BAGHDAD — Jawad Kadhim rides his rusty bicycle through Baghdad neighborhoods that have been transformed by violence, sealed off by concrete blast walls and emptied of their once close-knit inhabitants.
Fearful of being mistaken for a militant, he announces himself loudly at front gates and hides his ax when he makes a sales pitch. Every stop is a gamble in this new Baghdad, but Kadhim trusts that even the wariest and most traumatized Iraqis will protect a man who can heal the trees.
Kadhim, 37, is a third-generation date-palm gardener, one of a dwindling number in the capital, he said, because most consider it too dangerous to go door to door in a place where sectarian cleansing has dramatically altered the city's demographics.
"In this life, I rely only on God and palm trees," said Kadhim, 37, one recent afternoon, callused hands folded in his lap.
No neighborhood is safe — his knocks on familiar doors are now answered by strangers, and at least 12 of his gardening friends have been killed.
He's sure that many of his longtime customers have been forced from their homes or were killed in sectarian battles, but he knows better than to ask questions. He has a job to do.
"I'm like a taxi driver. I pick up customers wherever I can," he said with a chuckle.
Through war, occupation, bombings and neglect, the Iraqi date palm has endured. Farmers on these lands have cultivated dates since the ancient times of Mesopotamia, and artists through the centuries have celebrated the palm tree's resilience and bounty. Iraqis still use every part, weaving rope from the fibers and baskets from the fronds, exhibiting a tenderness toward the trees that's incongruous with the harshness of everyday life.
"The blessed tree," Kadhim calls it, with reverence. But the date palm, like the country it symbolizes, has fallen on hard times.
In Iraq's date-production heyday, official estimates put the number of palm trees at 30 million, but decades of war and water salinity have cut that figure so dramatically that the United Nations agriculture mission considers date-palm rehabilitation an urgent national priority.
It would take armies of gardeners to revive the industry, and they'd have to be as skilled as Kadhim is, knowing how to pollinate, when to trim the leaves and the precise moment when dates are ready for picking.
Many of his old gardening friends said they're not willing to risk their lives to work for the equivalent of $10 a tree, which is still more than customers pay in the south, where it's safer and the trees are more abundant.
Kadhim left his farming community near the southern Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf a decade ago, after he heard how much Baghdad families were willing to pay to keep their palm trees groomed. Few of his original customers remain.
"So many families have left," Kadhim said, rattling off examples from neighborhoods throughout Baghdad. "Even when I find strangers in their houses, they never tell me they were displaced. They say the old families left or that they're relatives. Some of them just say, 'We live here now instead of them.'"
Iraq's previous wars disrupted his work for short spells, Kadhim said, but the U.S. invasion and its chaotic aftermath changed the tradition of palm tending altogether.
No longer do families hand him keys so he can slip into their gardens and work while they are out or sleeping. No longer do women or girls who are home alone allow him to set foot on the property; they insist that he return when male relatives are present. No longer do his customers make small talk — nobody wants to divulge a detail that could lead to a kidnapping or other threat.
"Before the Americans came, work was better. I could go anywhere in Baghdad, work however late I wanted, and fall asleep on any street corner," Kadhim said.
In the early days of the U.S. presence, Kadhim said, he simply navigated his bike through the back streets and continued doing business as usual, avoiding the foreign tanks and Humvees that rolled through Baghdad. As the lawlessness persisted, Kadhim lost customers, but he still had enough work to keep him in the capital for weeks at a time.
He took small precautions, sleeping in a cheap motel instead of under the trees in case of bombings. Only when all-out sectarian war erupted in 2006 did he pack his tools and head south to his family's patch of land near Karbala.
The fertile south is where Kadhim wriggled up towering palm trees as a boy, ate date syrup and buffalo cream for breakfast and, in time, learned how to pollinate palm trees and rid them of harmful pests.
He was given his first tibilya, a harness traditionally made of palm fibers, and became an expert at scaling even the tallest trees. The skin on his hands and feet grew hard from the bark, and his face is now creased from exposure to Iraq's harsh sun and frequent sandstorms.
"My father taught me, and his father before him," Kadhim said. "I first started using my hands when I was 7."
From 2006 to 2008, Kadhim stayed home in Karbala with his wife and their six children, but he wasn't happy. The TV news showed carnage he never thought possible in the neighborhoods where he once worked. Every time he pondered returning, a new outbreak of violence would keep him in the south.
"If you see death with your own eyes, do you run toward it?" he said.
In early 2008, when the violence began subsiding, Kadhim ventured to Baghdad again. So many streets were sealed off by new checkpoints that he had to park his bicycle outside the barriers and look for clients on foot. His heart sank when he saw the extent of the devastation, and not just the scars left on people and houses. He found ruins where elegant gardens once stood.
Shriveled, unpicked dates hung from brittle limbs. Dead leaves were piled on the ground. Palm trees he'd planted years before were chopped down or uprooted to clear lines of sight for U.S. snipers and militant mortar teams.
The destruction was so overwhelming, he said, "I felt like I myself was wounded."
In the past couple of years, most of the trees in his care have come back to life under his renewed attention. He trimmed their dead leaves, pollinated them in the spring and treated the trees for insect and rat infestations. Today, they bear clusters of hard yellow dates that should ripen into sweet brown fruit this summer.
"There's nothing you can't cure," Kadhim said.
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