A Week in the Death of
By Dr. Mohammed
Post" -- -- -When will I die?
That's the question circling in my head when I awake on
Wednesday. I'm sweating, as usual. My muscles ache from
another long night of no electricity in weather only
slightly cooler than hell. As I dress for work, other
questions assail me: How will I die? Will it be a shot in
the head? Will I be blown to pieces? Or be seized at a
police checkpoint because of my sect, then tortured and
killed and thrown out on the sidewalk?
I gaze at my wife as she sleeps, her face twisted in
discomfort from the heat. What will happen to her if I die?
Soon she'll have no one in Iraq but me. Will she be able to
identify my body? Will I get a proper burial?
I'm a dentist in my mid-20s, married to an aspiring dentist.
My father is a prominent orthopedist who fled Iraq after
being threatened by both Sunni radicals in al-Qaeda in Iraq
(which wanted to recruit him and extorted money for his life
when he refused) and Shiite ones in Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi
Army (because he is a Sunni). My father-in-law, who works in
the oil ministry, has also been menaced; he will leave the
country at the end of this month.
In fact, my wife and I left Iraq in July 2006 and went to
Jordan. But I wasn't able to find any work there, so we came
back to Baghdad. Now we live here as quietly as possible,
keeping a low profile. I don't use my family name anymore.
(And I am not using my full name for this piece.)
I walk to my job at a government clinic 15 minutes from my
home at the intersection of a Sunni and a Shiite
neighborhood. We've had lots of bombings nearby. On my way,
I see the hulks of burned-out cars. Barbed wire and concrete
blocks line the streets. The ground is strewn with bullet
casings. Death is in the air. A car passes me slowly in an
alley, my heart beats rapidly and I pray that I won't be
kidnapped or asked what sect I belong to.
At the clinic's gate, I greet the guards. (I'm afraid of
them; they might be members of a militia. Here in Baghdad,
everyone's suspect until proven otherwise.) I sign in and
get the bad news: The diesel generator is almost out of
fuel. We have enough for about one more day, and my boss
thinks it could be a month or longer before the ministry of
health will provide us any more.
How can we treat our patients? I ask angrily. My boss
shrugs. We were already short of supplies. I feel bad for
the patients, some of whom are really in pain, so I work as
fast as I can. The clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and
we have five dentists and three chairs. Normally, we can
take 15 patients a day, but on this day, I treat eight
* * *
I'm proud of my work today as I head home, where, as usual,
there is no electricity.
In my neighborhood (and most of Baghdad), we depend on
ourselves for power. In most places, there's someone who
owns a large generator and sells other residents eight hours
of electricity a day. I pay $120 a month for that service.
For an additional three hours a day, I use my home
generator. That costs me about $150 a month because fuel
here is so expensive. We have to wait six to eight hours in
line to get any at the gas stations, which close at 6 or 7
p.m. The curfew starts at 11 p.m., so many people sleep in
their cars until the stations reopen in the morning. This
farce has created a booming black market in which fuel sells
for double its official price.
Over lunch, my wife, who has just finished the final exams
for her last year of dental school, tells me how scared,
bored and hopeless she feels. How long will we stay in Iraq?
she asks me. Until one of us dies?
If we leave again, I want to go to a country where we might
have a future. I want children, but I promised myself that I
wouldn't have any as long as I'm living in Iraq. My children
don't deserve to be born in this country. I won't make the
mistake my parents made.
Later that day, we go shopping for food. This is the only
entertainment we have in our lives, apart from the Internet.
It's so hot. I wish I could go out in shorts. But the
militias don't allow it. It's too much to ask in Iraq. It's
too much to ask to be able to wear a goatee or a gold
necklace. It's too much to ask to drive my BMW because I
could be killed for it. There's too much that's too much to
ask for in Baghdad.
We have fun at the market, but on the way back, a pickup
truck drives by with a dead body in the back.
* * *
On Thursday before dawn, an explosion rocks our house. I lie
in bed, unable to get back to sleep, until it's time to get
up for work.
When I arrive at the clinic, my fellow dentists are sitting
on chairs in the yard. That means we are out of diesel.
We'll have four hours with nothing to do (because we're
required to stay at work even if we can't do any work), so I
join them. The talk turns to the situation in Baghdad and
the U.S. presence here.
"As soon as the Americans leave Iraq, Iranian jets will be
over Baghdad bombarding every neighborhood that is not loyal
to them, whether Shiite or Sunni," one of the doctors says.
I offer my opinion: "The U.S. should stay, because it's not
just Iran or neighboring countries that we have to fear. The
Iraqi National Guard and the police are also our enemies
In contrast, many uneducated or less educated Iraqis think
that the U.S. military is at the root of every problem. They
believe that if the Americans leave, there will be peace. I
agree, up to a point, that U.S. troops are responsible for
some of the trouble we have, but I don't blame them. I blame
the Iraqis who let this happen, who enjoy destruction and
death -- the sectarian government and the militias. They are
the real cause of this tragedy.
We talk about the insurgents and the militias, both Sunni
and Shiite, and about sectarian violence, which is
skyrocketing. So are civilian casualties and the
government's lies, which are supposed to convince the world
that it's doing its job, that it's winning victories against
terrorism and that the terrorists are fleeing Iraq. Aren't
they ashamed of themselves? The only ones fleeing Iraq are
good, honest Iraqis.
"What do the insurgents want?" another doctor asks. "What
have they achieved after all those explosions and all those
They have achieved nothing that a sane person would consider
an achievement, I respond. They've made the country
impossible to live in; they've terrorized people, killed
Americans, made us afraid to leave our homes. They've taken
control of neighborhoods after the people who lived there
fled for their lives. All of this is an achievement to them,
but not to a sane person like you or me. They have been
brainwashed by fanatical religious clerics; they have been
tempted by the money that flows from Iran and other
countries or that they get from kidnapping and crime.
In the end, we all agree: The only losers are honest,
patriotic Iraqi people. For them, democracy, liberation and
freedom are just myths. All we want is to live a normal
When I get back from work, my wife and I take a taxi to
Adhamiya, the district where my father-in-law lives. We
normally spend Thursday and Friday with him. The driver, as
usual, is afraid to enter the neighborhood, so he leaves us
at the gate in Antar Square and we walk from there.
As we make our way to my father-in-law's house, a
confrontation starts behind us. We dash into an alley. I
relive in my mind what happened the previous week: A sniper
from the Iraqi National Guard shot at us and forced us to
cower in a ruined building for what seemed like hours. It
was on the same street, the only open road that leads to
Adhamiya. People call it the "street of death."
We finally make it to my father-in-law's. After dinner, we
decide to sleep upstairs, but just as my head hits the
pillow, there's an explosion in front of the house, followed
by gunfire all around. We rush downstairs, where it's safer,
and sleep on the floor. We spend another day full of nonstop
explosions and gunfire at my father-in-law's before heading
back home at noon on Saturday.
* * *
Sunday is a beautiful day. My wife and I make popcorn, sip
cola and watch the Iraqi national soccer team beat Saudi
Arabia 1 to 0 in the final for the Asian Cup. My
neighborhood erupts in celebratory gunfire. Why don't the
shooters think about where their bullets might go when they
hit the ground? Two people are killed and six are wounded
from falling rounds.
After the shooting stops, I head out to buy cigarettes. I am
amazed by what I see. There's unity at last. People stream
from Adhamiya and al-Saab and al-Kahira and meet at the al-Nidaa
mosque intersection. They are celebrating on the same spot
where on other days confrontations erupt, blood flows and
people die. An Iraqi National Guard convoys rolls through,
with soldiers dancing on top of the Humvees. I laugh out
loud and feel safe for the first time since returning to
I hurry home to get my wife and the digital camera. We head
out to Palestine Street to watch the crowd and snap
pictures. Then my wife gets an uneasy look on her face. All
these people, she says, might attract a suicide bomber. We
On the news that night: 16 people dead and 66 injured in
Zaiona; 10 dead and an unknown number injured in Mansor.
They were innocents celebrating the victory of their soccer
team. Can't they give us one happy day? Is that too much to
ask? May God have mercy on their souls.
* * *
The next day, dozens more die across my country. This has
become normal. We're used to it. Iraqi lives are worth
nothing; we're just numbers in the news. In the past, Iraqis
would wear black to mourn a young man for many years. They
would cry forever. But not anymore. Now we bury in the
morning and forget by the evening.
On Tuesday, my wife gets her grades from dental school. She
has done well. I am so happy that I vow to confront
terrorism and live a normal life for one day. I decide to
drive my own car and take my wife to a nice lunch at the
only good restaurant left in Baghdad. I leave work early,
head home and remove the cover from my car for the first
time in a year. And with it, I remove my fear.
Oh, how I've missed my BMW. When I tell my wife that we're
taking the car, she is afraid, but I convince her that
nothing will happen. It's just one day, I say. For once,
we'll live like normal people. I drive to the restaurant and
feel so happy -- and fearful at the same time. But we arrive
safely, although I'm stopped at a police checkpoint and
asked about my sect. Normally, they just ask where you live
or where you're heading, which are also clues, but this time
they ask me directly. I have to lie, but luckily I have a
neutral name that isn't obviously either Sunni or Shiite.
We have a wonderful time at lunch. But much later, after I
finally go to bed at 3 a.m., after the neighborhood
generator stops, the eternal questions start up again. Will
it ever end? When will I die?
firstname.lastname@example.org - Dr. Mohammed writes the blog Last
of Iraqis at www.last-of-iraqis.blogspot.com
© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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