Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

City of Contrasts

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 8 February 2011
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, City of Contrasts, 8 February 2011, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Contradictions are evident everywhere you go in this impoverished district of Baghdad.

Sadr City is increasingly a cultural battleground between traditional Islam and modernity. This teeming Shia stronghold of Baghdad is also the backdrop for a fight against poverty as Iraq stabilises and attempts to expand its economic opportunities.

There is a palpable contrast on the streets between the past and the future – and these incongruities are what make it so unique and special to me.

Sadr City is the biggest slum in Iraq - and possibly the Middle East - which has always been a hotbed of rebellion, first against Saddam Hussein and, more recently, in open opposition to the United States.

I first came here as a teenager in 1994, when the area was still called Saddam City. My father had taken a wrong turn on the way to my uncle's house on nearby Palestine Street and my family and I were soon in unfamiliar territory.

I remember being totally astonished; I had never seen anything like the ramshackle homes that seemed built atop one another. The whole area was permeated with bad smells and filled with rubbish piles. At the time, the intense poverty was shocking to me.

In fact, we didn't even know where we were until my father rolled down his window to ask a pedestrian. The local said, "This is Thawra," which means "revolution" - the name the city originally received from former Iraqi leader Abdul Kareem Qasim when he founded it for poor people and squatters in 1961.

Now that I have spent many years travelling to Sadr City as a journalist, I can see that only the name has changed. Despite the overthrow of Saddam and the rapid advance of technology, very little has improved here over the years. Open sewage still runs through the streets, and most people have less than four hours of electricity per day.

There are more than three million people living here, with an average family home accommodating 15 people. Sadr City makes up about five per cent of Baghdad's total area, yet houses half the city's population.

Other stark contrasts are easy to see. As I drove into the area recently, I noticed a new park where yellow, red and pink roses were blooming. But surrounding the rosebushes and other flowers were piles of trash where locals had dumped their daily waste. Flies buzzed above the rubbish as feral cats fought over scraps. Elsewhere, throngs of children were playing unconcernedly amid the chaos, traffic and debris.

With its many winding and densely populated streets and alleys, some only a metre or more in width, a car is hardly the best transportation, and I soon continued on foot.

In one of the many sprawling bazaars, I watched a teenager shopping for a CD player to use for religious songs during the ancient Shia celebration of Ashura. His hair was styled like that of the British football player David Beckham. Just two years ago, such a haircut was enough reason here to send a man to his death.

I witnessed other examples of what seemed to be the young generation clashing with the entrenched religious values.

In recent days, the return of Sadr City's main benefactor, the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has led observers to speak of a resurgence of hard-line Islam.

For several blocks, I followed a young, unveiled woman wearing a short skirt and boots. She was accompanied by a veiled, older woman who wore a full-length brown robe. As they walked, the young woman received several glances from young men. A few steps later, however, she passed a cleric who mumbled that God's torment will come to those who become Satan's tools.

As I was leaving Sadr City in a taxi later that day, a street hawker approached the vehicle while we were stopped at an intersection. He and his aged father were selling pictures of a scowling Moqtada for 1,000 Iraqi dinar (roughly 80 US cents).

The taxi driver, who had earlier told me that Sadr City had changed dramatically in recent years, bought a picture of the religious leader and immediately hung it in the car.

"I may need it one day," he said.

Abeer Mohammad is an IWPR editor in Baghdad.  

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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