An oasis of joy in Baghdad

Fun: In a city looted of its amusements, a few lucky children find happiness in the reopening of a swimming pool.

Postwar Iraq

April 26, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Frivolity came roaring back to the Masbah neighborhood yesterday. The eagerly awaited reopening of the Amana swimming pool, delayed by war and lawlessness, was finally at hand.

For one afternoon, it seemed, all of the fear, outrage and uncertainty swirling about the capital was overwhelmed by 30 splashing, squealing children.

"They are very happy, as you can see," said Ali Younus, the 24-year-old manager of the Olympic-size public pool near the Tigris River. "This is the happiest they have been since before the war."

For that matter, it might have been the happiest any group of people had looked in Baghdad for a week or more.

Laughter, like electricity and jobs, remains in short supply, and no wonder. The capital is still recovering from war and looting. Mixed in with the widespread relief and satisfaction at Saddam Hussein's ouster is a gnawing concern about Iraq's future. The fun has mostly been squeezed out.

Friday is a holiday in Iraq. It's a day for Muslims to pray at the mosque but also a time for families to stroll in gardens on the city's outskirts and ride the bumper cars at small amusement parks.

Yesterday those places were all closed. The zoo, for example, was out of the question. Looters raided it earlier this month, stealing animals and even trying to yank one poor camel over the fence by a rope. Ditto the racetrack: Its thoroughbreds were kidnapped.

A search for other pockets of delight yesterday turned out to be mostly futile. Fittingly, a dust storm blew slowly into the city, turning the blue sky into an ugly, dusty haze that the sun could barely penetrate.

At the National Theater, a three-story stone edifice completed in 1981, two years after Hussein's rise to the presidency, a billboard-sized poster advertises The Foolish. It's a play-in-a-play comedy about the high jinks that result when a producer constantly meddles with the writer's words, always behind the author's back.

The show has not gone on.

"I'm sorry we have nothing to present," said Sami Qaftan, one of Iraq's most famous film and stage actors.

He and another well-known actor, Kassim al-Mallak, were reduced to the role of security guard. They sat on plastic chairs in front of the bricked-up front door, in case any straggling looters made a run on the place.

"Art elevates the mind of the people," the 61-year-old Qaftan said in his rich baritone. "It can control negative things in society."

But as much as the people could use a little entertainment now, it was far too dangerous, the men said. "They should stay at home because the situation is not safe," said the mustachioed and stern-looking al-Mallak, who doubles as the theater's manager.

The best Qaftan could do was offer a look at his personal scrapbook, filled with articles about his illustrious 40-year career. "That's me, that's me," he said, turning the pages, smiling at the older pictures, taken when his hair was still dark.

There were articles about his stage role in Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, and about his part as a warrior in the 1984 film Blazing Border, depicting the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. One page held a certificate naming him, veteran of about 40 films, best actor in Iraq for 1978.

Qaftan could not say when the curtain would rise again or what would be performed. In the knee-jerk deference to authority in evidence all over this city, he said the new minister of information, whoever that might be, would decide. The theater, after all, is owned by the government.

For now, he and al-Mallak are just glad the theater is standing. Knowing looters would swarm the city, they laid concrete bricks where the front entrance had been. In some places, sandbags were stacked several feet high. Actors worked guard duty in shifts.

The whole situation has the makings of a compelling plot, perhaps even a dark comedy. Maybe, Qaftan said, but that would be up to the Information Ministry.

The Baghdad Fun Park, near the Martyr's Monument on the city's east side, has bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster and any number of nausea-inducing rides that spin riders in tight circles. Boats can be rented on a small lake, and the concession stand usually sells hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream and a sugary confection Americans know as cotton candy but that Iraqis call "girl's hair."

The park's colorful pennants flapped in the breeze, as if beckoning children inside. "With delight for all children," said a sign in English.

But the locked gates and a line of U.S. tanks said otherwise. The tanks were apparently there to guard not the roller coaster but the monument.

Maybe the Baghdad Island tourist park on the northern outskirts would be open. It is more removed from the city, about 15 minutes from downtown Baghdad in the Rashidia section of the city. On most Fridays, it is packed with Iraqi visitors whose cars jam the parking lot.

Not yesterday.

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