on becoming a tour guide.
At Baghdad Museum, which chronicles life in this ancient capital, a teacher points her kindergarten students to plaster models depicting a boy about age 7 undergoing circumcision as prescribed by Islam. "In the old days they used crude implements," the teacher said. "Today, in modern Iraq, we use electrical ones and anesthesia."
Twelve years have passed since the United Nations punished Iraq for its Kuwait invasion by imposing one of the strictest sanctions regimes ever, and plunged an advanced society with the world's second largest oil reserves into Third World misery. And yet Iraq insists on maintaining the illusion it is still a tourist attraction, a cultural hub, a modern state. That facade covers a much harsher reality. Few Iraqis have computers. The tourist industry does not exist beyond the occasional Arab or eastern European visitor. Anesthesia is often a costly extra.
Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, claiming it as a long-lost province. It also complained the emirate was over-pumping oil, thus pushing down Iraqi oil revenues, and drilling in a field claimed by both sides.
Iraq's occupying army was routed seven months later by an international coalition and the sanctions forbade it to sell oil freely. Baghdad was offered the option of a one-time sale of US$1.6 billion worth of oil under U.N. supervision to pay for food and medicine, but it refused, saying this would compromise its sovereignty.
Iraq, the legendary locale of the Garden of Eden, was left in ruins. Its electrical, water and sanitation systems collapsed. Roads, bridges, government complexes _ the fruit of Iraq's oil wealth _ had been bombed. Neighbourhoods were flooded with sewage, and garbage went uncollected.
The economy, already weakened by Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran, was devastated. The dinar, once valued at more than US$3, is now 2,000 to the dollar. Before sanctions were imposed, Iraq used to annually import goods worth up to US$25 billion and export oil worth up to US$17 billion. Before the Gulf War, US$10 billion in construction projects were under way.
No one knew how long the sanctions would last. Most spent the first couple of years living off savings and government food rations. A pirate class emerged, selling smuggled food at exorbitant prices.
Despite the sanctions designed to weaken him, Saddam prospered. As his people faced hunger, reports surfaced that the Iraqi leader was spending as much as US$1 billion on palaces and presidential retreats, including a lakeside mansion more than four times the size of the American White House.
By the third year of the sanctions, government food subsidies were cut by 40 percent, partly because of a poor harvest. Iraqis could not afford spare parts for farm machines. Herbicides and pesticides were also barred by the sanctions.
Medicine imports once valued at US$500 million slowed to a trickle. The country lacked disposable syringes, X-ray film and tires for ambulances. Patients besieged pharmacies looking for medicine. Malnutrition was rampant.
In 1994, the Iraqi government said the mortality rate among children under 5 had at least tripled, to 29,558 over a seven-month period.
Outside Iraq, a fierce debate flared about the morality of the sanctions. Opponents argued that far from cowing Saddam, they were causing the pointless deaths of children. Defenders said it was up to Saddam _ if he cooperated fully in dismantling all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs along with the long-range missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction, then sanctions would be suspended and eventually lifted.
The educational system was once one of the best in the Middle East. Now the literacy rate plummeted to 58 percent. School roofs caved in, windows broke. Parents pulled children from school to work as carpenters and mechanics.
Scholars in faded tweeds began selling their books _ encyclopedias, travel guides, Arabic translations of Dr. Spock's child-rearing manuals _ to vendors who line the narrow al-Mutanabbi Street every Friday.
Used clothing, shoes, furniture, toys, wedding china, even beds and bedroom doors were sold by people desperate for cash. The government forbade imports of watches and other luxuries, saying people should spend their money on necessities. Sugar became scarce and candy stores shut down. Iraqis sufficed with concoctions of homegrown dates and sesame paste.
Begging and theft started to rise. Taxi drivers were afraid to leave their parked cars, even briefly. In late 1996, Saddam finally agreed to a UN program allowing Iraq to use oil profits to buy food, medicine and other supplies that have no military use.
That program has brought some relief. Government rations of rice, flour, tea, sugar and soap have almost doubled the daily caloric intake to 2,100 calories per person. There's chlorine to purify water. London-style red double-decker buses have been imported from China. Hospitals have acquired medical equipment and most medicines are now available, as is anesthesia, though it still costs extra.
A dentist will charge US$1.50 for a shot of anesthetic, a hefty sum in a country where salaries average US$5-7 a month and many Iraqis work two or three jobs or supplement their salaries with bribes. Contraband also helps. Experts estimate that oil smuggled out of Iraq earns at least US$1 billion each year.
The sanctions that were meant to contain Saddam have instead turned food rations into his machine for controlling Iraqis. They know that those who breathe a word against their leader or merely spill tea on his picture will go hungry, or worse. Iraq's tightly controlled press is dedicated solely to deifying Saddam.
On New Year's Eve, Youth TV, run by Saddam's son Odai, chose the Iraqi president as "man of the year ... and every year." Clip after clip showed the Iraqi leader in various settings: receiving gifts of guns, Qurans or his portrait from his people; presiding over Cabinet meetings "to ensure the prosperity, progress and development of his people"; conferring with Arab and foreign leaders.
"You are a beautiful breeze of joy," crooned a poet in one of the clips. "You are like a high mountain, you never bow your head," chirped another.
Today, little remains of Iraq's prewar accomplishments, and its only striking features are remnants of past glory, the ruins in Babylon and Sumeria, for instance, that earned it a reputation of being "the cradle of civilization." Iraqis today might find it hard to understand what made Syrian poet Abu Ala al-Maari say centuries ago: "He who was born in Baghdad and died in it has moved from one paradise to another."
Just a generation ago, Baghdad seemed destined for a renaissance. It drew artists, writers and workers from an Arab world mired in strife and poverty. Arabs used to say: "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads."
Today, Baghdad's intellectual life shuffles along through the sheer will of a few old-timers. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, the Arab world's first, makes do with dilapidated instruments; poetry readings take place in tiny cafeterias. "I don't wait for death. Let death wait for me," said one Iraqi artist, when asked what keeps her going.
A university professor held up a textbook on politics, its cover carefully wrapped in gift paper, and said: "This is the only copy we have at the university. My students take turns reading it." Cars rumble along with patched-up spare parts. Homes need coats of paint.
Only the nouveaux riches who are close to the ruling circles are better off. They alone can afford Italian lingerie, Swiss watches, gleaming new cars and satellite dishes, banned by the government but sold "under-to-under," as Iraqis call such illicit sales, using the English words.
Amid the misery one comes upon bursts of joy: a wedding procession that stops outside a photo shop for the newlyweds to be photographed; two artists huddled together composing lyrics for a song on a lost love regained; a rising star at an art gallery playing the oud, the mournful-toned string instrument essential to Arab music.
Whom do Iraqis blame for their misery? It's hard to tell in a country where no one dares utter a word against the government. But publicly at least, they say they are victims of the West, the United States and Britain.
Hanging on a wall of the Baghdad Museum is a poem dedicated to the city, titled "My Beloved" and written by Abdul-Karim Masir in 1999:
"Shall I compare thee to the spring day?
When we were playing innocently on the way
When life was peaceful
It was happy and cheerful
Like birds we used to fly ...
You are the symbol of fidelity
Your enemies are the symbol of infidelity
You sent them love and knowledge
They sent you malice and men of scourge."