Expectations of good news have rarely been higher in the poor Iraqi household of Karima Selman Methboub, whose son Ali is due in coming weeks to be released from prison after more than 1-1/2 years.
The widowed mother of eight children – whose Baghdad family dramas the Monitor has followed since 2002, when Saddam Hussein was still in control – has done everything in her power to bring home her son, who even police and court officials have told her was wrongly arrested during a joint US-Iraqi police raid on a coffee shop.
Ali’s saga began, according to what he's told his family, with beatings, burnings, and torture to force a false confession of kidnapping and a killing – supposedly of a cousin, who is still very much alive. (The Monitor could not independently corroborate his account, but it has reported on the culture of abuse that persists in Iraqi prisons.) The saga has devolved into a less violent but endless game of uncertainty about when he might be released, says the family, first contacted by Ali on phones smuggled into the jail. Later, they were allowed visits.
The family has paid thousands of dollars in bribes to police and judicial officials, lawyers, and others who promised – fruitlessly – to speed his release. Gold from one daughter’s marriage and Methboub’s own thinning stock was sold.
“This is what I am praying for, that God will set him on the right path [to freedom],” says Methboub, her eyes tearing up at the thought of her oldest son still behind bars. “Everyone knows he is a poor young man, and innocent.”
'Everything costs money'
Before his arrest, Ali had just completed a training course in Jordan as a security guard for a government ministry. He had no previous police record.
The family has been required to get certification letters from three local police stations saying that Ali is not wanted by them, as well as a similar document from the Baghdad operations center – just in case the local cops had been bribed.
“Everything costs money! There is nothing that does not,” laments Methboub, as she sits with several of her daughters beside a glowing heater as late winter dusk settles into darkness outside their modest apartment. “Now the officer responsible for the case wants a laptop computer. He told us: ‘This is our government, it’s a failure.’ So this is the government we have.”
The judge in Ali’s court case last week ordered him released from the stark conditions of the Major Crimes Unit prison, but he is not home yet. The Methboub son has instead been transferred to a local police lock-up, where there is a remaining complaint about burning shops that sell alcohol, but conditions are better. It was good news for the family, which has been told that this is the last hurdle, and one that should be easily resolved in coming weeks.
The precedent of paying was set early on by the desperate but vulnerable family, says Hibba, one of twin daughters who are in their last year of school. “It was [so] from the beginning, because we were so anxious to get him out, we paid – and they took this as a cue,” says Hibba.
“We had no previous experience,” states her mother, diplomatically. “Other [mothers] pay, and they get this one out – or [the police] can ‘lose’ the file for two to three years.”
“If no one pays up for certain people, and no one looks after them, they let him stay,” affirms Hibba, who is studying art. As a final bribe, the family shelled out $500 to bring the court date forward by four months. They were promised that, this time, the release of their beloved Ali is all but certain.
A pilgrimage to pray for Ali
Just to be sure, a host of family members made the early February pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala in commemoration of the 40th day of mourning after the death of Imam Hossein in AD 680 – a journey that attracts millions of Shiite pilgrims each year.
Ali called them while they were traveling and warned them to be wary of attacks and explosions set by Sunni militants that this year killed dozens, as in years past: “Don’t go! It’s dangerous!” Ali pleaded. But then he asked: “Did you pray for me?”
“This is one of the main reasons we went there – to pray for him!” says Duha, the other twin daughter who now studies at a trade institute.
That effort for their brother turned into a reason for mirth and then playful argument between the two sisters, a common occurrence in this Spartan home.
This tight-knit family has survived the rigors of Iraq, from regular neighborhood car bombs to close calls of every sort, from shrapnel in one daughter’s arm to slipping on the stairs during a blackout in the 2003 US bombing of Baghdad, which left a scar on the bridge of Duha’s nose.
The Methboub matriarch, interviewed before the March 7 election, was convinced that the vote would not improve the lot of poor Iraqis like her family – nor the security situation, which has shown recent signs of deterioration.
Several suicide car bombs in late January targeted three hotels in Baghdad, none of them far from the Methboubs’ two family locations. They were reminders of a dark past.
“From the balcony, we saw the bodies taken away in the back of trucks – even police trucks,” recalls Methboub. “For three days, I couldn’t eat or drink. They are innocent. Why is this happening to them?”
Fatima learns she is her husband's second wife
Methboub asks the same question about her oldest daughter, Fatima, who was married in January 2008 in an apparent love match to Bashar, who at the time had contracts to provide water and other goods to the Green Zone. The couple had quite a courtship, eyeing each other through a kitchen window, and even throwing vegetables to get each other’s attention.
But problems have grown in the relationship, serious problems, and they are providing a salutary lesson for the unmarried daughters, who have constant suitors. There has been abuse, the family says, and the discovery that Bashar already has a wife, and Fatima, unbeknownst to all of them, had become his second.
“All of a sudden, Bashar stopped coming home, and did not bring groceries – to the point where there was no food in the house,” explains Methboub. “He would come for an hour and leave.”
“He is not good to her,” adds Hibba.
Daughter Zainab lives with her husband and 3-year-old across the hall from Fatima, and so is aware of the details. “Fatima loves her husband and says, ‘I don’t want to be divorced. For 60 or 70 years, I will be with him,’ ” relates Methboub.
Zainab’s husband spoke to Bashar, telling him his treatment of Fatima was not right. “What? I divorced her over the phone,” Bashar replied, according to the husband. “Why should I pay rent if I’m not living there?”
Fatima doesn’t accept divorce for social reasons, says Methboub. “But God willing, once her brother is out of prison, we will not let her stay with him. He has left her [for] a year! She is paying for rent, though it’s good – it’s within reach.
“It is another problem and sorrow on top of my head,” says Methboub. But it has also made it much easier for Methboub to turn away other men looking for marriage. Daughter Amal, who wants to be a surgeon and is also in her last year of high school, was proposed to by a basketball player.
“I said, ‘No, finish your education first,’ because of the sorrow we have with Fatima,” Methboub declares. “They [men] keep coming, even if I am not giving!”
That elicits laughter from the twin daughters, who at 18 years old have long been turning away serious marriage offers.
Reasons to laugh, despite Spartan life
And there is much else to laugh about: Youngest brother Mahmoud is now 15 years old, selling shoes on the streets for a couple dollars a day, and is saving his money – when he does not spend his earnings on sandwiches and Pepsi, and transportation there and back, or for tutoring from Hibba to ensure higher grades.
“If he does not study, the teacher kicks him on the backside,” says Hibba with a smile. “So he studies and studies.”
And he is getting stronger. “He can beat us up now!” Duha exclaims, in mock horror.
The girls then devolve into a serious and longstanding argument. Duha is accused by Hibba of knowing how to fix the satellite TV, but of not doing so out of spite.
Methboub scolds her squabbling daughters with her own Iraqi flavor of dark humor: “When you argue like that, I wish the two of you would die, and Ali would come in your place!”