Tag Archives: Iraq

The Opposite of a Roadblock

During the year I served in the town of Safwan, Iraq, our unit provided armed escort to military and civilian convoys throughout all of Iraq, meeting convoys at Safwan’s border crossing point and taking them on about a 1.5 mile loop along a two-lane town road between the border and the main highway just north of the city.  (This convoy activity forms a backdrop for my novel One Hundred and One Nights).  After that point the vast majority of the remainder of our routes used such fast-moving roads.  Our convoys slowed down on this one stretch, sometimes waiting for another convoy to clear through the border point, sometimes just congested in general.  As a result, a troublesome trend toward piracy sprang up along this road, with a few bandits seizing the opportunity, jumping into vehicles, ejecting the drivers and hurrying away before our widely-dispersed guardian Humvees could react (30 semis in a convoy = a virtual moving wall of trucks, for which 3 Humvees provided only a thin guard).

The Not Quite Right of this post hopes to capture the absolute mastery of the driving of these semis, the types of roads down which the bandits took these hulking vehicles, and also the elegant little solution we put in place.

An armored engineer vehicle emplaces a simple serpentine barricade on a road that 'seems' as if it would already have been impossible for a semi to use!

Here, in the photo, one can see the types of road and the woeful emptiness of the land into which the semis were driven (click photo to enlarge).  It might seem easy, perhaps, to find something like a semi in so much waste but the land was pitted with little quarries, rills of rock, hard-scrabble dunes.  A few tarps slung over a truck, a few shovelfuls of earth and dust, and no one would ever notice it.  Then, in the night, the truck might be driven north to a larger city, dismantled, scrapped, its cargo sold, and a neat little profit — a huge profit in comparison to the average Iraqi salary at that time! — made by the thiefs.  No one ever got injured during these filchings, the TCN (third-country national — Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Indian, etc) drivers usually walking back to the border crossing, maybe with a lump on their head from getting shoved out of the vehicle.  But the thefts were annoying and escalating in frequency.

Our solution, proposed by one of my soldiers and at first seeming to be crazy and unworkable, was to wall-in this one lane bypass road all the way from the border to the main, fast-moving highway.  While the initial problem with this idea — the restriction of legitimate local traffic moving from one side of the town to the other — nixed the possibility of an outright wall, the final plan, to put barricades in place around which a small car or truck could easily navigate but through which a semi could not be driven, was brilliant in both its feasibility and its cost-effectiveness.  The semis couldn’t be driven across the open countryside, with its knee-high mud and clay farm walls, so we didn’t need to worry about blocking anything except the few adjoining roads.  We created something akin to the opposite of a roadblock, meant to restrict semis to a known and approved path but to let every other sort of vehicle move with only minimal hindrance.

The idea reduced thievery to almost nothing during the course of our remaining missions in the town, at least for the period of a half year or so, until the thieves adapted and started to carve new and hidden roads in the desert!  A game of cat and mouse during which not a single shot was fired.


13 Stares – Deconstruction Season

In honor of winter weather finally hitting the part of the USA from where my family and I hail, this next in the series of 13 Stares poems has a special NQR seasonality to it.  Plus, I love the long evening light across the desert that strikes these highway overpass poles.

For anyone who might have read my novel “One Hundred and One Nights”  the image of this light slanting through the overpass, then striking Abu Saheeh’s little market shack, should certainly be familiar . . .

Rebar eroded on a support column, overpass located between Baghdad and the port of Umm Qasr.

Deconstruction Season

Joke home that
the only two seasons are
winter and construction
well joke here if you can
stomach such humor the seasons
are an immemorial building up
and building down of mud
rising into its mortal forms
man, machine, block on block
and in the very hope of rising
eventual declension roots
entropic, that which is Ur-old
opens into the blossoming
of melon vines in mixed mortar
mudbrick, new rodents have nested
lining rebar with litter
Western peculiar: shoelaces, say
sandwich wrappers, or Gatorade
o-rings, age, to the ageless
is permeable
each goldfish proud
of the obdurate splendor
in passing around or thorugh
the castled cage

13 Stares – Alabama

This might be my favorite from among the litter of these poems, or — at least — the one I think about most.

Whenever I search for an analogy for what war in Iraq was largely like, I often bring up this comparison:  imagine Russia invading the deep south of the US.  There’d be a lot of resistance on the local level.  In fact, it’s not hard to imagine our redneck youth taking potshots with their ‘possum rifles from behind the local filling station.  That’s what I noticed in far southern Iraq.  Not so much armed resistance but a lot of street crime and a lot of kids throwing rocks, clods of dirt, that sort of thing.  So, our NQR moment here goes out to Alabama.

Wave on, Dixie, wave on.

One of our interpreters, "Willy" (Wael), playing soccer with local boys in Safwan. Note destroyed tank in background.


If they ever invade
or say perhaps
like Caesar across the Rubicon
or Potomac
armies turn messianic
I’d lay odds on Alabama as the last
bastion of freedom
the sound of copper
dropping in the spittoon
the bloodhound rocking chair howl
the kudzu, Alabama! butternut!
while in Connecticut
or Nevada, Alaska, new kings
will come naked as the old
to play similar games on the hardscrabble
seeking oil, the woodman’s workglove
now a mark of terror, a black-headband
toothless jihad
of secrethandshake, insignia
perhaps neighborhood meetings
cellar celebrations, Rotary
as the guise of insurrection
graffiti coded on the T-72
to commemorate old ways
while our children ask
the soldiers guarding Wal-Mart
and McDonald’s
to play baseball
or give them water
bic lighters

13 Stares – Dirt Joe

Here’s the next in this series of NQR poems . . .

The shadow of my kevlar-clad head looms over the little girl.


U.S. Education

Statistics show U.S. schools fail for fourth
consecutive quarter teaching
the fine art of beggardry
for the sympathy of dirt, Dirt Joe
unwashed, within 2.5
minutes of the HUMVEE’s arrival
barefoot across the expanse of day
bleached desert with two sisters, Fatima, Farina
skipping from syringe to PVC pipe
with a handful of Saddam dinars
gimme water mister, A+, kept dirty
candy, cute, please, 98th percentile
on the standardized response of some
hard-bitten team leader who believed
in the smell of napalm in the morning
before he arrived here
and in red white ‘n blue
before tan
and in Sunday school
before touching death and beauty
in the same sunset
then, after, after which, this girl
smiling, bewitched him
so he smuggles her beanie babies
each Tuesday at noon, unable
to explain at his homecoming picnic
a sudden disgust with tickertape
and the PTA.

13 Stares — No God

Here is the next in this series of NQR poems — all of which are based on photos and thoughts dredged from the year I spent in the town of Safwan, Iraq.  While this particular poem branches off in a different direction, speaking more about the smirk on this British soldier’s face as he stands on the far side of the wall of an all-girls’ school in Safwan . . . the oddest thing is the word ‘God’ written below Sadaam.  We might not remember it, or might view it through the haze of our own convoluted political justifications (or lack thereof) for having gone to war in Iraq, but the people, especially the Shi’a in southern Iraq, were very happy to be rid of Sadaam.  This graffiti provides a weird, mute testimony to that fact, a testimony underlined (as all things in Iraq seem to be) by the evocation of God.

These poems appear in my chapbook “13 Stares.”

A Squaddie stands guard outside an Iraqi girls' school. Graffiti captured by coincidence.


No God

The place to find God is not
never has been, in the set
of stacked Pentecostal folding chairs
where the organ dustcover
and orange jellybeans at Easter
or cleanliness, sidewalk router suburbia
clipped, fertilized lawns and sprinklers
conservative Oldsmobiles for gentle coffee
and the body of Christ flat
on the same tongue as adultery
Lo, beat the stolen hubcap
of the Minister of Agriculture’s Mercedes
into a birdbath, there He is, find
the Kuwaiti coin from the year of your anniversary
as if, striking in sunlight, the mold
fits the one thing that ever fit you
and grass seeded on the lee of the dune
swept, root bare, smiling outside
the girls’ school where accidentally the squaddie
hears them screaming at recess.

Thirteen Stares

Looking back on the time I spent in the Iraqi village of Safwan, on the border of Kuwait (which is the setting for my novel ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS) I realize that a series of poems I wrote at the time comprise a body of really perfect subject matter for this investigation of things that are Not Quite Right.  In their convoluted, stream-of-conciousness way, these poems try to do the same thing as all the prose-postings I’ve put up:  take what seems, at first, to be an odd scene from the Middle East and turn it on its head, hopefully to expose an underlying bit of America’s own abnormality.

The next few items that I’ll post here will all be culled from a chapbook called “13 Stares” that was published by Magic Helicopter Press.

It’s a little something different than the usual, here at NQR.  But maybe, as a means of cultural commentary, the poem surpasses dry, boring old prose and description.

For what it’s worth:  enjoy!

The first of several NQR poems commenting on life in Safwan, Iraq, as a way to comment on absurdly pristine life we lead over here in the West:

Count 'em: thirteen people in Safwan's "Friday" Market gaze into the lens of my camera.

13 Stares

Mallrat munching cinnabon
in striped toe socks giggling your girlfriend
to walk the potted palm length like hopscotch
from Vicky’s Secret to The Buckle and thereby
avoid stepping on the break your mother’s
back of the schoolnight eyelash aglitter
kissing boys with folded triangular notes, O
what do you remember from before your
incarnations in Sicily and Kermanshah?
Long, long to be looked at, girl, long giggling
in your unsatisfied splendor, your quarterly
reportdcards, your healthcare, xBox, jitterfinger,
make toast and cut the crust off, walk to school
unlooked-at and hankering for somehow to escape
suburbanity. Know this: what you want in your secret
heart of notice-me hearts is not what you might
expect it to be, these thirteen stares and the wildboys
who would flee from embarrassment at your growing
ghost, such rapine beauty, America.


Utter Academic Infamy

Over the last few week’s one of my courses has introduced me to a man known as Ibn Tabrazadh who was born about a thousand years ago in Baghdad.  He was a scholar of hadith and a fairly widely circulating scholar at that, with many later thinkers and jurists quoting from him or being ‘downstream’ from him in the flow of the semi-oral traditions and teachings that surround many of the hadith works and commentaries.

But, for one reason or another, Ibn Tabrazadh’s primary bibliographic entry in Dhahabi’s compendium absolutely vilifies him.  I provide, here, a few of the choice quotes (translations my own) of how lovingly Ibn Tabrazadh has been remembered.  May these be lessons to us all, that no matter the scope of our work, the appreciation (or lack thereof) for our earthly endeavors is certainly up-for-grabs, the product of the whims and morals of those who follow us.  It also should be a lesson to not-piss-off-your-fellow-academics-or-writers as they wield the pens (or iPads) upon which legacies rise or fall.

Whether Ibn Tabrazadh deserves this degree of infamy, I truly don’t know.  Only these few words from Dhahabi remain to enlighten us.  The quotations make me laugh rather than feel any strong moral revulsion.  But I do feel a nagging sort of NQR-ness about amusing myself at the expense of this man, even across such a chasm of time and culture.

1.  Called المؤدب or ‘litterateur’ which, I feel, was likely a first glancing salvo launched from within the strict canons of academia.

2.  Called ضعيف or ‘weak’ in his trustworthiness as a narrator of hadith (this is the overall measure applied to his reliability after consideration of all the information in this biography — not a real shocking conclusion, if you read on).

3.  Called خليعا and ماجنا and كاغد all of which are new words for me but mean, roughly, ‘depraved’ and ‘shameless’ and ‘scoundrel’

(it gets worse)

4.  Called يؤدب الصبيان or, roughly, a ‘tutor of boys,’ which is a double-edged insult, both elucidating the fact that he used his hadith knowledge to earn money and, also, hinting that he was only good enough to instruct youngsters.  Certainly not an anachronistic reference to Penn State.

5.  More bluntly, one commentator in his biography says, لم يكن يفهم شيئا من العلم which means “he didn’t know a damn thing about knowledge.”

6.  He was called ‘negligent in religion’ (I think this is the true source of the invective) . . . متهاونا بأمور الدين

7.  One person remembers that he ‘saw him more than once urinate while standing . . . and then sit without cleaning himself either with water or stones’ (an offense probably akin to peeing-on-the-toilet-seat-and-not-wiping-it-up nowadays).  In arabic, very seriously toned, راينه غير مرة يبول من قيام . . . وقعد من غير استنجاء بماء ولا حجر (Note that Dhahabi himself ventures a guess, by way of apology for this egregious defamation, that perhaps Ibn Tabrazadh had a fatwa excusing him from cleansing himself.)

8.  (Again, to the heart of the matter) . . . cited for not undertaking prayers.  لا يقوم لصلاة

9.  And, more explicitly than before, he is accused of كان يطلب الأجر على رواية الحديث ‘being in the habit of requesting payment before reciting hadith.’

10.  Lastly, reminiscent of Dante, a later scholar says that he dreams of a dead Ibn Tabrazadh ‘wearing a blue robe . . . in a House of Fire inside a House of Fire.’  رايت عمر بن طبرزذ في النوم بعد موته وعليه ثوب أزرق . . . في بيت من نار داخل بيت من نار

Dude.  Not the kind of stuff I want written on my headstone!

The Hand of Sheikh Sabah

This is a truly fearless tattoo.

During my unit’s train-up to deploy to Iraq, one of the more interesting and culturally relevant events we underwent involved meeting with a mock group of Iraqi townsfolk to conduct negotiations.  This drill was supposed to be pressurized, a first taste of the difficulty in communicating through interpreters, with security elements posted around us, and discussions that incorporated senstivity to regional issues.  For me, this was an excellent foreshadowing of the real work I would do later in the year, work which involved almost daily meetings with the town council in Safwan. The drill employed real Iraqis and other Arabic-speaking persons (along with a few dozen local ‘extras’ from South Louisiana pretending to speak Arabic through their heavily Cajun drawl) to add realism.

One thing that I noticed during this drill, a thing that stuck with me and has popped back into my consciousness now, especially given the current elections in Egypt, was a crude tattoo on the very visible backside of the hand of the head “actor” in this group.  This guy was the lead Iraqi negotiator, the ‘Sheikh’ of the mock village.  He played hardball with us.  He came prepared with a list of demands and wouldn’t budge from his positions.  He stressed our little team of negotiators as far as he could, refusing all accomodation, all reconciliation, and he did his best to escalate the scenario that had been concocted into something dangerous, a riot or a protest.

This photo was taken just after the finish of the exercise, when the actor walked away from the scenario to take a phone call.  He slipped his red-checkered keffiyah from his head to let the sweat from the humid Louisiana air dry.  He paced back and forth along a razor-wire fence.  I was able to surreptitiously raise my camera, zoom in from afar, and take this photo of the tattoo I had seen during our practice negotiations.

The tattoo makes me wonder about the man’s history.  So, too, does it make me wonder — this is the NQR here — how many of us, in our comfortable American bourgeoisie lives, would be willing to visibly and permanently express this sort of hope (or protest) if we lived under a similarly suppresive and brutal regime?