I had a melancholy dinner tonight with an old translator of mine, the guy I worked with back when I was using translators only when absolutely necessary and trying to bargain them down to 50 percent of their standard fee. He was always great to work with, even though I knew very little about being a journalist and even less about Iraq. Last spring I promised him that if I ever managed to sell the story we were working on I'd buy him dinner. I never did sell (or, uh, write) my big story on women's centers, but I figured I owed him dinner anyway.
I was in the Hamra internet cafe early this afternoon when he stopped by the front desk in the second building, and we arranged to get together tonight at 7. Our dining options were limited to restaurants inside the security perimeter. Our first stop was the Sumerland restaurant, but I figured that wouldn't work when I saw a couple of police SUVs out front and guys milling around with Kalashnikovs (I should say "more guys than usual milling around with Kalashnikovs"). Government guys occasionally go to the Sumerland and tonight it was rented out for a private party. We were going to try the Flowersland (where last spring I sang Metallica with security contractors) but my friend Tom from Knight Ridder said that when he and some other folks went there last week they walked out because the food was so terrible.
So we retreated back to the Hamra, where after ten minutes as absolutely the only people in the main restaurant we wandered into the kitchen to find that the place was closed. As a last resort we headed over to the "coffee shop," which is decorated like the cafeteria in a 1960s sci-fi movie: white circular and oval tables, white scoop-shaped chairs with garishly colored cushions, petroleum-based orange placemats, marble floors and a metallic ceiling. They were serving dinner.
It was my second meal of the day there--I'm still dealing with the consequences of getting fed up with chicken- and lamb-based meals and eating the "Delux beef burger with egg and cheese" for lunch. I had another "delux" meal for dinner, a faux Chinese noodle dish. My ex-translator had the pepper steak--I have distant memories of Hamra pepper steak tasting like old tires slathered in bad gravy.
A few minutes later our waiter came back to confess that he hadn't understood my order, and my former translator advised me to point to it on the menu. After the waiter left I was reminded, again, why I like my ex-translator so much:
Me: I really, really, need to learn some Arabic.
Ex-translator: There are foreigners, journalists, all over this hotel all the time--they need to learn some English!
He has kind of a wise-ass New Yorker way of speaking, and a sly smile, so when he says stuff like that it comes off as endearingly world-weary and not nasty. I asked about how things have been going, and it turns out he's looking to leave Iraq. He lives in a dodgy neighborhood, and said that every Friday the local mosque ends its sermon by wishing death on Americans and anyone who collaborates with them.
He said he's begun feeling like a stranger, like Iraq is no longer his country. He doesn't talk to his neighbors anymore, because he's afraid of having to lie to them about what he's now doing for a living. He stays away from people and from places that used to be safe. Before the war Fallujah was a punchline, known for its thick-headed bumpkins. He told me a joke about a Falluji who stirs his tea, finds that there's too much sugar in it, and decides to solve the problem by stirring the tea in the opposite direction. He said one of the problems that sent the situation there south was a rumor that American night-vision could see through women's clothing. He and I were in Fallujah together last March the day the Blackwater contractors were killed and mutilated and strung up on a bridge across the Euphrates.
He's an Arab Christian, and his church has been bombed. He said there was a car accident in front of the church a while back, and the sound made everyone jump. He doesn't think the election was a victory for democracy. When I asked him if he'd ever been to Iran he said, "Wait awhile--with this government Iran will come here." He expects things to move slowly--first a ban on liquor, then more and more impositions of Islamic law. For secular Iraqi Arabs with no ties to the old regime there are few options--the Assembly will be dominated by Kurds and religious Shi'ites, and the insurgency is largely dominated by jihadis and ex-Baathists.
One of his children has married a foreigner and left Iraq, and he's hoping to take the rest of his family to Scandanavia. I'm not sure how old he is--probably about 50, but Iraqis are often younger than they look. He has an engineering degree and fears that he'll have to drive a bus or run a kebab stand after he leaves Iraq.
I managed to talk to him about this without plunging into a suidical depression, mostly because he's not into self-pity and maybe also because I've been in Iraq too long. This is a strange way to live. My apartment in Beirut is maybe a kilometer or less from the bombing that killed the ex-prime minister. It has nice views out of big plate glass windows. I've expended more energy trying to find out if my windows are broken than worrying about whether the assassination could re-ignite sectarian strife in Lebanon.
I've had a few lazy days after working almost non-stop for several weeks. Saturday I dropped by my friend Tom's room at the Hamra and ended up sticking around for several hours, smoking flavored tobacco out of a water pipe and listening to country and assorted other American music. We sat on pillows on the floor, Iraqi-style, but, American-style, didn't worry about pointing our feet at each other. It was a cool and sunny day, the kind that reminds me of winter in southern California. At one point, while we were listening to Leonard Cohen or John Prine, the sliding glass door to the balcony rattled and I asked, "Did you kick the window, or was that something [as in, something exploding]?" Tom replied, "No, that was something." It didn't make me any less relaxed. I was especially happy to hear that, because of the transparent film coating the windows we wouldn't get seriously injured if a bomb blew out the glass--only "cut up."
The elections were good news, but probably not as good as I or other folks here originally thought. The bar was so low--my guess was that turnout would be below fifty percent and hundreds of people would die. I was embedded with an infantry platoon guarding one of the Mosul polling sites. I woke up on election day and reflected that it might be the only day of my life on which I'd be completely unsurprised to personally witness a suicide bombing. I credit the US military with keeping a lid on the violence. It was a great idea to ban driving in major cities, and limiting travel between cities made it very tough to import weapons and bombs. We'll see what happens this month, though--the military belives there are several dozen car bombs that were prepared for the election but weren't used, and there's a major Shi'ite religious festival at the end of the month.
The election isn't going to effect the insurgency much one way or the other. The actual day was a major security success, but the elections were only an unexpected political success if you thought Shi'ites and Kurds hate the occupation more than they love the idea of eventually controlling Iraq. Whatever its flaws, and however much it's been managed by the United States, I don't think the process is frustrating the will of Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds all that much. The Kurds want independence and they won't get it. But they'll probably get so much autonomy that they'll be virtually independent in everything but name (that would just be political recognition of facts on the ground--there are virtually no Iraqi flags in Kurdistan, only Kurdish flags). Given that an independent Kurdistan unprotected by the American military would immediately be invaded by Turkey and subjected to a fairly horrifying military occupation, I think the US-backed Kurdish leadership has the right idea on this one.
The Shi'ites want to control the government and make sure they don't continue their decades-long tradition of getting shafted even though they're the majority. That's one reason democracy is such a compelling idea for Iraq's Shi'ites. They also, depending on who you ask, want either a lot or a little Islam with their government. They probably won't get Islam recognized as the only source of Iraqi law. But they'll probably get it recognized as one source, or an important source, of Iraqi law. In any case, they'll continue to run southern Iraq largely as they please.
The losers in a democracy are the Sunnis--they don't have the advantage of numbers, they don't have the advantage of geography (the oil is in Shi'ite areas and around Kirkuk, which the Kurds are slowly and unofficially de-Arabizing to redress a Saddam-era resettlement policy). What the Sunnis do have are quite a few well-trained, well-motivated and well-funded former members of the old Iraqi military, security and political apparatus. They have nothing to lose by fighting, since they are very likely to end up disenfranchised in an Iraqi democracy. On top of that, the insurgents aren't nice people--many were movers and shakers under one of the world's most ruthless regimes, and more than a few are happy to collaborate with transnational terrorists and common criminals. Many don't like or trust Shi'ites or Kurds, and their take on Saddam's crimes is that he dealt harshly with domestic enemies who were trying to help Iran win the Iran-Iraq war. Now a political party with ties to Iranian intelligence, whose leaders were exiles in Iran before the spring of 2003, is set to be the driving force in the new government. That's not a democracy with which your average Sunni is likely to be comfortable.
All that said, the election was a success in that it demonstrated that a majority of Shi'ites and Kurds support the political process and have not been cowed by violence into inaction. That means there may be enough motivated Iraqis out there to populate an effective Iraqi security force. Leaving aside whether we've brought democracy to Iraq, we can at least hope that there can be stability in Iraq and that American troops won't have to enforce that stability themselves. At this point a semi-independent Kurdistan, an Arab Iraq governed to some extent by Islamic law, and a Sunni minority kept in line through repression would be a positive outcome for the United States.
Speaking of positive outcomes, my deal with USA Today ended just in time for me to jump up to Mosul for Time Magazine. I spent three weeks embedded up there, and the magazine asked me to stick around for another month to help out with Baghdad politics. Mosul was a good time, but grueling. I was embedded the whole time with a light infantry platoon, and I lived on a base full of combat units. There are no women allowed in combat units, which meant that after a few days the mere sound of a female voice made me swivel by head involuntarily. It's good to be back in Baghdad and living like a civilian, even if I'm a civilian who never travels in the city without an armed escort. At the end of the month I'm going to find some tropical beach to lie on for a week or two and then spend some time in the States.