Jo Wilding visits the Southern Iraqi city of Basra with the British Circus2Iraq troupe, and sent this dispatch back to SQUALL.
31st March 2004
Basra starts suddenly, as you approach from Samawa. On one side of the railway tracks there is nothing but desert, immense trails of oil tankers oozing along the highway, similar sized hordes of camels traipsing the other way. The Japanese troop carriers on the way out of Samawa giving way to British ones further south.
On the other side are houses, densely packed, expanding to fill all available space, washing and children and bricks erupting out of them and the cars slicing through. Its central reservation, pavements and part of the road covered with stuff for sale; old kitchen ware, old clothes, old electrical goods, like a giant drive-through car boot sale without the car boots. After a while, stalls selling new goods start to intersperse and in a while you reach the centre of the city.
Security is getting worse in Basra, people say, as unemployment rises. Electricity remains erratic, on for eight or nine hours a day but cutting out at unpredictable intervals, and power struggles drag on. There have been a few attacks on British troops in recent days as both frustration and the heat intensify. The soldiers used to walk the streets, much less under fire than the ruder Americans, but have stopped since the sniper incidents started.
Explosions, people say, are daily now and the BBC doesn't report the killings of individual soldiers. Kidnappings of contractors are on the increase. Security firms are making things worse by calling themselves NGOs because they think it's safer for them. They travel armed and create uncertainty about what it means to be an NGO, exposing organisations to increased risk.
Rehab just wants to leave. She lived in Cardiff for ten years while her dad was studying for a PhD in civil engineering. What's wrong with Iraq, I asked, for her point of view more than because I didn't know. She pointed at the headscarf on my lap. "That's one thing," she said. "I don't wear it. I won't." In Samawa women have been threatened for not covering their hair. Not here, Rehab said. "They just whisper and point, but I am defiant. I drive a car as well." A computer engineer from a Shia family, she wants to get a scholarship for a post graduate degree in the UK and escape from Iraq for a while. Her dad would let her leave if it was to take up a scholarship, she thinks. He wouldn't go back himself though: "He says he likes being able to say hello to everyone in the street." The first circus show had to be cancelled. The newly opened play space set up by Intersos is suffering the effects of the wranglings over power. The sheikh who lives and rules near the centre thinks he ought to have control over everything and has tried to get all his friends and relations jobs in the centre and to have the teachers fired. He has forced the centre to do without the kind of theatre and music room, we performed at in Bayaa in Baghdad.
Instead our first Basra performance was in a school for deaf and dumb children. Rehabilitated by Save the Children after a comprehensive post war looting, the school caters for 119 children altogether. From the show in the deaf school in Samawa, we learnt that though they can't hear, the kids still recognise and respond to noise and to variations in noise, so we made lots.
Luis's didgeridoo was a big favourite again and instead of communal shouting, they signed approval and disapproval in unison, very politely suggesting that I on my stilts ought to give back Luis's hat when he started to howl. A little girl called Hanaan was the star translator, signing for the kids less adept at lip reading. The headmistress told us at the end that she'd never seen the kids so animated.
In the old days, Ali said, deaf people were singled out for special persecution because they were harder to control. Using sign language, they couldn't be listened to the way everyone else could and the security police couldn't tell whether they were up to something or not. They weren't allowed to wear hearing aids because Saddam thought they might be secret communication devices and people shunned them. Even taxi drivers wouldn't stop for them, for fear of being implicated by association. In times of war they were tortured to make sure they couldn't scream properly, to make sure they really were deaf and mute.
Zaid's brother-in-law is deaf and has worn a hearing aid since he was a small child. "No one has ever told him you cannot wear it," Zaid said. Vehemently against Saddam, and unequivocally happy that he was removed, still he said, "None of this happened to him. Perhaps it was only in the south, or in the north."
The next new challenge was a show for blind children and orphans in the Ministry of Social Affairs. One of the women working in the Ministry showed me a booklet of phrases and quotations which formed an exercise for teaching English, including a line about how it's possible to look without seeing, to listen without hearing. It reminded me that the reverse is also true: the deaf kids heard us through some other sense. We didn't know how the blind children would see us, how they used other senses to compensate, so we did exactly the same show we always do.
A boy of about twelve with a scarred face looked intently into the top corner of the room. His friend beside him had one eye which hardly opened at all and another which was fixed, the pupil rolled back so it was barely visible. The two sat with an arm around each other's shoulders, laughing frequently and turning sometimes to hug one another. Two little girls whispered in each other's ears for the entire show, giggling.
It was different. They loved the boomchuckas at the beginning and the didgeridoo. They could understand the music box routine and enjoyed it. The juggling was a little lost on them, but the presence of the kids who could see, from the orphanage, was helpful because their excitement infused the whole atmosphere. Again their teachers said they could hardly believe the effect the show had on them.
When they left the children walked in clusters, arms around each other's shoulders, the almost-blind leading the blind. Not one of them had so much as a stick to guide them. Eman said the kids at the corresponding institution in Baghdad have sticks but here there is nothing. There is a little teaching and a new project to teach them some gymnastics, but no real resources.
Outside, Rafaa watched her boy, Abdullah, laughing at Fisheye's magic tricks. In English she told me his father was dead. "They cut off his head," she said. "Saddam cut off his head." It was in 1991, after the uprising, when Abdullah was a baby. She has brought the kids up alone since then.
One of the men outside wanted to talk about the British troops. I was curious, because in Baghdad they believe that the British troops are much better than the US ones, much more polite, fairer. "Noss oo noss," was his opinion: so-so. The Spanish and Japanese soldiers were good, he thought, in Samawa and elsewhere in the south. "The Americans," he made a brushing away gesture with his hands. "No. No good." He said he was glad Saddam was gone, but were things better now, he asked himself. Human rights were not respected and the soldiers still caused many problems.
Basra has thousands of displaced people living in camps. The bombing in 1991 destroyed countless houses. In the mid 1990s a movement formed to overthrow Saddam. The young men were arrested and killed, their homes burned in punishment. The latest bombing made still more people homeless. The biggest city outside Baghdad, Basra has also seen an influx from the smaller and poorer towns and cities in the south.
Abeer works in the logistics department at Save the Children. She used to work in the community participation programme but left because she believes that one of her superiors was misappropriating funds. Before that she was in the IDP [Internally Displaced People] team at Save the Children but the programme came to an end when its funding stopped. As with IDP's throughout the country, no one is responsible for them and noone has funding to look after them. There are moves to evict them from a lot of the squats and compounds where they're living without services but no real alternative housing on offer.
Like Samawa, Basra's so-called 'youth centre' is in fact a sports club for boys with a theatre for religious lectures. Two girls came in, hidden behind the abayas of mothers who work there as cleaners. When I sat down to take off my stilts, Abeer came to bring me a message. "There is a little girl there who was really happy to see you. She told me to tell you she loves you, but she was too shy to come and say it." In the end, though, Suha did come for a photo with me and a chat.
Abeer says life is better for women in Basra than elsewhere in the south. A bigger city, close to the border with Kuwait and to Iraq's only port, it has been more influenced by the people passing through and women are freer, safer to walk about, though she still couldn't smoke a narghila in public, and it's easier for them to find work. But still, since the war, she and her friends are more afraid to walk outside, more afraid of kidnapping, violence, robbery. Like everywhere, "security" is the first concern, the first word on every woman's lips.
Abeer is clever, funny, gorgeous, cheeky. She, her sister and another woman run an organisation called Women for Peace and Democracy. "I don't like the word democracy in the name but my sister insisted," Abeer explained. Her sister said you get more money for projects with the word 'democracy' in the title and it's true. Their funding so far has come from different sources including the CPA. They don't like it but don't have much choice.
They've been running computer classes, first for housewives and then for women in unskilled jobs with little education, to improve their prospects. Later they started English and literacy classes as well as providing clothes and abayas for poor women in rural areas, which helps them feel more able to go out. The classes were full immediately they were advertised. "You couldn't do that in Nasariya or Amara," Abeer said. "The women would want to go but they wouldn't be allowed and you would find the classroom empty every week." They do it quite quietly, but these women set the world on fire, Abeer and Rehab and Maha. And then it was over and we were driving back to Baghdad, the time in Basra far too short.