Every couple of years, I randomly browse Google Maps for childhood places, schools, shops, markets, football fields, etc. To squeeze some nostalgia, see if I have any memories.
Looking at my elementary school, and going down the memory lane, it reminded me of the school assemblies I attended every Thursday morning. And the memory felt absolutely surreal, and hadn’t I been through it at least 200 times, I wouldn’t believe it was real.
It truly feels like a Western sketch made to mock a totalitarian country, 200 years after it was hit by a mind virus.
Raising the flag
Officially, the main point of the assembly is raising the flag and singing the national anthem. This is the most normal part of the assembly. Many countries do a variation of pleading allegiance to the flag, including the United States. Note that I’m not implying it makes sense or that I agree with it, it’s actually wild to me, but it is normal and is done in many countries.
The devil in the details
Before singing the anthem, and school principal or vice principal would shout drill commands, the students should respond in specific ways. There was some variation between schools, but it’s usually one of these:
Students: We’ll sacrifice our souls and blood for our leader, Saddam!
Principal: Raise the flag.
The flag is risen, the students sing the anthem. Then one of the kinds in the flag squad, an early teenager, would fire 3 live bullets in the air.
Students: Long live Baathism!
Principal: Raise the flag. The flag is risen. Anthem sung, bullets fired.
Principal: At rest!
Students: Long live our leader.
Here is a video of it:
This video is government propaganda, so this is probably the cleanest and most beautiful school in entire Iraq back then. My school looked nothing like this.
In some schools, where kids are too young to shoot, the principal would shoot the gun themselves. Here’s an example of that from 1999:
There are also custom-made drill commands
Principal: Our symbol and our leader?
Students: Saddam Hussein!
Principal: Our motto?
Students: One Unified Arab Nation, bearing an Eternal Message.
Principal: Our goals?
Students: Unity. Liberty. Socialism.
An accident at my school
On one occasion, the school principal was on leave, so the VP, Mrs. Nidhal, decided to shoot the gun herself during assembly with absolutely zero training. While the anthem was roaring, she lifted the AK-47, held it with both hands and shot.
My theory is that one of her fingers was in the area marked in red (see below), and when you shoot an automatic rifle, the charging handle (marked in blue) goes back and forth, well… automatically, and really fast. The handle hit her finger and she screamed and simply let go of the gun and dropped it. The gun hit the floor and luckily didn’t fire any further. She picked it up, pretended nothing had happened, and the assembly continued like normal.
I was just a student, but I’d bet good money there is zero paper trail behind that accident.
Every class had a representative teacher, so during assembly, this teacher would stand in front of the class.
At the end of the assembly, the representative teacher would inspect the students one by one to see if our fingernails are clipped. They would check every hand. If they find dirty or unclipped nails, they’d move you to the front line of the group. Then, once done inspecting, they would publicly shame those with dirty nails on the speakers in front of the entire assembly. At other times, they would line the kids up and the principal would give them a smacking on their hands one by one.
Luckily, I was never part of this group because I always made sure to secretly give myself a mouth manicure during assembly, ironically that was probably the least hygienic thing to do.
Sporadically, they’d also inspect our hair to see if someone has their hair too long, or if they have a bad haircut (as in morally bad). Some haircuts are frowned upon, like the bowl haircut. This kid would be absolutely in trouble.
Occasionally, a student would go next to the flag, and recite a classic poem called the “Flag poem” by Jamil Alzahawi.
No talking or moving during assembly
It’s probably obvious, but you’re not allowed to do anything in assembly besides standing quietly. No going to the bathroom. No talking. No reading. Just stand and look up!
Militarization of children
This was a massive effort to make every Iraqi a soldier at heart. In the sense of following orders, never questioning authority, and blindly following every rule.
There were even two special types of students, The Baath Vanguard and The Saddam’s Cubs (because Saddam was a lion, duh).
The Baath Vanguard is kids who get extra military training and are taught discipline during school days and may get a leg up later in life.
Pictured: Children enrolled into The Baath Vanguard. This little girl is sporting pants with the Arab world imprinted on them, a symbol of pan-Arabism.
The Saddam’s Cubs are a bit more extreme, and they’re trained in summer camps to shoot guns, hunt and eat raw animals, fighting and self-defense skills, and some basic training.
The difference after 2003
I found this video from 2005 (Saddam was toppled in 2003), of a school assembly and the difference is absolutely stark. The only political thing that was mentioned is “We would like to declare that we believe in a united Iraq of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian, Muslims and Christians, etc.”. And a chant of “Love live Iraq”.