Last night at a Hamra party I met another University of Chicago guy--he's over here taking photographs for Getty. He graduated in May of '02 and was shooting (pictures) in Afghanistan a month later. That makes three of us that I know of in Baghdad (that's when Wolfowitz isn't in town), and I'm making it my mission to put to rest the U of C's image as the land of cloistered academics. We're irresponsible adrenaline junkies, dammit!
The Sunday Times of London's top foreign correspondent was at the party, too, and Mitch introduced us. He told me he wished he'd done what I'm doing when he was 25. A minute ago I met the assistant foreign editor of the Washington Times, who also said he wished he'd done what I'm doing when he was my age. So, life is good.
I'm also making headway on my story--after an interview this morning I've found my angle. I don't want to give anything away (not when I can sell it), but I will say it's nice to finally find an Iraqi source who cuts the bullshit. With any luck you can read all about it in the Chronicle
I was at a party last night in the Hamra penthouse where the photographers from Getty Images
live. Me, Jeff, Ray and a British documentarian arrived late, after spending some time at a Fox News party at the Sheraton. The documentarian was doing some filming for a while, and I mostly tried to stay out of the frame while Jeff and Ray did their thing.
One of the guys at the party is a reporter and photographer for UPI who's been covering al Qaeda since September 11. We went back to the Dulaimi (where he's also staying) and talked a little about journalism and the Middle East. I told him I'm having trouble with my writing, that as I try to report self-contained stories I get overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues and worry that I'm missing the truth.
His reaction was an enormous relief: he began laughing hysterically.
"The TRUTH? The TRUTH? If your story uncovers "the truth," you should make sure the paper at least covers your costs!" His advice was to forget about the truth, make sure all my facts are correct, and get paid.
It's energizing to hang out with other journalists. Some of them are impressed that I'm over here as a true freelancer, which helps my ego. And they tend to be fun people to hang out with--smart, adventurous, good storytellers with lots of good stories to tell.
Photographers and documentarians have a lot more stories than print journalists about being in danger. I heard last night about photographers getting beaten, getting grenades thrown at them, watching their friends get shot. Print journalists get to pontificate about the causes of violence; photographers run out to take pictures of violence. There's something appealing to me about taking those kinds of risks to evoke a situation with images, instead of going from interview to interview and realizing that you still have no clue what the hell is going on.
Speaking of which, I went from interview to interview today and actually am
getting a sense of what the hell is going on. Not enough to write an article (who, me?), but enough to ask some better questions. I may be having difficulty with the story because women's advocacy is a difficult concept in a society that is, quite literally, a patriarchy: a woman running a Shi'ite women's center told me that all her money and a lot of "advice" come from the local imam, because he's like the community's father.
Keeping in mind my UPI friend's Indiana Jones philosophy ("Archaelogy is the search for fact, not truth"), I'm hoping to talk to a few more women's groups, get the damn CPA to talk to me, and get the article out by the end of the week. I'm through trying to figure out the fate of Iraqi women; I'm going to report on what these groups are up to ("This one has no money! This one is controlled by men!") and call it a day. Enough is enough; it's time to stop thinking and start making money. I'm paying Shamil, my translator, $35 a day; if I spend much more time doing interviews I'll have to sell the article just to pay his salary.
There are black flags around Baghdad for Ashura, the ten-day commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein in 680. The flags are flying in a pleasant breeze, and it's warm out. Today I would've been comfortable in shorts. By March it will be hot; by June it will be unbearable.
I've been told that secretarial work with civilian contractors here pays 80 grand a year, tax free. Jeff and Ray think I'd be a lock for a job they turned down. It's like a Biblical temptation--remain pure and poor as a journalist here, spending $600 a month on rent without knowing when I'll get paid again, or earn good money and get free room and board doing the kind of work that makes me want to jump out a window.
Charlie Crain, civilian contractor, is probably a fantasy. I've been daydreaming a lot lately--about going hiking on the Appalachian Trail, about going to a bar in New York or Chicago, and generally about going somewhere outside Iraq. Money aside, working at the CPA would probably be a huge step down from working here as a journalist. The hours would be long, the work would be boring, and some of these companies have policies forbidding employees from leaving the Green Zone in their spare time. Having seen the bars these guys frequent ($12 for two drinks in a rec room-like setting where men outnumber women 20-to-one) I'd have to either sneak out or find a company that'd let me live in the city.
Once I sell the women's NGO story and the schools story, I'm going to concentrate on one story at a time. It was hard enough for me to multitask in the States; over here it slows me down way too much.
If you're still seeing two virtually identical posts below, skip down to the second one.
Or read both, and gain insight into my editing process!
Okay, didn't think so. I'm not sure why these double-posts happen, or why I can't delete them immediately. But if things hold true to form the extra post will be gone soon.
By the way, I'm staying at the Dulaimi. As soon as I saw the neighborhood I knew I didn't want to live there--too residential, too unfamiliar. It's technically Karrada, the way Staten Island is technically New York City. I was going to sleep on it until I saw Jens trying to bargain with the landlord. Jens speaks a little Arabic, and his driver and the landlord both speak a little English. Sample dialogue (paraphrased):
Jens: So I'll pay $250 until I get a roommate, and then we'll pay $500 total once I do.
Driver: Yes, he agrees. You can live here by yourself, no problem.
Jens: But how much will I be paying?
Driver: Five-hundred dollars.
Jens: But I can't afford that--I can only live here by myself if I pay just for my own room. I can stay here by myself for one month, but only if I pay $250.
Driver: Okay, no problem. He says you can stay here for one month by yourself.
Jens: How much will the rent be?
Driver: Five-hundred dollars.
I imagined this pattern repeating itself some night when the generator has crapped out, and the rustic charm of the Dulaimi beckoned me home.
I spent the morning at a conference for Iraqi women organized by USAID. The organizers seemed to hope that the women (Sunni and Shia, rich and poor, Kurdish and Arab) would come to some kind of consenus, and leave re-committed to the mission of involving women fully in Iraqi politics and society.
I spoke (through my translator, who's good) with several women. They wanted more money for their projects, which include everything from feeding orphans to helping Iraqis realize that extended families can look after children while the mothers work (and this is one group). I heard, in breaks from my interviews, snippets of speeches whose themes were not
the sisterhood of all women and their equality with men. A Shi'ite cleric delivered what seemed like a veiled threat about how a "radical liberal" interpretation of women's rights will provoke a terrorist backlash, a Christian woman pointed out that Christian women are better treated than their Muslim counterparts, and so on.
What makes me want to bang my head against a wall at these events isn't that people lie, or that they know things they won't tell me. I may have been lied to once or twice, but that hasn't been a problem. What scares me is that when people here tell me they don't know the answers to my questions, I believe them. I believe the USAID rep when she says she has no clue what the future holds for Iraqi women on issues of fundamental importance (like whether, as the GC tried to say a few weeks ago, citizens of various religions will be subjected to their religions' various legal codes). I believe the representative of a women's group when she says she doesn't know how many people are in her organization, or what, exactly, they do.
Part of this, I think, is a clash of civilizations. Back in the American media civilization, I'd drop dead from surprise if I went to a conference full of women's groups and found that the spokeswomen didn't really have much of a discernable point of view. Here in Iraq, where "advocating" publicly has been a dangerous business and "women's rights" doesn't have much of a pedigree in large swaths of the country, I guess it's a little off-putting when some shifty looking American starts asking you where your office is and who belongs to your organization and what the heck you do there, anyway.
I was sitting at a table surrounded by chador-clad women, asking them about their group, when my translator told me they wanted to know what I
thought of women's rights in Iraq.
"Yeah," said Shamil, who has a disorientingly American manner. "You're a foreigner, you're a bigshot."
I told them I wanted an Iraq where everybody's concerns were represented to the government and addressed fairly--thereby nominating myself for the American Association of Editorial Pages' award for the most banal platitude of the year. But the women seemed pleased.
I can't figure out what was going on at the conference, but I am figuring out what's going on in my head. I searched for a while for the Iraqi equivalent of NOW--a pure advocacy organization whose spokeswoman would rattle off some talking points that I could use to chase down a story. Ah, the honor and glory of journalism, and it's lazy pleasures. That didn't go so well (I did find a group of women who seemed to have been sent by their husbands, members of a Shi'ite political party). Then it occurred to me that maybe those organizations don't exist in Iraq--nobody was lobbying the government for anything a year ago, and political advocacy (except in the form of street protest and behind-the-scenes influence) will be difficult until it's clear who's in charge.
After asking, several times, whom at the CPA or USAID she'd been asking for money and attention, one woman said she was working through "her" representative on the Governing Council. I guess "Write your Congressmen" is an exportable idea, but I think the folks at CPA who think they're in charge of women's issues might be a bit unsettled.
Tomorrow morning I'll be over near the Palestine at a club called the Alwiya, which used to be a hangout for Baghdad's movers and shakers. Apparently people got scared to go there when it turned into a hangout for Saddam's sons, who would occasionally beat or murder other patrons. It's now, among other things, the meeting place for the new Baghdad Rotary Club, a creation of some western businessmen who have either too much time on their hands or strange senses of humor (or both). I'll be there tomorrow to interview Iraqi women, not American businessmen. I'm trying to figure out what kind of luck Shi'ite women are having getting their social and political concerns met.
I broke down and had a freelancer named Glen hook me up with a translator--I think I've been subtly limiting the kinds of stories I cover based on my desire to save money by going places where at least one person speaks English. The translator, Shamil, speaks English better than any Iraqi I've met here--when he introduced himself I thought for a second he was a New Yorker. He wanted $50 for the day, I wanted to pay $20, and we agreed on $35. That's fair, assuming I shouldn't have offered $5 at the outset. But Glen--who's been in Baghdad for a while and speaks pretty good Arabic himself--says I got a decent deal.
I may make up for the money I spend on a translator by moving into an apartment with a Swedish freelancer named Jens. We're getting together to take a look at the place tomorrow afternoon. Apparently it's a lot cheaper than al Dulaimi. I wouldn't be behind a security perimeter, but then again I wouldn't be next to a hotel everyone says is going to get truck bombed, either. Besides, I've been in town long enough that money, not security, is now my biggest concern.
The apartment's in Karrada, where I lived for my first couple weeks in Baghdad. I have a soft spot for the neighborhood--I lived there back when I got nervous about walking two doors down to al Misouri's office, and when I felt guilty about paying 500 dinars for a five minute cab ride. Karrada's full of shops and restaurants and internet cafes--email for 2,000 dinars an hour, two kebabs for 1,500. It would be fun to move back there now that I know my way around a little better.
When I approached my usual entrance to the Green Zone today the roads were blocked off by Iraqi cops. The cabbie tried to get past them, and one of them stuck his head in the window, saw I was American, and said, "Car... bomb.... boom!"
From what I pieced together from second- and third-hand sources, two cars parked in front of the checkpoint near the Rashid and the convention center, and the drivers walked away. The folks who guard these checkpoints aren't idiots, and the area was cordoned off. Controlled explosions disposed of whatever might have been in the cars. I can't quite tell if these were bona fide car bombs, or if the military just acted out of an abundance of caution. One soldier I talked to said it's possible the large bang (soldiers inside the Green Zone saw a tire fly into the air) was the product of a slightly mis-managed controlled explosion, but it's just as possible the cars were packed with dynamite.
I'm not sure if I'll ever figure out exactly what happened--it doesn't seem to have made the news (it's only newsworthy when bombs go off and people get murdered), and the military probably isn't keen to tell everyone about what they do to make sure terrorists don't succeed.
Tuesday is a big day for Iraqi NGOs, who crowd the main checkpoint to get into meetings at CPA. So it's the same cruel strategy employed at police stations and army recruiting centers--murder Iraqis who think they can cooperate with the United States to get their country back on its feet. If the bombs had gone off, my friends Jeff and Ray would've known some of the murdered Iraqis, guys who come from places like Sadr City to ask the CPA for money they can use to help their communities.
I'm not going to grope toward some conclusion about what this means in the grand scheme of things--I'm mostly just struck that my daily commute was disrupted by a bomb scare. I know the 82nd doesn't like pulling guard duty ("I feel like a fucking Disneyland rent-a-cop; if you ask me this is a fucking misallocation of a valuable military resource"), but on days like today I'm glad to know professionals are on the case.
Jeff and Ray and Jensen think I should cross the July 14 bridge into the Green Zone and take the KBR bus over the the convention center; they don't think waiting at the main checkpoint almost every day is such a hot idea.
Name That Journalist
My impulse when I got here was to use Charles Edward Crain as my byline, on the theory that maximum pretension helps my credibility with editors. ("He must
have his finger on the pulse of Iraq--he has three names!
") Subsequent interactions with editors across the country have revealed that they aren't that shallow. Over the summer I went by Charles Crain. The non-newsprint me has always gone by Charlie. I honestly can't pick, so you can decide for me. The options, in descending order of snootiness, are:
A) Charles Edward Crain
B) Charles E. Crain
C) Charles Crain
D) Charlie Crain
I have launched pre-emptive strikes against the following options, removing a grave and gathering threat to my moniker:
1) Chuck Crain
2) Chuck E. Crain
3) C. Edward Crain
4) Ted Crain
5) c.e. crain
I figure I'll stick with what works at the News & Observer
, so I'll be taking suggestions until I get a piece published somewhere other than Raleigh.
Today I toured three schools in Sadr City with Sa'ad and George. Sa'ad lives in Sadr City, working as a teacher by day while pulling the night shift as an Army translator; George is a Christian who fled to Montreal during Lebanon's civil war. They're working with Shawn Jensen to refurbish schools in Sadr City that will then serve as models for others to emulate. George had brought along a group of engineers to assess what kinds of repairs will be necessary.
I can't say I saw unimaginable poverty today (I can imagine, and have seen documentaries depicting, people surviving greater privation). I did see facets of poverty that I'd never imagined. I had a pretty shameful moment early in the day. I was walking around a school with no heat, overgrown and garbage strewn grounds, and a fair number of unhinged doors, and I was thinking, "This isn't so bad."
I was trying to imagine "unimaginable poverty," and this wasn't it. It turns out I was at the best high school in Sadr City. They want to start reforming this one first, because other schools will want to copy it. I was looking for some cliched outward signifier of poverty--children playing in garbage (which I've already seen in Baghdad more than once); students with no shoes. Reality was more mundane: a teachers' lounge where teachers grade homework in shifts at the one desk; a "library" with books all over the floor, many featuring introductions by Saddam Hussein; a dead rat (not killed by science) in the junked biology lab.
I went into two classes to interview some kids (using Sa'ad as a translator). George did the same in other classes. I'm a journalist and he's a businessman, so he asked better questions. While I was asking 16 year olds what they think of Sistani and the Internet, George was asking why the students didn't set aside half an hour every day and devote it to cleaning up a portion of the school. He said the replies were along the lines of, "We suffered under Saddam, and we have no books." He was struck by the kids' unwillingness (or inability) to see themselves as anything but passive recipients of either aid or abuse.
The strangest things I saw today were the things that, strictly speaking, had nothing to do with lack of material resources. One of these schools has been completely surrounded by a bazaar, and George said the shopkeepers throw their garbage over the wall into the school. He thinks the adults at the bazaar are parents of children who go to the school.
I was walking over the garbage pile behind a girls' middle school school, and noticed a rooster, then a litter of puppies, then a couple young children. The Baathist enforcer who used to lord over the school has taken over a classroom and now lives there with his family; nobody in the community has the authority or the will to throw him out. His wife and their nine children now live on school grounds, hanging their laundry and doing their cooking in a corner of the dusty playground. I spoke to two of his kids, three and 11. The eleven year old thinks the school he attends is better than the school where he lives.
George and I had lunch at his place, and wondered what will happen to these schools. Even if funding comes through to allow full renovations of the buildings, the libraries and the labs, who will perform the maintenance to keep everything running? Who will teach classes? Who will toss semi-retired thugs off school property and keep parents from turning their kids' playgrounds into a dump?
I don't mean to argue that the work Shawn and Sa'ad and George is doing is hopeless, or that the schools would be fine if only Iraqis had more of a go-getter attitude. These schools need money--many millions of dollars in Sadr City alone. That money has to come from outside Sadr City, because Sadr City has no money to spare.
I don't mean to bash the Iraqi people, either. There's ample evidence that they're victims of circumstance, not of some national flaw. Saddam robbed them of their initiative, and then sanctions (and the way Saddam used sanctions to neutralize, humiliate and annihiliate his opponents) robbed them of their resources. Sa'ad stood in a trash field, remembering that it used to be the garden where his art teacher urged him to practice his drawing. Something in the Iraqi character may have been trashed since then, and cleaning up the schools won't clean up the mess.
Tonight I wound up having drinks in the hotel room of a Romanian radio reporter, along with an American hustler and two Iraqis, Mohammad and Khalid. One's a Shi'ite and the other a Sunni, but they grew up next door to each other and are best friends. They speak decent English, but lose their accents entirely when they sing along to American rap. They taught me how to tie a keffiyeh around my head in authentic fashion (photos to come), and I heard my Romanian friend's story about the accident he got into when Iraqi police shot at his car.
There was another sandstorm this afternoon, and this time I was out in it. Nothing striking to report--sand gets in your eyes and your mouth, and you'd rather be inside. I rode for the first time in a car with the steering wheel on the right; I stood for about five seconds thinking the cabbie wanted to open my door for me, while he waited for me to catch on and go around to the passenger side. He took $1 for the ride from the Finar to the Green Zone, in contrast to a cabbie the other day who scoffed at the 1,000 dinars I offered him, demanded 2,000, and threw the 1,250 I gave him out my window and onto the street. I have no shame, especially when someone's trying to shame me into over-paying--I picked my money of the street and left happy.
I've been, to some extent, wary of cabbies who seem like they want to be my friend--I anticipate the moment when they try to act like I'm a back-stabbing jerk for offering them standard cabfare (I'm pretty sure I know what standard cabfare is--I checked it out tonight with Mohammad and Khalid). But my Romanian buddy said he chats cabbies up, hoping that he'll get a free ride out of it. It worked for me on the way home tonight.
I'm hoping this will be my last post for a while on the subject of Iraqi taxis. I'd like this week to be a busy one--I'm up early for Sadr City tomorrow morning, have a women's NGO meeting to crash on Tuesday, and want to track down sources for a couple other stories.
I'm fast becoming pals with the paratroopers who guard the convention center and the nearby checkpoint--procrastinator that I am, I always stop to tell them a dirty joke and shoot the shit. They'd rather be out fighting in Fallujah than pulling guard duty in Baghdad. As one of them put it, "I took this job because I wanted to jump out of airplanes."
The Army is stretched so thin these days that elements of the 82nd are manning checkpoints in 12-hour shifts, work better suited to MPs (I was wrong the other day when I implied that the 82nd mans checkpoints as part of a deliberate security strategy). The press, one guy said, tries to treat them like security guards. One American reporter tried to blow by an ID check while muttering, "I'm sick and tired of your shit." No shots were fired, but it didn't end happily for the reporter.
I've heard some stories from other reporters about taking crap from the military at checkpoints, but I've never had a problem. That may be because I'm kind of resigned to waiting in long lines and submitting to ID checks, bag searches and friskings on my way into the Green Zone. Everyone--CPA, western media, ordinary Iraqis--waits in the same line at these checkpoints; the idea of setting up separate lines for western press or government employees was shot down by an American general as inegalitarian. Last week I saw the military send a guy to the back of the line despite his protests that he was going to miss a chopper ride with Paul Bremmer. The exception, I think, is that folks with CPA badges can come out and pull people out of line.
It may also help that the only paper I've written for so far is the News & Observer, which is the 82nd's hometown paper. They may have more of a bone to pick with the guys from CNN. They definitely don't like Geraldo, who shined a flashlight in his own face when they asked him for ID. They didn't let him in until he'd given them two forms of picture identification. Geraldo was last seen in Iraq last spring, when he was kicked out of the country for broadcasting plans for an upcoming operation (complete with an improvised map) to a worldwide audience.
The 82nd has recently taken it upon itself to replace the razor wire fencing in the lines with Hesco barriers--the big, chest-high containers of earth that offer protection against explosions. One of the sergeants told me something I hadn't considered: even if you're out of range of a bomb blast, the rush of air will toss razor wire into the air and turn it into shrapnel. Good to know. They also advised me, sensibly, to "get prone" if I hear gunshots at a checkpoint.
We also chatted about their deployment in Afghanistan, and how I might get out there to write stories about the special forces and the work they're doing on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Mom, they tell me it's safer than Baghdad, so it's got that going for it.
Well, my new Friendster is leaving the country tomorrow morning. C'est la vie.
On the other hand, in the process of meeting her and her friends for drinks at al Finar I wound up as a guest at a wedding dinner organized by a Hungarian named Atilla (yes, Atilla the Hungarian), for newlyweds from rival Iraqi tribes, at which the entertainment was provided by British circus performers.
Many of the other guests were peace activists from groups with names like "Occupation Watch." Again, I was the stealth conservative--although the woman sitting next to me did begin by saying, "I don't know what your politics are, but..." before telling me that I'd be happier living in her apartment building because the people there are against the occupation. I'm not sure about the political side, but if it's true that I can get my own room there for $125 a month I may move in and get a closer look at my radical brothers and sisters.
The universal assumption among the leftists here is that only leftists are interested in really interacting with ordinary Iraqis. That's not an insane supposition when so many folks who support the occupation are barricaded behinds several tons of concrete and earthen barriers, and under the protection of the finest soldiers in the world. On the other hand, Paul Bremer is a more inviting target than the circus, and less likely than the circus to endear himself to the public by stepping out on the street to juggle pins for Iraqi street kids. Then again, somebody chucked a grenade at the circus' house the other day (no injuries), so this lady's assumption that insurgents care that you're an "anti-occupation" Westerner may be off the mark.
likes the women's NGO idea, and has asked what my article about the 82nd handing off to the Marines will say. I'm trying to think of a better pitch than, "I don't know what it will say, because I haven't started interviewing anybody yet."
I'd been planning to go the Getty Images party on the tenth floor of the Hamra hotel, but got sidetracked with Jeff and Ray at an apartment full of left-wing circus performers. We sat around drinking beer and foul local booze for a while, then went across the hall and listened to the Stones, AC/DC and the Smiths in the space of about 20 minutes.
I've found that, as a shaggy-bearded freelancer in Baghdad, I'm quite the stealth conservative. I got a Friendster message today from a woman in Baghdad, and her profile says she hates Republicans (except those in her immediate family, so that's a good sign). Her profile also says she only reads non-fiction, and she lists two books by Noam Chomsky as favorites. So, there's that. On the other hand, she reads books, she's in Baghdad, and she wants to meet me. So I can roll with a little anti-literary leftism.
The circus performers were actually pretty laid-back about their politics. One guy got into the Green Zone with an ID depicting him as a jester; I have to respect that regardless of ideology. The circus also seems to have a few hangers-on, including an American who refered to the CPA as "the enemy." Whatever. I don't know if my reluctance to get into political arguments in those situations is moral cowardice ("What if they don't like me anymore?") or some sort of enervating superiority complex ("Why expend energy talking in circles with hash-addled clowns [literally]?). When the lady in dreadlocks busted out the animal rights pamphlets and asked how many meat-eaters were in the room I figured it was time to skedaddle. I'm sure I'll be hanging out with them again, though--when the subject isn't politics (say, 70% of the time) it's a good time.
A couple of the performers walked me out for safety's sake, but a '79 Malibu pulled up just as we hit the main drag. The cabbie told me it wasn't safe to be out on the streets after ten. I pulled the Irish gambit, and he said Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam, but don't think the US has done much to improve the country since last spring. As he put it, "Go back to America, and take Saddam with you." He wouldn't take any money for the ride.
My mood has begun to improve. Raleigh published the doctors article. I hope it and my other two Raleigh articles will be in their web archive soon; I sent in my freelance contract today by taking digitial photos of it and emailing them to my editor.
I'm also starting to realize that, after five weeks, I have quite a few stories in the pipeline. I'd sat down and made a schedule for pursuing them at the beginning of the week, before Raleigh emailed to remind me about the medical story I was supposed to be working on for them. Now I can get back on schedule, and also pursue the questions I have about the Ministry of Health (I'm going to see an Iraqi doctor's pediatric clinic on Saturday). So, this whole journalism thing might have some legs.
I went to dinner tonight at a house rented by several journalists, including one who works for NPR and went to University of Chicago. We had instant geeky solidarity. Tomorrow I'm hoping to go with him to al Finar bar, where last night the French Foreign Legion mixed with right-wing French journalists and a group of circus performers. I'm getting the feeling, talking to more-established reporters, that I don't have a typical Baghdad journalist's social life.
It was good to hang out with my peers, the people who do my job but have more experience. If we'd been drinking wine instead of the 40 ounce beers they sell in Iraq, it could've been a dinner party in Manhattan.
An acquaintance informs me that you can manipulate an Iraqi employee by calling the demotion he's getting a promotion, and by telling him that his new job is more prestigious than the jobs his former co-workers are doing (even when the exact opposite is the case).
My friend Shawn Jensen (we finally found each other; I'm interviewing him tomorrow) makes a conscious effort not to be too assertive with the Iraqis he works with, because behavior an American might consider "direct" will cow an Iraqi into silence.
The American doctors who organized the conference I covered this week told me that Iraqi doctors were reluctant to take leadership positions in new medical societies, and reluctant to speak their minds.
Yesterday I was introduced to an Iraqi pediatrician by one of the conference organizers, and she proceeded to say nice things about the conference even after the other American had left. Today, she approached me at the suggestion of Ray (who, I'd imagine, is not as conscientious as Sgt. Jensen about reigning in his assertiveness when dealing with Iraqis) and told me that the people who organized the conference are "looters in suits" and that nobody has done anything to improve public health in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.
I was speaking today with a doctor from North Carolina with whom I share a few things in common: an interest in history, support for the war, enthusiasm at being here to witness attempts to create a free society in Iraq. But I can't say, after five weeks, that I share his evident emotional uplift at what's going on here. There's too much material and human wreckage on display. The hangover of war and tyranny is obvious in people's behavior. How much more deeply must it corrupt institutions, like the Ministry of Health, that play a vital role in helping ordinary Iraqis? Someone may know the answer to that question, but I don't yet.
On the other hand, as David Standish might say, "bad for Iraq, good for the story." From a professional standpoint, as opposed to a socio-political, emotional standpoint, things are actually going pretty well. The doctor story, despite my existential doubts about its ultimate relevance, is a nice piece of exotic local news for Raleigh, complete with photographs (if they aren't too amateurish to run). The 82nd got back to me and seems enthusiastic about my plan to head back out to Fallujah for a more in-depth look at the Army's hand-off to the Marines. Jensen and I have finally gotten the knack of being in the same place at the same time, and on the same side of the security barrier. Lastly, I bumped into a guy I'd been wanting to write a story about, and he tells me the other
guy I need for that story is getting back to Baghdad in a couple days.
So, my career may not be grinding to a premature halt. I should also add that I don't believe the situation here is hopeless (the situation for Iraq, not the situation for my career). Not to draw a trite comparison, but the rebuilding process is a bit like fighting a war--it's noble in the abstract, and may even actually be
noble, but being directly involved in it is not an experience one relishes at the time.
The best motto for the US in post-war Iraq may be something I overheard a middle-aged soldier say at the convention center the other day: "You're going to make compromises, that's a given. The question is, which set of compromises do you want to make?"
But faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.
Not a lot to report today, despite it being one of the busiest days of my time here. I waited in another long line to get into the Green Zone. I was wrong--I asked a paratrooper and he says the line is a nightmare six mornings a week.
Once inside I spent the day interviewing American and Iraqi doctors, and spent far too much time doing interviews while walking with someone from place to place, or while standing around when sitting would've worked just as well. I'm starting to miss my regular old brown shoes; I've been wearing my hiking boots for five weeks because that's what I wore on the plane from Chicago.
I got to talk with a guy who was Saddam's doctor for the regime's first couple years (before fleeing to California). He told me Saddam was a good patient who always did what he was told.
I'm happy to have a story, but frustrated by how hard it is to figure out what's going on over here. I don't doubt that the conference I'm covering--which will help Iraqi medical specialists organize into the kind of organizations that define standards and lobby governments in western countries--is doing good work. But is that kind of top-down organizational focus a necessary addition to more basic issues of rebuilding the public health infrastructure, or is it a diversion of resources away from other problems?
I came over here to answer those kinds of questions, but I'm not making much headway. I got into an argument with my friend Ray tonight about this; he thinks, to put it diplomatically, that the conference I'm covering (not to say the story I'm writing) is bullshit. We may have to agree to disagree on a few things, but he's right about one thing, and it bothered me: I don't have any counterpoint in the story.
If I were writing this story in the States I'd track down a few people who could give me some independent information about the conference (even if they just say that it's a great idea). Here I'm writing a story where all my sources have an agenda (not a sinister agenda--they're part of the conference, so they like it). I have no way to vet what they're telling me, and even if I find people who bad-mouth the conference I have no way of figuring out what axe they're grinding.
If I had more access, or a better understanding of the issues I'm writing about, I wouldn't be having these kinds of problems. I need to get to the next level with my stories; right now I'm writing about who won the baseball game, and I want to write about why the game is being played in the first place. I may have a better outlook the day after tomorrow; it's a boost to get a story published, even if it's incomplete, and I could also use some friggin' sleep.
Yesterday morning I got to the Green Zone early, which was fortunate—there's a medical conference in progress at the convention center and the line at the checkpoint was long. I'd never been to the Green Zone at the start of the business day, and thought maybe the lines are that long every morning. I didn't figure things out until I heard the soldiers griping.
I don't usually get unsettled by thoughts of terrorism, but I had a morbid moment as I shuffled forward with the crowd, watching women's gowns catch on the razor wire that funnels people toward the paratroopers who check IDs. The razor wire chute takes you away from the streets of Baghdad. The cross street is a good distance away, behind more razor wire and the almost decorative concrete blocks that guard a lot of buildings in the States these days.
Razor wire isn't barbed wire. It's very sharp, and the razors have little hooked ends that catch on clothing (and flesh, if things get ugly). The coils are thigh-high zigzags that you can't step over or through. I considered what would happen if someone on the street wanted to express his hatred of "collaborators" with an AK-47. It's not pleasant to be penned in.
The Army, though, wouldn't give an attacker much time to do his damage. After the soldiers check your ID and an Iraqi civilian frisks you and searches your bag, you walk through a twisting corridor of dirt-filled barriers to a second checkpoint, this one behind earth and sandbags. Small windows in the fortifications afford soldiers a view of every inch of the street, and the 82nd Airborne mans the barricades. That in itself is a sign of how serious the security situation here is; the same unit that runs counter-insurgency raids in Fallujah is checking IDs in the Green Zone.
I looked up and saw a rifleman in a tower above, taking an interest in my examination of the facilities. I passed a guy manning a heavy machine gun, pointed directly at the entrance I'd walked through a minute earlier. These are things you don't see from the street. The point isn't secrecy, just efficiency: they'll always see you first, even if you know where to look. As I approached the forward operating bases in Fallujah I was struck by how empty and quiet they seemed; the same is true as you observe the Green Zone from outside.
Once again, though, the trip was for naught; the meeting I'd come to see had been pushed out by a medical convention. I'm actually writing a story on the convention for the N&O, as Steve reminded me yesterday evening. Oops. It looks like I'll get the story in on time, without having to reveal my colossal planning oversight, but I may not be posting here much until after Tuesday.
Yesterday afternoon was my first sandstorm. I wasn't outside, except to get on the balcony and take a couple pictures. My knowledge of sandstorms had been limited to Lawrence of Arabia
, but this one was more like a beige fog than a real storm. The wind blew hard, but it's been worse. The trees on the next street over were brown silhouettes, and then visibility receded to nothing. The light was almost reddish. Take a look at some of those NASA pictures of Mars and you'll get the idea.
[Lights up outside US Army Camp Marlboro, Sadr City, Baghdad. Late afternoon. Dust rises from the road in white clouds that sting the eyes. Children play soccer in trash-strewn fields; the sky is filled with smoke from garbage fires and factory smokestacks. Enter a JOURNALIST, who approaches the entrance and asks to see Sgt. Jensen, who has started an NGO to provide money and equipment to Iraqi primary schools. Exit a JOURNALIST, back to the other side of town, when the guards tell him Sgt. Jensen isn't there, and refuse his requests to come in to use a phone or a computer to track him down.]
It was that kind of day. I left myself half an hour to get to the Convention Center and meet Jensen; the cab ride took one hour and forty-five minutes. There are no public computers in the Green Zone, so I cabbed it to Karrada to send Jensen an email and have lunch. My Arabic may be bad, but my beard is long and my accent is good. The cabbie at first thought I couldn't understand him because of his accent, and asked me if I was from Saudi Arabia. I proved to be a Saudi of few words, and then a stupid Saudi, and finally an American.
Jensen emailed and told me to meet him in Sadr City at Camp Marlboro, so-called by the Army because the complex used to produce Saddam-brand cigarettes. He said "any cabbie" would know the cigarette factory.
I hopped in a cab, conveyed "cigarette factory," and ten minutes later was at a cigarette factory in Karrada, on the wrong side of town. Fortunately this cigarette factory was decorated with portraits of a prominent Ayatollah who was killed in a bombing over the summer, so I figured the guys loitering out front would know how to get to the Shi'ite side of town. They did, and two of them hopped in to ride along for reasons I never quite grasped.
I can't say I saw much of Sadr city. It's very dusty, very dirty, and very smoky. It's a massive Shi'ite ghetto, built by and named for Saddam. After the war the residents renamed it in honor of an Ayatollah Saddam had murdered. It's apparently horrendously over-crowded, but that's not the part I saw--I saw plenty of garbage-strewn empty lots, and a lot of the crumbling huts have their own little parcel of dirt. Plenty of squalor for everyone. The air is so foul that the fumes rising from the smokestack of the truck ahead of us stood out bright against the sky. It's the kind of pollution you can taste, and can feel in your eyes after 10 minutes of driving through it.
There was an organized soccer game in progress across the street from Marlboro, and the kids had improbably bright and clean uniforms. The sergeants guarding the gate were very friendly and polite, and very unhelpful--they hadn't seen Sgt. Jensen, and since they didn't know who I was or what I was doing there, they couldn't let me in. While I was waiting for news of Jensen a family approached, and asked the soldiers, through a translator, about the status of a relative who'd been detained for stealing a truck. The sergeants refered them to another base; the chador-clad matriarch started wailing. While her husband spoke with the soliders she'd been hovering off to one side, like an actress waiting to take the stage. When weeping cut no ice with the sergeants the family walked off, and the mother had composed herself fully by the time she was out of earshot.
One of the Iraqi translators came out to hail me a cab, and I chatted up a couple of boys in the meantime. Quite a few young kids I meet on the street speak excellent English, throwing into relief the sub-toddler caliber of my Arabic. One of these kids was selling little sugared sticks of soft bread, but he didn't bother to push them on me and instead just asked for money. I bought a sweet for 1,000 dinars and he offered a second one for free. Meanwhile, the translator, Mohammad, told me he has a friend, also Mohammad, who can drive and translate for me. Supposedly the second Mohammad will be dropping by the hotel tomorrow evening for a chat (or a job interview, I guess).
A few minutes ago, after another cross-town cab ride, I got an email from Jensen--he'd been inside Marlboro all along, with locals ready to talk to me, supplies to go deliver with me in tow, and room and board arranged. Nobody had told the guys at the gate I was coming, and whoever they checked with hadn't been told, either. He invited me to come back over.
Sadr City after dark is apparently not a lot of fun. So, in deference to my own sense of self-preservation and the nerves of various friends and well-wishers, I'll be going back out another day.
A post-script, in praise of cabbies: I've written some unflattering things about the cabbies here. It's all true (like it's true of cabbies all over the world); most of them try to charge me double the right fare, and they're happy to have you jump in the cab even when they have no clue where you want to go and little hope of finding out. But, as much fun as I've had recounting our silly conversations, it's worth noting that all I can do in Arabic is greet them, give them street and hotel names, and thank them. My Arabic isn't yet good enough to be amusingly bad.
And there's another side. My second week in Baghdad I was out at the al Finar (near the Palestine) and got one of the worst headaches of my life; I could hardly open my right eye. The cabbie I flagged down drove me home and wouldn't take any money (now that I think of it, he may not have been a cabbie--but nevermind). Today the guy who drove me to Sadr City (who was definitely a cabbie) gave me back 1,000 dinars after I tried to give him 4,000; the same thing happened the other day when I tried to pay 2,000 for a 1,500 dinar ride. The guys who tagged along today giving directions also refused money. On the ride back I was expecting a fight with the driver over the fare; I assumed he'd try to ask for a full 3,000 even though we'd stopped along the way and I'd bought him 1,000 dinars of gas. At the end of the ride, which took us through several monstrous traffic jams, we agreed on the fare without a problem.
Human nature being what it is, and the economics being what they are, I'm not surprised to find folks over here looking to scam a couple bucks off an American. It's more surprising when these cabbies--many of whom live in Sadr city--refuse money freely offered.
Another day, another cabbie...
I tried the "I'm Irish" gambit again. It's a good one, because it doesn't require me to talk in detail about Ireland, or Irish foreign policy--mostly the discussion involves explainng what Ireland is, and where it's located.
This cabbie didn't wait long before declaring, "Saddam good." We were driving a route to the convention center I'd never taken before. I told the guy "al Rashid Hotel," because most cabbies don't know what "convention center" means and I don't know the Arabic. He'd told me, "al Rashid bad," before asking me where was from.
We didn't know enough words in common to discuss why Saddam is good. We did establsh that there'd been a war. At one point he wagged his finger in my face and asked, "American? American?" I tried again to explain what Ireland was. I said it was next to England. He asked if I was English (not much better than American in these circumstances), and then seemed to understand when I sad "Irish" for the tenth time.
"Oh, yes, Ireland. England and Ireland."
"Yes. Not English. I don't like England. They do to Ireland what America does to Iraq."
Charlie Crain, Irish leftist. It kind of works.
The cabbie, it turns out, was taking me a different route in a stubborn attempt to replicate pre-war traffic patterns. The quickest way from the Hamra to the Rashid used to be coming due north, taking the July 14th bridge across the Tigris, hanging a right and driving east for a few minutes. The July 14 bridge has been closed by the Army; now most cabbies follow the river east and north before crossing the Tigris and coming south.
This guy, though, looped west before coming back and picking up 14 July road at the point where the US military roadblocks end. It's not quicker, but it did demonstrate to me how close I'd be to the Rashid if all the roads were open. The city won't be quite as impossible to get around, and traffic won't be quite as nightmarish, as the US draws down its presence in the city (let's just hope a civil war doesn't ruin the driving experience).
I'm now getting to know the 82nd Airborne paratroopers who guard the checkpoint I go through to get to the convention center. They want to here a dirty joke every time I go in or out, so if you've got a good one feel free to post it (or email it, if it's too filthy).
It was the best of days, it was the worst of days.
I'm hoping to write what I can only assume will end up being a flattering story about an NGO trying to help Iraq's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. For some reason that NGO is giving me the cold shoulder I'd expect if I were writing a story about how they're using their USAID money to peddle heroin to toddlers. On the other hand, I have another NGO story in the works that could be pretty cool--stay tuned for details.
Also, Jeff and Ray continue to come through in the connections department--look, in the near future, for digital photographs of yours truly sitting on Saddam's "throne of judgment." The throne is being kept as a kind of tourist attraction in the Palace--Saddam's old hangout, now the CPA epicenter. A mortal such as myself can only gain entry if he's signed in and accompanied by someone with special authorization from the Defense Department.
Bremer actually doesn't live there--he lives in a trailer behind the palace. That's encouraging. I found out yesterday that creatures of the Green Zone call the rest of Baghdad the Red Zone. That's less encouraging.
My cabbie tonight was one of the security guards at a checkpoint outside the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, so nothing exotic to report there. I paid 2,000 dinars for the peace of mind; seven hours earlier I took the same ride in the opposite direction for 1,500. I'm trying not to bargain too much with cabbies--I have a sense of how much the rides cost, roughly, and I just give them that much. I listen to about 15 seconds of complaining as a courtesy.
Tonight the guy wanted more money because it was after 11. But insurgents aren't the problem on Baghdad's streets; you're much more likely to die here because people drive like jackasses. So the later the better, because there are fewer cars (making it easier, for example, for my cabbie to save time by driving down the wrong side of a major parkway for several hundred yards). Plus, I don't see many people lining up for cabs after 10 pm; it's not like the guy was passing up a bigger payday by driving me.
If I had more money I'd feel guilty. But like I told the guy tonight, "You need to scam someone who works for a bigger newspaper."
After Jeff and Ray finished some business, we walked out of the Green Zone and down to a tea and smoke shop they know. This was one of those neighborhoods where it feels like 3 am as soon as the sun goes down. There were some stray cats and dogs on the street, a few military convoys, some white Chevy Suburbans speeding toward the Green Zone.
The guys at the smoke shop were playing aggressive games of dominoes, and we sat outside at a white plastic table while they tried to chat us up. It wasn't particularly effective. Jeff and Ray think the place is a a gay hangout, which I'd believe given the bedroom eyes and questions about our relationship status (a questioning look while fondling the ring finger).
When we left they tried to charge me 5,000 dinars to drive me back to the hotel (the "cabbie" had arrived by driving his car onto the sidewalk). Having regained my Baghdad sea-legs, I walked away when he wouldn't lower the price to 4,000 dinars, putting myself in God's hands over a difference of about 75 cents.
A driver pulled up as we walked back toward the Green Zone, and I hopped in. He said he was a mechanical engineer who had studied at Baghdad University. He asked where I was from. It was after dark and the car wasn't marked as a cab; I decided to tell him I was Irish. He asked where I'd gone to school; I told him Trinity College (there's a Trinity College in Ireland, right?). This was the first time I'd lied about where I was from to a cabbie. A lot of cabbies give me a thumbs up and tell me "Saddam bad, America good" when I tell them I'm from the States.
"When America go, Iraq good."
"Okay. Are you Sunni or Shia?"
"Shia. But Sunni, Shia, we are Muslim. Brother."
"Ayatollah Sistani? Good? Bad?"
"Good, good. Ayatollah good. Saddam bad."
I decided against asking his opinion of Ayatollah Khomeini (whose image I'd seen on the dashboard of one Baghdad taxi). Then he asked me if I'd pay him to teach me Arabic, and if I could help him go to America to get a master's degree in engineering. The ride cost 2,250 dinars, about $1.65.
Edited to add...
My friend Richard once told me that if Thomas Friedman says "most people" believe something, it probably means it's what Bob Herbert told him yesterday at the deli. I noticed I refered to what "most Iraqis" believe in my last post. I should have said, "most Iraqis I've asked," because I have no clue what "most Iraqis" believe.
I'm posting from an undisclosed location, having gotten into the al Rashid Hotel for dinner with my friend Ray. He and Jeff have found jobs volunteering for an arm of the CPA that's coordinating money and logistics for Iraqi non-government organizations.
One hint that you're in the Green Zone, and not in greater Baghdad: you spend more on two drinks than you usually do on two meals. There are two free dinners a night in the upstairs dining room, complete with an ice cream bar and a pretty decent beef stew. But in the basement there's a bar with ESPN on a big screen TV, a couple pool tables, and a bar with one kind of beer and about 5 kinds of whiskey. A beer and a Johnny Walker on the rocks cost $12. Maybe Halliburton is trucking the scotch in from Kuwait.
Getting into the Green Zone tonight was a bit eerie. It was after dark, and I stopped at a sign informing me that deadly force might be used against me if I moved forward. A guy came out the opposite direction, and he told me there were soldiers up ahead.
"Will they use deadly force against me?"
He laughed. At the checkpoint the GIs asked me if I knew any good jokes, but they had to settle for the pirate joke. I'll tell them the one about the priest and the 17-year-old girl on the way out; they're pulling the 6 pm to 6 am shift.
To get into the Green Zone after the first checkpoint you have to walk through a twisting corridor of big barriers filled with earth and topped with razor wire; it's reminiscent of a World War I trench system. By 6:30, though, all the soldiers and Iraqis who usually man the tents where they search you and your bags had gone home; the soldiers back at the checkpoint take on that duty after business hours. So it was like walking through battlements that had been abandoned by their defenders.
I'm very uneasy about what the future holds. The "insurgency" looks to be on the run. It seems, for the most part, that its members are now-discouraged ex-Baathists, disgruntled ex-army guys looking for cash doing the only thing they've been taught to do, and assorted ne'er-do-wells. They're dangerous, and good at what they do, but they'll never have a wide enough following (in numbers or geography) to pose a threat to the reconstruction. The guys firing the mortars and planting the IEDs are doing it for pay. If and when the economy improves, most of these guys will, I'd imagine, prefer day jobs to their current gig of taking pot-shots at the most lethal fighting force on the planet.
Even the terrorism that's been hitting over the past few days isn't fatal--most Iraqis view these suicide bombings as attempts by foreigners--Iranians, Saudis, etc.--to slaughter Iraqi civilians in pursuit of some alien political or theological program. A unified Iraq would be able to stand up to that.
The potentially deadly problem in the long-term seems to be that the three largest groups in Iraq despise one another. In Kirkuk Kurds are taking back, by force, homes that Saddam confiscated and gave to Sunnis while he was slaughtering Kurds in the 80's and 90's. There's a several-hour break in the school day so Kurdish children and Arab children, who are educated seperately, don't have to see one another. The Kurds have no interest, as far as I can tell, in becoming just another ethnic minority in greater Iraq; they'd rather keep the autonomy they got after the first Gulf War.
Meanwhile, Sistani has no interest in letting Kurds or Sunnis go their own way; he wants free elections throughout the country, which Shi'ites would dominate. If there's an elegant way for the United States to turn Iraq into a democracy without risking Iran II: Tigris Boogaloo
, I haven't heard it yet. If the Shi'ites feel they're being marginalized by caucuses or a federal system, and Sistani tells them to fight, it would make the worst locales in the Sunni Triangle look like Boy Scout daycamps.
If Iraq turns into a clerical dictatorship, or if there's a civil war, this whole project will have been a disaster.
I'm hoping to get out to Sadr city in the next week or so for a story on women's role in local Shi'ite politics. That might be a decent barometer of exactly how theological and conservative a Shia-dominated Iraq would be.
Today, for the first time, I wound up in a cab with a cabbie who spoke zero English. I should have learned by now that when I stick my head in the window and say, for example, "Hotel Marble? Karrada?" with a questioning look on my face, and then the cabbie smiles and nods and waves me into the car, it doesn't necessarily mean he knows what I'm talking about. First we drove to the Babylon Hotel, where we stopped a couple Iraqi businessmen on the sidewalk for directions. I figured we were on the right track until the driver tried to flag down a kid selling fruit in the middle of the street.
I didn't mind the delay; I was tempted to give the guy five bucks and tell him to drive me around for a few hours (not that I would've been able to get that point across). Traffic is usually brutal, but it wasn't so bad this afternoon. In Karada and Jadreia, the relatively upscale neighborhoods we were driving through, there's a nice atmosphere on the streets--kids playing, merchants selling clothes and cigarettes and watches on the sidewalks, women in chadors walking past storefront manequins in lingerie.
The weather has been amazing here for the past week--clear, sunny and cool every day. It makes me homesick for southern California. You can listen to military radio and hear a cheerful American disk jockey rattle off the highs and lows in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, and then announce that she's refusing to play the Kenny Loggins song on the playlist.
We eventually finally arrived at our destination, where I was gratified to be mistaken for an Iranian--much cooler than being mistaken for a Turk. Then I found out the guy I want to profile for the San Francisco Chronicle may be leaving for vacation in the US tomorrow. I'd call him nasty names in jest, but you never know who could be reading this.
I stopped by my old neighborhood to leave a message for Tariq al Missouri, who may or may not know where my luggage is. It turns out the people in his office may or may not know where Mr. al Missouri is. I gave them a note with my new address on it, and now he'll know I didn't disappear after leaving for Fallujah. (I pretty much gave up on my luggage almost a month ago, around the time I drove up to the Turkish-Iraqi border at midnight only to find that the cabbie had lied through his teeth about dropping it off.)
When I last saw him, Mr. al Missouri was tooling around Baghdad in a silver Mercedes, lookingly unnervingly like a Kurdish Saddam Hussein with his fedora and bushy moustache. I hope to see him again--anyone who drives a Mercedes, used to be in the Iraqi army, and holds concrete contracts with the CPA is a good guy to have on your side.
Tariq's son, the enigmatic Shivan al Missouri, has disappeared. It's like a con game in reverse--after providing me hundreds of dollars worth of free housing, food and transportation, he told me he was leaving for a week and I haven't heard from him since. If you're out there, Shivan, thanks for being the most generous goofball I've ever met.
Tonight I had dinner at the best (the only?) Chinese restaurant in Baghdad, which was empty except for me and two friends, another table of reporters, and a group of Russians we all assume were in the mob. For once I was with an American who speaks Arabic, and it did no good--the staff speaks Chinese, but not Arabic or English. Honest to God, the food was great by any standard.
The News-Observer ran my story in today's paper (unfortunately some kind of contract issue--the issue being, I never signed a contract--keeps them from putting my articles on the web). It occured to me yesterday that this story and the Super Bowl piece are the only two articles I've ever sold--everything else has been for Medill, for college papers, high school publications, or whatever. As Sean, the British documentarian, said last night, "Welcome to the club."
Lastly, thanks to everyone who's emailed me, emailed my dad, or posted comments on the blog. Even if I don't get a chance to reply, it's good to hear from you.
I realized today that I haven't been outside the perimeter since I got here Tuesday afternoon. Fortunately I finished my latest story (and the rewrite), and tomorrow I'm going over to RTI to see about doing a story on their guy in Sadr City. That ought to break the spell.
Right now I'm listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the internet cafe sound system; before it was a Muzak version of the theme from "Exodus," and before that a Muzak version of "America" from West Side Story. The cellos in "Take My Breath Away" added a melancholy undertone.
I'd been planning a longer post, but the music here is driving me insane. For three dollars an hour you get the slowest internet connection in town, but the upside is it's open 24 hours. Sort of. I came in last night at about 2 to email my story to Raleigh, and the proprietor was sleeping on the floor behind a locked door.
Tomorrow I'll be back in the real world. In the meantime, check for my story tomorrow morning on the News-Observer
Being inside a security perimeter puts me in a strange semi-Iraq. At the hotels and shops here, I've abandoned the assumption I'd been operating under for several weeks--that it would be polite for me to at least try some of my terrible Arabic before relying on the other guy's less-terribe English. The restaurants, internet cafes, and stores here charge dollars, and use an absurd exchange rate to discourage customers from paying in dinars.
I can get a mediocre hamburger in the Hamra hotel restaurant. Today at the Flowersland Hotel I asked for bread and got a little baguette instead of the local stuff I'd expected. The tea comes in tea bags, not in little glass cups loaded with sugar. The biggest sign that I've left Iraq is that, since bargaining down the price of my hotel room, I've paid the asking price for everything.
I haven't been out in the city since returning from Falluja--I've been stuck working on my second Raleigh story, and getting settled in to my apartment. I need to get out and about before I forget what the rest of the city is like. There's a lot more fear here about going out in Baghdad than I think is warranted (and the journalists here seem to feel the same way I do).
The people I've met who are least willing to walk the streets here are private security guys. Some of these folks, according to some friends of mine, have toiletries shipped in from abroad because they don't want to walk to a convenience store. They spend most of their day viewing Iraqis as people who might want to murder their employer, so they have a different perspective than journalists or even soldiers, who have to interact with locals much more often. Presumably these guys tell their clients the same thing they tell me: don't take cabs, because the cabbies may murder you for your money; don't walk the streets, because it only takes one loonie to shoot you in the head; don't travel outside Baghdad without security.
Of course, if you're a Halliburton executive, or the Italian ambassador to Iraq, or a 6'2", 220 pound ex-Marine, a low profile and extra security may be the smart move. But the country's not quite as dangerous as people make it out to be, and it's a shame to come all the way over here and then hang around in hotels where the Iraqis are trying (with mixed success) to act the way they think western hotel employees act.
When I've been approached on the street it's mostly been by kids who want to try their English and talk to an American; I haven't yet had a nasty experience. The cabbies are content to rob you on the installment plan.
I'll be doing a rewrite of my Raleigh article for the rest of the day; the editor says it may make it onto the front page.
Another piece of good news: Raleigh is interested in the same NGO story the San Francisco Chronicle wants to see on spec, so I may get two paychecks for the price of one.
I spent most of the evening finishing up another story for Raleigh. One of the oddities of being over here is the non-existent weekend. Most locals take part of Friday off to go to mosque, but other than that it's a 7-day work week. I've pretty much gotten onto that schedule, too, which is a little bit wearing.
My new digs, the al-Dulaimi Suite Hotel, is looking like a good deal. For the same price I paid at the Diana, I get a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen. The first room they put me in had no hot water and a broken phone. The propane tank wasn't hooked up to the stove, and the guy who showed me the room was waving a lighter around trying to get the burners to light. I was safer on the helicoptor.
After some discussion I was put into a better room for a three-day trial. The electricity is spotty, but the generator works and always powers a working outlet underneath a working light. That means I can plug in my computer and read my notes even when most of the place is in the dark. Most of the power is on most of the time, though, so all I really need to worry about is not putting anything too perishable in the fridge.
The big benefit of being here are the neighbors--I'm getting to know quite a few journalists, including a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and a guy doing a documentary for British television. I also met by friend Tiffany Davis' old high school classmate Jill--it's a small world. I don't think any of these people know I'm a conservative yet, but I did show my true colors to Pat, an American businessman who's an even bigger right-winger than I am.
Another advantage of being in this neighborhood is the security--there are lots of journalists and a few big-shots around, so my place, the Hamra Hotel, and a couple other buildings are all behind a security perimeter. That means big concrete barriers to absorb bomb blasts, Iraqis walking around with AK-47s, and quite a few westerners walking around with private security. There's an Australian official here who's got Aussie special forces with him.
Of course, the security is here because any collection of western journalists, businessmen and politicians is a magnet for folks who want to take a shot at westerners and Americans, and I've heard more gunfire here than I did at the Diana. Last night I was in one of the hotel internet cafes when a few shots rang out, and private security came in to hustle an American businessman out of harm's way. He stuck around to overpay for the internet and to get a receipt. Terrorists did not storm the compound. I have a feeling that most of the shooting is either hot-heads taking pot-shots or security making its presence known to people wandering around the perimeter. Fortunately for me, I'm in a cheap, inconspicuous little apartment complex surrounded by tall, high-profile hotels.
I would tell you all about the drunken get-together I attended the other night, but I've been sworn to secrecy by mercenaries (really).
Sorry I haven't posted in a couple days. I got back to Baghdad Tuesday morning, not Monday afternoon. I never did track down another cabbie after Farouk declined to pick me up in Fallujah, so the military swung into action to get me home. Everybody along the way was very friendly and very helpful, and also completely clueless as to who I was or where I'd come from.
Capt. Craig got me a seat on a Blackhawk helicoptor from a base down the road to Baghdad Airport (BIAP, as everyone calls it). The helicoptor ride was about 15 or 20 minutes, but it took me about 18 hours to get from Camp Mercury to my hotel. First there was a three hour wait for the chopper. When we arrived at the field the chopper was already there, rotors going, incredibly loud. A guy ran over and yelled, "ARE YOU GETTING ON OR PICKING UP?" When I said, "GETTING ON," he yelled "LET'S GO!" and I was rushed onto the helicoptor. I had to figure out how to fasten the seatbelt by watching the soldier across from me mime how to do it; no one took the time to strap me in, and no one could yell loudly enough to tell me what to do.
Fortunately helicoptor rides are much more pleasant than airplane rides--you just float into the air and then float along, without a lot of banking and without any turbulence. It was night, but we were flying close enough to the ground to see the sand and vegetation of the desert, and to make out cars and houses. As we approached the airport we started to bank left and right, and rise and descend, presumably to throw off anyone trying to shoot a surface-to-air missile at us. On a plane I would've been freaked out, but the ride was so smooth I didn't feel nervous at all.
When I arrived at the airport, I was met with incredulous looks when I said that Capt. Craig had said I'd be able to get a cab from the airport. I hooked up with a couple captains in charge of running trucks in and out of the airport--they were hanging out in the loft they'd built for themselves, up a flight of steep wooden steps from the living quarters below. They'd brought up some Oriental rugs, a TV, a stereo, and a DVD player, and built themselves real beds in place of the cots most soldiers sleep on. They were friendly, and told me the best they could to that night was drop me off outside their perimeter. "I wouldn't do that," one of them told me, "to I dog that I hate."
So I spent the night in the transit room, an unheated concrete cube whose eight or 10 cots were filled with soldiers when I arrived. I took the last cot available, took off my boots, covered myself with my jacket and went to sleep. A while later I woke up freezing, put my boots back on, put on my jacket and pulled the hood over my head. Not the best night I've ever had, but I want to extend a thanks to you, the American taxpayer, for giving me a free place to sleep.
The next morning I got a Humvee ride to a shuttle that takes soldiers, CPA folks and civilian contractors from BIAP to the Green Zone. I overheard some soldiers talking about their close calls--one woman was told she wasn't eligible for hazardous duty pay a few days after she was 20 feet outside the blast radius of a mortar. I think she won that argument.
I won't write much here about my experiences at Camp Mercury; I'm in the middle of writing an article about that for the News-Observer
, and I'd hate to cheat subscribers in the Raleigh area by giving away any good details for free. But I overheard a few exchanges that wouldn't make it into a family newspaper.
One soldier found that, after he and his wife had agreed to get a dog, she had bought a dachschund while he was out of the country. He had envisioned a lab or a golden retriever.
"She's like, 'He's got cute little legs, and cute little ears,' and I'm like, 'What the fuck?'"
He also found that she had bought a doghouse, despite the likelihood that the dog, Rusty, wouldn't be sleeping outside. But the men universally agreed that asking his wife, "You didn't think about this at all, did you?" was a big tactical mistake:
"Somebody'll be in the fucking doghouse, and it won't be fucking Rusty."
As you may have gathered, casual profanity is rampant. As one sergeant put it, "Whenever you can't quite find the right word, 'fuck' just kind of fits it."
Morale is high; these guys think they have the initiative and are beating the enemy. They're looking forward to leaving, but don't seem sorry to be here. There's quite a bit of patriotism, but very little jingoism. One sergeant chose to go to Iraq over going to Oklahoma because it meant a shorter separation from his wife, who is stationed elsewhere in the US. A specialist told me he picked the Airborne after looking at a list of salaries and noticing the $14,000 bonus.
There were no signs of boot-camp stereotypes; officers didn't lord it over sergeants, and sergeants didn't lord it over privates. There was a locker-room atmosphere a lot of the time, but no real nastiness or macho posturing. There's a tremendous sense of confidence and competence, and I was especially struck by how much responsibility is invested in the sergeants.
I stayed on base this time around, but in about a month I'll be going back out to see these guys in action.
It's 8 a.m. near Fallujah, I've been up for 24 and-a-half hours, and the News & Observer
liked the Super Bowl Story. You can read it if it gets up on their website
. (There's a story up there now called "Soldiers in Iraq plan to tune in and cheer." I didn't write that one. That guy's dateline was Tikrit, so he's an even bigger dope than I am.)
The story I actually did right--I was pretty much done by the time the game started, filled in a couple blanks during the first half, and made some last-minute additions at the behest of my editor. The problem was that I realized, in the middle of the game, that I should be taking pictures. The next problem was that I suggested to my editor that I could take some photos, if he wanted.
Taking the photos was fine, but emailing them was a nightmare. I was planning to tell all, but I'm too tired. Just imagine a tent filled with 18 really nice computers with high-speed internet connections, floppy drives and USB ports. Imagine that this tent is about 20 feet from the mess hall where you're taking your pictures.
Now imagine that the USB ports and the floppy drives have all been disabled to deter espionage, and that the computers you can use are several hundred meters away through dark, soggy, stone-strewn terrain. These computers take a veerrryyy loonnggg time to upload photographs.
I found all this out on the fly, and also dealt with the various frustrations I've learned to expect whenever I try to get a piece of technology to do anything besides break. The military provided me with exactly what I needed and exactly what I expected; the problems arose when I tried, on my own, to do something I hadn't told them I wanted to do.
Speaking of doing things I hadn't wanted to do, a note on my inadvertant trip to Fallujah:
I was talking to a specialist here about the various mistakes I've made, and said I think I'll look back in a month and wonder how I could've survived so many blunders. He looked at me very knowingly and said, "Yeah, you will" (but in that way that let me know he was imparting wisdom earned from experience, not just calling me a jackass).
I don't want to be melodramatic. From what I gather from the soldiers here, what I did was analagous to driving into an inner city neighborhood in the US--I wasn't in epic amounts of danger. But, jokes aside, I take my safety seriously, think hard about what I could do to make myself safer, and get safer every day by learning more about Iraq, by thinking about how to avoid the kinds of mistakes I tend to make, and especially by talking to responsible people--like journalists and soldiers--who give me great advice.
So, never fear--I won't be driving into the heart of the insurgency with a non-English speaker again.
The guy in charge of looking after me while I'm here is Capt. Craig, who's 27 and grew up in the Chicago suburbs--he graduated high school a year ahead of me. I'm struck both by how professional the army is and how unlike the regimented stereotype things are out here.
In Baghdad you can't throw a stone without hitting some guy whose job as a mercenary or private militiaman or freelance goon requires him to carry around an AK-47--and they carry them like toys, leaving them loaded in offices, lounging around with them on street corners. It's a bit of a relief to hang out with guys who dry-fire their unloaded weapons before entering the mess hall, just for safety's sake.
For some reason I'd kind of expected life out here to be like boot camp, with units getting up together, eating at the same time, and so on. But there's work to be done 24 hours, especially at night, and when one guy is getting ready for work the guy who sleeps on the next cot is getting ready to go to bed (or "rack out," if you're hip to military jive).
The most disappointing thing I've learned since I've been here is that there will be no Super Bowl commercials for me--the military network that carries the broadcast gets it free of charge, but part of the deal is, no advertising.
I'm a bit petrified of saying something I shouldn't on this weblog and getting myself and Capt. Craig into trouble, but suffice it to say that an officer this morning said the guys I'm with are "tip of the spear every frickin' day, out there shuckin' and jivin'." But some prefer the Sunni Triangle to getting into it with the townies in Carolina; as one put it, "I think it's safer over here--at least we can shoot back."