The Ministry of Youth & Sport in Baghdad organised three, all-expenses paid, programmes this month in which scores of young Arabs and Iraqi expatriates participated in. One programme was for non-Iraqi Arab youth from across the Middle East & North Africa, the other for budding Iraqi footballers, and the third – the subject of this post – a weeklong trip for Iraqi expatriates.
The set agenda only gave us a vague idea of where we would go as the actual plans changed every few hours. Several items were added on at the very last minute and others were cancelled altogether. I don’t know if this was for security reasons or simply down to mismanagement – but probably both. The lesson I learned was to never plan anything individually when the Iraqi government is involved in planning.
From the onset, it wasn’t very clear what the purpose of this trip was besides an opportunity to network with fellow Iraqis. The agenda was sent just hours before our flight and I couldn’t help but notice a sectarian twist to the entire programme. My disappointment sank in further at the airport when it dawned on me that the group from the UK, with no exceptions, were all Shia.
In some respects, it’s nice that one can talk about sectarianism in Iraq without mentioning any casualties or explosions but it is still a shame that we still can’t seem to go beyond sectarianism in many respects. It made me wonder whether a similar trip organised by a Sunni-led ministry would have invited only Sunnis too.
There could be a less sinister explanation for the sectarian make-up of the UK youth. It wasn’t clear how and why people were invited. The invites seem to have been based on the recommendations of a small group so the end result probably has more to do with wasta than sectarianism – but even if it was based on connections the fact that we ended up with who we did may itself have subtle sectarian undertones. Back to square one?
As for the agenda: Kadhimiya, Najaf, two nights in Kerbala, PM Maliki, Youth & Sport Minister Jasim Jafar, parliamentarian Walid al-Hilli, Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi, Sistani’s representative Abdul Mehdi al-Kerbalai, Babil Governor Mohammed al-Masoudi, a village Imam Ali visited somewhere in the desert… you get the picture.
That’s not to say we didn’t go to ‘neutral’ places. There were plenty of exciting outings that included a theatrical play, a musical, Baghdad University, the National Museum, a performance by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, the ancient city of Babylon, Saddam’s Palace & Ukhaidhir Fort.
Essentially, the ministry planned a $400,000 public relations stunt. It wasn’t about trying to encourage Iraqi youth to return to their homeland to help rebuild the country. It was about improving the image of Iraq outside the country and showing that the Ministry of Youth & Sport was actually doing some work.
At the ‘icebreaker’ (and I use this term loosely) session, an official said that the reality on the ground was not being reflected in media coverage of Iraq and that he hoped this could be changed. We would change that.
It soon became obvious that the ambitions of some of those participating clashed with the ambitions of those organising. We sort of just learnt to coexist and make the best of a rare opportunity to visit places and people we wouldn’t normally get a chance to see and meet.
I say ‘coexist’ but there were at least two occasions when a polite exchange turned into a not-so-polite argument about why we were being herded like sheep under very strict security conditions. Needless to say, our safety was their most important concern considering that any little mishap would badly affect the PR side of things.
Unfortunately keeping quiet, calm and collected is a sign of weakness in Iraq. The minute you raise your voice or display some sort of aggression you start earning respect.
The security lockdown didn’t stop some from seeing the real Iraq – away from the guns and without the police sirens. For me at least, this was perhaps one of the strangest aspects of the entire trip. The government put us in a security bubble and took us to fascinating places to see – and report – that Iraq was normal. But some of us went out to Baghdad proper, stayed out past midnight in coffee shops in Karada or had breakfast in Shorja, and saw for ourselves that things had in fact improved.
The first night out in Baghdad we were slightly nervous. After a while, however, we got used to it and no longer tried to hide the fact that we live outside the country – ransom money increases exponentially as distance from Iraq increases. We had come to accept the fact that we may as well have had signs posted on our foreheads saying we are from outside. The way we talk, the way we dress, even the way we walk… it was hopeless.
All in all, everyone got something out of this trip. The organisers got the sound bites, photo ops and panning shots they were looking for. The participants got to meet each other. Throw in free food and a stay in one of Baghdad’s best hotels, and everyone wins.