They don’t need to turn on the TV or walk down the rickety narrow staircase of their modest Baghdad apartment to learn the news: Car bombs have been exploding in this family’s district of Baghdad again, their percussions felt everywhere.
Yet behind their apartment’s battered metal door — its paint worn off, and peppered with screw holes from cheap latches and locks that have failed — the family of widow Karima Selman Methboub has reasons to celebrate.
Through nearly eight years of American occupation, insurgency, civil war, and, before that, Saddam Hussein‘s oppressive rule, all eight children have survived.
Dramas have at times been acute, of course, as the Monitor has recorded since it first met the Methboubs in late 2002. Among them are a son who was wrongly imprisoned and tortured for 2-1/2 years and a daughter whose marriage ended in abuse and divorce.
“Every day I thank God to be released from all these problems,” says Mrs. Methboub, the devout Shiite matriarch who has shepherded her family since her husband died in a 1990s car accident.
A wedding this week
Like so many Iraqis, Methboub has done so with grace, laughter, and a steadfast determination not to let the chaos outside get the better of her struggling family.
So today there are many reasons to hope, from promising educations for three daughters to decent jobs for her sons.
That renewal may best be symbolized by the room they repainted and prepared for oldest son Mohamed and his bride-to-be, who were wed on March 22.
It is a sanctuary with a carved wooden bedroom set — made in China — with matching chests of drawers, a tall wardrobe, and an expansive mirror.
Methboub, who is now sharing her bedroom with three daughters to make room for the new couple, shows it off proudly.
Two daughters at university
They huddle around a gas heater in the living room, where the fabric of this family has been tightly woven through shared challenges and a biting humor.
Daughter Hibba is bursting to talk about her studies at the University of Baghdad. She misses high school but enjoys playing basketball and studying psychology.
“I am happy now, and dream of when I graduate to be a psychologist’s assistant,” Hibba says.
Why psychology? “It’s very good to know the personality of people.”
That earnest answer is too much for older sister Fatima, who snidely interrupts: “You should understand your own personality first!”
Fatima’s sharp-tongued ways mark a rebound from the tough days after her marriage fell apart a couple of years ago, but Methboub steps in to stop the squabbling.
“She’s too smart,” the mother says of Hibba, who is held up as an example for her young cousins. Hibba gives a telling look to the needling Fatima, and says the important thing is understanding behavior.
A discussion ensues about who is crazy and who is not. Speaking of another branch of the family, Fatima says, “They are the roots of crazy!” But all laugh that it is Methboub’s brood that is often charged with being nuts.
Hibba’s twin sister, Duha, complains that her studies are more difficult than ever this year. She is often up until midnight studying, using emergency lighting when the city power goes out.
“People ask for her hand!” says Methboub of her striking daughter.
“Dozens, dozens!” shrills Fatima.
“But I always refuse because they need to get their educations first,” says Methboub. “We want them to stay little girls, and not grow up.”
But grown-up they are.
Duha wears a long black dress to go collect food rations from the government — an allotment of nine essential items like rice, beans, and sugar for every Iraqi citizen, which is a holdover from the Hussein era.
The twins both passed their recent mid-term examinations. And older sister Amal is now in her second year at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
She is on a five-year scholarship, and has now graduated from the initial English-language portion of the course after a tough first year.
“My studies are going well,” she says, speaking by phone from the university, located in northern Iraq. “I am very happy and am working hard.”
Soccer-loving son struggles on exams
Only youngest son Mahmoud, now 17, is having difficulty in school, because of his obsession with soccer. He plays on a local team, and Amal says his midterm exam results were poor.
“This will be changed, and he will play less football,” Amal says. “We have even talked of cutting football forever!”
The talk turns to the nuptials for Mohamed, a son whose story was not always expected to have a happy ending. During the Hussein era, he was locked up at Abu Ghraib prison after being set up, the family says.
Now Mohamed works with the government on security and wants to shift to antiterrorism work. But his brother-in-law, Abu Fahad, also in the security business, says those who do that job “are assassinated by the terrorists.”
Fatima expresses cynicism about the future of her broken country. “The situation in Iraq will never improve,” she says, echoing a common complaint as Iraqis continue to grapple with insecurity, power failures, and dysfunctional government.
But all that seems far from the confines of this apartment, where Mohamed’s wedding suite is now joyfully occupied and his family can’t stop joking. “God loves beauty,” says Fatima, with a flash of her eyes. She had a history, before her own wedding, of rejecting marriage proposals.
“Of course,” ribs Methboub. “But how do you know you are beautiful?”