With camera, Iraqi boy celebrates life
By Dan Zak,
The boy angled his camera upward and the jumbled world slid into focus.
Giant men lumbered under high brick ceilings. They slouched on padded wooden benches, crossing and uncrossing their legs, nearly knocking him over. The boy steadied himself to take photos of the bustling scene at the century-old Shahbandar Cafe.
Kamer Hashim’s head barely reached the waistlines of the poets and intellectuals who strode in and out of the sunny, smoky cafe on Mutanabi Street, the book-selling enclave of the Iraqi capital. Kamer was the youngest there by at least 20 years, the smallest by at least a foot, and the least accustomed to digesting the problems of Iraq.
He is 8, a couple of months younger than the American engagement in his homeland. He was born into war, raised on instability and began to take photos in kindergarten. He said he likes to document life — an earnest hobby in a society that’s generated iconic photos of death ever since he was born.
He wore a badge on his denim vest that designates him as a member of the Iraqi Society of Photography. He has business cards that say “The Youngest Cameraman in Iraq.” He has an adult’s work ethic and a child’s curiosity.
The giant men were talking, as usual, on Friday. They were talking politics. They were talking about the departure of the U.S. military eight weeks from now. They wondered if something’s ending, or if nothing’s ending, or if everything’s about to end.
Kamer snapped the grown-up talk. He said nothing. Unless you asked.
“They destroy our country,” he said of the United States, in a wee little voice unmuddled by nuance. “I am afraid of America.”
He hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said.
Kamer’s father, Hashim Muhammed, sat at the back of the cafe and thought he knew why.
When the United States bombed his home town of Kut on the march to Baghdad in 2003, Kamer was in his mother’s belly. His parents heard fighter jets scream over head, felt the ground shake, took cover under their stairwell.
His mother told Kamer that she was very afraid while she was pregnant with him.
“These things are in his mind,” his father said. “Still. Now.”
A couple of years ago Kamer began carrying his father’s camera bag when he went on assignments for a local newspaper. Then Kamer started taking his own photos, and the Iraqi Society of Photography gave him a membership.
He e-mails photos to his subjects. He declines tips, usually.
Every Friday, Hashim drives his son from Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, to the cafe. He watches as Kamer scampers through the maze of benches and legs and shisha pipes and tea tables.
On his camera, the giant men expel frozen plumes of shisha smoke. The giant men, in a blur, knock back tiny glasses of sugary tea.
The cafe walls are covered with black-and-white photos of early-20th-century Iraq: funeral processions, royal receptions, athletic events. Hanging near the front of the cafe are portraits of Shahbandar regulars who were killed by a catastrophic 2007 car bomb that gutted Mutanabi Street.
Next year the Americans will be gone, and Kamer will turn 9. When he grows up, he wants to be an actor and a photographer.
Once, Kamer said, he took a picture of a flower in a garden in Numaniyah, near his home. As he looked through the viewfinder, a bumble bee and a butterfly landed on the blossom together. He took another shot. He likes that photo, he said, and has not seen anything like it since.
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.