Touring the poorest and richest extremes of Baghdad.
I went this morning to find the gun market. It took longer than I would have thought, since everyone here has guns, I figured they’d be easy to find. But it took a lot of time to find where people buy them. It’s in the miserably poor Baghdad neighborhood called Ur. I went in the morning, and it turns out they only sell guns in the afternoon. There was one guy trying to unload a Chinese-made Kalachnikov for $33 and a Czech rifle for around $40. He was excited to talk to me but didn’t have much to say. He fired the Kalachnikov in the air. Offered me to fire it, but I didn’t feel like it. I’d think describing a gun market would be more interesting, but this was just one guy on the side of the road carrying a couple guns. He said they’ve gone down in price’the only thing I’ve heard of that’s cheaper since the war. He said they’re selling really well because so many people want guns to keep their homes and shops safe from looters.
While I was talking to him, these two other guys came up and screamed at my translator that we shouldn’t be doing a bad story about Iraq. We shouldn’t focus on guns. They need water and electricity and they have nothing and I should focus on that. The translator screamed at them that we already did plenty of stories about those things. It went on so long, the guys getting so angry, I finally said, why don’t you take me to your homes and show me the conditions. So, the angriest guy smiled and led me to his house. My translator, who has lived his whole life in Baghdad, said he had no idea people lived like this here. It’s in the city, but feels totally rural. Unpaved roads, chickens and sheep and stuff all over. The homes are cheaply put together with bricks or mud. They are all the same: one small, dirty room for living, another small dirty room for cooking. An outhouse without running water. They don’t have plumbing, so they broke into the main water line and fed these plastic tubes along the dirt road to their homes, the sewage also runs along the dirt road, so the tubes run through these open sewers. It’s disgusting. The smell is so horrible. There were two little girls sitting in the muddy sewer water, they are too pour to get a tube to their house, so they come down here and get water out of the main and carry it home.
These people are so absurdly poor. They live almost entirely on government rations, which the US now has to give them, I guess, although I don’t know when. They said that no journalists were allowed there during Saddam’s reign. Saddam prevented all Iraqis from knowing that there are people this poor in Baghdad. When I toured the first house and then came out, this huge crowd of adults and kids applauded excitedly. It was the first time anyone outside had reported on their conditions. But the thing is, I’m not going to report on their conditions, except here. I’ve already done stories about the lack of water and electricity. There was nothing here that differed from the story I finished yesterday, except in degree. So, it’ll be on my minidisk until I erase it tomorrow when I go out and start another story. I felt bad, but I also felt clever that I quelled the anger and I guess it’s good that I know how bad things are, gives me a fuller picture of the place. I called in to my radio story from the crappy little area, called, bizarrely, Seven Palaces neighborhood. I got excited about doing a Q and A with my show about the place, but once I started talking, I realized that there really isn’t anything new here and I’m sure they didn’t use it. Everywhere you go in this city, people are demanding electricity and water and better security. Huge crowds gather everywhere and demand these things. There’s nothing I can do.
I then went on a tour of some of Saddam’s palaces. Well, first I went to his son, Uday’s palace and then Saddam’s main palace. Uday’s place is now the headquarters of a group calling itself the New Iraqi Army. I don’t know who they are. They don’t have uniforms or anything. They were all happy to let us walk around, except this one really odd guy, an older man, tall and hefty with a severe mustache. I assumed he was an Arab, but he didn’t seem to speak with the other Arabs. He just said he is with the Americans. I asked where he’s from–he has a thick accent: Turkish? German?–and he said “From US.” I don’t know if he was actually CIA or Special Forces or something or just some asshole acting all self-important. Uday is more hated than Saddam here. Uday famously rapes women and, they say, then feeds them alive to his dogs. He kills people all the time and is more sadistic than his dad. The palace was actually modest by comparison to Saddam’s. A big mansion–but not huge–with marble everywhere and chandeliers. The place had been thoroughly looted, so there wasn’t any furniture or even wiring. Anything that could be carted away had been. It’s right on the Tigris and has a lovely view. There’s a green garden. It must have been nice.
We then got to one of Saddam’s main palaces: the Arabian Knight. It took some tense negotiations to get in. The army guys guarding it wouldn’t let us within, I don’t know, 100 yards of them. So we were screaming at them but couldn’t hear what they said. They had their guns out and we didn’t want to get shot. Finally, a soldier came up and was really embarrassed that we are Americans. He said he was so sorry to keep us waiting. Then his sergeant came up and drove us into the palace compound. This was truly a crazy dictator’s palace. It’s actually seven palaces built around a huge man-made lake. It’s just beautiful, gardens everywhere, lovely paths to walk on. We couldn’t get in to the main palace, that’s now the headquarters of the Army in Iraq and even a lot of soldiers aren’t allowed in there. But that sergeant drove us to some of the other palaces. You’ve probably seen these places on CNN or whatever, but they are so insanely opulent. Every surface is marble, there are massive ornate chandeliers in every room. There is beautiful (but overdone and tacky) filigree of wood and colored gem stones in the ceilings. This place hadn’t been looted, so there was still huge tacky furniture sets. It’s probably exactly what you’d imagine. Each palace we entered–I think we saw three–is equally ornate and elaborate. They all have beautiful views of the lake. There’s a pool house with a giant bean shaped pool. It has this enormous lighting system in the ceiling–ike a broadway play. It was so easy to picture lots of naked women swimming with music and crazy lights as Ba’ath guys sat around smoking Cuban cigars. My translator and driver were so excited to see the place that they’d heard of their whole lives. They grabbed as much booty as they could, crystal glasses with the Ba’ath party logo, a giant colored ceramic tea kettle. They said they’re getting their tax money back.
I’m having a tough time with my translator. He says he wishes Saddam was back. That he hated Saddam but things are worse now and he’d rather have Saddam than the American occupiers. He said he’d rather remain poor and miserable than have his country occupied. He also says that even though he hates Saddam, he likes Tariq Aziz and a lot of the other senior guys. He joined the Ba’ath party, but he says he didn’t mean it. He just wanted a good job. I’ve been using him a few days because he actually speaks English, a big and rare plus among translators here. But I’m sick of hearing every stupid conspiracy theory come out of his mouth. How Saddam lives in America now, because he did his job right. How the Jews want to rule the world. Et cetera. He also is middle class, does much better than any of these poor people we keep meeting. And I didn’t like the excitement with which he looted the palace. The first palace I went to, last week, the Iraqi translator was just so quiet and sad and shocked and angry. It all seemed like real emotions and a real recognition of the horror of this horribly poor country being plundered by this man. My new translator on his first trip to a palace seemed giddy. He kept saying he wants it all, he wants to live there. I got the feeling the palace made him respect Saddam for his ability to get all this great stuff.
A lot of reporters are leaving. A few left today, a bunch more are going tomorrow. The story is over, they say. I want to leave. It comes in waves, but today’s wave says I want to get out of here. I keep trying to take a day off, but I keep not taking a day off because it’s hard not to go out and do stories. I guess I should just stay a while. There are a bunch of interesting things in the next few weeks’the first government, et cetera. I know I’ve written all this before, but it’s kind of a constant obsession. If you can leave misery, why not, right? It’s definitely less exciting. Last week, I didn’t need to do any work to find great stories. Now I do. They don’t hurl themselves. Things are more and more normal every day, more stores open, more cars out. Also, I’m getting so used to it, I don’t know what an American audience would find interesting. It all seems kind of obvious. I realized last night that if I stay, I have to switch gears from daily reactive stories to more in depth, thoughtful ones. But it’s really hard to switch those gears. I have to go, I’m borrowing a friend’s sat phone and I think he wants it back.