Out of Necessity and in Style, Iraqis Connect to Cellular Age

Times Staff Writer

Just before dusk, the setting sun illuminates in golden hues a scene of bustling commerce. Vendors crowd the sidewalks here, their produce stacked in appealing but fickle pyramids. Families shop for apples, dates and saffron-colored marsh candy.

And cellphones.

Almost every store on Al Jazair Street in this southern Iraqi city sells mobile telephones, and business is brisk.

Banned during Saddam Hussein’s reign and introduced only last year, cellphones are an obsession in this country. Iraqis give them nicknames and spend inordinate amounts of money on the latest models, accessories and ring tones.


Cellphones have become an indispensable part of everyday life, crucial for families negotiating commutes to school and work amid bombings and bloodshed. They also have a status function. In Iraq, they are a fashion symbol nonpareil.

“If there’s a new style, everybody wants it,” said salesman Mohammed Rayad, 24.

Fancy some miniature denim jeans tailored for your phone? Rayad at the Orange store on Al Jazair Street offers those, and just about every other imaginable telephonic trinket.

Looking for the Nokia 7260, with its “sleek, Art Deco-inspired design, with VGA camera and camcorder, flash messaging and MMS, Java, XHTML browser and downloadable themes,” as one ad puts it?

Try a few blocks down the street at the Kanary store, where the window display has goldfish swimming in an aquarium filled with cellphones.

Inside the marble-and-glass store, shoppers eyed a Nokia model popularly known as the Yawer after the country’s Sunni Arab vice president, Ghazi Ajil Yawer, because “it’s fat like him,” said Ayad Ali, the manager. “Rather than saying, ‘Do you have a Nokia such-and-such?’ they say, ‘Do you have a Yawer?’ ”

Customers have nicknamed the newest, most expensive phone in his store (a $675 Nokia) the Sahaf after Hussein’s notorious information minister, Mohammed Said Sahaf. Among its features, of course, is a built-in camera.


Ali, whose cousin owns the store, fondly remembers the good old days -- two years ago -- when his family was alone in the business on Al Jazair Street. Then they sold mostly satellite phones in a largely cell-free society.

“We were the last country in the world to receive this service,” said Seerwan Moosa, a technician in the Education Ministry. “Saddam was trying his best to isolate Iraq.”

The cellphone had Moosa at hello.

A year ago, he borrowed a friend’s phone. Today, he said, “life without a mobile would be like living on a deserted island.”

The country has changed, and so has this Basra neighborhood.

First Orbit opened kitty-corner to Kanary, and “overnight [the street] was filled with shops,” Ali said. His are quality goods, he said, adding that he wasn’t so sure about the competition’s products. “It says ‘Made in Finland,’ but it’s actually made in China.”

Regardless, the technology is costing Iraqis a lot of money.

Of 400 people surveyed in a recent Baghdad University study, the vast majority said they spent a quarter to half their income on cellular gadgets and phone bills.

A land-line phone costs a family less than $5 a month on average, but it’s not always reliable or practical. For example, it can’t be used to make an international call.


In Iraq, cellphones and cellular service sell at Los Angeles prices, even though the average monthly income in Iraq is only about $150. Many Iraqis use prepaid phone cards, but at least 2.2 million people in the country of 26 million have bought cellphone subscriptions since the technology was introduced a year ago, say spokesmen for three of the four service providers. More than 1 million Baghdad residents subscribe to a cellphone service.

Hiam Kahdem said her husband was among the first to sign up. Today the couple spend about $220 a month on their phone. “That adds up to almost one-third of our monthly salary,” she said. “I don’t think I can live without it, but it’s expensive.”

She uses the phone to keep tabs on her family in a city besieged by violence. When she hears of a bombing, she calls to assure herself that they are safe.

“When you call the one you love during a crisis and discover that they are fine, you get to catch your breath, and that’s worth all the money in the world,” Kahdem said.

Whereas the phone to her is mostly a practical tool, “many of the kids out there have turned this issue into fashion,” she said, adding that she has noticed that even many schoolchildren have fancy phones.

“I use a very simple regular cellphone because I believe that cellphones are made to make calls on, not to be proud of the model that you have,” said Ahmed Izzideen, a computer engineer. “But my wife has a $650 phone because she wants to show it to friends and family members. For her, it’s just a part of her looking good, like a dress she has.”


Izzideen, who makes $600 a month, spends $200 to $300 on cellphone-related expenses. He uses his for business but occasionally calls friends and family to say hello or make sure they’re OK.

He uses a money-saving emergency system: calling and hanging up, with the “missed call” display signaling his wife and family that he’s safe.

In the Baghdad University study, most respondents said their work necessitated the purchase of a cellphone. Others cited poor security and the lack of reliable land lines. Some even acknowledged the vanity factor: getting the phones because their friends and relatives had them.

The phones were popular in Iraq even before they were usable.

After the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the Iraqi infrastructure was shattered. Few land lines worked, and less than 2% of the population owned a phone. American and Middle Eastern companies soon jostled for lucrative contracts to provide cellular networks, but the contracts were delayed almost a year amid allegations of corruption.

Still, it became chic among people in Baghdad to wear the unusable phones clipped to a belt.

Officials eventually divided the country into four segments -- Baghdad and environs, the south and two areas in the north -- and the cellular network contracts were awarded.


Mirroring other communication problems in this country beset by ethnic, religious and regional tension, calling between different areas can be difficult. In the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, a simple call between two main cities, Irbil and Sulaymaniya, is impossible on a cellphone because different providers serve the cities.

Hardly a day goes by without a story in the Iraqi media about cellphone problems. Moaning about poor reception has become a national pastime.

Despite having to suffer colleagues’ constantly upgrading their phones in “some kind of showoff behavior,” said Moosa of the Education Ministry, he loves the technology and plans never to be cellularly deprived.

He sounded not unlike a jingle for a certain gadget.

“Mobile equals life,” he said.


Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Caesar Ahmed, Mohammed Arrawi, Zainab Hussein and Salar Jaff and a special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.