The park comes alive around midnight. In the distance on a bench two boys are hugging each other as if they were performing on a stage, they both clearly love the attention they are creating, hugging each other ever more wildly the more stares they get.
I am talking to a 24 year old Kurdish man who has a 22 year old Swedish wife ‘outside’ waiting for him, and, like Nazeem my Iraqi friend who is trying to join his wife and kids in Canada, this man cannot get to his wife in Sweden. Out of the blue the man picks up his Kurdish guitar and starts to serenade me…
Nazeem points to a brand new BMW as it drives-by, he tells me it is the same model that he drove in Iraq – such was the good life he had under Saddam. Nazeem is always well dressed.
He heads off to the shop to buy us all a beer. The three of us drink together listening to the hum of the accents – American, Australian, British, and Arabic. I wonder aloud how long the authorities will tolerate all this drinking in public in this Muslim country, someone says that they won’t stop it because it is mainly Westerners, but more and more I see Syrian’s also enjoying a late-night drink in the park. The nearby shops have started selling a dangerously strong beer 12% and 14% strength sending some kids reeling late into the night. But most evenings pass off without us even seeing a policeman never mind needing one.
To an outsider Syria feels a safe and sensible country, or perhaps there are invisible hands at work stopping people from going too far, I often wonder where the secret police are, are they watching us, or are they here among us? I am assured that ‘as long as you don’t plot or plan against the government you are free to do and say most things just like in any European country’.
The night dusty air breezes around us. The young boys leave holding hands and smiling at us, Nazeem is dreaming of a new life in Canada and of his old life long gone in old Iraq, and the Kurdish man continues singing his song about his Kurdish homeland whilst looking longingly into my eyes. It must be a bizarre and funny sight.
We’d gone round to Samir’s brothers home. Mahar was angry and worried. He hasn’t worked since closing his alcohol shop shortly after Iraq was liberated.
In New Iraq it is almost impossible to find alcohol. The shops are targeted by religious extremists, like the Mehdi – Army. Mahar tells me that 3 days ago they killed his neighbour sitting in his alcohol shop. They came in and shot nine bullets into his body. Mahar wipes his worried brow. It is hot and sticky, the electricity is not working again. “His blood is gone with the wind now.. Mr Sean.. he left two daughters and one son.”
Mahar goes into the backroom and comes out with 3 bottles of Spanish wine. “$5 to you Mr Sean… but believe I sell these at $15 each now.. since these killings alcohol has more than doubled.” Samir looks concerned. “This bloody country is going to be like Iran.. I tell you I’m counting the days and minutes for my papers to come through and I’m leaving here.”
Mahar looks sad. Samir is his closest brother. “You know 20 years ago Baghdad was paradise.. we would have never dreamed of going to America.. we had discos, bars, cabaret.” Now Mahar is unemployed, selling alcohol to friends from his back-room. Like many Iraqi’s who work in shops, hotels or drive taxis, Mahar has a degree. His two sons both have degrees, but no-one in Mahar’s family is working.
We buy 3 bottles of wine, 10 cans of beer and one bottle of vodka. Samir looks at Mahar.. “Stop selling alcohol.. it is dangerous.. these religious crazies will kill you.” Last week five Christian alcohol shops were blown up, many people were killed. The alcohol shops were left to burn, in the morning the gangs wrote ‘Shop To Let’ on the charred walls.
A beauty salon was blown up for selling ladies underwear. “You know, the Medhi Army are in control of Iraq now… they say we have an interim government but they are powerless. They are the thieves who returned to Iraq after Saddam, and now you see them giving jobs to their relatives. They are all in the hands of the Americans.. and what have they done for us? Nothing.. I tell you Mr Sean we were a lot better off under Saddam. If you were an honest man Saddam would not touch you. He used to protect the Christians..”