Saturday, May 24, 2003
'Ali Baba' Now Synonymous With Thievery
By BASSEM MROUE
Associated Press Writer
May 24, 2003, 5:24 AM EDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the chaos and lawlessness of postwar Baghdad, even the good name of Ali Baba, a much-loved character of Arab folklore, has become synonymous with thievery.
Hardly anyone in Iraq doesn't know who Ali Baba is, but the name is being tossed around the capital these days in a decidedly unliterary way -- to refer to looting that followed the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops April 9.
"Ali Baba," reads a sign on a storefront, explaining why it's empty. "No Ali Baba!" says graffiti on a wall, exhorting American troops to keep looters away.
"After the looting of ministries and banks, Ali Baba became the symbol of theft," says Waddah Hassan, 43, who owns a carpenter shop.
But the reference is wrong: In the actual story, Ali Baba wasn't a thief. He was the honest guy -- the one the thieves tried to kill.
In the tale, Ali Baba is in the forest with his donkeys to collect wood when he sees a large group of men on horseback riding toward him. He watches them enter a cave and stash their gold and silver inside. Later, when the men -- the 40 thieves -- realize he knows their secret, they decide to kill him.
The thieves' leader then comes to town posing as an oil merchant. With his men hiding in huge oil jars, he makes his way into Ali Baba's house. But Ali Baba's slave girl spots their ruse and kills each thief by pouring boiling oil into the jars.
Ali Baba is a familiar character in Baghdad. The city's Kahramana Square -- informally called Ali Baba Square -- features a statue of a young woman pouring water into 40 huge jars, symbolizing the ancient tale. The square is also known as "40 Thieves Square."
The phrase was kicking around Baghdad before the war, though it was nowhere near as common.
Fadhel Jasem, 59, tells the story of how American soldiers chased looters from the Al-Hurriya printing house in Baghdad's Bab al-Muadham neighborhood.
"Of course the Americans don't speak Arabic. So they shouted to them, `Ali Baba! Ali Baba!'" Jasem said. "Ali Baba represents theft to foreigners."
Some blame it on Saddam, who proclaimed a general amnesty in October that left tens of thousands of hardened criminals on the streets -- and who left his people poor.
"This led to robbing and looting," said Ghaleb al-Zaidi, 27, a businessman. "And people started calling thieves Ali Baba."
Last month, London-based Amnesty International criticized the United States after seeing a Norwegian newspaper report about U.S. forces escorting three men naked through a Baghdad park. The story featured three photographs, including one showing a man with the words "Ali Baba -- thief" scrawled in Arabic on his chest. The United States said at the time that it was looking into the matter.
On Baghdad's Haifa Street, the looters aren't the only ones being blamed for thievery. But the old standard is still being pressed into service, as a sign on a wall this week illustrated.
"The real Ali Baba," it said, "is the USA."
Copyright (c) 2003, The Associated Press
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