The Fear of War

Sat Dec 21, 2002

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Martians land on Saddoun Avenue here every night, on a mission to save mankind. The people of Baghdad love it.

The space aliens, in aluminum-foil suits, count a beautiful blonde, a sour-faced midget and a Darth Vader-like character among their crew. A “drunken” comedian speaks for humanity.

The laughs have rocked the Victory Theater for four years, as the surreal farce “I Saw It With My Own Eyes …” has played to sold-out crowds and delivered a “message from Mars” that, for these particular Earthlings, strikes an all-too-real chord.

“People of Earth,” the extraterrestrials advise, “you must unite against your planetary superpower.”

As spirits have sunk and fortunes flagged through years of war, isolation and the cold embrace of a police state, Iraqis’ appetite for diversion has grown. Baghdadis with spare cash can spend it on a proliferation of stage comedies, amusement parks, television channels — even, for a wealthier few, in a car showroom.

“You have to get on with your life,” businessman Ali Widad, 33, said as he eyed a sparkling white BMW at a dealership he haunts these Baghdad evenings.

But then the fear surfaces, and the message hits home. For Widad, it comes each morning, when he awakes and looks at his 6-month-old daughter. “And I say: `Thank God. We haven’t been hit.’”

Ordinary Iraqis can be reluctant to open up to foreign journalists with government escorts, but their fear of a new U.S. war, the dread that doesn’t go away, draws them out at length, especially about the ones they love.

“I’m a mother,” said Suad Jummah, 42, buying thread in al-Shorja, a jostling open-air market. “Naturally I’m afraid — for my children. Of course we’re afraid.”

Baghdad, a sprawl bisected by the slow and winding river Tigris, is a city in constant motion, and a city of light.

Wheezing old automobiles, rusty Renaults and dented Volkswagens, jam the broad avenues, burning Iraqi gasoline at 50 Iraqi dinars a liter (10 U.S. cents a gallon). Electricity, steadily restored since the 1991 Gulf War (news – web sites), now powers holiday-style lights that drape public buildings and red glowing “hearts” strung over boulevards. Fruits and vegetables, sweets and meats are piled high in market stalls. Appliances and other consumer goods, smuggled past a U.N. embargo, fill storefronts.

Overseeing all, at every turn, Saddam Hussein (news – web sites) smiles benevolently on his people — Saddam in desert headscarf, Saddam with shotgun, Saddam in trademark white suit, Saddam from a bridge archway, Saddam in an alleyway, hundreds and thousands of portraits, reminders to subjects who don’t need reminding who rules them, a president rarely seen in the flesh in public.

But Saddam smiles on a sad city, of people who have lost fathers and sons and brothers to two disastrous wars or to political prisons, who have sold off heirlooms and household valuables to survive under international sanctions, whose cars are rattletraps and whose clothes are worn.

“I’m sewing more than ever to make clothes for the kids,” said the veiled Jummah, mother of five.

Mary Gharib, 58, also is sewing more. She was a teacher, a profession whose typical salary dropped to the equivalent of US$10 a month (20,000 Iraqi dinars) from US$600 when sanctions devastated the Iraqi currency. Now she’s a seamstress, making a “fine living,” she told a reporter as she entered her Christian church one evening in smart dress and hat.

But she, too, is afraid, and for her and her husband the message comes regularly with the ring of the telephone. “My son calls from Germany and says he’s worried about us because of all that he’s hearing,” she said.

“We’re always afraid. The Americans are always saying they’ll make war on us.”

Long ago she and her husband would holiday in Italy or Greece, but now Gharib simply works, and her husband, a retired soldier, retreats to his garden. “If the Americans leave us alone, we’ll be OK.”

Tending rose bushes or filling front-row seats, watching TV sports or cruising car showrooms — Baghdadis find retreats where they can.

“There are more comedies playing now,” said Abdel Elah Kemal, 47, director of the “men from Mars” farce. “People need it, to have a good time, to enjoy themselves.”

Others needing a quiet time may answer the muezzin’s call, slipping into one of Baghdad’s stately mosques to pray. Still others retreat within themselves and their work.

“Twelve hours a day. Every day. No holidays,” Abdullah Jabir, 31, said as he scooped rice at his al-Shorja bazaar stall. “Nowadays we just work, eat and sleep.”

But sometimes he stops and thinks, too, about his baby daughter’s future. “Her name is Fatima. I hope she becomes a teacher. Or a doctor. Maybe. That’s up to destiny, to God.”

Trust in God, Iraqis say — “Khaliha ala Allah” — even if American bombs are falling, as they did four years ago in the last major U.S. attack on Baghdad.

“Even during the air raids in 1998, we were open,” boasted Adham Hamza, 32, who owns an al-Shorja candy stall. “People were shopping. People get used to things.”
People adapt and life goes on. But life, squeezed by trade sanctions, doesn’t get better. “Business is weaker. Every year it gets weaker,” Hamza said.

At the car dealership, late-model Jeep Cherokees, driven in over the desert from Jordan, sit gathering dust, with asking prices around $35,000.

“I’m going down, down,” said car salesman Mohammed Ahmed Sardar, 47. “I have two kids and I can’t afford what they need. One’s in the university. He needs a car. He needs books. I can’t afford it.”

Widad’s import-export business is also “pretty dead,” the reason he was bargaining hard on the BMW’s price. But the car’s unimportant, said Widad, the British-educated son of an Iraqi diplomat.

“What’s most important is that she” — his daughter — “grow up in a nice environment, away from this climate of war, be left alone. Iraqi children are hardly able to enjoy life.”

Above Widad’s head, Saddam smiled down on the showroom, in a large and vivid backlighted photo. Flanking him were his thirtysomething son, Odai, notorious for his wildness and brutality, and Odai’s quiet younger brother Qusai, who runs Saddam’s secret police.

At Our Lady of Deliverance, Mary Gharib’s Assyrian Catholic church in a better-off Baghdad neighborhood, altar boy Fadi Samir loitered outside in neat tie and sweater, unneeded for this Friday night’s “prayer for peace” service.

What concerns a 12-year-old in Baghdad? He ticked off the list: homework, basketball, movies, music CDs. “I like Britney Spears!” chimed in pal Maher Fawzi.

What about war? Is that ever discussed in school? “No.”

And America? The skinny young Earthling held his arms wide and shrugged.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, then thought a moment and added, “We’re all brothers, aren’t we?”

An Iraqi woman and her son smile at photographers as they pass.