Ahmad al-Sulaiti, 45, has given up his nomadic Bedouin lifestyle for cars – or for car parts, to be more exact. In the past the Bedouins of southern Iraq used to roam freely between Samawa desert and the city of Basra, but things have changed over the past few years, making their lives much more difficult.
As al-Sulaiti says the area is far more dangerous with outlaw groups establishing camps in the desert as well as remnants of bombs and mines to avoid.
Our fathers used to understand camels and cattle and the prairie. Today we have become experts at a job that not even the sons of the city can do well.
“Life was not easy any longer,” he told NIQASH. “Livestock prices were fluctuating, and it was hard to breed animals because there was less water and less grass. Back in the day we didn’t really have jobs. We would just set up our tents near to some water and manage our lives.”
And then he and his family found the car cemetery, or, as it is known in Basra, the “Bedouin garage”. The car cemetery is located between Zubayr and Safwan, in an area that was once well known for its agriculture and for tomato growers. However desertification has claimed the area and it is now mostly sand.
In a shallow area in the sand about as big as a city block lie hundreds of old cars of all makes and models. Older US cars are particularly well presented in the scrap yard.
“The cemetery was created after 2003 so that old cars that were no longer licensed by the traffic department could be dumped here,” says al-Sulaiti, who now manages the car cemetery. “A lot of the cars are given to the state-owned company that makes iron and steel and they compact them and make iron blocks.”
Between 20 and 30 people work here regularly. Al-Sulaiti explains the work: “We buy old vehicles or unlicensed cars and we delete the official numbers from the cars. Then we take the car parts and re-sell them. Then we sell the car bodies to the iron companies where they are recycled.”
In fact, people come from all over Iraq looking for car parts, especially for the more hard-to-find Japanese or US models. These form the majority of the cars here although there are also French and Russian vehicles languishing in the sand.
But it’s not all fun and games here. Some of the locals in Zubayr town want the activities of the car graveyard restricted because it keeps getting bigger and bigger and it is in danger of encroaching on the town. Additionally, they complain, there are stolen cars being dismantled and sold from there.
Ahmad Shakur, who runs Zubayr’s district traffic department, dismisses the first complaint, saying that the car cemetery does not interfere with Zubayr’s main street or a nearby railway. He also insists that his forces check each car that enters the scrap yard.
“After the reports of theft of cars, there were several campaigns to inspect the cars,” Mahdi Rikan, the head of the district’s security committee, told NIQASH. “That seemed to lead to a decline in the thefts.”
Meanwhile the Bedouins working with the cars say they have been harassed by local security forces. Al-Sulaiti insists that all the cars they scrap are there legally. “Each car has its own file and is dealt with according to accepted government procedures,” he says.
Unlike Shakur though, Rikan says that it may become necessary to move the car cemetery.
This concerns al-Sulaiti who says that the Bedouins working at the desert junk yard are supporting hundreds of people and that this is literally their only way to make a living. He worries that the district authorities are simply making arbitrary moves and not really considering the worth of the work done at the car cemetery.
“It’s also a source of spare parts for all of Iraq,” he adds. A lot of other spare parts are second rate, he explains, so the fact that the old cars can be stored here for future use is helpful.
The Bedouins feel like they are doing useful work here, they have learned a new trade and they are contributing to the environment by recycling the vehicles and ensuring that old cars are adequately taken care of.
This job has protected many Bedouins from becoming beggars, says one young Bedouin man working at the site, Mohammed Assaf.
“Our fathers used to understand camels and cattle and the prairie,” the 27-year-old told NIQASH. “Today we have become experts at a job that not even the sons of the city can do well. It brings us good money and we are helping the people who need the spare parts,” he says proudly.