andrea bruce

Unseen Iraq, a weekly column

Unique from daily news coverage, Unseen Iraq provides a window into everyday life in Iraq. It is an attempt to encourage interest and empathy by hightlighting similarities across cultures and inviting viewers into a more intimate space. It is published every Monday in The Washington Post.

Peering through a break in the barrier wall, Qasim Ali waits for his ride on al-Mawal Street near Baghdad's Sadr City district. A minibus, one of many stuck in traffic, will take him and other government workers to the Ministry of Trade, where he has worked for 30 years. This is his Monday morning commute.The barriers, intended to protect people, have killed local businesses. Supermarkets are blocked from customers. The neighborhood is, for the most part, reachable only by foot.Life readjusts. Ten-year-old boys sell jerrycans of gas from their perch atop the concrete structures. Brothers sell soda, candy and water outside the wall, in the traffic. Children wave goodbye to their parents and quickly disappear through the barrier gaps to school. To them, the wall is as normal as sidewalks and street signs.In the past, a government car picked up Qasim at his home. Now he waits behind the blast wall, built by U.S. troops. The other commuters, also waiting for rides, don't socialize. Mistrustful, scared of kidnappings, they keep their destinations and sources of income secret. Many work for Western organizations.Before 2003, civil servants like Qasim were not allowed to own personal vehicles. After the war began, he says, they were finally free to buy.
The main road leading to Man Kadir's house is a lazy stretch clogged by cows and goats, just inside rebel PKK territory in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. The house is surrounded by fruit trees, crooked and brittle, slick from mountain rain.From a fogged window in his house, he can see the orchard where it slopes down to the river.Man Kadir starts the day by replacing his usual traditional Kurdish clothes -- pants that bloom from his scarflike belt -- with sweats. The rug-covered, cavernous room makes the exercise bike look small. His heavy cheeks and broomlike mustache overwhelm his mouth, hiding it completely.His three daughters make tea, chop firewood and fold blankets. A blue light in the next room comes from their television. A Kurdish station shows footage from the last Turkish incursion, along with images of protests.On the other end of the ornate rug, his wife starts lunch. Kneeling in front of a metal bowl, using the force of her whole body, she mashes cooked rice with her hands, making dough.While the meat-filled dish is cooking, husband and wife don't speak. She watches him from the busy, wet kitchen. He has two families, two homes. She is the second wife.He continues to pedal, looking straight ahead into a mirror propped on his wife's ironing board. He pedals and looks through the window at his land. Pedals and smells meat frying in the kitchen.Years ago, in a village now deserted after threats of violence, they had more, he says. These comforts -- the bike, the orchard, his family -- can disappear quickly in wartime.
Faded ID cards wilt in the hands of the elderly women and men crowding an Iraqi policeman guarding a vaultlike door at the entrance to the Rasheed Bank in Khanaqin. The uniformed officer commands them to back away. It is not yet their turn.Leaning on a cane, a gray-haired man exits the bank with unapologetic slowness while the policeman checks a list and calls Zakia Suleiman's number. She looks down at the young, mustached man pictured on the ID card in her hand -- her husband, dead for five years now. The card is the key to his disability check, her only income.After she enters the closet-like darkness inside, her abaya, draped over her head, is removed and searched by female hands. The room doesn't provide the relief she was looking for. The windows are closed, for safety reasons, and there is no air conditioning.The Rasheed Bank has a main office in Baghdad and is one of several state-owned banking companies in Iraq.This branch in Diyala provides the salaries, pensions and disability checks for everyone living in the province. Most receive their income every two months, on their assigned day.Only women are searched. Last week, a suicide bomber killed several people outside the local mayor's office.Female bombers are the latest trend.Inside the bank, the walls are cracked. The floor is black and sticky. Plastic chairs are arranged in a circle rather than a line. The wait for their money will be long. Sweat gathers on Zakia's forehead. Children spy on her from the window, they are not allowed inside.After an hour, she is handed her small payment and leaves to buy tomatoes, cucumbers and fish. As she squeezes past the crowd outside, a woman, holding the ID of a young man, her dead son, takes Zakia's place inside the door.By Andrea Bruce
The dust smells like chalk. Heavy and still, the air is orange-tinted. Breathable until it hits your chest, causing a stuttering cough.In the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Hussein Abbas, 10, and Zaid Alaa, 12, head first to a pharmacy for surgical masks. Cousins, but more like brothers. Inseparable best friends, looking for any opportunity to go outside, even during dust storms.Kicking rocks and avoiding puddles of sewage, they have been sent to find a nurse who lives in an apartment a few blocks away. Zaid's sister is sick with the flu and needs medicine.At a maze-like checkpoint for cars, an Iraqi guard ruffles Zaid's dust-grayed hair. From there, the boys can see an abandoned house with balconies torn like twisted metal combs. Three years ago, the windows in Hussein's home were shattered by the force of two suicide bombs that exploded, minutes apart, a few houses down from where he lives.Zaid lived in a different neighborhood at the time. A Sunni group took his home, he says, and now his family lives here in Karrada, a largely Shiite neighborhood. The move was a good thing, Hussein says. His cousin is now his neighbor.Farther down their cluttered, dead-end street, they pass through a tunnel of blast walls. In adrenaline-rushed voices, Zaid and Hussein brag about their favorite players on Iraq's national soccer team, Younis Mahmoud and Hawar Mulla Mohammed.The street is brown, even without the dust. Trash provides the only color. The storm is getting worse. In 10 steps, people disappear into the thickening air.The boys approach the apartment building and realize the streetlights are on. Their skinny legs begin to move faster, up the steps. Hussein's parents have rules, strictly enforced since the double bombing. They must stay in the neighborhood, never walk alone and always come home before dark.
Sheiks in traditional robes and kaffiyehs line the drawn-curtained room on regal chairs and floor cushions. Their deeply lined faces serious, they discuss problems that have come up in their regions of Ramadi, agreeng with slight, controlled nods as they massage prayer beads with flicks of their thumbs.At the end of the long, narrow room, next to a fluorescent light tube on the wall, a door opens onto the kitchen.There, women move, almost run, between a stove behind the house and the furniture-bare room, open to the summer light and heat. Towering reeds, swaying with the breeze, block the view of the Euphrates River.Children are everywhere, crying, playing with cellphones, teasing, testing their strength, while their mothers sit around a large metal bowl on the floor, slicing okra, onions and potatoes.Um Jasim, the family matriarch, sits against a wall on the only chair. Recently released from a hospital after suffering a minor stroke, she is the reason her children and cousins are here, giggling and reminiscing, oblivious to the politics in the next room. Henna dots their arms, remnants of last night's party.Yesterday, Sousan Abdul Jabar, the youngest daughter, traveled with her 16-month-old daughter, Mariam, from Kirkuk, her husband's home, to her home town of Ramadi. It was her first time back in two years. She is pregnant again, another reason to celebrate.
Doris Yunan sits in the empty dining room where the sun can find her. With help from the wind, shapes and shadows tease her from the picture window. The sun winks at her from behind a bowing date palm. The light creates a sensation that, sometimes, she says, overcomes her blindness.Doris, 83, sits in her regular spot especially when she prays. Arabic romance movies play in the next room, keeping the attention of 14 other elderly women who live at Beit Anya, a charity home in Baghdad run by Christians.The home takes in women left abandoned by death or family or war. Most are old, some are handicapped. Before the war, when the home was opened, there were only four women living there. Now there are 47.