A Vacation in Basra

February 2005. Violence rages following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the southern port city of Basra is dominated by the militants of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The British, who are stationed in Basra, are doing little to stem the chaos. Mariusz Zawadzki, a reporter for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, takes a break from reporting on the chaos in Baghdad to travel to Basra—alone.

Attempting to drive to Basra—which is about five hundred kilometers from Baghdad—would of course be attempting suicide. The airport down there has been turned into a Royal Air Force base and closed to civilian traffic since the war, but in February 2005 an organization called Air Serv, which transports aid workers to inaccessible corners of the world, is landing its planes there.

As it happens I have forged papers saying I am an aid worker, although strictly speaking they aren’t forged at all—it’s only that what they say is untrue. Just in case, before leaving for Iraq, I requested them in Warsaw from the office of a certain humanitarian organization, which I will not name here.

And so here I am, flying in a cozy little Air Serv propeller plane on vacation to Basra. Of the twelve seats, half are empty, so I don’t have any pangs of conscience about taking the place of a real aid worker. The other passengers are imposters themselves anyway. Muscular, powerfully built, with tattoos and handguns—not what relief workers look like. More like some of the mercenaries who have decamped to Iraq en masse from various countries around the world, mainly South Africa and the United States, to make a small fortune working as security guards. I ask my nearest neighbor what relief mission he’s traveling to Basra with, but he ignores me and looks away.

The sky is clear. Through the plane window you can see the oil fields around Basra—they look like dozens of bonfires that someone has lit in the middle of the desert. For now it seems like this vacation's going to be great. We’re just about to land in the better, British part of Iraq.

Someone is waiting at the airport for every one of the fake relief workers except me. Not having any better ideas, I ask some Iraqi policemen—they are hanging around in front of the exit from the RAF base—if any of them could take me into the city. One of them is about to finish his shift, and he agrees to take me for fifty dollars. I will pay in advance. The policeman changes into civilian clothes and we’re off. It’s about fifteen kilometers from the airport to the city. After a few minutes the policeman stops the car and says with a frightened air,

“Mister, give me more fifty dollars. Danger Basra. Very danger.”

What can I do? I give the crook another fifty.

Another few kilometers—and the policeman stops the car and puts on his song and dance again.

“Mister, give me more fifty dollars. Jaish al-Mahdi kill me.”

Jaish al-Mahdi is Arabic for the Mahdi Army. I tell him angrily:

“Jaish al-Mahdi no kill Shia people. Jaish al-Mahdi kill Americans.”

“No, Mister! Jaish al-Mahdi kill all in Basra. Give me more fifty dollars . . .”

And he opens the door of the car, a clear signal that I should pay up, or get out. I pay him, but I swear to myself that this is the last fifty. The flight from Baghdad cost 150 dollars. This scammer has already cost as much—and a policeman no less!

I ask him about a hotel.

“No hotel, Mister. Danger Basra. Very, very danger.”

I tell him to go to the nearest British base. I’ll question an interpreter there, because I'm making no progress with this guy.

We stop a few dozen meters outside the base. I walk toward the large iron gate. Someone on a loudspeaker orders me to stop, take off my jacket and turn around a few times. The Americans in Baghdad never played games like this.

I knock at the gate. It barely opens as some soldier, probably a Scot based on his accent, pokes his head out. He asks who I am and why I’m there. I say I’m a journalist from Poland and I’m looking for an interpreter. Surely there’s an interpreter at the base. He closes the gate and few minutes later it opens again, but only enough for a person to squeeze out.

The interpreter, a man of about fifty, is upset. I ask him for a safe hotel. He says none of them are safe, but he gives me a name. I ask him to write it down for me in Arabic on a piece of paper. I’ll show it to the scammer waiting for me in the car.

“I can’t do that, my friend, if the Islamic militias find out I’ve helped you I’ll get killed for sure.”

“What militias? Anyway, man, who’s going to recognize you by your handwriting?”

“Various militias. Here in Basra we have dozens of militias. The Brigades of Wrath, God’s Vengeance, the al-Fadhila Party, the Divine Martyrs’ Brigade, the Badr Brigades and so on. But the worst is Sheikh Sattar and his Mahdi Army. If Sheikh Sattar finds out I helped you, I’m a dead man.”

“What’s the hotel called?”

“Qasr al-Sultan. The driver will know it. It’s a big hotel. But if you’re going to be driving around without bodyguards then it won’t be long before I see you on TV, my friend. As a hostage. Excuse me, I have to go. Good-bye.”

“Hang on, man!”

But he doesn’t wait. He raps at the gate. The Scotsman opens it, lets the interpreter in and immediately makes to close it. I ask if I can spend the night at the base.

“Sorry. This is a military compound, not a hotel.”

He shuts the gate.

I return to my scammer. Luckily he knows where the Qasr al-Sultan is. We drive through downtown Basra. As in Iran, women walk the streets in black chadors. There’s not a single British soldier, but an awful lot of Iraqi police officers. They drive around, seven of them at a time in open-topped Jeeps: two in the cab and five in the back with guns.

The Hotel Qasr al-Sultan is a long building with semicircular balconies sticking out of the sides. It must have more than a hundred rooms. At reception they tell me that there is no one else in the hotel except for one guest, a businessman from Lebanon. I get a room on the second floor, next to him.

There is no light in the hotel right now. The lights come on every afternoon between four and six. They have no guests, so it’s not worth it to them to invest in a generator.

I ask the receptionist if he knows an interpreter. He promises to find someone for me. I didn’t bring Tahsin from Baghdad, because that wouldn’t have made any sense. An interpreter in Iraq is above all a guide: they know which neighborhoods you can go to, whom to talk to, and whom to run away from. They only know what they’re doing in the place where they live. In Basra Tahsin would be lost and useless.

I sit idly in my room waiting for the electricity and water to come on, when someone knocks at the door. It’s the porter. He says that there are two gentlemen waiting downstairs who would like to speak with me.

The two men invite me to a table in the hotel restaurant, which is closed. They speak in English. They are supposedly from the security service, and they show me their badges. They examine my passport, stamps, and visas from various countries and then my press pass. They ask a lot of questions. And which paper are you from? Does it have a Web site? What were you doing earlier in Iraq? Where did you stay? Do you have friends in Baghdad? Shiite or Sunni? What are their names?

Finally it seems like they’re starting to believe I am who I say I am.

“What gave you the idea to come here alone? Don’t you understand Basra is a very dangerous city?”

“Why?”

“We have some problems here with religious militias. I advise you to be careful, people are often kidnapped and held ransom.”

“And what do the British do about it?”

“The British? There are no British here, ha ha ha. Good-bye.”

At six o’clock on the dot, right on schedule, the lights go out. The porter brings a candle and matches to my room.

In the morning Ziyad, the new interpreter the receptionist has tracked down for me, is waiting in the lobby. He’s thirty years old. He speaks English well because he spent a year working for the British army, but during the second Mahdi Army uprising in August 2004 militants threatened to kill him. He took the hint.

“You don’t mess with Sheikh Sattar’s thugs! Luckily they’re at least honest enough that they’ll warn you first. They’ll give you a chance to reform. I took the opportunity. I ditched my job at the base and that’s why I’m still alive . . . ”

I ask him to tell me about the situation in the city.

“There are around a dozen different Shiite parties here. Each party has its own militia and each militia fights against the other militias for influence. The militias kidnap rich people right off the street and hold them for ransom. They smuggle weapons from Iran, via the Shatt al-Arab river. They run protection rackets . . . mostly protection from themselves. But they also act as real, radical religious militias. They bring in religious order. They force all the women to wear chadors, they beat women who don’t cover their hair. Three weeks ago a teacher was killed because she told the police that the Mahdi Army had beaten up one of her schoolgirls. She made a big mistake: there are a lot of Mahdi Army members in the police. They also killed a woman who interpreted for the English, for supposedly being a harlot. The Mahdi Army murdered a few Christians who had liquor stores here [Islam forbids alcohol].”

“And the British?”

“They sit holed up in their bases and don’t give a fuck.”

“Anything else interesting?”

“There are also a lot of Iranian spies here. Iran finances a few of our militias. The Persian Gulf is rife with pirates. If you like, I can get you an appointment for tomorrow with my cousin Muhammad, who’s captain of a big ship. They attacked it recently.”

“Great. And can you get me an appointment with Sheikh Sattar?”

“Ha ha ha. Very funny. You can probably go see him on your own. Sheikh Sattar is the most important person in the city. He’s like a prophet or a king here. Sometimes he receives ordinary people to hear their problems. They prefer appealing to him rather than going to the police because they know that if anyone can help them it’ll be Sheikh Sattar. I’ll see what I can do.” 

Zawadzki and Ziyad go to a Chaldean Christian church and speak to the Archbishop. He tells them Christians are suffering terribly in Basra, and that two-thirds of them have fled Iraq entirely. The next day, Ziyad’s brother Mohammed tells them the harrowing story of the pirate attack on his ship, when he nearly lost his life. Later they interview a police officer, who denounces the negligence of the British and tells them how the police are complicit in the smuggling. Ziyad explains that since the Mahdi Army uprising in 2004, many police officers have defected to the militants.

I start to suspect I’m not paying Ziyad nearly enough. That evening I’m sure of it. My interpreter calls with the news that tomorrow we have a meeting with Sheikh Sattar.

Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Bahadli sits at his desk and casually points at a sofa for me to sit down on. We’re in a shabby place in the center of Basra, which Ziyad must have hired specially for this occasion. It’s most likely an apartment belonging to someone from the sheikh’s entourage who arranged the interview for us and stands to make some money from it.

The sheikh’s bodyguards have checked out the premises, surrounded the staircase and then invited us to come inside. The whole time we’re talking, five thugs stand over us with Kalashnikovs.

There should be a figure of Sheikh Sattar in a wax museum, because he’s the archetypal Arab gangster. He’s thick-set and powerful, with a big, bloated face, rings under his eyes, a cutthroat’s look, dirt under his fingernails, a huge signet ring on his finger and a white turban on his head, the one and only immaculately clean piece of his wardrobe (the rest, in particular a long jellabiya, is seriously dubious). His appearance is overwhelming and intimidating, but the scent he gives off is decidedly pleasant. The sheikh evidently cares about his fragrance.

Following Ziyad’s example I call him sayyid, or “esteemed.” In turn he refers to me as sahafi, “journalist.”

“In Basra the turnout in the elections last week exceeded eighty percent. The Shiites’s enthusiasm was enormous. Why did the Mahdi Army stand aside, sayyid Sheikh Sattar?”

“I personally did not vote, as I suspect the elections are just a big American scam. But I said to the people: do what you think is right. Just remember that while Iraq is under occupation I take no pleasure in elections.”

“But who will maintain order when the occupiers leave?”

“We will, sahafi. If the Mahdi Army took control of Basra total peace would prevail. Unfortunately the government in Baghdad has got it in for our courageous Shiite warriors. The city chief of police was fired just because he made friends with us! And you can see for yourself what is happening: kidnappings, extortion, smuggling.”

“Maybe it would be more peaceful if the Americans were stationed in Basra, rather than the British, who are hiding out in their bases?”

“Never! Anyone but the Americans! They’re a primitive, barbarous people; but you shouldn’t be surprised, America is only two hundred years old. Who are they compared with fourteen centuries of Islamic culture! I remember when I was a young boy, in New York there was a major breakdown and they lost power for a night. Total darkness fell. And what happened? Shops were robbed, ordinary people were mugged, women were raped . . . That’s Americans for you. Meanwhile in Iraq we still have no power but nothing like that ever happens here.”

“But the Americans helped you: they overthrew Saddam, who was oppressing the Shiites . . . ”

“Better to say they overthrew the regime that they themselves had installed. You remember what happened in 1991, when during the first Gulf War a Shiite uprising against the dictatorship broke out? The Americans halted their offensive and left the rebels to their fate. And Saddam murdered thousands. The Americans treated us to the last twelve years of dictatorship, so what have we got to thank them for?”

“How big is the Mahdi Army?”

The sheikh gives a smile as sly as it is indulgent.

“What a naïve question, sahafi! Don’t you know that the Mahdi is the last of the twelve holy imams, who has remained in hiding for more than a thousand years but one day will return to avenge the wrongs committed against the Shiites? The Mahdi Army is every Shiite, there are millions of us . . . ”

“Of course, but how many of them are under your command, sayyid Sattar?”

“Some fifteen thousand. They have had military training, but don’t think that they just know how to fire a Kalashnikov. For many hours they have listened to lectures on religious and cultural subjects. They are great friends of the residents of Basra. A week before the elections we went out onto the streets and gave out candy to children. This is the other face of the Mahdi Army that you journalists are so reluctant to write about.”

“The Americans are encouraging members of the religious militias to join the police. What do the Mahdi Army’s fighters in Basra think about that?”

“Here it’s exactly the other way around: it’s the police who are joining the Mahdi Army. During the uprising in August whole police stations came under my command. And if one of my people earns himself some money working for the police, why not? I don’t see a problem with that . . .”

Sayyid Sattar, I have heard that the brave fighters of the Mahdi Army murder people who sell alcohol, and that some of them are engaged in smuggling on the Shatt al-Arab river.”

“This is despicable slander. It is not worth talking about. You said that you are from Poland, sahafi?”

“Yes.”

“Gotoski?”

The Sheikh gives me a long, pained look—he is obviously delving into the deepest recesses of his memory.

“Grotoski? Grotowski? He is your countryman, correct?”

“Yes,” I answer in deep shock, because I can't believe that sayyid Sattar could be thinking of Jerzy Grotowski, the famous director of the experimental Theater Laboratorium in Wrocław, now dead and forgotten even in Poland.

“Your Grotowski was a great master of the theater, but he is also a great master of the Mahdi Army. He told one of his actors to go out on stage and sit in a chair, but there was no chair there! The actor himself, by positioning his body, had to create the chair. Create it from nothing. There is great wisdom in this idea of Grotowski’s. We in the Mahdi Army, and all Iraqis in general, are facing an identical challenge: we must create something from nothing. Civilization from American barbarism, freedom from slavery . . .”

“With regards to slavery: last year you announced, sayyid Sattar, that your fighters would capture female British soldiers and enslave them. Is this how you show respect for women in the Mahdi Army?”

“I made that announcement under exceptional circumstances, when sayyid Muqtada was defending holy Najaf against the occupiers. And a captive British woman need not be a slave at all. If she converted to Islam, she would become our sister. I greatly respect and value British women soldiers. Do you remember, sahafi, the rewards I set at that time? 25,000 dinars [around eighteen dollars] for a captured minister of the government in Baghdad, 100,000 dinars for a captured British male and up to 250,000 dinars for a captured British female! You can easily calculate that I value a British woman two and a half times higher than a British man and ten times higher than an Iraqi minister. How dare you say, sahafi, that the Mahdi Army does not respect women?”

Sayyid Sheikh Sattar turns out to be a charming conversationalist. Pleased that he can show off his eloquence before a foreigner, he orders his guards to take me back to the hotel, so that no unpleasant adventure might befall me on the way. Ziyad thinks that this might cause problems.

“Better they don’t know where you’re staying,” he says.

Our protests are in vain and we are escorted to the very doors of the hotel.

It’s already well after six, and I’m in my room transcribing the interview with sayyid Sattar by candlelight, when someone knocks at the door. It’s the manager of the hotel. He declares that I need to escape: some loutish men, probably from the Mahdi Army, have asked at reception for the Polish journalist. He told them that I hadn’t yet returned from dinner. They waited for a little in the lobby and then left, announcing that they would return.

“Six months ago the Mahdi Army kidnapped a British journalist from here. They actually released him the next day, but with them you never know. They’re unpredictable,” says the distraught manager.

I call Ziyad. He is at the hotel twenty minutes later. We decide to go immediately to the British consulate, which is in one of Saddam’s old palaces on the canal. Ziyad drops me at the gate and drives off, convinced that the crisis has been averted.

Unfortunately the gates are guarded by Nepali Gurkhas and they barely speak English. I explain to them that I have to get inside because I am in serious danger.

“Appointment, Sir?” one of them asks.

“I don’t have an appointment for a meeting, but I have to spend the night at the consulate.”

“Appointment, Sir?”

I don’t have an appointment, you idiot, but a bunch of thugs wants to kidnap me, I’ve told you five times. “Could you ask a British officer? And if there’s no officer here, could you call one?”

“Appointment, Sir?”

Enough of this. I take a step forward. But the Gurkha steps back, cocks his rifle and aims it at me!

I realize that I’m not going to beat this Himalayan robot.

Suddenly I miss Baghdad. Sure, there were bombs going off every day there, and the Sunnis were kidnapping people and cutting their heads off, but at least you could count on the Americans. They really did care what was going on outside their bases.

Meanwhile in Basra people are left entirely to fend for themselves. If they can’t save themselves no one else will save them. They won’t go to the police, because half of the police are thieves, bandits, or secret fighters for the Mahdi Army. The British don’t give a damn—they sit in their bases, hiding behind Gurkhas, happy not to be suffering many losses. They’re still being economical, just as eighty years earlier Sir Winston Churchill and the British High Commissioners in Iraq were economical.

You can accuse the Americans of a lot of things, but one thing you have to give them: they have never been economical in Iraq. They have sacrificed masses of energy, billions of dollars and thousands of dead to carrying out the impossible and absurd task that they have set for themselves. I have gotten to know many of them; some I have considered stupid or arrogant, but all of them—from the privates to the generals—have performed their Sisyphean labor with real commitment.

That’s why you could even love the Americans, in a way. And now I think warmly of them, as I sit there on the sidewalk outside the gates of the consulate in Basra—a victim of British economizing.

I have three options to choose from: sit there all night, look for a new hotel, or return to my own. I’ve already used up my phone-a-friend; I realize that it’s better not to expose Ziyad further. I decide to go back, because I’ve thought up a simple, brilliant rescue plan—or at least it seems that way.

I hope that sayyid Sattar doesn’t know anything about this. He was too happy with our conversation to kidnap me. This was probably his slow-witted bodyguards’ idea, dreaming of a large ransom for a foreigner. Even if I’m abducted, sayyid Sattar will order me freed.

I also take heart that the Shiites—in contrast to the Sunnis—have never beheaded foreigners and have rarely killed them. Although there are exceptions. Later on this year, in August 2005, some people in police uniforms will kidnap the American journalist Steven Vincent in Basra and immediately shoot him. The killers will surely have been sent by sayyid Sattar, because a few days earlier Vincent will have published a critical article on the Mahdi Army in the New York Times. But I have no way of knowing that six months beforehand.

That’s why as I take a taxi back to the hotel I’m not quite so scared of being kidnapped. There’s somebody new at reception, on the night shift. I go to my room and immediately set about putting my brilliant plan into action. I dump my clothes, some papers and Iraqi banknotes onto the bed. I open the window wide. I take a blanket and leave the room, locking the door behind me. Blindly (as usual there’s no light in the whole hotel) I find the stairs going up, and on the top floor the exit onto the roof.

I figure that the kidnappers will come to the room, knock, and then force the door open. They’ll see the mess on the bed and the open window and think that I’ve jumped out (I’m staying on the second floor, which is low to the ground.) Then they’ll jump out after me. In the meanwhile I’ll be lying peacefully on the roof, gazing at the stars.

But when I’m actually lying there, wrapped up in my warm blanket, I actually start to regret a little that I’m not going to be abducted. By Iraqi standards kidnapping seems like an innocent affair that would bring me some fame. I’d return to Poland as a hero, all the TV stations would greet me at the airport and I might even be received by the Prime Minister.

In the morning I call Ziyad from the roof to ask him to send a driver he trusts. He won’t come himself because the hotel might be being watched. When he calls back to say that the car is waiting at the entrance I run down the stairs. The sleepy receptionist says that the police were looking for me overnight, so I jump into the taxi as fast as possible and we drive straight to the airport. Once again I am a fake aid worker, but this time I keep glancing into the rearview mirror to check that no fake policemen in disguise are after us.

The British pretend to be stationed in Basra for another two years. In the end they escape the same way I did. Five thousand soldiers hole up in the RAF base at the airport, where in the summer of 2007 they are bombarded by rockets and mortars more than six hundred times. The last 550 people are evacuated from the consulate under cover of night. Analysts from the prestigious International Crisis Group write that “the inhabitants of Basra do not consider this a withdrawal, but rather a shameful defeat. The British have left the city under control of religious militias more powerful and lawless than ever.”

From Nowy Wspanialy Irak. © Mariusz Zawadzki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.