Iraqis cling to tradition

Between a glorious past and a depressing present, Iraq's future blurry

— 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.

'We never fall'

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 in an interview in his brick-walled studio.

Before the sanctions, Hikmat worked with imported metals. Some of the memorials he sculpted were completed in Europe and then shipped back to Iraq.

Hikmat remembers an Iraq that was an artistic and cultural hub in the Arab world. "People used to come from abroad and hold exhibitions here," he said. "We Iraqis used to travel a lot. In recent years, all this stopped."

He knows he's still luckier than many other artists. Unlike most Iraqis, he can afford to travel from time to time. He still displays work abroad.

Young art students who revere the silver-haired sculptor flock to his studio and help him with his work. Hikmat has faith that despite their isolation from the international world of art, they can grow as artists by drawing on their own rich traditions.

Looking to the future

Others have a bleaker vision of the future.

"The economic problems that evolved because of the sanctions have prevented us from ... having our own futures, raising our children the way we want and giving them the positions we hope for," said Nasra al-Sadoon, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Iraq Daily.

While many older Iraqis speak more than one foreign language and are Western-trained, many young people in the city that once housed one of the Muslim world's greatest libraries cannot even read.

In the academic year before sanctions were imposed on Baghdad, the Iraqi government spent $230 million on education. Average spending during the past six years has been $23 million per year.

Government study-abroad scholarships have disappeared and the underfunded schools at home are in bad shape. Some parents complain that students in secondary school can barely write their names. Dropout rates have skyrocketed as children increasingly join the work force to help their struggling families.

How can an isolated and poorly educated generation lead the country?

"We hope to compensate with the experience of those who have traveled abroad. We opened new horizons, looking inside instead of outside, like gaining experience from the past," al-Sadoon said.

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