Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi fishermen and farmers prepare to sail in the marshes, north of the southern city of Basra, last year. The new textbooks include a section on Saddam Hussein's order to drain the marshes as a way to drive out Shiite opposition in the 1990s.
Iraqi fishermen and farmers prepare to sail in the marshes, north of the southern city of Basra, last year. The new textbooks include a section on Saddam Hussein's order to drain the marshes as a way to drive out Shiite opposition in the 1990s. Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
After a delayed start due to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Iraqi students are heading back to school. Many of Iraq's schools lack electricity and running water, but they will be getting something new this year: a history book that reflects the enormous changes the country has been through and includes historical events that were once forbidden topics.
At a boys' high school in central Baghdad, history teacher Naba Abbas begins a lesson about the Crusades. The changes in the curriculum come later, she says, in the modern history section.
The old textbooks referred constantly to Saddam Hussein's triumphs. Six years after his removal, hundreds of fawning references to him have been taken out of Iraq's official history.
Much has also been added, Abbas says, such as a section on the poison gas attack the former regime ordered in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. Thousands were killed. New sections describe how Iraq's vast marshlands in the south were drained during the dictator's repression of Shiite uprisings in the 1990s.
It has taken several years to re-examine three decades of Saddam, Abbas says, and the events following the U.S. invasion in 2003 are still too fresh to be included.
"I can't teach beyond what's written in the books," she says, "but the boys here have witnessed the recent events, so they don't need to be taught about them."
Freedom Of Expression
But the old Iraq isn't too far behind. Abbas was the only teacher at the high school who agreed to talk about the new curriculum — perhaps reflecting the memories of violence and fear that are still raw here.
Her students, however, eagerly expressed their opinions.
An 18-year-old named Sudeif, wearing tight jeans and a heavy metal T-shirt, says the new textbooks are teaching Iraqi students much more about the outside world and he's happy not to have to read all about Saddam.
As for America's actions in Iraq, his classmate Jaafar, a skinny boy with a peach-fuzz moustache, says it's a big topic of discussion, even if it's not assigned.
"America is full of brilliant people, but we have some anger at America because of the military occupation," he says.
The boys are divided about the actions of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the TV reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush last year. Some think Zeidi is a hero for standing up to Bush, while others think he is a disgrace for behaving so rudely.
The students also disagree about the amount of religion included in the new textbooks. Sudeif says he is happy that the story of Shiite martyrs Ali and Hussein is included now. And even if others disagree with him, he says, the important thing is they feel safe discussing it.
"We didn't have that freedom before," Sudeif says. "No one dared to criticize the government or things that we saw, even inside one family."
On that, all the students agree, and they happily add that as 18-year-old high school seniors, they can vote in nationwide elections in January. Then they'll be doing more than discussing Iraq's history; they'll be helping to write it.