By Felicity Arbuthnot
When the United States and Britain blitzed Baghdad for four days in time for Christmas (‘Eid al Issa’ – Celebration of Jesus) Eid and Yom Kippur in December 1998, announced in front of his resplendent Christmas tree, by Lord Blair of Kut Al Amara (as dubbed by the Independent’s Robert Fisk, referring to the bloody and ignominious defeat of the British at Kut in Iraq in an earlier British debacle) Iraq’s Christian hierarchy cancelled Christmas. After another horror heaped after an eight year embargo – actually more akin to a draconian mediaeval siege – there was nothing to celebrate. The previous year an Iraqi Chaldean priest had written of the deprivation caused by the US-UK driven UN., in a country sitting on the second largest oil reserves on earth.
Christian schools had tried to give children some form of gift, but money was so short (all trading had virtually ceased in a country where seventy percent of almost everything was also imported) that little was available. At one school, the children were simply given a piece of the region’s flat bread. One child looked up at the birds swirling above and held hers up, a bird soared down and took it. Metaphors are sometimes redundant.
The joyous celebration of Eid Al Fitr (Celebration of Fast Breaking) is Islam’s ‘Christmas’ but without the overt commercialism (though preparations are every bit as planned and detailed.) Following the fasting month of Ramadan, when food is not taken after dawn or before sundown, Eid Al Fitr marks three joyously anticipated days of thanking God for granting self control to complete Ramadan, the ‘annual assertion of the spirit over the flesh’ and a time of forgiveness and amends.
Ramadan and Eid are marked by the sighting of the crescent (new) moon, thus beginnings often varying from country to country. The first day of Eid for many starts with a fast breaking of dates, then the first daylight breakfast for a month which is planned as a special treat. Prayers in Mosques and even sports stadia follow, ending with worshippers embracing those on either side, as also their family. It is incumbent to give alms (Zakat u Fitr) for the poor, typically two kilos of basic foods to be distributed to the less well off by the Mosque, though money is also given in lieu. This in response to the belief that the Prophet Mohammed instructed that all should be made: ‘..rich on this day.’ The wealthier will additionally sacrifice a lamb or sheep and distribute to the needy of the neighborhood. Zakat is also a tradition based on brotherhood and solidarity between peoples rather than social structures.
House decorating only starts at the new moon’s sighting and then excitement and anticipation sets in apace. Children have been bought top to toe new clothes and after prayers on the first day, a round of visits to friends and family begins, food and gifts taken and offered, with children being traditionally given small sums of money in new notes or coins. Leading up to the festival, soukhs, shops and malls are thronged with families buying foods, clothes, gifts, late in to the night.
Eid evening meals are family affairs and traditionally hosted in the house of the senior family members, followed by visits to streets alive with music, children’s’ games, fairs and fireworks: children have freedom to spend their pristine and shiny Eid money.
In Iraq, a real Eid was cancelled for most long before 1998. Not to visit with gifts, new clothes, families to offer hospitality was unthinkable. An unspoken agreement for most was to stay at home, unable to give, unable to receive with appropriate offerings, people hugged at Mosques and stadia, thanked Allah that they still had their strength of spirit and cut the joyous socializing. The US/UK UN driven embargo (1990-2003) killed not alone up to or exceeding one and a half million people, it killed normality: birthday parties, religious festivals and for many, even hope. The subsequent ‘liberation’ has added a minimum of a further nearly seven hundred thousand souls. Kathy Kelly, though, who founded Voices in the Wilderness, an inspiring US-Iraq solidarity organization told of a life changing Eid experience.
‘In 1991 at Eid al Fitr, I stood crying outside the Ameriyah Shelter’ (bombed by the US, incinerating at least four hundred souls inside, mainly women and children) ‘a woman across the road watched me and I stammered out: "I am American and I am so sorry", her small child ran across the road and put her hand into mine and the woman said: "Please, do not apologize, you are not your government." ‘ Thus ‘Voices’ was born.
But the voices of the world are needed this Eid. How will Iraqis celebrate in a country where the horrors of the invasion and occupation make the embargo seem benign? The slaughter in the Balkans of 1999 and ongoing pains is a forgotten war, what of them? How can Afghanistan celebrate, another Muslim country decimated in 2001,occupied, invaded, with another colonial puppet regime installed, whose dominant members have, as elsewhere, no doubt clung to the life insurance of their foreign passports. What of celebrations in prison camp Palestine, for the orphans whose families were blown to bits by Israeli missiles while picnicking, for the bereaved, for most. Where is even the money to make the special sweetmeats for the season, k’ak al-tamar?
In Lebanon, two people seemed to speak for many. In the village of Bint Jbeil, the UN estimate that twelve hundred of the fifteen hundred homes were destroyed in Israel’s month long decimation. ‘We are a wounded town’ said Abu Mohammed : ‘Ramadan has given us hope, but this year, there is so much sadness, so much.’ Umm Ali said simply: ‘In Ramadan (and Eid) our family usually visit every day, how can they visit us?’ There is no house.
In Iraq, even the fast breaking dates, synonymous with celebrations, are in short supply. The invaders have bulldozed swathes of the majestic royal palm groves, some a century old – dates are believed to have almost mystical properties – as the Israelis with Palestine’s staple treasure, olives. As Umm Ali and Abu Mohammed spoke, a rainbow appeared over Bint Jbeil, a believed a message from God. As this is written, on Eid’s eve, another appeared over London. The British have been forced out again from Al Amara’s capitol, down the road from Kut; ‘Crusaders’ on both sides of the Atlantic are barely hanging on by bleeding fingernails. Makes even an atheist cynic think.