My mother would give me just enough money for the bus fare from home to college and back. I did not have money to pay anyone else’s fare. In Iraq, if friends get on the bus together then we pay the other’s fare. If two friends get into a bus, whoever gets in first pays for both. To avoid the embarrassment of not being able to pay another fare, I would get off before the college and walk the rest of the way.
I did not even go to the cafeteria because there too one person usually pays the bill and there is no question of each one paying his share.
It was very humiliating not having money and I felt ashamed in front of the girls who looked upon me as a village bumpkin even though we used to live under much better conditions in our small town. There we always had electricity but in Baghdad there were long power cuts. We would get two hours’ electricity and then for six hours, none.
I have always wanted to learn English. My aunt, my mother’s brother’s wife, spoke English well and she worked as a translator for the US Army. I used to ask her to teach me and although she was very busy and had little time, she did give me a few lessons. She would give me small messages to translate from Arabic to English and from English to Arabic. I was also obsessed with English songs and thought I could learn English by listening to them.
One day, my uncle took me to the market to buy new clothes and I felt embarrassed because we could not afford to buy our own clothes. That day a car exploded. But I can’t remember the details. It was an everyday affair.
Since we did not have money to buy new clothes I would go to Bab al Sharqi near Tahrir Square where we could buy second-hand clothes. That is where I saw vendors selling loads of electronic goods, like mobiles, TVs, computers, but they were damaged goods. And in the midst of the clothes and electronic goods the vendors also sold drugs, some tablets and also hand grenades.
People had picked up weapons abandoned by Saddam’s army. The Iraqi Prime Minister asked the people to deposit their weapons and promised to buy them from the people. But people kept their weapons and there were some who had actually picked up abandoned tanks and hidden them under their homes by digging deep pits.
My favourite cousin told me he had found one abandoned tank in a field and he and his friends had got into the tank and pressed various buttons and the tank had started moving. They were thrilled!
I remember one incident particularly because it was the day I was trying to get to my college for an exam. I was walking along a road when the police told me to walk close to the wall.
The Coalition forces had built blast walls along the main highways, which they used frequently. These walls were defensive blast walls built with concrete blocks to minimise the impact of the blasts. Later, they started building walls to protect neighbourhoods from the vigilante militias or foreign militants so the Shia and Sunni localities became segregated from each other.
When the police asked me to walk next to the wall, I did so and I could hear bullets whizzing past my ear. I found myself dodging the bullets and I turned back and went home. That is why I missed one of my exams that year.
I did manage to reach for the next exam. During the exam, I glanced back and saw one of my friends sitting back in his chair and relaxing with his paper in front of him. Afterwards, he told me he did not answer any questions, he only wrote down the lyrics of a famous song by Kadim Al Sahir.
Unbelievably, he passed! How I wished I too had written down a song instead of struggling to answer the questions.
I studied from 2005 to 2006 but then had to discontinue my studies because I needed to earn to support my family. I returned to college in 2009 and graduated in 2012. I am able to tell you these dates because I found my college papers in my phone!
I started working with a butcher who used to sell meat imported from India. If I recall correctly, it was beef. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the markets were full of foreign goods; it was difficult to get Iraqi-made goods. Even the tomatoes and brinjals were imported.
I had to work hard. I had to be at the shop at 8 am. I would clean the shop and sweep the area outside. When the owner arrived, we would mince the meat and fill it into half-kg packets which we then stored in the freezer. We also sold freshly made cheeses. There was also a fridge where we kept ice-cream and I was allowed to eat the melted ice-cream.
The owner would go home after work and change his clothes. Then, with a scarf tied around his head, he would sit on a chair, holding a Kalashnikov, and guard his home.
By this time we had moved out of my grandmother’s home because our family had grown. We had two small brothers now.
We moved to a half-constructed house on government land. I do not know for sure but I think my father rented the house from the owner. It did not have any windows or doors. We also had neither an electricity connection nor a water connection. But we were surrounded by fields.
Cold air used to come through the windows so Baba blocked it with plastic sheets. Day by day, he improved the condition of the house; he put in windows and doors and got an electricity connection. Baba, Akkad and I laid a pipe over some 300 metres so that we could have running water but every other day the supply would get disconnected because farmers would accidentally drive their tractors over our pipe. We had to keep re-connecting it.
Since Baghdad had almost no electricity, people depended on generators owned by private individuals. I got a job looking after a big generator; it was the back-up for several homes in the locality, not too far from our home. The other person working at the generator unit was a man called Bakr, he was a Sunni. He taught me how to look after the generator, pour in the diesel and switch it on and off.
The first day I got a very bad electric shock. The generator was kept on a wooden structure and fenced off with barbed wire. Behind the generator was a room where we could sleep. One day, I was going home and on the way I was stopped by the new Iraqi army. They asked for my identity card and I showed it to them.
They told me to kneel and, despite the fact that I had shown my ID, they hit me with the butts of their rifles. I was badly beaten and very bruised when I finally got home. There was absolutely no reason why they picked on me. It just shows how mindless the violence was.
Every month, we had to collect the money from all the houses that had subscribed for the generator and we kept accounts in the cashbook. One night, around eight, there was a loud knock on the door. I thought someone had come to pay their dues. Bakr opened the door and I could see his face turn white. Then I saw the barrel of a gun and I felt cold terror.
Then a man pulled me out of the room and another man appeared. They tied my hands behind my back with rope and made me kneel with my forehead on the ground. One man held a knife at my throat. The other man, whose face was covered with a scarf, had a gun to Bakr’s head. I thought I was going to die and I kept thinking of my family. They took all the money and left.
Bakr untied the rope (he had not been tied up) and called the owner to the generator. The owner came and got angry with us. He said if we could not recover the stolen money, he would not give us our wages. So I left the job.
The owner of the generator later became a leader of the Sahwa or Sons of Iraq, as it is known.
Every day there were killings and bomb explosions in the city. In May 2006 my cousin had got a job at another mosque in our neighbourhood. A motorcycle exploded very near that mosque and I was so afraid that he might have been hurt. Miraculously, he had escaped unscathed.
The explosion was near the shop where I had worked. I could not help thinking, what if I had been there? The day after the explosion I went to help in the clean-up. I picked up pieces of flesh and buried them.
This was the time when our family was going through really tough times and that is when I decided to join the Sahwa. There was an advertisement in the papers asking for trustworthy people (those who were not supporting the Jaysh al-Mahdi (or any militia) to join the Sahwa and they offered arms training and a good salary; at least it seemed like a good salary to me at the time.
When I went to register my name, the Americans looked at all our names and scrutinised their list. Then they gave a list to the Iraqi army. Their list consisted of all the people they did not consider trustworthy. I was chosen for the training.
Our lot were divided into two groups; I was in the first group but my cousin was in the second. We got into the bus and went to the training camp.
The first day we were given lectures on how to do a cordon and search; how to search cars and interrogate to elicit information from people whose cars we stopped. The second day we were taught how to load and unload a Kalashnikov. I do not remember all the things we were taught.
One night, when we were in the American training camp, we were hungry and sneaked into the American army kitchen. Wow! We had never seen that kind of food. There were chickens, cakes and all sorts of food whose names we did not know. But we were caught and the Americans pulled up the Iraqis for allowing us to go to their kitchen. Then we were given chips and juice which we happily polished off.
I did not really enjoy the shooting lessons because it was very hot that day and the rifle felt very heavy. We were given 15 bullets each and told to shoot from different positions and I was surprised that I shot accurately. One of the Iraqi army officers asked me whether it was the first time I had done any shooting and I said of course. And I felt like a superstar when the Americans rewarded me with juice to drink; the others were not given it.
We were given certificates and Identity cards. I remember mine was signed by one Nicholas.
They took our biometrics for the ID cards. We were given uniforms of blue shirts and black pants and given meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We lived three or four in one khaki tent and had to keep the neighbourhood safe. To begin with, we had no arms but then the people in the locality collected arms and we had a gun or two in the tent which was for the group.
We would feel sleepy and one of us would sleep and the others would cover for him. In the beginning, the officer who was checking on us in a patrol car caught us sleeping but then we learnt to sleep without him knowing.
The best part was that we had walkie talkies. And we would joke over the walkie talkie or sing songs. One day, one of the supervisors heard us and said, please focus on your work and our friend said, “Shut up.”
Whatever I earned I tried to give to my parents but my father would not accept the money and told me to keep it for my expenses. I worked for around a year and then I went back to college.
Since I had no job one of my uncles introduced me to a friend of his, Mustafa, who had a hair-cutting salon. Mustafa said he would teach me the job and that is how I started working as a barber. The first few days I just did cleaning and also carefully watched him cut hair. Then, one day a child came for a haircut. He was very small and that was the first time I cut anyone’s hair.
I started cutting hair and the clients liked me but this made Mustafa’s brother jealous. One day he shouted at me and said: “You will never make a barber.” He insulted me and I felt really bad so I left Mustafa’s salon.
A friend took me to another salon owned by a man called Harith. Harith’s salon was in the Tunis quarter in north Baghdad. Harith used to take drugs but he was very good to me; he taught me many skills, including playing with the scissors.
But once the ISIS entered the city, they said that cutting hair was haram and started killing barbers. Harith closed down his salon and then I joined Ali’s salon which was next-door to Mustafa’s. Now I had a chair of my own. Having a chair for a barber means he has graduated to becoming a full-fledged barber.
Then we got news of another barber’s killing, very close to where we worked. That is when Ali closed his salon and I went back home.
We used to joke that even salad was haram because cucumbers and tomatoes were mixed together; cucumbers were male and tomatoes were female! Anything to lighten the mood and dispel fear, if only briefly.
I used to help on the farm which was across from our home. The owners were Shia and I was friendly with their two sons. I remember my friends’ mother’s kindness and generosity. She would always give me vegetables to take home.
Excerpted with permission from Forgotten Refugees: Two Iraqi Brothers in India, Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger.