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'Our Freedom Has No Taste'

Donna Abu-Nasr, an Associated Press correspondent based in Cairo, recently revisited some of the people she had gotten to know on assignments to Iraq before the war.

Midway through a chat in his living room, the professor whipped a revolver out of the pocket of his green shorts and slammed it on the coffee table.

"I have to carry this now just to open the door," he exclaimed. "I can speak more freely now, but can you guarantee that I will sleep peacefully tonight? Where's the happiness in that?"

Saad al-Jawwad and I had last met in February 2001, under the watchful eye of an Information Ministry minder. At that time there was little that could be safely discussed beyond the pain that U.N. sanctions were inflicting on Iraqis. These days one might have expected this stocky, forceful political scientist to be fully in the swing of thinking out the politics of postwar Iraq.

But his mind was on other things: The sun had just set and his son was not yet home. The lawlessness that had forced him to start carrying a gun might any moment spill into his home a former student with a grievance, perhaps. Electricity was still out in his quiet, middle-class Baghdad neighborhood where he lives with his wife and two sons, and he was dependent on a neighbor's generator to keep the lights on and the ceiling fan stirring the baking air in the living room.

The Iraq I had visited twice before the war was not a particularly happy place then, and it's less happy now than one might imagine. Instead of reveling in life without Saddam Hussein and beating to a new dynamic rhythm, eyes look dull, brows are furrowed, movements are slow.

Back in 2001, people relished devising ingenious ways to cope with sanctions. Majed al-Ghazali, a violinist with Iraq's National Symphony Orchestra, talked then of his plan to waylay a horse-drawn cart and snip hairs from the beast's tail to restring his bow.

"Our freedom has no taste," he said when we met again in late June. "We haven't had a chance to enjoy it."

One vivid tableau of the new Iraq is Baghdad's streets. They used to be choked with old VWs, Oldsmobiles and Chevies, new models being mostly unobtainable because of sanctions. Now they're joined by new Fords, Toyotas and SUVs, plus U.S. Humvees, jeeps and tanks. The traffic jams are bad, and made worse by U.S. military checkpoints.

People spend hours in line under scorching sun — outside government offices, hoping the Americans inside will give them back their old jobs; at gas stations to buy fuel for the all-important generators; outside banks to save their inflation-stricken dinars.

The depressed mood is in part a result of plummeting expectations.

Isolated and cut off from the outside world for so long, most Iraqis had come to assume the American superpower could transform the country with a push of a button.

Instead they have emerged from a war only to be hit by a ferocious spasm of looting of stores and national treasures, and now the sabotage of power plants and oil pipes, the street crime, the daily attacks on U.S. forces — leaving many of them to wonder whether they have simply been moved from one prison to another.

Kamal Mazhar, a historian, told me the depressed mood "is not a sign of support for the former regime."

He said even the communist and leftist parties, banned by Saddam and now back in Iraq, know that if the Americans pulled out there would be anarchy. But he said the Americans should work harder to stabilize Iraq and restore services.

It's not all bad, though.

In Saddam's time, the mere act of pointing at something — a building, a person — risked attracting the attention of a secret policeman. Now people freely jab their index fingers on the streets. To a visitor returning, it's something of a shock.

Another shock: Car windows are adorned with glossy portraits of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's most revered saints, depicted as green- or brown-eyed, beautifully coifed, lips sensual, lashes perfectly combed. Saddam, a secular Sunni, banned such images.

In Nimo Dinkha's beauty salon, whose customers included Saddam's second wife, Samira Shahbandar, the power was out and the room was dark and stuffy. An assistant was shaping a customer's eyebrows while another fanned her with a promotional brochure for shampoo.

An elderly woman came in asking to have her hair colored. "I don't have any water," snapped Dinkha. "I can put the dye on but you'll have to do the rinse at home."

Although her body glistened with sweat, Dinkha was one of the few Iraqis I met who did not mind the discomforts of her new life.

"Saddam is out of our lives. This is a small price to pay," she said.

"I wish I could hang him outside the salon so that every Iraqi who has been hurt by him would have the chance to slice off a piece of him," she added.

At the mention of Saddam, the dozen women in the salon erupted with stories of atrocities: rape, disappearances, torture, mass graves.

"When Saddam's wife came here, we pretended we didn't know who she was," said Dinkha. "We were too scared to bring up the subject."

Even under dictatorship, however, this city of 5 million was a lively one, nowhere more so than in the restaurant areas. The Al-Sa'ah Restaurant, which beat sanctions by inventing "Kontacky" Fried Chicken, used to be packed.

The shops in the upscale Arrasat neighborhood offered Italian negligees, Swiss watches and satellite dishes smuggled in from neighboring Jordan. As night fell it would come alive with lights, honking cars and "Feelings" dueling with "My Way" in a scratchy cacophony over loudspeakers.

Returning, I found the streets eerie and scary. Curfew isn't until 11 p.m., but most people try to be home before dark.

At the Al-Sa'ah a couple of bored U.S. soldiers were waiting for their hamburgers and wishing they could find something else to eat. "They're spicy," said one. "Never seen fries ON burgers before."

In Arrasat, the din of generators had replaced the music on the streets. Of three popular restaurants chosen at random, only one had a table occupied between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Firas al-Dulaimi had just reopened his restaurant, the Coral Beach. "I'm glad Saddam is gone, but I'm not happy. There's no business," he said.

"Iraqis are too depressed, too afraid to go out at night, too poor to afford it."

He brightened up when asked whether the bottles the barman was placing on shelves contained real liquor, which Saddam had banned. It was real, al-Dulaimi said. The trouble was, none of his staff knew how to mix cocktails.

Across the street, Omar Seif el-Din, proprietor of the Al-Reef restaurant, seemed similarly despondent. The Italian eatery, with its red tablecloths and chewy pizza, was empty.

He recognized me from 2001, reminded me how the place used to be packed until after midnight. "I used to go home at 4 a.m., my pockets stuffed with money, without any fear of being attacked."

Nowadays, he serves last orders at 9:30 p.m. "I have to worry about my staff getting home, about the meat rotting in the refrigerators, about clearing the sewage," he said.

"Life is not beautiful these days."

Widad al-Orfali's art gallery used to be a cultural haven in Saddam's time. Shortly after Baghdad fell, members of the Iraqi National Congress returning from exile occupied the gallery, and al-Orfali was at home, her living room walls covered in paintings she had salvaged from the gallery.

"I am sad," she said. "I cannot live without my gallery."

Its occupiers have promised to vacate it soon, but Al-Orfali said she would be afraid to reopen it as long as Baghdad was unsafe.

I had last seen her on New Year's Eve. She was bent over a notebook in her gallery, composing lyrics to a love song for a young Iraqi singer she had discovered, unfazed by the approach of war.

"I don't wait for death. Let death wait for me," she said then, 74 years old and bubbling with life and optimism.

Now she could barely crack a smile. She moved slowly and spoke bleakly of the future. Like several of the people I met before the war, she had a dull, dazed look.

Al-Ghazali, the violinist, was the most optimistic among the Iraqis I revisited, though cautiously so.

The orchestra has given a concert, its first since Saddam's ouster, and was able for the first time ever to announce the event with a color poster.

"There could be some hope now," said al-Ghazali, a 35-year-old man with black eyes and black hair flecked with white.

Shortly before the war a Norwegian aid group had donated instruments to the music school where he and his wife teach.

He still recalls with anger how he and his colleagues watched helplessly as thieves carted away new violins, flutes, music stands, and bows, and claiming them as an entitlement for having lost relatives to Saddam's brutality.

When he tried to reason with the looters, "they would look at me and say, `your dad is not a martyr. This is none of your business."' The Norwegian group has promised to help re-equip the school.

For 35 years, Iraqis had to constantly extol Saddam, sing his praises, attend his demonstrations. The most innocuous remark could become a death sentence. Parents had to be careful what they said in front of their children, lest they repeated the indiscretion at school.

Al-Ghazali said he and his wife Suhair, a flutist, sometimes forget that those days are over.

"I still find it strange," he said. "At times, we find ourselves whispering when we want to talk about Saddam."

His dream now is to set up a children's music school, one that would compose and teach children's songs — not the Saddam-extolling kind that were mandatory during the dictatorship.

"Those are things I couldn't tell you in the past," said al-Ghazali. "We were like a tightly covered pot which no one knew what it contained. Now that the cover has been removed, you can't imagine what you will discover."

By Donna Abu-Nasr

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