Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Most men you see here are constantly fingering prayer beads or worry beads known as sebha.

They can cost anywhere from $1 to $600 and come in just as many varieties of stone and material and color.

If they have 33 beads or 101 beads, they are prayer beads.

One of the more popular prayers in Islam requires three phrases to be repeated 33 times. The three phrases praise God, thank God and call him the greatest (The 101-bead sebhas are simply three sets of 33 beads separated by two small stones).

My translator, Saleem Khalaf, was working a string of 45 beads all afternoon after I asked him to track down some of his friends who are members of the Mukhabarat or former intelligence service.

In this case, it was a sebha not for prayer but for "ordinary things, to try and make use of time, to busy myself while I am thinking."

Some people hang strings of larger wood or marble beads on the wall to keep away envy.

Other times, people like to advertise their wealth with luxurious strands of coral or zumurrud, an expensive pink stone that comes from Yemen.

"Sometimes we are proud of having luxurious beads, for example, kahrab, which is a semi-precious yellow stone that gives off a good smell when you rub it," Saleem said. "It reflects the sun's rays and gives off light."

Kahrab, in Arabic, means electricity.

Saleem is less worried about finding interview subjects in my remaining days and more pensive thinking about the future of his country.

He has a PhD in Arabic rhetoric and has already fought with his family about a lucrative offer to go teach in Yemen (he turned it down to stay and help rebuild his country).

Saleem is concerned about the apparent increase in sectarian conflict. The other day he helped me arrange an interview with Mustansiriya University language professor Abdul Rahman, who touched on the problem:

"The main problem we're facing today in our society is that Iraqis can't accept other opinions. Those who oppose my political point of view, they're considered my enemy. And this is a result of Saddam's policies, because he was ready to get rid of everyone who opposed his ideas," Rahman said.

Saleem, 36, agreed.

"We often try to beautify bad things, but if we keep doing this, we will never solve anything. Most of us think of Baghdad when we think of Iraq but when you go to different governates you see there's no interaction between different ethnic and religious groups and even political parties.

"When political parties try and recruit members they do so on the basis of their tribal connections rather than using any party platform, The Communist party is actually one of the best in the country when it comes to organization - it doesn't depend on tribes, they have their own political ideas. But they are often rejected by Iraqis who prefer family or religious ties and who are basically unbelievers.

"And tribes focus on quantity rather than quality. They try to win people over in the shortest amount of time, they don't educate people politically. They're not teaching people principles to believe in to rebuild the country. They don't have the organizational skills to divide their members into groups that can educate each other.

Saleem is a lecturer in translation at Mustansiriya University, a former Iraqi journalist and a former Ba'athist. His younger brother was executed under Saddam but Saleem's wife is a Sunni from Ramadi and still grieves for Saddam. Her brother in law is a secret policeman now in Abu Ghraib prison.

"A lot of these parties took the finest buildings available after the fall of Baghdad," he said. "It was hard for them to convince the public afterwards that they were interested in the people of Iraq. It looked like they were only interested in plundering Iraq of its best villas and buildings and cars.

"Before the war no one dared be in anything but the Ba'ath Party.

"Now these parties are no better, offering money or jobs to get people to join. And they're less well organized than the Ba'ath. The parties also promise protection to people who are currently targeted - Ba'athists for example - and a new cover.

"Now, because of the distribution of the 25 government ministers, who were appointed along political party lines by the 25 members of the US-appointed Governing Council, each ministry is seen as the province of a political party, ripe for patronage, rather than working for the good of Iraq."

The Interior Ministry, for example, is seen as belonging to the Iraqi National Accord led by council member Ayad Allawi. His brother in law, Noori Badran is minister.

The Health Ministry has ties to the Dawa or Call Party led by council member Ibrahim al Jafari.

Housing and Construction has ties to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

And Foreign Minister Hoshar Zebari is from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and appointed by council member Jalal Talabani.

Everyone at the ministry, from the minster to the guards, seem to be Kurds, Saleem said.

"That's why the future seems bleak to me."