Iraqi City Of Basra Revives After A Long Nightmare
In Iraq, improved security is slowly restoring life to the sprawling southern river port of Basra. Backed by American air power, Iraqi government forces regained control of the city last March, breaking the grip of Islamist gangs that had dominated Basra for years.
Now, Basrawis are rediscovering the pleasures and the sense of possibility that had made their city famous ever since it was the home port of Sinbad the Sailor.
Iraq's biggest southern city shares some of the attributes of New Orleans. Like the Big Easy, Basra is a river city, located at the point where Iraq's two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, converge and become the Shatt-al-Arab, the waterway that flows into the Persian Gulf. Like New Orleans, Basra is a commercial center, noted for its good food, its music and its easygoing approach to life.
Hatim al-Bachary is an entrepreneur who is trying to revive Basra's joie de vivre. He's so proud of his new amusement park that he calls it "Omens of al-Bachary," a sign of a good future for his prominent family and his city. He gestures broadly — a big man who stands out among the casual crowds in his silky suit, his red tie and matching pocket square.
"I created a place for the Basrawi family," he says, "where they could sit down and start to remove the old days of sadness, killing, messing around." The old days that Bachary is talking about were only nine months ago, the time when Basra was controlled by extremists so cruel that they would kill a pretty girl for wearing lipstick. The music that fills Bachary's little park would have drawn a mortar attack.
"The Iraqis, they like the music," Bachary says, "so they are enjoying and they are happy and you could see them dancing, and this is something new."
Hundreds of people fill the park on a Thursday evening, the start of the Muslim weekend, listening to a local pop band and watching it on Bachary's jumbo TV screen. Actually, only young men and little children are dancing. Young women sit sedately with their families.
Bachary's park even includes a little zoo, with ducks, fancy chickens and a couple of monkeys. "We made it for kids," he says, "because our kids, for a long time, have not seen animals."
Around midnight, four young men sit near the exit, sharing a fragrant water pipe. They're off from work at Iraq's Southern Oil Co. and they're here to be seen, tight shirts open at the chest and hair sculpted with gel. It's a look that would have gotten them killed just a short time ago.
"We used to see dead bodies dumped by the road all the time," says one young man. "It was horrible. You could see why they were killed. They'd have long hair or trendy clothes."
The young men say they thank Bachary for giving them a place to relax. He beams.
Although Bachary says he built his amusement park for pleasure, he has bigger ideas — a 30-story hotel and other projects he says will create thousands of jobs for young men like these. As a hub for Iraq's largest oil fields, Basra could have the financial clout to make that happen.
Bachary has political ambitions, too, and says he would like, one day, to be Iraq's president. Even in today's Iraq, that can be a dangerous ambition, but no more dangerous, he says, than trying to build an amusement part in the face of extremist opposition.
"It happens many times that I got threatened," he says with a laugh, "and three times they tried to kill me ... but that would never stop me."
Some in Basra recall that Bachary drove around the city in an expensive SUV, without bodyguards, and yet he survived. It's something to wonder about, they say, because no one could do that without protection from someone powerful.
Security in Basra is the business of police Col. Nouri Jaffar Fayadh. He lights another in a long chain of cigarettes as he listens to reports from his patrols. He has more than 40 of them, cruising the city through the night. At the moment, there is nothing more serious to report than a purse-snatcher on a bicycle.
Fayadh says that before the security forces moved in in March, Basra was like a wilderness, where the weak were eaten by the strong. He says his police were outgunned by thugs who got their weapons and training from abroad, which, in this border city, means Iran.
Once the militias were beaten, the colonel says, the police discovered that most of the fighters were common criminals — even the ones who haq posed as religious extremists. He says many were found with drugs and stolen goods. The wife of one Muslim cleric, he says, turned him in because she was sick of his drinking and womanizing.
Basra's centuries-old reputation as a cultural and artistic center grew out of its coffeehouses and salons, but today it is reviving at Basra University. Kholod Jabar Ubaid is a graduate student at the College of Fine Arts. She is also an actress who says she couldn't work because the militias banned any kind of theater.
Now, she says, she recently played a role in a local television series. Ubaid says in the bad days, she and other women were forced to wear head scarves and abayas, the billowing garments that cover women in black from head to foot. "They even claimed that our socks weren't thick enough, because a little skin showed through," she says.
Today, most young women on the campus still wear head scarves, but those scarves are bright pastels that sparkle with sequins. Young men and women walk together and sit together in the cafes, and play what used to be forbidden pop songs on their cell phones.
A Sinister Reminder
On the cell phone of the police colonel is something far more sinister. As Fayadh talks about the dangers his police officers faced during the reign of terror, he shows a gruesome video on the cell phone screen. It's the corpse of a young man in the Basra morgue.
"See the marks of torture on his back?" the colonel asks. "They even tore out his fingernails because he wouldn't tell them where I was."
The murdered man was Fayadh's son-in-law, he says, and while he was at the morgue to claim the body, he received a call on his cell phone from a militia gangster who said, "Are you happy now? We hope you're next."
Fayadh puts the cell phone aside and lights another cigarette. He says he keeps the memory of his son-in-law in his heart. The only reason he keeps the video on his cell phone is so he can remind other people how bad things were. He knows his ancient, indolent, pleasure-loving city would like nothing better than to forget.
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