Baghdad Diary: Living on the Edge

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Aadil, the son of Nadam Hassein Mohammed, collects the family's free rations from a government outlet

Nadam Hassien Mohammed is so poor that he cannot fulfil the most fundamental requirement of Arab hospitality: As he sits down to a lunch of rice and spinach, he is unable to offer food to his guests — a journalist, a photographer and their two government-appointed minders. There's barely enough to feed his family of four. Deeply embarrassed, he would prefer to postpone lunch until after we've left. But the photographer wants to capture the family going about their everyday lives, so Nadam sits on the floor with his wife and two grown children and toys with his food. His face reddens in shame, and he avoids eye contact with his wife Zahwe, daughter Senaa and son Aadil.

We leave as quickly as we can, to wait in the small courtyard. Nadam joins us within minutes, claiming to have finished his meal. More likely, he couldn't bring himself to eat while his guests went unfed. For a poor, 65-year-old chauffeur, that is one indignity too many.

Poverty is a relatively new experience for Nadam, a barrel-chested man with bristly gray hair and thick glasses. He has been a chauffeur all his adult life, for various government departments. He has never been rich, but until the economic sanctions on Iraq, he did reasonably well. Although he lost two sons in the war against Iran, he regarded himself content. At least, that's how he remembers it. "I had everything I needed," he says, simply. "It would have been wrong of me to want more."

These days, Nadam drives a beat-up Mitsubishi Pajero for the General Federation of Iraqi Women. His rheumy eyes can only cope with daylight driving; Aadil, 27, takes over in the evenings. Between them, the men make 37,000 Iraqi dinars ($15) a month. That's not nearly enough to feed the family — even though, like all Iraqis, they get free rations of basic commodities such as flour, rice, cooking oil and sugar from the government. "All the money goes to buy medicines, or vegetables and meat," Nadam says, "we try to limit ourselves to spending 1,500 dinars (60 cents) a day, but the money quickly runs out."

Still, many of Baghdad's poorer residents would envy Nadam. At least he and his son have steady jobs. They don't have to feed a large family. And they don't have to pay rent: They live in a 2-room tenement behind the Federation's field office in the Baghdad's Bayaa district, a middle-class enclave with a grid of dusty but well-maintained roads and neat one- and two-story houses. In this neighborhood, Nadam's little home would cost around $13,000, a sum beyond his wildest dreams.

With a war looming, there's not much point in dreaming about such luxuries, anyway. Nadam remembers the last war, when he drove a Land Rover for the military officers in Baghdad. His most vivid memory is having to bring home the body of a neighbor who had been killed by a bomb in the city center. "I carried him in my hands, and he was covered in blood," he recalls, with a shudder. "I pray to God I never have to do something like that again."

If the bombs start falling again, Nadam won't be driving for the army: his eyes would probably make him a liability. He hopes to fight, though. "If they give me a Kalashnikov, I can shoot. I'll wait for instructions and do what I'm told." Does he think he can make a significant contribution to the war effort? "I will do what I can," he says. "Whether that is a little or a lot, only God can decide."

Postscript: When we return to Nadam's home in the evening to take more photographs, he is in a better mood. Now, at last, he can offer his guests something — Arab-style sweetened tea. He has two other visitors, officials from the women's federation. It soon becomes apparent that these ladies have brought the tea with them, probably in response to Nadam's SOS. Having saved his face, they quickly go to work on restoring his pride, telling us over and over again what a good driver, honest man and decent human being he is. Now able to look us on the eye, Nadam beams and orders Senaa to refill our glasses.

In the evening, he will send Adil to collect the family's rations. In anticipation of a war, the government has released two months' quota, and is encouraging people to stock up. Adil gets 70 kg of flour, 6 kg of rice, 10 kg of vegetable oil, 8 kg of sugar — and 500 gm of tea. The next guests to his home will not leave on empty stomachs.