TITLE: Two rulers
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The purpose of these stories are not to entertain but to educate westerners about the Middle East (where I have lived for over 8 years. I love it here in the UAE).
Any critique is very much appreciated.
Ahmed was looking out of the window and was puzzled. Half his family was out there crying in loud voices. Not again, he thought. He couldn’t get himself to go outside and find out who it was this time. He was ten years old and wasn’t sure how many times the family had mourned over a dead or imprisoned relative. Some of them had just disappeared and nobody seemed to know where they were. Ahmed found it difficult to understand. It had something to do with a man, a ruler by the name of Saddam Hussein. Everybody lived in fear of this one man and he was often instructed by his parents to say nothing about this man when he was at school or with his friends. The confusing thing was that on TV Saddam was always shown as a hero, a man who looked after Iraq and all the people. He was the strong man who stood up against the evil West and especially the United States. They were all infidels, people who didn’t believe in Allah.
The family had now moved inside the house and Ahmed slowly pieced together what had happened. A cousin, who ran a print shop in the south of Baghdad, had disappeared. Nobody knew where he was and everyone was too afraid to speculate. There were rumours that he had printed some anti-government pamphlets, whatever that meant. That had happened to others in that area too. There were many print shops there. The family discussed who could have reported him to the government. Ahmed drifted off into his own thoughts. Why would Allah allow such suffering? Why were his family and many families around them punished like this? Was there so much evil in these families that Allah was angry? The problem was they were not to question Allah but it didn’t seem to make sense. It was so hard to understand, really confusing.
As long as Ahmed remembered, they had lived in fear of this government. Saddam had many men working for him and you never knew who they were. Mama and papa often talked about this and something called ‘freedom’; he wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. It sounded like a beautiful place where everybody was happy and they didn’t have to live in fear. Ahmed never had the courage to ask about ‘freedom’ just in case they would never get there; it would be so disappointing.
In the meantime the family had calmed down a little. They were concerned that the neighbours would hear them and come and knock on the door to find out what was wrong. Nowadays you couldn’t trust anybody, so it was better to be quiet. Ahmed was not too upset because he didn’t really know this older cousin very well. He had met him once a few years ago but didn’t even remember what he looked like.
Ahmed drifted off again. This time he was thinking about Kareem, another cousin. Kareem was his age, but his father had decided to leave Iraq many years ago and they lived in the United Arab Emirates, a small country across the Gulf. They had often been called traitors and many people had said they would kill them if they dared to come back to Iraq. Ahmed wasn’t sure whether they meant that or whether it was just talk. Arabs love to talk, but they didn’t always follow up with action. In fact, his uncle had been back to Iraq many times and nobody had ever tried to kill him. That’s also why Ahmed knew so much about the UAE. His uncle would sit with the family when he visited their house and talk until late at night. Ahmed was fascinated with the stories his uncle told them and for some reason mama would let him sit up late instead of sending him to bed at his usual time.
Kareem sometimes wrote Ahmed letters telling him about his life in the UAE. It was an unbelievably hot place. Summer temperatures would rise to 50 degrees and it was humid on top of that. They all had air conditioning everywhere though, so it wasn’t too bad, and in the winter it was just warm and it would rain only a couple of times. Kareem’s father was an airline pilot. Initially, he had worked for Iraqi Airways. They had asked him to transfer to Dubai in the UAE and his father had gladly accepted. However, nowadays he worked for Emirates Airlines, a new UAE airline which had become very famous. They had won the airline of the year award a couple of times. Ahmed had the impression that Kareem’s family was very rich, because Kareem had a four-wheel motorbike that he could drive around his house. They had six bedrooms and four bathrooms in their house and a maid who came everyday to clean and cook for them. She also washed and ironed their clothes and Kareem wrote in his last letter that he just started to wear a dishdasha, which is a traditional white robe for men in the UAE. It made him feel like a real man. Only when he rode his bike, he would put on a pair of jeans or shorts, because the dishdasha would get in the way.
Ahmed could only dream of such a life. The UAE was a very rich country because they had a lot of oil and not a lot of people. They also had a different ruler than in Iraq. They called him a sheikh there. The sheikh's name was Zayed. Sheikh Zayed was a very good man, because he was peaceful and he shared all his money with everybody in the country. Everybody loved Sheikh Zayed and they called him “the Father of the Nation”, because he had brought all these fighting sheikhs together into one nation. That’s why it was called the United Arab Emirates. There were seven emirates and Dubai and Abu Dhabi were the most important ones. In the UAE they were Muslim, too, but it was such a different country. People in the UAE didn’t live in fear and they were happy. When his uncle was talking, Ahmed often dreamed of going across the Gulf and living the life of his cousin. When he expressed his dream to go to the UAE, his parents always responded the same: “Inshallah” which means “God willing”, but they never tried to leave Iraq. His parents didn’t want to leave their beloved country and Ahmed stopped talking about it after a while.
6 years later: Ahmed was daydreaming. What if he would take the offer and go to the UAE? His uncle had promised to accept him on a training course for pilots at an aviation college in Dubai. After a long career as a pilot, his uncle had become a trainer and had asked Ahmed if he would come to Dubai and enroll in his training programme. His parents had left the decision up to Ahmed, because although they would hate to see him leave them, they understood he would have a much better future across the Gulf and this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Life in Iraq was now very insecure; no one knew what the future would bring. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of fear since the Americans had landed in the south. They were on a fast victory route to Baghdad. In fact they were expected to arrive here in a couple of weeks. Quite a few Saddam supporters had already left the area and moved up north to Tikrit. That was the place Saddam was born and they thought they would be safe there, at least for a while. The insecurity for most Iraqis was intensified because everybody remembered what happened last time the Americans came. They had come in fast and destroyed a lot of military targets. A lot of Iraqis had openly shown support for the Americans, but they hadn’t stayed for long enough to make any real changes and many Iraqis had suffered severely for their support of the Americans. So now many preferred to keep their mouths shut.
Ahmed was jerked back to reality by loud banging noises which seem to come from a few miles away. Oh my God, have the Americans arrived already? The bombing went on for a while and the family congregated in the sitting room to discuss what to do. They had dug a small shelter under the house that would just fit everyone and had some provisions and water. They couldn’t survive for very long in there, but everybody thought that the Americans would bomb only military targets and their house was in a residential area. They wouldn’t have to stay in the shelter for too long and would probably be able to use the house at least some of the time.
Father spoke with a grave expression on his face: “Ahmed, you have this opportunity to join your uncle in Dubai. Go! Hamdullah (thanks be to god), this is your way to be free. We will have to stay here and wait. Maybe we’ll join you later.” Mother started crying but said nothing. As a good Muslim woman, she was used to father making the decisions and never went against him. “Now go and may Allah protect you!”
6 months later: It was the 9th of April 2003 and Ahmed was watching TV in his uncle’s house in Dubai. It had started out as a normal day. He had got up and greeted his uncle, auntie and cousins and was having coffee with Kareem when uncle called them to come and watch this on the news. Iraqis were throwing shoes at the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdus Square in Baghdad. Throwing a shoe at someone, let alone a leader, is a huge insult in the Middle East. They flung ropes around the statue and with the help of American soldiers pulled it down. People were ecstatic and so were uncle, Kareem and Ahmed. They talked to each other excitedly and although Saddam was still at large, it seemed a step closer to the end of the trouble in Iraq. They would probably find Saddam soon and then the Americans could hand over the control to an Iraqi government and leave the country. However, Ahmed remembered that Uncle had often said that Iraqis were not able to live in a democracy. They were way too hot-headed and stubborn to agree on anything, he said. In other words, a democracy where different fractions had to compromise and make decisions together would never work in Iraq. Ahmed wasn’t sure what to think but he trusted his uncle because he was a good man. Now he was just happy to be out of the country and living a peaceful life in Dubai. He was also learning to fly which was the most amazing experience. Of course, he still worried about his family but they had all survived the bombing of Baghdad and the house was still standing. It was relatively peaceful now and life had dramatically improved. More and more work had become available in Baghdad, wages had gone up substantially and there was a general feeling of hope.
It would still take another 8 months before they finally found Saddam. He was hiding in a hole in the ground near his birthplace of Tikrit. The Americans were tipped off and found him on the 13th of December that year. Ahmed was shocked to see what he looked like. Before Saddam had always looked so proud and immaculately kempt but now he looked like a wild animal. It was extremely humiliating for an Arab leader to be found like this. He also seemed confused and disoriented. Again a wave of relief and celebrations went through Iraq. People were singing and dancing in the streets. Ahmed was aware that he was watching an important part of his country’s history slowly unfolding in front of his eyes. Kareem and Ahmed sat together for long hours discussing issues concerning the future of Iraq and themselves, sometimes late into the night. Saddam had brought great shame onto the country but it was good that the end was near, inshallah.
Another year went by. Saddam was in detention and Iraq was still quite unruly. It looked like uncle was right and Iraq would never be a democracy. Different religious and ethnic factions were all fighting each other and no agreement could be reached on anything. It was sad to watch. However, Ahmed continued his life in Dubai and was close to finishing his pilot’s training. Then on the 2nd of November 2004, the president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the “father of the nation”, died. He was an unusual man in the Arab world because he refused to fight. In the old days, the 7 emirates were ruled by tribal families who usually solved conflicts with guns but Zayed was a man of peace who saw the needs of the people of the UAE and decided to put the oil money to good use. Ahmed had seen the development of Dubai and Abu Dhabi with his own eyes and was astounded by the fast growth. Everything was possible in the UAE, such a contrast to Iraq.
When Sheikh Zayed died, the outpouring of grief was astounding. People wept everywhere. There was an official mourning period of 40 days but Sheikh Zayed had instructed businesses and educational institutions to be closed for only 3. He didn’t want too much interruption of the country after his death. When Ahmed went back to college, everyone was somber and still in mourning. A large book was made available for all staff and trainees to express their feelings and Ahmed was amazed that after a few days the book was filled with prayers, poems and other thoughts to honour Sheikh Zayed. He saw the girls in the administration section breaking down in spontaneous weeping when people talked about the Sheikh. Ceremonies were organised everywhere in his honour. Ahmed had realised for a while now what a difference one man could make to a whole nation but Saddam Hussein and Zayed were the total opposite of each other. It was awe-inspiring to Ahmed to see a whole nation come to its knees over the death of their leader. Even he got teary at times.
2 years later: The weather was perfect for flying as so often in the UAE. The sky was blue and completely cloudless so visibility was excellent. It was also cool as it was December, the middle of winter. Ahmed climbed into his plane and started the engine. He felt incredibly relieved now one of Iraq’s most evil men was dead. Saddam Hussein had been hanged early that morning and now Ahmed knew that things would change and he would be reunited with his family at last. It crossed his mind how different this death and the death of the UAE’s beloved leader was – complete opposites, shame versus honour. Take-off was easy as usual and before he knew it, he was soaring at 3,000 feet. This was his favourite time, all by himself, away from everything and everybody. This was freedom!
Proverbs 29:2 When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.
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