Thursday, June 09, 2005

DEFINING VICTORY DOWN. You've probably had your fill of happy-Iraqi stories featuring strewn flowers, smiling children with all their limbs intact, puppies, and almost potable water. So have I, but I was drawn to read the latest example in National Review by the oddly constructed front-page link: "Basrans can almost see the arrival of a better tomorrow."

The author, Steven Vincent, "a freelance investigative journalist and art critic," returns to Basra after a year's absence, and the first change he notices is this:
...I can no longer wander the streets, take a cab, or dine in restaurants for fear of being spotted as a foreigner: Kidnapping, by criminal gangs or terrorists, remains a lucrative business.
Well, this could be good news in a way -- our newly-democratized brothers are becoming entrepreneurial, following the Russian Model of post-liberation economic opportunity.

Now that Saddam's fabled rape rooms are gone, Basran women also enjoy a new status:
As the religious parties flex their muscles, their various sheikhs and imams exert a steady, if unlegislated, pressure on women to cover themselves in hejab. Layla once wore Western-style clothing and a scarf; now she has to add a thin black tunic to appease Basra’s guardians of female virtue. “If you don’t abide by their wishes, they will harass you on the street — or worse,” she complains.

“This has become an Iranian city,” contends Salaam Wendy, a Basra native who recently returned to his hometown for the first time since he fled to Canada in 1986. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you used to find bars, nightclubs, casinos — and no women wore hejab. Today, you can’t even find secular books or music CDs, the religious parties have such control of the city. This isn’t the place I remember.”
Possible upside here, too: unbridled capitalism living side-by-side with a revival of traditional values.

Many of the elected leaders -- though our guide is moved to "put 'elected' in quotes in deference to the cynicism of numerous Iraqis" -- are, to a great extent, "party hacks with zero concept of democracy." Plus, "electricity is still three hours on, three off, and sewage remains a nightmare." Unsurprisingly, given this, many of the Basrans to whom Vincent speaks seem less than satisfied, but Vincent hears more optimistic reports from members of the "more prosperous classes" and some elected -- excuse me, "elected" -- leaders. Also, the weather's really nice in Basra this time of year.

It's getting to the point where the Iraq mess -- or miracle, depending on your point of view -- is such a totem for politically-minded commentators that the actual state of its various districts seems absolutely irrelevant, even to the commentators themselves. Much of the country was blown to shit for specious reasons -- but one day it may be an economic powerhouse! Thus, in our age of endless spin, are the vagaries of life, the unpredictable shifts in the fortunes of the great and small, grist for anyone's mill, the product to be shaped into any sort of symbol one likes. Such products may be admired and even bought, but we should not forget that they are for decorative purposes only.

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