I am constantly asked whether I think like was better pre or post-invasion. Though I don't think it is fair to ask someone who isn't living in the country, there are some obvious differences between the now and then.
For one, electricity has worsened. With the Gulf War, electrical plants were bombed and destroyed. As a result, Iraq’s electricity has constantly been in and out, constantly rotating between various parts of the city. In 2002, before the war, Baghdad’s electricity patterns were 3 hours on for every 6 hours off. Generally, you know when to be home and when to charge your cell, when to operate kitchen appliances, and especially when not to shower. I can’t count the amount of great memories that involve someone yelling from a dark shower due to a nighttime power outage.
In 2009, despite the incredible amounts of money claimed to be pumped into Iraq’s infrastructure, the devastated power plants remain in use as electricity worsens. Days passed when, literally, we enjoyed 2 hours of electricity, neglecting the remaining 22 hours in a day. The electricity even cut out at the International Airport—twice! My cousin questioned the ability of x-rays machines and other security measures at that moment—and we were only able to laugh. But like Abraham Flexner once shrewdly noted, “no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both.”
The quality of life has dramatically deteriorated. Nights aren’t the same when you can’t get home after 11 pm. In Baghdad, men refuse to risk their lives by driving late at night and women refuse to ride in taxis at night due to safety concerns. Also, in my gated district of Kadhimiyya, cars aren’t allowed in past midnight. I always try to figure out why I do things or abide by rules, but I was not able to figure this one out. Leave it to the social butterfly to be so bothered by the fact that I needed a cohort of men to leave the house in safety after dark, and to question it. But seriously, the only thing that I encountered was a soldier trying to flirt with me once while I was crossing a checkpoint. He thought I was alone, not realizing I was part of the large group ahead. I guess I understand why men shouldn’t be out too late—as all young Iraqi men are always careful not to look suspicious. But I cant help but wonder if it is actually dangerous for women to be out at night or if everybody is, very justifiably, overly cautious due to the imminent danger that lurked in preceding years.
Previously, we would go out without fear. There were certain parties that ladies would avoid, as it was rumored that Saddam’s sons would attend the parties and grant themselves all access passes to any ladies. And for a lady, it was follow directions or be killed with your family (very likely after much humiliation and torture). Of course, one also had to be avoid saying anything about Saddam or his family. That would be a one-way ticket to…something grim. Who knows what.
On a more positive note, salaries have increased, as has the cost of living (well, positive for those who can make through serious inflation). Saddam’s regime had become notorious for ridiculous salaries that people used to receive. Doctors would receive a meager salary of a couple dollars per month.
And of course, another change is that there is now MTV. For better…or worse, I was able to catch up on The Hills one late night. Really, though—what would a summer in Baghdad be without Justin Bobby? Baghdad, pre 2k3, was limited to a few channels controlled by the government. I remember being forced to flip through watching Saddam act as loved as ever, strolling through crowds as a hero’s hero, on channel 1…or a Lifetime movie, dubbed and ancient, on channel 2. I think it was one of those summers in Baghdad where I learned to appreciate a good book.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the incredible resilience of the Iraqi people. Without electricity, sanitary water, under all sorts of wars and sanctions, Iraqis have managed to endure making a living and difficult schooling. I recently read an article about an antique shop owner who shut down his shop and sold goods on the side of the road to feed his family when times became tough (I recommend the article—very interesting! http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=8117728). Likewise, I clearly remember watching my cousins study under a candle when electricity would cut out during earlier trips to Baghdad. In 2001…not 1901. My neighbor’s daughter is completing her final year of high school, at 24, after putting school off due to the war. She became embarrassed to confess that she had not been done with high school while I was younger than her and a Masters candidate. I was embarrassed that I take my access to education so lightly.
Call me an optimist, but I have a lot of faith in the power of the Iraqi people. War torn and tattered. Sanctions. Peace or war. Dictator or democratic fantasies. DIY generators or the real electrical deal. I have faith…