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Being Rich, and Careful, in Liberated Iraq

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Being Rich, and Careful, in Liberated Iraq

Iraq

Being Rich, and Careful, in Liberated Iraq

Being Rich, and Careful, in Liberated Iraq

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The nouveau riche in Iraq are spending money by the fistful — but only behind closed doors. On the street, Iraq's newly wealthy are careful to hide how rich they are.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now a story that's different from the usual report we hear from Iraq. It's about that country's of nouveau riche. Decades of war and sanctions meant Iraqis had to do without, and now many are making up for it by spending big. And they're doing it even though it might expose them to the threat of kidnapping, theft, or worse.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

Mithad Hamas(ph) (Iraqi Jeweler): (Speaks Foreign Language)

JAMIE TARABAY, reporting:

From behind the counter of his jewelry shop, Mithad Hamas advises a mother and daughter on a pair of gold earrings. He then brings out a collection of gold bracelets and places one on the scale. It costs nearly $2,000. But that's nothing says, Hiba(ph), the young woman, compared to what she sees other students wear on campus.

HIBA: (Through Translator) You should go and visit the university. You'll be stunned. I was really amazed at how they can venture out with all this heavy gold on.

TARABAY: Hiba says she leaves the jewelry at home when she goes out because it's too dangerous, she might be robbed. But her mother interrupts to say that Hiba does wear her jewelry for special occasions.

HIBA'S MOTHER: (Through Translator) You buy it to show off during parties or on happy occasions. What we do now is buy gold in the hope that things will get better in the future, and then we'd be able to brag about how much we had or just wear it.

TARABAY: Hamas, the jeweler, says living standards of many have improved since the U.S. invasion and he sells more gold than he did before. Gold is also a portable asset, and in a time when even the banks don't operate as they should, it's as close to a savings account as most Iraqis get.

Still, the uncertainty of the situation rattles Hamas. He says there have been burglaries in his neighborhood. A goldsmith in the volatile area of Dora was robbed and killed. Hamas says he feels he and his shop are always being watched.

Mr. HAMAS: (Through Translator) It is really nerve-wracking. Every morning on our way to work, I keep looking over my shoulder for fear I'm being followed. And every day I take a different road as a precautionary measure.

TARABAY: But he won't give up the shop because business is good. Especially while customers like Mariam Al Shay(ph) still pass through his door. Shay(ph) likes to wear her gold bracelets outside, but hides them under thick ribbons on her wrists.

Ms. MARIAM AL SHAY (Iraqi): (Through Translator) I adore gold, and I've always had a passion for it ever since I was a child. By nature, Iraqis like to wear it. For them, gold is a key part of the ornament.

TARABAY: She says her daughter has inherited her fondness for gold.

Ms. AL SHAY: (Through Translator) She's still only seven years old, but like me, she loves gold.

TARABAY: Shay is one of many Iraqis who were shut out of government jobs in the economy under Saddam because they weren't members of his ruling Baath Party. Then, the elite was mainly secular and mainly Sunni.

The new rich come from mostly poor backgrounds with little education. Many are Shiite, and they have a name, Hawasan(ph). It's what Saddam called his 2003 war with the U.S., but it was soon applied to the looting and lawlessness that erupted after Baghdad fell.

The people who became wealthy as a result of the looting, came to be known as Hawasan and they're scorned by Iraq's old elite. People like Mariam Thamer(ph). Thamer inherited much of her wealth, including a hotel, two buildings, and several farms. She has two Mercedes she never drives and about 14 pounds of gold jewelry. Some days she walks around her modest home draped in gold necklaces, but quickly removes them if she hears the doorbell ring.

Ms. MARIAM THAMER(ph) (Iraqi): (Through Translator) I'm very afraid of other people's envy. I cannot go out and where gold. Those who can are the thieves and the Hawasan.

TARABAY: She's terrified that if her wealth is known, gangs might kidnap her daughter for ransom. So Thamer dresses like her servants do. Today, she's wearing a shabby blue skirt and old, dirty open-toed shoes.

Ms. THAMER: (Through Translator) How do you expect me to wear decent things when there is no security in the country?

TARABAY: But other wealthy Iraqis disagree. Businessman Kareem Arimi(ph) is at a furniture store in Baghdad's Carotta(ph) shopping district, looking at a set of sofas. He's buying a new living room suite for his wife. He said the rich, ornate Egyptian-made wooden suites displayed in the showroom were never available to people like him during Saddam's time.

Mr. KAREEM ARIMI (Iraqi Businessman): (Through Translator) He wouldn't allow it. It was only for him and his group.

TARABAY: These days the showroom is packed. The dining tables and matching chairs sell from between $2500 to $5000. Quisam Abughais(ph) is looking for a bedroom suite for a friend who's getting married. He's learning that having a lot of money doesn't necessarily mean having a lot of style.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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