I am sicker than a dog and feel lousy with an annoying head cold, all the way from Orlando to JFK, Dubai and eventually Najaf, almost 24-hours later. Sitting, on the Dubai to Najaf flight, in the adjacent aisle, is an elderly Bohri guy sporting a flowing white beard; his wife and daughter in law sitting next to him. Next to me is the son and at the window sits his sullen-looking teenage daughter attired in a rather ugly lime-green chador covering half her henna streaked abundant hair. I smile at my neighbors to show them I am good mannered but the father is unimpressed. He frowns, instantly suspicious, and adjusts his daughter’s chador to cover the remaining exposed hair. The girl glares at her dad in ire and promptly restores the covering to the original spot. This ensues an animated chatter of recriminations in Bohri-Gujrati that is both annoying and comical. Had I been feeling better, I would have had a blast.
I am flying to Najaf less than 3 weeks after returning from my Afghanistan / India trip for a reason. Critical CAI compliance work beckons and 10,000 plus people drinking contaminated water in Nasiriyah are eager and impatient for the water well and sanitation plant promised by CAI donors to begin; I am to commission the project. In retrospect, I should have not taken this trip; the security situation in Iraq is dicey at best and my health is not optimal. The following two days in Najaf prove to be some of the more harrowing periods in my life, worthy of sharing.
Najaf airport has not changed, except its almost deserted, except for the damn annoying flies. My host, the imposing figure of Abdul Kareem, a welcome sight, is waiting for me; immigration and customs clearance is painless. He is a bearer of bad news.
Haji sahib, he addresses me by the title that makes me feel both ancient and holy, both fallacies, Nasiriyah had trouble last night. Ten shot dead. We’ll have to play it by ear tomorrow and may abort the trip if I am advised against it. Your intent is pure, so we should be good, insha’Allah. You pray.
I don’t believe him totally; all previous seemingly impossible situations have always worked out eventually and I remain confident we’ll go. This belief changes on the way to the Khoja guesthouse. Our way is blocked by mobs of filthy youths reveling around burning tires, billowing plumes of thick, black toxic smoke and sullying the already highly poisonous air. It takes us an hour more to navigate the side streets before making our way to the tranquil Haram of Imam Ali (a) and the guesthouse nearby. It always infuriates me that the area just outside the haram has an omnipotent stink of raw sewage and I complain, yet again, to Abdul Kareem. He shrugs his massive shoulders.
We are used to it, Haji sahib, it does not bother the Iraqis at all.
Well, it certainly does me! This is where Imam Ali (a) rests, surely, we should have more consideration and respect to his status and (supposed?) love for him. I spend some quality time with the Imam after early Najaf magreeb in winter, have dinner and fall into an uneasy jetlagged sporadic slumber.
The haram in the early fajr hours of a chilly day two is thinly attended. I ask Imam Ali (a) to bless my efforts and make it successful. We leave early but are instantly snarled by traffic due to rioters who have begun destroying their country early today. There are 5 of us, with water experts and others who Abdul Kareem needs to make the impossible possible in Iraq. To me, it makes little sense what these teenagers are doing. The others observing the inane scenes played out on the streets get into an animated discussion and argument and I listen in. Yes, it is reasonable to appreciate their frustrations about corruption in high places and the near-total failure of the ruling elite to tackle the massive problems the country faces. But they are the ones who recently voted this government in, no? The situation cannot change overnight, no? There has to be some form of administration, albeit inept, in place to govern, no? Else, there would be chaos and a certain civil war, no? The dilly-dallying by the ulema and their tacit agreement with the demands of the rioters cannot help control the situation, no? I have no answers and stay non-committal; I’m still feeling awful from flu symptoms and don’t have the energy to comment even if I wanted to – I don’t.
Instead of five hours, it takes us seven to reach Nasiriyah, our destination. There were terrible riots at the city center yesterday, with about 10 rioters shot dead by the police. Nasiriyah is a well-armed tribal city, and they resort to guns with better guns. The only thing they do not have is an air force. We avoid the main streets, but I still see the ugliness of the rioting in the blackened streets, some still blockaded by smoldering tires; what a mess. It is a good thing Abdul Kareem arranges for a beat-up van for this trip; a very wise move because some of the idiots still on the streets take to bashing it as we maneuver past them. I’ve been through more than my share of dicey situations in the past and this would not be so scary except for a mob mentality that can result in chilling, very dangerous results.
The water-well project abuts an orphanage refuge that houses about 270 orphans and the over 10,000 very poor and destitute Iraqis who drink high sodium, high lead-contaminated water; they simply cannot afford the pricey available purified water vended by companies. The orphans surround me and are full of banter about my clothes and questions about life in America; it is a delight to engage them and lose the worries of developing news from Najaf that Abdul Kareem relays to us – live firing. So we skirt the city and arrive at the haram late, but safe. Good thing we left Nasiriyah at the time we did. An hour late and the city was put into curfew after the worst rioting and fires that take the life of 27 people. I am in poor shape with worry and the flu. I skip dinner and take a mild sedative to put me to the zzzzs.
Day three dawns and I’m still hurting real bad, with so much sneezing and coughing, people in the bazaar leading to the haram hurriedly cross over to the other side to avoid my manic barking. I talk with a doctor friend overseas who recommends a strong antibiotic but the brand he counsels is not available in Najaf; I settle for a good alternative. I want to go and visit Imam Hussein et all in Karbala but I feel very weak. Also, Abdul Kareem is doubtful we’ll be allowed in since there is a cordon around the city and non-residents, possible rioters, are not allowed in – no exceptions. I cannot begin to justify not going to Karbala to pay my respects to my heroes; how will I ever face myself in the mirror. I must at least try. The antibiotics kick in and I feel a lot better; at least the fever’s broken. Abu Mohammed, the driver, Abdul Kareem and I speed towards Karbala and reach the first checkpoint in under an hour; the streets in Najaf are clear of rioters even though the streets are full of their filth of burnt tires. Abdul Kareem says there is a severe shortage of tires in all of Iraq and jokes that he would be a rich man if he could afford to import a few containers. But the joke is without mirth.
There is congestion and trouble at the checkpoint; no non-Karbala residents are allowed in; my heart sinks. Abdul Kareem is unfazed, however, convinced that the Shuhadaa (a) will not let our pure intent go to waste. Sure enough, the guard Abdul Kareem talks to gets a special okay for the American visiting for ziyaarat. With blood surging my veins in pleasure, we have a couple of hours to say salaams all over the shrines without the usual throngs of humanity. My health gets a boost.
Reaching Najaf, using the back roads again, we encounter chilling sounds in the air as we near the haram; continued firing from guns not too far away. The traffic is horrendous, people trying to get away from the line of fire. I feel like puking from the fear in the pit of my stomach at the constant sounds of gunfire. This is ominous for my return flight home via Dubai and NY tomorrow; Abdul Kareem tells me to pray real hard that the airport remains open. It does. After an hour at my Imam’s (a) side in contemplation early the next morning, we head to the airport through blackened streets and charred vehicles. I am way ahead of departure time and am home 24-hours later, woozy but safe.