x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

After Saddam was deposed, our rejoicing ended quickly

Despite the chaos that defines Iraq even a decade after the war, my father and I keep our hopes alive that one day things will change for the better.

As a child in Abu Dhabi, I was afraid of a monster.

He wasn't the type that lurked under the bed. He had a name, had a face and was the epitome of fear.

My parents called him "sahibna" or "our friend". They only whispered about him. I felt their fear.

Sahibna cut off the ears of people he did not like. He had spies at the front door of the Iraqi embassy, which was then on Khalifa Street. My parents would be terrified every time they had to renew their passports.

My mother, who still suffers a phobia about him, boasts that at age six I got frustrated one day and shouted "Stop calling him sahibna! I know who he is! It's Saddam!"

It has been 10 years since the US invaded Iraq, but I remember the days before and during the invasion like last week. That was when the Iraqi diaspora started to unravel.

Like many others, my family cheered on the US invasion. We even organised a swanky ballroom party to enter a new era of freedom. The women were decked out in their best ball gowns and the men looked smart with their bow-ties and suits. I would finally be able to go home and meet the extended family I knew only by phone and photo.

But not everyone was happy. Among those against the war, women started wearing black. One couple divorced because of politics, after 20 years of being married. When my Arab friends would sympathise and say, "I feel sorry for you Iraqis, you have become occupied like the Palestinians", I would cringe and say: "No! The Palestinians are occupied, but we are free from the dictator. For one, we have a government."

Throughout my childhood, I had met families afflicted by Saddam; people who had been deported to Iran, disabled by gas, raped, seen relatives killed. It was easy for me to justify the invasion.

To those who questioned why I consented to the deaths of so many Iraqis in an illegal war, I would use the view of the political philosopher Machiavelli: the ends justify the means. I completely ignored another point he made, that men are "fickle and greedy". Ten years later, that point has come to haunt me, and show me how naive and wrong I was.

Today Iraq has a new government, but human rights are still a low priority. I have visited Baghdad several times, and found people living like prisoners, questioned at checkpoints, forbidden to take photos. Executions are frequent; there were over 100 last year, Amnesty International has reported.

Violence, even when it is labelled as capital punishment, breeds more violence. It will take decades to undo the psychological abuse of Saddam's regime.

More worryingly, the US withdrawal last year has led to a new surge of bombings across Baghdad. This hits close to home: my father, an architect who came to Abu Dhabi in 1979, returned to Baghdad in 2004 to be part of the reconstruction. He said the dilapidated, war-stained city had "gone 20 years backwards from the time I left it in '79".

He came back for some years, but returned last year to manage a big project in central Baghdad.

He only rarely leaves the building site, but we call every time we hear of an attack or a bomb in the city. Often we hear of such blasts before he does - but each one worries us.

"Iraq has been reactionary for three decades, with no strategy, vision or execution," he says. "The new generation are simply not equipped to think of the future. They worry about today. That means all of us who have returned need to work harder and longer to train the youth."

Despite the chaos that still defines Iraq, he is quite optimistic that his project will lead to job creation, improve the private economy and encourage those tempted to violence to put down their weapons and improve security in the country.

For his sake, and mine, I have to believe he is right. All I can do is hope that the crisis ends, or that his project is completed quickly so he can return home.

Years ago, my father used to play a revolutionary song from the early 20th century. The first verse describes the Ottomans as a pomegranate tree that smothers the character reciting the piece. The second verse states the character's firm rejection of British rule. That old song, about coups, hopes and dreams, still resonates today.

 

halsayegh@thenational.ae