A Sliver of Iraq's Past Feels the Pressures of the Present

Times Staff Writer

In many California suburbs, the refuge of palm trees and shaded pathways sequestered behind an 8-foot wall might immediately be identified as a public park.

But this oasis, a few blocks east of Baghdad University, is a remnant of feudal life amid one of the city's sprawling subdivisions. A family of sharecroppers rents the property from the descendants of a land baron who once farmed all of the terrain within the thumb-like bend in the Tigris River south of downtown.

Abid Ali Ubaid and three of his sons scratch out a living by tending citrus, dates, vegetables and livestock. They peddle their goods to grocers, street merchants and passersby on busy Jadriya Street in the heart of the affluent Karada neighborhood.

A stroll on their 10-acre farm, separated from the street by the mud-colored wall, reveals a hidden piece of the mosaic of the modern and ancient that makes up Baghdad life.

Like almost everything in this ravaged city, the sharecroppers' precarious livelihood is strained amid the deterioration of public services since the U.S.-led invasion.

The tall date palms, some 200 years old, are not producing well. Disease is killing off the orange trees. The harvest has dropped by two-thirds, from about 300 pounds a year to 100.

"Last year we made 1 cent profit," said Basim Ubaid, 24, one of Abid Ali's sons, who emerged from a shabby lean-to dressed for the New Year's holiday in a Dior sweatshirt and black-and-white kaffiyeh. "We were barely able to make the rent plus our family's needs."

The pain has many causes, Basim said. Government handouts of fertilizer and pesticides have stopped. The municipal water supply dried up. The irrigation water they now pump directly from the Tigris is polluted. Restrictions on flying over Baghdad have ended the aerial pesticide spraying of the palms.

Abid Ali, 50, sprays the 630 trees by hand now. To get to the top, he wears a handmade sling of stiff cable and leans back against it like a telephone lineman.

The younger sons don't climb at all, and Basim won't go up the higher trees. He is afraid of falling, as a friend of his in Najaf did, seriously injuring his spine.

The climbing is done three times a year: in November to harvest, in February to clean the trees and in March to spray, Basim said.

Other days follow a simple routine. The family rises at 5. After praying, they feed the cattle and a donkey with dates, bread and hand-cut grass, then eat their own breakfast.

The daily chores include milking the cows, picking and sorting oranges and grapefruit and delivering bottles of the farm's date vinegar.

On a recent day, Abid Ali, dressed in an ankle-length dishdasha and wielding a knotty-handled shovel, dug up dying orange trees that would be cut up for firewood.

His youngest son, Mohammed, 14, set up a sidewalk shop just outside the wall, selling produce from plastic crates.

In a few days, the butcher was coming for a tethered white steer. Worth $500, it's the most valuable property on the farm, but it's not theirs. They've raised it for another family who plans to have it slaughtered and deliver the meat to the poor during this month's sacrificial festival of Eid al-Adha.

As foreign as this picture might seem, the farm's history will sound familiar to Americans who have seen subdivisions replicating across the countryside.

The neighborhood was farmland in the 1950s. The landowner, Haji Naji Lami, left it to his seven sons, who began subdividing it in the 1960s after the establishment of Iraq's first state university here spawned a development boom.

Today, Karada is a grid of Southern California-style suburban housing. A few swimming pools stand out in photos taken from the air.

Abed Muhsin Shaker Haji Naji, 38, a grandson of the patriarch, owns an outdoor restaurant that enlivens Jadriya Street with rows of red chairs and an open kitchen. On a recent warm day, cooks stood by a row of barbecues and cut chunks of meat from lamb legs suspended on hooks.

Stepping away for a few minutes, Haji Naji strolled down a side street he said was paved in 1968, when the family was subdividing. He pointed out other parcels still owned by the descendants of Haji Naji Lami.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, their title fell under a cloud when the dictator's son Uday confiscated the land. As U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the family painted graffiti on the walls declaring, "This is Haji Naji land." Their claim has since gone unchallenged.

Today, the 60 living descendants manage their holdings by tribal custom. The elders of the seven families meet annually to make decisions, Haji Naji said.

In theory, their 100-plus acres of undeveloped land is worth tens of millions of dollars. Despite the war, housing prices in Karada have skyrocketed, with some larger homes generating seven-figure sales.

The family would like to develop more of its land, Haji Naji said. But the breakdown of security and civil institutions since the war make that impossible for now.

Much of the land is fallow, he said, because those same conditions have undermined the return on cultivation, he said.

"We used to farm when agriculture was good," Haji Naji said. "Not anymore."

For the family of Abid Ali Ubaid, there are no other prospects. They'll pay their rent of $3,600 this year and hope conditions turn around.

One thing tenant and landlord have in common is their outlook on the future. Ubaid's son Basim, who dropped out of school in the fifth grade, sees no hope for his family unless the government restores utilities and assistance to farmers.

"Pests are out of control," he said. "We can't manage them. The minister of agriculture will have to give us fertilizer or can take care of it himself."

Haji Naji wasn't much more optimistic.

"The future is very vague," he said. "Politically, we failed and can't go anyplace."

Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.

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