Fatalistic Iraqis hone art of survival

Robert Fisk in Baghdad sees how a suffering nation has adapted to constant crises
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The Independent Online
NOT long after they started operations in Iraq, the men from the Unscom arms inspection team arrived at Baghdad University to check out the science department. "They asked to see the chemistry lab," one of the teachers says. "They walked round the place. Then they laughed."

The incident said as much about Iraq's collapse as Unscom's behaviour. What should be mighty has become a mockery of itself. Even Baghdad's Museum of Natural Heritage, hallway after hallway of Tussaud-like Iraqis portraying their waxen selves as Sumerians, warrior kings and merchants, teachers and desert families, is laden with dust, its jaded figures collapsed forward as if themselves suffering from UN sanctions.

Scott Ritter and his Unscom boys haven't yet checked out the museum but Baghdad is alive with a story, confirmed by an Unscom inspector, of how the search team turned up late at night to investigate a compound north of Baghdad. After Major Ritter had hammered on the door, it was opened by some sleepy but startled nuns. Unfazed, Maj Ritter spent an hour in the convent cemetery, prowling through the darkness with a metal detector.

Iraq is full of such eccentricities. At the Al-Melad restaurant in Baghdad's central 28 April Complex, that date marking the truly unforgettable moment of Saddam Hussein's birth in 1937, clients can eat the finest sliced chicken, chips, chickpea sauce, sliced tomatoes and hot fresh Arab bread for pounds 4 - a month's salary for an Iraqi civil servant. So the clientele are Iraqi businessmen, out-of-town farmers and bored intelligence officers. A very young Doris Day crackles over the loudspeaker as the occasional beggar child presses his nose to the window. "Que sera sera," she sings. "Whatever will be will be - the future's not ours to see ... " But how can Iraqis contemplate the future when they have to live by selling their last possessions in the Soukh Midan?

There must have been a hundred ill-kempt men and a few women standing in the drizzle there yesterday, below the pale blue cupola of the Jama'a al-Qushla mosque. At their feet lay the most pitiable things on display: rusting bath fittings and old car parts, torn shoes, moth-eaten rugs, used shirts, second-hand socks and a broken television set lying forlornly in a puddle. A woman in a soiled black chador covering looked up at us. Her name was Leila, she said. "Our money is worthless - only God can helps us."

Sohad, the middle-class wife of a former diplomat whose home overlooks the banks of the great brown greasy Tigris river, still has money. She too doesn't think of the future, although the tape over her living-room windows suggests she has thought about the next few weeks and months. "In the 1991 raids, all the glass came in, so I put this up about a week ago when we expected the bombings to start. Now I'm going to leave it there for a while. Whatever will happen, let it happen ... We've learned to take these things calmly. These are things we cannot control." Sohad is 81; and a long stay in India taught her the Hindu virtue of sublime patience. "If we can't get proper medicine, we will go back to old medicine. I had a knee problem. This friend of ours produced a medicine for me from an old herbal formula that the Chinese invented 2,000 years ago and I drank a cup of it every morning. Now my knee is better."

Sohad's sister is 85. "We live from day to day, from hour to hour," she says. "I am not in control, so why bother about it? Now I just want to have a flower in my life, a flower from our garden, to look at during the day."

In the hall of their old home is a spread of sepia photographs of Turkish grandfathers, some in the tunics of the Ottoman army. "This is how we get our strength," Sohad says.

"It comes from our Arab and Georgian and Kurdish and Turkish origins."

Astonishing is the only word to describe the grip which Iraqis have kept over their sanity. A female gynaecologist works part-time in a cafe to maintain her standard of living. She has already sold her family silver and car.

"Before the war I travelled a lot. I went to Lebanon and Holland and Germany. I could travel now but I want to stay here, because this is my country and I love it so much. I could live nowhere else."

Is this some form of fatalism, I ask myself as I hear the same story, over and over again - on my own, unaccompanied by government minders and spooks? Take the old lady who had sold almost all her Baccarat glasses.

"I bought these glasses on my first visit to Paris in 1947," she told us. "Now I needed the money, so I said `to hell with it' - we had it for a great time and enjoyed it, so I let it go. For peanuts I sold it. I have only a jug and a carafe left."