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IRAQ: A love affair with an iconic American car

March 28, 2008 |  2:00 am

Basra drivers cool off the engines of their beloved Chevrolet minibuses

In the southern city of Basra, the Iraqi love affair with an iconic American car goes back long before U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003.

Chevrolet minibuses dating back to the late 1950s remain the transportation of choice for many city dwellers.

But these buses don’t look anything like the vehicles you see in the United States. The Iraqi companies that distributed Chevys all those years ago only imported the chassis. The body and seats were made locally out of wood.

Bus2 Ali Hussein Yaqoub Hamdani (right) inherited his bus from his father, who bought it in 1957 for 500 Iraqi dinars, then worth about $1,600.

“I love it and am happy to use it,” he said proudly. “It served the people here.”

The bus twice ferried his father and passengers all the way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage known as the Haj. At the time, the road was unpaved, so drivers had to bring two wooden boards with them to help extricate their vehicles when the tires got stuck in the sand.

“Now I am training my son, Hussein, 14, to drive it and to take care of it in the same way that he takes care of himself,” Hamdani said.

He estimated that 120 to 140 of the minibuses still operate in Basra. They ferry passengers between the city center and its outskirts for about 500 Iraqi dinars (less than 50 cents).

Hamdani still uses the original Chevy engine, but has adapted parts from other cars to keep his minibus running.

Passengers like the wide-open space at the back of the bus, which gives them plenty of leg room and space to stuff awkward bundles.

When Abu Hatim’s bicycle broke down, he waited patiently for his favorite wooden bus to come to the rescue. The elderly man made no move to board the modern, 21-passenger bus that pulled up: no room there for his bike.

The odd-looking minibuses are just as popular with younger passengers.

Bus3_3

“Young people prefer to sit on the hard top of the car, or to stand on the rear wooden fender,” Hamdani said, “especially during summer for the fresh air.”

--A Times correspondent in Basra

Photos: (From top to bottom) Basra drivers cool off the engines of their beloved Chevrolet minibuses; Ali Hussein Yaqoub Hamdani sits in the bus he inherited from his father; passengers clamber onto their favorite wooden bus. Credit: A Times special correspondent in Basra.

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