In the middle of the intifada, the Shiites are walking the highways. They are walking to Karbala for the al-Bayin, the 40 days of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680. They walk in groups of twos and threes, carrying strips of green and black flags, camping at night by the road. The old men and women left some days ago, younger men are beginning the journey now. “Inshallah,” they say, “We will arrive on Saturday.”
Kathem Risel is an old man with white hair clipped short under a white prayer cap. He has set up a stand on a highway in Baghdad offering orange drink, lemonade, and sesame cakes for the weary. I asked him who pays for it.
“The Imam Hussein pays for it!” He smiled at the surrounding walkers quenching their thirst, “They are all my sons.”
And how is it this year compared to last year?
“In the time of Saddam, no one walked. They would be arrested—”
A man wearing a black dusty shirt came up and told me that the Americans are doing the same things that Saddam did. Americans had arrested some pilgrims the day before, by the Al Mutabol mosque. “They tied their hands,” he pulled his arms behind his back to show me how. “They pushed an old man down on the ground, they took them to an unknown place—”
Another pilgrim wearing a Muqtada picture on a string around his neck like a placard said, “They started the violence, not us. We don’t even have weapons!”
But the Mehdi Army has weapons, I say.
“Our belief is our weapon!”
One of his friends interjected: “We asked for democracy, and they hit us. They call this freedom, and they closed our newspaper. Bremer is the outlaw! What about the children that are being killed?”
Kathem Risel washed another glass and filled it with orange drink, and shook his head in sympathy. “No one agrees with the violence.”
On one side of the highway is the lower-middle-class neighborhood of Saha, a mix of Shiites, Sunnis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Christians. It is a district of crumbling squat Soviet-style apartment blocks built in the early ‘80s, now overgrown with purple bougainvillea. In this middle is the Anas Bin Malik Middle School, named for a boy who served the Prophet Mohammed. Several days ago, posters were pasted on the gates of the school saying that it should be closed for three days as a sign of support for Muqtada Sadr. Throughout Baghdad, schools and shopkeepers are being asked or told by the Husseiniyas—the local sheiks and Mehdi Army organizers—to close in support of Muqtada.
By day, Baghdad looks sort of normal, until you realize that many shops are shut, some in protest, probably more in fear, and the roads are far less busy than usual. At night there is gunfire and mortar rounds, indistinct explosions—it’s hard to tell where. There are skirmishes between Americans and fighters going on in Muqtada’s power base in Sadr City, and in Adhamiya, the most militant Sunni neighborhood, where the mosques are collecting food, money, and medicine for the insurgents in Fallujah. But most Baghdadis are at home watching Al Jazeera or Al-Arabiya and seem to find their emotions half in and half out of this thing. Bits of national pride keep floating up in between the sadness of the killing and the fear of it spreading. One friend told me, “I feel like the war has just begun now. A year ago people didn’t fight. But so many are dying, it is not good. But so many are angry with the Americans; it feels like everyone should be a part of it!”
Sabri Badaye Assi, the principal of the Anas Bin Malik school, wore a dark blue three-piece suit and shoes that he had polished to British military standard. He stood his ground. “We are not part of any political party or religious movement,” he said, and no one but the Ministry of Education has the right to tell him to close his school. “Students need to be educated, they have exams coming up.”
A moderate man, an intelligent man. “Whenever you have educated classes, they deal with people,” he said. “They are not so frustrated, not so sensitive, they can find a reasonable solution. Being diplomatic is better than shedding blood. You have to use your brain, your logic. I would rather lend my hands to reconstruction than to violence.” I asked him how he felt, at this time, with pressures and responsibilities, as a school principal, as a parent, as an Iraqi Shiite. Attendance at the school is down to 60 percent. He says he himself is keeping his daughters—one a schoolgirl, one a university student—at home during these unquiet days.
Across the highway is the poorer neighborhood of Abudsheer. It is a Shiite neighborhood, and all the schools have closed there. The Al Sejad Elementary School, newly painted with three interlocking Iraqi flags across its façade, was empty except for a room full of teachers.
“We have to go with the street,” said Principal Heidar Majid. “When the street makes a certain decision, we have to also.”
The deputy principal said there might be problems, local matters. “You have to go with them, you have to be with the neighborhood.”
And the neighborhood is supporting Muqtada?
His staff were mainly women. One, Sheima Hasan, who teaches English, said, “Violence causes violence.” Another said, “We want our rights, but with as few casualties as possible.” And then they worried about the disruption: if the electricity would be cut off, if the telephones would go down again and whether their salaries—much better these days than before the war when they were next to nothing—would go unpaid.
Outside in the dusty streets full of trash and windblown plastic bags, a knot of boys were playing soccer.
I asked them why they weren’t in school.
“Oh, it’s a holiday. [A cleric] came round and told us we have three days holiday,” said a boy named Rabee who had a green scrap tied around his forehead for the martyr Hussein.
What’s the holiday for?
“It’s because of Muqtada or something,” he shrugged, bouncing the ball in his hands as his friends crowded round.
And what do you think about the situation now?
“What should we think about the violence that we see?”
Are you happy that they are fighting the Americans?
“Yeah, hopefully we’ll beat them!”
And what do you think of Muqtada?
Another boy, Mustafa, nudged forward, “He’s a hero.”
“No, Sistani!” said Rabee, pointing at his chest. Some of the others agreed.
Fear, pride, uncertain holidays, and holy days: That was the Arab street this morning.