'Why is life in Iraq so cheap?'
In most cities of the world, a person might expect to be feted for surviving a single bomb attack. In Baghdad, survival stories can be found on every street corner.
Ali is a painter and a student at the academy of art in north Baghdad. A few years ago he moved to the Baghdad suburb of Karrada, where many artists live because of its art market.
When I meet him, Ali is limping slightly. A white bandage protrudes from the sleeve of his striped jumper and he frequently drops his left shoulder so that his arm rests on his thigh. These are the only outward signs of the injuries he sustained in the previous week.
In a shy, soft voice Ali tells me how he had been standing with a friend in Karrada when a bomb went off at the side of the road. “I heard an explosion very close by,” he says. “I saw smoke and chaos and people screaming. I saw my friend Hassan, who was running and carrying a child who had lost an arm. I saw a nice-looking girl—the Karrada girls, you know how beautiful they are. She was dead. And I saw a girl who had only one eye.
“I couldn’t bear it,” he tells me. “I started to scream and cry. Then suddenly there was another explosion. This time, you know, I didn’t hear much, I just saw a tall column of orange fire a few metres away from me and then smoke. I didn’t know what had happened, but the people who had run over to tend the injured from the first bomb were now lying on the street screaming.
“I stood there in the middle of it all. I saw people picking bodies up and carrying them. A police car arrived and the police started to fire bullets in the air. I ran away and hid at the entrance of a shop. When a woman saw me, she started screaming. There was blood on my arm and on my leg.”
A friend of Ali’s stopped a passing ambulance and helped him into it. Inside he found a man whose face was black from burns and whose shoulder was covered with blood. A younger man was bleeding from his legs. “When he tried to lift one of them it bent, not at the knee but from the middle of his thigh,” Ali says. “He was screaming, ‘Fix my leg! Fix my leg!’”
At the hospital, Ali and the others sat in a corridor waiting to be treated by the overstretched medical team. “There were children there who were all red,” he says. “It looked as if they had no faces, they were so covered with blood.”
After waiting a while he was transferred to another hospital, where a doctor examined him. “The doctor told me I just had two bits of shrapnel in my arm and leg,” Ali says. “He asked me why I was crying. I told him it wasn’t for myself but for all the boys and girls around me.”
The doctor took out what looked like pliers and asked Ali to look away. “He got the first bullet out, but the second didn’t come so easily and I screamed.”
After Ali has finished telling me this story I look around at his immaculately clean apartment. On one side of the room is a pile of paintings. He points to three small ones hanging on the wall, a mixture of orange and red splashes. “These are my attempts at surrealism,” he says.
“Immediately after the war, I had a strong feeling of optimism. I was sure the Saddam era wouldn’t come back, we had money and were spending all the money.
“But then the conspiracy theories started. I began hearing my brothers and friends say the Americans were here only for the oil. After that I would go to bed and lie awake thinking how much oil they were stealing from me. Now I don’t care if they steal the money, I am so tired.
“I ask myself why life in Iraq is so cheap. We are living in a nightmare. It is like there is a camera recording us and by its light we see images of death and carnage everywhere. The Iraqis have good hearts, but we are living in a state of hysteria.”
This is Ali’s second apartment. His first was blown up. On a cellphone he shows me grainy video footage of smoke mixed with broken furniture. There are some muffled sounds and then I make out someone shouting: “Are you OK? This is a mortar. We’re getting shelled.” In fact, it was a car bomb, Ali says.
He shared that flat with two other friends, Mamdouh and Sarmad. “They were the best people in the world. Mamdouh and I would listen to [the Arab singer] Fairuz and paint all night.
“The night before that bomb Mamdouh told me he felt guilty he hadn’t done any work for so long. He told me he would go out for breakfast early in the morning.
“I stayed in the flat, sleeping. Then I heard the first explosion. It was at the end of the street. I went to the window to look and then as I was walking back the second bomb went off, just under my window.”
As Ali ran down the stairs, he saw someone who lived on the first floor wrapped in a blanket. He was dead. “I asked if anyone had seen Mamdouh and Sarmad. They told me no one had seen them. I was crying in the street. A few hours later a friend called me and told me that Sarmad was dead and Mamdouh was in hospital.”
Ali went to the hospital. His eyes and voice are calm—as usual—while he recounts the scene. “He was lying on a bed there in the Kindi hospital. There was a filthy smell all around, the smell of urine. He looked like Mamdouh, but he was like someone else ... he smiled and I smiled back, but I felt a great pain in my heart.” Two days later, Ali tells me, Mamdouh died.
“We came, his friends, me and Hassan and Hadi, and washed him and put him in a shroud. You know I am too emotional. I cry very quickly. For six months I didn’t talk to anyone. I was just sad and silent.
Ali loves Arabic calligraphy and has studied it for many years. Now, he says, all he writes are the black mourning signs for his dead friends, which, according to Iraqi custom, he hangs in the street.—Â