Iraqis eke out lives in poor economy

Friday, November 23, 2001

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It is 10 in the morning. Akil Abdel Zahra is up to his waist in the Tigris River under a fierce sun, searching for gold.

For years, the 20-year-old has been scavenging the river, abandoned jewelry shops, wells and even dumps for gold, silver, bronze or copper that may have clung to the waste jewelers threw away back in Baghdad's heyday.

With the Iraqi economy in tatters, many people eke out a living on the leftovers of a glorious past.

The present is a harsh reality: a country impoverished by two wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions. Gold-domed mosques built centuries ago tower over streets bearing the names of Abbasid caliphs who built Baghdad on a site settled by cultures already ancient. Some Iraqis wonder whether their nation will ever recapture its past grandeur.

President Saddam Hussein, who has ruled Iraq for two decades, says the sanctions imposed to punish him for invading Kuwait are to blame for the deterioration of Iraq. The United Nations, whose sanctions cannot be lifted until it is assured that Iraq has surrendered weapons of mass destruction, blames Saddam.

Regardless of who is to blame, the fact remains that a rich and promising Iraq, sitting on the world's second largest oil reservoirs, has been reduced to a country whose name brings to mind images of people begging on the streets, dying in hospitals or standing in long lines waiting for monthly food rations.

Gold scavenger Abdel Zahra has been in the business since he was 11. Today, he supports a wife and child on the money he makes from his unusual labors.

Like Abdel Zahra, renowned sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat also has been reduced to scavenging. The 72-year-old sculptor searches for old doors and windows to get wood. He also recycles wooden columns from Iraqi homes and frantically looks for scraps of metal he can reshape.

Hikmat has turned bronze, marble and stone into colossal monuments that often depict historical characters or were inspired by legends from "1,001 Nights," the ancient tales associated with Baghdad. But for the last 10 years, he has only been able to sculpt miniatures.

"Compared to before, Iraqi artists produce less now, but the important thing is that they never stopped. We may stoop before the storm, but we never fall," said Hikmat.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: