The Trouble with Weekends

When I left on Feb. 2, Iraqis observed their own weekend: half a day off on Thursday and off on Friday, the Islamic holy day. Since I’ve returned, the Allawi government has proposed Friday and Saturday as the days off… Which has prompted charges of a Jewish plot against Iraqis.

BAGHDAD — Iraq is a funny place sometimes, not the least because of its people. For instance, they can be warm, funny and generous. And yet, get a group of, say, 10 men together, and they soon fall to arguing about the littlest thing. Hell, I’ve seen them argue even when they agree with one another. And I’ve seen a small group of men turn into a lynch mob like a light switch had been flipped.

But this is not a “look at the wacky Iraqis” post. This is a post about the hair-trigger temper of a populace under the twin pressures of occupation and random horrible violence. This post is about a people who, prior to the 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent sanctions, were warmer, more hospitable and more generous than they are now. And while Iraqis have always been suspicious of outsiders, they are now positively paranoid. Dangerously so.

The latest outrage to hit Iraq is the revised plan for the weekend. When I left on Feb. 2, Iraqis observed their own weekend: half a day off on Thursday and a full day off on Friday, the Islamic holy day. This was a little inconvenient for westerners working here, since that meant we started work on a Saturday while our editors were taking these two days off. The only real overlap in the Iraqi workweek and the rest of the world’s was Monday through Wednesday and that dratted half-day on Thursday.

Well, three weeks ago, the Iraqi interim government decreed that the weekend would henceforth be two full days: Friday and Saturday. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. It means government workers won’t be making the hazardous trip to and from work quite as often, and it will allow Iraqis to interact with the rest of the world four out of five business days. But college students, many of them belonging to organizations professing loyalty to populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are outraged. They’re demonstrating on university campuses all over Iraq denouncing Saturday-as-holiday as a “Zionist conspiracy.” Why? Because Saturday is the Jewish sabbath, and Jews are, well, the bad guys in Iraq. One of my staff here at the TIME house is furious with the idea of taking Saturday off, saying, “The Jews occupy Iraq and they want to take their day off.” (He also believes the Iranians occupy Iraq because of the Sistani coalition’s victory in the Jan. 30 elections. He’s Sunni.)

At any rate, it now appears the Allawi government will back down and make Thursday and Friday the “new” weekend, giving the Iraqis only three workdays in common with most of the rest of the world. But hell, that’s OK. I’m a freelancer. I’m all in favor of setting your own schedule. [UPDATE: I couldn’t find any independent confirmation on this, so I’m cutting it.]

On the surface this is silly. And some could point to this as just another example of the paranoid mindset of many young Iraqis. But there’s a reason for this mindset: For years, Iraqis have had to eat and breath conspiracy theories because so often there were conspiracies to contend with. (You think totalitarian states operate with transparency?) And the damage of the United Nations sanctions over 12 years hardened Iraqis’ attitudes toward the world, causing them to think, not unreasonably, that the world was out to get them. A people who already suspicious of outsiders because of their Bedouin/tribal heritage came to hate foreigners because the cause of many of their problems were foreigners meddling in Iraq. The list is long: The Americans who betrayed them in 1991, the Security Council that abandoned them in the years that followed, The Americans in 2003 to the present, and now the widespread belief that Syria and Jordan (among the Shi’ites) and Iran (among the Sunnis) are further meddling behind the scenes to destroy Iraq by supporting either “terrorists” or Persian cats paws.

It’s not a coincidence that Iraq currently has tense relations with all three countries in some form or another. The Kurds’ prickly relations with Iran and Turkey aren’t helping matters either. Until the Iraqis are able to stand up to their neighbors, who really are meddling in many disreputable ways, they’ll never be able to dispel their distrust of the outside world, workweeks will remain uncoordinated and the Jews will remain perpetrators of dark plots to undermine Iraq and Islam. Until the people’s confidence returns, regardless of who runs this place, you’re going to have a country that’s not ready to play well with others.

Back in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — Yesterday was an uneventful arrival day, spent meeting with the staff, saying hello and enjoying the labors of our new chef (who can make a mean lasagna, oddly enough)—until the insurgents mortared us.

BAGHDAD — Yesterday was an uneventful arrival day, spent meeting with the staff, saying hello and enjoying the labors of our new chef (who can make a mean lasagna, oddly enough.) All was well. Until 9 p.m. or so.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three loud explosions, close ones, split the quiet of the night. All the journalists in the house — three of us — ran outside to see a white plume of smoke rising close by in the north. One of our guards told us another explosion happened behind a building to the west. And the third dropped a little to the left of that one. In short, three mortars or rockets hit close to the perimeter of our compound. By and large they hit empty buildings, and no one was hurt, but it was disconcerting.

We all piled into a single car with cameras and guns to look for the damage. Not the smartest of strategies, because as it turned out, everyone of us had forgotten phones, press IDs and other necessary items for traveling around Baghdad and interacting with police. The idea to head out was our photographer’s, who is so bored stuck here in Baghdad he’ll go chasing ineffectual mortar attacks. After about 20 minutes of cruising the streets and getting nervous that the cops were not really cops, we decided to head back and we made it to the house without incident.

A real danger in Baghdad, and one which is has apparently gotten worse, is the fake checkpoint scheme. Insurgents and/or bandits will set up a checkpoint while wearing stolen cop uniforms. Once they see you’re a westerner, they’ll rob you, shoot you, kidnap you or attempt some other ghastly action against you. The way to stay “safe” in Baghdad is to Trust No One.

Our guards all joked that it was the insurgents’ welcome for me back to Baghdad. It had been quiet for two weeks until I showed up, they said. And then they laughed. Such a nice a wake-up call. Car bombs in Beirut seem almost quaint compared to this place, and I’d forgotten how casually violent it is here.

But it’s good to see everyone again. All our staff were all glad to see me and I returned the sentiment. It’s amazing that these guys continue to put their lives on the line to work for us and help us, and I just can’t believe it’s only for the money. We pay them well, but not that well. There’s a real affection among these guys for us.

Anyway, that’s the latest from Baghdad this morning. No real news to speak of, just what’s happening around our home.

On a somewhat related note, my latest article for TIME is online and available.

Background on Lebanon

Juan Cole has an excellent summary of the background on Lebanon with this column. I sometimes take issue with his take in Iraq — more from his tone than anything else, really — but Juan knows his stuff on Lebanon having lived there through some of the 1975-1990 civil war(s).

NEW YORK — Juan Cole has an excellent summary of the background on Lebanon with “this column.”:http://www.juancole.com/2005/03/lebanon-realignment-and-syria-it-is.html I sometimes take issue with his take in Iraq — more from his tone than anything else, really — but Juan knows his stuff on Lebanon having lived there through some of the 1975-1990 civil war(s). He argues, convincingly, that Bush’s influence in Lebanon is marginal, at best, which jives with my sources who say Bush is not to be thanked for this. (I’m reminded of the credit his father received for ending the Cold War. History, it seems, can be made just by showing up on time.)
As to the question of who will take power, what happens next, that’s a good question and I wish I had the answer. Hezbollah might cause trouble, as then the group will be severely weakened with the departure of one of its main patrons. The pro-Syrian forces might be moved toward violence; this isn’t Ukraine, despite the similarities. It’s a brutal neighborhood and the Syrian regime might feel threatened enough to not go quietly. (It makes a great deal of money off of Beirut’s port business, for example.)
What happens in the coming days and weeks will be most interesting. Washington’s challenge is to ride the coming whirlwind effectively.

Lebanese Daydreams

NEW YORK—I can’t tell you how much it kills me to be on vacation right now, with Lebanon going the way it is, but it’s thrilling to watch. I don’t have anything constructive to add except mabrouk to the Lebanese people and please keep on doing what you’re doing.

NEW YORK—I can’t tell you how much it kills me to be on vacation right now, with Lebanon going the way it is, but it’s thrilling to watch. I don’t have anything constructive to add except mabrouk to the Lebanese people and please keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s high time you did this and the world is pulling for you. It’s a shame that Hariri had to die for it to come about, but my friends in Beirut are energized and ready to work for this. Go for it.