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An account by a famous Iraqi Engineering professor

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An account by a famous Iraqi Engineering professor who left Iraq about thirty years ago to return on a visit:

 

February 2009

 

A Trip to Baghdad

 

I decided at short notice to take advantage of the improved security situation in Baghdad and pay a visit to my hometown, the city where I was born and raised. The last time I was there was 14 years ago. I saw then my late mother for the last time. The country was suffering heavily under the most rigorous sanctions humanity had ever known. The people were suffering and saw no future for them or their children. Young people were very frustrated and angry. The expressions on their faces said it all and reflected their misery.

 

In these 14 years, there were 8 more years of crippling sanctions under the iron fist of Saddam and his henchmen, an American led invasion, and 5 years of the most virulent insurgency known, and one year of relative calm.

 

I was curious to find out how the people of Baghdad were managing after such unbelievable suffering and unspeakable violence completely unknown to them in the past. How deep the scars of wars and violence are, and what is the future going to be like.

 

Luckily, I found a weekly direct flight from Copenhagen to Baghdad. The flight time was only 4 hours and 20 minutes; from Zürich it would be just over 3 hours, not really that far. We arrived in the evening at Baghdad International Airport. It was clean, polished and fairly well organized by Middle Eastern standards. The passport and customs formalities were simple and straightforward, yes almost European. A far cry from the fearful formalities during the old regime whenever we came in or went out of the country.

 

The First Americans

The journey into town with an authorized airport taxi along the 35 Km, 6-lane airport road was, except for a checkpoint where we were waved on, uneventful. However, about halfway down the road the driver suddenly slowed down, pulled to the right and stopped completely. I was puzzled, since there was nothing to be seen anywhere. Remembering that this road used to be called the road of death, I was uneasy, but kept quiet. From a distance, I could discern some lights approaching us ever so slowly. Finally when they arrived, it turned out to be an American convoy of armored vehicles on its way to the airport. They were driving on the wrong side of the road and would shoot to kill if anyone or any vehicle came within 100 meters of them. Now I understood why the driver had put on the warning lights and lit the inside of the car as well.

Thinking about it, it made a lot of sense to drive on the wrong side of the motorway. If there were any IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) they should rather kill an Iraqi coming home after 14 years absence, rather than them.

 

The People of Baghdad

In contrast to the faces I observed 14 years ago, I found the people happy with a gleam of hope in their eyes. Without exception, they were all celebrating the return of security and peace. They were fully aware that without security there would be no hope of a better future for them, their children or their country. Everyone I spoke to was determined to keep it that way with everything in their power. They would report anything suspicious to the authorities. This way most terrorists or would be suicide bombers were caught. That was indeed good news.

 

Melting in the Crowd

I was warned by several people to keep a low profile. Criminal gangs could not be ruled out yet. On the first day, a car and a driver were organised for me. I went with him all over the place, to the market, the bazaar, the bookshops (there were no postcards in Baghdad, and I couldn't fulfil the promise I made to many), everywhere. At the end of the day, I asked Ali (my driver), "Ali, do take a good look at me. Check my shoes, socks, trousers, shirt, jacket, and the way I walk and talk, can you detect anything that indicates that I have been out of the country for 31 years?" He replied, no sir, you are simply one of us. That was all I wanted to hear. From then on I melted in the crowd, not needing a car or a driver. I was taking taxis and moving around and no one took any notice of me. This is the way I wanted it. Keeping a low profile was indeed the best protection I could hope for.

 

[/font]Adapting to Difficult Conditions

The ability of humans to adapt has always astounded me. The people of Iraq have gone and are still going through untold and never ending hardships. In my opinion they have adapted in a most marvellous way and have proven remarkable resilience in the process.

 

Electrical power is supplied for approximately 8 hours a day now in wintertime. In summer it used to be supplied for less than 4 hours. This load shedding has been instigated by 13 years of the most rigorous sanctions humanity had ever known, preventing new power stations from being built, and the existing ones from being properly maintained.

 

Add to that the explosive increase in demand when the borders were thrown wide open after the fall of Saddam's regime. The demand to catch up and stock up after 24 years of wars and deprivation had increased the demand by leaps and bounds. In addition the violent insurgency had rendered any efforts to build new plants, substations and transmission lines virtually impossible.

 

[/font]Fig 1. Standby electric generators behind concrete walls

protecting a bazaar

 

 

 

 

So how do Iraqis manage without regular power supplies and only sporadic short periods of power? Temperatures in Baghdad can rise well above 45 deg C in long summer months and fall to freezing point in the 90 days long winter (December, January and February). Refrigerators, deep freezers for bridging irregular supplies of foodstuffs, evaporative air coolers (Baghdad is very dry), as well as air conditioners are essential for most Iraqis. Lack of electricity at this rate is simply unacceptable. The problem was tackled by organising twin diesel electric generators of around 150-200 kVA in each small district, with separate 'very temporary looking' distribution network supplying 50-60 households with sufficient power to run the most essential appliances when the grid power is off. The standby power is sold by the plant owner at reasonable prices because they get subsidised diesel oil from the government. A household can buy a minimum of 4 Amperes or a maximum of 40 Amperes at a monthly rate of ID (Iraqi Dinars) 15'000,- (Sfr. 15,-) per Ampere. An average household buys 10 Amperes; 16 hours of power every day are guaranteed. In addition most households have additional small portable 6 kVA Korean manufactured petrol engine driven generators to bridge the remaining hours of no power. Every household has a few oil lamps as well. They are lit throughout the hours of darkness. Alternatively there are imported emergency lighting units which light up automatically whenever the power is off. Remember, power goes off suddenly in the middle of the night, and you don't want to scramble for the matches when it is pitch dark..

 

The fixednet telephone system, so essential for driving the wheel of life in the past, has become virtually irrelevant. The mobile telephone has taken over completely. There are three providers and the service is 'barely adequate'.

 

Rubbish collection seems to be working well, albeit at a cost. A tip (ID 500 to 1000 = Sfr. 0,50 to 1,00)) has to be paid for every collection. Rainwater canalisation is still wanting. Baghdad has only around 120 mm of rainfall annually, virtually all falling in winter and spring on an average of 13 rainy days per year only. Under such conditions it is very difficult to keep the rainwater canalisation clean and open. Many streets were muddy and difficult to navigate, after a downpour earlier in the month.

 

One of the most demanding tasks in Baghdad is getting around. Baghdad has virtually no high rise buildings, and most houses are bungalows, hence the 4 million inhabitants are spread over an area of around 1500 km2 . Public transport is virtually non-existent leaving private cars and taxis as the only means left. Traffic jams at peak hours are truly nerve racking and demand considerable patience. Add to this the ever present check points which invariably require single file traffic, and you can understand why getting around is a true nightmare.

 

The Three Day Itch

The last time I was in Baghdad, 14 years ago, I got the third day itch. Only after three days of itching to find out what was different here did it suddenly dawn on me. Yes there is something different about Baghdad than anywhere else. No it is not the air, nor is it the water or food. I found out then as I did now, that of all places in the world, this is the only place where I can talk without any effort. I don't have to think when speaking and am in the comfortable position here of concentrating on what I want to say rather on how to say it.

 

It is easy to understand why I had such a tough time competing against those who were lucky to have English as their mother tongue at Toastmasters.

 

The Status of Women

I spent one whole day at the campus of the University of Baghdad. It was a very nice nostalgic trip along memory lane. Many of my old colleagues on the staff had passed away, others had retired and most have left. Many of the new faculty were ex-students of mine who were thrilled and a bit shocked to see their old professor again 31 years older. The picture had stayed static whereas their professor got older.

 

Invariably they informed me that girls do much better than boys at the university. This is reflected in the numbers of students and staff: the number of admissions in the College of Engineering for the academic year 2008/2009 was 610, out of which 331 were females and 279 males. Among the technical staff there are 213 females against 63 males.

 

No head scarf

 

In fact females are running most government departments. I was at the bank and 80% of the staff were females. At the land registry office and the nationality office where I needed to renew my birth certificate, the same proportion of females against males.

 

No, not all the females were wearing Islamic dress. Some were and many were not. Not even a headscarf. Apparently there is complete freedom; the ladies can wear what they like. There are no formal dress rules.

 

Standard of Living

The salary scales of government employees have been radically adjusted upwards. University staff get

monthly salaries of ID 3.0 million (USD 2700), and policemen about half this sum. There is a lot of money in circulation and the exchange rate to the USD is mostly steady (ID 1200 to 1 US$). During the whole stay, I saw only one beggar. I am told that virtually everyone gets sufficient free rations to survive. The roads are full of cars causing permanent traffic jams, in spite of restricting the number of vehicles on the road, with even or odd registration numbers on even and odd dates. The chaos is exacerbated by the endless checkpoints manned by soldiers armed to their teeth.

 

American Presence

There is little American presence in town. Helicopter traffic gets heavy at times. I saw once a convoy of

Free drinks and food for pilgrimage walkers

 

three armoured vehicles in our district at about midday. No one seemed to be taking any notice of them. They travel, by the way, with a rod of about 2.5 metres long sticking in front of each vehicle, with a big rectangular box fixed at its end. People say its function is to disable the mobile networks in order to disrupt communication of potential attackers, others say its function is to detect any IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices).

 

A Brush with the Law

On my last day, I took the liberty of taking a couple of hours to stroll down memory lane. Baghdad had changed a lot, but the main landmarks remained, in particular the famous Tigris corniche 'Abu Nawas Street'. This is a 4 km riverside road on the eastern bank of the river. It is full of luscious gardens, pathways, sitting banks and several 'Masgouf, restaurants. These are fish restaurants, usually serving fresh fish from the river, grilled on an open fire. It is one of the most sought after specialities of Baghdad.

 

I was walking down the gardens along the street, enjoying both the scenery and the cool breeze. There were very few people at around 12:30. I noticed a few couples around, one was walking hand in hand, and the other was sitting on a bank in the shade of a huge eucalyptus tree staring in each other's eyes. I was fascinated at such liberty, unheard of when I was there last. I made as many photos as I could, trying to be as discrete as I can. But, as I was walking away a soldier caught up with me and asked me to accompany him to see his officer. On further questioning it transpired that it had something to do with me taking photos. No there was definitely nothing of any strategic or security relevance around. By the time I finally got to the officer, he greeted me politely and asked me why did I take a photo of a young man with his female companion. I explained that I was happy to see such liberty and was going to tell the world about it. Apparently the young man had complained to the officer that I had taken a photo of him and his fiancé. I offered to delete the photo and the problem was resolved.

 

Reflections

Sitting here and looking through my notes, I can't help thinking of the contrast between the two worlds. The two worlds couldn't be more different in almost every way. When I Ieft Iraq 31 years ago, it was on the way of changing its status from a developing country into a developed one. Wars, sanctions, invasion and insurgency have pushed it back for decades. Now it is on the way of recovery. If somehow there would be no unrest or upheaval for the next five years, then I am sure it will join the league of normal countries and who knows you may even decide to visit the land of Haroon Al Rasheed with its 1001 nights legend.

 

Muthana Kubba

Cham 25.02.2009

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