In Iraq, a Father's Duties Weigh Heavily

A father carries his injured son to a hospital after two bombs struck a pet market in central Baghdad on June 2, killing at least five people and wounding 57.
A father carries his injured son to a hospital after two bombs struck a pet market in central Baghdad on June 2, killing at least five people and wounding 57. (By Mohammed Hato -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 18, 2006

BAGHDAD -- At an age when most people have trouble getting out of bed, Lafta Zigam Sharif spends his days as a less-than-imposing security guard at a central Baghdad mansion and his nights in a spartan servant's room with a prayer rug to pad the concrete floor.

His duties are taxing, said Sharif, his lined brow glistening in the 110-degree afternoon heat. But the reward comes on payday, when he returns home to distribute his earnings to his wife, four kids and four grandchildren, who share a three-bedroom home in the sprawling Shiite slum called Sadr City.

"I worry always about everything, about whether there will be enough money to go around and whether someone will attack my house," said Sharif, his family's primary breadwinner, who said he is 94 but looks at least a decade younger. "For a father, there are so many things to worry about."

As in other Arab cultures, fathers in patriarchal Iraqi families are revered and towering figures whose word in the household is often law. Men with children are respectfully referred to by the moniker "Abu," or "father of," followed by their son's first name, a sign of admiration also extended to mothers.

But in a violence-plagued country with a stagnant economy, fatherhood -- with responsibilities that include everything from providing for a vast extended family to negotiating the release of kidnapped relatives to standing ready with a rifle to protect one's home -- might be the toughest job around.

Abu Omar, an electrician who lives in the Baghdad neighborhood of Saydiyah -- a Sunni Arab enclave where insurgents move freely -- said he returns from work in the late afternoon and stays up until well past midnight hoping the explosions and firefights remain at a safe distance from his son and other family members.

"If there is any danger, I am the first to stand in the face of that danger and keep him home with me," he said. "You cannot hope for the police because sometimes they are the ones committing crimes."

His son Omar, 26, has not left the house in months, since word began to circulate that Shiite Muslim militia members, some believed to be police officers, were targeting men with his name, a common one for Sunnis. His daughter moved to Amman, Jordan, after her brother-in-law was kidnapped and the family had to pay a $30,000 ransom.

As bombings became more prevalent in his neighborhood in recent months, Abu Omar convened 10 fathers and formed a mutual-protection pact. If anyone's home was attacked, they agreed, all would come to its defense. He has since started keeping an AK-47 assault rifle by his bed while he sleeps.

"The system works. A couple of weeks ago, someone knocked on my door after midnight. I shouted, 'Who's there?' I heard a woman's voice shout back, but I was sure it was not a woman," he said. Abu Omar called a neighbor for help. The neighbor climbed on his roof for a better view and saw a bearded man dressed in a traditional woman's robe and head scarf, while another man waited in a nearby car. After a few warning shots, the men fled.

Iraqi fathers in positions with a high public profile -- targeted by insurgents seeking media attention -- say the risk their families face weighs heavily. Mithal Alusi, a secular politician, was vilified in Iraq for his visit to Israel in 2004. A few months later, his teenage sons died in a bombing aimed at him. Painted portraits of the boys as children hang on a wall in his central Baghdad office.

"Always when you break taboos, there is a heavy price," he said in an interview late last year. "I did. But to build a new Iraq, you have to be willing."

Despite a career that puts his life on the line every day, Adnan Hussein considers being a father his greatest challenge. As a police officer, he has survived insurgent attacks and raids on booby-trapped houses. But with seven children to provide for on a meager salary, he struggles to make ends meet.

"I have to protect my family and my country," said Hussein, 33, in an interview at a police station in Baghdad's Karrada district. "But being the father is a greater responsibility."

While he works a Baghdad beat, his family lives in Kut, 100 miles to the southeast. On many nights his shift ends after the city's midnight curfew and he cannot get home. He has not yet seen his youngest child, a daughter born last week.

Nameer Nouri, 45, had what he called "a father's nightmare" come true this month, when his son Noor, 18, was abducted by gunmen in the Baghdad neighborhood of Zayouna, home to many former officers in Saddam Hussein's army. Rather than deal with the police, he dealt with the kidnappers directly.

"They wanted us to release four Sunnis who had been kidnapped. They said, 'You are Shiite; we will trade,' " Nouri said. "I told them I had nothing to do with that and offered them money instead."

Noor was eventually recovered unharmed from the insurgent-dominated neighborhood of Dora, south of downtown Baghdad. A family gave him refuge in a farmhouse, where his father led a group of 13 armed men to pick him up.

"Our sons and daughters should build a golden statue for us, because we are fighting with monsters to keep them safe," Noor said. "In the end, though, only God can protect them."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company