A drive to Basra’s sparse sites of interest and a ride in the boat on the river Shatt Al Arab.

Basra was never known for a lot of points of interest.  But at least it had a museum of archaeology – gone.  The content was taken to Baghdad.  It had a museum dedicated to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war – gone.  Where all the paraphernalia went is anyone’s guess.  It had one road along a canal with 19th century merchant homes known as Shenashil Houses and noteworthy for their unique architecture – dilapidated beyond belief.  And finally, it had a couple of mosques, among them the Masjid Ali, a Friday mosque going way back and dedicated to the first imam Ali’s battle with Fatima, and to his residence in Basra – gone, too.  In its place there is now a new construction Saddam Hussein put here after demolishing the ancient site…

But we had a day to spend and so we saw what little there was.  Since it was Friday, the weekly holiday for Muslims, the Masjid Ali was crowded and we women were in for a treat.  At the woman’s section there was a leader who first read prayers and then led a uniquely Shiah chant.  We saw similar chants at Kerbala and Najaf.  More typically men do these chants and they can get quite hypnotic.  That the woman were chanting was much more unusual.  The chants are very rhythmical and centered around a simple melody.  But most impressive is the beating of the chests one with crossed arms.  From what I hear this can hurt quite a bit and some women instead clapped their knees or upper legs.  We quietly sat in the back of the mosque watching the spectacle.  But even under chadors we stick out and many of the women were looking at us.  What struck me is that none of them responded to my smiles as they had in many other, even holier places.  We were stone-walled.  Geoff had warned us of this anti-foreign sentiment in Basra.  Now I believe him.

The mosque put up under Saddam is not bad.  What is bad however is that the original mosque has simply been erased and that the huge courtyard that once surrounded it is left to decay.  A portion of the original minaret is still standing as a stump.  People treat it as a shrine since Ali had preached in its presence.

We tried to have a peek at the port of Basra, but it was barricaded and guarded by the military – no chance.  We also stopped at the train station and were allowed to walk around.  One of us, the Italian guy, is a train conductor and much enjoyed the moment.  However, no trains run on Fridays and Saturdays and the place was deserted.  All the windows at the train station were blown out following a bomb blast not too long ago – 8 people were killed according to a soldier who guarded the station.  “Americans!” He said. “Fuck them!”  That was a new tone.  It is very unlikely, that the Americans were behind a suicide car bomb a couple of years ago, but in his mind they were.  Most everywhere else in the country the reaction to America would be positive; not in Basra.

The stretch of the canal in the inner city which is lined with the Shenashil Houses is a sad shadow of its former self.  Most of them are unoccupied and falling apart.  One is housing some soldiers who are watching out for the neighborhood.  If the context were suitable, this would be a wonderful street to renovate for restaurants or upper-scale shops.  But as things are, the sewage in the canal is piling up and these houses are located in a city which has much more urgent problems to take care of than antique homes.  Most likely, they are doomed.

The sandstorm has moved on and we had a reasonably clear sky today.  Immediately, the sun felt twice as strong and temperatures were high.  And many of us felt sluggish.  But a ride in a boat on the Shatt Al-Arab, as the combination of Euphrates and Tigris is known, to view the sunset, perked all of us up again. We saw a few ships Saddam sank which stick out of the river and are being used by the locals as docks or shelter.  We passed by another of Saddam’s palaces – reportedly he owned 40 palaces all over the country and would notify at least three each day that he would be coming and have food prepared.  If he would show up at all was questionable, but he hoped to distract his enemies and minimize the likelihood of an attack on his life.  Chin Shih Huan Di, the Chinese emperor did something similar in his paranoia.  He always traveled in two carriages and nobody knew in which one he was increasing his chances for survival by 50%.  Saddam went way beyond that.  This palace, as all the previous ones we saw was looted to the last removable part as well.

Afterwards, we stopped by the renovated Sheraton Hotel – looted after the war – and were not too impressed.  But it was touching to see that the river front is lined with restaurants, tea shops, nagileh (water pipe) cafes and an outright amusement park with a giant Ferris wheel.  Life does go on.

Good night.


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