Shoeshine Boy's Brushes With Danger

Iraqi teenager’s story of survival on the mean streets of Shia city.

Shoeshine Boy's Brushes With Danger

Iraqi teenager’s story of survival on the mean streets of Shia city.

Tuesday, 15 September, 2009
Shining shoes for a living outside government offices, Ali knows more than most 13-year-olds about the mysteries of Iraqi bureaucracy.

“On their way into the building, people ask me which political party the top officials belong to - and whether they accept bribes,” he said.

“On their way out, I can tell by their faces whether they’ve had any luck. If their work has not progressed, they say my shoeshine sucks and then they curse the head of the directorate.”

“They look funny, wearing a suit and tie for the first time.”

Ali left the schoolroom three years ago for a more worldly education on the pavements of Nasiriya, a city south of Baghdad in Iraq’s Shia Arab heartland.

His family came to the city after drought and violent unrest swept through their old home in the marshes of southern Iraq.

The teenager, whose real name has been withheld to protect his identity, became a shoeshine boy because he was too young to learn another trade.

He carries his equipment in a large, rusty box, earning 1,500 Iraqi dinars (just over one US dollar) for every pair of shoes polished. He has light hair and wears tattered clothes over a brittle-looking body.

He speaks proudly of two younger sisters still at school, whom he helps support. Mention of an older brother who was the family’s main breadwinner makes him tearful. He vanished one summer day four years ago.

“The neighbours said some men took him away in a car after beating him unconscious. They had asked whether he was Sunni or Shia. He hesitated before answering.”

Ali looked down as he wept, unable to wipe his eyes because of hands blackened with boot polish, and said, “God will punish the oppressor.”

Ali is one of a group of youngsters offering shoeshines outside the local government office. Boys like him are on the brink of criminal careers, says Hammodi, a police sergeant stationed nearby who only gave one name because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

“They ought to be in school. What future can they expect after a childhood like this? Ruthless people will use them to destroy the country,” he said.

Hammodi said he steers clear of problems on the streets as his duties are limited to guarding a government building, “I pity the shoeshine kids. They get beaten by angry customers and by beggars competing for the crowded spot outside the office.”

According to Hammodi, government officials have complained about the boys, saying they may appear in photos of their building taken by the press.

Nasiriya’s officials may regard Ali and his colleagues as an eyesore, but the city’s bureaucracy keeps the boys in business.

Labourers contracted by the municipality have kept Ali’s street in a near-constant state of disrepair so shoes do not stay clean for long.

“For some reason, they keep digging up the same street every few months,” Ali said. “They dig and dig and then they fill it up with sand again. This forces the pedestrians to visit us.”

More pedestrians do not always mean more money for Ali. His earnings take a nosedive during Shia holidays such as Eid, Ashura and Arbaeen, when religious processions bring thousands of people on to the streets.

The shoeshine boys are crowded off the pavement by the marchers, who wear sandals or slippers and therefore have no need for a polish.

Some of the boys have a sideline handling liquor.

Alcohol is not banned in predominantly-Shia Nasiriya but, as in many parts of Iraq, it is forbidden by faith and therefore cannot be sold openly.

Some shoeshine boys work this gap in the market by acting as go-betweens for the town’s drinkers and liquor dealers. Certain customers who arrive on the pretence of a polish may leave with a bottle tucked discreetly into their clothes.

“It’s a problem when they are already drunk,” said one shoeshine boy who also sells alcohol and cannot be named because of security concerns. “They don’t keep their feet still, so the polish goes all over the place.”

Ali has managed to make his life easier by forging a bond with Jabar, the owner of a local restaurant.

Jabar has tasked the boy with keeping an eye on his customers when his waiters are busy. Once, Jabar says, Ali spent a night guarding the restaurant when militiamen had imposed a curfew on the city.

In return for his work, Ali gets a free breakfast of warm bread every morning. At the end of the day, he also collects leftover food for his family, though according to Jabar, Ali insists on paying for this.

“I fear Ali will die before he grows up,” Jabar said. “It is impossible to survive such a vicious life without a backer.”

At the end of every day, Ali returns to the small reed hut that has been his family’s home since they first arrived in Nasiriya.

“Our place doesn’t have water or electricity,” he said, “but at least I can hear the sound of the TV from a cafeteria nearby.”

Wisam Tahir is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nasiriya.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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