By Ali Nassiri, Dhi Qar
The names of the vehicles, written on their windshields in Arabic, might seem strange at first: Miss Kut, Berries of the Stallion and Weirdo are some of them. But they’re actually a sign of affection, says Wael Kathem, a 25-year-old local of the central Iraqi city of Nasiriyah and owner of one of the vehicles, known affectionately as RAFs in this part of Iraq.
The Russian-made minivans – full name RAF-2203, first developed by the Rigas Autobusu Fabrika in Latvia (hence the acronym), in the 1970s and mostly used as taxis, ambulances and even large family cars, have been available to Iraqis here for the last 50 years. They have also attracted a fan club of dedicated owners like Kathem who take pride in the fact that there are still an estimated 200 RAFS on the road.
“We call the cars names because we love them and are proud of them,” he explains. “Some are fast, some have moved from province to province, and others have a long history. The names are how we try to tell their stories.”
Haj Abbas Radi, another local aged 65, has been driving his RAF since he was 30. Despite the introduction of more modern vehicles, the RAFs are still used as passenger transports, particularly in the low income neighbourhoods of Dhi Qar. “These vehicles are solid,” Radi insists.
“These cars are like compassionate old men,” enthuses Mohammed Reda, 30. For many drivers they provide a livelihood and are working vehicles. Other drivers have modified the vehicles, improving the engines and transmission. Reda says he feels like a child feeding an aging parent when he looks after his RAF.
Alwan Qased owns a parking lot in Nasiriyah, in which many of the RAFs are housed and he says the most valuable ones are probably worth around US$10,000. People here like them because they just keep on going, he explains – and that is despite a distinct lack of frills, including air conditioning.
People are used to seeing the RAFs on a daily basis, Aziz Jassem, a 45-year-old in the Hakim neighbourhood, told Al Menassa. The RAFs may now be competing with much more modern vehicles and after 50 years, there’s no doubt some are ready for retirement. However, as Jassem notes, the RAFs give the city streets a sense of continuity between past and present.