In Baghdad, Survival Depends on Simpler Ways

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

BAGHDAD -- By now they're used to Humvees clogging the highways and blast walls blocking the alleys. Some barely flinch when trucks detonate or mortar shells crash down on the pavement. But when the bridges start falling into the water, determined Baghdad commuters are forced to improvise.

Which is why a 50-year-old shoe salesman is stepping gingerly onto a weathered wooden boat bobbing in the Tigris River, perhaps the only place in Baghdad where one need not worry about an explosion underfoot. "There are no bombs in the water," he said.

To those accustomed to the barren, brown expanse of the Tigris, in recent years primarily the domain of floating corpses and speeding patrol boats, the dozens of skiffs now traversing the river are a striking sight. About 15 feet long and powered by outboard motors, the boats are one more solution, however primitive, that Iraqis have devised to survive their daily rounds in Baghdad.

"When you walk down the street, you don't know if the person next to you is wearing an explosive belt or if there's a bomb in the next car," said the salesman, who gave only his nickname, Abu Zaid Hamdani, out of fear. "I feel more comfortable on the water. I feel psychologically safe."

From the boys selling black-market gasoline from donkey carts, to the abandoned movie theaters, restaurants and liquor stores, from the overflowing sewage to the dwindling food rations, Baghdad has lost its place as a pinnacle of Middle East modernity. Existence has become more rudimentary.

"The people of Baghdad were living on electricity and technology, and now we are stagnated," said Um Mohammed, a mother of three who was shopping in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood for a traditional oven called a tanoor. "Instead of improving ourselves, we are returning back to the Stone Age."

Um Mohammed, who asked that only her nickname be published, had never used a tanoor, a waist-high clay gourd for baking bread over smoldering palm-tree coals. Her bread came from a bakery. But after spending $70 a month on bread for her family, a financial burden made worse by the rising price of cooking gas, she decided to learn.

"I'll probably burn my hand," she said. "We are living in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, of prosperity. Where is the prosperity?"

Iraqis remember a different Tigris in the decades before the war, back when double-decker party barges cruised past high-rise hotels on warm evenings. For a time, the Ministry of Transportation ran ferries along the river, amid fishermen hoisting fat carp from the silty water.

Back then, the men in the wooden skiffs also plied the water, but now their role has grown into one of necessity, rather than just convenience or amusement. A popular central shopping district along the eastern shore -- Shorja market and Rashid and Jumhuriyah streets -- is now barred to vehicles for fear of bombs. In the past month, three of the 13 bridges spanning the Tigris have been bombed. The gravest attack occurred April 12, when a suicide truck bomb exploded on the Sarafiya span, plunging the steel structure, and several drivers, into the water.

The Tigris, which snakes from north to south through Baghdad, is now as much a sectarian barrier as a physical one, dividing the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods on the west side from the Shiites to the east. For those who still must cross, there is Muhammed Abdul Kareem.

Trained as an accountant, Abdul Kareem, 35, has found nothing in his field in the wartime economy, so he spent $2,300 for a dinghy, charges 75 cents a ride and ekes out a living of about $9 a day as a boat captain.

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