The Trouble with Weekends

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.