May 8th - English Lessons
09 May 2004
English conversation classes with a group of Iraqi students took in the Abu Ghraib prisoners, marriage and birthday cake.
A loud scraping noise and a jolt announced the arrival of the other car in the back driver side of ours. It was gentle, as collisions go, and the deformity of the bumper was quickly rectified but the debate over whose mother had been a canine looked like taking a bit longer to settle, so we paid the driver and found another who, admittedly, didn’t know the way but at least he was moving.

The highway towards the university is partly on a flyover which affords a perfect view of the layers of smog that envelop the city. For a lot of the way the road was quiet, which is not common. “I hope there’s not another Fatwa,” Anna said, referring to the order not long ago from Al-Sadr that students should not go into university.

The young women were all immaculately dressed, not a hair astray between them, let alone an eyebrow, black lines around their eyes, lips painted. This is the only place they get to meet up with their friends, the most likely place to meet a future husband, so apparently it’s worth getting up at stupid o’clock and making the kind of effort I and my friends only used to make for a big night out. I’m sure the wearing of hijabs on campus is less down to conservatism or religious belief than the only way out of hours of tortuous hair styling.

Anna teaches English conversation to the final year students at Baghdad University, who wanted to talk to someone with a British accent and I wanted to talk to them about university twinning links. Because it’s all over the news here the same as everywhere else and because I introduced myself as a clown and trainee lawyer, the topic of conversation moved quickly onto the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The other students muttered, “Shame,” as Mohammed mentioned it. “There is a contradiction,” someone said, “between what they do and what they say they will do.” Heba said her neighbour’s house had been raided one night and three men, the father and two sons, were taken away. That was seven months ago; two have been freed and one is still detained. The reason given for their arrest, according to Heba, was “talking loudly against the Americans”.

Lots of the students nodded at her account. Mugher’s house was raided too, on false information, he said: someone told the Americans that there were guns in their house. Most of them had heard of the Geneva Conventions, although few knew anything about what they were, and wanted to know how one went about acquiring any rights under them. Ahmed explained the Conventions as, “Some informations about the rights of presidents,” an indication, perhaps, of how limited their use has been in Iraq.

I explained about the different Conventions, the essence of the protections they contain and the problem of enforcement, that there is no court which can uphold them against a powerful country, particularly one which chooses to exempt itself from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Of course, the prisoners in Abu Ghraib are not all classified as Prisoners of War because most were not taken in anything resembling a combat situation.

A young woman called Hana said it’s because they are Muslim. She listed Bosnia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya as places where Muslims are abused either by or with the complicity of the US and UK. Someone else pointed out that the people of Central America have also suffered abuse and torture at the hands of the CIA, along with plenty of other non-Muslim countries.

The belief that religious bigotry is behind all of this runs deep, but we moved on to how power corrupts: power in the hands of prison guards, in the hands of a single and unassailable national leader or in the hands of one all-powerful country. Anna’s family is from Maryland, where several of the guards that have so far been exposed are from. Some of them worked in the big prison there before going to Iraq with the Reserves. She said people are wondering, if this goes on in an Iraqi prison, whether the same thing isn’t happening in Maryland too.

The worst thing, though, the students agreed, was the arrest of women. They said the same as I have heard from a lot of other places, that women are often arrested if the wanted man can’t be found, just like Saddam used to do. Lamia explained, “The families send messages to the women inside the jails to tell them to kill themselves, or not to come home, because they are a disgrace to the family.”

I asked why but she was embarrassed to tell me. Why, if they’re wrongly arrested, is it any shame on her or her family?

“Because they think it is certain that bad things have been done to them in prison,” Haythem said.

“They expect that the woman was raped in the prison and that is a disgrace to the family because they were unfaithful to the husband or they are not virgins anymore. It’s not if it was her fault, but it will be her disgrace,” Mohammed said. The other students looked away. This, more than anything, was too horrible to talk about.

Anna had to tell them about their final test, next week. There was one a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by a fine array of excuses for not turning up. “There was a bomb at the end of my street,” “The highway was blocked by the Americans” and “It was my wedding” were my personal favourites.

Shayma said her new husband heard of her by reputation and came to ask the family for her hand in marriage. The family agreed and the couple met, just once before getting engaged. The engagement lasted eight months and they were married a couple of weeks ago, a couple of weeks before her university finals.

All the girls said they want to get married. “Of course.” It’s not even seen as optional. It’s like asking whether they want to graduate. “Your family will choose your husband,” Beyda explained. “It could be someone you chose, who went to your family to ask them. You have the chance to say no to the man they suggest, but you don’t want to risk that no one else will want you.”

I’ve heard similar things from other women: one friend was married at nineteen to a man she had ‘a little affection’ for and her sister at 27 to a man she didn’t love at all, each of them fearing that if they passed up this chance they might not get another. After a small conference the girls thought perhaps about half of the marriages were happy. Once you were married, though, you couldn’t go out to work. There are, of course, married women who work, but they said it would be expected of them that they stay at home.

The university is not obviously filled with radicalism and student politics. Like most people in Iraq, students have been pounded with politics for enough years to want to avoid them. But still you can see the boundaries of society being pushed on and around the campus. There were young women in knee length skirts and figure hugging clothes that you rarely see elsewhere, perhaps a reflection of the relative safety of the campuses, though a lot of them were still wearing hijabs, and young men and women are able to meet and talk in a way that’s unusual outside.

Equally, though, there were women in full abayas, hijabs and black gloves, with their normal clothes underneath. There was no electricity in all the time I was in the university, which meant no fans and certainly no air conditioning. Papers and files flapped back and forth like giant butterfly wings. Exams must be unbearable in this.

At the end there was a birthday party. Taif, a student on the MA course, won’t be 23 until July, but she wouldn’t be able to invite both male and female friends to her house for a party. This, the end of the academic year, was as close to her birthday as she could celebrate with the whole group. Even in the university Taif stands out, with curly reddish brown hair, a bright yellow patterned skirt, short sleeves and loud, rapid speech in accented but excellent English.

It said “Westlife” on the classroom door, probably the most popular band among young Iraqis, along with Backstreet Boys and N-Sync. Interestingly, the same was true last February, Iraqi youth being apparently less fickle than their British counterparts.

I left laden with e mail addresses, Mohammed requesting that I arrange for Iraqi teachers to come to England to learn because “they don’t know anything.” Ali caught up with me to say, “Some of the students in this class are Shia and some are Sunni and they are sorry that the old regime has gone because they are criminals. Believe me.” Finally Asmaa took my hand and said, “Please, when you go, tell people all that you’ve seen here. Tell them everything that’s happening to us.”