IRAQ: Baghdad commuters turn to ancient tradition of ferries to avoid hazardous roads
Another workday draws to a close in Baghdad, and tired commuters gather on the banks of the Tigris to exchange small talk and wait for the ferryboats, a traditional way of traversing its silt-colored waters since Ottoman times.
"I inherited the job from my father, and now my sons are working with me," said Hamid Saleh, 58, who owns one of dozens of small boats that ferry travelers between Karkh, the western half of Baghdad, and Rusafa, its eastern side.
"After 2003, the job got better because people prefer to take the boat in order to avoid traffic jams," he said, "especially when an explosion happens, and there is also the danger of explosions at checkpoints."
The river, which runs through the heart of Baghdad, both literally and metaphorically, has traditionally been a meeting point where Iraqis from all walks of life and religions meet and mingle easily. This custom of inclusion has survived and even been strengthened by the violence that mars daily life in the capital.
"Some people like the river and prefer to leave the noisy streets a while," said Ali Kareem, 39, another ferryman. “We also saved some women and men who threw themselves from the bridge trying to commit suicide."
Sami Darraji, a 48-year-old merchant, said crossing by river is quicker, cheaper and easier than commuting by car.
"Also, I come here to breathe fresh air in the morning," he said. "It's better than the contamination from the vehicles."
Despite an overall rise in business resulting from the traffic, roadblocks and general danger of commuting by car, the boatmen complain that government restrictions are limiting their access to the river that has sustained them and their families over generations.
“My grandfather was using the quffa," or round boat, said 37-year-old Ali Sadiq, a third-generation ferryman. "I started when I was child with my father. I like my job a lot although there are some problems and restrictions by the authorities."
River transport authorities have banned the ferryboats from passing under bridges, citing security, fearing the boats could transport weapons or militants. They also have extended a fishing ban from three months to two years, cutting into supplemental income for many of the boatmen.
But despite the restrictions, many of the commuters are loyal customers who say they prefer ferries to the hassle of buses and cars.
"It takes too long to cross it by car due to traffic jams," said Fatin Mehdi, a bank official. "Also, I like to avoid the motorcades of the officials and their sirens."
-- Raheem Salman in Baghdad
Photos: Ferryboats have been carrying passengers across the Tigris for years but have become more popular as road conditions worsen. Credit: Raheem Salman