BAGHDAD – Tahir (not his real name) used to be a teacher in Baghdad. He can be found at the traditional streetwalk book souk (market) in Moutanabi street, perusing dusty copies of biographies and dictionaries.
A made-in-Iraq pirated copy of the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows 98 sells briskly for the equivalent of about US$3. The vendor, Abil, used to be a civil engineer. He’s been jobless for the past nine years. Now these pirated computer manuals and English dictionaries help him feed his family of five.
Tahir, speaking faultless Spanish, reminisces about his days in southern Europe in the 1980s. He once worked for the Ministry of Culture, but the pay was too low, so he quit to support his family of four. Now he is an occasional driver, “My wife is also a teacher,” he says. “Do you know how much she makes? Six dollars a month.”
Shown a remarkable war-photography book by Iraqi lensman Rahim Hasan, published in 1987, both Abil and Tahir are reminded of the “forgotten” – at least in the Western press – Iran-Iraq war. “I fought in that war,” says Tahir. “There were one million and a half dead. It was the elite of the population – doctors, engineers.”
Abil and Tahir are survivors. They are now part of a vanishing group: the Iraqi middle class. They cannot exercise their chosen profession. They don’t have the “connections” to obtain an exit visa and try a new life, maybe in Jordan, maybe in the Gulf, maybe in Europe. They are bewildered when told that Iraq is going to be attacked – again – by the United States, and they ask, “Has the decision been made? Is it inevitable?”
Dr Humam Al Shamaa, professor of economy and finance at Baghdad University, explains the progressive impoverishment of Iraq. “The state made a tremendous effort to rebuild the infrastructure of the country after the war ended [in 1988]. With no financial resources, it was forced to resort to emission of currency, which accelerated the rhythm of inflation four and a half times a year until 1995. Wealth disappeared under the inflationary pressure. The currency deteriorated. People depending on salaries were gradually impoverished. Tens of thousands of Iraqi families now rely only on government rations to survive. Iraq’s riches disappeared under the pressure of inflation on one side and the embargo – which is the cause of this inflation. The value of the Iraqi currency fell 6,000 times compared to the 1980s. Poverty is everywhere.”
The rations supplied by the state are at least sufficient to prevent a famine, according to Shamaa. “They’re enough to assure the survival of the Iraqi people. The rations are calculated according to basic necessities: wheat, oil, rice, tea, sugar, soap. It’s impossible to raise the amount of ration tickets because we cannot support a people that does not work. That was the aim of the ‘oil for food’ program. We think that if we import everything we need to feed ourselves, we will forget the agriculture sector – and that would instigate a crisis in all other economic activities in Iraq. The agricultural sector employs 50 percent of the population. Iraq cannot be turned into a country that eats without producing anything.”
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, had Iraq not organized a rationing and distribution system, the country would certainly have faced a terrible famine. Apart from any political considerations, this is an Iraqi merit that is never acknowledged in the West. Denis Halliday, former assistant secretary general of the UN, the man who started the oil-for-food program in Iraq – and later resigned from the UN, calling the US-inspired embargo “a genocide” – has never stropped criticizing the United States and Britain for blocking the shipping of humanitarian supplies to Iraq. As much as US and British politicians and the media accuse the Iraqi regime of “punishing” Iraqis, the US and Britain themselves increase the punishment by withholding humanitarian shipments of vaccines and painkillers.
Shamaa says that unlike in most developing countries, there is no migration in Iraq from the countryside to the urban centers – rather the reverse. “There are no jobs in the cities. Jobs are in agriculture. Many people left the cities to work in the countryside, raising cattle and poultry.” But in the bazaars of Baghdad, some people who agree to talk stress that there is no work in the provinces: workers have to migrate to Baghdad. And in Baghdad, there are no jobs even for qualified people such as Abil and Tahir.
According to Shamaa, “The industrial sector in Iraq also faced enormous difficulties. Access to raw materials and intermediate materials was assured by income from the oil industry. But with the embargo, we could not import these materials anymore. Seventy percent of the industrial sector is practically paralyzed. We try to start things over by providing at least some materials allowed by the oil-for-food program. We have managed to reactivate 50 percent of the private industrial sector.”
Yet Iraq has very few pockets of excellence in the industrial sector: cement and the chemical and petrochemical industries. “But they are handicapped. They work at a maximum 30 percent capacity. The embargo prohibits the import of almost any heavy machines. Only spare parts are allowed.” And even if Iraq managed to bypass the hellish UN bureaucratic machine – controlled and vetoed by the US and Great Britain – it would not have enough means to pay for these parts as it does not have enough foreign currency.
Baghdad now displays the same floating population of street kids that can be found in Jakarta or Rio de Janeiro. Signs of impoverishment are everywhere, contrasting with the bland and usually gray intimations of Islamist-Stalinist architecture.
Madinat-es-Salam (“The city of peace”), the dream of its founder, the caliph Al-Mansur, in the 8th century, has seen it all in terms of misery and massacre. Yet it remains defiant. It’s historically a city of survivors. Everybody mentions with pride how the destruction caused by the Gulf War has been rebuilt. There’s even a Challenge Museum – painstakingly detailing the reconstruction of telecom centers, bridges or schools bombed during the war.
After the Gulf War, only a “minority that practices commerce,” according to Shamaa, managed to maintain their standard of living. “There are no official statistics, but they are not more than 10 percent of the population.” So would it be fair to say that the middle class simply vanished? “There is no more middle class in Iraq. Before they were rich, then they became semi-rich, but now the majority is poor.”
In Baghdad’s two or three relatively upscale streets are a cluster of “investment banks.” Shamaa dismisses them outright. “They call themselves investment banks but they are in reality commercial banks, of a very mediocre level. Capital does not surpass 1 billion or 2 billion Iraqi dinars [the current exchange rate is $1 to 1,960 dinars; it used to be about $1 to three dinars before the Gulf War]. There is not a lot of investment in Iraq. There is no Arab investment to speak of. Everything is frozen because of the embargo. There is only one authorized investor, a Lebanese. That’s it.”
Iraq’s national budget for 2002 is about 1 trillion dinars. Unemployment is officially estimated at 17 percent, but Shamaa says actual unemployment is closer to 30 percent, including disguised unemployment.
But among informal opinions in the bazaar, unemployment is placed at almost 50 percent. At a Chinese restaurant in the relatively upscale Masba quarter, a lawyer behind his Yamaha synthesizer singing Que Sera Sera allows himself a smile: He may be living a surreal life staring at empty tables, but at least he’s got a job.