Monday, August 11, 2008

The Thieves of Baghdad

I spent Saturday night with my parents and three of my father’s siblings, along with their children in a nice suburb of London. It was the biggest gathering of close relatives since last summer, when my cousin’s (mom’s side) wife declared that America brought Al Qaeda to Iraq, and warned me with great sternness that it is blasphemous to defend infidels. There are some religious people in my extended family. Some of them are religious and educated at the same time. My uncles – my father’s brothers - and my aunt’s children are religious, yet quite educated and successful. Many of them are doctors and dentists. For as long as I can remember, one of my cousins, Majeed, a pediatrician who is closer to my dad’s age than mine, possessed a great intensity and unique emotional flare, much like my father. They both have a great sense of humor. They even look alike. In my first post I wrote about Majeed’s brother, who was murdered by Saddam’s regime in 1980. Until last year I had not spent much time with Majeed, and I was surprised last summer to see him married with children – three of them, aged 16 to 19! Majeed is married to E, an engineer and niece of Jiddu, whom I wrote about in October 2007. It was good to spend more time with Majeed and his wonderful family this weekend. After a long night of eating delicious food and catching up, we had to spend the night there because it was so late.

The next morning, after E served us breakfast, she told us her story, which I will summarize here. E, like so many Iraqis, escaped Iraq long before 2003. The current conflict in Iraq may have eclipsed what happened to Iraqis during Saddam’s long reign of terror and intimidation, and certainly the media’s coverage of Iraq in the last five years has been much greater than all the media's coverage of Saddam’s atrocities. This is why I believe it is important to document these crimes, to remind people of what took place in Iraq before 2003.

Madrasat Rahibat

As a thirteen year old in the early 1970s, E attended Madrasat Rahibat (Nuns’ School), a private school for well-to-do Baghdadis. In her class E remembers a girl, a Faili (Shia) Kurd, who one day debated another girl, Ilham, the daughter of Khairallah Tulfah, the Governor of Baghdad and uncle of Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish girl argued during Religion class that the Kurds who were killed by the Baathi regime were martyrs. Ilham disagreed, and she believed that the Kurds who were killed by the state were in fact traitors, not martyrs. E recalls how casual the debate was, and how their teacher, a Najafi woman, allowed the debate to proceed. The next morning, after E boarded the school bus, she noticed that her Kurdish friend was missing. When E arrived at school, her teacher was not there. E never saw her teacher again. Her Kurdish friend and her family also disappeared.

To digress, Ilham was later married to Haythem, son of Ahmed Hassan al Bakr. When Saddam became President, he forced the couple to divorce and he forced Ilham to marry his half brother. Saddam’s older half brother, Barzan, was already married to Ilham’s sister Ahlam.

Mass Graves

E’s cousins and their children (most of them older than E, in University and the Army) lived in Kerbala. During Saddam’s campaign to expel Iraqis of Iranian ancestry, and despite the fact that E’s ancestors had lived in Iraq for 700 years, her relatives in Kerbala were targeted for deportation to Iran. One of her uncles in Kerbala had a 15 year old son, who was separated from his parents after they were arrested – the Baathi authorities were afraid the kid would join the Iranian Army. The kid’s parents were driven to the Iranian border and dropped off there, just like God knows how many Iraqis were. The family of this boy waited anxiously for 24 years hoping Saddam’s regime would fall so they could be reunited with their son, their brother. In 2003 the boy’s older brother traveled to Iraq, where he learned that his little brother had been murdered and buried in a mass grave. Upon hearing this news, his father fell ill and suffered from a stroke. He finally died last year, after being paralyzed by the stroke.

The Thief of Baghdad

Khairallah Tulfah was also known as “Harami Baghdad” (The Thief of Baghdad). Uncle of Saddam Hussein, father of Sajida (Saddam’s wife), Khairallah Tulfah was appointed Governor of Baghdad in the 1970s and by 1980 he amassed a great fortune by usurping financial and real assets of Iraqis. E’s family had the misfortune of living next to Tulfah in the 1970s. In early 1980, during Saddam’s campaign to expel Iraqis of Iranian descent, E’s entire family was arrested one day while they were eating lunch – Saddam’s secret police walked into the home and told E’s family to gather their essentials. While the family gathered their essentials, Saddam’s “emen” (security) sat down and ate the dolma that E’s mother had prepared. Before E’s family was taken away, her mother called E’s older sister, who was married and living in a different part of town, and told her what was happening. E’s sister immediately took a taxi to her parents’ house, where she saw none of her family at home, and she saw Khairallah Tulfah standing in the street. She became angry and asked Tulfah how he could allow the police to take away his innocent neighbors. He had no response, but after a few hours he called the detention center and told them to release E’s family. This good natured act was not free.

When this happened to E’s family, her father was naturally furious and saddened by what had become of his country. He decided that he would send his children out of the country one by one, but he died just a few weeks later. Soon after E’s father died, Khairallah Tulfah sent an aide to E’s family to inform them that he wanted to be a “partner” in the sports clothing factory that E’s father had built into a successful business. E’s family felt they had no choice in the matter – they still felt under threat. E’s brother continued to run the factory, but Tulfah diverted all the factory’s profits to himself. Khairallah Tulfah freed E’s family, and then he stole their livelihood. After six months, Tulfah’s assistant informed E’s family that he wanted the factory all for himself, but because they were his neighbors, he offered to “sell” the factory back to E’s family for 100,000 dinars (more than $300k at the time!). E’s family raised the money by selling their jewelry and borrowing from relatives. They bought the business that Tulfah stole from them. E’s family understood they were buying their safety, their immunity from prosecution for being of "Iranian descent". Soon after they got their factory back, E escaped Iraq for Abu Dhabi in August 1980. Because of the long war with Iran and its economic effects, E’s family were unable to import material or spare parts, and eventually the factory was closed. Today it sits in Abu Ghraib collecting dust.

This conversation with E was surrounded by other discussions, of course, and many of those discussions had to do with the current situation in Iraq and the Iraqis who participated in thievery and injustice after 2003.

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