Desperate to leave, Iraqi family finds solace in new baby

The Methboubs are delighted at the arrival of their new son, but a cloud of poverty and violence remains over the Baghdad family.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To a poor Iraqi family like the Methboubs, the birth of a baby boy is a joyous light of hope in an era of darkness, a diversion from the nation that is disintegrating around them, an answer to prayers for a glimpse of normal life.

Little Fahad carries the burden with grace, smiling his way through the cuddles of a family virtually imprisoned in their threadbare apartment by the sectarian violence.

Fahad means "cougar." "We should call the next one 'Lion,'" jokes the boy's oldest aunt, Fatima, holding him high and kissing his lips. "Then we can start a zoo."

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The trials of this Iraqi family – of widow Karima Selman Methboub and her eight children – provide a window on how dramatically daily life has changed since US forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There is resilience and laughter here. But there is also mounting frustration, even a flash of desperation, as Karima tells – her eyes moistening – how she lost her cleaning job at a local hotel, because it has no more customers.

Dramas large and small sweep play out in this Shiite household, as they almost certainly do behind every front door in Iraq. Fatima has been turning down suitors again; son Mahmoud, 12, has happily added a rear basket and a number of Iraqi flag stickers to his bicycle.

But daughter Duha was lightly injured in a recent nearby explosion. A son and now a son-in-law have joined the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which is believed to be behind many sectarian killings.

At the secondary school of twins Duha and Hibba, students are thinning out, as parents keep them home or move to safe countries, or safer cities. Teachers are retiring early.

And there is daughter Zainab's new baby, a first grandchild for Karima – and a bundle of hope for all. Everyone laughs over tea at home, when the story of Fahad's birth is told. But it wasn't funny at the time. Three weeks before the baby was due, Zainab was experiencing sharp pain and was rushed to a nearby hospital.

Zainab and husband Ali, a security guard who also recently joined the Mahdi Army, both cried with worry. Karima says she prayed so hard she couldn't cry. But Fahad was born perfectly, by Caesarian section. Today he is the entire family's play toy of choice, or rocked gently in his stroller while the family watches television in the cramped living room.

Outside in the dark hallway, their small generator is in need of a tuneup, spluttering as though giving up its last ampere.

"The generator repairman always takes the money, but when we turn it on again, it's not good," says Karima, adding one more lament. "We are suffering! There are so many things..."

Half the residents of the apartment building have moved out. Karima lists the most recent evacuees: Next morning, a long-standing neighbor, Umm Haidar, and her family are moving to Najaf; another family has gone to Syria; yet another just departed.

The family witnessed a similar, but more complete exodus of neighbors when this reporter visited two days before the launch of the 2003 US invasion.

"If I had enough money, I would sell everything and sleep on a sidewalk in Syria or Jordan – the situation is so bad," says Karima. Then she motions toward her daughters, son, and grandson, indicating that there are too many roots that bind them to Iraq. "Besides explosions, I am afraid of kidnapping, when they go to school."

But unlike the 3,000 Iraqis who flee every day to Syria and Jordan – a figure the UN last week said amounted to 100,000 refugees each month – this large family has little hope of getting out.

Iraq's fate will be theirs, they say, as it has been since before US forces brought down Saddam Hussein. Back then, in typical shows of allegiance, they hung a portrait of the Iraqi dictator on their wall, along with a certificate Zainab received after training in marching and first aid in the "volunteer" Al Qods, or Jerusalem Force, a popular militia created by the regime. Daughter Amal was a member of the Baath Party youth group at her school.

The family found itself in the center of the news as the holy month of Ramadan came to an end in late October, when an American military translator of Iraqi descent was kidnapped, reportedly, from their neighborhood.

The hunt for a US soldier

US and Iraqi troops suspected members of the Mahdi Army, and locked down and searched the Karrada neighborhood for days, as they did the Shiite slum of Sadr City. The result was a US-Shiite standoff, in which Mr. Sadr called for a general strike. The strike was observed in every Shiite neighborhood, but not the more mixed area of Karrada.

"Now there is a new threat," says Karima, of the area that has remained a relatively peaceful island, amid Baghdad's insurgent and sectarian carnage. "We are afraid, because Karrada did not take part in the protest [strike]."

"They accuse the Karrada people of being traitors," explains daughter Amal, who keeps a diary. Its most recent entries describe life during the week-long US-Iraqi blockade. "Mahdi Army members were hiding in Karrada, and when the Americans came, some Karrada people betrayed them. So they say: 'You traitors, you spies! You are helping the Americans.' "

The family heard that 20 to 25 suspected militiamen were picked up. But the two militia members in this family, they say, were not concerned, even though they are regular Friday visitors to the Said Idris shrine, which houses the local Mahdi Army office and was raided by US and Iraqi troops in recent weeks.

They say they are not involved in illegal sectarian activity. Brother Mohamed apparently stakes out gambling dens to shut them down, and is awaiting word on a defense ministry guard job. Both have been involved, the family says, in freeing hostages from kidnap gangs. But Zainab says she does not approve of her husband Ali's new ties to the Mahdi militia.

But there is another side to his work, that of community protection. "If strange or bad people come to Karrada, they [the Mahdi militia] follow them," says Zainab, the young mother who these days wears a white head covering. "If there is an explosion, they help people."

The American clampdown disrupted the Eid celebrations, and even a wedding party was told to leave their cars on the far side of a bridge that spans the Tigris River and walk to the reception at the Babylon Hotel.

But the family says the US presence also "stopped many expected explosions" during the holiday period, and briefly brought an unaccustomed level of security.

"At that time, when they were looking for the hostage [who remains missing], you felt like you were in a prison," says Fatima. "We felt safe, because there were no explosions. But we were afraid they would raid us."

The Methboub's home shows some modest recent improvements. A clock now hangs on the wall, and in the hallway an ornate Arab-style mirror and shelf, and some decorative plates have appeared. Thin blue curtains cover the windows. Several daughters wear maroon toenail polish.

No telephone anymore

But the telephone line has stopped working. And several weeks ago, a large explosion in a building on the next street killed a carpenter and wounded a neighbor girl. Duha, who was standing beside a window at home, was cut in the head with glass .

Her mother jokes that – since Duha and Hibba are identical twins – Duha should have been wounded in the right arm as her sister was last year, when cut by flying shrapnel from another blast.

Meanwhile, Karima – who lost her hotel job – has paid some $9 to an employment agency to find her another job. They keep asking her to call back, but so far have found no work for her. Karima's income from the hotel job just covered her rent of $66 a month; now there is none.The landlord threatens to raise the rent next time around. If the building is sold, Karima says, it could increase fourfold.

Son-in-law Ali has helped out – the generator was his gift, many months back – but beside his newborn baby, he must support his own parents and grandfather.

A daughter who won't marry

The chronic money shortage means that Fatima, now 19, comes in for a scolding from her mother, for turning down yet another suitor – an Iraqi Army captain. Karima envisioned a double wedding, of her oldest son, Ali, to one of the captain's cousins, and explored it with the family.

But Fatima refused, without even seeing him; the latest in a series of rejections.

"I am very tired," Karima says in her daughter's presence, prompting Fatima to lower baby Fahad, and stick out her tongue in protest. Fatima was taken out of school several years ago, so she could care for her younger siblings at home.

"She should go to her final home. I love her a lot, but she should go," says Karima. "Her future is with her husband, not with me. Amal, Duha, and Hibba are always asking for copybooks and school supplies. I am so tired."

Fatima blithely continues her play with her new baby nephew, ignoring her mother's words. Karima turns to her: "The train will leave [for you]," she warns. "And there is no way, after the train has left."

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