When Emirates Airline’s vehicle tries to drop me off at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Dubai, the drive-up is packed with other cars and gawkers. A couple in a Lamborghini is creating a huge tamasha, blocking traffic. No matter that the vehicle color is vomit green. No matter that the person driving the ‘sexy’ car is as fat as a cow and his companion looks emaciated with only her blotched Botox lip-job gone very wrong to show for any past character.
As I clear the lobby of the hotel, I have to walk past the vulgar display of wealth, of women trying to stretch very little they’ve worn over naked skin as men openly leer with lustful eyes. I breathe a sigh of relief after I am alone and feel safe in the elevator. Luxury hotels with too many gizmos give me heartburn. The room assigned to me has so many touchscreen icons it takes 30 minutes to figure out what is what. Time I could sleep instead. A light switch to the bathroom must be outside the bathroom, not on a console near the bed. Curtains should have cords to open and close them, not buttons on a confusing screen – separate for sheers, curtains, and drapes. Enough to make me doubt my MBA credentials.
I am so happy I’m flying out of this baffling city the next day. A short flight to crummy but efficient Baghdad airport and I’m out, breathing fire less than 20 minutes after landing; it’s 48C or 118F outside. It feels like I’m in a sauna, except this one has a breeze that singes the hair in my nose from breathing it. Good lord, it’s hot.
I’m in Iraq for 2 compliance-related CAI projects. Abdulkareem arrives and whisks me away to Najaf for a night. After a must-visit to the Imam’s (a) shrine, which is surprisingly crowded, Abdulkareem and I enjoy dinner at a barbecue joint in one of the lanes leading to the haram. It’s not the cleanest looking joint and the heat from all the cooking is oppressive, but the seekh-kababs are tender, moist, and finger-licking good. Other diners have to spoil it all by smoking incessantly. These smoking Iraqis are a supreme trail in my life.
We are up early the next day, visiting BCT (UK) and CAI-funded school in Al Kifl, an hour outside Najaf. This school was constructed about 6 years ago and we are now expanding it to add a computer lab, a library, and more bathrooms to it. There is a strong dust storm today so the sand in the upper levels is blocking some of the sun’s rays from warming the earth. It’s going to be cooler today. A cool 41C – 106F. The construction at Al-Kifl is going on fine and we’ll soon have a more modern school for the 200 odd poor students who study here.
Our next stop is Al Najm. It is a poor village about 90 minutes from Najaf, neglected and left to decay. CAI received a request, asking for everything from air conditioners to refrigerators and beds. The one request that caught my ear was for a school in ruins, Sayed Abdullah Almahdh Elementary School, and I was interested. Al Najm is a drab village with very little movement of people, obviously trying to avoid the heat. Plastic bags and bottles swirl about in the hot wind, even covering the date trees full of fruit with black sheets. Two stray dogs come to life as we park but stay away, howling in the air.
We inspect the school and it is a gut-wrenching experience; no child should be forced to study here. The classrooms are crumbling with the roofs leaking, and the floors are cracked and in shambles, but the most nauseating are the 2 toilets for 450 students attending this school; I suppress the urge to heave. It makes me sad. And angry. Since it is the peak of summer, the students are on holiday. I summon the headmaster.
I meet him at a Husseiniya under construction. It is a massive project, undertaken by a wealthy donor from outside Iraq. This is adjacent to an existing one next door, not as big or fancy. I want to ask why the donor would spend a colossal sum of money constructing a Husseiniya which will be used for about 60 days a year and not consider putting money in a school that may potentially be utilized 365 days, but I bite my tongue since I know the answer. The construction workers, all wearing filthy clothes break from work to regard us from the shade of the building. All of them sip tea and all of them light up afterward, blowing smoke up the merciless sun. I wonder if all Iraqi men are born clutching a cheap plastic cigarette lighter in one hand.
I ask the headmaster, an educated man, about the nasty condition of the school. He starts by cursing the Ministry of Education and then giving me a litany of complaints about his school. He is only one of two employees at the school who are qualified teachers and on the official payroll; the rest 12 are volunteers. He is overenthusiastic about promising me he’d maintain and keep the school in tip-top shape if CAI will renovate it. He then has the audacity of trying to light up in my presence but Abdulkareem puts a stop to the crime before it occurs. The headmaster looks at me peevishly, perhaps like one of his students he reprimands at school. I don’t care. If the people in this village were to quit smoking, they’d solve their many problems ably. And more.
I drive back to Najaf in a pensive mood. Iraq produces an average of 4.1 million barrels of oil a day. That’s a colossal $410,000,000 in revenue daily! It earns a mind-numbing $150 billion per year. Let’s half that for drilling costs and half that again for defense and security. And half it again for other social services. We are left with $20 billion in disposable income for the country. The country gets about 50 million tourists annually (foreign and local) to visit all the shrines, which contributes to the economy. Yet Baghdad airport is one of the crummiest I’ve traveled through, the streets between Najaf and Karbala choke with plastic garbage, the sewer stink leading to the shrine in Najaf is revolting and the entire country has an unkempt look about it. Yet it is foreign donors that must come and educate their kids. It is more than the apparent corruption and mismanagement that I decry, it is the brazen attitude of most Iraqis that is so disheartening. CAI will insha’Allah try and help the children of Al Najm; they did not choose their parents or leaders.
I go and visit the twin shrines of Karbala for blessings in the evening, mere 500 meters away from my hotel. The place is crowded with families making merry in the courtyard between the two shrines. And shamelessly puffing away. I complain about my frustrations to both my masters.
The airport in Baghdad has several layers of security so it is tiresome to be pulled off an airconditioned vehicle multiple times for a check when it is a furnace outside. The heat also creates havoc with body odor, especially for poor Iraqis who do not use protection. I breathe a huge sigh of relief as the Emirates Boeing 777-300 shudders against the hot winds and heads for an equally burning Dubai for a transit flight to Dar.