I caught a free showing tonight of “Iraq in Fragments” at the National Archives, where it was playing as part of their week-long series of Oscar-nominated documentaries.
The film presents three stories. One is of a young boy in Baghdad whose father “disappeared” in jail under Saddam’s regime. Now he struggles between school and working in a machine shop and doesn’t do so well at either endeavor. His future seems hopeless as the city descends further and further into chaos around him. The consensus among the boy’s community is that things were bad under Saddam, but they are worse now. In particular, they complain that Saddam stole all the oil wealth and now America is stealing it while letting the country spin into uncontrolled violence.
The third story is about a Kurdish boy growing up on a sheep farm and working in brick-making kilns. His family is of the general opinion that the Kurds must be independent and they are thankful for the Americans freeing them from Saddam’s oppression.
But it’s the second story of a young man in an unnamed southern town that struck a chord with me as a beer drinker. The man’s Shiite religious practices were banned during Saddam’s regime. But his discontent with the American occupation and his commitment to anti-Western religious zealotry drive him to join Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
In one of the film’s scariest sequences, a group of these militant fundamentalists declare religious vigilante war on the sale of alcohol in the town’s marketplace. Armed with automatic weapons, the militiamen storm the marketplace, round up suspects, beat them on the spot, and haul them into captivity. The suspects plead innocence as their wives beg the captors to spare their husbands lives (it’s surprising how the film-maker was able to get all this on film). The Mehdi vigilantes denounce alcohol as a “depravity” brought to Iraq by America.
The irony, of course, is that Iraq is where the earliest known beer-based urban civilization emerged almost 10,000 years ago. A further irony, a far crueler one, is that this misguided attempt to blame everything on alcohol is not only doomed to failure, but it is a distraction from Iraq’s real problems, just as our own Prohibition movement in this country failed to address the real problems brought on by industrialization and the breakdown of community. Anti-alcohol vigilante-ism will never help the Shia gain control of their destiny. It will only serve to isolate them by convincing the world that they are avowed terrorists.
As I type this, I am drinking a glass of “Diabolique,” an abbey-style ale brewed by De Proefbrouwerij in Belgium, a country where religious monks make the beer. The rocky white head crowning my chalice looks like altocumulus clouds up in the heavens.