Baghdad feels more and more normal, but still utterly surprising.
It’s amazing how quickly you get used to things. Baghdad now feels normal to me. I mean, life is nowhere near back to normal, but the chaos and craziness is no longer shocking. Those first few days were so exciting and everything I saw seemed unbelievable. Now, I kind of get the place, get the rhythm of things, and I’m surprised at how I drive around and fewer and fewer things strike me. As I write this, though, I realize it’s not entirely true. As we drove around, I kept asking my translator: what’s that, what’s that. I felt like an annoying 3 year old. But I’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep, things feel more normal. It feels normal to walk up 18 flight of stairs to get to my room. It feels normal to carry around a flashlight and just turn it on for the occasional (well, frequent) blackouts. There’s still no power in most of Baghdad, but our hotel has an enormous generator’really loud even up here. The hotel is becoming a bit more normal. My room was cleaned today AND yesterday (though the towels come back wet because the dryer is out). I even saw some people get room service.
The Marines left our little compound. That makes me sad, because I got to like the marines. I bribed them with lots of Sat Phone calls home and they all liked me. I sat with a bunch yesterday for a couple hours. They say they don’t like this phase. They’re not supposed to be doing peacekeeping or policing or whatever it is they’re doing now. They’re supposed to knock down doors and shoot people. A sergeant major told me some of his men don’t know how to make the transition, don’t know how to see the Iraqis as friendly. A bunch of the guys kept asking me: do they like us? Are they glad we’re here. I told them that pretty much everyone I talk to says they don’t like you. They’re not glad you’re here. They were really sad to hear that. The sergeant major said that half his men were for the war, half were against it. They said they never understood why they were fighting. So what if Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. So do we. So does everyone. He also said Bush is very unpopular among soldiers, though less unpopular than Clinton, because at least Clinton raised their pay. I like the Marines more than the Army guys. The Marines are nicer, more mellow, less by the book. They’re all young kids. All of the Marines I spoke with said they hated the war. It was scary and just horrible. They hate being here. They hate the whole thing. They wish they never joined. They haven’t showered in months, haven’t slept anywhere but on the ground for months. They just want to go home. They’re talking a lot about Syria. They all think we’re going to war with Syria soon. They figure in less than a year. So, when they were leaving, we were joking: see you in Syria.
The city definitely feels under occupation. Some new Army divisions arrived and they’re everywhere. Every now and then, I see a soldier talking to some kids, but mostly they don’t interact with the locals at all. Their tanks and armored personnel carriers are so intimidating. So large and scary looking. And the soldiers sit on them with their machine guns out, fingers on the trigger. My translator kept saying it makes him so angry and so sad. He wishes Saddam were back. He hated Saddam, but things were better and there weren’t occupying soldiers. I don’t know how this will turn out, but right now it’s very hard to see anything good coming out of this. Maybe, I say to myself, in a few years life will be much better here and people will be grateful. But it seems unlikely. There are all sorts of theories the Iraqis tell you. Like that the Americans have taken Saddam to a beautiful island somewhere because he did his job perfectly, set up the conditions that allow the Americans to take over the country. All over the Arab world, there are all these conspiracy theories. They allow Arabs to just think whatever they want, and they allow them to come up with all sorts of reasons why America is evil. They make me sick. Whenever someone tells me one of these theories I just tune out and I don’t want to talk to the person anymore.
There are rumors floating around Baghdad like crazy. One of the big ones is that there are all these underground prisons and lots of people are still locked in them. I was driving around yesterday and saw a huge enormous crowd around a tunnel. We ran into the crowd and found that they all believed one of those underground prisons was discovered. People were running in from all over to be there when the people were discovered. There are police (there are now Iraqi police everywhere, in their same Saddam-era uniforms) and Marines keeping the crowd away from these tunnel entrances. One of the cops told me it’s total bullshit. He knows these tunnels really well and there are no prisons there. I think that’s right. I interviewed one guy, around 24, who said he’s going all over the city, wherever he hears there’s one of these prisons. He wants to find his dad, a political prisoner. I asked when his dad was arrested. He said 1980. He hasn’t seen his dad since he was 3 months old. He believes his dad is in one of those prisons and he’dll find him some day soon.
I went to Baghdad’s biggest market today. It’s about 80 percent empty, I’d say. But people are coming back, more and more stalls are open. People are mostly buying candy and spices and deodorant and soap. People smell really bad here. It’s so hot, so muggy, and there’s no running water and people were running out of soap. It’s really disgusting, actually. And people were buying a lot of toothpaste. I’ve never seen so much toothpaste. I’ve noticed that people’s breath is even worse than the BO. It makes interviewing very unpleasant. I’m sure I stink, too. But at least I get to shower most days. And I am brushing my teeth.
The city is slowly getting back to normal. Every day more stores are open. The streets are more crowded, there’s more traffic. But still, most stores are closed. And nobody is selling or buying anything that isn’t an immediate need. (Except these kids buying fireworks, which I found strange).
Part of the market I walked around is the old Jewish neighborhood, Torat. Some guy came up to me and my translator and just told us that and gave us a tour. The houses there are old and broken down, but you can tell they were once beautiful’dlovely carved wooden fronts. He took me to the old Jewish school’dwhere the Hebrew writing has been painted over with Ba’dath part slogans. My translator asked if I can read Hebrew. It was an awkward moment. I didn’t know what to do. But I nodded. It made me scared, I have to say, but I felt he knew somehow and I didn’t feel like lying. I probably should have. He later went in to a speech about how Israelis aren’t really Jews. They’re Zionists and the Zionists want to take over the whole world. It was so boring and alarming. He’s smart, 30 years old, well educated. I said I had been a reporter in Israel and I learned Hebrew and Arabic there. I don’t think he bought it.
Yesterday was a truly miserable day. I upgraded the software on my Sat Phone for some stupid reason and it broke. I called tech support and they said, oh, just ship it to us, we’dll fix it for you. I started screaming at the guy: I’m in Fucking Baghdad. It is such a loss to lose that sat phone. I can’t surf the web, can’t get email that easily. I have to borrow from friends to feed my stories or check my email. It sucks. I think I can get another one, but it’s so complicated, figuring out if it should be shipped to Jordan or Kuwait and finding someone who can then deliver it here. It’s a nightmare. Then I lost my car keys. Fuck. I have all my stuff stored in my car and on top of that, I have to drive the car out of here at some point. A Marine got it open’dexplained he was from Brooklyn and knows how to do that. His sergeant said that if I need the car hotwired, he has guys who know how to do that. He laughed, said it was their former profession. Things are so difficult here. Small mistakes are magnified enormously. There are no locksmiths to call. No garage where you can get a new ignition lock. Suddenly, I was planning how to get the car hotwired and then drive it down to Kuwait City to get it fixed’two days on the road. Nightmare. Then my translator found me and said he had my keys, so I’m OK. But still no satphone. I was so depressed about everything, that I took the day off. Didn’t do any stories yesterday, just laid in bed and read Robert Parker, which was lovely.
My radio show told me they’re OK with me leaving Baghdad in a week or so if I want and traveling to other parts of the Middle East. I think I will. It would be nice to get away and then come back. It is wearying to be here. It’s very hard. And I have such a nicer life here than most Iraqis. It’s also exhausting to work so hard. I’ve done more stories in a week than I usually do in two months. It’s thrilling and great in so many ways, and it wears you down. The radio show wants me to extend my contract, even become their staff person in the Middle East. I said I really want to go home to New York in June and sleep and relax for a few weeks before I make a decision. They said that’s alright.
I also don’t like how little socializing there is here. Everyone is so busy, and there are no working phones or anything (sometimes the internal hotel phones work), so if you want to see someone, you have to climb the stairs to their room and they’re probably not there or they’re busy. I haven’t done much socializing at all and I’m realizing how important that is to me. I really go a tiny bit insane when I spend all my time alone. A lot of reporters’dmost it seems’dgo out in groups. I never do, which is better for stories. I like it better all around. But I do get lonely. It’s odd, being in a building with a lot of friends, how isolated this place feels. A friend just invited me down for a beer, so I think I’ll go.