Like many Iraqi citizens, Amar Nassar takes great pride in downtown Baghdad’s enormous Victory Arch, a monument to the country’s supposed triumph in a war with Iran. Never mind that the conflict, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, actually ended in a bloody stalemate, with at least 400,000 Iraqis dead or missing and the once-thriving economy in shambles. Visiting the site one day recently with his family, Amar, 33, a welder in the Iraqi capital, can scarcely contain his delight. “I feel good here, it represents our day of victory,” says Amar. “I feel strong.”
These days bravado—forced or not—is one of the few things to be found in abundance in Iraq. As the country braces for an expected attack from the United States, many ordinary Iraqis appear defiant while at the same time quietly fretting that yet another in a long series of cataclysms is about to befall them. President George W. Bush has insisted that America wants only regime change, meaning the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, and that a free and democratic Iraq is the ultimate goal. “The United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people,” the President told the United Nations last month. “They’ve suffered too long in silent captivity.”
Certainly the Nassar family and other Iraqis already face a host of day-to-day struggles. Twelve years of United Nations sanctions, imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and which prohibit most trade with other nations, have helped further cripple the economy, to the point where people must depend on government handouts of staples like food, soap and cooking oil simply to survive. As a measure of how desperate things have become, shops in Baghdad are awash in expensive watches, an important status symbol in the Arab world, as men pawn them to make ends meet. Given the abysmally low wages and pensions, a cheap pair of sandals can cost a day’s pay. The country’s one bargain is gasoline, which at 6 cents a gallon is one-third the price of bottled water. By contrast even common household appliances have achieved the status of unattainable luxury items. “Sometimes I go to the market and see TVs for sale for 500,000 dinars”—about $170, though the rate fluctuates wildly—says Amar. “They are just crazy prices for us, and we are not poor.”
In fact the Nassars, who were approached by PEOPLE rather than provided by the government, are relatively prosperous by the standards of today’s Iraq. Their car may be a 20-year-old Toyota Corona sedan, but many of their neighbors have no vehicle at all. The patriarch of the family is Mohammad Hamoudi Nassar, 62, a retired official in the Ministry of Oil. He and his wife, Shukria, 55, live with their son Amar and his wife, Nahla, 30, and their three children—Yasser, 5, Mohammad Amar, 4, and Sara, 1—in a three-bedroom home in a leafy suburb of West Baghdad. In keeping with Arab custom, four of Amar’s unmarried siblings are also in residence, bringing the total household to 11.
Given all the mouths to feed, Amar’s decision to take up a blue-collar trade—he has a small workshop near his house where he specializes in fixing windows and doors—has proved to be a blessing. While many white-collar professionals are out of work because the government cannot afford to keep them on the payroll, in Iraq’s wartime economy Amar’s business is doing fine. His earnings of $51 a month plus his father’s pension of less than $5 a month add up to twice what many workers make, and he and his family have little trouble getting by. “We are comfortable, thank God,” says Mohammad Hamoudi, puffing on a water pipe filled with apple-and-date-juice-flavored tobacco. “There is a saying in Arabic: ‘The pot is now covered.’ Our pot, our home, is covered. We are safe.”
The Nassars’ routine is fairly typical of middle-class Iraqis. Sunni Muslims, like 40 percent of the population, they arise each dawn for the morning prayer (children under the age of 7 are excused from the daily ritual), then usually go back to sleep for a couple of hours. The men generally attend mosque on Friday. (Compared with places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq is a relatively secular Islamic nation, where even alcohol is readily available.) Young Mohammad Amar and Yasser attend school six days a week until midday, as Sara will when she is old enough. The whole family, including Amar, takes a long siesta in the afternoon from 2:30 until after 4 to escape the worst of the day’s heat.
Dinners are eaten late, around 9 p.m., and often consist of broth, rice, bread, salad and yogurt. Everyone eats together, except when there are guests—then the men eat in the dining room, while the women, who pass in the food to them without entering, take their nourishment in the kitchen. With the benefit of their afternoon nap the children rarely go to bed before 11 p.m. One of Amar and Nahla’s favorite pastimes is to linger outside in the late evening on their porch swing. “When the weather is mild it is beautiful out here,” says Nahla, a demure but friendly woman. “The nightingales are wonderful, especially when they are singing.”
Much of the family’s free time is spent at home, just sitting and talking. Women are effectively discouraged from voicing their opinions on weighty topics like politics on the grounds that they are not intelligent enough to grasp the issues. “According to our traditions the women must follow the man,” says Amar. “That is the way it is.” (Nahla has a grade-school education, while her husband went to high school.) The family has one television. The main offerings on the dial are sports, news programs and Egyptian soap operas. But it is also possible to get cable, with channels like Cartoon Network and the Discovery Channel subtitled in Arabic, though Western news programs are not available.
Indeed there is little shortage of popular entertainment. There are numerous movie theaters in downtown Baghdad, some of which show American films. True, the racier parts have been censored, and one movie house that was recently showing the Elizabeth Hurley and Ben Stiller comedy Permanent Midnight had covered Hurley’s cleavage on a publicity still displayed outside. But in many parts of the Arab world such fare would never be shown in any form. The Nassars, who often rent videos for their VCR, have liked a number of American movies, including Titanic and various old cowboy features. “They are very beautiful stories,” says Amar. “They are exciting, and the scenery is so different to us.” All in all it is clear that the image of the United States has not been entirely poisoned in Iraq. “When I grow up I want to travel,” says young Mohammad Amar, whose ambition is to be a fighter pilot. “And I want to travel to America.”
Even so, the one thing the Nassars wholeheartedly endorse, at least when speaking to a Western journalist, is Saddam Hussein. In their view, Saddam, who rose to power after a 1968 military coup, is a splendid ruler who has been unfairly vilified by the United States. Mention to them human rights groups’ estimates that at least a million Iraqis have died under the brutal regime and the patriarch Mohammad Hamoudi scoffs. “This is imaginary,” he says, adding vaguely that some “bandits” had to be dealt with over the years. Nor does he accept the proposition that Saddam’s belligerence—first attacking Iran in 1980, then invading Kuwait in 1990—has played any role in the country’s troubles. “We are not suffering from the policy of our government,” he says. “Saddam Hussein rebuilt our country after the Gulf War. Our government wants us to live well, to have technology and other things.”
But that is hardly a universal sentiment. Even a senior Ministry of Information official, whose department keeps tabs on visiting foreign journalists, acknowledges the difficulties brought on by the hostilities. “Believe me,” says the official, “everyone, and I mean everyone, would be driving a Mercedes in this country if we did not have those two wars.” Gauging just how people feel about Saddam can be a tricky exercise. Iraq is a ruthless police state where there is virtually no dissident movement. “People have learned to use wisdom and not say what they really think,” says one Baghdad teacher, tapping the side of his head. “If you care for your life and family, it is in your interest to use your brain and stay quiet.”
What’s more, access to outside sources of information is strictly limited. All Internet connections go through a local server that blocks everyone from visiting such sites as AOL or Hotmail. When families inside Iraq discuss sensitive topics on the phone with relatives living in exile, the conversations are conducted in code for fear of government wiretaps, which sharply limit how much news from the outside world can be passed along. Into that vacuum the Iraqi propaganda machine has relentlessly pumped up the cult of Saddam Hussein. His smiling likeness is found everywhere in Baghdad, from billboards to watches. At the Al Kadra Elementary School, which Amar’s son Yasser attends, there is a mural depicting a heroic Saddam among planes and soldiers engaged in battle. “On the outside people smile, people clap about how wonderful he is and what he has achieved,” says one Iraqi with relatives in London. “But behind our faces people laugh at it all, how stupid it is.”
In truth, though, some of the admiration for Saddam appears to be genuine. If nothing else, he is seen as a ruler strong enough to stand up to the United States. And there is a widespread consensus within Iraq that the Bush Administration’s confrontation with Saddam is not about eliminating weapons of mass destruction or the threat of terrorism but about securing the country’s oil reserves, which are second only to Saudi Arabia’s in the Middle East. “We are suffering nowadays because of others who want us to live under their hand,” says Mohammad Hamoudi. “America wants our oil.” That is a view shared by Iraqis who otherwise have no love for Saddam. “It is all about oil,” says the Baghdad teacher. “It is wrong to think it is anything but that. Saddam has something that America wants, and what America wants it will try and get, whatever the cost.”
In many ways the country already appears to be on a war footing. The government recently began distributing two months’ worth of rations out of concern that the foodstuffs in their warehouses would be destroyed. Ordinary people, including the Nassars, are hoarding essentials—water, food, gas and candles—while hospitals have started stockpiling such supplies as blood, antibiotics and anesthetics. With medicines already in short supply, the Nassars’ biggest worry is that one of the children will get sick.
To one degree or another, all Iraqis are already uncomfortably familiar with the hardships of war. During the conflict with Iran, Amar, who was only a teenager at the time, was fortunate enough to have served only three months on the army front line; he spent the duration doing pipe fitting and office work in the defense industry. But two of his boyhood friends were killed in the fighting, and his uncle Adnan is still missing in action. “We call him the lost uncle,” says Mohammad Hamoudi. “It is terrible not knowing his fate. According to people who have returned from Iran, there are still 20,000 [Iraqis] held there. We don’t know anything about Adnan—if he is a prisoner, doing hard labor or dead.”
During the Gulf War Amar did guard duty on the outskirts of Baghdad. But the horror was close at hand. Although, in general, allied forces were extremely successful at striking only military or strategic targets, in early February 1991 two laser-guided bombs from a U.S. jet destroyed an air-raid shelter only a mile from Amar’s home. In all about 400 civilians were killed. (Allied leaders, who believed that the shelter was used by the military, expressed regret over the deaths.) Amar pedaled his bicycle to the scene an hour after the attack. “It was tragic,” he says. “Do the American people really know about our suffering? Is there any difference between an Iraqi child and an American child? We want to live just like them.”
The Nassars are well aware that another war with the United States could well touch them much more directly. Amar’s brother Hader, 18, recently flunked his college entrance exams, meaning that in the next few weeks he will be called up for duty in the military. In the event of hostilities, it is likely that Amar would also be drafted. That prospect worries Nahla, but she tries to look, however grimly, on the bright side. “As long as he defended our homeland,” she says, “I would be proud that he died a martyr.”