School in Baghdad uses black humour to help Iraqi children cope

BAGHDAD — Ten-year-old Saad ponders the question, cocking his head to one side and tapping his finger on his lips. He’s just been asked the source of Iraq’s wealth.

“Iraq is rich in oil, but yesterday I was looking for a bottle of oil to refill the oil lamp but did not find any,” Saad says to laughter from fellow classmates, parents and teachers.

Saad is taking part in a school show that attempts to reflect and make light of life in a country ravaged by four years of war, a country where frequent power cuts and fuel shortages are common and death ever present. The questions and answers in the show’s quiz section have been prepared in advance, but what makes it remarkable is the age of the children taking part. The oldest is just 10.

Five-year-olds, too young to take part in the quiz, instead sing of Iraqi national unity.

Teachers at the private primary school in Baghdad believe that rather than isolate the children from the grim reality of life in Iraq, they should help them deal with the trauma of the daily violence that has forced nearly 2 million people to flee the country and killed tens of thousands. Car bombs explode almost everyday in Baghdad, mortar bombs rain down on some neighbourhoods, dozens of bodies are found on the streets and kidnappings are rampant. The violence between majority Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs threatens civil war.

Saad elicits another burst of laughter from the audience, sitting on plastic chairs in the walled back garden of the school, when he is asked how many people live in Iraq.

“We used to know that the number is 27 million Iraqis, but now we cannot tell the exact number,” he said.

The UN’s children’s agency UNICEF warned last week that four years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, few children are getting the help they need to cope. In previous years, teachers at the primary school presented a ballet show, “Swan Lake”, but this year decided on “The Children of Iraq”— a show that is pure black comedy. “Children are suffering in this country. We cannot present a show reflecting life as normal when in fact it is not,” said the school’s music teacher, who organised the show and asked to be known only as Firas.

“I presented a black comedy to show our painful reality. The children are part of that reality and know very well what is going on.” The school is in Baghdad’s central Karrada district and has about 160 children, both Christian and Muslim. Getting to class on time is difficult. Parents taking their children to school have to navigate military or police checkpoints, roads are often blocked and alternative routes have to be found. Cars are also stopped and searched for weapons. The school’s deputy principal, who asked not to be named, said it had not been untouched by the violence that has continued despite a major offensive by US and Iraqi troops.

“The other day I asked a student for the reasons for his absence the day before. He told me: ‘Because my father was kidnapped’,” she said.

The school also had to provide counselling for another child whose father was killed in front of him.

While the teachers defend the content of the show, Haider Abdul-Muhsin, a psychiatrist at Baghdad’s Ibn Rushd Hospital, warned that it could be more harmful than helpful.

Abdul-Muhsin, who treats children traumatised by violence, said the children should be amused with more educational shows. “We have to try to isolate them as much as possible from the reality, because this reality is wrong and we have to tell them that it is temporary and it will end,” he said.

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