SAMAWA, Iraq—This evening I’m sitting in a garden in Samawa, a large town in southern Iraq, surrounded by tribal elders in traditional dress, long wraps held together with a large belt and covered with a blazer. On their heads they wear the typical black-and-white checked cloth with a black rope called’uqal, which holds it on. Everyone is patiently waiting for the dinner that’s being set up in the garden.
It’s been a long day traveling on the Iraqi National Congress List election campaign. The Dec. 15 elections will select a new assembly that will appoint the first permanent four-year Iraqi government since the 2003 invasion.
My father, Ahmad Chalabi, is heading the list, and I am traveling with the group through central and southern Iraq. For many here, my father is considered the main architect of the fall of Saddam’s regime. He has also been much maligned and has become something of a bête noire for the Western press. It is not for me to judge him; I leave that to history. He is running on his own ticket, as a liberal democratic candidate.
Campaigning in this country is a strange experience since it is a complete novelty. The packing that’s gone into it is also surreal since so many services are lacking in these provinces. In addition to our sleeping bags and towels, we also have food, carpets, and tents. It feels more like a 19th-century caravan tour than the 21st century, though the laptops and cell phones give it away. For me, one frustrating aspect is the need to cover my head, out of respect, at several of these rallies, because the constituents, including the local women, are fairly conservative.
Tribes have always had their place in Iraqi society, but their prominence has increased in recent years because so many elements of civil society were destroyed by Saddam’s regime. Institutions were no longer neutral arbiters. This led many people to revert to basic forms of association, such as their tribe. Often, the notables of these tribes are urban, educated, professional men, but they get their social standing from their tribes. One friend, Imad, who used to live in the United States, had to change his surname to that of his tribe when he returned after the fall of the regime because people couldn’t figure out where he came from and it made them uncomfortable. He tells me that sometimes he doesn’t recognize the name when people call it out.
Iraqi-style elections are like other elections around the world as far as posters, TV ads, pamphlets, and logos go. What makes them novel here is the societal component, such as tribal elders and the religious men in many of these regions who were exploited by Saddam Hussein, on one side, and individuals, including women and youth who were repressed and silenced, on the other.
Driving to Diwaniya, a large town south of Babylon, earlier today, the landscape spoke volumes about Iraq’s tortured past. Among the lush greenery, composed mostly of elegant palm trees, which shocks an otherwise arid landscape, are prehistoric-looking homes that lack basic sewage and water. This region was intentionally neglected and repressed by Saddam because of his sectarian policies against the Shiites. Every now and then comes a soothing surprise, a quick view of the Euphrates winding its way south. The riverbanks are muddy, naturally barricaded with reeds.
The rally this afternoon was quite intense. Apart from the sheer number of people, the colorful part was the traditional ad-lib poetry, haussa, that is so famous among the tribespeople. There is always one man with a good vocabulary and a sense of humor who interjects every so often and recites a few lines, which is then followed by several men who dance around. Many of the verses are complaints or political demands. One theme they kept repeating today was the Baathists who haven’t been caught and the terror they feel from them. It struck me how different the view of Iraq is from the inside. One man, Mohammad, was screaming at the top of his voice, sweat dripping off his bald head in the sun, in anger at the Baathists. “They are everywhere threatening us. Is it not enough what they did to Iraq. They are the terrorists who are killing everyone now; you can’t let them get away with it. Saddam’s ghosts are everywhere. I don’t want anything except that you stop them. I lost my father and three brothers. Enough.”
It was as if he had switched on a storm, because everyone started screaming about the same thing, and all the dead victims came to life through them, haunting the atmosphere. I was expecting them to complain about the U.S. presence, about the lack of services, but there wasn’t a single mention of it. It was as if the lid of a pressure cooker was removed and all the steam was let out. It struck me then that there are different levels of freedom, and this was one way of expressing it, in spite of all the discomforts and the challenges their country is facing. They could never have done that a few years ago.