Engulfed in a tyrant's wake

August 22, 1997

Salaries of 50p a month, teaching computers without the hardware, books costing more than a month's pay and a ban on the import of pencils. Welcome to higher education in Iraq. Christine Aziz reports from Baghdad on academic life since the imposition of United Nations sanctions seven years ago

The assistant dean of the arts faculty at Baghdad University shifts uneasily in his chair. Favil Al-Sheikli has to choose his words carefully when talking to western visitors. A government minder, Samir, sits in on the interview, and Mr Al-Sheikli has his own too - a man in a threadbare brown suit who is introduced as a lecturer. Samir, who acquired his excellent English at the faculty, gets bored with the conversation and goes outside for a cigarette. The brown suit stays, silent and superfluous.

Mr Al-Sheikli's opening comments are predictable. "We have hardly anything, only a few out-of-date textbooks. Nothing. Our problem is communicating with the outside world and the availability of data."

Everywhere in Baghdad it is the same story. Hospitals lack medicines and equipment, people lack food and basic amenities, government offices manage on what they can. Seven years of sanctions have forced inflation up by several thousand per cent, with a 370-fold increase in food prices, and has eroded teachers' salaries to the equivalent of 50p a month from approximately Pounds 600. Iraq's education system, once considered one of the best in the Middle East and free to all, has become yet another casualty of the region's complex politics.

It is seven years since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, precipitating the Gulf war and the country's defeat by the United States and its allies, including Britain. Sanctions were imposed by the United Nations Security Council freezing both trade with Iraq and the country's overseas assets.

The aim was to pressurise Saddam into dismantling his chemical and biological weapons (it was believed he had enough to kill the world's population four times over) and his nuclear arsenal. Iraq was also urged to recognise Kuwait's sovereignty and to improve its abysmal human rights record. In l994, the UN stated that Iraq's chemical stockpile had been eliminated and that Saddam had agreed to recognise Kuwait.

But reports by the UN and Amnesty International have highlighted Saddam's mass killings, disappearances, widespread torture, judicial amputation and branding, and the repression of Kurds, Marsh Arabs and other ethnic groups.

In December 1996 Iraq was finally allowed to sell $2 billion-worth of oil to be paid into a special UN account. Of this amount $700,000 was allocated to Kuwait for compensation and the remainder reserved for food and essential medicines. But $7 million dollars is to be spent on education. The faculty of arts will see little of it - the bulk is to be spent on primary education and basics such as textbooks, stationery and pencils.

"The ministry of education wanted to import pencils but the UN sanctions committee in Geneva said pencils were included in the sanctions list of forbidden goods since graphite could be used for military purposes," Mr Al-Sheikli said.

The absurdity is not lost on Abdul Latif Al-Jumaily, a linguist who heads the English department and is a graduate of Edinburgh University. "I didn't know you could make bombs out of pencils," he says. Even the minder laughs.

Dr Al-Jumaily has been called in because of his command of English. He is delighted at the opportunity. "I haven't spoken English to a mother-tongue speaker since the British Council was closed down. We are losing our fluency. We are so cut off here. A language is a living thing and you have to keep pace with it. We can't do that any more here. Tell me, what are the new expressions that people are using these days?" Dr Al-Jumaily's love of the English language reflects the obvious fondness many Iraqis have for Britain. There were 5,000 Iraqi students in Britain during the 1980s. It was always preferred to the United States for higher education. "Like everyone else, the British stopped giving visas to Iraqis after the Gulf war. It was over," Dr Al-Jumaily says. He once worked for the ministry of education as a curriculum designer and textbook writer, but his first love is linguistics, which he teaches at postgraduate level.

The last books he acquired while on a trip to Lancaster in l988 are guarded in a locked cabinet.

"We are reading the same books over and again. It is like being in a windowless room for such a long time. There is no light. The speed of research is incredible in linguistics and we don't have recent research. For seven years we have been doing the same thing with available books."

Apart from the UN sanctions there are also "sanctions" applied by the government. Any computers in Iraq tend to be out of date and generally confined to government departments. Modems are forbidden - foreign journalists have theirs confiscated at the border.

"We teach our students computer language, but we have no computer system. Some of us have PCs from before the war, but don't have the facilities for the Internet," Dr Al-Jumaily says.

Typewriters can be acquired only under a special government licence. The media is heavily censored; television is restricted to two channels run by Saddam's son, Uday, who also oversees what remains of the printed press.

The faculty is quiet because of a religious holiday. Some of its 200 professors are still at their desks, but most of its 5,000 students are away. But Dunya Abdul Khaliq, 24, a masters student of linguistics, is in the library hoping to find new information. "I need case studies by researchers on relative clauses. I cannot carry on without them but cannot find them." She is one of the few students able to attend university without having to take on another job, such as translating for government departments or secretarial work. Her parents are part of a growing number of people who have profited from the sanctions by selling on to the very rich what the impoverished middle classes can no longer afford to keep.

There is now little available in an education system that is free, so extra books have to be bought privately, but for most people books that now cost more than a teacher's monthly salary have made further education a luxury.

"We have lots of students suspending education because life is so difficult for them. They need extra books, clothing, medication, food and, with long hours of study, it is difficult for them. Before sanctions we had 1,500 students in the English department. Now we have 750 - more than 600 are women," Dr Al-Jumaily says, swinging his blue prayer beads as we walk along high airy corridors to visit the four now-defunct English language laboratories.

"We can't get the spare parts," he says, moving to the library, where half the borrowed books have not been returned and the rest are out of date. "Books were always returned before, but they've become so precious that people hang on to them."

As Dr Al-Jumaily shuts the door on the library, one senses a growing intellectual isolation that comes with a belief that he, his colleagues and his students have been abandoned by the international academic community.

"It's terrible. I supervise about eight postgraduates and we feverishly write to every scholar in the world who is specialised. Very few respond," he says. "Some are kind enough to do so. An American scholar tried to send his publication twice from the US, but it was returned by post each time. Then he went to a conference in Hong Kong and sent it from there and it arrived. But that doesn't happen often."

In Iraq, education has always had a high priority. Before the University of Baghdad opened in l957, there were many independent colleges. The arts faculty started evening classes two years ago to meet the needs of those unable to study full time because of the pressures of the embargo. "We had thousands of applications, but could choose only 500," Dr Al-Jumaily says, adding that a few private higher education establishments have sprung up in the past six years, financed by local merchants and attracting children of wealthier parents.

"They feel they are not getting the chances in government-run colleges. The government doesn't have the money and in the face of a population that is nearly starving and sick, the priority is food and health," Dr Al-Jumaily explains.

Many Iraqis speak both fondly and sadly of their holidays or studies in Europe, the US and especially in Britain. "How much is a pint of beer these days?" was the most frequently asked question.

It seemed an obscenity quoting an amount of money that could probably feed a family for a week. But what is also shaming is the apparent speed with which academics worldwide have conformed to the political arm-wrestling that has followed the Gulf war and worked with Saddam to shut men such as Dr Al-Jumaily in a room without light.

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