Hassan B Hussein is not a typical international footballer. Rather than living it up on the celebrity circuit, the former striker for the Iraqi national team takes his life in his hands every day, dodging bombs and missiles on his way to the school in Baghdad where he teaches.
“There is danger everywhere. Terrorists attack and target every part of Iraq, killing Iraqi people everywhere, whether we are with them or against them. They don’t know and they don’t care. They just kill Iraqi people.
“When Saddam fell, the majority of Iraqi people, just like me, began to breathe freedom,” he explains. “We were all hopeful to have a better life. No one followed you any more, like they did under Saddam. You were free all the time.”
The freedoms tasted briefly by Hassan and his friends and colleagues are now a distant memory, after the waves of attacks by those he describes only as “terrorists”.
When Hassan, who started his football career at the Iraq Police Club, one of the country’s top soccer teams, retired from the professional game in 1995, he wanted to give something back to society.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” he says, “but I was told in order to get my teaching qualification I had to be a member of the Ba’ath Party. I refused because I did not want to work for Saddam.
“When he was in power, life was very difficult – not just for me, but for all Iraqi people. I picked up work in shops, selling electric tools and car parts.”
It was only in 2003, after the US/UK invasion, that Hassan was able to fulfil his ambitions. Though the violence intensified, he refused to be cowed and completed his training as a PE teacher. Soon afterwards, he was made headteacher of the Khulafa al-Rashidin intermediate school in Baghdad. It is to this school that he makes the nerve-racking 30-minute daily drive, through some of the most dangerous suburbs of Baghdad. And it is on this route, just ten days before I spoke to Hassan, that his cousin was killed when an explosion rocked his car.
“Of course, I feel frightened. I’m scared – everyone’s scared. Once I’m in my car, I don’t trust anyone on the roads. I am always on the lookout. I stare at the other drivers and passing pedestrians, scouring other cars and staring at passers-by, looking for signs that things aren’t quite what they seem” – looking for the signs that might just save his life.
“I am all the time suspicious,” he says, shrugging. “All I can do is to look out and trust that God will help me and save me.
“As soon as I get to school, I ring my wife to let her know I am safe. She is relieved, but only until the evening when I have to get back into my car and drive home again.”
The school run is a challenge that all Hassan’s staff and pupils face. The children, aged between 12 and 17, show amazing resilience, he tells me, making it to their classrooms almost every day.
“The students are courageous. All the time they are asking me to prepare the playing fields!”
It’s a matter of honour that the school stays open. Hassan, who is a member of the Iraqi Teachers’ Union, believes he has a responsibility not only to his 500 pupils, but also to wider society. Though depleted by law and starved of resources, the unions offer a rare glimpse of hope amid the wreckage of Iraq. Their leaders have been at the forefront of creating a new democratic and secular civil society and are often targeted because of that.
And teachers, more than most professions, are in the firing line. “If the terrorists know they can disrupt education, if they can prevent pupils learning the lessons of the past, their battle is half won. It is important for Iraq that the schools stay open. We must continue to help education and help our pupils. If we do that, I think our country will be better.
“And what else could I do? I have to continue my work. Education is important for Iraq. If the terrorists try to stop us working, we have to challenge them. We have to stand against them.”
Even if continuing working means getting killed?
Without pausing, Hassan replies emphatically: “Yes. Everyone expects to be killed, but if terrorists attack me and kill me, they have killed an Iraqi patriot. If I am killed, I would consider myself a martyr for Iraq.”