Like many middle-class Iraqis, the al-Hayali family looked forward to the day that Saddam would be gone. But one form of tyranny has been replaced by another. Bombs, kidnappings and shortages have turned their lives upside down
By Kim Sengupta
27 October 2004
There is a ritual to every morning for Nadia and Mohammed al-Hayali. They monitor the news on television and radio; they phone family and friends to make sure they’re all right; and they survey the street from their windows, looking for anything suspicious. Only then do they venture out the door with their children, to negotiate another uncertain day in Baghdad.
Like so many people here, the al-Hayalis have all but forgotten what normal life is like. One factor permeates every moment - the lack of security, and the very real fear of kidnappings, suicide bombings and gunfights. Much of Iraq is now in effect a killing ground, and Baghdad is one of its most violent parts.
While the American military bomb Fallujah and Ramadi, the insurgents have brought the war to the capital. The Americans, the British, their client Iraqi government and other foreigners mostly stay inside the barricaded Green Zone on the banks of the Tigris, the most heavily protected area in the country. Even that is no guarantee of safety, as two recent suicide bombings inside the zone show.
But ordinary Iraqis - people like the al-Hayalis - have no such protection. As well as being caught up in an increasingly savage war, they have to cope with a society disintegrating around them. There has been a surge in robberies, rapes, carjackings and abductions; unemployment is rising steeply as companies and international institutions flee the violence; and the cost of living continues to rocket. There are daily power cuts and petrol queues lasting for hours, in a land which has one of the biggest oil reserves in the world.
Nadia, 39, and Mohammed, 40, and their children Abdullah, seven, and Dahlia, five, are the type of middle-class, educated family who should be the driving force in what the war, according to George Bush and Tony Blair, was supposed to create in Iraq - a vibrant civic society in a stable, secular democracy.
Both are fluent in English, and Nadia speaks French. Both have lived abroad, Mohammed in the US and Nadia, who was born in Montpellier, in France and, briefly, in London. The couple earn about $500 (?270) a month each, he as an official with the aid organisation Merlin, she as a teacher. These are good salaries for Iraq. Nadia is a talented artist, specialising in painting on silk. In a different time, her work could be exhibited.
The family lives in a four-bedroom house in al-Jamiyah, a prosperous neighbourhood. It’s worth more than $250,000 in the current property-price boom. Mohammed had the home built on a plot of land given him by his parents. The house has most of the amenities seen in middle-class British homes: it is well equipped, the children play games on a computer, and there’s a four-wheel-drive family car. But the al-Hayalis say it is almost impossible to save money. Prices have risen steeply since the war, including food. Lamb, which used to be the equivalent of $1 a kilogram, is now almost $4. The prices of many vegetables have doubled.
The couple were at first divided about the war. Nadia, whose uncle, Isham Ashawi, was the Iraqi ambassador to Britain before going into exile because of his opposition to Saddam Hussein, thought it was worth the pain to create a new, free Iraq. “It was a real opportunity to break out of the life under the regime - the lack of freedom and creativity - even if the reasons given, like the weapons of mass destruction, were bogus,” Nadia says.
“But it started to go so wrong so early. When I saw the looting after Baghdad fell, and American soldiers standing by and watching, I realised what we might be letting ourselves in for. Since then, they have mishandled almost everything. And the main thing for us is that they have totally failed to provide any sort of security.”
Mohammed always had little doubt that it would end this way. “Wars are a terribly dangerous way to try to change a society. Apart from the human cost, when you introduce violence in that scale it is very difficult to stop that continuing. OK, under the regime the middle classes and the intelligentsia felt restricted. But where is the freedom now? We can’t even travel in the streets without the fear of being attacked or kidnapped. A few people have done very well out of the occupation, but for the vast majority, it is now much worse.”
The biggest fear is of kidnapping. The snatching of foreigners, such as Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan, makes the headlines, but most victims are ordinary Iraqis. And they do not have to be particularly wealthy. “I know a man whose daughter was kidnapped. The gang asked for $10,000. The father said he could not get it; all he had was $1,500, and he would just have to spend that on his little girl’s funeral. The gang decided to settle for the $1,500,” Mohammed says.
“We don’t have a four-wheel-drive out of vanity. There is a practical reason; one can get out of dangerous situations by barging past cars trying to ambush you, or driving over pavements. There was a gun attack on a police post right in front as I was driving, and we got out by doing a U-turn and driving over the kerb.”
The lawlessness is all around. A neighbour’s home was ransacked by armed men who stormed it at night. Another was carjacked in his drive by two teenagers carrying Kalashnikovs. “And this is in our own road,” Nadia says. “There are parts of the city that we simply don’t go to now. You have attacks in daylight on American patrols and police cars. You don’t know if the car next to you has explosives in it. There are friends and family we haven’t seen for months.”
Even everyday activities such as shopping have to be planned with safety in mind. The family only goes to supermarkets in certain adjoining areas. Nadia doesn’t go to the bank on her own, as so many people have been robbed after drawing money.
The city’s parks and open spaces have no children playing in them. The al-Hayalis have a small yard at the house, but Abdullah and Dahlia are not allowed out even there. “I want to make sure there always people with them,” Nadia says. “At school, they have teachers. But when I am busy around the house I cannot afford to have them out of sight outside. I know this is not the way we grew up, not the way children grow up in other countries, but what can we do?”
After dropping the children at school, the al-Hayalis go to their separate ways to work. Working for an international NGO (non-governmental organisation), Mohammed gets a daily security report. He calls Nadia with the details. She passes them on to other staff where she works, at the Baghdad International School.
The school, founded in 1984, once had 850 pupils; children of foreign diplomats and businessmen as well as Iraqis, many on scholarship schemes from poorer areas. It is affiliated to a number of international educational bodies and prepares pupils for foreign examinations, including GCSEs. After the war, it was looted and burnt. The director, Nisreen Awqati, saw what was happening and asked some US troops for help. One replied: “I am sorry, ma’am, but we have no orders to get involved.”
The school is in borrowed premises while it searches for funds for a new building, new equipment and staff. One would have thought that this institution - secular, co-educational, a route to further education abroad - would get support from outside agencies. But appeals to the Americans, and to the British Embassy and the British Council, have brought sympathy but little else.
The temporary location cannot be publicised; that would bring unwelcome attention. The few pupils still being taught there (including the children of Iraqis who have returned since the war) are mainly from well-to-do families, and would be targets for abduction. Another concern is that a mixed school such as this may draw the wrath of Muslim fundamentalists. Baghdad University was threatened last week with bomb attacks unless it started segregating men and women.
Among the Japanese vases, Rajasthani prints and Nadia’s paintings that adorn the family living-room is a holstered pistol on top of a cupboard. “It is the kind of thing one has in one’s house nowadays, I am afraid,” Mohammed says. “But, frankly, I don’t even know if it works. I am not particularly in favour of guns.”
There are also photographs of the couple’s wedding. It took place, with 500 guests, at the Iraqi Hunting Club, a select private members’ club founded by Saddam and his Ba’ath Party colleagues, where the rich and powerful used to go. The new rich and powerful under the new order have begun to gather there again.
Nadia and Mohammed’s parents were academics who studied abroad and gave their children a liberal upbringing. Unlike most people in this society, even among the middle classes, theirs is not an arranged marriage. The couple have known each other since high school. “Our parents were Hunting Club members because the club reserved some places for academics, not because they were rich or had any kind of political influence,” Mohammed says. “We are members as well, although the club has changed. They have expanded the membership; you have a lot of people who have made money since the war, especially through contracts, and they like showing off. It is the new Iraq.”
The club is one of the few places in which the al-Hayalis and their friends can socialise in safety, using the restaurants, bar, tennis courts and swimming pool while the children run around on the lawn. It is surrounded by high walls, with armed guards at the gate.
But danger is never far away. A few weeks ago, seven members of the catering staff, who were Christians, were followed as they left in a minibus, ambushed and murdered. “They had worked at the club for years without any trouble,” Nadia says. “They were really, really nice people. They were killed just because they were Christians. It is so terrible. And this is not unusual. Christians have been getting attacked and killed.”
Maksood Al-Sanjary, the club secretary, says: “It was a great shock, but we can’t protect people outside the club. I’m not safe myself, and neither is my family. There are the bombs, of course, but also I’m a merchant, and people may think I have money, and my children may get kidnapped. It’s something we have to live with.”
Once, the al-Hayalis went out often. They reel off the restaurants they visited - the Arif, the White Palace, the ones beside the Tigris specialising in mazgouf, an Iraqi fish dish. Now, they don’t go out in the evening. A rare exception was a performance by the Iraqi Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Convention Centre, where they sat protected by sandbags and machine guns. But even trips to the Hunting Club are usually in the afternoons on Fridays, the Muslim holiday.
At his home in the Mansour district, another member of the club, a young businessman, sips from a tumbler of Scotch and tells his story. Hakim (he only wants to give his first name) has had enough; he is moving with his family to Amman, Jordan. “We had an electronics shop, and that got looted. We started building up our business again. It was very hard work. Two months ago my brother, Abu-Bakr, was taken by a gang. He was badly treated. I do not want to go into details. We have paid a lot of money for him. You think what happened to us is unusual? It is not. This happens all the time. The business cannot continue. We must go.”
The al-Hayalis often think of leaving. The fragility of their lives has been accentuated by visits abroad; Mohammed has been to Jordan and Syria on business, and Nadia went to an education conference in Japan.
“This is our country, and we would like to stay,” Mohammed says. “We have to believe that things will get better, and I think they will. But, in the meantime, we are living in fear. We really are. I did not know what that phrase meant before, but I do now.”
Why do some people still believe Iraq is better off now than it was before?
I usually don’t post here much, but I feel like arguing today. Bring on the flames.