[Please note that this is part of a book project.]
i got into baghdad and my friend Ghaith started showing me around. Ghaith is hot shit. the guy's as fast as a whip, tough as leather, and has been raised in the middle east, so he speaks enough languages to tongue-tie a database. he's part of a small network of intense young iraqis that live in baghdad, among whom is salam pax, an online writer that has been kind enough to keep us posted on local news from a local perspective. [see http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/ fore more..]. actually, its not just that he's kind; as his father told me, salam has been doing this at risk of his entire family. his dad didn't find out about what salam was up to and if, prior to the regime's fall, the wrong someone had found out, heads would have rolled.
this is part of the reason salam's a good man; his freedom means something to him. he and i had a chance to talk in the middle of the mobile media empire named The Sheraton Hotel, Baghdad. we were surrounded by the mass media neither of us trusted. it was a good talk. Salam, like Ghaith, is smart, alert, and watching the distant waters of the US for ripples that will, when they break on the borders of iraq, bring problems. and he's smart enough to be ready for it. and smarter, still, to know how to use this energy to his own benefit.
salam unpacked for me the finer points of using media against imperialism, of what it means to speak iraqi arabic these days, and how important it is that americans take the time to familiarize themselves with cultures that aint theirs (noting that its even more important for non-americans to famliarize themselves with Amerika..). i appreciated what the guy had to say. he has a sharp eye, an honest smile and a firm handshake.
these guys - salam and ghaith - are the future kings of baghdad. they'll rule the city with a gentle insight and a fast wit and i think that the place will be better off for it. if, that is, the americans are smart enough to loosen the stranglehold.
ghaith and i spent a little quality time at the national museum. i was interested in seeing it because i had heard that coalition forces (i'm really getting tired of that term) had blown out every ministry except the one that runs the oil and energy. from what i could tell this was true (though i didn't look at EVERY one, this was confirmed from the 8 or so i did see). i heard from more than a single eyewitness in baghdad, as i had in basra, that the ministries were blown open by troops and then, once the doors were unlatched, they let the locals in to help themselves.
cultural eradication like this seemed monstrous and sensible, like assassination, only on a far, far larger scale.
a reporter for the Independent, named Robert Fisk claims to have been there at the museum and to have seen it. according to his report he saw the fires, and went to get help from something that resembled a local authority; the US Marines. Fisk wrote in The Independent, ďI gave the map location, the precise name in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasnít an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.Ē
now i dont know the first thing about taking over a country, but i have to say that this makes a certain sooty sense to me. if i'm going to be importing a new culture then i need to do a pretty good job of getting rid of the old, right? and if that process requires some level of violence (let's face it, heart surgery isn't pretty) then, being under the media's scrutiny and the world's watchful eye it would make sense to me to let all that violence be done by the local residents; displace the blame and get the job done.
so what i think happened was just that; the troops blew the locks on the ministries they wanted revamped (that is, all but the energy ministry), let the unwashed masses in, these folks make a big mess of things, and then the US army can sit back and make two claims: 1) Well, that wasn't our fault. The Eye-raqis did it, not us. and 2) See? They need a firm hand of governance to help them run things round here. Damn good thing we're here, ain't it, Joe?
war is never, ever clean, but this comes close. because being "clean" has more to do with blame than intent.
war these days is first about the media. second about the military.
due to an unfortunate alignment of slim finances, the unholy trinity of kuwaiti-american-iraqi legalities, and obligations in the states i was only able to spend four days in baghdad. but, when you ignored the gunshots of Ali Baba, the nights there were glorious. we had hummous and baba-ganough and falafel and we ate by the light of the kerosene lamp since there was no electricity. we had water there, and i had brought up some candles and some cash and some more tea from sri lanka....
the members of the hossiani family are scattered from new york to kuwait to iraq to iran with ties into france and turkey. some of them - ali and shirine - live in new york with their father. their fatherís brother, mr. talal (as iíve referred to him), lives in basra, which is in southern iraq. mr talalís son, hussam (or sam), lives in kuwait city with his sister.
meanwhile samís cousin, manal, lives in baghdad with her mother, who is from iran. manal is married to a kurdish guy from up north named arras who is the cousin of massoud barghouti, the kurdish leader who grew up in the mountains that border turkey. arrasí mother and father are from different countries, and the same goes for mr. talal. and the same goes for hussamís son, mechael, since samís wife is french.
its damn confusin' if you ask me.
their family line is a stitch that weaves these middle-eastern countries together. and it seemed somehow unsurprising then, considering this family of my friends, that muslims would consider the bombing of iraq to be an affront to muslims everywhere.
it wasnít hard for me to understand some of the complexities of iraqi culture, tugging at the strings of family ties versus political allies.
all these things aside, our dinners were beautiful, there, under the full moon, in the middle of the baghdad nights, surrounded (somehow peacefully), by Ali Baba's bullets.
somehow it was peaceful, perhaps only because when it was silent you'd notice it; really notice it.
and when they would start again, you couldnt help but look around.
once, when i got a bit on edge, arras said to me "Don't worry. You're having dinner with a Kurd."
i thought of making a cottage cheese joke, but took the reassurance as it was intended. i couldn't say it; i appreciated his sincerity too much.
there was also the friends of friends, and the family of the family. consider the woman dressed in black, on the right, below. she is a neighbor of arras and manal's. she comes to their house each night to sleep since she has no family and no protection from Ali Baba. she leaves her house (and all her things in it) and sleeps on a cot with them, across the street. arras has a gun (for that matter, after 30 years of war everyone in baghdad has a gun) and, as he said, he's a kurd.
one day she gave me a letter and asked if i could deliver it to her son who has been living in england. he's been there for 20 years. of course that's been about how long its been since she's seen him. so she gave me a letter and asked me to send it, which i said i would do, of course. these duties are more important than anything in the world.
the next day she brought me a small piece of turquoise that was cut in the shape of a heart. it was wrapped in old, white cloth. she told me thank you, in advance. i asked her if i could give this piece of jewelry to my own mother, instead, as something from baghdad. she started to weep a bit and i took that as a yes.
the next day she brought me a piece of rock that is named indiestar or something close to that. its red with small gold glitters inside of it. she insisted i keep that one for myself. i wear it around my neck these days.
i didnt notice it, but she has the same two stones on each of her hands.. i don't know what to make of life's details, like these.
after being held at gunpoint, talking my way out of that, finding myself in the US Army PAO (Public Affairs Office), and talking myself out of that, as well, i finally managed to gain a round-trip ticket to the guided tour of Saddam's Palace. these days its being used as the hub of US Administration. naturally, they dont have to pay rent on it. they can just use it. this is the priveledge that the gun earns.
this level of lawlessness still baffles and fascinates me. even though the streets were rife with it, this was where it was all centered. this was the heart of the law, the aorta of the culture, the vena cava of the decisions that would spread out into the countryside and influence the minds and hands of 26 million people.
here, was where it all radiates from now, as before.
and, yes, the chairs are made of gold.
i was told by my media guide, in that polite, crisp, and controlling manner that americans have, "Please do not take photographs of the administration, staff, or military personnel. I appreciate your understanding of this matter."
i understood, as he asked. i was, after all, a guest here, too. and i respected what had to be done to achieve this. i've never really understood the military power of my own country until this trip. one has to respect it. it is, truly, awesome. perhaps the most significant the world has ever seen.
when i had been released from my guided tour i walked out, down the long road that stretches across the palace grounds, and veered away from where i was allowed, and into a secondary castle where, the day before, guns had been pointed at me and i had been told to stay out. it was a strange situation that day. i was there, with ghaith, and we were just curiously looking down a side-street. just looking around the corner when a rather pudgy american guard came running fullbarrel (and he was a barrel, really) screaming HALT HALT HALT RIGHT THERE!
so we looked at him and he stood there in front of us with his gun pointed at us and he told us to walk back to where we came from. ghaith started to mouth off, i started to roll my eyes and the security guard had long since wet his pants since two civilians were taking a wrong turn.
i was reminded of some missouri cops that hassled me once upon a time and asked him where he was from. he said in a perfect missouri accent, "Please empty your bags on the ground so i can see what you have."
and so it went. sure, it was war, and sure, we both had beards, and sure, he was young and had been shot at more than i in the last month (probably).
but what i cued into was the fact that THIS building was protected. its sort of the same mentality as "Dont look behind door #3."
so naturally, this was where things would be interesting, and so naturally, the following day, when no one was around to prevent my passage, i walked in and took some photos.
it was a big building and these chairs, too were gold. the sultan painting, i've been told, was of Haroun Rasheed (though i cant confirm or deny this). the curtains seemed to be a kind of silk. the chairs were upholstered with a smooth, nylon like material that my fingertips snagged on.
it smelled like smashed chalk.
the damage wasnt small. room after room was blown out as above. there were cupboards in kitchens, spilled out into hallways, walls collapsed, dishes scattered, papers and books and tea kettles were kicked out into entry ways by blasts that had taken buildings down.
it was silent, save for a few soldiers i heard walking nearby. when they would come i would stand in a corner and wait. then they'd walk by. i felt like obi-wan kenobi, i must confess. the possible repercussions didnt occur to me; i knew i'd be fine.
eventually, avoiding major footpaths and going down side hallways i got lost in the dark. there was no electricity in the hallways so i had to resort to navigating with the flash from my camera. and i stumbled across the place where, i assume, saddam would sit, his throne that he shares with all humanity, pants around his ankles, like the rest of us. like george bush, osama bin laden, and mohammed, we all have to shit.
while i was here, in this palace, the seat of an evident and live evil, the idea of the Throne seemed to invert itself, turn itself upside down, and become as ludicrous as dead camels on the side of the road. the notion of the throne; a person sitting down, in a shitting position, on a seat, in front of others, and they paying homage to him like that; it became a strange joke, something unfathomable. that so many people would agree to pay homage to something like that. it seemed that god must be at work. this was too strange to be made by humans.
i took another flash photo and tried to find my way out, eventually running into another wall. i was tired, overtaxed, safe in the darkness and silence, away from the guns and politics and thrones, there in the dark near the plumbing, away from it all.
for a few minutes i lost my grip there, standing in the dark, then.
it all seemed utterly pointless; a really stupid joke.
and so much was ruined for it.
before, and after.
but outside, at the "Looter's Markets," the Ali Babas of Baghdad were busy selling their booty. there's three main flea markets in baghdad these days; bab-al-sharji (which means "east gate"), Sahat-al-tahreer, and Baghdad-al-Jazeera (i think, its a little hard for me to acurately peg arabic). i went to each of the three. what you see below is the first, bab-al-sharji..
at baghdad-al-jadeera they sell the weapons. i went with a cab and we looked around but didn't find much of what i was looking for. folks there told me "no no, no weapons sold here.. only soft drinks and candy bars." and then they'd smile at me as if to say "stupid man, this is not your market, go away." and after all, they were right, and so i did.
i went to bab-al-sharji after that, which was where most of the main goods were being sold that you might find on any other day. things like roller skates and old coins and tupperware and second-hand carpentry tools. i was just curious, and so i asked a guy selling bullets where i could buy a gun.
he yelled and some large thuggish looking pop came over to escort me into an alley.
my curiosity is usually environmentally inspired. for example, after almost a week in iraq i had been going to sleep to the distant (and sometimes near) pop-popping of gunfire. automatic, semi-automatic, single-shot, everything seemed to be out on the streets and there wasn't a single iraqi male i met that wasnt armed (knives and clubs don't count). so i wondered how hard they were to get, how much they cost, where they came from. these were simple, logistical questions.
and this was how i was led into the alley and through a small door with some beads over it and into another small alley where there were three tables set up with guns laid out. there were a couple of machine guns - AK47s - for sale for $50. handguns were $15. complimentary bullets came with a purchase.
you bought them like you might buy a book. you'd pay and then leave.
i didnt buy one (its not my style as i prefer trusting people over shooting them.. so far its worked out fine) but it seemed to me to make sense that in a culture as violent as that one, where there is no law, no authority, no rule, and no right, a $15 .45 could well be worth the investment if you have a family and a home.
so, anyway, these are photographs of the looters' market at bab-al-sharji, in the middle of baghdad.
the following day, during the afternoon, i stayed home and helped bake bread. it was time for luncheon with the ladies.
i think, really, i was fed up with the male muslim scene. all the shooting and shouting and rustling about. i was tired of the americans and their tanks everywhere, i was fed up with the firing and the fusillades. i wanted some smooth female civility. i dont, really, know how it is that muslims stay sane, with the sexes so separated like that.
did i mention that in kuwait, which is far far more strict than iraq, there's something like a 30% homosexuality incidence or recurrence or choice or whatever the hell it is happening there? i dont think i did... i asked five people and this was the statistic that emerged.
anyway, since there was no electricity and food needed to be cooked we had built a small oven in the back yard. it was made out of mud and some straw and was simple, in principle. a hole that tapered toward the top, a cone, almost. there was a small hole in the bottom, on the front, at about ankle-height, that we could plug with a stone to regulate air intake. this controlled the heat of the fire in the bottom.
we made bread and fish that day with our spankin-new stove.
once the thing was dry we piled some wood in the top and lit the puppy up. as the fire got hotter the stove dried out and small cracks appeared, where smoke was leaking out. we patched these with more mud.
we slapped the bread back and forth (i did my best but ended up with a miserable wad of dried poo instead of a nice, flat round dough) and then using a cushion, whacked it up against the hot inside lip of the oven, just above the fire. the dough stuck until it was cooked at which point we'd peel it off (carefully, since it was hot) and set it on top, where the surface of the stove was warm.
manal's mother, who you can see in the white hijab, on the left, was the engineer of all this. she's iranian. and she has a beautiful smile, you might notice. look at her smile, on the fish photo. she's enjoying it.
as for the fish, we put them in a special rack, sprinkled spices i've never heard of over their meaty little butts, stuck 'em down into the heat.hole. and waited, kicking cats out of the yard that had gotten whiff.
it was good. it was simple. i felt honored to eat with them, for some reason, but i also knew that if anyone had come in off the street they would have made a plate. it was a war. food wasn't a question; of course you'd share.
los angeles and the insecure latte drinkers were far far away. traffic jams and water-cooler politics seemed fictional. new york gangstahs with idiotic rap lyrics, silicon valley rockstar wannabees, car washes and speedyBurgers... movies and all of these things seemed from a book. and all of them were a fair trade for ali baba, stray bullets, and invading armies.
i wondered what america had, really, to sell.
can someone please tell me?.
arras (the kurd) offered to take me to where saddam might have been. this is on a street called the 14th of Ramadan.
you might remember that just before the war was (unofficially) started several bombs were fired into the suburbs of baghdad. it happened to be right around the corner from where i was staying, so we went over to have a look.
it was quiet now, and rebuilding had started. according to arras, there were five generals that had been meeting with saddam during the fortnight previous to the war. saddam was roving around baghdad, showing up at people's houses, saying things like "hi, i'm saddam, i'll be your guest tonight." and he and his several thugs would enter your house and guess what; you'd be sleeping on the sofa, to be sure.
but this was what he did and his generals would meet with him each day or so to work out strategies and do whatever it is that generals and saddam do. according to legend, one of the generals was an informant to the CIA. since each of the generals carried satellite phones with them that, of course, had a system that allowed you to locate their position, more or less precisely, depending on your scale. but precise enough to get a phone call in.
so one evening when the five generals were to meet this one general did not show up. the bombs were deployed into the el mansour district and no one knows, for sure, what happened next. the idea was that saddam would be killed in the first strike. but the woman that lives next door told me that they found baath party documents in this house on the right.
only, maybe, saddam knows what happened.
on my final afternoon in baghdad i was driving with arras and manal. we were going to pick up ice for the refrigerator.
arras asked me what i thought of george bush and i said i didnt care much for him. manal told me i was crazy, that he was a good man and then exploded into a repetition of "i want to marry him!" she did this while we drove by an american soldier, who's eye she caught, and we all laughed as his head turned to follow the car. manal was beautiful and laughing and iraqi and felt free, that afternoon.
arras reminded her that she was already married.
i reminded arras that there was nothing to worry about since george bush was already married, also.
arras leaned over, while driving, and said to me, "I like George Bush because if it wasn't for him then I would never have met you."
it was a water-tight argument. i couldnt reply other than to pat him on the back and smile, watching baghdad stream by outside the windows and feel the hot breeze on my hand.
my final, most vivid memory of baghdad was of driving through the goddam heat, with the melting ice in the back, and arras and manal in front. they were singing. they started singing nonsense songs, just repeating the word "freedom" over and over again, or arras hanging out the window and screaming his friends names, just to say hello, or screaming "fuck sadddam" out the window as if (as it might have been) the first time he had freedom to do something like that. we would drive by some image of saddam (all these faces of his were destroyed) and arras would laugh a victory laugh and seemed in a state of violent prayer.
they seemed not only content with what is happening to their country, but elated. if the devil himself had invaded....
i dont know what will happen to the people of iraq. but, by their estimation, they are in better shape today than they were a year ago. they tell me that their appreciation will hold if the united states treats them fairly.
i suppose now is when the work really begins.