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Amid this unremitting misery, Iraqis struggle for some semblance of normality. In Baghdad, the 9 p.m. curfew means that the traditional family outings of summer--an evening picnic on the banks of the Tigris, dinner at a kebab restaurant or a late-night drive to an ice cream parlor--are all out of the question. Visiting with friends and family is impossible unless you're prepared to go early and stay overnight. It's an especially frustrating time for children; although it's the summer break, parents are reluctant to let kids out of the house. Danger hides everywhere. Last week several teenagers were among 11 people killed and 14 hurt when two bombs went off at a soccer field in the Shi'ite district of Amil. Al-Shaheen, our bureau manager, has three children going stir-crazy at home. "They feel imprisoned," he says. "For entertainment, they get on my wife's nerves during the day and on mine at night."
The only available escapism is via TV. The one post-Saddam freedom Iraqis can unreservedly enjoy is access to satellite television--Lebanese music videos, Egyptian soaps, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with Arabic subtitles), sports. The soccer World Cup was a welcome distraction. Since Iraq didn't qualify, people invested their emotions in foreign teams, like Brazil and Italy. When the Italians won the tournament, it was our driver Wisam--not our Milanese photographer, Franco Pagetti--who had to be restrained from shooting an AK-47 into the air, the traditional Arab celebration. But even the enjoyment of a faraway sporting event can be poisoned by sectarian suspicions: a Sunni neighbor asked me, with a knowing smirk, whether our Shi'ite staff members had supported the Iranian team. When I said no, he was surprised. Many Sunnis believe that Shi'ite sympathies--and not just in sporting matters--lie with Iraq's ancient enemy to the east. "In Najaf and Basra, the Shi'ites were praying for Iran to win," he said disdainfully. "What do you expect from these people?" When I asked him if he had supported the two teams from Sunni-majority countries in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, he changed the subject.
Fear of kidnapping is pervasive. To hide their wealth, many Iraqis choose to live well below their means. While on R. and R. in London, I met Hassan, a Baghdad businessman (he asked that his full name be concealed for his protection) who said he had "made millions" since the fall of Saddam, importing consumer electronics like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. But his modest single-story home in the middle-class Yarmuk neighborhood still looks as it did when he inherited it from his father, an army captain. "I won't even put on a fresh coat of paint because that would arouse suspicions," he said. He drives around Baghdad in a beat-up Japanese car "even though I can afford a top-of-the-line Mercedes." Only when he's abroad does he live large, booking suites in the best hotels, buying expensive suits that he leaves with business associates and renting--yes--a top-of-the-line Mercedes. "If I live like this in Baghdad, there will be a competition among the kidnappers to take me."