I met Capt. Christopher Cash of the North Carolina National Guard when I spent a couple days with his unit in Balad Ruz, northeast of Baghdad on the far side of Baquba. He had a tremendous amount of energy, a love for his job, and a sense of humor--three traits that seemed to serve him well as he led his men in Iraq and tried to pass on some American military values to the nascent Iraqi security forces.
The story I wrote about him and his unit really wrote itself. Cash had a kind of intensity that made it easy to tell he'd be tying the piece together. I got a real kick out of watching two sides of his personality at work--his charm and consideration as he delicately navigated Iraqi culture, and his no-bullshit intensity as he methodically removed the obstacles put in his way by the sometimes bureaucratic and disorganized culture of the US Army.
I found out last night from Steve Merelman, my editor in Raleigh, that Cash was killed
last week in an ambush in Baquba.
the story I wrote about him and his men in April.
I spent the day driving around Baghdad looking for young people to interview--I wanted to get a sense of how the youth of Iraq view their new government and the prospect of elections early next year. My translator for the time-being is a young guy who worked as an Army translator until anonymous threats against his family forced him to quit. He took me to a fast food joint called the Coconut in Mansour, probably the most upscale neighborhood in the city. The section we were in is full of restaurants, internet cafes and coffee shops catering to students.
We found two young couples and I asked them about Allawi, democracy, and the handover. It turns out they'd never heard of him until a few days ago. Far from conforming to the stereotype of Arab students as passionately political nascent radicals, these students said they don't read the papers and hardly watch the news. They're not interested in details--they want results. They want economic prosperity and an end to the violence, and don't care much about how either goal is achieved.
These people obviously don't necessarily represent a majority of young people in Baghdad or Iraq. But from my own conversations, and from what other reporters tell me, the mood seems to be that the handover is a promising development because Allawi can be counted on to crack down on the insurgency more harshly than the Americans did. The law and order sentiment, combined with relative disinterest in the means by which order is restored and the backgrounds of the men who restore it, seems like a recipe for creeping authoritarianism.
Later in the afternoon I found myself in an internet cafe looking for other young people to interview. Instead I had a discussion with the cafe's owner and its techie, which began with a small glass cup of sugar-laden Iraqi tea and the usual questions about the CPA's inability to keep the power on. Things progressed to the accusation that the war was launched to gain control of Iraq's natural resources, and by the time I was enjoying a tiny cup of Turkish coffee the owner arguing that Osama bin Laden and Abu Musaib al Zarqawi are American citizens. Not just pawns of the American government, but Americans themselves. In a promising development, I caught the head-scarved young woman behind the reception desk rolling her eyes while this theory was being expounded.
After receiving assurances from the manager that he loves Americans but hates the American government, and after polling the cafe staff and finding that they'd cast a vote for Saddam Hussein if he were running for president against Paul Bremer, my translator and I made our escape.
I was contemplating how to ask my translator about the "bin Laden is an American" theory when he exclaimed, "What a bunch of fucking savages!" It turns out I'd been enjoying myself more than he'd been. If another American or a European had come out with a conspiracy theory like that I might have flipped my lid, but I don't really get angry when Iraqis say these sorts of things. I hope I'm not condescending to them. It seems more like we're communicating across a huge chasm--their words lose their force on the way over to me, and I don't see the point in screaming back only to find that they can't understand what I'm saying.
Well, I've had a busy day. I found out Iraq was regaining its sovereignty two days early, scrambled around for a translator, found another translator when the first translator had to go work for his regular reporter, found a driver, and lost the driver when his mother went to the hospital with high blood pressure.
Surprisingly enough I actually did some reporting, too. I went to an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps headquarters and a police station where the men were eager for Allawi, the new prime minister, to get tough on insurgents. I also went to the square where they pulled down Saddam's statue last April. It's usually full of money changers, but today it was deserted. One of the few guys there explained that everyone feared terrorism to mark the hand-over. He said that he hopes the new government will hang thieves and murderers on city streets to deter crime. My translator, who spent a few years living in London and wants to come to America and join the Army, didn't think public hangings were a terrible idea.
I still can't tell what, exactly, Iraqis gained today. As far as I can tell the American military is still the muscle that will enforce the will of the interim government. The Iraqi cops and soldiers I talked to were relishing the prospect of more independence, but were quick to point out that they still have American back-up. It's looking like Allawi will declare something like martial law in parts of the country, but it seems most Iraqis think that's a good thing. I'll write more about this once I've had some rest and get some perspective.
To quote a great American songwriter, "The heat was hot."
CNN's forecast put the daytime highs over 110 Fahrenheit all this week, and it's going to get hotter. I've been warned several times that June is nothing compared to July, and August is even worse than that.
I'm holding out hope that tales of 130-degree temperatures in Baghdad have been cooked up by journalists trying to seem more hardcore for surviving a summer here. At that temperature the women of Baghdad, clad in their black abayas, would combust like ants under a magnifying glass.
I kind of enjoy it. It's very, very, dry, and I'm much more comfortable here than I tend to be when it's 90 and humid in Chicago. I'm sunk in that kind of weather—after walking 20 yards I'm drenched in sweat, and I don't dry off until I get into air conditioning. There's a kind of purity to the heat here—you're not hot and soggy, you're just hot. The sun is hot, the wind is hot, and the black straps on my backpack are too hot to touch after a few minutes out of the shade.
The most difficult thing, actually, is the glare—it's so bright I have to squint like Clint Eastwood whenever I leave the hotel. Having left my packing until the last minute, I couldn't find my sunglasses before leaving for the airport in Chicago. I think I'll pick up a pair on Karrada one of these days.
In the interest of blending in and staying cool I shaved off my beard and got a haircut. The barbershop, just outside the security checkpoint that separates greater Baghdad from the cluster of hotels where I live, was un-air conditioned. I've now got "al Iraqia"—a haircut where the sides and back are very short (the barber cut it with electric clippers) and the top is a bit longer.
I ditched the beard but, Iraqi-style, kept the moustache. I got the idea after seeing my friend Micah. In April he and I drove around Sadr City looking for evidence of the battles between the First Armored division and Sadr's militia. Back then he looked as American as can be. Now he has a black moustache and looks like Tariq Aziz's nephew.
My 'stache isn't much compared to the big, black, broom-like moustaches a lot of Iraqi men can grow, but the first time I hopped in a cab after visiting the barber the cabbie tried to talk with me in Arabic. Maybe it has some kind of hypnotic effect.
I'm adjusting to some new realities, among them being more careful about taking cabs. I may give up on street taxis altogether, even though I think that's probably going overboard. When I first arrived I was willing to take the risk—aside from some over-heated scare-mongering by my mysterious disappearing friend Shivan, the worst I heard about Baghdad cabbies is that they might rob you. Now that I'm hearing "taxi" in the same sentence as "decapitation" I'm a bit less keen to press my luck. If and when I start working with a translator I'd probably stay back from the road and let him hail taxis for us.
It's a bit disappointing that I wouldn't feel at ease going to my old chicken restaurant across the street from the Palestine, or changing money with the street side traders in Liberation Square, or walking down Karrada looking for clothes and bargaining over cheap watches and lighters. I think I benefited last time around from being separated from journalists, contractors and businessmen my first couple weeks in Baghdad. It helped me realize that danger doesn't lurk around every corner here-—most Iraqis are friendly toward or indifferent to individual Americans, whatever they think of Americans in general or the American occupation of Iraq.
But at this point I think it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll be venturing out more when I get a translator and start doing more stories, but for now I'm spending quite a bit of time at the Dulaimi and the Hamra. The Dulaimis are refurbishing rooms at the hotel, probably using the thousands of dollars a month they're wringing out of the journalists staying at the hotel. My rent went up $100 per month, but I have a nicer room than last time and my rent still seems low compared to other tenants.
My only complaint is that the Dulaimis seem to think air conditioning for their tenants is a luxury—when the power goes off they often crank up a small generator that powers the AC units in the lobby where they hang out, but not in the rooms. I'm on the top floor, and it can get a bit unpleasant after a few hours. When I pay my July rent I may try to bargain them down a bit on the grounds that a higher rent should come with a promise that basic amenities (and AC is one this time of year in Baghdad) will be available around the clock. I want to find someone who's more familiar with the culture to make sure it isn't rude to try to adjust the rent like that after we settled on a figure.
My back is feeling better. My friend Dan—-who writes for the Christian Science Monitor and lives in Indonesia when he's not in Iraq—-mentioned that he combats back problems by sleeping on the floor of his apartment, which is covered with a thick Oriental rug. Last night I put a couple blankets on the floor and slept in the living room, right next to the air conditioner. It actually worked pretty well—-I kept cool and woke up with less pain.
Of course, I also popped a muscle relaxer before bed and went to sleep almost immediately—that was the suggestion of another friend when I mentioned my back. We'll see how sleeping on the floor goes tonight, when I'm not under the influence.
Well... still very, very jet-lagged. I also, in the process of lugging my luggage around the world, did something to my back that makes it feel like someone is twisting a hot skewer underneath my left shoulder blade (and that's what it feels like when it's not that painful). How I long for the days when helpful Turkish Airlines employees would arrange for my luggage to simply disappear, removing entirely my need to carry it.
All that said, it's good to be back and I managed to get quite a bit accomplished today (mostly the kind of busywork that usually sits for weeks when I'm in Chicago). I'm in the homestretch of staying up late enough to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. After a good night's sleep tonight (as opposed to last "night," when I passed out from exhaustion around six and woke up at 2:30 am) I ought to be in good shape. I'll be posting non-zombie comments then.
I'm in Baghdad, but after two nights of jet-lag-induced sleep deprivation I'm in no shape to write anything interesting. I'll be settled in by tomorrow, though, so I'll try to write more then.
I'm in Amman, at a great hotel called the al-Saraya. More to the point, all of my luggage is in Amman, at a great hotel called the al-Saraya. The trip wasn't bad at all. We took off from JFK about an hour late, and my layover in Paris was less than 90 minutes, but I didn't have any trouble making my flight (even after pausing to ask two people with the airline whether it was true--as I'd been told at JFK--that my luggage was being checked through to Amman automatically).
I did have a moment in Paris where I wondered what the hell I was doing. I was in Paris. Why not just stay a while? I got over it and got on the plane, and this trip turned out to be the opposite of my last adventure getting into the Middle East.
My bag was circling the carousel by the time I walked out with my visa, and the guys at customs saw my huge duffel bag and just waved me through. I fought my way through the cabbies circling the terminal and found the information desk. The guy there spoke good (enough) English and pointed me to the bus, which goes to downtown Amman for 1.5 Jordanian dinars.
At the bus station in the city I again fought my way through a crowd of cabbies looking for fares (i.e., people to over-charge and take to hotels of their choice where they get a commission for pulling in guests). I was finally tracked down by a guy who just happened to have a relationship with the hotel I wanted to stay at. The ride eventually cost 2.5 JD, including a tip for letting the guy lug my smaller bags up the hotel steps.
All this fell into place thanks to some good advice from my friends Ramsey and Dan. They recommended my hotel and Ramsey gave me some tips on how to get into the city without getting fleeced. The al-Saraya has nice rooms at a reasonable price, a great location, and a chance to get to know Fayez. Fayez runs the hotel and seems like a good guy to know. He runs cars and SUV's into Iraq and as far as I can tell he knows every single freelancer who's been in Baghdad. He's an insurance underwriter with a degree in mechanical engineering--the hotel is, I guess, his third-string vocation. He enjoys joking about distances.
"How far is it to Petra, Fayez?"
I'm back in the Middle East and enjoying it so far--a cup of tea while Fayez and I got to know each other and I filled out paperwork for my room, then another cup of tea and a cigarette in Fayez's office with him, an Italian couple, and a Japanese woman.
I didn't even mind paying five times the original quote for my taxi--when the guy said it'd cost half a dinar I knew what I was in for. As we were walking to his taxi at the bus station he made vague reference to the police writing stuff down about him, but he didn't exhibit any criminal tendencies that I could see.
Tomorrow I'm sorting out my Baghdad plans. I ought to be there very early next week, maybe as soon as tomorrow afternoon.