In 1996, five years after the Gulf war, my anthropologist husband Robert Fernea and I returned to Daghara, a predominantly Shi’i Muslim provincial town on a tributary of the Euphrates in south central Iraq. We had lived there for two years before the Iraqi revolution of 1958 against British colonial rule.
During our first stay, Daghara was a relatively isolated and undeveloped town of about 10,000 people. A bridge had been built across the irrigation canal, a small health clinic was open, and two primary schools operated, one for boys, and one for girls. But roads were still largely unpaved, electricity limited, tuberculosis rampant and the general economy at subsistence level. Even the shaykh of the tribe lived in modest circumstances on the outskirts of town, and the single mosque was a small mud brick structure without a minaret.
We were not certain of our reception in 1996 — the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the war were in full effect. But we were welcomed, and we found many of our friends and neighbors still living there. The town had tripled in size and was easily accessible via a six-lane superhighway. Electricity was bountiful, tuberculosis had been more or less eliminated and the market area displayed a variety of goods from all over the world. Ten schools served the town’s youth from primary through secondary school. On the surface, Daghara appeared much improved.
In many ways, our friends in Daghara were better off than the people we visited in Baghdad. The town is located on a fertile alluvial plain that has fed its population for millennia. Almost every member of the old shaykh’s family intensively cultivates a small plot of his large landholdings, broken up after the revolution. The courtyards of old friends had been plowed under and transformed into kitchen gardens growing herbs, vegetables, tomatoes and even fruit trees. Mahjun, the tomato paste essential to Iraqi cuisine, was not in short supply. In the market of the nearby provincial capital of Diwaniyya we saw sacks full of lentils, rice and split peas (from local growers, the vendors told my husband). Our Ministry of Information minder told us the prices were 30 to 40 percent below Baghdad market prices.
There wasn’t much meat, however, and we saw no water buffalo, cattle, sheep, camels or goats. We asked why, and were told that for several years the government has restricted the ownership of animals to people without land. This policy will destroy the old survival patterns, which combined animal husbandry and sedentary agriculture. When land became overfarmed or saline and thus infertile, people left the land fallow and turned to nomadic pastoralism to survive. The land on the outskirts of Daghara was losing potency due to overuse and a very high water table that salted the earth and, in lower parts of town, produced seeping and flooding. We saw standing water in the fields beside the roads on the way from Baghdad to Diwaniyya. Bob’s good friend Kamal, the shaykh’s oldest surviving son, said that irrigation canals dug by the British and expanded under the independent Iraqi governments were clogging up. Machinery that had replaced manual labor was not functioning for want of spare parts. Though smaller canals were still cleaned by hand, the larger ones that bring river water into the feeder canals need mechanical aid to function. We saw no tractors at all. Agriculture was making it at the moment, but the long-term prospects for growing one’s own food do not look good in Daghara.
The breakdown in traditional subsistence patterns, and the resulting decline in food supply, affect the whole society. For example, government benefits to mothers and newborn children have been cut back. According to Haifa’ ‘Abd al-Rahman, deputy director of the General Federation of Iraqi Women: “Every family is given free milk and orange juice and vitamins when a new citizen of Iraq is born, a future member of the Arab Socialist Party.” But women and men in Daghara pointed out that since the sanctions, the free orange juice, milk and vitamins are no longer awarded to parents of newborns. There isn’t enough to go around. Such cutbacks contribute to the malnutrition and child mortality reported by UNICEF.
Daghara’s clogged irrigation canals and the high water table clearly contribute to the growing impurity of the water supply. Water purification plants and waste treatment plants all over the country are in desperate need of repair, but spare parts have been banned under the sanctions regime. I did not actually see anyone in Daghara boiling drinking water, but several people suggested to me that “tea is a better drink than water these days,” suggesting politely that the water is not very potable. The deterioration of subsistence resources — food and water — has to be emphasized, despite the best efforts of the people themselves to deal with it.
There is still one free health clinic in Daghara, staffed by doctors and nurses. Our friends were quick to say that the medical personnel did their best, with limited resources.
Some medicine is available, but we were told that the real problems are experienced by older people, the chronically ill and children. Bob’s best friend in Daghara suffers from diabetes; he gets insulin, but the amount, rationed by the government to conserve supplies, is not enough. The shaykh’s youngest wife, my friend Salma, has crippling arthritis and few pain relievers are available.
Daghara’s cultural and intellectual life is also showing the wear of sanctions. Only a few miles down the irrigation canal from Daghara lies Nippur, the intellectual center of ancient Sumer. Once centerpieces of the provincial museum, in 1996 the baked clay tablets, statuary, jewels and pottery of Sumer were disappearing and being exchanged for food. The ten schools function, but there are problems — outdated books, not enough paper and pencils, no sign at all of the computer revolution.
Like the Iraqi scientists who added protein-rich ground date pits to flour to stave off famine in the darkest years of the sanctions, people in Daghara are using every bit of energy and creativity to survive. But it is not enough. In my friend `Azza’s poignant words, “Yes, BJ, today many things are better in Daghara than when you came here 40 years ago. We were lucky here, for a while. Education, yes. Plenty to eat, yes, for everyone. Health care. But today many things are on hold. Today we are unlucky. I’m not even thirty years old, but my generation has been left behind. The world outside Iraq has passed us by. Other things may improve with time; Iraq may be lucky again. Who knows? But for me and those my age, it will be too late.”