Motor City, Baghdad


BAGHDAD, Iraq – Jassem Jayat, 41, sat beside the dusty '70s-vintage Toyota Corona by the side of his house. The vehicle was once his main livelihood, allowing him to work informally as a taxi driver. But now it is almost worthless because no one wants to ride in such an old car.

"I don't know what to do," said Jayat. "I see fares in the road, but they don't flag me down, and when I drive on and look back in my mirror, I can see them stopping a new car. The passenger has the right to hire a new car. But what should I do? I can't buy a new car."

Jayat cannot afford to pay for the constant repairs his vehicle now needs, so he has left it parked outside his house.

"I sold some of my furniture to pay its expenses, and now I turn to God asking for some other job," he said.

For years, poor Iraqis scraped together their savings to make the one investment that could allow them to make a living. For people like Jayat, that meant a car, which – however old and beat-up – could allow them to work as an unofficial taxi driver.

The high crime rates and petrol shortages of post-war Iraq have made taxi-driving a dangerous and time-consuming job. But the biggest problem stems from the collapse of the customs system, which has brought a flood of new cars into Iraq – paid for out of the new money entering the country. That has ruined business for those with tired old motors.

Drivers tell of selling their wives' jewelery, their furniture, or even their homes to buy a car which no longer earns enough money to pay its costs.

Adel Suleiman, father of seven, sold his home to buy a Brazilian-made 1987 Volkswagen.

"I'd planned that if one of my boys found a job, I'd sell the car and buy a humble house in an outlying district of Baghdad," he said. "But the car became worth only a tenth of the house's price."

As a result, he said, "My future and my family collapsed."

Some drivers have begun to work late hours, when owners of more expensive cars will not venture out due to the risks of night-time driving.

"I began to work in the awful night of Baghdad, because I made nothing working in the morning," says Qaisar Louai, 28.

Louai's 1975 Mercedes "does not deserve to have anyone riding in it, because it is getting old and ugly. Even so, thieves have tried to kill me twice [to take it], but I survived."

There are other risks, too. "American forces and Iraqi police are suspicious of cars at night... and start to shoot at them," said Louai. "Once I was subjected to such an experience, but I survived."

Meanwhile, drivers say that spare part shops no longer stock the old parts, and that mechanics suddenly become "busy" when approached to work on older models.

"I refuse to fix older cars," admitted mechanic Khalil Ismail, 33. "This isn't because I'm being arrogant, but if the owners of modern cars see old ones in my workshop they'll think the workshop has no experience of fixing modern cars."

A few drivers have found other ways to make a living from their worn-out vehicles.

Salih Kadhem, 35, has taken advantage of Iraq's dirt-cheap subsidized petrol and the long queues for fuel; he has turned his 1979 Chevrolet Caprice into an improvised black market petrol tanker.

Filling station attendants are now banned from filling up plastic jerrycans to stop the fuel being re-sold on the black market.

Kadhem got around the rule by installing an oversized gas tank in his car, so that he can fill up and then park by the side of the road selling petrol to passersby.

Some drivers think the government should help them out, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. According to General Jasem Chilab, head of Iraq's Traffic Directorate, "The issue of compensation for owners of old cars has been raised, but it's under study, and [it won't happen] in the near future."

"This is life. It's a transitional period," said Ziad Hamza, 30, a regular taxi passenger. "With every change someone has to get hurt, and this [change] is to develop society and get rid of old cars that pollute the environment."

"I am waiting for the security situation to improve, so that everyone can have a good lifestyle and exchange their old car for a new one."

Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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