Out of official earshot, words of dissent
BAGHDAD — Iraq's Ministry of Information requires foreign journalists to do their work with "guides" who are assigned to assist them. The result is that reporters rarely see or hear any criticism of President Saddam Hussein.
But as hundreds of journalists thronged this city to cover an Oct. 15 referendum on Mr. Hussein's rule, the ministry appeared stretched too thin to keep an eye on everyone.
This reporter took the opportunity to travel the streets of Baghdad without a minder, meeting a barber, a novelist, and other Iraqis those who support the regime as well as those who despise it.
During the Gulf War, allied forces destroyed a communications tower that rose over central Baghdad. The Iraqis quickly rebuilt it three times as tall as before as a gesture of defiance. It is named for Saddam Hussein.
The tower's guides and attendants say it is not used for telecommunications, antennae notwithstanding, but for tourism. If they are worried about becoming an early target in an American attack, they do not admit to it.
An observation deck and restaurant offer panoramic views of the city's nearly endless expanse of low, dun-colored buildings, few of them taller than Baghdad's many palm trees.
Private cameras are forbidden. It's easy to understand why. One of the president's palatial compounds stretches out directly below the tower. Inside the vast circumference of its high walls one can see impressive buildings, expansive gardens, man-made lakes. The last is a particular luxury in Iraq's parched climate.
At the exit, two security guards and a ticket-taker engage an American visitor in conversation. They ask if the American people truly support their government's apparent intention to attack Iraq.
"Americans should support peace," says one of the guards, a lean young man with a narrow, sharp-edged face.
Then he trots out an old line, one that Americans hear time and again, not just in Baghdad but throughout the Middle East: "I like American people, but I hate the government."
Partly to provoke, the American responds: "I feel the same way. I like the Iraqi people, but I believe the government is repressive and undemocratic."
The security guard bristles, and cites the recent referendum as proof of Iraq's fully functioning democracy. He says that if a majority of people had voted 'no,' rejecting another term for Hussein, the president would have stepped down.
"Do you really think so?" the American asks. The guard insists he does.
Over his shoulder, a many-times-life-size portrait of Hussein, wearing a dark beret and aviator sunglasses, gazes out from the side of a building.
The ticket-taker is a middle-aged woman in a white blouse and a dark skirt. She is a fading beauty, her reddish-brown hair brightened with blond highlights, her makeup carefully applied.
Early in the conversation she professes her love for Hussein. Then she goes quiet. She listens as the discussion turns to the nature of the Iraqi state, with its near-total absence of political freedom. She shakes her hair forward and looks down slightly, perhaps so the expression on her face cannot be seen by her colleagues, who are on either side of her.
As the American voices incredulity at the prospect of Hussein voluntarily stepping down, she looks straight at him through her bangs. Her eyes twinkle. She smiles.
One of the freest public spaces in Baghdad must surely be the Shabundar Café, on the ground floor of a decrepit, dust-lacquered building on Mutanabi Street. On Fridays, men come from the city and beyond to greet friends, sip sweet tea, and, amid the din of everyone else's conversations, say what they like.
Shabundar's customers are artists, writers, academics. There is rarely a woman among them. Ceiling fans, high overhead, circulate air made acrid by the smoke of several bubbling water pipes and countless cigarettes.
The men sit squeezed, elbow to elbow, sometimes arm around shoulder, on long benches set around the sides and in the center of the room. They are mostly middle-aged. Some are unknown and keep to themselves. Others have a score of hands to shake or cheeks to kiss before they sit. They finger worry beads, sunglasses, sets of keys.
One of the regulars motions a visitor to sit next to him. The man is an art historian and novelist. He has a handsome, rectangular face framed by a head of gray and black hair and a full, silvery beard.
Most Iraqis, he says, are against Hussein. The result of the Oct. 15 presidential referendum the government claims that 100 percent of Iraq's electorate voted in favor of continuing his rule is "propaganda." But so too, he ventures, is a lot of what the US says about Iraq and its leader. "Where is the truth?" he asks.
The man wears trousers and a safari shirt, fraying at the edges, its tired seams coming apart in places. He clutches folders, a magazine, some books. Here in the Shabundar, he explains, there is some freedom. People can criticize the regime.
Regulars distribute handwritten, photocopied articles, the closest thing Iraq has to an underground press. The articles are about politics, foreign affairs, society. In a country where the state-controlled media hew rigorously to a party line, this Iraq-style samizdat is a way for thinking people to express themselves.
In his novels the silver-bearded writer takes heroes from Iraq's past and places them in the present, as a velvet-gloved way of pointing out problems with today's iron-fisted leadership. He takes this oblique approach "because I can't write what I want."
The regime allows people to ease their frustrations in conversation and even in print if the edges of the criticism are sufficiently dulled. But action against the government is out of the question. "You can't do anything," the man says.
If the US were to invade Iraq, depose the regime, and try to build a democracy, what would he do? "Can a murderer be merciful?" he replies. "What America did in Vietnam, in Palestine there is murder in this."
He would fight the invaders, he says finally. The man opposes the repression of Hussein's regime, but he appreciates its foreign policy: strong support for the Palestinians and a repudiation of American hegemony.
The barber's life in Baghdad is good. Why complicate it?
He invites an American customer to his home to meet his family. But a friend talks the barber out of the idea with a few questions. Does the American have permission to visit people's homes? Will the police mind? What will the people in the neighborhood say? What if he asks about politics? And so on.
The barber says he doesn't really care what people think, but everyone in Iraq is afraid. After two wars in 20 years and another one looming, no one wants to take chances. Americans are, after all, the enemy.
A young man with a well-tended Vandyke beard and soft, heavy-lidded eyes, the barber possesses the energetic friendliness of someone who knows that relationships are the key to his success.
"In Iraq I am a free man," he says. He likes cutting hair, makes enough money to do nice things for himself and his family, and has time to hang out with friends. He doesn't bother about politics. "Why make a problem?"
The barber's sense of contentment offers some insight into the durability of Hussein's rule over Iraq. The barber is 28, so Hussein is the only leader he has ever known. The barber voted "yes" in the Oct. 15 referendum. "Who else could I give my voice to?" he asks.
In the barber's world, hard work yields money and money means happiness and power. The only people in Iraq who have a legitimate grievance against Hussein are the poor. But instead of griping about the leader, they would do better to work harder. The rich people who don't like Hussein should simply leave, he says.
During the barber's life, Hussein has led Iraq into two wars, pursued policies that have resulted in the country's isolation, and vigorously eradicated any sort of organized dissent.
The wars hurt the barber the most. He lost cousins and friends he loved during the eight-year conflict with Iran. But he feels that Hussein was defending Iraq's interests in that conflict and in the Gulf war.
For the barber, the isolation is a non-issue. He is an Iraqi. He wants to live in Iraq. In any case, he doesn't feel that cut off. His shirt is from China. He reads articles about Britney Spears. He enjoys Pepsi.
Hussein's reputation for the cruel silencing of political opponents is of no account to the barber. Any leader, faced with a threat, strikes back.
The barber understands Hussein, trusts him.
For one thing, the barber is a Sunni Muslim, which means he and Hussein are both part of a minority that dominates the majority population of Shiite Muslims. The barber appreciates that Iraq is ruled by a Sunni.
The barber considers himself the leader of his household, in the way that Hussein is the leader of Iraq. The barber is the one who brings the money home and distributes it as he sees fit. So what the barber has received of the largess of the Iraqi state free education, free healthcare, free food rations is "from him." The barber is grateful.
"You see, we are miserable here," says an old man, wearing a white Arab headdress kept in place by thick black cords, standing in front of his small, single-story cement home.
"The people have no money," another old man says through his many missing teeth. He stands under a cloth stretched from poles to form a sunshade over the melons he sells in a market, a skullcap on his bald head.
"I have come to look for work, but there is no work," says a third man, much younger, who has left two wives and 10 children at home in southern Iraq. He carries his papers in a flimsy plastic bag and hasn't shaved in days.
This is Saddam City, a sprawling low-rise slum on the edge of Baghdad that is home to some 2 million people, mostly members of Iraq's largely impoverished and disenfranchised Shiite majority.
Although named for the president, it is an area of political discontent over the past decade there have been several reports of riots or killings in Saddam City, apparently directed against the regime.
But if this is where Hussein faces discord, it is also a place where his regime works hard to maintain order and stability. The markets are full of food scarlet piles of tomatoes, clumps of chicken parts, pink-red sides of lamb.
"They have enough to survive," says Ali Hamati, a United Nations spokesman in Baghdad. He means the entire country, but the statement holds true in Saddam City. A half-dozen people, questioned about the adequacy of the government's food rationing program, say the regular distributions of flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other staples are adequate.
Even so, the hallmarks of poverty are everywhere: open sewers, a dead rat lying in the road, a grubby toddler playing with a pacifier in the dirt.
In economic terms, Iraq is a giant lost opportunity. Only Saudi Arabia has larger reserves of oil. But 12 years of sanctions, imposed by the UN after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, have squeezed the country hard.
The melon-seller in the market says 25 people live in his house of four small rooms. The woman next to him sells spices and condiments. She does a brisk business in tomato paste a couple of spoonfuls in a plastic bag for 2.5 cents. She says 12 people live in her home, but they have only two rooms.
During the day, it is easy to find working-age men standing on the streets. Some wait at the corners of main intersections for manual labor a day's work on a construction site pays about $1.50; in a small factory, a day's wage might be just 50 cents.
Before three teenagers feel they can invite an American visitor to one of their homes, they stop by the house of their neighborhood mukhtar, or head man, to ask permission. He is out, but his son sees no problem.
When the mukhtar reaches home, he sends word that the American should join him for a cold drink. His sitting room, with rugs and mats to sit on and cushions to lean against, features a poster of Hussein.
The mukhtar says it his job to watch over the 1,000 houses in his neighborhood. He represents his neighbors if they have any problems with the government. Like the vast majority of mukhtars in Saddam City, he is an employee of the ruling Baath Party.
It is not too difficult to keep track of so many people. His son explains that each house has one or two party members. There is no dissent, the mukhtar says. "The Iraqi people love their leadership."
Unbidden, the driver recounts his travails. He is an older man, with a gray fringe ringing a bald head, and he pilots one of Baghdad's newest taxis, a gleaming yellow Nissan that took seven years of savings to purchase. His thin face is stubbly, the whites of his small eyes flecked with red.
It is his wife's health that troubles him.
For years she has suffered from debilitating back problems, and two operations in Iraqi hospitals have proved fruitless. The couple applied to a government committee in order to go abroad for medical care. It took a full year to get the committee members to consider her case.
A few months ago, they refused the request. "They don't offer us any mercy," the driver says angrily. "And they don't allow the mercy of God to reach us."
The driver and his family may be on an official list of unreliable people. A quarter-century ago, shortly before Hussein consolidated absolute power as president of the country, four of the driver's cousins came under suspicion.
One fled to Sweden, where he still lives. Three were arrested and have not been heard from since. Some years ago, the driver asked the government for some knowledge of them. He would have been relieved just to know with certainty that they were dead. The request was ignored. The driver is still bitter.
"We live under force," he says, steering his taxi through Baghdad's cluttered streets, past its many dilapidated buildings, its scores of jaywalkers, its heaps of refuse. "We cannot say no."
As an example, he reviews his experience in the Oct. 15 referendum. When he went to the polls, the registration officials pointedly went over his name and address with him. Then they handed him a ballot. The 'yes' box, approving another seven-year term for Hussein, was already checked.
"If you don't say you want him," the driver says, referring to Iraq's leader, "they will execute you."
Part 1 a Baghdad businessman's life appeared in yesterday's edition.