After years of study, sacrifice, and sleepless preparation, the two graduating girls of the Methboub family in Baghdad both held their breath this summer for the results.
They would shape the futures of Amal and Hibba – two daughters of Karima Selman Methboub, the widowed mother of eight whose family saga the Monitor has covered since 2002.
Their grades turned out to be relatively good – perhaps not good enough for Amal to realize her dream of being a surgeon, but still a virtual miracle considering the ongoing dramas faced by this family.
"My choice will be law, political science, or journalism," says Amal in English, about her bid for a difficult-to-acquire university spot. Studious and often quiet – in contrast to her raucous siblings – Amal kept a journal during the 2003 US-led invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein, which the Monitor published.
"Mother, we should have a party, to be happy for them!" exclaims Duha, who has two years of school left.
"Not while Ali is still in jail," says Mrs. Methboub, voicing a frequent refrain since her son was imprisoned on dubious charges two years ago.
"Whenever my mother says that, she cries," explains Duha.
"And prays," adds her mother, tearfully, "for when Ali comes out."
Indeed, the good grades are a welcome bright spot for the family. Daughter Fatima's marriage has fallen apart, and the bribes necessary to speed Ali's release are depleting family finances.
"The sorrow that comes from [Fatima] and from Ali – this sorrow will be what kills me," laments the Methboub matriarch, a stout woman whose husband died in a car accident in the 1990s. "The rest, we eat and live day by day, by the grace of God. We have only these two problems."
Methboub family stays intact with love, faith, humor
This family was buffeted, like so many Iraqis, under Mr. Hussein, when Amal was a member of a pro-Saddam youth group at school. Since then they have lived through more than seven years of American occupation that included a civil war and insurgency that at their peak yielded a monthly death toll of 3,000.
The saga of the Methboubs, who have kept their family intact with love, religious belief, and heavy doses of black humor, tells much about the immense pressures that have torn at modern Iraq.
Plenty can be found in the latest adventure of Duha, age 18, who spent a month this summer helping out at a bank that had been robbed just weeks before.
Wearing a new red-and-black dress, a necklace of fake diamonds, and makeup, Duha has the air of a real member of Iraq's workforce as she shares her experiences.
Duha's first task was handing out waiting-order numbers to arriving customers; later she recorded the names of those making cash withdrawals. Her jaw dropped when she saw an older woman take out 15 million Iraqi dinars – nearly $13,000.
"At first I was shy and found the place strange, but over time the other employees – all women – began to chat," says Duha.
"And what about the [male] guards?" asks her mother, in an amused tone that implies Duha spent plenty of time speaking to them, too.
Duha admits, embarrassed, that she exchanged phone numbers with some of the staff. "When I finish 12th grade, I want to work there. But they say you need connections."
Those are connections this family doesn't have. So until school starts again, Duha says: "I will sit at home ... be quiet and watch TV."
Mahmoud saves for an Xbox
But even that does not promise peace in this lively household. "Mahmoud likes football; Amal likes foreign films. I like Turkish soap operas," says Duha. "Sometimes, because we are fighting, we have to turn off the TV!"
While she speaks, that possibility disappears, as city electricity fails – again – on an afternoon when the temperature is 126 degrees F.
Youngest son Mahmoud can't defend his channel anyway when he is selling sunglasses in a local shop, as he did this summer. He is dreaming of an Xbox game console if he can save up the $300. He has $90 already, but his sisters joke that their mother will never let him throw it away on entertainment – although they all want to play with it.
"I tell him 'no,' we will take the money and pay for the generator, and take the rest and buy clothes for school," says Methboub.
"I will know how to spend it!" jests Mahmoud, a born entrepreneur who years ago sold Pepsi on the street, where he witnessed car bombs and earned a bicycle – with help from a Monitor reader's donation.
Such light-hearted banter is a necessary defense mechanism in this household, where bad news is never far from thought.
Ali's case, for example, remains unresolved. The family says that after he was arrested, Ali was "tortured" – a medical report documenting the abuse is on file – until he admitted to several criminal acts that they say are demonstrably untrue.
The family has paid thousands of dollars in bribes with borrowed funds, dwindling earnings, and sales of jewelry. Methboub, who doesn't understand why her son remains imprisoned, says both she and her son are distressed.
"He's crying: 'I'm going to die. I'm depressed. Bring me poison.' He's very, very ill ... if you saw him now you would not know him," she says, describing her latest jail visit.
Her son-in-law, Abu Fahad, has been pursuing Ali's case and lining up testimony to free him. But according to the judge's letter in the case, Ali "confessed" to three crimes: raiding the apartment of a woman called Um Hibba in the neighborhood, raiding a liquor store next to a certain restaurant, and stealing all the contents of a local supermarket.
Yet no one has been able to find "Um Hibba;" the liquor store owners say they have never been raided; and the new manager of the supermarket said no incident had occurred there for eight years – but that if he were to testify to that fact, Abu Fahad would have to pay him for closing down for a few hours.
"It's small money, but the investigating judge and others [at the criminal court] take big money," says Abu Fahad, who estimates that in more than two years, bribing officials to shorten Ali's time behind bars have sucked a total of 28 million dinars from the family – nearly $24,000. "I make them wear suits and [pay enough to] give their kids clothes. It's a disaster."
"Money can solve many things – even if I kill someone, they can release me in one hour, if I pay big money," he says, his voice full of disgust. The judge and all officials dealing with the case know Ali is innocent, asserts Abu Fahad, who is married to the second-eldest Methboub daughter, Zainab. But he says Ali's imprisonment "has set back all the family one century."
Fatima's broken marriage
The sadness of oldest daughter Fatima, 24, also weighs on the family. Her love match turned sour when husband Bashar left her and stopped paying rent on their apartment. She has been living with her mother and siblings for more than 18 months.
"[Bashar] does not feel responsible for her or the family. Even before, there were problems," says Methboub, one day when Fatima is not at home. "She doesn't talk about it. Fatima is a patient woman and does not want to cause problems."
"I wish they would get back together," adds Duha, wistfully. "But he should learn how to care for her."
"We know that God doesn't like divorce, but what can we do?" asks Methboub.
Fatima's unhappiness is evident on another day, when she emerges to serve tea. She says nothing, then sits silently – pillow squarely in her lap, all her former feistiness set aside.
"I'm not doing anything. I don't leave the house," Fatima says quietly, staring straight ahead, the rest of her family silent. "I have no plans."
Her diffident demeanor and uncertain future are an unexpected metaphor for Iraq itself, as it increasingly steps out from beneath the shadow of American occupation, war, and transition. Six months after elections, Iraq has failed to form a government; Fatima's future is also unsure – but still holds promise.
'Bashar still loves Fatima' – despite previous fights
Abu Fahad and Zainab speak more openly at their own apartment, across the hall from where Fatima and Bashar once lived.
"When [mother] Karima came to visit, she heard their angry shouting," recalls Abu Fahad. "Sometimes I saw [Fatima] with a black eye. I was very angry."
Still, on many days, Fatima comes over to sit on her sister's narrow balcony and stare across the busy street to a cafe where Bashar hangs out.
It is a scene reminiscent of this couple's courtship, conducted secretly at first between windows of separate apartment kitchens, when Fatima threw onions and tomatoes to get Bashar's attention.
"Bashar still loves Fatima; he is sometimes in the street and looks up at Fatima and the balcony," says Zainab. "He's crazy [with love] but not responsible. They love each other still."