The Iraqi Headmaster An Iron Fist in a Chaotic Country

Apr 20, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Headmaster Abbas Fadhil Hakeen has a headache, and it’s not from the five mortars that just exploded with a thunder 300 meters from his boys’ middle school.

Christina Asquith

“It’s these parents. That’s what really bothers me.” He harrumphs, lights up a Malboro Red and waves a 14-year old out of his office. “Every time a bomb lands, I have to answer 25 phone calls and tell each parent, ‘Yes, everything is ok. Hassan is ok.’

Running a school in a war zone might sound crazy to most people in most parts of the world, and it is. In recent weeks, with the US Marines battling in Fallujah and Sadr City, and southern cities in turmoil, many parents have refused to let their children leave the house. Universities and stores have closed down, and general lawlessness has increased. Islamic groups are circulating fliers warning schools and stores to close down in “solidarity”, or else.

But through it all, Headmaster Abbas, and many of the other 2,500 headmasters in Baghdad have kept the schools open. “It is our duty,” said Pricipal Abbas, who served 5 years in the Iraqi Army fighting in the early 1980s. “If we close the school it means we are surrendering-giving up. We have to keep working. Primarily, so we can have the summer vacation.”

Resilience, humor, and the iron-clad fist traditionally expected of Iraqi headmasters has helped keep the students in line during the chaos.

Headmaster Abbas, a gruff, sinewy man in his late 40s, had rolled up the sleeves of his grey button down shirt. He chain smoked Malboros as he stalked through the hallways barking, “Get to class.” As he shot down the hall, boys scattered into classrooms like billiard balls into pockets.

It’s been a tense morning, Headmaster Abbas said. One student narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt on his way to school because the kidnapper’s AK-47 jammed. But the boys’ fingers were bruised from where he had been clinging to the car door. (14 boys have been kidnapped for ransom money since school started in October. All have been safely released.)

Exams are starting, which for 9th graders will determine which high school they get into. Then, to top it all off, five window-rattling explosions kicked off at 9a.m. The school sits within 200 meters of the US government’s Iraq headquarters, The Green Zone, into which Iraqi resistance fighter frequently shoot mortars. An errant missile is often deadly. “They all heard the bombing and explosions so they were scared. They jumped, and some cried,” Headmaster Abbas said. “I told them: ‘Be quiet! Sit down! There’s nothing happening.”

Then, he went back to is office to deal, in much of a similar manner, with the onslaught of parental phone calls that follow every bomb.

Headmaster Abbas is supposed to be part of the new, gentler, more understanding generation of school leaders that US advisors are hoping to breed as a result of democracy, freedom and modernization of teaching methods in Iraq.

Headmaster Abbas hasn’t heard anything about that. There’s no democracy in this school. No students’ rights. No school nurse. No journaling.

Principal Abbas is part Saddam-style; part ex-military man; part tough guy, and exactly what his boys need right now, according to him. He is in charge of is 1,000 14 and 15 year old boys coming of age in a nation that has no one in charge. A nation where 15 year olds 200 miles west in

Fallujah are taking up arms to fight the Americans, and where boys are accustomed to a role model like Saddam, with his guns and horses and tanks and military uniforms. Headmaster Abbas doesn’t intend to lose these boys to anything but their books. The only ‘feelings’ that these boys are allowed to have is that they better listen to Headmaster Abbas. Or they’ll probably get smacked on the head.

“These boys need me to be strict,” he said. “Of course, they must be afraid of me. I am the Headmaster. I succeed because I have a strong personality, and so do my teachers.”

Standing in the hallway, he asked a boy what he was doing. The boy explained he was writing a thank you letter to his teacher before leaving for a month long study break at home, before returning to take his exams.

Headmaster Abbas snatched the paper from his hand and ripped it up. “You don’t need to write her a letter, just go tell her!”

Later, he explained that he was concerned the teacher might interpret a letter as a bribe. Many students tried to bribe teachers for good grades, a corrupt way that started in the 1990s, when teachers salaries sank to $5 a month (since the war, they have risen to between $300-$500 a month.)

On this morning, outside Headmaster Abbas’ office, a mother arrived early and wanted to take her son son home for fear something would happen to him. She had on a veil, and was hugging her 9-year old daughter who she had also pulled out early.

“Every day I send my son to school I ask, will he come back? We are struggling doing our best and not lose this year for our children,” she said, tearing up.

Headmaster Abbas is polite, but sorry to tell her that her son’s not leaving until the school day is done. Ten minutes later, a mother called is office (he has no secretary) and told her son to come home early. Dr. Abbas refused and sent the boy back to class.

“So, do you offer them counseling?” I asked.

“Counselling? What kind of counseling?” he said.

“To help them deal with the trauma, their fears from the war?” I said.

“There is a parent-teacher group in the school and we gather together and it is our duty to find solutions to the students’ problems. But thanks to God, we don’t have any problems.”

Last week, a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi Resistance fighters missed its target and flew into the home of Mr. Hakmad, the English teacher. He said he worries about his family while he is teaching, but covers his feelings for his students.

“We pretend we don’t feel scared. When they see a brave man in front of them they feel better,” Mr. Hakmad said.

A few minutes later, a student tried to peek his head into the classroom door. Mr. Hakmad roughly shoved it closed– on the boy’s head.

Headmaster Abbas said a few days earlier he had received a leaflet from the Committee of Islamic Scientists intructing all teachers to strike for 3 days. “But the minister says ‘Stay open.” We have exams.’

When he ignored the Islamic groups, some parents asked him: “Aren’t you a good Muslim? Don’t you feel solidarity with the people of Fallujah?’ What am I supposed to say?”

“Before the war, I could dial 104 and the police would come immediately. Now, when I call, no one answers.”

To illustrate, Headmaster Abbas dials 104 and presses the speaker phone. The phone rings and rings. “These days the only way to survive is to be diplomatic. You must satisfy everyone. Thanks to God I enjoy the ability to convince people of anything,” he said. “When we finish school we thank God nothing happened today and we pray nothing will happen tomorrow. 1,000 students is a big responsibility.”

Christina Asquith’s is the author of the upcoming book “The Paper School” , about her experiences as a new, uncertified teacher in a Philadelphia school.

Christian’s revious columns and articles on education in Iraq can be found at

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