Relics of the empire still roll on Najaf roads

Ageing Ford trucks have been driving through Iraq's streets since the Second World War and are much loved vehicles of a bygone era.

NAJAF // The battered old lorry seems oddly out of place grinding its way along Najaf's roads, a dinosaur in a sea of fast-moving newly imported Japanese and European vehicles. But the ageing Ford - which is at least 70 years old - has become part of the fabric of this historic city in a way the throwaway modern cars will surely never be. And it carries on its shoulders a certain symbolism. Perhaps something about the inevitable passage of time or the decline and fall of empires in this land that has seen so many come and go.

"It was my father's truck and his father's before that," said Mohammed Mansour, the 40-year-old behind the wheel. "It's the great inheritance that has been handed down to me." The lorry arrived in Iraq with the British army. Not in 2003, when they arrived with the United States to depose Saddam Hussein. The Ford is a relic of an older, previous occupation. "The British used these trucks during the Second World War, and they were then handed over to the Iraqi government when the British left," Mr Mansour said. "My grandfather got the truck soon after that.

"He was so proud of it, he always called it his masterpiece. He thought it was a marvel of modern technology." Like the Iraqis it has served, the Ford has had a hard life, and it still hauls building supplies. And it is not alone. There were once, according to Mr Mansour, about 300 of the lorries plying their trade on the motorways of southern Iraq, principally Najaf, 160km south of Baghdad, and nearby Diwaniyah.

That number dwindled, and today only 10 remain roadworthy. One was lucky enough to make it into comfortable retirement in an Iraqi museum. "We don't have the luxury of letting it rest," Mr Mansour said. "This is how I feed my family. And anyway, it is strong and likes to work, it is what it was made to do." Nicknamed Kachma, the old Fords are predictably not in anything approaching the original condition.

"It's not easy to get spare parts, so most of the mechanical things have been completely replaced over the years," said Hassan Jassim, who owns one of the trucks. "Underneath the body, I'm not sure there's much that's original. It's all been repaired, updated, welded and swapped around. "I know the saying that cats have nine lives, but Kachma has many more than that. I've been working on this car since I was a child, and I will be working on it as an old man."

"For an old soldier, it still marches very well," the 38-year-old said. "It may not be as fast as the new ones, but it's not so bad, because of all the modifications. And strength is more important anyway." The latest episode in the tumult of Iraq's history - the US-led invasion and subsequent governments - has brought with it changes that, for a time, posed a most modern of threats to the Kachma lorries - not bombs or rockets, but bureaucratic safety regulations.

New laws in post-Saddam Najaf required that all vehicles be left-hand drive, instead of the standard for British vehicles, which is right-hand drive. For a while, there was talk that Kachmas would not be able to get registration papers and, technically, should be banned from the roads. But the police agreed to an exemption, according to Mr Jassim, because the lorries are widely loved in the city.

"The police let us go without any fines or problems," he said. "They don't bother us if we are not wearing seat belts, because we have no seat belts. "The authorities love the Kachma as much as the ordinary people. No one wants to see them leave." Although none of the battered and bruised lorries would fetch much money if put up for sale, the owners agreed they were priceless. "This lorry has fed my family for three generations," said Mr Mansour. "It has earned us millions of dinars. If you ask me what it's worth, I'd say its value is beyond measurement."

@Email:nlatif@thenational.ae

Published: August 26, 2008 04:00 AM

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