NEAR THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER - Sheik Wallay Rakan draws no lines in time, no measurements in months or days. His life moves in seasons. The signposts that mark his road are the births of his children, the loss of his camels, the death of his eldest son.
So he can't tell the exact year when the black days began. But when he had to sell his last, favorite camel, Aliyan, he knew he was losing his grip on survival.
He sits cross-legged, his back ramrod straight, under the roof of chaotically stitched sacks that line his low, black-wool Bedouin tent. His face is chiseled, proud, impassive. His eyes are as black and mournful as the story he tells.
His son brings a tin bowl of tart sheep's milk, and he watches sharply as a guest receives his hospitality, then smiles with approval when a compliment is offered. Before the day is out, he will be offering to slaughter a sheep for the stranger under his roof.
Rambling through the desert, singing to the sky, playing games with stones to pass the time, Bedouin nomads in southern Iraq seemingly posed scant threat to Saddam Hussein. Yet even they were caught up in his regime's tentacles, which curbed their freedom and hastened the decline of their ancient way of life. Their experience illuminates just how thoroughly the Hussein regime dominated the lives of ordinary Iraqis, even those far from the world of cities and politics.
Out in the flat desert sands, Bedouins such as Rakan, 61, and his friend Shaty Bassat tried to avoid officialdom, shunning the documents and pieces of paper that inundate a city dweller. They were not interested in a regulated life or the man called Saddam Hussein.
But officialdom was interested in them. And even out in the sandy plains, there was no way to escape the regime, which reached everything, like fine dust blasted by the wind into every crevice.
Hussein's regime banned them from wandering freely across the border to relatives in Kuwait. Their teen-age sons were conscripted for the army, where those who deserted were often caught and executed. In a final blow, Hussein diverted the rivers running south to block water to resistance forces. That was catastrophic for the Bedouins, whose source of life dried up.
"I don't care for governments or politics," says Bassat, whose family of six usually travels close to Rakan's. "It's not my business. All I did was I took my animals and my family and traveled from place to place.
"In my father's time there was no Saddam," he says through an interpreter. "You could go wherever you wanted and stay wherever you wanted. It was a beautiful life."
They call that time "before." The precise years are hazy, but one of the main dividing lines between "before" and the current desolation was 1991, when the government cut the water supplies to areas of southeastern Iraq to punish rebel factions.
Rakan says he had to sell his three camels after that because he could not find feed for them in the desert. He also sold his horse and all but two of his 15 donkeys. He has 30 sheep left, a fraction of what he once owned.
"Aliyan was my friend," he says, with a fond smile for his favorite camel, who he suspects was turned over to butchers after he sold it. "He was very smart. I'd put the water on his back, and he'd find his own way home.
"I kept Aliyan to the end; then I had to sell him. When I started to lose my animals, it was a huge loss for me, because it is my life."
Life was always tough, but now, they say, it's becoming impossible. They cling to a precarious existence - camping for a few weeks at a time at one place or another, usually near a highway or settlement where they can get water.
Under Hussein, they became dependent on food rations. With the rations gone, the families are selling off their remaining livestock to buy food - typically bread, sugary tea and homemade sheep's yogurt. Sometimes they have rice or lentils.
A grown sheep fetches the equivalent of $100. They used to sell only the lambs, to keep the size of their flocks stable. But the flocks of both men have gradually shrunk, and in time they could lose all their animals, and their only means of income.
"Of course, we love our animals, but what can we do, if there's not enough food for them and not enough water?" Rakan says.
At 54, Bassat appears much older, with a hacking cough. He passes his time sitting, smoking, worrying about survival.
As a young man, shepherding his sheep, Bassat wafted dreamily through the hours. Neither Rakan, Bassat nor their children went to school.
"I'd call my sheep with a special call," Bassat says. "I'd drive my camels and take all the animals, the cows, the sheep and horses and donkeys, all together into the big desert until early evening.
"I used to sing to myself alone. Nothing bothered me. I did not have to think about the future. I was just singing and playing with stones or something."
Magic that was spring