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“Just Sleep and Dream About Eating”: The Hunger Diaries from Iraq to Syria

Manahel Al-Sahwi and Mizer Kamal
July 2, 2020
When we racked our brains searching for a topic that is common between Iraq and Syria, hunger seemed to be a case in point: Iraq in the past, and Syria today. In this article, we try to figure out how the famine that is looming in the horizons of Syria would look like bearing in mind the distressing past that under-the-siege Iraq has gone through.

Pursuing the matter further, we looked back at the famine that broke out in 1991, taking into consideration simple observations of the Syrians’ diaries today. To our surprise, we found out that the events are already overlapping in the distant and recent past, as if in a vicious circle that continues to loop eternally.

Little by little, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the current and past chain of events, stuck as human beings in the bitterness of our country’s legacy, a legacy that we should heedfully face so that it does not leave its dark marks on our souls. We realized that we all share -in some way- the same feelings towards our countries, maybe involving the time, the accidents, or the crucial moments; As if a man arrived to finish the other’s work, with no short intervals within the time, which doomed us to the very same fate, convincing us that everyone will die alone in his/her homeland.

In this article, we try to plumb the depths of people’s diaries under the siege, linking between Syrian and Iraqi scenes that the authors of this article lived through.

From the food queues during the siege of Iraq – 2001.

1991-2003: Humiliation

With a sharp voice shouting: “gas…gas…gas”, alongside the sound of iron clashing on iron and, with a large truck’s noise in the background, 30 Tammuz neighborhood in the Iraqi city of Ramadi now becomes aware that gas has become available at the station, so poor households could take their empty gas cylinders and replace them with filled ones.

As if the only way to earn a living was through the gates of humiliation. It was a daily habit that lasted throughout the 1990s, and the first three years of the 2000s.

Qaddori, was a handicapped man who suffered from a hormonal disorder that made him extremely obese, to the extent that one can hardly see his eyes, which resembled two small holes in his face, because of his swollen cheeks. He was the one who bore the news of the coming gas to the neighborhoods, roaming the streets to sell gas cylinders for a small margin of profit, but most families -who could hardly make ends meet- couldn’t afford to buy one from him. They would rather send their children to the station, waiting in a long gas line, to buy a cylinder that would support them for yet another week of their wretched lives.

Sometimes, the word would spread before Qaddori came, who was usually waiting in the gas station for long hours. Someone would see the gas truck, with its distinctive cages that resemble small cells, and then would shout: “gas!” and the news would spread from mouth to mouth, turning the streets into a noise festival. Then, a marathon would begin, to head straight to the distribution point at the station to get a spot at the start of the line.

The queues in front of the gas stations in Iraqi cities were yet another tragic chapter in it’s long and daunting siege story. Due to the overcrowding of people jostling each other and the piling up of empty gas cylinders, bloody fights often broke out; to solve this, the regime built an iron cage of a length exceeding 40 meters and a width of 2 meters or less, to organize the queue and the crowds looking for gas.

The terrible scene of people willingly entering the cage to pass to the station was very reminiscent of the imprisoning of “slaves” in cages, as if the only way to earn a living was through the gates of humiliation. It was a daily habit that lasted throughout the 1990s, and the first three years of the 2000s. To get access to the gas, you’d have to be racked with pain, the same way you would be in order to obtain anything that supports your miserable life in a country under the siege.

A family in the North of Syria.

Our house in Swaida

From the roof of our house in one of Swaida’s villages, you could see large clouds of black smoke floating in the sky, due to the combustion of bizarre things that my mother used to burn in the fireplace, so that we would get warm in the long cold days. She used to open up our closets and search for old clothes and worn handbags and throw them in the fireplace, even old shoes would not escape that fate. My mother used to explain, with a content smile on her face, that burning a pair of shoes or one of her daughter’s “Kandara” was better than burning a whole tree; for it left us with warmth that lasted for hours as the air would wavering in the open due to the acute shortage in gas. She never spoke of burning empty plastic bottles nor clothes as a way of heating, but rather prefered a modern way of both heating and cleaning the house from the surplus and no-longer-used items.

As for the human line on the outside, it turned dreams into rubbing palms and freezing noses… The winter in my country was as harsh as a line of burning items.

Like all Syrian women, my mother recognized the meaning of waiting for fuel in all its forms. Other women were no different from my mother, except for them having someone to wait in the lines for them instead. One day, I came across a woman standing in a queue in front of a gas attendant, near our house. She was a fifty-year-old woman in black, wrapping her shawl around her neck and dragging an old baby stroller behind her where she put her empty bottle. A strange scene at the time that grabbed my attention, and still does, though it was becoming more familiar across Damascus, as many are beginning to use their baby strollers to drag around their items. Still however, that woman piqued my curiosity that day, because she was dealing with her stroller with a certain fragile tenderness, as if her baby was still in there. From time to time, she would lean on its hand bar from exhaustion.

From a long distance, you could see other baby strollers waiting in the long line, except the crying of the babies was replaced by the cracking sound of the gas cylinders, shouting, cursing, and the harsh defeat of devastating and desperate need. Upon the arrival of the gas, the woman would drag her stroller carrying her now full gas cylinder with difficulty, as people made room for her. Things grow during the waiting. Even the queues have their way of presenting both the accelerating and slowing of time in the form of the motion of a baby stroller.

While people would be waiting in the gas queues, my mother instead would make a line of old things, throwing them piece by piece in the fireplace, until the line responsible for warmth for that day, would gradually vanish. As for the human line on the outside, it turned dreams into rubbing palms and freezing noses. The winter in my country was as harsh as a line of burning items.

Food distribution queues in Iraq.

2011-2020: Tales of Hunger and Fleeting Moments of Happiness

 

Children sense hunger before adults, and their little pleasures turn into elusive dreams. Inside a small shop, a little girl asks her mother for a “lollipop”, but the mother refuses because she did not have enough money, and purchases only half a kilo of sugar. A young man standing behind her intervenes and takes a “lollipop” from the shelf and gives it to the girl, and pays for it. The mother shyly thanks him and records the half a kilo of the sugar she bought as an item on the list of her debt and walks out.

The tale of hunger is not new in Syria and is not only related to the Caesar Act. Many families suffered from the siege and the loss of food and nutritional items during the war. Some families have been recorded as having to eat the leaves of trees in Eastern Ghouta during its siege.

On the state’s TV channels, the broadcaster asks a man about the rising prices, and the man points to the chicken store and says: “Do you see this store and its chicken menu items? My family and I haven’t tasted them in four years.” Even the stray cats in the streets of Damascus began to feel hungry, as trash bags that used to contain much of the leftover food that the cats used to smell and rip the bags to eat are now almost completely empty.

A taxi driver tells me about a woman who got into the car with her daughter, and asked him to drive her to the Al-Midan neighborhood in the center of the capital, Damascus, where there were the headquarters of a charity that distributes food rations to the most destitute families. On the way, the girl complained of hunger, so the mother put her child’s head on her lap and said to her: “Sleep and dream that you are eating.”

According to the International Red Cross, 9 million Syrians do not know where they will get their next meal, and half of the Syrians do not eat enough food. For its part, the World Food Program announced that 9.3 million Syrians are suffering today from food insecurity, with food prices 209 percent higher than they were 9 years ago.

I do not remember living permanent or even longer-term moments of happiness during the siege on Iraq, I only remember short and fleeting moments. Perhaps the most influential and memorable one was accompanying Uncle Shaker’s arrival from Jordan. when we – the children- would watch the truck turn towards the neighborhood, and we would run out into the street like little puppies dancing and chanting: “Uncle Shaker came! … Uncle Shaker came!”

Uncle Shaker used to work as a truck driver, transporting goods between Iraq and Jordan. At that time, Jordan, specifically the port of Aqaba, was the only entry point for goods entering the besieged Iraq. In return, Iraq was exporting oil to Jordan at preferential prices, close to being free of charge.

I’ve grown up enough to know about my childhood through internationalist reports and statistics that classified us at that time to be under the poverty line. Today, when I read about the inflation rate during the siege period that reached 24000% annually, I understand why my father was unable to buy a school bag for me, and why he gave me his old belt to pack my books in instead, as his monthly salary had been only 5,000 dinars ($ 2.5).

While Uncle Shaker parked his long truck in the street and got out of the driver’s seat, he was a real hero to us, with his clothes showing the impact of his trip, his beard mixed in with white hair. We used to run towards him enthusiastically, racing to embrace him first.

As always, Uncle Shaker would head to the refrigerator of the truck, as we followed behind him like a crowd of little puppies, and he’d give us what we had been waiting for for so long: a tutu biscuit, and a box of “Nashed Ikhwan” candy that he would distribute among us, before he entered his home.

For children like us, who would have bread and tea every day for breakfast, with the price of chewing gum being a big challenge for their families, not to mention the price of buying plastic shoes, hunger would pinche their days. Uncle Shaker was our greatest happiness, and he would come only once every two or three weeks.

I’ve grown up enough to know about my childhood through internationalist reports and statistics that classified us at that time to be under the poverty line. Today, when I read about the inflation rate during the siege period that reached 24000% annually, I understand why my father was unable to buy a school bag for me, and how he gave me his old belt to pack my books in it instead, as his monthly salary was only 5,000 dinars ($ 2.5).

It is truly a miracle that I have survived everything I went through, as I was one of the under-five children whose mortality has almost doubled. While 56 deaths were recorded among every 1000 children during the period of 1984-1989, the number of deaths has jumped to 131 deaths per 1000 in the period from 1994-1999, while the rates of malnutrition among children increased from 12 to 23 percent between 1991- 1996. Also, 70 %of Iraqi women (our mothers) had anemia.

1991-2020: The Stars’ Maps

I’ve always hated the darkness, and I was in the kitchen when it blacked out and there was no source of light. I felt around for the wall, and it felt rough. I walked slowly, then the darkness started filling my heart. I felt like I was about to explode because of it. Eventually, I reached my phone, turned on the flashlights quickly and breathed a deep sigh of relief. I felt as if someone had dipped my head in the water. I hated those long hours associated with the dimmed ‘LED’ light; LED stands for (Light Emitting Diode) which is a light connected to a battery. It is used by almost all families in Syria. We would charge it when the electricity was available, and whenever the battery charge would start dying, its light would dim a bit, without completely fading away, turning the house with it into a lit grave. The battery would never stand the long hours of the blackout, sometimes it would stop working and die, but we would postpone buying a new one because of our financial condition. Mom then took the paraffin lamps off the shelves ―where she had been displaying them as antiques― filled them with kerosene and lit them. I hate that yellow color and the odor of the burning kerosene in the house. When the lights would go out, we would stop laughing, lose all our energy and instead feel scared. The laptop’s battery would not stand the long hours of power outage, and thus, everything would die slowly, with the outside atmosphere becoming darker and more frightening. Thieves would spread in remote villages and the dogs would start barking at things they fear too.

That’s how we had stories with darkness; I still remember the day, when there was a cup of coffee on my right-hand side and a candle on my left-hand side, the power was out, and I was working on my laptop in the middle. I wanted to grab my coffee but instead grabbed the candle, and I moved it close to drink it, almost drinking the candle’s light.

Today as we enter, with our right foot, the wide door of starvation, seeing the fatigue and hunger on Iraqi faces, we realize that the Syrians have also become more fragile. They think about every bite before eating it, will they live what Yemen and Somalia live today? Every necessity’s price must be known before purchasing it, and in most cases, they ask without buying anything.

Whenever anyone wanted to make a deal to import any batteries and LED lamps, their power transformer was burnt, and gunmen would attack them, and we were left to drown in more darkness. I got used to it just as I got used to many other things during these years; such as death, loss and cold. One day, I went out for fresh air, because I’d felt as though the darkness was about to kill me. I never knew that remote villages had dazzling summer skies during power outages. All the stars were shining, even the tiniest and the furthest ones. The Milky Way appeared as clear as an approachable dream. Later, I got used to getting out during some evenings to watch the sky. The darkness meant nothing then, because the sky was a near and safe place.

I was young at the time when my father used to tell us stories of the stars, which were many and amazing, but the one I remember the most was the Big Dipper’s tale. My father used to narrate it repeatedly, because we used to sleep on our small house’s roof a lot, since we were poor under a siege, making the corners of our house really hot and dark. We―the poor―used to fear the corners and the dark, so we’d go up to the rooftops carrying all our fatigue and drowsiness with us. My father used to tell me: “Son, look at the sky! We have so much in common, it’s so distant and lonely.” I used to watch the stars along with their maps and shapes, some of them looked like a scorpion and some formed the shape of a snake, while others looked like a bird that I named and forgot its name later. I used to doze off during my father’s narration of the story, then he used to say: “Go to sleep, son, tomorrow when we go up to the rooftop again, I will tell you the whole story, and I will show you Capricornus.” He was referring to a group of dense stars that gather on a summer night, as clear as mom’s soul; who watch over our tired bodies, with a breeze resulting from the movement of her black shawl until everything ―but her luminous shadow that looks like an emission nebula― fades away, and we fall into a long awaited sleep. Oh, the sleep of the poor! My father was sincere in narrating the stars’ tales; He believed that they could kill, betray, love and get defeated. He believed that they were just like us, but he never knew that they had died long ago. He never knew that the Big Dipper who kidnapped the child of the Canopus star had died, just as the betrayed father had also died a long time ago. He didn’t know that Canopus, that used to appear every night in the sky, seeking the pleasure of his child’s company, had also died, and that his child had died as well. He didn’t know that the Sea Goat (Capricornus), which killed the Big Dipper and accused Canopus Star of it, had exploded and turned into cosmic dust. However, my father was honest, sincere and sad, because we have so much in common with the stars.

This is how I remember those days where the long hours passed without electricity. I feel them and I remember the smell of time, and I touch the places through the tales and speeches that we used so we could make it to another dull and long day. I also remember that, on those nights when we were on the rooftop and an eclipse occurred, we used to fear the idea of darkness. In our Iraqi popular culture, we believed that the Pisces comes every year to swallow the moon. In order to avoid living in eternal darkness, we have to defend our one and only moon, the one that gives us light and hope. That’s why we would take the pots, spoons and kitchen utensils to the rooftops, bang the iron together and chant: “Oh Evil Whale, leave our high and beloved moon alone.” And so the sound rises from the roof to the moon, until the celestial black Pisces (the whale) recedes, leaving the moon, and we ―who have been broken by many defeats and ousted by darkness, from our houses to the rooftops― win, for once.

2020: The Wide Door of Starvation

About two years ago, an old friend wrote to me, we had gone together to the same primary school, before each of us moved to a different middle school in 2000. He told me that he still had our old group photo that was taken in the garden of al-Abrar school, and I immediately asked him to send it over, which he did without delay. It took me a while to recognize myself. I changed a lot, aged a lot, and I missed that young cheeky boy so much.

At that time, I could not afford the photo’s price, it was 500 Iraqi dinars (25 cents) which amounted to 10 percent of the salary of a regular employee. It was a relatively big amount for Iraqi families that fell into poverty, upon the collapse and the siege of Iraq, so I had just stood with the students to take the photos, but I did not put my name on the list of those who wanted copies of them, thus forgetting all about my features over the years.

Poverty was a collective state, the riches were very rare in every single neighborhood, and I still remember the street where we used to live during the siege, which we used to call ‘the widows’ street’. In each of the seven neighboring houses, there was a widow who had lost her husband in the Iran-Iraq War, and they made bread for others, or worked in household related jobs, such as sewing, for a little amount of money.

Only death was growing and blossoming in Iraq, while everything else was falling apart, with humanity being crushed slowly with the siege over the course of 13 years. More than a million and half people died of hunger, malnutrition, the outbreak of infectious diseases, and the collapse of the healthcare system, including 500 thousand children. The infrastructure was paralyzed and neglected, and the middle class disappeared from the societal fabric of Iraq. College graduates and state employees were crowding workers in the streets, and it was not surprising while walking in Iraq’s streets to see a teacher or an engineer sitting on the sidewalks to sell cigarettes, shoes, used clothes, or anything else that would provide them with some money.

Iraq turned into a large mass grave during the blockade, and that period witnessed the largest human capital flight; 23 thousand researchers, scientists, and college graduates left Iraq to exile, joining 2.5 million other Iraqis who fled from the hell of poverty and the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein. As the former American secretary of state, James Baker, said: “Iraq has returned to the pre-industrial era”.

Today as we enter, with our right foot, the wide door of starvation, seeing the fatigue and hunger on Iraqi faces, we realize that the Syrians have also become more fragile. They think about every bite before eating it, will they live what Yemen and Somalia live today? Every necessity’s price must be known before purchasing it, and in most cases, they ask without buying anything. A shabby man enters the pharmacy, inquiring about the cheapest baby diapers, only to have the seller reply that nearly all of them have the same price, but with different sizes. He did not even ask about the price, turning his back and leaving. I think about what he would do now that he did not obtain the diapers, would the mother in the family make diapers out of cloth? In the same city in the south of Syria, an old man walked around weakly and barefoot. A Range Rover passes by him, a car I am afraid of imagining owning one day, and the man turned his head to watch the car drive away, then resumed walking.

Do not get deceived if they told you that you can live a decent life by being frugal, in Syria, for frugality definitely means hunger. A mother cooks “stuffed zucchini,” but there are many family members, so, before she places the main dish, she takes out the broth, with the bread crumbs in it, and everyone eats from the tray. When they are about to get full, the mother would bring out the rice-stuffed zucchini, which was how children would get full of “stuffed zucchini” without devouring it all at once. Fear pushes families to more austerity; there were rumors about the government’s intentions to lift its subsidies of basic commodities, saying they will take a survey, taking into consideration the number of owned cars, as well as your telephone and mobile phone bills, and your cellphone model, all of which will determine your economic standard. Thus, the subsidized commodities would reach those who need them, knowing that 82 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line! My neighbor jokingly said that day, “Let’s hide the “Kubba” that we made today, they may deny us subsidies’ right if they knew that we can afford to eat kubba.”

With her salary of 45 thousand Syrian pounds, which is less than 20 dollars, she goes to the market, looking around with confusion and uncertainty, buying a little of the things she strongly needs, a small amount of cheese, a little thyme, one can of beans, the smallest bottle of dish soap. She would get lost trying to purchase oil, telling me, “I was about to ask the shop owner for a little amount of oil, two or three spoons! The one liter bottle is very expensive and I really just need a little.”

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