It is a long evening. Very long. But I don’t know it yet. The taxi driver is tidy, it’s clean inside, no smoking. Probably the only place in the country where you don’t smoke. “$30 from the airport to Baghdad, sir.” I’m off to argue. “No,” he raises his hand calmly and pulls out a price list. For security reasons – understand car bombs – no cars pass within a certain radius of the airport without a pass.
We stop at a dispatcher, an invoice is issued. Everything is accurate. On takeoff, it’s a little more complicated: cars stop at a checkpoint, where they are checked with dogs, and heavily armed police joke with drivers and passengers.
Evenings are boring. They lurk under the car for C4. At the very entrance we are stopped again, ordered to line up our luggage for the many passengers and wait for the German shepherd to come. At least 2 more scanner checks follow before the opportunity to buy a mediocre $10 sandwich. Apparently all airports are alike.
Read part one of the report HERE:
The murder that almost sparked a war
But we were a little quick to take off. At the moment, I’m still on my way to Baghdad when I see something that makes me jump with that grim glee that only journalists and funeral agents are capable of. “Stop, stop the car!” The buffoonish driver explains to me that I can’t – it’s forbidden. “It’s not forbidden, stop for a moment, please!” We stop and I manage to snap two photos.
On a pedestal I see the car that was torn apart by a Hellfire R9X missile on January 3, 2020. Interesting name for a weapon that, instead of exploding, dissolves 6 blades that strike its target. Creepy, but sparing innocent victims. Killing them was one of the main criticisms of the US military when trying to precisely eliminate opponents. In the car in question, there was Qassem Soleimani, the legendary leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The car in which Qassem Soleimani was killed in 2020. The floodlights are turned off, and during the day the taxi drivers refuse to stop because they will be seen by the cameras or the police.
The concrete blocks on the wall next to the car still bear the imprint of the shrapnel. His face is painted next to them. The message to anyone arriving in the country is clear… At least at first glance.
“Terrible, terrible. Great man,” the driver shakes his head. I ask him if he is a Shiite, and he shows me his right hand, where I see a tattoo of the sword named Zulfigar, the famous weapon of Imam Ali. The holiest figure for Shiites after Mohammed himself. Tattoos are categorically forbidden in Islam. De jure.
Islam for personal use
As in most Muslim countries, religion is a highly subjective phenomenon in Iraq. It is used as a tool for social and political pressure. After the fall of Saddam and his party, who imposed secularism with an iron fist, pseudo-religious parties and militias filled the power vacuum.
“Whoever talked about religion – was waiting for prison. Saddam had issued orders to close mosques immediately after prayers so that the Muslim Brotherhood (ed. – a powerful international Islamic organisation that originated in Egypt) and other Islamist groups would not gather,” said Mohammed*, an Iraqi who emigrated to Bulgaria before the 2003 invasion.
Over the past 20 years, however, all kinds of Islam have flourished in the country, from the fanatically extreme to the ostentatiously hypocritical. Nevertheless, Iraqi society should be rather described as deeply conservative and patriarchal rather than deeply religious. The line is as thin as a red thread, but there it is.
Especially the generations from 40 on down tend to take whatever is convenient and easy for their personal use in Islam and throw the rest away. Tattoos are not uncommon, neither is alcohol consumption. At least the latter may soon change, as in March 2023 the authorities began closing liquor stores. The law was passed back in 2016, but Iraqis didn’t care.
They are still mildly interested and laugh at questions about whether they are worried about the action. “It’s not going to happen, Habibi,” the tattooed salesman replies through the narrow opening in the wide metal door as he presents me with his collection of imported American gin. “In Iraq, it’s one thing to say, another to do.”
A liquor store on Baghdad’s Sadoun Avenue opened around 4:00 a.m. along with restaurants and clubs.
Of course, most Iraqis will tell you they’re religious. Not true. Again, this does not mean they are not deeply conservative. Most women don’t work, rarely go out after dark in the cities, and sexual harassment is a serious phenomenon that few people talk about. Most often it happens at home and takes forms that turn a man’s gut when he becomes aware of them…
“You just keep your mouth shut, because it’s the most it gets worse. Nobody’s on your side if you’re a woman. No brothers, no fathers, no uncles. Very often they are the rapists themselves. There was a shocking case a while ago. A neighbor had raped a 6-year-old girl. They accused the mother of dressing her daughter indecently,”
explains Rahma at a cafe in the affluent Mansour neighbourhood. Only in places like this, where more liberal and affluent people congregate, we can talk.
“Where in Islam is this preached? And people who claim to believe, do it. I don’t believe in Islam. It is a lie,” she adds.
Let’s buy some faith
What has been said so far is a gross generalisation that is necessary for reporting purposes. Beliefs in Iraq vary from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood and house to house. About 60% of the population is Shia. A significant portion of them follow Iranian propaganda. But even more are staunchly opposed to Tehran’s influence and instead back the local Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. Most, however, like neither.
This kind of rings are very popular in Iraq and are not only worn by religious men. In Iran they are a sure sign that the man is a deep believer. In the Maghreb countries (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) it is looked upon with a bad eye, and rings with inlays are in some places even banned by the authorities as they are a symbol of radical Islam.
This is definitely the case for the remaining 40% or so of the population, who are Sunni. Of these, only 25% are Arabs. The rest are Kurds. But there are also a number of Yazidis and Turkomans. Somewhere in here fit 3-4% Christians and other religions, most notably the Yazidi (the ethnicity whose representatives were sold as slaves by ISIS, and whose women were made to marry ISIS fighters).
Before 2003, Baghdad was a predominantly Sunni city. After the bloody purges of the last 20 years, it is now predominantly Shia. It’s impossible to know exactly how many and which militias are supporting Iran or any local warlord.
“We have at least 100 militias. And they are all Shiite. The Sunni ones have united or been absorbed by ISIS, which has been destroyed. But they are constantly breaking up, merging, changing allegiance. It’s all about money and interests. Even though they proclaim Shiite Islam as the guiding principle in their actions. I hate these losers,”
said Ali, a Baghdad native in his early 20s.
A church in the capital’s Al-Dora Christian neighbourhood. There are also a hospital, a kindergarten and a school around. Out of an estimated 1.5 million Christians, there are now thought to be only 250,000 in Iraq. Most fled during the war against ISIS. Baghdad itself has been abandoned by the majority of Christians during the wars since 2003. Of the 150,000 people, it is estimated that around 10,000 are now left.
Most members and supporters of militias and parties become such out of necessity – because they are unemployed, because their lives are threatened, because they feel complex and need some kind of community, a brotherhood, to give them strength and self-confidence. For imams, mullahs and ayatollahs, this is welcome. In order to rise, you have to demonstrate that you are religious – even if you are not. The most blindly religious are the poorest and most uneducated sections of society.
The difference between Sunnis and Shiites
Before we continue, we are obliged to clarify what Shias and Sunnis are. The shortest and most infuriating answer for specialists: the Muslim version of Catholics and Orthodox.
Theoretically speaking, the dispute is theological. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers have been arguing over who is right to succeed him at the head of the caliphate. Some argue that it should be his closest follower, Abu Bakr (ed. – it was his name that the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed on 27 October 2019 in Syria, adopted as nom de guerre). Subsequently, they became Sunnis. Others think it must be his nephew and son-in-law – Imam Ali (and his successor Imams). They began to be called Shia some time after that.
Realistically, the dispute is about power and wealth. It always has been. The two branches of Islam differed minimally in religious terms at first, with changes being superimposed over the years according to the traditions and doctrines of the leading powers. However, the 1400-year-long political disputate continues to this day in full force.
The center of Shi’a Islam is Iran. The center of Sunni Islam is Saudi Arabia. Shiites are only about 10% of the world’s Muslims (under 200 million), and are a majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain (where the local monarchy is Sunni and deeply concerned about them) and Azerbaijan. Sunnis, about 1.4 billion people, dominate the rest of the countries.
The view from the Diwan Hotel on Sadoun Avenue in Baghdad, a stone’s throw from the Tigris River. This part of the city is not the most prestigious, but it is instead full of hotels, bars, liquor stores and prostitutes. Nightly rates start at $25 a night and go up to over $200. However, the quality in hotels (and most homes) is extremely low. The rooms in most hotels in the country are not cleaned, hotel amenities are lacking and reservations are a mirage. Check-in is done by arriving on the day itself. However, the hotels are full.
Literarily speaking, the argument resembles the Lilliputian egg war that Gulliver witnessed: which side is right to break the egg.
“The argument is pointless, we’re all human. Islam is a religion that clearly preaches peace and tolerance. Anything else is a lie and is not Islam. To tell you the truth, I realised I was a Sunni after I was already a grown man. It may sound shameful and stupid, but in Saddam’s time it didn’t matter whether you were Sunni or Shia. We didn’t even know the differences,”
– Mohammed commented.
On the streets of Baghdad at night
We reach the Divan Hotel around 2:00-3:00 in the morning. It’s a Yazidi hotel, and it shows in the staff themselves, who are visibly different from the Arabs and Kurds. Not that it matters. Having said all that, I must stress that Iraqis are one of the most polite and kind nations I have come across. Another paradox of chaos that can only exist here. Which only makes it more puzzling that up until a few years ago, the country was the scene of some of the world’s worst massacres.
“I remember a morning around 2007-2008 when the war between Shia and Sunni militias in Baghdad was in full force. I was about 15 years old. Right across the street from us, on the opposite side of the sidewalk, was a butcher shop. I woke up and looked out the window. There were about 10 dead soldiers hanging from meat hooks. I went back to my room. There was nothing to do. Those years you could have been killed for walking on the wrong side of the pavement,”
– Rahma explains with a dry smile.
Meat hooks in Baghdad.
It was with this kindness and courtesy that it was explained to me that hotel reservations are rarely made and I didn’t have a room. Even though I had booked it. But I could spend the night in the lobby. Instead, I decided to walk the streets of Baghdad at night. The meat hooks were still visible above the slammed kerchiefs here and there. Now they were empty.
And Baghdad was teeming with life…
Read part three of the text:
See also the interview with Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush:
*All my interlocutors in Iraq and even abroad asked that their names be changed, and that no pictures be taken. They fear political reprisals or even attacks on their lives.
This article was originally published in Bulgarian at the site KlinKlin and is part of a series of articles by Kaloyan Konstantinov. All photos were taken by the author.