On Tigris River, days of freedom, hardship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Fauzi Muhammad gleans the twigs and reeds from his nylon fishing net with fingers as thick as mooring rope.

His black hair is flecked with silver, like moonlight on the water at night. His toes are white and puckered, from soaking in water. His eyes are brown, like the muddy eddies of his beloved Tigris River.

Every day at 5 a.m. he walks from his ramshackle house near central Baghdad and climbs down a concrete embankment to the water's edge. While crickets sing in the hot dimness, he launches his 15-foot wooden boat. With his arms, he beats upriver against the current. When the river is generous, he hauls slithering fish over his plastic-covered bow.

War, tyranny and industry have eroded Muhammad's world, but they have not destroyed his way of life. On the Tigris, winding through the capital, he always found freedom whatever the government.

He is 60, and has been fishing for a living here for 52 years.

"I was so small I had to sit on a box to use the oars," he recalls of his first days on the water. His father and grandfather fished, as did their fathers and the grandfathers of their fathers.

At 10 a.m., as usual, he glides back to his mooring under a punishing sun. As usual, he climbs the steep steps. But he doesn't walk on to the fish market near his home. On this day he has nothing to sell.

These are lean times, for Muhammad and for the Tigris.

"In the 1950s, we would net 15 fish, and different kinds of them, too," he says, seated in the shade outside his home, with its rotting roof, crumbling veranda and sweeping view of the river. "Now we go at 3 in the morning and we catch, what? Maybe one fish."

Downstream, the Iraqi government built dams that cut off spawning grounds for fish migrating from the sea. Upstream, Turkey and Syria are constructing dams. Water levels, fishermen say, are the lowest in memory.

"So, there have been fewer and fewer fish," Muhammad says. "And there are more and more dams."

Those who work on the water are also to blame, he says. Some use electrical cables to shock the river and gather the stunned fish that float to the surface. Others dump poisons into the Tigris. Both techniques kill young fish as well as adults, ensuring that there will be fewer to catch in seasons to come.

One of Muhammad's sons, also a fisherman, needed a motor for his boat a few years ago but couldn't afford one. So, Muhammad gave him his treasured 40-horsepower Johnson outboard. The motors, imported in the 1970s and lovingly maintained, propel many of the Tigris' fishing boats and water taxis.

Now Muhammad rows each morning as he did when he was a boy. Silted islands to the north and south, covered with shimmering green bulrushes and still rustling with life, are too far away. He dreams of earning enough to buy himself a new outboard. But how can he? To make money, he must catch more fish. To catch more fish, he needs a motor.

In rowing races on the Tigris decades ago, Muhammad was a champion. For years, he hauled in generous catches. He has supported eight children with his net, his broad shoulders and his knowledge of the river.

Because he has no fish to sell this morning, Muhammad argues with his big brother, Abdul Hussein Muhammad, 75. Abdul has hair a few shades lighter and a belly a few inches thicker than his brother's. He retired from fishing 23 years ago.

Fauzi Muhammad explains his theory of why the dams hurt fishing to a visitor. Abdul listens with growing impatience.

"All of this is wrong," he says, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

"Everything I say is true!" Muhammad objects. "I will go to the dam and show you that everything I say is true!"

There are perhaps 2,000 people in Baghdad who earn all or part of their living from fishing. They fish for catfish and carp, which can fetch up to a dollar a pound, extravagantly expensive in a country where to be middle class means to earn $40 to $50 a month.

Saddam Hussein, his relatives and cronies built sprawling palaces along the Tigris. As his regime became increasingly terrified of coups and assassins, it declared more and more of the river off-limits to fishing.

Two years ago, a young fisherman, Akhmad Khalil Ashur, cast his net too close to the sprawling compound of the Ministry of Defense. He was arrested and jailed, a story he tells to almost anyone who asks. Then 13 years old, he spent two months in an adult jail and was released only after his family bribed his keepers.

But Hussein loved - and may still - the fish of the Tigris. When the dictator traveled to Paris in 1975 to buy Mirage fighter jets, one of his biographers reports, he had a half-ton of Iraqi fish flown to his hotel.

Most of the Tigris fishermen stopped during the war. When they returned, they saw sad and sometimes startling sights. Many of the grand palaces and government buildings were damaged. Scores of excursion boats, yachts and firefighting vessels sat looted and smoking on sandbars. Dead animals and drowned people occasionally floated past.

Gunrunners use the river to avoid city streets and U.S. checkpoints. As Muhammad was fishing around 10 p.m. several weeks ago, an American patrol boat approached and shone a light on him.

"I was frightened," he says. "And I don't know how to speak English. So I said, 'Good morning! America is good! Bush is good!'"

A soldier asked if he had weapons. He had none.

"Please search if you want," Muhammad told them, showing the only thing in his boat, a big carp. The Americans didn't seem interested.

"America good!" he shouted, as the patrol boat pulled away.

Fauzi Muhammad's brother recalls how the Baathist regime executed his brother-in-law, an engineer, in Basra in 1980. His wife bursts into tears at hearing the story again.

Muhammad's slate-blue eyes grow moist. He is deeply grateful to the United States for toppling the dictator.

"When you see Mr. Bush, please kiss him for me," he says.

Sattar Akhmad, 51, a cheerful man with a mane of gray hair, is another veteran fisherman and Muhammad's neighbor. Akhmad graduated from Baghdad's College of Trade with a degree in accounting in the 1970s.

"When I was a student, I came to the river and worked on my boat, catching fish with a net," he says. "Then I went home to study my lessons."

For a time, Akhmad worked in the payroll office of a district sports club run by Iraq's Olympic Committee. But the institution was, like nearly everything else in Iraqi society, corrupt. In the first month, his boss demanded twice as much in bribes as Akhmad earned in salary. He quit and returned to fishing.

"I was free on the river," he says. "I always want to be a free man."

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