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As the middle class flees, it takes Iraq's hope for the future

March 25, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Artist Jabbar Muhaybis stood amid the ashes of Baghdad's storied literary bazaar. Bloodstained pages were scattered at his feet. A wooden crate, eerily reminiscent of a coffin, covered his head.

Muhaybis spread his arms wide and, in a symbolic gesture, sadly intoned from the darkness of his crate: "The light will not shine here again."

Days after a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-laden truck into the heart of Mutanabi Street, Baghdad's intellectual icons gathered to mourn a place that had been their inspiration and refuge through decades of invasion, war and dictatorship.

Iraq's urban, educated, largely secular middle class had everything to gain from the fall of Saddam Hussein's oppressive and isolating regime. Four years later, it is on the way to being wiped out.

Writers, doctors and university professors are hunted down and killed. Entrepreneurs and engineers are kidnapped for lucrative ransoms. And the symbols of Iraq's intellectual heritage -- its bookstores, libraries, museums and archeological sites -- have been plundered and burned.

More than 200 Iraqi academics, 110 physicians and 76 journalists have been killed since Hussein's fall, according to figures compiled by government ministries and professional associations. Thousands of others have fled the country.

As the U.S.-led occupation enters its fifth year, holdouts of middle-class society are starting to ask: Who will be left to pick up the pieces when the fighting is done?

Days after the Mutanabi Street blast, Nejah Hayiani, 61, gingerly pulled a blackened trouser leg from the rubble. A cellphone attached to the waistband told him it belonged to his dead brother, Mohammed.

"We didn't find bodies, we just found pieces of flesh," he said bitterly.

A family legacy in ruins

The brothers grew up on Mutanabi Street. Their father opened the Renaissance bookshop in 1957. Here, artists, poets and book lovers from all backgrounds converged to leaf through dusty tomes of Ottoman history, religious texts and Shakespeare's sonnets, always watchful for the eavesdropping government informers who lurked in the alleys. From there they would wander over to the Shahbandar cafe for a glass of tea in a room swirling with lively debate and the sweet smoke of water pipes.

Mohammed Hayiani took over the shop from his father. A nephew, Yehyia, opened a small store nearby, specializing in lawbooks. Now both shops are in ruins, their owners and staff slaughtered in the March 5 blast that killed more than 30 and sent thousands of charred pages fluttering into the sky.

"The future is dark," Nejah Hayiani said. "If the thinkers are targeted and killed, who will lead Iraq? Only the ignorant."

Militants seeking to disrupt Iraqi society deliberately target the wealthiest and most senior professionals. But even those of lesser means are frequently caught in the bloodshed.

At the National Library and Archives, director Saad Eskander is trying to rebuild a collection that was burned and looted in the first weeks of the invasion. In a blog on the British Library's website, he describes the conditions that have turned the work of a librarian into a life-threatening proposition: gunshots through a window, bomb blasts and battles in the streets. In December alone he reported four employees killed, two kidnapped, 58 threatened and 51 displaced.

Iraq once was a modern society, with well-developed infrastructure and health and education systems. All that is in pieces now, and a generation of technical expertise has been ravaged with no prospect of filling the vacuum.

Attendance at Iraq's schools and universities has plummeted as campuses have become battlegrounds in the war between Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab Muslim militants. University lecturers are afraid of their own students, some of whom report to militant groups.

"They want a people who can't think," said Abu Mohammed, head of Iraq's Assn. of University Lecturers.

Abu Mohammed's predecessor, a geology professor, was killed in a drive-by shooting after he campaigned to keep religion and politics off Iraq's campuses. Fearful for his own life, Abu Mohammed asked to be identified by a traditional alias based on his son's name.

Many students and lecturers, meanwhile, are translating their resumes into English and applying for posts abroad.

"In a few years, I think you will see the middle class will have disappeared," Abu Mohammed said. "The guns, the bad people will control everything in our lives."

Many members of Iraq's middle class are the product of the 1960s and '70s oil boom, when the term "Baghdadi" became shorthand for big spender.

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