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Chapter 2: The Small Things

Baghdad, Iraq. April 5

Covered in darkness but still visible thanks to their sheer size, two crossed giant sabres made an arch over the empty stadium as we drove by. In the distance another, making way for epic showings in times gone by.

"This is where they had military parades during the time of Saddam", Adil explained from the wheel. We were on a drive around Baghdad, Adil showing me points of interest around the city while we waited for Mutanabi street to come alive. As a European whose only input from Iraq during my upbringing was of war, I was eager to find out anything that I could relate to that picture, to connect the media to reality. Curious of what his experience was like during the war, how it felt on the ground, I kept asking. Adil shrugged his shoulders.

"In my hometown Divanyeah south of Baghdad, there was no fighting, no resistance. First the American marines came and occupied us. My parents and many others were afraid of both the Americans and of any retribution from Saddam should he return like in 1991 after the Kuwait war, so in the beginning everybody was waiting to see what happened. Schools were closed for two months. I used to speak to the soldiers on the street to practice my english, I remember there were forces from Spain among many others. After a while everything gradually opened up again."

From afar, through the distorted lens of localised mass media, images tend to look quite different from the visions of human eyes, there in the flesh. Size matters, and to make the papers single events or individuals need to appear large, impressive and important. But my experience as a civilian on Iraq soil have had little to no overlap with the information I have been taught to believe, from voices and outlets I have been expected to trust.

After a walk on Mutanabi street, the would-be tourist street should there be any, now a place for locals to have a fancy stroll, we had a shawarma dinner and sat down for tea. Famous in the middle east but unknown to most westerners, Iraqi tea plays in its own league. Done the right way it is cooked in traditional teapots from tin over open fire from wood, and it is stronger than any other tea I have tried. I am no expert in subtle tastes, but the smokiness and the character from the wood is unmistakable. Sitting down in the open with groups of laughing older men, sipping the traditional tea while watching Baghdad come alive at night gave a reassuring sense of community and continuity. Whatever happens in the theatres of politics and war, there have always been teacups, chairs and smiles here to welcome you. And there always will be.

Our last stop for the night was the military recreation area where a crucial battle would take place. It was time for the Iraqi Dentists futsal cup to be decided, with the final match between Diwanyeah and Alkarkh. There was very legitimate two judge-system in place, multiple cameramen broadcasted the game from the elevated platform and an ambitious setup for audio mixing was present for pregame and halftime entertainment. Being in Iraq, no cafeteria was open for business, rather the drinks and treats were freely handed to the spectators. The scoreboard on the wall was improvised in Microsoft Word, no full screen mode.

The game was intense. Alkarkh took an early lead and had the better chances, but Diwanyeah retaliated by middle of first half. By break time Alkarkh had scored again, 2-1, and things weren't looking great for Adil's hometown team. "If they score one more to 3-1, we can leave", he said as the second half was starting, knowing I would be very tired by this point. They did, but we didn't. Soon after, the power went out, leaving the hall pitch black. I burst out laughing about the absurdity, but silenced myself upon realising that I was the absurd one. Power outage is commonplace here, but usually short-lived. The game eventually continued and a few minutes before the final whistle Diwanyeah reduced to 3-2, giving hope to Adil and his friends. In the end though, the score remained unchanged from there, and Alkarkh Dentists were celebrated as the best futsal dentists of Iraq with an extravagant cup and individual prizes. While the ceremony went on, me and Adil played ball with the kids on the other side, a perfect ending to the most engaging game I have watched in years.

Why, in the end, do I care more for a futsal game between dentists than a war between nations? Why do I rather write about the local tea sippers than about Saddam Hussein? To answer this, I will shamelessly steal a line, just like the burglar it refers to.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why do I write about the meaning of little meetings? Perhaps it is because I feel lonely. And they give me fellowship.


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