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basra tribes demand locals go offline when using tribal facilities

Saleem al-Wazzan
In Basra, tribal leaders have decided that anyone using tribal meeting facilities may as well leave their laptops and smartphones at home. The meeting rooms used to provide free Internet but the service has been…
17.07.2014  |  Basra
An Arabic computer keyboard: No longer allowed in Basra's diwans.
An Arabic computer keyboard: No longer allowed in Basra's diwans.


Up until recently tribal meeting rooms in Basra had been starting to resemble Internet cafes. Often there was free wireless Internet provided in these places – the meeting and guest rooms ostensibly used for tribal discussions and other business are also known as “diwans” – and a lot of the young men of the tribe would hang around here with their smart phones and laptops, drinking coffee and smoking, catching up on social media and swapping news about the football World Cup. But recently all this has changed.

The leaders and elders of several local tribes in Basra have decided to ban the use of the Internet in their diwans and in any other tribal meeting place.

The decision has been controversial. As one Internet user in his forties, who use to go to meetings in the diwan, says: “The Internet is modern and it has renewed the social lifeblood of the diwan”.

Now apparently a lot of people, who used to go to the diwan and stay until late at night, are reluctant to attend meetings there at all.

“The tribes of Zubair have agreed to ban the use of Internet inside the diwans,” explains one local tribal leader there, Abdullah Aziz al-Khafaji. “Its use is a sign of disrespect in places which were created for the discussion of social and tribal issues, not for wasting time and having fun.”

“All the tribes here have banned the use of laptops and some have also banned mobile phone use,” he told NIQASH. “Everybody has respected the decision and is abiding by it.”

Diwans are places where issues are resolved either within a tribe or between two separate tribes. For example, issues around marriage, divorce and reparations are decided here. Tribal elders decide how much a perpetrator should compensate in cases of accidental or non-accidental injuring, for instance. It is also the place where tribal elders discuss social, economic and political subjects – for example, discussions in one’s local diwan would have a big impact on how one voted and which candidates one supported during the last Iraqi general elections, held earlier this year.

The sanctity of these places must be preserved, says Mohammed Hussein al-Shammari, a leader from the Shammar tribe. “Wasting time online or on your phone is against tribal customs,” he explained. “Instead of listening to what’s going on properly and paying attention to what is discussed, people’s minds are elsewhere. This diminishes the value of the diwan and takes away from the reason why they were originally created.”

Another Basra tribal leader, Nasser Audeh al-Unan, says that the speakers in the diwan are talking but nobody listens.

“I am tired of seeing the old and young busy with their mobile phones, the Internet and social media sites,” al-Unan says. “Most of the diwans were happy to offer free Internet but it’s gotten out of control. Some users started to give away the passwords and router numbers and they turned the tribal meeting places into Internet cafes. And that means these important places lose their significance. We decided to ban the Internet in diwans in order to restore the sanctity of tribal councils,” he argued.

Of course, not everyone is pleased about this decision.

One young activist in Basra, Sami al-Maliki, says being able to go online and check out social media websites is contributing to a more open society in Iraq. It also opens up dialogue between different sectors of Iraqi society.

“What people choose to do cannot be suppressed,” al-Maliki says. “Often there are social and political issues that go from social media in the diwan to a real time discussion in the diwan. The different sites contribute to the debate and give a new dimension to activities at the diwan.”

Even some other tribal leaders are opposed. “Individuals should be responsible for their own choices,” says Sattar al-Ukaili from the Shuaybah area in Basra. “This ban is not correct nor has it been adequately considered. Not all tribal meetings are serious ones and there are rarely sessions where everybody is required to listen. A lot of time is spent on chatting actually.”

In fact, al-Ukaili argues, a lot of the time people come to the diwan because they hear about a meeting or talk on the Internet. And there had always been a sign posted showing the password and wireless network in the diwan. So this ban is hypocritical, al-Ukaili argued.

Because the decision has upset many locals and caused some to stay away from their local diwan, some tribal leaders are considering meeting Internet users halfway.

“Possibly we could introduce amendments that allows locals to benefit from the Internet during ordinary days in the diwan but then cut the Internet off during important sessions, when cases of murder, theft or other crimes are discussed,” suggests Hassan al-Saray, a leader of the Saray tribe in Basra.