Whenever he gets a spare moment away from his electronics repair shop, Abdul Karim Hadi sneaks off to what he calls the "radio shack" in the corner of his bedroom, flips a switch and escapes to the outside world.
Hadi could use the Internet or a cellphone to connect with friends near and far, but his choice is decidedly more retro.
"With ham radio, you can meet people around the world," said Hadi, 48, who has been "hamming" since 1978. "It's also a hobby you can do on your own. And once you have your own equipment, it's free."
More important, at a time when most movie theaters and nightclubs are closed because of security concerns, "hamming" is a form of entertainment that can be pursued at home.
That wasn't always the case. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, ham radio enthusiasts had to report to government-sanctioned clubs, where minders listened in on their conversations. Since the dictator's ouster, they have faced suspicion from both U.S. troops and the Iraqi government that their transmissions are a tool of the insurgency.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, fewer than 50 of 150 or so ham radio enthusiasts who operated primarily in Baghdad have returned to their stations, Hadi said. He is among a small group of people who are trying to revive interest in the hobby and keep it alive.
"Many hams have not returned, even though they have a license," Hadi said. "Some have traveled outside Iraq; others are afraid to use their wireless. They think they will face problems from the American soldiers or the Iraqi police. I am trying to tell everyone that the situation is better now."
Ham radio, also known as amateur radio, has been used both as recreation and a public service provider across the globe since at least the early 1900s. Operators typically use a transmitter and receiver to communicate with other enthusiasts in their home countries and abroad. They use various modes of transmission, including voice, Morse code and now personal computers.
Voice transmissions continue to be the most common in Iraq, say local operators, who must be licensed by their government and receive a unique "call sign," to identify themselves on the air. Hadi's call sign is YI1AK.
During the Hussein years, ham radio operators could not use their wireless equipment at home.
"Saddam would hang you if you were found with a transmitter at home," recalled Hadi. "They thought you were a spy if you had an antenna."
As is the standard for ham radio operators worldwide, subjects such as politics, religion and business deals are off limits. But during the Hussein era, just hearing a voice coming over the airwaves from Europe, Asia, America and other countries in the Middle East made many Iraqi ham radio operators feel connected; and they considered themselves members of an exclusive club.
"We would talk about electronics, signal strengths, the weather forecast and personal details, such as your family," said Imad Yusef Dahi, 45, call sign YI1EYT, a ham radio operator since 1992. He has managed to connect with hams in Germany, France, Russia and Egypt.
"It's a beautiful hobby," Dahi said. "You can communicate with people from all over the world. And you can talk as long as you want, for free."
And regardless of modern technology, Dahi and other hams said there was something special about being able to send their own signal into the air.
"It's a great feeling when you're using equipment that you've put together yourself," said Azhar, 40, a ham radio operator for 15 years, whose call-sign is YI1FLY. He was reluctant to give his last name and was uneasy about giving details on his hobby for fear that he might say something that would get him into trouble.
Hadi understands why such concerns still exist, despite the supposed freedom since Hussein's ouster.
Some time after the 2003 invasion, U.S. soldiers came knocking at Hadi's door. They arrested him and confiscated his radio equipment, even though he had a valid license allowing him to own and use it.
He spent a week in jail while an investigation was conducted. He was freed "with an apology," he said, but it took more than a month to get his equipment back. Hadi suspects that someone keen "to take revenge" had fingered him as a possible militant, and had accused him of using the radio equipment for criminal purposes.
And for eight months last year, Iraqi officials suspended all amateur radio activity in the country, citing security concerns. They feared insurgents might be using ham radio, local operators said.
The irony was not lost on ham radio operators, who recalled that even though their transmissions were subject to eavesdropping by security agents under Hussein, it was rare for them to be taken off the air.
Hadi hopes that now that he is back on the air, he will be able to persuade others to follow. And the message of the electronics technician transmits loud and clear: "You can return to ham radio," he says. "I will even find a station for you."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun