Visits to Basra



This week I went into Basra to attend a meeting on changes to the CAP III program.  I got to see Z who I used to work with on the Gender program who has been recently married, to a man of her choice and a bunch of other MC employees I hadn’t seen in a long time.  In addtion, to the changes in the program, we recieved an update from the new Gender Program Manager about the direction of the program and it looks good. 

The sad news is our guesthouse attendent, the man who used to cook for us, died recently.  He was electrocuted during a power surge at his house.  He leaves behind a wife and five children.  We collected donations for his family to try and give them one month of his salary, because moving forward it will be very hard for them.  When the primary breadwinner dies, which happens a lot in Iraq, the wife usually doesn’t have the skills to support the family or earn a living so they are dependent on relatives.  This is a huge issue in Iraq because of the number of widows.  But sad that six years after the fall of Saddam, Iraqi’s still don’t have consistent safe electricity and/or safe drinking water.  The lack of the government’s ability to provide this with the help of the U.S. government is a point of contention. 

Since I have returned there has been no incoming direct fire (IDF) and reports say there hasn’t been any since I left.  New additions to the base include a giant PX, what’s interesting though is the shelves are low enough to can see everybody all the time and I wonder if that is regulation.  So when you are in a supermarket you can’t see everyone in the store because the aisles are so high, but in the PX there is a clear line of sight.  In addition to the PX there is a market where local Iraqi vendors sell their wares on Saturday and Sunday, it’s called the Oasis.  You can also have a camel ride.  The set up is actually quite nice, there are places to smoke Sheesha, to buy food, then the shops and a fountain in the middle of it all, but considering the water situation the fountain seems a bit much. Other than the new PX and the Oasis the base hasn’t changed much.  There are advertisements for a Burger King and Pizza Hut which are “Coming Soon.”  And there is going to be a larger beauty shop.  In addition, they have started putting up street signs, named after fallen soliders.  Not sure which street I live on yet. 

My second trip to Basra was with the Gender Program Manager, she was doing focus group discussions at the literacy centers for the women.  I went along as a notetaker.  We went to literacy center in Al Midaina (see map) and Al Deer, which is in the Al Qurna sub-district, both to the north of Basra city.  In the first center we spoke to eight women of varying ages the youngest 16 and the oldest was in her mid-thirties.  One woman was 22 and divorced with a seven-year old child.  When asked why they were attending classes, they said they wanted to learn to read and write to be able to help their children with homework and read the Qu’ran.  A couple said they were interested in getting jobs.  When asked what other activities they would like to see the women said sewing, which they always say and more advanced classes. 

Our second visit was to Al Deer in Al Qurna sub-district also north of Basra, we met in a woman’s home, it was also where the literacy classes took place.  Most of the women we met with in both centers said they had attended school, but didn’t learn anything.  The 16-year-old at the second visit was engaged to be married and she said she that when she attended school she didn’t like the teachers.  I think there is a lot of corporeal punishment that goes on in the schools.  When asked what other programs they would like to see, the women during the second visit wanted sewing classes and computer training for the literacy center and the girls in the village.  At the second house we sat on the floor on rugs and the women were older, late 30s and 40s, all were married, except the 16-year-old and all the women we spoke to that day wore the traditional abaya.  I were the modern abaya which is like a black bathrobe, but fancier.  The traditional abaya is worn over the hijab (head scarf) and it is almost like a cape that is attached near the forhead and they wrap it around themselves and sometimes even put part of it in their mouth when they are carrying something.

It is fascinating to speak to the women.  We asked if they could express their needs to their local leaders and the answer was no.  No woman can speak to a man she is not related too.  Some of them are also very shy around men.  So if they need something from their leaders they have to send a son, or their husband.  Sometimes it is difficult to get them to speak they are very polite and grateful for what we have provided and they don’t want to offend, so sometimes it is difficult to get information from them.  My colleage and I kept pondering about the sewing issue, why they always ask for sewing classes, I think it may be because they don’t know anything else, because of the lack of information they receive so sewing in the only thing they can think of that would help them make money. 

I love being around the women, they are very nice and I love learning about their lives, which are so different from my own.  One woman said that her husband is a double-amputee and she asked the local council for help, but none was forth-coming.  All the women said that during the election period they heard from a lot of canidates who promised them different things, but so far nothing has come of those promises.  I wish I could go out an visit with the beneficiaries every week, it is informative and very interesting, but it also is tiring, because it highlights how much work there is to be done. 

I spent the night at the guesthouse which is near our office in Basra City and came back to the base on Friday.  Normally when I ride into town I just have to wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt and a hijab, but when we went out to the centers I had to wear my abaya over that and there was no air condition, it was hot.  But it’s funny as much as I sweat dressed like that, the Iraqi women do not, not at least as far as I’ve seen.  On my way home, I was sitting in the back of the car at a stoplight and these two women completely veiled like black ghosts were engaged in a conversation and one woman was animatedly moving her hands.  I wonder what it would be like to have a conversation with someone in person, but not be able to see their face.  Then the grand hand gestures made sense.

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