In Iraq, the Play Was the Thing

By Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a media analyst and a former reporter for The Daily Star of Lebanon (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 07/05/07):

IN 1982, our second-grade teacher at Baghdad’s Mansour school made the following announcement: “The year-end play is about our war with the Persian enemy. The top 20 students in class will play Iraqis; the bottom 20 will play Persians.”

This was at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, and during our first rehearsal the students assigned to play Persians — that is, Iranians — broke out in tears. Although many of the children were, like me, from Shiite families, they insisted that they were Iraqis first, that they loved their Sunni-led country and did not want to play the role of the enemy.

After some negotiations, the girls were spared and only the boys from the lower half were selected to play the roles of the “soldiers of Khomeini the hypocrite.” Their script was scrapped, and instead they were told simply to run across stage as the rest of us, playing the role of the Iraqi Army, mowed them down in battle.

But the play did not end when the curtain fell. Those of us from the Iraqi cast took to bragging and, in the tradition of schoolchildren everywhere, bullying the “Persians.” With tears in their eyes, they repeatedly had to beg the teacher to make us stop.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I called one of my classmates, Ayad, a Shiite who still lives in Iraq. I reminded him of the play, and of how he and I, the top two students in the class, got to play the roles of the Iraqi generals who would win the war against the Iranians. “It was the good old days,” he told me.

Ayad owns a hotel in the southern city of Karbala, home to two of Shiism’s most important shrines. His wife and two daughters wear veils. He believes that the violence in Iraq is a Sunni and American conspiracy against Shiites, and he argues that Iran is the best ally of Iraqi Shiites.

Ayad has two elder brothers. One was conscripted during the Iran-Iraq war and received medals for his courageous performance in battle. The other ran away when he was drafted and ended up living as a refugee in Iran. However, he was treated poorly there, living in poverty and under permanent suspicion, so after some years he fled to Beirut. After the Americans ousted Saddam Hussein, he returned to Iraq, and now works at Ayad’s hotel.

“We think America did a great thing by toppling Saddam,” Ayad told me, speaking for himself and his family. “But now they should hand us the country and leave.”

I asked him whether he fears that an American withdrawal might allow the Sunni insurgents to strike harder in Shiite areas. “We outnumber them,” he said. “And with the support of our Iranian brothers, we can take the Sunnis.”

“And then what?” I replied.

“Then the Shiites will rule Iraq.”

Ayad believes that there is no problem in establishing an Islamic government in Baghdad styled after that of the Iranian Republic. The Sunnis, he said, have “oppressed us since the days of the Prophet, and now it is our chance to hit back and rule.”

According to Ayad, a Shiite takeover in Iraq would set a good model for the Shiites of Lebanon, where they number about a third of the population, and Bahrain, where they are a majority.

“Perhaps the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia will act too, rid themselves of the Sunni oppression against them, and rule or at least separate themselves from Riyadh and create their own state,” my friend argued.

It is exactly this possibility that has made the Sunni Arab regimes fear a Shiite regional revolt and moved some to support the Sunni insurgency in Iraq or at least to voice their resentment of the Iraqi Shiite government, which is seen as being biased against Iraqi Sunnis. “But we are Iraqis,” I told Ayad. “We are Arabs. We have our cultural differences with the Persians. We don’t even speak the same language.”

Ayad insisted otherwise: “When we fought the Persians during the 1980s, we were wrong. We’re Shiites before being Iraqis. Sunnis invented national identity to rule us.”

At this point, I understood that it was pointless to argue further. When the Baathist regime collapsed, I initially felt that there was a good chance for national unity, that Sunnis and Shiites would band together in the absence of the dictator who had played them against each other. Talking to Ayad, I realized how wrong I had been.

To change the subject, I asked Ayad about his business. He told me he had just erected flags on top of the entrance to his hotel. He chose the flags of Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain. When I asked why he chose the flags of these four nations, he said: “These are the countries where Shiites come from to do their pilgrimage in Karbala,” he said. “It is good for business.”