Desperately Seeking Solidarity
In her latest dispatch from the Iraqi capital, Jo Wilding discovers how the whole concept of solidarity has been driven off by fear and hunger in Iraq, and by complacency and recklessness in the UK.
24th November 2003
What would you do if there weren't any road laws? The lights still turn red and green but there's no one to stop you or punish you if you drive straight through.
No one stops at red lights, the idea would be ridiculous. People drive on whichever side of the road is convenient. At junctions all the drivers pile into the middle, pressing the horn and trying to either shove or shimmy through.
When you found you were going the wrong way you'd just reverse around the roundabout, drive backwards up the nearest exit till you could turn round and go the way you wanted, like my taxi driver earlier. The chaos is so all-encompassing that the road laws don't matter enough to bother enforcing.
Add to that a situation where people have, for thirty-five years, been encouraged, brutalised, into near-complete depoliticisation and tale telling. My housemate Raed told me how, during Saddam's rule, it was illegal to have a satellite dish. If your neighbour put up a dish and you reported it, your neighbour disappeared and you received money and praise. If you didn't report it, you'd disappear too. You couldn't be certain the dish wasn't a plant to see whether you were a loyal subject or not.
A journalist I met just before the war is now working for Al Jazeera. She said the new bureau chief who came in after the invasion spent his first two months under siege in his office as one staff member after another came in to make reports on his colleagues. This person said this, that person did that, this man told me the other, and so on. A lifetime of being expected to report on your co-workers' every move has ingrained the idea that, to survive, never mind to get on in a job, you have to be part of the thought police.
It's not surprising, in the circumstances, that it's hard to explain the concept of 'solidarity' to people in Iraq. There is an Arabic word for it but most of the population find it hard to comprehend. Even on a demonstration, even in trade unions, a lot of people look at you in bewilderment and ask why you would think of doing that.
A friend of Raed's came round to drink wine and put the world to rights. I'll call him Ahmed. The two of them and another friend used to sit for hours in the weeks before the war and talk about the country's future. Ahmed lived in a broom cupboard with a waterfall in the kitchen from the toilet upstairs which was leaking. He was on the run from the army and had been for seven years. Avoiding military service meant it was impossible to get a decent job, so he was always broke, living in a hovel without enough to eat, unable to register for the food ration because it would give away where he was.
In the early days of the war he was arrested for being a British agent because he was riding a bike and wearing a small rucksack. The suspicions were only confirmed when a book in English was found in said rucksack along with a radio; the kind you listen to, not the kind you talk on. He thought that was going to be the end of him but it seems the police knew the thing was nearly over and couldn't be bothered. It reminds me of a joke about how the dinosaurs became extinct as a result of existentialist doubt: "Rrrrroarrr," stomp stomp stomp. "Oh, what's the point?"
He was arrested by US soldiers a short way into the occupation for having a beard which, evidently, made him look like a fundamentalist or a terrorist, or something, so they pinned him to the ground and put a bag on his head.
As you might expect of someone who was living in poverty because he was wanted by the existing regime, he was all for the war if it was going to get rid of the people who were pursuing him. We talked about the demonstrations against Bush's visit to London. "You know," he said, "It would have been nice if people had been demonstrating against the tyrant while he was in power." And I thought he had a point.
What I have heard from almost every Iraqi, whether for the war or against, whether happy under occupation or not, is that the sanctions were a disaster for the people of Iraq. They strengthened Saddam because people were so nearly crushed to death by the struggle for food and medicine and shelter. Saddam was still building palaces, statues and elaborate mosques while the people were starving.
Ahmed has no time for the oft-repeated claim that the Oil For Food scheme was the biggest humanitarian intervention ever. "That was not humanitarian intervention. It was just a way of controlling Iraq and the oil." This, remember, is a man who was welcoming the invasion - anything, anything to get rid of Saddam. But he added, "If it weren't for the sanctions the regime would have fallen from inside."
For him there was no doubt of that. "It would have been nice if people were demonstrating against the sanctions."
And I thought, again, he had a point. Some people said, at the time, that sanctions were no more than Saddam deserved, apparently forgetting the other 23 million people in the country. Others argued that sanctions were the non-violent alternative to war, apparently oblivious to the fact that sanctions had directly caused enormous suffering and death as well as isolating an entire nation of people in a smallish space with a vicious dictator. Other people came out with equally ill-informed rubbish, including the magistrate who ruled that there was no evidence that the sanctions materially restricted the flow of humanitarian goods. No. Obviously not, if you didn't take your head out from under the table.
Raed wrote, in his final project for an architecture degree, that Iraq needed to learn a lesson in destruction. He quoted an exiled poet, at that time an 'unmentionable', a traitor to the old regime. To do that was a risk, which Ahmed was clearly proud of him for taking.
And I think he had a point too, but not just for Iraq. The campaign against Saddam and against British arms sales and funding to him was always small, though the information was out there (see Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, State Watch, Campaign Against Arms Trade and so on for information about current human rights abusing regimes). The campaign against the sanctions was never a mass movement of solidarity like that against the war.
We need to get out more. We need to pull down more statues, blockade more corporations, shout louder, more often and more consistently, demand an end to our governments' support for any leaders and governments which don't respect human rights. We need to learn a lesson in destruction of the mental constructs that say there's nothing we can do, take the risks, especially enough we're lucky enough that quoting poetry in our dissertations doesn't rank as a physical risk.
Then maybe we'll understand solidarity.