The shadow of war

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Olivia Ward visits Iraq and finds a people whose daily lives are confined by fear, poverty and economic isolation

Coughing, his eyes watering from the dust, Moshan Awadi opens yet another tome of frayed type and fading technical drawings. He is hoping to glean just a little more information from this one than from the last. It was published in 1986, but there may be some undiscovered nugget in it - something to make him feel he is still able to expand his knowledge; to connect with the outside world; to learn something new.

"It's a futile idea, of course," admits the slight, grey-haired civil engineer, smiling wryly. "But what choice do I have?"

It's a rhetorical question. In Baghdad's weekly book market on teeming Rashid Street, as elsewhere in Iraq, the choices are few and uninspiring.

Hemmed in by economic sanctions, poverty, tyranny and the ever-present threat of war, Iraqis live in a state of suspended animation. It's a strange, contradictory existence, reaching out to the world but feeling betrayed by it, yearning for some sort of freedom, but imprisoned on every side. Real life, they know, is elsewhere. But they must live as though the unreality were real. Fear, denial and anger are at war within them, leaving a permanent sensation of hollow exhaustion.

"Imagine an engineer who can't get his hands on a technical journal," says Awadi. "Imagine a professional who can't go to international conferences, who has no idea about the latest advances in techniques or materials, and who has to pick up his knowledge from the dust, like an archaeologist."

At his feet are piles of grimy technical books of every size and description, some in English, others German, French and Arabic. The other stalls along the street are the same, no more than blankets thrown on the ground and covered in a thick layer of dog-eared volumes, long past their shelf lives.

Shoppers of all ages bend over them with concentration, sweating, while the relentless sun claws its way through the heavy smog overhead. In November, the heat is supposed to end, releasing Iraqis from the punishment of broiling temperatures. But here, where the sun was once worshipped, even this old god has seemed to turn against them.

Iraq's intellectuals, its sophisticated middle class, have suffered the most bitter losses in the past two decades. Once they were in the vanguard of Iraq's great leap forward to intellectual leadership of the Middle East, after the socialist Ba'th party took over in 1968. Now they have fallen into dire poverty and isolation. It is on them that the wars and sanctions which destroyed the economy have rebounded most painfully.

There is pain, too, in the knowledge that civilisation began in Iraq: that when mud-caked European tribes were wandering the land with their cattle, the tallymen of the great city state of Ur, in the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, were inventing writing to keep their accounts. Here too the wheel was invented and mathematics was born.

Now, those who regularly gather at Baghdad's second-hand market do so because they can no longer buy new books. Some are forbidden to Iraq, because their content is considered suspect under the rules of the United Nations "oil-for-food" programme that allows the government to sell a portion of its oil in exchange for humanitarian goods. Other books and professional journals are too expensive or difficult to import. And with its thinkers cut off from the swift-running mainstream of modern knowledge, Iraq cannot hope to produce its own new materials. For its intellectuals, the thread that linked them to the world of learning snapped in 1990 when the sanctions barrier came down.

At the end of the chaotic, seething market street, weary shoppers jam their way into a tea house, its cracked tile floors as dusty as their recycled books. Several plump men are slumped against the wall, puffing on sweet-smelling nargilas, their eyes half-closed in the forgetfulness of tobacco and attar. Across from them sits an elderly man dressed in an immaculately clean, shiny grey suit. He sips slowly from a tiny tea glass as though drawing out every drop of the fiercely strong liquid.

"It is like a game," he says. "We look at the books, there's nothing new, but we buy something. We pretend it will do us good. We come here to talk, but we say the same things. We do not ask questions, because there are no answers."

In Iraq today, questions are dangerous. Answers are supplied by the government and are not to be taken lightly. Privately, Iraqis may blame their leader Saddam Hussein for visiting yet another misfortune upon them, but they need little convincing that the West is the source of their suffering. As the drums of war beat ever louder, the pressure is increasing to close ranks against their inexplicably hostile foreign enemies. Once more they are living under the vulture's wing of impending death.

"If you ask people on the street how they feel," says Dr Anwar Barnouti, "they'll just shrug. But in my office I see the signs of severe stress."

Barnouti (Master of the Royal College of Physicians, UK) is a greying, thoughtful man who admits that his own nerves are badly frayed by the looming conflict, which most Iraqis know will spark a political earthquake that may bury the innocent alongside the guilty. When Barnouti comes to his office from the hospital each afternoon he must fight his way through lines of patients, many in psychological as well as physical distress.

"People in their 20s and 30s are suffering from high blood pressure," he says. "Diabetes is starting at earlier and earlier ages. There are stomach ulcers, chronic bowel problems and migraine headaches. And because people are weakened by poor nutrition, they catch every cold and flu that goes around and are much sicker than they would normally be."

In a nearby pharmacy on Sadoun Street, Imad Jawad nods his head in agreement. He is the manager of the store and has begun a small herbal medicine business to fill the needs of his customers who can't afford more costly remedies for what are now common complaints.

"There's so much trouble sleeping these days," he says. "And some people can't cope with their daily lives. I had to give my sister Valium the other night, because she was so overwrought from listening to news programmes about a war."

From the poorest to the richest, no one is spared the anxiety that comes with the daily uncertainty of life. In the threadbare villages of southern Iraq - one of the poorest parts of the country - sharecropping farmers throw up their hands in despair. "We can do nothing but worry and pray," says Reza Toma, a 60-year-old woman whose lined, leathery skin is muffled in black robes and leg-bindings, despite vicious 40xC heat. One of Iraq's Shi'a majority, ruled by Saddam's Sunni elite, she is used to a life of powerlessness. But it has been made worse by the recent death of her husband Mohamed, who left her and his second wife Fartanah to care for the drought-stricken tomato farm and Fartanah's two pre-school children. Where they live - a few metres from the Kuwaiti border - there is no electrical service, running water or telephone line.

"Two women alone count for nothing," Toma says. "No one will loan us money for fuel to keep the generator running. Nobody will fix the machinery that's broken. We lost almost everything in the (Gulf) war. If another comes, only Allah can save us."

Outside her stifling hot mud-brick house, furnished with a few rugs and pillows, and a tiny, ancient television set, sits a half-destroyed Iraqi tank, smashed by Allied missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. This bereft family needs no reminder of the damage that can descend from the sky overnight.

But with no means of escape, no money and no outside help, they cannot afford to give way to terror. Through the oil-for-food programme the government hands out subsistence rations of free food each month to all those in need. As a result of the threat of war the Tomas have received a three-month supply all at once. It is the only preparation they have been able to make.

In the cities, where a fragile economic upturn has begun in the past two years, residents know they have much more to lose. Baghdad's dingy stock exchange has done a brisk business in Iraqi shares, as private industry and businesses struggled to get back on their feet. But the chalk boards that make for substitute computer screens read like hospital charts, showing the financial vital signs in decline. "I've made a few dinars over the past few years," sighs Dr Tareq Jibouri, a retired scientist in his 70s. "Now it's all downhill, because people are nervous about the future. And if war comes, it's goodbye to everything."

A few blocks away Faris El-Hadi sits in his stylish, air-conditioned office and struggles to rise above the prevailing gloom and doom. A trim man in his 40s, he is managing director of a trading company that thrived briefly, in spite of sanctions. Catering to the small cadre of well-to-do officials, families with wealthy relatives abroad, and new rich who have made a killing during the sanctions years ("not smugglers, but business people," he hastily adds), El-Hadi was the first importer of popular, but expensive Samsung products.

Now, he says, "everything is on hold. Suddenly people have stopped buying big ticket items. If they need something badly, they'll buy a cheap Chinese product or they'll stop buying anything non-essential until they know what the future will bring".

Shopping is not the only thing in limbo these days. At a recent mass-wedding extravaganza, more than 1,000 couples turned up gratefully, to marry at the government's expense. The event - ostensibly to celebrate Saddam's extraordinary 100 per cent win at a recent presidential referendum - included simultaneous ceremonies held across the country, wedding receptions, transport for relatives, and two-night honeymoons at the best hotels Iraq has to offer.

"Without this, we would have taken a long time to marry," said Saad Hamdoun, a 38-year-old agricultural technologist, smiling at his bride Pamira, in her fluffy rented organza gown. "Weddings are much too expensive for people these days. And there's enough to worry about after you get married and start life as a couple."

One of the biggest concerns is accommodation. Until the 1980s, urban Iraqis were following the West in dismantling the extended family. Couples routinely bought modest homes or moved into rented flats away from their parents. Now necessity has brought the old family units together again, often uncomfortably so, as parents make room for married children and grandchildren in their cramped houses. "The thought of living at close quarters with in-laws makes lots of young men and women shudder at the thought of marriage," says a 35-year-old businessman. "Many divorces are caused by proximity, not incompatibility."

Iraqis who do risk the economic and political uncertainty to tie the knot are putting off having babies, to the chagrin of older, more traditional relatives. Family planning clinics have burgeoned in this Muslim country and couples are increasingly seeking their help.

"In my mother's day it would be a scandal," says 29-year-old Hoda Karim, a computer programmer. "But I have two children and that is absolutely enough. These days more and more women are making that decision, and their husbands agree with them."

And, she adds, frowning, "what kind of life is this for children, when nobody knows what the future will bring us in Iraq?"

Many Iraqis are hoping not to find out. In spite of the near-impossibility of obtaining visas to countries outside the Middle East, many dream of escape, especially to North America and Britain.

Paradoxically, children learn English in school, and add their own versions of American slang. The shops are full of pirated US videos and CDs, knock-offs of US fashions, and imitations of US junk food. Now they serve only as a mocking reminder of Iraqis' entrapment.

Nevertheless, to many young Iraqis the West, and especially the US, provides both an enviable lifestyle and a wellspring of resentment at what they see as irrational and unjustified betrayal. A "back to religion" campaign sponsored by Saddam has attempted to mitigate American influence on entertainment. The frenetic bars and discos that flourished until the mid-1990s among the well-to-do have closed down, and alcohol is banned in public restaurants. Gambling, once a popular Iraqi pursuit, is also illegal, allowed only to horse racing fans who can bet under controlled conditions at the track.

Iraqis with leisure time or energy left over from making ends meet head for the football stadium to cheer on their team. And in the evening, young men troop to billiard parlours to while away a few hours with their friends. Some repair to the seedy, stuffy cinemas that serve up the most violent martial arts films and US cop movies, while young women parade with friends and relatives in neighbourhood squares, munching cones from ice-cream parlours.

In the absence of a Western-style youth culture, the young have forged their own identities. Stylish young women cover their hair with headscarves - a voluntary, not mandatory gesture in Iraq's still predominantly secular society, but underneath the swathe of silk, startling amounts of make-up abound, and cheap beauty products are big sellers in the local markets. While their mothers dreamed of marriage, this generation dreams of escape. And they are not alone. Iraqis of all ages want nothing more than to pass through the borders to a new life without fear and privation.

"Where are you from?" passers-by ask English-speaking foreigners, in half-whispers. "Do you think I could go there?"

Late one afternoon, as we round a corner in central Baghdad, the traffic slows to a halt. Dozens of cars battle each other for spaces at the side of the road. On the sidewalk hundreds of people are lined up in the gathering dusk, snaking their way toward the entrance to a featureless concrete building.

"Is this some sort of meeting?" I ask. My driver shakes his head with a tight-lipped smile.

"It's the passport office," he says. "They're trying to get documents to leave the country."

"Let's stop," I say. "I'd like to talk to them." Tariq looks alarmed.

"It is not permitted," he says. "And anyway, it doesn't matter. They're Iraqis. Where would they go?"

The still, smog-ridden night is descending now as we push our way past the mass of cars by sheer force of will. The babble of voices fades and with it the faces, eager, fleetingly hopeful. Sad young men with circles under their eyes, tired women holding small children by the hand, elderly folk standing stoically together. The faces blur and vanish into the suffocating air.

I look back. There is only darkness. And they have gone.

Olivia Ward is a correspondent for the Toronto Star, covering conflict zones. Before this she was the paper's diplomatic correspondent at the United Nations, then bureau chief for the former Soviet Union, and later European bureau chief. Her main role is covering wars. Together with Emmy Award winning Bishari Films, she has just finished making a movie on Iraq's lost generation of young people

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