A few days ago I arrived in Basra – upon stepping out of the plane, the heat slapped me in the face. Captured, from this very moment on my body has been dictating since then my daily routine.
It is 55 degrees C and very humid. At night there is sometimes a warm wind, making it seem difficult to breathe. In the morning I wake up sweaty and with a headache and need a few hours to be able to face the day.
My Iraqi friends, Hassan and Mehdi, two Shia Men in their late twenties and Maryen, a Chaldäen Christian, take me on afternoon excursions in the city, which was once called the Venice of the Middle East.
Yesterday, in the old town, we saw beautiful Shanasheel Houses, traditional Iraqi houses constructed at the beginning of the 20th century.
Most of them are empty and rundown. The first one we enter was built by a Sheikh called Sheikh Hassel Al Kabi and belongs now to the Ministry for Cultural Affairs. It was a modern house in its time. Built in 1920, its interior does not seem typical for a Shanasheel house as it is too embroidered – everything decorated with wooden artworks.
This house is supposed to become a museum but there isn’t enough money. Right now there are other priorities in Iraq than art and culture.
The current interior architect of this house has spent a long time in Germany, in the city of Mannheim; his German is good. He came back in order to take part in the reconstruction of his country. He tells me that the treasures of these houses are in Baghdad and that nothing was left here.
Another house, with a visibly once-beautiful garden full of date palms, formerly belonged to a Jewish family. Nowadays it is used as an office for archaeological affairs. Many of its rooms are dilapidated since renovation is too expensive.
In front of these houses there are canals, through which small boats once passed. Today there is only a little water left in them; they are filled with plastic bottles which won’t dissolve, I also saw a decaying dog, shoes and clothes. A garbage dump in the water.
It’s obvious that this was once a wealthy city where people lived surrounded by beauty, however all this is gone today. Who should, after more than 30 years of one war after another, think about beauty?
Numerous Iraqi policemen and soldiers in the centre have their checkpoints in front of places which get crowded, such as next to the market, at Al Jazaar Street.
I feel relatively safe in this city. The last car bomb exploded in the middle of June, when a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle in front of a police building and killed five policemen. However, apart from single events like this, it is calm in Basra, my friends say. Nothing compared to the capital, where one can hear explosions from time to time.
Basra is surrounded by the oilfields – the biggest in the country are found in this province; nevertheless I haven’t seen so much poverty anywhere else in the country as here in the South.
Since the 1980’s Basra has seen three wars. Everywhere there are traces – my young friends tell me about the difficulties of going to school and coming home safely during the Iran-Iraq and the Gulf War. They show me the bullet holes in their houses.
Today we went to the Shatt Al Arab, a river created through the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which flows through Basra to the Persian Golf.
Life here looks ordinary; men and boys are swimming in the water in order to get a few moments of relief from the heat.
Sometimes women pass by in black Abbayas, only their face visible. However, not all wear these clothes, sometimes there is a woman with a colourful headscarf, more rarely a women without headscarf (there are about 500 Christians in this city).
The people I meet and speak to are open minded, interested in knowing what is happening outside Iraq, they have humour, are frequently ironic, and have learned not to take the difficulties of daily life too seriously.
At present there are 8 hours a day of public electricity – 2 hours on, 4 hours off. Anyone who needs more has to buy a generator. Drinking water must be bought as well, as the tap water is not clean. Water in general is the main problem here – there is too little. But that’s another story, for another letter.
Agata Skowronek has been based in Istanbul since 2007, specialising in photography of the Middle East. Previously she lived in Poland, Germany, Spain and the UK. Agata’s photos have been published in national publications including Le Monde, El Pais, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel and she has also collaborated with NGOs such as Intermón Oxfam and UNICEF. Her website is Agata Skowronek Photo.
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