Time Zones

An Iraqi City Divided, and Defined, by Its Walls

A vehicle stops at a checkpoint in Baghdad, surrounded by blast walls. "The walls are the most hated thing," a Baghdad resident said of the barriers that riddle the city.
A vehicle stops at a checkpoint in Baghdad, surrounded by blast walls. "The walls are the most hated thing," a Baghdad resident said of the barriers that riddle the city. (By Sabah Arar -- Agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- Sadiya Street stretches a few feet beyond the neighborhood that bears its name. That is, on a map. But the geography of Baghdad is determined by masonry, a maze of towering concrete barriers that isolate, segregate and demarcate.

In Sadiya, once one of Baghdad's roughest locales, the walls also enclose, like a prison, and at 2:30 p.m., Ali Abdullah parked his bedraggled brown taxi at the end of the line of vehicles that stretches a mile from the sole entrance to the neighborhood on his way home.

"Maybe in a year, instead of you hitting me or me hitting you, we'll all say, 'Peace upon you,' and you'll put your hand in mine. But not yet." Unshaven and tired, he smiled. "Until then, if you're facing the prospect of death, you'll go ahead and settle for a fever."

Abdullah put his car in drive, shifted the prosthetic limb that replaced his right leg, amputated more than 20 years ago in the war with Iran, and nudged his car forward, before waiting again.

"Leave the walls for now," he said glumly, as he glanced at the story-high barricades, cluttered with a melange of posters for next month's provincial elections.

Almost every Arab capital seems to have its own notion of geography. Class rules Cairo, where the rich have forsaken the downtown area for gleaming castles built on sand in the desert. Beirut's myriad sects make the city claustrophobic, its borders drawn by the portraits and iconography of feudal leaders. Damascus's diversity is blurred by a Baathist vision of Arab nationalism, washing the city of color. Capitalist excess is Dubai's equivalent.

The geography of Baghdad is walls, built one barrier at a time, along streets and around neighborhoods, through intersections and over bridges. For some, the gray of freshly poured concrete long ago gave way to the city's more dominant ochers. Many are painted. Others are decorated with plastic flowers, gathering dust. A few bear murals.

But they remain walls, dividing a city from itself, in an attempt to stanch violence.

"Welcome to the city of Sadiya," the wall here reads, with no sense of irony.

"The walls are the most hated thing. I swear to God, they're despised," said Hussein Abbas Hassan, plastering posters for a candidate with his two sons, Yasser and Samir. "I wish God would descend from heaven and tear them down."

Until He does, though, they serve a purpose. Since morning, Hassan and his sons had circled the neighborhoods of Sadiya and nearby Dora, gluing 2,000 posters to the concrete. "As long as they're here, we'll put the posters on them."

The minutes passed, and Abdullah, the taxi driver, crept forward, past their posters and others. There were ads for a Kurdish party, devout Shiite candidates, tribal leaders and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The solution is Iraqi," one read. "Iraq for Iraqis," declared another. Campaign promises spilled across the wall: hospitals and clinics, a greater role for women in politics, a renaissance of art and an age of justice.

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