We arrived in Basra too late to enjoy the sunset over Shatt al-Arab, but we still managed to take a walk on the Corniche, which until 2003 had a row of statues pointing fingers toward Iran. Sadly, the lush forest of palm trees for which Basra was so famous vanished, an early victim of the Iran-Iraq war.
Next morning, lack of sleep had me wishing this trail was over, but I perked up when I saw Hassan appear out of nowhere to say hello to my father.
Hassan is a precocious little man of 12 who has a beautiful face and a voice that he puts to good use for recitals of the lamentation poetry that is central to the Shiite rituals of Ashura (the 40-day commemoration of Imam Hussein’s death at Karbala). This poetry tradition is very old, evocative, and rich. Hassan learned it from his mother, a mulayya who recites at women’s gatherings. His father is handicapped, as is his older brother from a car accident, so he helps out his family with his voice. Click here to hear some of Hassan’s recital.
He gave a little private performance for us at breakfast, after refusing orange juice, because he says cold drinks are not good for his larynx. It reduced a few men to tears. His dream is to record a CD of his recitations, but he says it’s too expensive.
I decided to invite him to join us for our morning in Basra. I learned that he accompanied his mother to vote last January and spoke on TV about it. He said, with the intensity of a 60-year-old man, “I told them that elections are very good. They give a new life to Iraq.”
Our first stop for the day was the Basra General Hospital. According to the medical staff, it is Basra’s largest hospital, with 700 beds. It looks more like a derelict refugee camp than a hospital because of the abominable hygiene and the dogs running around the grounds. It was a depressing testament to the institution’s history. The hospital was completed in 1924 with funding from Basra’s notables, and it was named for British Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude, who is remembered for declaring, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” It was a leading hospital then, attracting people from all over Iraq and the region. One doctor told me that they had not had any equipment upgrades since 1980, which means that CT scans and MRI machines are luxury commodities that have yet to come their way. Resident doctors are overstretched and underresourced. A pediatrician said, “We were the pride of the region.” Now, syringes lie around on the grounds outside next to groups of people sitting waiting to be treated. Hospital beds are dangerously unhygienic. Nothing has been done to rectify this disastrous situation so far.
Our next stop was even more shocking, given that Basra sits on top of the largest reservoir of oil wealth in the country. It was Hassan’s old neighborhood, Jamhurriya, where families of 10 live in 750-square-foot rooms. Walking through the streets, it was difficult to distinguish between the mud and the food mixed together on the unpaved roads. A carpenter was busily sawing wood for a door, while next to him an electrical supply store displayed poor-quality goods. The carpenter asked, “Why do they dump all the bad Chinese and Iranian stuff on us? It doesn’t work.”
Nearby, at the abandoned Naval Academy, a makeshift refugee-camp-cum-stable mushroomed a few years ago when the families of resistance fighters against Saddam arrived. They are part of the little-publicized internal opposition that fought the Baathist regime for years from the marshes and bore the brunt of much persecution. Forgotten and neglected by the government, these families must not only be given decent accommodation and improved life standards, they also must be honored for the sacrifices they made. One little girl ran barefoot in the sewage because she wanted me to take her picture.
That’s how it was, this morning in Basra: the struggle for life, potable water, and food alongside colorful election posters and banners. It will be a test of the success of any future government to catch up with the decades of neglect and discrimination here.
For his part, Hassan seemed to have a good time. He kept trying to speak English with me; he says it’s his favorite subject at school. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up but also to continue reciting. “I am good with the media,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I believe him.