, he said, he did not have those powers of discernment. And
he paid the price: His son was shot and killed on Oct. 9, 2006, while
trying to get a copy of his high school diploma. Waleed moved his
family out of the area immediately. “My first thought was this
neighborhood,” he said. “My grandfather is from here. I always felt
safe here.”

So did two reporters, who made six visits to the area over two
months. It was safe enough, in fact, to walk through the warren of
narrow streets, nod at elderly women sitting at street-level windows,
linger in a barbershop and make long visits to Sunni, Shiite and
Kurdish homes.

On a recent Friday, an extended Kurdish family relaxed at home. The
living room was dark and cool, tucked in an alley away from the
afternoon sun. Abu Nawal, the father, recounted how a group of men from
the office of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr came to a local café,
proposing to set up shop in the area.

The café owner pointed to a sign, which stated in dark script that
all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited. The men were
then asked to leave.

“The guys in the neighborhood said, ‘If you try to make an office
here, we will explode it,’ ” said Abu Nawal, a shoemaker whose family
has lived in the neighborhood for four generations.

Some time later, Sunni Arab political party members came and were
similarly rebuffed. “They wanted to put their foot in this
neighborhood, but they couldn’t,” said Abu Nawal, who asked to be
identified by his nickname for the safety of his family.

He said he despised the poisonous mix of religion and politics that
has strangled Iraqi society, and he enjoyed cracking wry jokes at
politicians’ expense. Playing off the names for extremist militias,
which call themselves names like the Islamic Army, he refers to his
group of friends as the Arak Army, righteous defenders of an
anise-flavored alcoholic drink.

The neighborhood has another rare asset: moderate religious men.
Sheik Muhammad Wehiab, a 30-year-old Shiite imam whose family has lived
in Bab al-Sheik for seven generations, was jailed for 14 months under
Saddam Hussein, a biographical fact that should have opened doors for
him in the new Shiite-dominated power hierarchy. But his moderate views
were unpopular in elite circles, and he has remained in the
neighborhood.

He feels connected. So much so that while talking on the phone one
night this autumn, he walked out into the tiny alley outside his door,
lay down and watched the stars in the night sky.

“I think Maliki right now is envying me,” Wehiab said to himself. “No bodyguards. Just free. This is the blessing.”

He has some radical views. One of them is that Muslims have behaved
terribly toward one another in the war here and have given Islam a bad
name in using it to gain power. “I don’t blame those guys who drew the
cartoons,” Wehiab said, referring to the Danish caricatures of the
prophet Muhammad that provoked riots and protests across the Islamic
world last year.

“Muslims are the ones to be blamed,” he said, sitting in an armchair
in his quiet living room. “They have given them this picture.” An
ice-cream seller walked past his window, hawking in a loud voice.

Wehiab’s friend, a Sunni cleric, holds a similar view. “The greatest
jihad is the jihad of yourself,” said the cleric, whose smooth voice
echoes through the neighborhood as he calls worshipers to prayer every
day at Qailani Mosque, the neighborhood’s anchor.

The cleric, who asked that his name not be published out of concern
for his safety, because of the high profile of the mosque, lovingly
ticks off qualities of the 12th-century Sufi sheik Abdel Qadr Qailani,
who gave the mosque its name: Intellectual. Scholar. Moral teacher.

But moderate religion is not drawing an audience on a national
scale, and the mosque, one of Baghdad’s most important Sunni
institutions, has fallen on hard times.

Donations are down. Its long-running soup kitchen serves one meal a
day instead of three. Sufi clerics cannot perform their rituals. A bomb
sheared off part of a minaret in February.

“Please, please, write as much as you can that we don’t want war,” the cleric said.

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