Faces of the Iraqi youth
The agitator: Muhammed AsaadStruggling against suspicion
BAGHDAD — On a bright October day in this city's Tahrir Square, Muhammed Asaad tried to make some noise. He announced his cellphone number to a group of 50 protesters at the weekly Friday demonstration. Text me your message, he said, and he would amplify it through a scratchy-sounding speaker on wheels.
"If you don't demonstrate, you're not a man," chanted Asaad, 26, glancing at his phone, trying to rile up young men in polo shirts and football jerseys. "We are not going to die or give up our rights."
The protest was cordoned by yellow caution tape, monitored by policemen and addled by suspicion. Everyone had a video camera, and everyone thought everyone else was working as an intelligence agent. The Ministry of Defense has been known to order plainclothes officers to infiltrate protests, according to Human Rights Watch.
Distrust, said Asaad and other protesters, has become a cancer that's stunting their movement.
Protesters showed off injuries - ugly bruises, scars from stitches, a still-fractured shoulder blade that wiggled in its joint - that they said came from abductions and beatings by security forces trying to keep the protest from intensifying to the levels of Feb. 25 when tens of thousands occupied the square to demand government reform and basic services. (Over the summer, the Ministry of Electricity provided about eight hours of electricity per day to customers, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.)
Cars lurched around the square. Asaad shouted into the microphone, literally vibrating with energy as he spoke about Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki: "Maliki is a liar! Maliki is a liar!"
"He is a dead man," one onlooker said of Asaad.
The son of a soldier in Saddam Hussein's army, Asaad left school in sixth grade. To help support his family, he got a job working two shifts a day as a cleaner at a pediatric hospital. Just after the U.S. invasion, when he was 17, he moved around to avoid violence, decamping to Syria on occasion to look for work. He said he sold one of his kidneys in Kurdistan for $3,000 in 2006. A wide purple scar snakes around his torso to his back.
He has been desperate for as long as he can remember, but this year is more dire, he said. In February, he said, policemen broke his tooth with a pistol. He said they dragged him out of a taxi in August. They jailed him for two nights in October, he said, and put a cigarette out on his temple. He pointed to a round scab near his eyebrow.
Dissent equals treason in the new Iraq, he said, with his bullies accusing him of being a Baathist. Paranoia in the government has led to paranoia in the citizenry, Asaad said.
Around noon, as the protest dwindled, Asaad saw a middle-aged woman in a hijab take his picture. He asked her why, and each accused the other of spying. By the time they arrived at a truce, the protest noise had faded, replaced by the buzz of traffic.
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.
The daughter: ZahraaGrowing up in the ashes of war
FALLUJAH, Iraq — Zahraa is 6 and smiley. She doesn't talk or walk. She has six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. Her father thanks Allah that she doesn't have two heads.
Muhammed Majeed Hamid swears he has seen such a child in Fallujah, which residents call "the polluted city" because of the staggering rise in birth defects there in the past several years. Locals attribute this to the U.S. military's use of white phosphorus and other weapons in nasty battles against insurgents in 2004, though the cause has not been officially determined.
Here, citizens believe the war is sewn into the biology of its bystanders - one generation plagued by abnormalities, another generation hesitant to start or expand a family.
Hamid, 34, was a newlywed during the battles of Fallujah. He lived with his wife in an industrial section of the city populated by mechanics. In November 2004, Hamid's house was shelled and burned. His wife was pregnant with Zahraa. They remember the bright tentacles of white phosphorus raining down on rooftops to provide cover for advancing troops. After the cease-fire, Hamid's wife spent 10 days in labor.
Following Zahraa's birth, they had two more children: a daughter, in 2007, who died three months ago of a blood condition, and a son, in 2009, who died 30 days after he was born with an incomplete skull.
Fifteen percent of babies born in Fallujah have some kind of birth defect, according to pediatrician Samira al-Aani, who co-authored a December 2010 study on defects that was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The global average is 6 percent.
"No Iraqi officials or institutions . . . have corroborated claims of increased birth effects in Fallujah due to use of military weapons," Maj. Chris Perrine, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Regardless of the cause, Aani insists the culprit is man-made, overwhelming the city's meager medical facilities and reshaping society.
"There are conflicts between parents because of this fear, and some decide not to have a child in the future at all," Aani said. "One of them is my brother. He and his wife had a child about 18 months ago, and he died three days after birth because of a congenital lung problem. This year they had a baby with Down syndrome. This will affect the rest of their lives."
Hamid works as a day laborer but said he sometimes goes a week without a job. Zahraa's health problems sap any available funds, he said, and Iraq lacks the medical and social-support systems to care for disabled children.
"We were optimistic when the Americans came, and we had many youth dreaming of a better future," said Hamid, who was 26 at the time of the invasion. But the Americans "changed all the sweet things in life to have a bitter taste."
Whenever Zahraa sees neighborhood girls walking home from school with backpacks, she wriggles, as if trying to dance. Her father thinks she is reminded of the music video to an Iraqi pop song that takes place on a school campus and plays regularly on TV. He's happy to see her smile, he said, and sad that she'll never be one of those girls.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah contributed to this report.
The musician, Ranya NashatListening for harmony
BAGHDAD — It was a full house. People even sat on the stairs, listening to Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven's Third in the National Theater, which was pillaged and charred during the anarchy following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The scene in October would have been unimaginable five years ago, when Iraq was at its worst, or 11 years ago, when Ranya Nashat was first assigned the French horn in school and was hypnotized by its shiny brass and majestic tones.
"It's miraculous," she said of the show. "When I started with the orchestra in 2007, there wouldn't be more than 45 people in the audience."
Now 19 and starting college in Baghdad, Nashat plays the horn with the national symphony and the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, which recruits its budding talent from many corners of the country. She sometimes practices in the bathroom at home, in the southern Baghdad neighborhood, using a towel to mute the horn's resonance so she doesn't disturb her parents and younger brother.
Horn music has been the melodic counterpoint to a childhood of discord: The agony of learning a close friend had died during the massacre at Our Lady of Salvation Church last year. The yearning of the horn solo during the third movement of Brahms's symphony No. 3. The sharp disbelief over insurgents gunning down her uncle in 2005 as he stood in the doorway of his home. The quieting effect of the horn on the frenetic violins in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth.
She doesn't know how she and her peers survived their traumatic childhoods.
"We were so young," she said. "I can't remember how we dealt with it. I guess we just got used to it."
When asked to define the American legacy over mochaccinos at a coffee shop near al-Watheq Square in Baghdad last month, she stared off into the distance and sighed.
"Everything and nothing," she said. "I'd choose 2003 before now. It was safer. You need safety in order to live and evolve and be an active member of society."
In a city of nerves and checkpoints, where mobility is limited and travel time is doubled and tripled by traffic, it's challenging to maintain a hobby and commit to an entity such as an orchestra, let alone two. The national symphony does not have a dedicated rehearsal space. Arts and culture take a back seat to matters of security and economy. Of the country's 26 ministries, the Ministry of Culture is fourth from the bottom in terms of funding; it receives 0.3 percent of the total budget for ministries.
Nashat would like to study the instrument abroad - she feels she has reached her learning potential here - but she would return afterward.
"Iraq needs its people," Nashat said. "I would come back and teach. I'd teach only girls. I'd have an all-girl French-horn army."
The lawmaker: Vian Abdulrahem AbdullahChanging the old guard
IRBIL, Iraq — She's known as the lady of arguments. A product of cattle country, a lawyer by training, the mother of two toddlers Vian Abdulrahem Abdullah is, at 30, the youngest member of the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, the legislative body of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraq. She's also one of the most vocal.
When one of her fellow members threw a bottle of water at the parliament speaker in April, the member was barred from the chamber for three months. In response, Abdullah approached the speaker and told him, "Next time, no one can guess what we'll throw at you."
This rambunctious spirit fuels Gorran, also known as the Change List, a faction of parliament pushing for reform and aiming to dismantle the rigid party politics of Kurdistan. In the June 2009 elections, Gorran members won 25 of 111 seats - many of them younger people operating outside the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, two entities that plunged the region into a civil war in the 1990s and that are often driven internally by familial influence and connections.
"I want to break that tradition, where a politician brings in his brother or nephew or friend," Abdullah said in her third-floor office in October. "When I was a young girl, I decided to reach for something. It is possible to reach the highest positions and attain ownership of the future."
Her childhood in an agricultural village outside Sulaymaniyah, in northeastern Iraq, was defined by the sound of heavy shelling during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and by the fruity odor of Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare against the Kurds. The chemical attacks, by some estimates, killed 100,000 people - including her father, a Kurdish militia officer - and displaced twice that number in the late 1980s.
Abdullah started law school in 2003, the year the Americans invaded. Before joining Gorran in 2008, she worked as an advocate for Kurds still suffering from the effects of Saddam's chemical attacks. She was 28 when elected to the Change List. Since then, she and Gorran have proposed laws that would provide young people with small-business loans and financial incentives to marry. They have submitted reports that accuse Kurdish officials of pocketing millions of dollars by misstating the costs of housing projects and allotting salaries to militia members who do not exist.
When parliament is not in session, Abdullah holds public meetings on Thursdays and Fridays and stays at her family's house in Sulaymaniyah with her husband and two children - who, "like parliament, need to be told to listen."
Is she concerned about Gorran becoming too institutional, too entangled in party politics?
"We always need to be ready to change members, so no one is fixed," she said. "It's only the young generation that can fix what was destroyed by the old guard."
She said she will not run for reelection in 2013. She will finish one term and vacate her position - for a new face with fresh ideas, she hopes, perhaps someone even younger than herself.
Special correspondents Asaad Majeed and Mowafaq Mohammed in Irbil contributed to this report.
The bloggers: Hayder Hamzoz & Dina NajemBuilding a virtual revolution
BAGHDAD — Blog by blog and tweet by tweet, tech-savvy Iraqis are trying to reproduce the revolutions of the Arab Spring on a subtler, more incremental level: by encouraging activism, reporting news, holding officials accountable and creating a broadband society that is not beholden to checkpoints, car bombs and other obstacles in the non-virtual world of Iraq.
"I believe Libya had success because they had social media to help their revolution - we didn't," said a 23-year-old blogger and activist who goes by the name Hayder Hamzoz. "We didn't have enough connectivity to the outside world in 2003."
Hayder Hamzoz is one of the forces behind the blog Iraqi Streets, which has 30 regular contributors and aims to promote activism and social media while teaching young people how to leverage both. Last month, he and a fellow blogger who goes by Dina Najem, 22, sat in a cafe in Baghdad, having just returned from a social-media conference in Beirut.
The U.S. invasion opened Iraq to the free societies of the outside world, Hamzoz and Najem said, but it also installed a hamstrung political system that has obstructed the path to emulating those societies.
The number of Facebook users in the country has more than doubled since February, according to the social media statistics portal Socialbakers, but the Iraqi parliament is considering an "Informatics Crimes Law" that would, according to the British human rights organization Article 19, "significantly undermine the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information in the country" and impose "severe custodial and financial penalties on 'whoever violates principles, religious, moral, family, or social values . . . through information networks or computers.' "
"The government of Iraq is following the same theories of the former regime but in different manners," said Najem, who trains women how to use the Internet and social media through the nonprofit Iraqi al-Amal Association.
Najem, Hamzoz and their fellow bloggers are focused on the basics right now: preparing a safety and privacy guide for activists, using Twitter to amplify dispatches from hard-to-reach protests, transmitting media from closed social sites (such as Facebook) to publicly searchable platforms (such as Google), and helping provincial council members start Facebook pages to engage with young constituents.
The next challenge is to "turn these online activities into action in the streets," Hamzoz said. "But we don't have a future yet, just the present. So we do what we can now, with these tools."
The uniter: Ali Ahmed al-ObaidiSearching for a national identity
KIRKUK, Iraq — The avatar of a unified Iraq is tall and wiry and 20 years old, wearing week-old scruff, black slacks, a charcoal peacoat and pointy loafers. He sat silently on a couch, hands folded, in the Kirkuk Center for Culture as his father, Ahmad Hameed al-Obaidi, expounded the complicated ethnic history of their home town, a four-hour drive north of Baghdad.
SSince 2003, the population of the city has swelled from 834,000 to 1.5 million as Kurds driven out by Saddam Hussein began returning. Arabs are losing a grip on their homes, Obaidi said. Security forces are friendly to Kurds coming south and antagonistic to Arabs moving north. Ethnic factions kidnap members of other ethnic factions to collect ransoms, he said.
Obaidi sipped his tea and summed up his concern: Kirkuk, the geographic center of Iraq's national identity crisis, is becoming a stage for civil war.
His son listened, turning over his gold-colored smartphone. Ali Ahmed al-Obaidi is tired of partisan talk. He has been tired of it since he was 15, when he started the Mesopotamia Organization for Students and Youth, an apolitical student union that aspires to draw young people away from ethnocentric clubs and toward a mixed social environment.
“I am an Iraqi,” Ali said after his father finished. "An Iraqi of Kirkuk. The problem is that young men today are carrying the thoughts of their elders. They are thinking of themselves as Turks, or as Kurds. . . .The problem with Iraqi youth is they don't have that wide vision for the state of Iraq."
And the problem with the Mesopotamia Organization for Students and Youth is that no one is joining or funding it. The young people and the money flow to youth-oriented organizations that ally themselves with specific ethnicities or parties.
The son of a lawyer and a housewife, Ali was 12 at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003. He remembers assassinations and power struggles, but he said he was too young to understand who wanted what and why.
Not much has changed in that regard. Elections in Kirkuk's province are two years overdue because party officials are concerned the electorate will vote to overhaul the ethnic makeup of local government. A constitutionally mandated referendum on placing Kirkuk and disputed territories under the Kurdistan Regional Government has been stalled for more than four years.
Meanwhile, Ali commutes to al-Mamoun University College in Baghdad, where he studies in the medical analysis department. He has yet to introduce his organization there. There is a separate set of sectarian issues in the capital, an invisible but palpable sense that his idea is not welcome by leaders.
"I can't express myself to my classmates - it's too sensitive," Ali said. "But here in Kirkuk we'll keep talking, we'll keep having social gatherings, we'll keep trying to bring ethnic unions into the fold. We'll keep trying."
Special correspondent Asaad Majeed and another special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.
SOURCE: Dan Zak. PHOTOS: Dan Zak. GRAPHIC: Emily Chow - The Washington Post. Published Nov. 26, 2011