Under Saddam's regime, only the party faithful could dream of a career, and to dream of anything else could cost you your life. Now top Iraqi academics tell Olga Wojtas of a new sense of hope
This may sound like a bad joke, says the vice-president of Baghdad University, but it is a true story. During Saddam Hussein's regime, an Iraqi soldier dreamt he was the country's president. The next morning, he told his comrades about it. They reported him to the authorities on the grounds that this could indicate he was plotting to depose Saddam. He was immediately arrested and executed.
"They executed him for a dream," says Hatim Attiya Al-Rubayi, one of 12 senior Iraqi staff who have just completed a three-week training programme at Birmingham University. Most academics who opposed the regime were too afraid of being denounced to speak out, and saw others lose their lives, he says. Many fled the country, but Ahmad Al-Zubaidi, dean of Baghdad University's College of Agriculture, had three daughters and it was difficult to take them out of Iraq.
He jokes that their social life got very boring, with everyone staying home, afraid to have contact with others in case they were denounced. But even home life was fraught with danger. Teachers interrogated pupils to find out what their parents were saying privately, and a report that a parent had criticised Saddam could mean death. Al-Zubaidi and his wife were never critical of the leader in front of their children.
Al-Zubaidi joined his college in 1966, two years before the Baath party coup. Initially, he says, there seemed to be improvements, with the party promising a better life. The big downturn came in 1979, when Saddam, then vice-president, forced president Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr to resign and stepped into his role. "After the wars with Iran and Kuwait, the situation got worse," Al-Zubaidi says. "Most of Iraq's money went on weapons, troops and Saddam Hussein's palaces, so the portion of money coming to the universities was peanuts. We couldn't buy any books, we couldn't import any journals. There was isolation and neglect."
"You can't imagine our salary at the time. We were getting about five or six dollars a month," Al-Rubayi says.
Academic salaries are now about $500 a month, which he says is "reasonable" given the cost of living. Saddam saw higher education as a key seat of opposition and was determined to impose Baath influence. The humanities suffered most in terms of a reformed curriculum, but even science couldn't escape "national culture" courses, covering the history and philosophy of Saddam and his party. "It didn't reflect the actual history of Iraq. It was feeding the students with false information," Al-Zubaidi says. The current de-Baathification of the universities includes replacing these courses with computer studies and English language.
Another feature of academic life under Saddam was the immense political and financial pressure on those who didn't emigrate or leave higher education to join the Baath party. Al-Zubaidi was determined not to join, despite being threatened with the loss of his job. "I had some excuses. For example, 'I'm old' and 'I'm ill'," he laughs.
"Diplomatic excuses," adds Al-Rubayi, whose nomination to sit on a prestigious scientific committee was ignored because of his lack of party membership. As a matter of course, non-party members would be overtaken in post and salary by party members, Al-Rubayi says.
"Universities should be independent. During that time, I published more than 45 papers and wrote three books." Others, he says, who displayed little academic talent but were faithful to the party, moved effortlessly up the career ladder.
However, the tables have now started to turn. Al-Rubayi and Al-Zubaidi have since been elected by colleagues to senior posts. "It is an honour for us," Al-Zubaidi says.
Many hundreds of high-ranking party members have been fired from the universities as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority's de-Baathification policy, but Al-Zubaidi and Al-Rubayi believe that sacking may be too extreme. "We don't like to do the same as they did," Al-Zubaidi says.
In the past, party members were given preferential treatment when applying for postgraduate study, winning places in preference to students with higher marks. One of the first post-Saddam changes to higher education was to establish a merit-based system, Al-Rubayi says. Although this has motivated students to study, there is still an urgent need to improve the higher education system in general - something that hinges on external expertise, Al-Rubayi says.
Mohamed Al-Rubeai, an engineering professor at Birmingham, is coordinator of the training course for Iraqi academics, a joint initiative between the university and the British Council. He says: "Iraqi academics have been cut off from the world of international higher education for more than 20 years. Most have never visited world-class research laboratories or been exposed to modern management techniques."
There has been internet access for only two or three months, Al-Rubayi says. Previously, it was forbidden in case it was used for subversive purposes. But links with the outside world are crucial for retraining.
"This is why this visit is very important for us and for others," he says, adding that more than 300 people on his staff have gone abroad during the past three months.
The academics say patience and an underlying optimism kept them going through the years of oppression, and this now appears to be carrying them through the current problems and uncertainties. The destruction on campuses from looting and fires has been well documented, but Al-Rubayi insists that many looters tried to restore what they had taken after being told that the universities belonged to the people, not Saddam. Local people have made donations to help rebuild the campuses, and students are working tirelessly to repair and clean laboratories.
There are widespread fears that Iraq could fall prey to pressure from conservative religious groups, but Al-Rubayi says university representatives have met with many religious leaders who support the idea of democratic rule. "They talk with the students and tell them, 'You should respect your teacher as a father'," he says. There has been criticism of the lack of practical support from the CPA for the universities. Al-Zubaidi and Al-Rubayi will only note their "surprise" that ten months after the war, the electricity and water supplies remain unpredictable. "If you talk with the people, most are very happy," Al-Rubayi says. "Before the war, a teacher was getting five or six dollars a month and now he is getting $150.
He starts to eat meat and buy vegetables and so on."
And despite the West's failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Al-Rubayi says: "It released Iraq from a bad dictatorship. This is the main message. Now we have freedom. Please underline this."