ROVING The 'dirty thieves' of Sadr
City By Pepe Escobar
BAGHDAD - This was once the pinnacle of
world culture. Al-Mustansariya University is older
than the Sorbonne. During Saddam Hussein's time,
even with United Nations sanctions, it was still
churning out the best and the brightest in Iraq.
Sons of wealthy families in Lebanon, Jordan, the
Emirates and North Africa were still being sent by
their parents to study in Mustansariya. Its
reputation was sterling all over the Arab world.
Today, young teachers at al-Mustansariya -
who insist on
remaining anonymous, for their
own protection - paint a bleak picture of
It all started back in 2003.
Most of the professors who received their PhD or master's
degree abroad went back to Western Europe or the United
States. The few who remain have just finished
their higher education. "During Saddam they were
all forced to enroll in the Ba'ath Party. That was
the only way to get a job," says a teacher.
"Almost all of them were in high positions."
Immediately after the invasion and the beginning
of the occupation, many left for Syria or Yemen.
Then came the purges. The director of the
university's education department was killed in
2003, as well as the heads of the departments of
psychology and literature. Sons of teachers were
also killed - after their parents were fired.
Almost all of the law professors at the University
of Baghdad were also killed. The University of
Baghdad, in the Jadriya district and not related
to al-Mustansariya, is attended by a much higher
percentage of Sunni Arab and Kurdish students.
Courses, anyway, remain on schedule.
"But it's only theory, not practice; there is no
budget for it in sciences," says a teacher. Classes
run from 8 to 11:30am and then from noon to 3pm.
At 4pm everything is closed. Students still wear the
traditional white-and-gray uniform. In many cases
they attend classes only once a week.
the teachers never confront them," says a
professor. After final examinations, everyone is
approved. There are countless cases of students
threatening teachers with a "bullet" message - a
bullet wrapped in a piece of paper - in case they
fail their exams. Copying during exams is
commonplace. "The students can do anything they
want," says a professor.
many want is to finish their courses and leave
Iraq as soon as possible. The refugee demand in
neighboring Syria for access to Western European
countries, for instance, is enormous, and chances
are boosted with a higher-education diploma.
Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army controls
all the security arrangements at
al-Mustansariya. Photos of Muqtada are ubiquitous. There are
a number of well-educated Mehdi Army students -
in literature and education. "But not many in
the faculty of sciences," comments a teacher.
The majority of students nowadays come from
Sadr City, Talbiya (an annex to Sadr City), New
Baghdad and Palestine Street - all Shi'ite areas.
Not surprisingly, 90% of
the students are Shi'ite, only 10% Sunni. A
psychology teacher says she is not allowed to discuss hot
political and social issues. She is allowed,
though, "to prevent disputes among students".
There has been an express order by Muqtada al-Sadr
that no Sunni professors should be executed,
presumably by rogue Mehdi Army elements; in fact,
they should be protected.
There is a
bus station and a special entrance at the
university for teachers, who carry special
identification, and a parking lot for the students. Everyone
is searched at the entrance, but not
thoroughly. Mobile telephones with cameras are okay -
even though "all the bombings in this area
are coordinated by mobile phone", according to a teacher.
A simple monument at the entrance of
the university commemorates the victims - mostly girls
- of the horrific January bombing that killed
107 and wounded more than 280. Now female students
attend classes twice a week at the
most. The university still receives threats via
the Internet from Salafi-jihadists to "stop
education". Snipers routinely shoot university
guards. This is considered by Salafi-jihadists a
"Shi'ite university" - thus a prime target.
Whatever happens politically in Iraq, most
of Sunni Baghdad - and even secular, educated
Shi'ites - still fear Sadr City. It is undeniably
a class-struggle issue. This is manifest in the
extremely derogative expression chroqui
(loosely translatable as "bad person") applied
to people from Sadr City. Or even worse:
meedi (meaning "low class who used to live
Wealthy Baghdadis refer to
most Shi'ites who come from southern Iraq - and
settle in the teeming suburbs - as "dirty
thieves". It would take a lot of Freudian and
Jungian insight to analyze Sadr City's inferiority
complex. Sunni taxi drivers, just as in Saddam's
time, still refuse to take passengers to Sadr City
("it's full of kidnappers").
at al-Mustansariya are almost over. Soon there will
be a graduation ball - inside the university
compound, of course. Most of the graduates will be
the "dirty thieves" of Sadr City. Democratization
of culture or degree zero of culture? Call it the
revenge of the excluded: the Mehdi Army is on a
roll - sprinkled with university diplomas.