Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bab el Sheikh

In Mixed Slice of Baghdad, Old Bonds Defy War (thanks Maury)

Johan Spanner for The New York Times
A cafe in Bab al Sheik, a neighborhood in Baghdad where Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians live together with unusual ease.
Published: 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 here. "From the time of our grandfathers, same place, same food, same everything."
Much of today's 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 that better than 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 American occupation began. The only bulwark left against chaos was trust between families, and in Dora there was not enough.
"We didn't know each other's backgrounds," said Waleed, sitting recently with Monther in a barbershop in Bab al Sheik, rain spitting on the street outside. Neither man wanted to be identified by his last name out of concern for 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 to death 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 older women sitting at street-level windows, linger in a barbershop and make long visits to Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish homes.
On a recent Friday, a large Kurdish extended 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 cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area. The cafe 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 was strangling Iraqi society, and he enjoyed cracking wry jokes at politicians' expense. Playing off the names for extremist militias, which in Iraq call themselves things 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 fall, 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," he said to himself. "No bodyguards. Just free. This is the blessing."
Sheik Wehiab has radical views. One of them is that Muslims have behaved terribly toward one another in the war here and that they have given Islam a bad name in using it to gain power.
"I don't blame those guys who drew the cartoons," he said, referring to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that set off 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.
Sheik Wehiab's friend, a Sunni cleric, holds a similar view. continued

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