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IRAQ: It’s a fight against fat in Iraq

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The bombs and sectarian bloodshed may have subsided in most of Iraq, but Iraqis have another enemy to fight: fat. Take the case of Haider Kareem Said, a sweet-faced, cheerful 25-year-old who ballooned to 495 pounds in the past five years.

Like a lot of Iraqis, Said says years of curfews and the danger of being hit by a bomb, killed by sectarian death squads, kidnapped, or caught in cross-fire kept him inside. He closed his photographic supply shop and spent most of his time watching TV and eating his mother’s delicious meals. But hope is on the horizon for some Iraqis in the form of gastric band surgery currently being performed in Iraq. Dr. Ramiz S. Mukhtar at Baghdad’s St. Raphael Hospital says he is the only Iraqi surgeon doing such operations, and business has been brisk since he began the surgery about 2 1/2 years ago.

The premise is simple: Mukhtar implants a band around a patient’s stomach, shrinking it so that the person can eat only a tiny amount. If you eat too much, you get sick. Over months, the patient should lose weight slowly and steadily -- the best way to keep it off permanently, said Mukhtar, who earns about $4,000 per operation.

Updated obesity statistics are hard to come by here, but all you have to do is walk down the street to see that Iraqis are not an overwhelmingly svelte bunch. The traditional dishdashas worn by many men and the long abayas covering many of the women can’t hide the big bellies and broad bodies here. It’s not as bad as in the United States, but a 2006 survey by the World Health Organization estimated that 26% of men over 25 years and 38% of women of the same age in Iraq were obese.

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Said said he tried dieting, but nothing worked. Then, a friend told him about Mukhtar’s surgery, and in August he had the operation. The day of the surgery, Said sat patiently in a hospital room waiting his turn on the operating table, surrounded by friends and talking about his decision to take this drastic step.

‘I’ve been thinking about it for the past year,’ he said. ‘I was getting very tired. My movements were limited. I was frustrated. I was also embarrassed to be so fat.’

His 20-year-old brother, Mohammed, chimed in. ‘Of course diet and exercise are the best way to lose weight, but we lost hope,’ he said of Haider’s situation. ‘We realized this is the only way out.’

Unlike most overweight Americans, for whom fat is a sensitive issue, Iraqis with weight problems are more open about it. Said, for instance, jokes that people would stare at him ‘as if I were Saddam Hussein,’ the ousted Iraqi dictator, when he walked down the street. He doesn’t claim to be the victim of bad genes or a mysterious malady that causes weight gain. ‘I don’t exercise and I love food,’ he says when asked how he got so big.

His friends concurred and listed Said’s favorite things: honey-soaked baclava, fish, soda pop and pacha, an Iraqi dish made of the head of a sheep.

The next day, Said went home to his family’s comfortable house in a middle-class neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Even with an IV still stuck in his wrist and pain in his abdomen, he was unfailingly polite to the stream of visitors. He heaved himself up from his chair to shake each person’s hand and said he looked forward to the future. ‘Hopefully this is the start of a new life,’ he said, smiling.

His uncle, Jabar Said, sat nearby and admitted that he also had gotten fat during the war and that his sons had gained weight from inactivity and overeating. He hopes to diet his extra pounds away, but he had no qualms about his nephew going the surgical route to lose weight.

‘It was essential,’ he said. ‘He is a young man. He was suffering.’

The elder Said said they would have done the operation long ago had Baghdad’s security situation been better, but it is only in recent months that traveling across the city has been a relatively safe thing. He said the fall of the Hussein regime, which ushered in satellite TV to a country once allowed to watch only state-run programs, has woken Iraqis up to the body-consciousness of the rest of the world.

This has made them more eager to stay in shape and lose weight, he said. Ironically, it also has added to their weight problems by encouraging them to loaf on their sofas, glued to wide-screen TVs watching the scores of international channels now available. In fact, the Said family living room boasts two TVs, one of which was showing Olympic highlights the day Haider came home.

Dr. Mukhtar said it will be several months to a year before Haider reaches his optimal weight. Asked if he plans to change his life and start exercising, Said laughed and said no. ‘If I wanted to exercise, I would not be doing this operation,’ he said.

The doctor disagreed. He said once his patients get slim, they will do anything to stay slim.

‘You will see,’ he said knowingly. ‘I know them very well.’

-- Tina Susman in Baghdad


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