I’m tired, it’s hot, and I bitch a lot.
Working in Baghdad has changed. It’s no longer a place where you can walk outside the hotel and the stories hurl themselves at you. It’s now hard work finding stories. It’s odd, because it doesn’t seem possible something would change that quickly. But it has and everyone is talking about it, all the reporters anyway. I’ve been working so hard this week and I haven’t gotten a single story done. It’s embarrassing and so frustrating. Especially after the previous week where every single day I did unbelievable stories that just presented themselves to me–and most days I turned away two or three stories that also presented themselves to me but I didn’t have the time. Today, for example, I wanted to do a story about all the satellite dishes I see being sold on the street. They’re everywhere. Saddam outlawed them, punishment was six months in prison and some huge fine. He didn’t want anybody seeing outside information about his regime. Now, anybody with $200 can get one and so many people are. So, I wanted to interview a salesman and then go home with someone getting a Satellite Dish for the first time. See what they think of their first full glimpses of Western excess on TV. We went to a few satellite dish shops and the salespeople were so boring. Last week, I couldn’t find a boring person. Everyone was telling such great stories. These guys were so dull: yeah, I sell dishes. Isn’t it amazing that you can sell them freely? It’s the same as before. But before you sold them in secret, risking jail or death. I wasn’t worried, it was fine. I found a guy who installs these dishes. He said during the regime he installed 20 dishes in seven years. In the last week, he’s installed 50. He’s getting much better. He used to need 2 hours to set up a dish, now he gets it done in 30 minutes. I asked him to take me to a house getting a dish for the first time. He took me to this very nice house, huge, in a wealthy part of town. It took him and his two brothers more than 2 hours to set the dish up. I sat around waiting for that moment when I could sit with the whole family and watch TV with them. All the women came up to the really hot roof to watch the dish being installed. The women of the house wouldn’t talk to me’they’re Muslims and traditional. But their Christian neighbors came over. This older woman, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, talked to me for a long time in English. She was a math teacher for 35 years. She’s been all over the world. She seemed so smart and well educated. She studied at the American University in Beirut, the best university in the Middle East. But then she’d go into all the conspiracy theories that everyone else has: how a bunch of Kuwaitis caused all the looting. Iraqis are good people, they would never do this. That is an obsession here, this idiotic idea. Obviously it was Iraqis looting. I saw them, everyone saw them. You still see them, driving around in trucks filled with crap they stole. For a while, the theory was they weren’t Iraqis at all. But now the idea is that it was Kuwaitis who paid the Iraqis to loot. I don’t know, they seemed pretty happy to loot on their own. She told me her brother was in Abu Ghreib prison for eleven months for no reason at all and just got out in the general amnesty in October. She also said how much better things were under Saddam Hussein. Not that she wants him back, and, yes, he was bad. But this is worse. You hear that constantly. And that this war is for the Jews. ”You know what we call the Kuwaitis?” she asked. ‘the Arabic Jews.’ Because they are so bad. Finally, the Satellite Dish was installed. We went down to the living room to watch TV. The father of the house came back from wherever he was. He’s an enormously fat man and I was told he just spent six and a half years in the notorious Abu Ghreib prison, only got out in that October amnesty. He was going on and on about how much better things were under Saddam. He seemed like such an arrogant asshole. My translator told me the man is famous in Iraq. He is a huge slaughtering house. And that he lost a lot of weight in prison. I asked him if he could invite his family to watch TV, so I could record their reaction. No, he said. They are women and it wouldn’t be appropriate for a man to be in the same room with these women. Anyway, he said, we had satellite TV all through the regime. It’s nothing new for us. We’re rich and rich people had whatever we wanted. I was so annoyed for having wasted three hours in the hot sun waiting for this family and now I can’t even record the scene. We left, quite rudely, since the man insisted we stay for lunch. I find these rich Iraqis so mysterious. How did they amass wealth when everyone else is so poor? Are they in the regime? Or is there a separate business class? I guess these are the kinds of questions a reporter might find out.
That’s what happened today, but that’s the kind of thing that’s happened every day. Yesterday, I went to my translator’s neighborhood because he told me there are a lot of former Ba’ath party officials there and lots of powerful people and I thought I could begin to unravel the complex ways power worked under Saddam. But I ended up spending several hours in a room full of young men who didn’t know anything about power and had a lot of questions about the Americans. They threw every conspiracy theory at me. Only one of them was saying life was better under Saddam. This one guy, saying that he loves Saddam. Saddam was a great leader. All his friends made fun of him and laughed a lot and said they always hated Saddam and are glad he’s gone. But nobody wants the Americans here. I gave this big room a lecture. I was so sick of the constant conspiracy theories. I told them that they had to learn how to analyze information, it’s one of the most important things in a democracy, if they get a democracy. They were raised on the lies of Saddam’s media. They were taught that everything is a big conspiracy and that everything is either all good, the regime, or all bad: America, Israel, etc. I told them life doesn’t work that way. Things are more complex than that. I don’t like Bush, I said, but I don’t then decide that every single thing he does is horrible. I analyze the information. Like, they were saying that they, like most Iraqis, believe Saddam now lives in the US, protected by the CIA. I said that’s crazy, because if that were discovered it would be the end of Bush and the end of the Republican party for a long time. And that we have a vigorous free press that would find that out and report it. I told them that these ridiculous conspiracy theories allow them to believe whatever they want, without any basis in fact. And that’s dangerous. They have to consider evidence and come to realistic conclusions. It felt absurd talking like that. They have no experience of a free press. They can’t imagine what one would be like. They can’t imagine trusting anything that’s reported. So, they go on and on with whatever jackass idea they hear from their friends. I know I’ve written a lot about these conspiracy theories. They are so prevalent and they are so dangerous. Because it really makes you feel that it doesn’t matter what the US does, what Israel does, what anybody does. Arabs will go on believing these stupid, unforgiving ideas. How are they going to pick reasonable leaders. They’ll just vote for whoever spouts the most bullshit. I really liked most of those guys. They seemed so nice and friendly and curious. They had a lot of questions. But I’m pretty sure that today they believe their conspiracy theories more than anything I told them. I just turn off usually when people talk like that. It’s just not fun or interesting. I love having good conversations with people where there are challenging ideas being argued and new perspectives. But most conversations in the Arab world are just listening to someone saying the exact same idiotic theory you heard fifty times. And you hear the same ideas from educated people and from uneducated, young and old, rich and poor. I once joked that any six Israelis have more opinions than all the Arabs in the world. It’s not true. I can’t come up with six different opinions I hear in the Arab world. There’s one or two that you hear over and over. There are some who don’t like Islamicization, but that’s rare. There are a few Iraqis who say it’s good the Americans are here, but that’s also rare. There are many Sunni who say Shiites are not really Muslims and are bad people. There are Christians who don’t like any of the Muslims. But when it comes to having a take on the politics of the Middle East, there is really one opinion. All the Arab leaders are terrible. They’re terrible because the US wants them to be terrible, because the US only wants oil and wants to keep the people down. And the US wants Israel to be safe, so they want to keep the Arabs weak. (Sometimes, someone will add that the US wants to destroy Islam.) The more the US says they don’t like someone’saddam or Osama bin Laden or Arafat, say’the more Arabs know those people are employees of the CIA, doing the US’s bidding. This is all because the Jews want to rule the world and already control the US Congress and the US president. The conclusion to all this is that any one Arab can’t do anything. There’s no personal responsibility, because they are up against the world’s only superpower and its Jew minions. Or the Jews are the superpower and the US is its minion. Look, I know Bush is an asshole. I don’t like him, I think he’s stupid and stole the election and all that. I think they’re fucking this Iraq thing up pretty bad so far. And I know the CIA has done all sorts of crappy things and that as vital as our democracy is, we don’t know everything the government does or why it does it. I don’t trust Wolfowitz or Perle or Cheney or Rumsfeld. I don’t think the response to conspiracy theories is to be loyally pro-American or anything. But, these theories are not intelligent engagements with the issues. They’re an abdication of thought. And it’s really dangerous. The Arab world is just very fucked up right now. You have 300 million people living under varying degrees of dictatorships, feeling humiliated and poor and wanting so much that they don’t have and you do get the feeling things could start blowing up even worse than they already have. And I want there to be leaders here who have good, reasonable thoughts that are practical and grounded in reality and can help the people do what needs to be done. Basically, they have to do what at least parts of Asia and Latin America have done (I know lots of parts haven’t) which is stop being third world idiots and develop modern economies that allow wealth to be created by the people, not by the government for the government. They need free speech and civil society. They need democracy. But there are none of those voices. Well, very few. The loudest, most compelling voices are the Islamists. They say the perfect government is the one Mohammed established in Mecca in the 600s. And we just need to go back to that. No. You don’t. You can’t. That was a tiny, tribal, pastoral culture in a pre-modern world. Those rules don’t apply anymore. Become Sweden. Don’t become Mecca. Oh, it makes me angry. And it makes me scared. And more importantly, it’s just so fucking boring. I know I’m ranting and not particularly coherently. I probably have sun stroke and am exhausted and annoyed by a lousy week. But what I’m saying is true. There are, of course, educated Arabs who have a reasonable and intelligent take on everything. But it is so rare to meet them. Really uncommon. And they complain much more angrily than I am about the state of Arab thinking.
Another thing that bothers me is that I finally checked my email after a long time away. I got a lot of very nice notes. But some of them mentioned Robert Fisk, the British reporter who lives in Beirut and writes on the Arab world. I used to respect him, he seemed like a fresh, brave voice. No. He’s not. He’s a liar. Every single reporter I’ve spoken to who has worked with him says he makes everything up. They go out and report the same story and then read what he writes and what he writes just didn’t happen. He regurgitates these conspiracy theories and makes them palatable for readers of Z magazine or whatever. Don’t trust this man. Don’t trust Chris Hedges either. He’s even worse than Fisk. I also was upset to get some emails from Americans that equated Saddam with Bush. I’m no fan of Bush. But that is simply absurd. The evidence we’re seeing here shows that Saddam was much worse than we even realized. It looks like he killed at least 3 million and maybe 8 million Iraqis for everything from actual political opposition to just praying or selling bad meat or being the brother of a guy who was heard on a bus complaining about the regime. Or no reason at all. There are only 24 million people in Iraq. I haven’t done the math, but I’m guessing Saddam will turn out to be the worst mass murderer of his own people on a percentage basis in the history of the world. Leave aside how he amassed a level of personal wealth and a string of hundreds of palaces that boggle the mind in one of the poorest countries in the world. Leave aside the total terror every Iraqi lived under. Someone equated Saddam’s media operation with Fox News. That’s absurd. I watched Fox News in Kuwait on the war and they are obviously absurdly biased. But while I was watching or while you’re watching, we don’t live in terror that someone will knock on the door and take us away to jail for looking at satellite TV or toss the body of our mother on our front doorstep because she sold some Ba’ath party official meat he thought wasn’t as good as he expected.
Yesterday, I went to the first press conference of Jay Garner, the new American governor of Iraq. He’s this straight-talking former General with a down-home southern accent. He sort of shrugs and acts like, hey, we’ve got a tough job, but we’re doing it well. We’ll take care of this mess. I don’t know. He says they’ll start putting the new Iraqi government in power next week. I have a very bad feeling about all this. He keeps saying the Iraqis will rule themselves. The Americans will not run the country. But he also says things like–if we mess up (i.e., if the Iraqis mess up) we can just start all over (i.e., the US will put someone new in power). I guess there’s a chance he can pull this off, bring an actual vital democracy to Iraq that feels, to Iraqis, like it’s their own. But the chances of it going bad seem much greater than the chances of it going well.
A bunch of us reporters were joking the other night about the lines to use to pick up women when we get back home. I have this friend, a photographer, who is so funny. He says he hears them all the time. “I’m so tired; it’s just so exhausting” (I use that one on this site constantly). “It’s very difficult to talk about the things I’ve seen.” With the possible add-on: “But I feel so open with you, for some reason.” ”It’s very hard to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and realize today could be the day that you’ll die.” ”People here just don’t understand (the Middle East, or Bosnia, or Rwanda, or whatever).”
Baghdad feels more and more normal every day. Last week, the only things being sold were food and soap and guns, for the most part. Now, you see so much being sold: sneakers, Satellite dishes, TVs, clothes, stationary. The electricity is still out in a lot of parts of the city and people complain about there not being water, but I see water everywhere. The other big complaint is that almost nobody has gone back to work and even the people who have, haven’t been paid yet. I don’t know who is doing it, but a lot of the blown up tanks and cars and rocket launchers have been cleaned up. There are far fewer US troops on the streets. They were everywhere last week. Yesterday, I had to interview some soldiers and I drove for 20 minutes before I found any. They are still certainly a presence, but now it’s a bit surprising to see them, like they don’t belong. When I first arrived, the city felt like an armed camp. There is still gunfire, but far less. Maybe a few shots a day, rather than a few shots every ten minutes. I hear the streets are safer after dark, though I don’t go out at night and very few reporters do. There are still armed bands looking to rob. It does seem like once the electricity is fully restored and there is some kind of government installed, maybe, just maybe, the place will just feel like a fully normal city. There are a few more major moments that will happen. Most people are convinced Saddam is still in Baghdad somewhere and that he will get caught. That will be huge, of course. The Shiites are up to something. They are so well organized and getting more and more so every day. They are running their own schools and hospitals and police. It seems likely they will start fighting either each other or the new government. But the biggest question is just what will this new government be. Will it be Iraqis or exiled Iraqis who are tight with the US, or will it be a puppet regime. How will it be accepted. And how do you build a democracy, free press, civil society, in a country that hasn’t had any of that. Iraqis are constantly asking me what the future will be. I always say the same thing. Actually, now my translator just answers without asking me. I say that their material quality of life will improve dramatically. They’ll have more money, the infrastructure will be improved, they’ll have McDonald’s and cell phones and everything other countries have. But the political future is completely mysterious. I don’t think anybody knows.