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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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"Before the Americans came, work was better. I could go anywhere in Baghdad, work however late I wanted, and fall asleep on any street corner," Kadhim said.

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In the early days of the U.S. presence, Kadhim said, he simply navigated his bike through the back streets and continued doing business as usual, avoiding the foreign tanks and Humvees that rolled through Baghdad. As the lawlessness persisted, Kadhim lost customers, but he still had enough work to keep him in the capital for weeks at a time.

He took small precautions, sleeping in a cheap motel instead of under the trees in case of bombings. Only when all-out sectarian war erupted in 2006 did he pack his tools and head south to his family's patch of land near Karbala.

The fertile south is where Kadhim wriggled up towering palm trees as a boy, ate date syrup and buffalo cream for breakfast and, in time, learned how to pollinate palm trees and rid them of harmful pests.

He was given his first tibilya, a harness traditionally made of palm fibers, and became an expert at scaling even the tallest trees. The skin on his hands and feet grew hard from the bark, and his face is now creased from exposure to Iraq's harsh sun and frequent sandstorms.

"My father taught me, and his father before him," Kadhim said. "I first started using my hands when I was 7."

From 2006 to 2008, Kadhim stayed home in Karbala with his wife and their six children, but he wasn't happy. The TV news showed carnage he never thought possible in the neighborhoods where he once worked. Every time he pondered returning, a new outbreak of violence would keep him in the south.

"If you see death with your own eyes, do you run toward it?" he said.

In early 2008, when the violence began subsiding, Kadhim ventured to Baghdad again. So many streets were sealed off by new checkpoints that he had to park his bicycle outside the barriers and look for clients on foot. His heart sank when he saw the extent of the devastation, and not just the scars left on people and houses. He found ruins where elegant gardens once stood.

Shriveled, unpicked dates hung from brittle limbs. Dead leaves were piled on the ground. Palm trees he'd planted years before were chopped down or uprooted to clear lines of sight for U.S. snipers and militant mortar teams.

The destruction was so overwhelming, he said, "I felt like I myself was wounded."

In the past couple of years, most of the trees in his care have come back to life under his renewed attention. He trimmed their dead leaves, pollinated them in the spring and treated the trees for insect and rat infestations. Today, they bear clusters of hard yellow dates that should ripen into sweet brown fruit this summer.

"There's nothing you can't cure," Kadhim said.

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