Los Angeles Times

Saturday July 26, 2003

A Destiny With Dates
* Iraq’s economy was long intertwined with the fruit of the palm tree, and its crop was the envy of the world. But then came Hussein.

By Terry McDermott, Times Staff Writer

ABU AL KHASIB, Iraq — In the basin of the Shatt al Arab waterway, it’s 90 degrees at dawn and rising. They call these midsummer weeks in southern Iraq the palm oven days because it’s in the intense heat of July that the sweetness of autumn is made — the dates cook, the sugars burn and the flavor cures.Kamal Ayoob Khaleel, one man alone against an orchard of a couple of hundred trees, has this day begun the year’s date palm harvest, the first of the post-Saddam Hussein era.Hussein’s rule was so complete even the dates felt his wrath.In good times, the date harvest was eagerly awaited throughout the Middle East, and the arrival of the first dates, like the arrival of the first Beaujolais, was a time of high excitement. But like so much else in Iraqi life, the business of dates was fundamentally altered for the worse during Hussein’s rule. The president, not always satisfied with merely executing or exiling his perceived enemies, also on occasion attacked their livelihoods. As part of his continuing feud with the Shiite Muslims who populate much of southern Iraq, where the main date harvest occurs, Hussein attacked the trees.

Iraqis like to say, with irony but no evident anger, that Hussein executed trees. In addition to simply chopping them down, he drained the swamps that gave them water. Drought further reduced the water supply and raised the salinity of what was left — a double disaster.

Of the 9 million trees in Basra province, 6 million were destroyed. Overall, the country lost half its 30 million trees in 20 years. What had been the largest date industry in the world — so esteemed that its varieties were planted as far away as California’s Coachella Valley — declined in economic importance, making the trees less valuable and then, deepening the cycle of decline, less cared for.

The entirety of the country’s most valuable agricultural inheritance was at risk, said Dr. Abbas Jasim, director of the Date Palm Research Center at the University of Basra. Jasim did his postgraduate work at Kansas State University and saw there the effort by agronomists to preserve the genetic endowment of different crops by building tissue libraries. When he returned to Iraq in the early 1990s, he began creating such a library for palms. Because there are hundreds of varieties (including some so prized and expensive that most Iraqis have never tasted them), it was not an easy undertaking.

When Jasim eventually finished the library, he had samples of every palm native to Iraq growing in his lab. His timing was good. International sanctions had wrecked much of the country’s economy, and people were returning to the date orchards. They needed new stocks for replanting, and he provided them. The lab attracted new students, and the industry seemed set to rebound.

Then came the latest war.

The rampage that followed the fall of the Hussein government engulfed the university. The palm lab was no exception.

“Just destruction for the sake of destruction,” Jasim said.

Looters stole everything — office furniture, air conditioners, even the autoclaves used in growing cell cultures. They dumped chemicals on the floor, smashed thousands of test tubes.

The theft of the air conditioners was the fatal blow. Once the temperature climbed above 90 degrees in the lab, everything that wasn’t stolen or broken died. Not a single tissue culture survived.


Khaleel, the date farmer, has more immediate concerns than the date palm genetic database. The capriciousness of farm life is evident on the ground at the base of his trees, where the remains of a field of okra sit gray and shrunken. There hasn’t been enough water to irrigate, and what little there is is so salty it actually killed some of the plants.

Khaleel, 40, was one of many people who came back to the date orchards as a sort of economic refugee, hoping to raise enough food to feed and clothe his family. He doesn’t own any land, instead leasing his plots for a percentage of the harvest.

Most of his fruit is not yet ready for market, but it’s worth finding that which is, because the early fruit gets five times the price of the later harvest. The fruit is given different names as it ages: khalal, rutab, tamr. It’s edible at all stages; it’s just not a date until the end.

The date has a place at the center of its native culture that has been achieved by few other foods — rice in Japan, perhaps, or tortillas in Mexico. Its praises have been sung over the millenniums, beginning with the Assyrians 5,000 years ago. It is mentioned more often in the Koran — 29 times — than many of the prophets. The dates became and remain the preferred food to end the daily fasts of Ramadan. Arab women eat them during pregnancy for nutrition and during labor for relief.

Mary ate dates to relieve the pain of giving birth to Jesus. According to the Koran’s account, the tree was so beneficent that she didn’t even have to pick the fruit. “Shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm tree,” she was told. “It will let fall fresh, ripe dates upon thee.”

In real life, it’s not that easy.

Many of the trees are 100 feet tall, and shaking them appears to have little effect, which explains why Khaleel is at the moment higher than some birds. He’s parked 60 feet up in a metal rope and fabric sling, an air chair, in which he sits at a nearly perfect 45-degree angle from the trunk of the tree. He makes no evident effort to stay seated; gravity and the angle and weight of his body against the sling are all he needs to be secured. He might as well be sitting on a porch swing.

A tree can produce as much as a ton of fruit a year. The dates hang in as many as 20 large bunches, hundreds of dates per bunch. Although the trees fruit only once a season, the harvest lasts for months as the fruit ripens at varying speeds depending on where it is in the bunch. The center of the bunch, where it’s warmest and most humid, ripens first, so the dates must be picked from the inside out.

They’re not actually picked, but twisted off so as not to disturb the branch and the fruit left behind. Just touching the fruit leaves a trace of acid and a slight blemish. So the prey must be approached carefully, reaching into the middle of the bunch, touching nothing but the target dates.

The picker must come straight in; if he sweeps in from the side he risks the knife-sharp points of the palm fronds. Every approach is a chance for multiple stab wounds. A cat burglar couldn’t be more careful.

The soft, angled light of early morning hasn’t lasted long, turning hard in a hurry. It punishes, and by 9 a.m. it will be too hot to do much more than breathe. Khaleel will break, tend to other chores, then return in the evening.

He is barefoot and unhurried. He slides up and down the tree by easing his weight away from the sling and walking on the rough bark. He has a cloth satchel looped around his neck, resting on his stomach. He picks and deposits into the sack, then dumps the results on the ground. A boy from the market will come by and collect it at day’s end.

The war did some damage to the palms, but compared with the rest of the country it was slight. Just down the road, Mohammed Jasin Khaleel, owner of a large date orchard, points to where his trees got trimmed by machine-gun fire in a fight on the nearby road. Some unexploded ordnance was left in the deep grass.

There are other problems. Even when water is available, Khaleel, who is not related to the date farmer, needs electricity to drive the pumps to irrigate his trees. Power isn’t always available off the grid. He has a generator to fill in the gaps, but fuel for it is sometimes hard to come by.

Mohammed Khaleel no longer climbs the trees himself. He has retired to management, and from the look of him, this occurred more than a few years ago.

He has a crew of students and ex-students who’ve been picking for him for most of a decade. Pick today, take tests at the university — or what’s left of it — tomorrow, they said. Workers must pick two boxes of fruit a day to earn their wages. There is a casualness to the whole enterprise. No rush or pressure.

Mazin Abbou, one of the students, is only 15 years old and already is in his fourth year in the palms. “As soon as you get used to it, it’s easy,” he said. Shoeless, capless, lithe and tousled, he hasn’t learned yet that this is work and wants to climb the tallest trees, which he does in a scamper.

Up in another tree sits an old man, grayed and scrawny and slightly unkempt. He’s a pensioner who has come out to harvest because he likes it. He waves and smiles from his perch.

Go virtually anywhere in Iraq today, and people can be seen milling about. These aren’t vagrants, but often anxious middle-class wage earners. They’re waiting, wondering what to do and when they can do it. There’s a group of people like that at Abbas Jasim’s lab in Basra — fellow professors, lab technicians and students, several of whom lost all the work for their dissertations when the place was ransacked.

The lab is full of broken glass and ancient office furniture that has been scrounged to replace what was stolen. The loss of the facility will hurt the Iraqi date industry more in the long term than the short, in the loss of its science more than its trees. With or without the lab, trees planted now will take on average a decade to reach maturity.

Jasim said he would try to find the money to rebuild not just the lab but also the large part of his life that went with it. It will take time. He met recently with Americans who control the money for Iraq’s reconstruction. He said he couldn’t tell where dates fell on their priority list, but he hadn’t heard back. He’s waiting.

Outside, even the trees lining the drive to the research center have been taken. These went later, long after the looting.

People have gone scavenging for wood because liquefied petroleum gas, with which they cook, is in short supply after saboteurs damaged the refineries.

Every single tree on the road has been reduced to a stump, yet another of the war’s still widening ripples.








Monday July 07, 2003



Los Angeles Times

The World
Fixing a Ringing Failure
* The man in charge of reviving Iraq’s ravaged phone system applies the resourcefulness he honed at his Internet start-up.
By Terry McDermott, Times Staff Writer
BAGHDAD — Everything is broken. The capital, with its tangles of razor wire, tank traps and the occasional roadside husk of a burned-out Oldsmobile, has a kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max quality to it.Trash floats down sidewalks on a dust-dry southern wind, and almost nothing seems to work the way it should. Traffic, the most visible malady in a city of many, has come completely unhinged. There appears to be a lone traffic signal functioning in all of Baghdad, and everyone, accustomed by now to the absence of traffic controls, ignores it; cars go every which way. Four-lane roads might have vehicles going in five different directions. Even freeway entrances and exits have become two-way roads.In this dim picture, there are the rarest rays of optimism. At some of the worst intersections, volunteer traffic directors show up out of nowhere to keep things crawling.Then there’s the scene at a little strip mall on 28th of April Boulevard, just down from Sinak Bridge. The mall itself is a drab, brown, stucco building differentiated from the million or so other drab, brown, stucco buildings in the city only by the massive twin-columned water tower in the middle of its small plaza. There’s a beauty parlor, a wedding planner, the Maruma Coofe Shoop and the Sahraya CD store blasting “choobi” dance music over the plaza, where dozens of people loiter in the shade of the water tower, smoking Viceroys and Marlboro Lights.

Every once in a while, the people — like flocks of pigeons readying for flight — flap to attention as a medium-sized middle-aged man comes roaring through, trailed by half a dozen others with notepads and clipboards. Shakir Abdulla, who was trained as an atmospheric physicist, creates his own weather as he rolls by.

At rest, Abdulla is an uninspiring sight. He has graying hair, a graying mustache and plain steel-rimmed spectacles. He typically wears gray slacks and subdued, checked shirts, untucked, behind which is a physique that testifies to a desk-bound past.

A couple of things do stand out: He is seldom without his worry beads, which he works at warp speed, and he carries a little cell phone the size of a cigarette lighter.

Beyond the phone’s elegance, the fact that it actually works — this in a country that two months ago didn’t have a single working cell phone — testifies to his importance.


The Man in Charge

Two weeks ago, the Americans who are now running Iraq put Abdulla in charge of Iraq’s entire telecommunications infrastructure — all telephone, Internet and cellular communications. The people in the plaza are his employees.

They have jobs, salaries and an eagerness to go to work. What they don’t have at the moment is a place to work. Or even sit. They come to the mall because that’s where Abdulla set up shop when the Telecommunications Ministry building was decommissioned by the war.

Its employees have scattered throughout Baghdad. Some are working in a train station, others a technical institute and the few who can squeeze in, here at the mall.

Abdulla himself takes meetings all over — sitting at a small table upstairs in the old auditorium of the Iraqi Social Club, standing in a tiny office down the hall, walking through the plaza.

Before the war, the government ran all Internet service in the country. Abdulla was in charge of it, and most of the people in the mall plaza are among about 250 people who worked for him before the war. Iraq’s Internet service was a satellite-based system, and its main land station, atop the Telecommunications Ministry, was taken out in the first days of the war. Two backup stations were also damaged.

That wasn’t the worst of it. In the prolonged looting spree that followed the war, Abdulla estimates, $10 million worth of his telecommunications gear was lost.

“We managed to save some equipment by asking employees to take it home with them,” he said. “Everything that wasn’t secured was stolen.”

Abdulla’s people scavenged enough parts from the three wounded land stations to hack together one functioning unit, and last week Internet access was made available again throughout Iraq. They’ve restarted three of the 60-odd prewar Internet cafes.

Abdulla has also thrown open the access business, inviting private competitors to use his rebuilt infrastructure. Unfortunately, for most people, Internet access, public or private, depends on the telephone, and the country’s phone system is in even worse shape than the Internet system. For months, no one has seemed able to do anything about it.

“There are people who can work like this,” he said, implying that there are many who can’t make small miracles happen without the requisite infrastructure.

Because he is one of those who can, Abdulla went from running what was in effect an Internet start-up to trying to start up a whole sector of the government.

The Internet company’s prewar income finances its services now. United States authorities are funding the rest of the ministry, largely through Iraqi oil revenue.

Almost half of the country’s land-line phones aren’t working, Abdulla said. Most of those that are working are limited to local calls.


Billing System Collapsed

Some exchanges can receive international calls, but almost no one can make them because the billing system has collapsed. In Baghdad, the seat of government and the commercial center, people in many neighborhoods can’t even call next door.

It’s hard to appreciate the effect the loss of telephone service can have in a more or less modern metropolis. Getting even simple things accomplished can involve an arduous and endless round of cross-town commutes. This adds up to a tremendous waste of time and — even in a country where gasoline costs a mere 40 cents a gallon — money. The Iraqi economy, after a 35-year experiment in rigid state control, needs no help being inefficient.

So far, there has been little in the way of actual equipment delivered by the American overseers, Abdulla said.

“They are very cooperative, very nice people, but we didn’t get any hard things from them,” he said.

Repairing the telephone exchanges and building a new cellular system are, theoretically, not daunting tasks. The bombed-out exchanges can be worked around, and a skeletal wireless system is being installed.

“It is not only a technical problem,” Abdulla said. “Technically, it’s not very difficult. The difficulty is to have security. This is the most important issue.”

As in much of the country, the level of security fluctuates dramatically. Recently, a telecom employee was shot and killed in downtown Baghdad.

“The level of security in this case was zero,” Abdulla said dryly.

Physical security of equipment is also critical. Because the Iraqi electrical power grid is in even worse condition than the telephone grid, most phone exchanges are powered by on-site generators. Several have been stolen, Abdulla said.

Last week, a pair of telecommunications employees were discovered to be stealing and selling telephone cables at exorbitant rates. They are also accused of tapping into dozens of conversations and blackmailing people with the information they learned.

Like many Iraqis, Abdulla cannot understand how the governing U.S.-led occupation authority has allowed things to crumble so utterly.

“The coalition has a responsibility to create security. They created the situation that eliminated it,” he said. “They must replace it.”

An equal challenge is getting the rest of the bureaucracy up to his speed.

“As an Internet company, we have been working very well, but as a ministry….” His voice trails off and his eyebrows lift, admitting a degree of exasperation. He had earlier referred some questions to a deputy director, a man who used to be one of his bosses. He said: “You did not find him, right? Neither can I.”

The oddity of the situation is further emphasized by the respective working conditions of Abdulla and his top subordinates.

Abdulla, the boss, is here in his strip mall, where anyone could walk up and talk to him. The subordinates work — when they do — in the newly reconstituted, heavily guarded, barbed-wired, watchtowered, sandbagged ministry headquarters, where U.S. Army guards prohibit entry to anyone without a badge.

Abdulla is a 35-year civil servant, and he takes the habits of his colleagues in stride.

Faced with a severe shortage of space, Abdulla set up a rotation in which the men would come to work two days a week and the women one. Instead, many of the employees come every day and do their work, like Abdulla, standing up.

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