Everyday life in Basra’s year zero: pistachio ices and tiny graves

In the late summer of 2003, I went to Basra, via Kuwait, to write a series of articles on the immediate aftermath of war. I had no preconceptions and was intensely curious about what I would find. It was a fascinating two weeks, incredibly hot, the people still in shock, the future unsure, administrative chaos, the British Army showing its “soft power” side. I ended up writing three pieces: one about 24 hours with the army, one on the use of cluster bombs and this one, my favourite, about everyday life. With hindsight, I was lucky to see Basra before it all got too dangerous.



From The Times newspaper

10 September 2003

Everyday life in Basra’s year zero: pistachio ices and tiny graves

We read all the time about Basra, but have little idea of what it is really like to live there. In the second of her reports from Iraq, Ann Treneman goes behind the official communiqués to find family life emerging from the ruins

IT IS early Friday night in Basra and a little girl, dressed in a white frilly dress with white anklets edged in lace, walks along a dusty road. She holds the hand of a woman who is wearing top-to-toe black. They look like two piano keys that have got mixed up as they head off to the evening market, perhaps to buy a cup of the watery strawberry ice cream that children here love. The heat is in the high 40s, but the market that stretches for at least a kilometre is bustling. There are vegetable stands, with intricately stacked tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines, and entire shops devoted to watermelons.

Life, in this twilight minute, seems full of plenty as we drive along, flanked by spits of roasting chickens, fresh juice stands, and date-palm nuts displayed in thickly woven shallow baskets. The patched-up cars that jostle and beep are a mirror of the timewarp in which Saddam’s Iraq was forced to live. The night is full of the busy-ness of people making the best of what they’ve got and what is, after all, everything they know.

This is a poor, though not desperate, area of Basra. It lies to the east of the wide river, the Shatt al-Arab, that runs through the city. On this night the river is disturbed only by the slivers of canoes. We look across the darkening water, beyond the wreck that was Saddam’s yacht, and see that an ancient Ferris wheel that is part of a fun fair is turning. There are no passengers and, in a city where power cuts can last for days, the fact that it is moving at all seems a mad leap of faith.

We drive across the river on a metal bridge that should be single lane but isn’t, the result being a surfeit of drama. Across the way, in the centre of Basra, on busy 14th of July Street, there is a proper ice-cream parlour. Fustuka is tiled in white and there are little fountains with swirly coloured lights. The pistachio is particularly good. The parlour has two areas, one for families and another for single men who, to cool down, have folded their starched headdresses back at the sides and look a bit like cobras. Outside the parlour, the traffic policemen are balletic as they beckon and coax Basra’s cars to do the right thing, just this once.

It is Year Zero in Basra. Nights of pistachio ice cream and coloured lights are interspersed with others in which the sound of gunfire is all too close and the shops shut for fear of looting, or worse. It is hot, the averages for the past month were in the 50s, and the humidity can be almost unbearable. There are, or have been over the summer, shortages of electricity, water, cooking gas, diesel for generators and petrol for cars. One cannot underestimate the difficulties of living here, and one shouldn’t, for Basra is a city that can be wild and is well versed in the ways of war. But there is grace here too and, amid the heat and riots of this summer, people with little to give welcome us with long glasses of iced yoghurt and plates of dates that taste of sweetest toffee.

Basra is Iraq’s second city. It has 1.5 million people but still seems much more like a town. Its northern neighbourhoods are poor, urban and cramped; it southern suburbs are poor, rural and green with densely planted date palms. At least a third of the buildings are falling down, victims of decay or war or looting, but there are well-off areas too, with large homes fronted by little squares of grass, and gardens filled with banana, fig and palm trees. Everywhere, in neighbourhoods good and bad, there are piles of rubbish which are picked over by sheep and donkeys.

The higgledy-piggledy central market sells everything including the kitchen sink: pickled vegetables, rugs from Iran, clothes from Dubai, heady perfumes and rich spices. Money exchangers sit along the road, sometimes almost next to each other. Iraqi dinars, worth 1,600 to the dollar at the time, are handed out in slabs. The pavement is crowded with appliances and satellite dishes, all new since the war. There are a few restaurants where attendants provide a Basra version of valet parking: cardboard for your windscreens and a watchful eye.

Basra is just two hours’ drive from Kuwait City and it used to be where the Kuwaitis came to relax, a city of drink and cabaret. There is none of that now — buying beer involves a process not unlike a drug deal — though the tiny flower illuminations continue to blink away on the Corniche along the Shatt al-Arab. In all of Basra it is only here, where the palaces stand, that you get a glimpse of how it used to be.

This is an article about everyday life, of ordinary people in extraordinary times. It is not about the big picture but the small and in Iraq’s case that can be taken literally. Children make up half the population and it is they, not the looters and saboteurs of today or the soldiers who patrol the blistering streets in cool khaki, who are the future. First, though, they have to live through the present.

We meet Battol Abdul Rudha and a gaggle of children walking down a wide street in the al-Jumhuriyah neighborhood. The road is clogged with rubbish and pools of green sewage in which the children splash. Battol leads us to a disused school, through a side entrance and into what must once have been a classroom and is now her home. The concrete floor is covered in old rugs, the windows in old sheets. Sparse is too cluttered a word for this room, with its one ancient sideboard, on top of which are stacked fraying sleeping mats. A television, not usable, has been covered with a cloth. There are homely touches, religious pictures and a tiny cabinet for cups. The kitchen is to the side, in what used to be the school’s toilet, and Battol disappears to make us sweet hot tea.

Battol is 33, a strong and intelligent woman who finished only primary school and married at 16. Her husband is 35, a labourer in Basra port who makes one and a half dollars a day. They came here four months ago, displaced not by the war but by a landlord who raised their rent to $30 (£18) a month. There are 43 other families who are squatting in this old school.

Battol has, as they say here, “three children and one girl”. The girl, Usdan, is 13 and the boys are ten, nine and two. They live on the monthly food ration provided to all Iraqis by the World Food Programme. Battol complains that the rice is not good quality and the milk this month lasted only 15 days. For breakfast they drink tea and milk and eat the bubbly round Arab bread that she makes from scratch and bakes in the outdoor oven built by the squatters. I ask about lunch and dinner. “I use the rice and try to make a soup, maybe potato or onion or aubergine,” she says. “We cannot buy meat and chicken. It is too expensive.” Later she shows me her kitchen, with its neat shelves and handmade cutlery container hanging on the wall. There is little here beyond the ration except for three small aubergines. “This is our best friend,” she says, holding one up. “Very cheap.”

Battol has no dreams for herself. “There is no way out,” she says. She has no watch or ring, and her children have no toys. Their clothes are rudimentary and she is clad, as are all women in this overwhelmingly Shia Muslim city, in the black abaya. She wants to buy her children clothes and sandals that are not plastic. The boys would love a ball. She has a message for Tony Blair and George Bush: “Where are the promises?”

What does she want for her children? Battol would like the boys to be doctors and lawyers. And Usdan? She, like an estimated 35 per cent of all girls here, has already left school. Many Iraqis marry within their families, often a cousin. Is Usdan already promised? Battol shakes her head. No, she rejected the offer. She wants Usdan to marry a foreigner and her daughter, judging by her dancing eyes, has her own ideas on that subject too.

A few days later we meet Whaeed Atya, a science and Arabic teacher who is the head volunteer at a “summer camp” run by Save the Children. The camps are held throughout Basra, teaching health and landmine awareness (instead of Snakes and Ladders there is a game called Mines and Ladders) as well as art and games. There is something very moving about the sheer normality of watching girls skip rope and chase balloons, oblivious to all else, even as gunfire pops in the background. Two girls seem particularly mischievous as they reveal a few English phrases. They are Whaeed’s nieces, and we are invited to their home.

This is a large house that borders on a canal near the town centre. The front garden is welcoming and unruly, with grass and various palm trees. There is even a cherry tree. The girls are called Rwaa and Noor and are aged eight and seven. They sit next to me, the beads in their short hair twinkling. The living room is lined with couches and tables with silk flower arrangements. It takes some time to go through the pleasantries. Special biscuits made of deep-fried dough, arranged in intricate shapes, have been prepared for us.

Eleven people and three generations live here. The head of the household is the girls’ grandfather who owns a well-known clothing shop in Basra. It is now run by his son, a prisoner of war during the Iran-Iraq war, and the girls’ father. Their mother, Eman Jama, is an economics graduate. This family is dominated by single women, including Whaeed, all of whom are educated, at least to BA level, and work as teachers and engineers. In the West they would live separately, but not here. If they marry, they then move in with the husband’s family.

The girls want to be doctors and know they must get good grades. They like to watch television, though not the endless religious programmes that flood in from Iran. Instead they love cartoons. The extended family eats together every day and there is no trouble affording lamb or chicken. “After the war, the salaries were paid in dollars,” explains Whaeed. “We collect the money and will try to buy a new TV and a new satellite dish and a computer and a new air conditioner.” At this point, the power goes off and the ceiling fan stops turning. We ignore the suffocating heat, and the talk turns to politics. They yearn for the new Iraq. “The whole of life has been ruined for 30 years,” says Whaeed. “That is my generation. We are destroyed.”

The rich have many fears in the new Iraq, perhaps more than before. Saeid Taha is the patriarch of an old Basra family. He is 64, and lives with his wife and three children in a rambling riverside compound that houses, in total, 80 relatives. He complains bitterly about the lack of fuel and security and worries about kidnapping. His house has been stoned, from the river, and his sons, aged 20 and 22, spend their nights patrolling the compound with guns. (Every house is allowed to have up to two AK47s.) “Everything is becoming upside-down,” he says, and wants martial law imposed to stop the anarchy.

On the whole people in Basra do not talk about the war, except when asked directly. It is only in places such as the crowded Children’s Cemetery, where women in black sprinkle tiny graves with rose water, that you can see how the vulnerable have paid. Unicef estimates that some 35 per cent of children are malnourished, an increase of five to ten points from before the war, and the beds of Basra’s dilapidated Children’s Hospital are filled with those too weak to fight diseases such as pneumonia or conditions such as diarrhoea. Some seem hours from death.

It is here that I meet Abbas, a captivating little boy with a bandage round his head to stop a nosebleed. He is six and obviously smart. His blood will not clot properly and he has been in hospital for a month. His mother, Kadhma Shwal, is a Bedouin who says she is about 45 years old. Her husband, a labourer, was killed during the war. As a widow she has had to move in with her husband’s brother but he cannot tolerate the expense, particularly of a boy with a chronic illness.

Kadhma blames Saddam Hussein for her ills. She was in a car accident and this, with her husband’s death, has made her “psychologically absent”. Abbas, as a male child, is her only hope for the future. She does not send him to school, afraid that he will start to bleed. The doctor chides her when he hears this but the woman, eyes fixed on something we cannot see, does not respond. For Abbas, as for Iraq, the future is up for grabs.
@copyright Ann Treneman/The Times