Cover

EDGE OF THE ABYSS

From Baghdad, Alexandre Trudeau reports on Iraq’s bitter religious divide

March 31 2003
Cover

EDGE OF THE ABYSS

From Baghdad, Alexandre Trudeau reports on Iraq’s bitter religious divide

March 31 2003

EDGE OF THE ABYSS

From Baghdad, Alexandre Trudeau reports on Iraq’s bitter religious divide

Cover

ALEXANDRE (Sacha) Trudeau arrived in Baghdad in early March. The 29-year-old documentary filmmaker from Montreal, the second son of the late prime minister, was determined to tell the story of the Iraqi people. Unlike the majority of journalists, he avoided the major hotels, choosing instead a small, out-of-the-way place in order to prevent his famous name from becoming a distraction. Trudeau knows about war and the military. He served with the Canadian Forces before enrolling at McGill University, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Since then he has made documentaries about the civil war in Liberia and the aftermath of the bombing of Yugoslavia. In Baghdad he has come face-to-face with the religious divisions among Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims,

the Sunni Muslims and Christians. He filed this exclusive report to Maclean’s (some of the names have been changed to protect peoples’ identities), just hours before the first bombs fell.

“ARE YOU AFRAID of what is to come?” I ask the doctor. “I’m afraid of what comes after death, not of dying,” he answers. His eyes are kind and tired. He gently fondles his prayer beads as we talk. I met Dr. Aqbal a few nights before at a religious ceremony, and have stumbled onto him again while exploring his neighbourhood, an affluent quarter in Baghdad where many doctors, lawyers and government officials live. The owners of one house are receiving the men of the area to drink tea, listen to chants, pray

and feast. The neighbourhood professionals have put aside their suits and ties and donned robes. The music—rhythmic, plaintive and fierce—is calling them back to the desert. “We are chanting to help the souls of the brave reach paradise,” Aqbal tells me.

The doctor is a Sunni. His gentle manners remind me of how easily the usually gruff Arab demeanour can lighten up. I vow to seek him out again, and a few days later, find Aqbal at work in his clinic, where he treats arthritis and rheumatism. “This situation, this crisis, is a religious problem,” he tells me. “Since we Iraqi people have absolutely no control over this war and have no power to stop it, we can only entrust ourselves to God. This is the way with our lives, too.”

My best friend in Baghdad is Omar, also

a Sunni. He is a civil engineer by training, but, to make a living, he uses his private car as a taxi. Until recently, he refused to believe that war was coming, even though he went through all the motions of preparing his family home for its arrival. As I have got to know him, I have found out that his father, a wise, kindly man, is a well-known lawyer, and that his grandfather was one of the first lawyers in Iraq. Omar’s family has prospered, owning several villas around Baghdad. He loves the traditional Iraqi alcoholic drink, arak, and we have spent many long nights drinking and discussing his country and the war.

Over time, I have learned that he despises Saddam, because Omar is a dreamer and an idealist and loathes men, like the Iraqi dictator, who make political decisions out of a lust for power, not for the betterment of mankind. I ask him what is good about Saddam. “Nothing,” he responds immediately. I know that, whatever happens, Omar will always be true to his dreams and that I could always trust him.

Another man I have become friends with is Tariq, a Christian. “We were one million Christians a decade ago. Now we are 600,000,” he says. “Does Bush realize what he is going

to do to us with his war?” Most Christians accept Saddam because he has always protected them from Muslim fanaticism. Surrounded by Islam, they are extremely devout and take such things as Lent and chastity very seriously, although Iraqi Christians celebrate alcohol as one of the pillars of their freedom, while Muslim clerics discourage drinking.

By Baghdad standards, the Christians are rich and successful. Most of them, men and women, are university educated and are business people or professionals. They tend to make light of the situation here, but under the surface, they too are very tense—perhaps because they have much to lose.

I ask Tariq to introduce me to his peers, and he arranges a pleasant gathering at a trendy pizzeria in his neighbourhood. A dozen well-dressed and well-educated young people arrive. During the meal, I happen to mention the Koran and instantly, as if by reflex, all heads turn my way. Suddenly, all these good-natured young people are on the attack. They cannot forgive me for saying that I think the Koran is a book of beauty and wisdom.

They have spent their lives among Muslims, have studied with them, worked for them, employed them. But they have no place in their hearts for Islam, which has clearly been the cause of much grief for them. Everyone has family stories of persecution. “Do you know what they think of us Christians?” they argue. “Do you know what place they make for women?” shouts a chorus of pretty girls.

I protest that I have found much in the Koran inspiring; that it’s worth trying to understand it, especially here. It’s hopeless and I have, in fact, ruined the evening. Everyone takes their leave. “We are afraid,” says Tariq as he drives me home. “Without Saddam to stop them, they will be coming for us. And we will have to defend our families.” Maybe it takes fanatics to fight fanatics, I think.

Despite all the warm and open people that I meet, I begin to feel that this place, with its complex, ancient social fabric, is precariously suspended over a dark chasm. And into this chasm, the war will surely have it fall. Unfortunately, I too can clearly conjure in my mind the nightmarish vision of these same streets in the dark days

ahead. My friends Omar and Tariq might well be fighting for everything they have, their lives, their families. “I fear three things,” Omar tells me. “I fear the Americans, who could destroy me with their bombs. I fear Saddam, who won’t stop his tyranny until he is dead. And I fear the Iraqi people: the thieves and fanatics, that is, who are only waiting for their chance to steal and kill. Look at my wife and my son—

and then try and imagine how I feel.”

A cause of much fear is the untamed sprawl that is Saddam City, on the edge of Baghdad. It is a Shia ghetto, more than one million strong. The streets are dirty, dusty and potholed; little distinguishes one from another. The city seems to go on forever— the buildings are low and the colour of dried mud. Dirt roads lead off the main avenues. All women in Saddam City are

fully cloaked, many in black.

In previous years, Saddam cracked down on any open expression of Shia rites, but this year he has encouraged them. Perhaps even Saddam is resorting to appeasement in these troubled times. The Shia of Saddam City are the poor of Baghdad, and it’s probably their poverty more than their religion that makes them dangerous to the richer Sunni and Christians.

Iraq’s war between 1980 and 1988 against Iran’s strict Shia regime also increased the mistrust between Saddam and the Shia. Since then, there has been a sense of anticipation among many Shia for the moment when they will control Iraq. This may be the single greatest problem the Americans will face. If Iraq’s Christians and Sunni fear the impoverished Shia masses, then the mainly Christian invaders should not expect to be received warmly by them.

Now, as the storm is about to be unleashed over Baghdad, I’m increasingly alone. The cohort of journalists has dramatically thinned out, many uttering grave and dramatic warnings as they leave to those, like me, who are staying. I am wakened in the night by an IraqiCanadian friend who has no intention of staying. He phones me in a panic to lament that the last flights out of Baghdad are desperately overbooked and that he spent the afternoon looking for a way to make the overland trip to Jordan. A few cars were still willing to go, he says, but only ifyou’re willing to pay $800.

As the last foreigners leave, shops are closed and barricaded. Sandbags, bunkers and soldiers multiply. Gas stations have 100car lineups as people scramble to stockpile fuel. Jamal, a soccer coach and one of Omar’s neighbours, proudly gives me a guided tour of his house with all its preparations for the rough times ahead. “What are the problems that you expect?” I ask Jamal. “No water, no food, no telephone and no electricity,” he responds flatly.

Jamal has had a well dug in his yard. He has amassed piles of food in his shed, wired his house to two large truck batteries, and installed a 500-litre tank for gasoline. His two young daughters are sending an e-mail to thenuncle in Lebanon. I ask Jamal why he hasn’t gone to sit out the war there. He smiles. “I like Baghdad,” he says. “I can’t leave my friends. I can’t leave my city. I don’t know what is coming. I don’t know why it is coming. But I am happy and sad to be here.”