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city of leaders
visiting baghdad’s top secret community for politicians

Piera Penjweny
Qadisiya is a guarded city-within-a-city where Baghdad politicians reside. Ordinary Iraqis can never enter here. And as one visitor to Qadisiya suggests, it’s a metaphor for the division between the people…
6.12.2011  |  Baghdad
Photo: Jamal Penjweny
Photo: Jamal Penjweny

The walled and heavily fortified compound of Qadisiya in central Baghdad is home to rows and rows of upmarket villas owned by Iraqi politicians and ministers. It is located near the also-heavily fortified Green Zone, or International Zone, where most foreigners live and work, also the site of the huge US Embassy. Yet Qadisiya is a city-within-a-city, with its own rules and social mores, its own security and its own special inhabitants: the leaders of Iraq.

Occasional NIQASH contributor Piera Penjweny was able to visit Qadisiya and wrote the following personal commentary, in which she reflects upon the nature of political leaders who are disconnected from the people they govern by walls and guards.

Qadisiya is a city of leaders. In order to live here, one must be an MP, a minister or possibly a politician who has managed to hang onto parliamentary privileges after leaving office.

Qadisiya is fortified. There are concrete walls, three meters high, that extend seven kilometres around the neighbourhood. On each of the neighbourhood’s five sides, there is an entrance. At the eastern portal, a road leads to the rest of Baghdad. At the western portal, a road paves the way to the rest of the world via Baghdad International Airport.

To those who live outside, Qadisiya is mystery. If you try to peek through the cracks between the walls, there are guards who forbid you from coming within twenty meters of the walls. Those living outside do not know what this place is or what its inhabitants look like, how they live, what they wear, what they talk about or what they do in their daily lives.

Qadisiya’s gates are hidden at the end of a twisting road and 4WD cars, with black windows, emerge at high speed, heading to the wealthy nearby neighbourhood of Jadriya, the heavily fortified Green Zone, where most foreigners live, or to the airport. Behind the blackened windows, the passengers are hidden. They can see you but you cannot see them. You can’t tell who the driver is, who is sitting in the back and who is beside him.

Few can enter here. You cannot walk in, you must drive. And whether you get in depends on the guards at the checkpoints. They only let cars showing a special permission on the dashboard, in. If you have a meeting inside the walled neighbourhood, you should ensure that one of Qadisiya’s residents calls the guards at the entrance beforehand.

But sometimes even this is not enough. You must act submissive, remain silent and bow your head to the power hungry guards. You must explain your reason for visiting. Only then, will they lift up the iron barrier and let you pass.

Inside Qadisiya there are only three colours: grey, light brown and light green. It is dull, silent and empty. Identical villas line up along a concrete street that looks like nobody has ever walked down it. Their facades match. They’re all made from the same brownish bricks, two storeys high and overlook a garden with palm trees. It is only possible to distinguish between them by the inhabitants’ names on the doors.

Still, each villa owner has tried to be more unique: one has the highest palm tree, another has the most expensive entrance, decorated in gold, and another has the biggest garden. But despite this, there is no disguising the fact that the basic designs and building materials are the same throughout - all designed in April 2003 by the same engineer.

Qadisiya is not a real home to anyone; instead it is a second home. The villa’s residents come from Basra, Najaf, Diwaniya, Erbil, Mosul, Sulaymaniyah and smaller towns and villages. Their residences in Qadisiya are where they invite others, where things are discussed, decisions made and alliances forged or broken.

But these houses are not like ordinary homes, to be treated with affection. There are signs of luxury development but they’re underutilised. In one yard, workers have left a half-completed swimming pool. Blue tiles, searching for their allotted slot, are scattered around in the dust. Gardens are abandoned. Some are flooded by leaking water, others have been dried out by the heat.

Bathrooms are dirty, toilets are clogged with cigarettes. Rooms are furnished with only one purpose in mind, to hold meetings for ten or more people who arrive there from other villas. Brown couches decorated with gold floral motives are deteriorating. Plastic chairs are stacked in case more people turn up than were expected. On the wall, there are three clocks all showing different times - 6am, 4pm and 10pm – and they hang next to pictures of the owners’ forefathers in traditional tribal clothing.

In Qadisiya there is no sectarianism or ethnic strife: Shiite Muslims live alongside Sunni Muslims and Arabs beside Kurds. The individuals who feature as the most vehement opponents in daily Iraqi media headlines are the closest neighbours here in Qadisiya.

Qadisiya is governed by one desire: to stay in this small city-within-a-city at any cost. Guaranteed long term residency is difficult. Inhabitants compete for a place and are determined to hold onto their villas.

And if you don\'t maintain a good balance between those who are your friends and those who are your enemies, you are out. Everything is manipulated toward this end: residents invite one another to their identical villas, they share breakfasts, lunches and teas. They serve rice to their guests in one another’s plates and handle the most delicious part of the chicken to tempt their invitees. Inside the salons, new allies shake hands and new enemies emerge. With their mouths still full of food, the residents of Qadisiya repeat the same series of words: federalism, a centralised government, dictatorship, democracy, constitution and parliament.

Former enemies become allies and the supporters of federalism become fans of centralism, their priorities clear: to stay in Qadisiya.

Qadisiya’s residents don’t know much about life outside the walls of their compound. It is too dangerous for them to walk outside. Yet they spend their mornings and afternoons evaluating what should, and should not be done, in that outside world. And it seems that the more they talk, the less they know.

The people on the outside, in the rest of Baghdad, tell a story about Qadisiya, this fantastic city-within-a-city they can never see.

This is how it goes: while the guards of Qadisiya were busy deciding who could come in and who could not, five cats from Baghdad managed to slink inside. And while Qadisiya’s residents were consumed in discussion, decision-making and alliance-formation, the five cats began to occupy their neglected gardens.

First they made the gardens their homes, then they began to enter the salons where the meetings were held. The cats are silent and they are ignored – yet they reproduce and multiply. The more the guards are busy with their controls and the residents distracted by their decision making, the more the cats slink around Qadisiya, occupying and reproducing. Soon they will have made their way into every last corner of the secret city-within-a-city, every last garden will be theirs.

And once they control Qadisiya completely, Baghdadis say, the city-within-a-city will vanish, all of its inhabitants and their villas will disappear. And Baghdad will return to life.

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