Iraq through the eyes of a tree healer
Jawad Kadhim is a third-generation date-palm tree doctor, one of a dwindling number in Iraq's capital. His job offers a unique window on how the sectarian violence has changed behavior in the various neighborhoods of Baghdad.
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Fearful of being mistaken for a militant, he announces himself loudly at front gates and hides his ax when he makes a sales pitch. Every stop is a gamble in this new Baghdad, but Kadhim trusts that even the wariest and most traumatized Iraqis will protect a man who can heal the trees.
Kadhim is a third-generation date-palm gardener, one of a dwindling number in Iraq's capital, he said, because most consider it too dangerous to go door to door in a place where sectarian cleansing has dramatically altered the city's demographics.
"In this life, I rely only on God and palm trees," said Kadhim, one recent afternoon, callused hands folded in his lap.
No neighborhood is safe — his knocks on familiar doors are now answered by strangers, and at least 12 of his gardening friends have been killed.
He's sure that many of his longtime customers have been forced from their homes or were killed in sectarian battles, but he knows better than to ask questions. He has a job to do.
"I'm like a taxi driver. I pick up customers wherever I can," he said with a chuckle.
Through war, occupation, bombings and neglect, the Iraqi date palm has endured. Farmers on these lands have cultivated dates since the ancient times of Mesopotamia, and artists through the centuries have celebrated the palm tree's resilience and bounty. Iraqis still use every part, weaving rope from the fibers and baskets from the fronds, exhibiting a tenderness toward the trees that's incongruous with the harshness of everyday life.
"The blessed tree," Kadhim calls it, with reverence. But the date palm, like the country it symbolizes, has fallen on hard times.
In Iraq's date-production heyday, official estimates put the number of palm trees at 30 million, but decades of war and water salinity have cut that figure so dramatically that the United Nations agriculture mission considers date-palm rehabilitation an urgent national priority.
It would take armies of gardeners to revive the industry, and they'd have to be as skilled as Kadhim is, knowing how to pollinate, when to trim the leaves and the precise moment when dates are ready for picking.
Many of his old gardening friends said they're not willing to risk their lives to work for the equivalent of $10 a tree, which is still more than customers pay in the south, where it's safer and the trees are more abundant.
Kadhim left his farming community near the southern Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf a decade ago, after he heard how much Baghdad families were willing to pay to keep their palm trees groomed. Few of his original customers remain.
"So many families have left," Kadhim said, rattling off examples from neighborhoods throughout Baghdad. "Even when I find strangers in their houses, they never tell me they were displaced. They say the old families left or that they're relatives. Some of them just say, 'We live here now instead of them.'"
Iraq's previous wars disrupted his work for short spells, Kadhim said, but the U.S. invasion and its chaotic aftermath changed the tradition of palm tending altogether.
No longer do families hand him keys so he can slip into their gardens and work while they are out or sleeping. No longer do women or girls who are home alone allow him to set foot on the property; they insist that he return when male relatives are present. No longer do his customers make small talk — nobody wants to divulge a detail that could lead to a kidnapping or other threat.