His eyes only leave the end of his line to tell stories about the fish he’s caught in the Tigris over the last year. “One time, I was here from the early morning until nine at night,” the fisherman says, his friend silently listening. “I put the last piece of bait on the hook before going home. The line tugged. I reeled in a little. It tugged some more. Then I got up and fought the fish all the way to the shore. It was huge,” he showed me with his hands—about 12 inches around and three feet long.
He comes to this bank of the Tigris, at Baghdad’s Zawra park, when he’s not working as a low level employee at the Ministry of the Interior. “It passes the time,” he says, picking through his plastic bag of bait. A year ago he couldn’t do it, he says. The park was closed during the worst part of the war, but no one would fish in the river anyway, he tells me. There were too many floating bodies.
By Iraqi standards, this fisherman is still somewhat of an adventurer. Many people still won’t eat what comes out of the river—he and another man argue over whether all the bodies have actually been removed—but he says its fine. Even less worrisome for him is the pipe of sewage pouring into the water next to him.
“It all runs downstream,” he says, shrugging. So does two-thirds of the capital’s raw sewage, to be piped back from the river into the city’s drinking water. Purification plants filter much of it as it comes out, but they can only do so much. Two summers ago, a cholera outbreak spread across Baghdad. Over half of all Iraqis still don’t have access to clean drinking water.
Along the riverbank, couples and families walk up and down the 250 acre Zawra park. Here, people can forget briefly about their militarized lives. Teenage boys play soccer in a dirt field. A father pushes his children on an aging swing. Scattered families spread out on blankets and the patchy grass. Men drink Pepsis in one of the rundown pavilions.
To get inside, visitors have to wind through a maze of concrete blast walls painted with Roman style murals. Iraqi security contractors search their cars for explosives.
Across the river, the Green Zone sprawls as far as the eye can see. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s home is on the opposite bank, behind walls, razor wire, and soldiers, not far from where Saddam used to live. Barely downstream, the largest US embassy in the world—roughly the size of 80 football fields—enjoys constant electricity and its own water treatment plant. The fisherman I’m chatting with gets no more than seven hours of electricity a day.
I ask him what he thinks when he looks across the river at the Green Zone. “I have nothing to do with them. As far as I’m concerned, those people are nothing.” He tugs the line. “I hear they do like fishing though.” He tilts his rod. “USA STIK,” it reads, an American flag waving next to it. “Seahawk. Quality Fishing Tackle.”