Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Courage & Grief: Iraqi Parliament's memorial service for its slain members

Bored out of my mind from hanging around the press room and having not even received an embed with the local Boy Scout jamboree, I decided to walk next door to the Convention Center and see what I could see regarding yesterday’s suicide bombing of the Center’s cafeteria – where one Parliamentarian was killed and approximately 25 Parliamentarians were injured.

Outside the Center, I was suddenly caught up in a wave of people flowing toward the Center's doors so I joined them. We all went through strict body searches and got sniffed at by bomb-sniffing dogs but then they let us into the building.

“Can I go see where the bomb went off?” I asked a guard. Sure. “Can I take photos?” No no no no. The guard pointed to a slit in a partition from where I could see the bombed-out cafeteria. There had been four or five tables completely destroyed – right next to the one where I had sat the other day. There were shards of glass everywhere throughout the area and a balcony wall had been blown out. I picked a piece of glass up off the floor and looked at it. It was at least one-fourth inch thick. It must have been quite a blast.

Then I followed the flow of Iraqi cameramen and Iraqis dressed in abayas and suits into the Parliament meeting chamber itself. OMG. This is a memorial service for the Parliamentarian who had died yesterday!

“We are here to show the terrorists that we will not be intimidated,” the delegate in line behind me said.

I took a seat in the back of the assembly hall with about 50 other journalists and cameramen – located on the other side of the wall from the poor doomed cafeteria. In the front of the room sat over 100 delegates.

Three men presided from the dais and then a fourth man read verses from the Qur’an. Then du’a was prayed for the injured and the dead. On all of the tables – it was set up like what UN conferences look like on TV – there were tactfully-placed boxes of Kleenex.

There were too many empty chairs.

I grabbed a Kleenex.

The speeches – eulogies? -- were all in Arabic but even a third-grader could figure out the gist. The event had the aura of a funeral service – and just on the other side of the wall next to me, the carnage of broken tables, broken glass and broken hearts existed in mute testimony to human sorrow.

“When will mankind finally start living up to its ideals,” I had asked the English-speaking delegate, “and stop catering to our lowest emotions?”

The delegate just shook his head. “Jesus and Mohammed showed us the way. Why are we so slow to learn? Only Allah knows.”

There was another moment of silent prayer. This WAS a memorial service. Steady, Jane. Don’t start crying! Too late.

I couldn’t tell what the next speaker was saying because of the Arabic but it wasn’t hard to guess. His voice seemed to be filled with grief and it broke several times. It was the same with the next speaker. Passion and heartbreak.

Then some delegates spoke from the floor. One Iraqi newsman fell asleep. More delegates came and left. I needed to use the bathroom. But the solemnity of the occasion held strong, held me in my seat. I could wait. A nation’s heart was breaking here.

A woman delegate spoke next. More sadness.

I’m missing lunch here but this is worth it. I could always live on energy bars when I got back to the press room. This is food for the soul.

In this assemby hall are Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – and they all are getting along fine. I wonder if Prime Minister Maliki is here. “Is Maliki here?” I asked the reporter next to me. He nodded his head no. A large wreath of flowers was presented to someone and everyone stood for du’a again. And I’m here in my jeans.

When we had come into the Center, we were all investigated by bomb-sniffing dogs and body-searched too. But still and all, it’s gotta be a brave thing that the delegates are doing, to come here today.

Then about 20 or 30 more delegates arrived who had apparently not been able to get through the checkpoints until then. And a wreath was placed in the chair of the slain Parliamentarian. I developed a cough and drowned myself with water but I just couldn’t leave. The air itself was filled with courage and grief. I could always use the restroom later.

“Is this a memorial service?” I asked the reporter next to me. "No. It’s a show of defiance against the terrorists and a condemnation of carnage.” But that in itself is a memorial too.