Global Policy Forum

Sanctions: An Indiscrete Harm to Iraqi Bourgeoisie


By Youssef M. Ibrahim

March 1, 1998

Baghdad - As Sami Kaftan, one of Iraq's most famous actors, strolled into a hotel this week, people stopped and smiled. Some rushed to shake his hand, quoting a funny line or two from a score of movies, plays and television shows he has starred in over three decades.

They may have wondered why they see so little of him these days. None, however, would have been surprised to learn that with the collapse of the Iraqi entertainment industry under the weight of more than seven years of economic sanctions, he has teamed up with his close friend and artistic partner, a playwright named Ahmed Alsaleh, to work 20 hours a. day in a kiosk selling cigarettes, cookies and imported soda,

Both are resigned to their fate, noting that they are not worse off than most professionals in this country of 22 million.

"What matters now is survival," said Mr. Alsaleh, 41. "Doctors are working in restaurants. Historians and professors sell their libraries on the sidewalks, artists are hawking currency."

Mr. Kaftan, 55, added: "All my kids care about is a sense of security. To me acting is a noble profession, but what you do to make money carries no value in itself anymore. Our society and our sense of values have changed."

Much has changed in this country since the 1991 war that forced Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, and this was especially evident during the recent standoff over arms inspections that threatened new military action against Iraq.

As late as 1996, many in Baghdad viewed the West as a potential savior from an oppressive leadership - despite the bombs that fell here during the war. What is striking now is how many have come around to a perception of the West as indifferent to Iraqi lives and fortunes. In the last couple of years, the prospect of sanction-free relations with the outside world has remained as distant as ever, and the sense of despair and futility has become overwhelming.

Last week the most important man for many here was neither President Hussein nor his primary adversary, President Clinton, but rather the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who had come to negotiate an end to the dispute over access to suspected Iraqi weapons sites, and thereby avert an American air strike.

Rightly or wrongly, many Iraqis were convinced that Mr. Annan had traveled here to rescue Iraq from its miseries. As a result, recent American Congressional attacks on Mr. Annan and the agreement have played into the hands of the Iraqi Government. Still, in interviews and conversations with a wide range of Iraqis last week, the fact that an American bomb attack had been avoided, at least for now, by Mr. Annan's visit hardly even registered as a blessing.

To be sure, fear of Iraq's fierce security system continues to constrain political discourse. But what resonates is the sense of having been abandoned by the rest of the world, and the deepening poverty that is destroying Iraq's once powerful and prosperous middle class.

Everyone listens to everything on the radio, from the Voice of America to the BBC to hostile opposition messages; seven years of sanctions have turned Iraqis into obsessive political analysts. But it is far from evident that these broadcasts have led them to place the whole blame for their predicament on their own leaders.

"The West forgets that Iraq, is a tribal society within a clannish culture," said an Asian ambassador here. "In this society, as in much of the Middle East, a chief is admired if he wields power. Iraqis by now are disillusioned about the West. All they see is that America wants to keep them in a box, along with Saddam. It is no surprise that there isn't an organized opposition to Saddam in Iraq. Until a credible party promises deliverance, the edict of the state, and of Saddam, will run far and wide."

For Hussein Hassan, a poet and fiction writer who now gets by doing translations from English to Arabic, the sanctions' destructiveness is the real issue. "We've been bombed so long, so hard," he said, "that's not new. What would be new is the possibility that this siege might end."

He sipped sweetened tea in a dingy little cafe off Almutanabi Street, where he and scores of other intellectuals come every Friday in hopes of selling old books hauled from home. This total upset of their society, as poverty separates them from art and' learning, is now their overriding concern.

It has always been said in the Arab world that "Egyptians write, Lebanese print and Iraqis read." That is why Almutanabi Street is an important barometer of what is happening to Iraqi society.

Dia el-Hagab, a cartoonist, was strolling down the street picking books for his 10-year-old son, Moammed. This is a necessity, he explained, because the quality of teaching fallen steeply. Some classrooms have no desks or chairs, not to mention books, which used to be freely available.

"I make sure he reads at home," Mr. el-Hagab said. In his hands were Arabic translations of Western children's books.

On the street, Salah Abdelhadi, 24, chemistry student at Baghdad University was supervising the sale of science texts that he spends his spare time buying around town. They are expensive, running up to $3.30, about the average month's pay here.

"At school we have no chemicals to work with at the laboratory," he said, adding, "The machines that break down cannot be replaced under the embargo." So the students must rely on books in place of laboratory equipment. "It's theory, but it's better than nothing."

Mr. Alsaleh, who also sold books before shifting to the cigarette-vending business, smiled bitterly as he said that the wrong people were doing the buying. He remembered the time a merchant, apparently one of a small minority who have found a way to prosper under the sanctions, asked him how much he wanted for all of his nicely bound collection of Arab literature.

When asked exactly what he was looking for, the merchant made clear it was quantity, not quality. "Look," he said, "give me everything you have in this two-meters-by-three-meters here."

He wanted the books to cover a wall in a new house he had build, Mr. Alsaleh said.

"You can't try to make sense of this," he added. "People are starving and others are buying books like tomatoes, to cover their walls."

Two kinds of books are selling well now. The first is religious books, which delve into the metaphysical meanings of faith, and the other is books published in the 1950's.

Why these old books? a man in his late 60's was asked. He had just sold a bunch of magazines at one stand and was asking for old issues of Al Arabi, a literary magazine.

Because, he said, "they take you away. They have nothing to do with what's happening now."

This has become a country of people turning away, from an all-too harsh reality. Many decline to discuss politics - perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of hopelessness and a belief that the problems facing this society have become unmanageable.

Mr. Alsaleh said he and his wife agreed six years ago not to have more than their two children, Rafeef, 9 and Ali, 7.

"I don't know how good the quality of the water we drink is," he said, "and God knows how polluted the air that we breathe is because of our aging fleet of cars. We have no machines to test environmental quality. No vitamins. No medication. Our passports are worthless because no one will give us visas. We are living in dangerous times. To bring another kid into this would be almost criminal."

A few years ago, Mr. Kaftan and Mr. Alsaleh collaborated on a play called "The Fig Leaf," about an ethics professor who expelled a student for working as a prostitute. Later the professor was revealed to be leading a clandestine life of debauchery. Mr. Kaftan said this story resembled Iraq's confrontation with the West: "What I mean is, this is the same West that committed all these crimes across centuries, starving us in the name of virtue. That, my friend, is why I prefer fiction."

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