Today’s “zero point” returns Iraq to its own history, a history written with the ashes of incendiary fires, with its sons fleeing in all directions on the one hand, and its exiles returning to their own homes on the other. I truly do not know if distance today can be defined through the experiences of refugees, or the masses of displaced people, or the exiles returning to burning cities to live out a sense of loss. Distances begin to take on the forms of lines which have been drawn on ashen roads, resembling the traces of people who have lost their way and have never arrived. – Mohamed Mazloom, Baghdad poet, born 1963, exiled in Syria
DAMASCUS – This is biblical exodus – the YouTube version. Welcome to Little Fallujah – previously Geramana, southeast Damascus. The Nahda area of Geramana now boasts at least 200,000 resident Iraqis. They visibly came with all their savings – and made good use of it. The congested main drag of al-Nahda is an intoxicating apotheosis of anarchic capitalism, business piled upon business – Hawaii fruits, Galilia underwear, Call Me mobile, Snack Bambino, Discovery software school, Eva sunglasses, boutique Tout le Monde, all Iraqi-owned.
Street banners promote nightly Iraqi music festivals. Iraqi restaurants rule – such as the favorite Iraqi Palm Tree, with piped bird-singing and a flotilla of Chevy Suburbans with red Iraqi license plates at the door, also popular with Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians from refugee camps and even Somali and Sudanese immigrants. According to a resident, “Druze beautiful girls” in the neighborhood have been replaced by “fat Iraqi men” – a reference to when al-Nahda used to be a little Druze village sprinkled with a few Christians.
A 100-square-meter apartment sells for 2 million Syrian pounds (roughly US$40,000) – four times as much as before the Iraqi invasion. One square meter in prime business premises is now $20,000. Iraqis always pay US dollars cash. No wonder the price of potatoes has also risen fourfold. Not to mention the inflation of hairdressing salons – where Mesopotamian sirens perfect their Christina Aguilera-influenced, multi-shaded pompadours. And right beside al-Nahda is the action – al-Rahda, peppered with smart cafes like the Stop In and al-Nabil not far away from a huge Sunni mosque.
There’s not only Little Fallujah. There also are Little Baghdad, Little Mosul, Little Babylon, Little Najaf. But even exile replicates the stark divide found in Baghdad. Middle-class Sunnis won’t be seen around the middle-class Shi’ites who tend to go to the area around the spectacular Sayyida Zaynab shrine – a key Shi’ite pilgrim site boasting distinctive Persian architecture that would be perfectly at home in Qom or Mashhad. This area is Little Najaf. The stories, though, are similar to Little Fallujah’s. Shi’ite families had to abandon their homes in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods – otherwise they would have been killed. They came, they saw, they opened a restaurant, and they’re in business.
This proliferation of Little Iraqs accounts for the biggest exodus in the Middle East since the Palestinians were forced to abandon their own lands in 1948 as the State of Israel was being created. In every single month in Iraq at least 40,000 people are displaced. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there may be as many as 50,000 a month. Were that rate to continue, before 2020, all the population of Iraq would have been “liberated” from its own country.
In northern Damascus, a crammed room inside the Iraqi Embassy compound is pure Dante’s purgatory – waves and waves of Iraqis desperately in search of the right missing papers to request political asylum in a Western embassy. Thousands may be planning to stay in Syria, but for the great majority the promised land really means a visa for Canada, Australia or the ever-elusive European Union.
Whichever Iraq one picks in Damascus, the mantra is recited in unison. Any glimmer of hope for the future hinges on the Americans leaving – and the establishment, by Iraqis, with no foreign interference, of a non-sectarian government.
Take Nabir, owner of the Salon Musa, a barbershop decorated with a giant poster of soccer star Ronaldinho in a Nike-sponsored Brazilian yellow jersey. Call him the Barber of Fallujah. His family left Turkey in the early 20th century. Nabir left Iraq in late 2004. He stresses that “during Saddam, everybody had work, and everything worked”. After working at the former Saddam International Airport, he worked for the Americans as a barber in – where else? – Fallujah. His hopes are “that the country will be totally destroyed, and only Iraqis will be allowed to come back”. He was against the war. He left because his family had no security. And he does not want to go back.
The story of Aziz Abu Ammar, an affable sexagenarian impeccably dressed with suit and silk tie, is emblematic of what happened to Iraq’s professional and cultural elites. We talk at the most spectacular of settings, inside the Umayyad mosque just after evening prayers. Ammar is a retired government official from the Ministry of Economy and Trade. He sold everything in his native Baghdad – except his house – and left with his whole family six months ago, “because of the bombings”, mirroring a detailed survey by the International Organization for Migration according to which most Iraqis leave after their lives are directly threatened.
Ammar is emphatic: “There is no Sunni against Shi’ite. The Americans provoked it. Since the beginning they started talking about separate areas. In Baghdad most marriages are mixed.” That’s exactly his case. He is Shi’ite, his wife is Sunni. He says that “in all Arab countries we feel comfortable”, but anyway he has entered a demand for a long-term visa to Australia. “We don’t want to put pressure on the kindness of the Syrian people.”
The solution for Iraq is “the Americans out, all foreign troops out. But even after they leave, we will need a strongman. I don’t trust any of these political parties or groups. The only solution would be new, really free elections.” He insists “al-Qaeda destroyed the country”, but in the same breath adds, “Al-Qaeda is an American creation.” Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may not be the solution either: “He’s too young, has a lot to learn. His father [the late grand ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr] was good.”
It’s easy to forget that Hafez Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no diplomatic relations whatsoever from 1980 to 1997. Now every Iraqi showing up at the Syrian border automatically gets a one-month visa; they then apply for a three-month resident visa. Visa runs are common. Unlike in “liberated” Iraq, in Syria there’s virtually no unemployment for Iraqis. Overqualified, young, educated Iraqis at least survive with dignity as Internet-cafe managers or restaurant waiters. Iraqis are admitted to Syrian schools and universities with no special prerequisites. The Syrian state pays half of their medical bills. No wonder there is also a boom in mixed Syrian-Iraqi marriages.
Compare this situation with Jordan, which has become a de facto Hashemite kingdom of refugees – first the Palestinians after 1948 and now no fewer than 1 million Iraqis, almost 20% of the total population of 5.5 million. But unlike Syria, US-backed Jordan now is not exactly exhibiting its welcoming face. Iraqis in Syria swear that only the sick and the elderly are allowed to cross the border into Jordan. Soon Iraqis may be barred from buying property. Collective-taxi drivers plying the infested-with-bandits Amman-Baghdad highway say that Jordanian police constantly repatriates busloads of Iraqi refugees to the border: they are in fact treated as illegal immigrants. Unlike in Syria, they don’t have the right to work, have no discount on medical expenses, and can’t even put their kids in school.
A walk on the wild side
Little Iraqs are now part of the latest layer superimposed on Damascus – arguably the oldest city in the world (Aleppo in northern Syria begs to differ). And this after the low skyline saturated with prehistoric terrestrial aerials and rusty satellite dishes was superimposed on the narrow, medieval lanes and alleys of the fabulous Old City. Syrians are in essence very proud and very honest – as are Iraqis. As the calcified Syrian regime remains immersed in corruption, for real people corruption works out merely as a survival tactic – as it did and still does for Iraqis.
The inflation of trendy girls from Mesopotamia may have contributed to an inflation of lanjeri (lingerie) boutiques side-by-side with shops selling veils, not only in Little Fallujah but in the venerable, monstrous souq (market) al-Hamidiyah. The mix is terrific: chador (robe) on show, silk bikini underneath. The best clients happen to be from the Maghreb region in North Africa.
All roads do lead to Damascus. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Armani-suited, Hermes scarf-enveloped Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi, discreetly toured the Old City on Tuesday night, before her meeting the next morning with President Bashar al-Assad. Pelosi does not play the scratchy White House CD according to which “Syria is a supporter of terrorism”. So she might have had time for a little meditation on an empire fading – as the souq magically merges with the remains of the western gate of the 3rd-century Roman temple of Jupiter and opens the view to the fabulous Umayyad mosque with its courtyard, like in a psychedelic dream, converging all the faiths, all the colors and all the accents of the world.
Syria recognizes – formally – that Iraqis are refugees who need to be protected. The administrations of George W Bush and Tony Blair, on the other hand, could never admit to the world they are the source of all this – “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world” as defined by Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International.
Pelosi would have learned much more about the effects of the war on Iraq – and what Syria is actually doing about it – if she had traded the historic wonders of the Old City for a stroll in all-too-real Little Fallujah.