Iraqi children turn a new page

A youth publisher moves away from propaganda.

Almost nothing looks intact in the Iraqi Children's Cultural House. Every window in the building is shattered. The grass outside grows waist-high, and the stripped hulk of a smashed car sits in the parking lot. Inside, debris litters the floors and exposed wiring sprouts from the walls. And in every room stand rows of empty bookshelves and magazine racks - a testament to the culture house's past as one of Iraq's main children's literature producers.

The building now echoes with construction sounds as workers hammer and lay bricks in an effort to return the House to its former glory.

But the improvements are more than just cosmetic. The center is beginning a new era and a shift away from the time when it served to indoctrinate young Iraqi minds.

Gone are the days when it published books like "Tanks in the Night" and "Battle Stories," glorifying the accomplishments of the Iraqi Army and showing proud Iraqi soldiers capturing miserable, servile Iranian POWs.

The Cultural House's three flagship magazines - Sindbad, Muzmar, and Magalati - were mixed affairs, alternating harmless cartoons featuring talking animals with pages of passionate tributes to Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party.

Longtime employees recall how the propaganda became most blatant around patriotic national holidays like Army Day, Mr. Hussein's birthday, and the anniversary of the founding of the Baath Party.

"Every special occasion had its own special issue, and our country is famous for its patriotic holidays," chuckles Nida Nasser, the Cultural House's archivist. "Every day we'll surprise you with a new one."

The issue of Muzmar that coincided with the 2002 presidential referendum may be the most extreme example of the youth-oriented propaganda machine at work. The cover features a drawing of smiling children holding a sign that says "Yes, Yes to Daddy Saddam!" while their parents vote in the foreground. Inside are a biography of Hussein, an article describing the "1.5 million love letters" written to the president by the Iraqi people, and a two-page testimonial from Cultural House employees recalling their own joyous voting experiences.

"The work of the writers was forced in this direction," says veteran children's writer Muhammed Jabar Hassan. "The previous production was geared toward mobilizing and militarizing the mind of the child to serve the regime."

As for the actual consumers of the Cultural House's product - the children of Iraq - it's unclear just what kind of long-lasting effect this youth propaganda had on them.

Ava Nadir, a former United Nations staff member, recalls her entire high school class being brought out into the streets to cheer for Hussein one day. Despite being raised in an anti-Hussein household, she found herself cheering and clapping along with her classmates as the presidential convoy passed.

Still, she doesn't believe that all the "Daddy Saddam" stuff produced generations of brainwashed kids.

Ms. Nadir says the real effect was to teach Iraqi children from a very young age how to fake loyalty while hiding their true feelings.

"That's why in the Iraqi personality there is no transparency," she says. "You live two lives. One at home where you can talk - and maybe sometimes you cannot even talk - and a different life when you go out. You have to wear a different mask."

For many young people, the steady diet of military stories and Hussein biographies ended up simply turning them off from reading entirely.

Fourteen-year-old Omar Agha, a Kurd born and raised in Baghdad, met Hussein several years ago along with a group of other top-ranking students. He recalls feeling indifferent to the Cultural House's products.

"From the beginning, I never never liked these books, because there is something about them not natural.... There is something about them that is so false," he said. "It was not just the magazines. Our school books, every book, had Saddam's picture on the first page."

Shafik al-Mahdi, the Cultural House's new director, remains upbeat about his mission. On the day the Monitor visited, he had just received the handwritten manuscript for the first new book of the post-Hussein era. It's called "Nur and the Rainbow," and carries a message promoting diversity and unity.

"It's about Iraq with all its colors: the Kurd, the Arab, Turkmen, Shiite, Sunni," he says.

The biggest challenge, he says, will be to sow in his young readers an appreciation and an understanding of democratic systems, political participation, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

"A whole generation, several whole generations, don't know what an election means," he says. "We're now approaching elections - either in the next six months or the next two years. We must educate our descendants to walk on the democratic path."

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