Bidding in Baghdad for a mirror of silver with pockets full of paper

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The Independent Online
I spent a frustrating evening trying to buy a silver mirror and a carpet at the al-Baghdadi auction house on the east bank of the Tigris. The prices in both cases were cheap but I found it impossible to go on bidding because they were in Iraqi dinars, now valued at 1,480 to the US dollar. I was confident enough when the auctioneer started the bidding for the mirror at 50,000 dinars. This was cheap. The mirror was pretty and made 50 years ago in the holy city of Kerbala.

Others, mostly Iraqi antique dealers, liked the mirror too. The bidding was hot. When the auctioneer called out 182,000 dinars I dropped out - 182,000 of anything seemed like too much money. The price was still only $120, far less than the mirror was worth anywhere outside Baghdad, but I found it impossible to keep putting my hand up because the nominal figure was so high. In private dealings, Iraqis avoid this problem by using American hundred dollar bills, but not any bill will do. The preferred bill is that issued in 1996 and after with a large picture of Benjamin Franklin on the front. An Iraqi friend said: "A hundred dollars is worth so much to us these days that we can't afford to be taken in by a forgery."

For most purposes Iraqi dinars are necessary. They usually come in bundles of 250 dinar notes and the currency weighs a lot when when you change a hundred dollar bill. Coins are no longer minted because hyper-inflation has made them virtually worthless. When I first went to Iraq in 1977, a dinar was worth around three US dollars.

I stayed at the al-Rashid hotel, the usual haunt of journalists in Baghdad. It still has its mosaic of George Bush with jagged teeth on the floor which you have to step on to get into the lobby. Underneath is the logo: "Bush is Criminal."

The Americans considered bombing the al-Rashid in 1991, ostensibly because they claimed there was an Iraqi command post underneath it. The real reason was that they would have liked to put the satellite dishes used by American television correspondents out of action. In one of the great journalistic bug-outs of all time almost all the American print journalists left Iraq voluntarily before the bombing started.

The ground-floor bar of the hotel was, in fact, accidentally hit by part of a Tomahawk missile brought down by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. The bar was wrecked. Nobody was injured because Saddam Hussein had summoned an Islamic meeting in solidarity with Iraq in a nearby conference hall. Many of the delegates were staying in the al-Rashid. In deference to their Islamic susceptibilities, the bar had suddenly taken alcoholic drinks off its shelves. Seldom can temperance have saved lives so quickly. When the Tomahawk hit, the bar was completely deserted.

Alcohol has since been banned in hotels and restaurants. But it is available in specially licensed shops. I bought some Bavarian beer and a bottle of Chianti. Something nasty had clearly happened to the latter between Tuscany and Baghdad and it tasted like neat vinegar.

Aside from the George Bush mosaic there is little in Baghdad, a city of monuments, to commemorate the Gulf war. An exception is the bronze statue of Saddam beside the Saddam tower in the centre. It is about 15ft tall and at first sight no different from numerous other statues of the Iraqi leader. On closer view, however, you can see the plinth on which the statue stands is covered with engine parts belonging to an American ground-to-ground missile. And on closer view still, the flattened little bronze pancakes beside the boots of the statue turn out to be the faces of George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Emir Jabr of Kuwait and, slightly smaller in size, President Mitterrand of France.

In Baghdad, people say the only Iraqis doing well out of sanctions are black marketeers and the farmers. The success of the former is obvious enough. We drove west from Baghdad to Diyala province to see how the farmers were doing. Unlike most Iraqis they can feed themselves and take advantage of the high price of foodstuffs. Beside the Diyala river, we sat in the garden of a successful farmer who agreed he had made money from selling oranges, though he complained the price of grapes had collapsed.

Then he produced x-ray plates. They were of the chest of his 24-year- old cousin Ahmed, who has a weak heart, taken in London 13 years-ago. He had not been able to go back for a second operation because of the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and then sanctions. We went to another, poorer farm and the same thing happened. The farmer produced an elderly x-ray of the skull of his five-year-old daughter Fatima. She could not stand upright.

There was something infinitely touching about these old x-rays. They seemed to symbolise the desperation of ordinary Iraqis over sanctions. The farmers should be better off than the townspeople, but almost of them have at least one relative ill or dying because he or she cannot get proper medical help.