I spend the day in bed and write a lot.
There is so much need in Baghdad, it’s so awful. And it surrounds you every where you go. I had my driver drop me off a block from the hotel. While walking back, one man stopped me and asked if I’m American. He spoke English pretty badly but enough to say he desperately needs work, could I hire him as a translator. While I was explaining to him that I have a translator, another guy came up and asked me if he could use my Sat phone. Then a whole group of people surrounded me and were saying things in Arabic that I didn’t understand. I just walked away. The compound where all the reporters are has all these people just asking you for things all the time. I used one guy as a translator my second day here. He wasn’t that good and there’s something sort of nervous and aggressive about him and I don’t want to work with him. Almost every time I leave the hotel, he’s right there, asking me if he can work with me. I keep telling him I have somebody and I don’t need him and he says, every time, that he’ll just wait at the hotel all day for me just in case. He doesn’t do this quickly and elegantly, he follows me everywhere I go and tells me how hungry his family is and that my new translator has money and doesn’t need it as much as he does. There are also all these little kids. There’s one girl, maybe seven, who is very beautiful and she walks right next to you grabbing at your sleeve, “Mister, one dollar. Mister, one dollar.” There are a bunch of boys who sell gum and they never leave you alone, they just keep bothering you. I learned that with the children, engaging at all, even to say, in Arabic, No, I don’t want any or I’m not giving you any money, just prolongs it. If you yell at them and say go away, they stay longer. So, I just ignore them completely and eventually they do go away. The need is everywhere. Every street you go on, everywhere. Any time I slow down while walking, someone asks for something. A phone call to a relative. Money. Information. So many people assume that since I’m American, I’ll know something, like when electricity will be back on or when the Ministry of Trade will reopen. I don’t know. I was thinking today about walking around New York. Sure, there are beggars. But for the most part, there are all these people walking around who basically have what they need. They’ve got money, food, home, job, whatever. Or if they don’t, there might be some safety net. Not for everyone, but for most people. And here it’s just such massive need for every person and there is no safety net. There’s nothing. It’s exhausting just to contemplate. It’s annoying as hell to be around. The whole thing is awful.
One sign of the massive need is on display in front of the hotel all the time. This man, Mohamed Zubeidi, declared himself mayor of Baghdad a few weeks ago. He was just arrested by the US forces and is no longer acting as mayor. I spent some time with him on Saturday and he seemed like a sleazy, lying politician. Telling everyone: no problem. And having no solutions, no suggestions for how to solve any problem. Anyway, when he first declared himself mayor, he created this one page job application form. It asks your name, your former occupation, your association with the Ba’ath party. There’s this grid where you can fill out what hours of the week you are free to work. I find that grid funny, since everybody in Iraq is unemployed right now, I assume pretty much everyone is free to work any hours anyone asks them to. He handed these forms out for a day or so and it got out of hand. People started Xeroxing the forms and selling them for 250 dinars, about 10 cents. There are people all up and down the street in front of my hotel, the Baghdad Ishtar Sheraton (Zubeidi’s city hall was in the coffee shop here), selling these forms. And there are thousands and thousands of people all day every day buying and filling out the forms. They would try to hand them to Zubeidi’s people, but he long since stopped taking them. Now they hand them to the US Army guys guarding the hotel. They have huge piles of them. I asked a soldier why they’re taking the forms, and he said he didn’t know. They keep handing them over, so he takes them. But nobody is going to look at these forms. They’re thrown out every day. But every day, more and more people come to fill them out and hand them over.
Speaking of crowds and soldiers. There is barbed concertina wire surrounding the hotel in every open space. On the inside of the wire are a bunch of soldiers and some tanks. On the other side of the wire are thousands of Iraqis calling across to the soldiers asking for something. A lot are doing the job application thing. A lot want to talk to someone in charge, anyone in charge. I don’t know what else they’re doing. The crowd is a mix. When I’ve asked a few people who they are, some are former high level people in ministries. Most are just young guys who are trying to get something. It’s really hard to leave the hotel, because you have to push your way through this massive crowd. Several reporters have been pickpocketed. Women are constantly felt up by these guys. It’s unpleasant. But it doesn’t seem especially dangerous. Every other day about, there’s a big protest. There’s been pro-Zubeidi and anti-Zubeidi marches. There has been a few Shi’ite marches which I didn’t understand. Yesterday there was a protest that became a massive prayer session with all these people getting down on the road and praying. When I talk to the soldiers, some are kind of freaked out by all these people. One female soldier just stared at me and said: you’re going out into that? Some soldiers seem to be really trying to figure out what these Iraqis are all about. The other night, ABC tv threw a party and there were some soldiers there saying it’s sad to watch other people drink, but they can’t. So, I took a bunch of beers to my room and they came over and we drank and talked. It was three kids, and they seem to be working very hard trying to understand what the Iraqis on the other side of the wire want. They let some in to their side and talk to them. They say they’ve made some friends. They said they were against the war, never understood why we’re fighting it. But they feel glad that these people are free now. And they’re upset that these free people are so mad at the US. But these three guys seemed to be working hard to figure the place out. They said they like peace-keeping, which most soldiers tell me they hate. They were all in Kosovo and said that was fun. One guy said he’d love to stay here a year and really get to know it. That’s very surprising. Everyone else just wants to go home. Most soldiers hate this place. I’m writing all this because there was that incident yesterday where 15 Iraqis were killed by US soldiers at a protest in Fallujah. The US says the crowd fired on them. People in the crowd say no, the soldiers just started firing. I don’t know what happened. But it is so easy to imagine the soldiers just freaking out. Around the same time as that protest, I came across a protest at one of the Presidential Palaces. There were all these pro-Zubeidi people yelling across concertina wire at a bunch of soldiers. I didn’t even pause before I went in to the middle of the protest crowd to get across the wire to find this Marine Captain I was looking for. The people were protesting loudly, but it didn’t seem scary at all. But when I got across, the soldiers were freaking out. Their commander said he couldn’t talk to me because he’s fully focused on force protection. The soldiers had their guns up and across their chests, fingers on the triggers. It seemed absurd. They should just ignore these people. When I got ready to leave, the commander said “you better stay right here until this thing dies down. For your safety.” I waited a minute just to be polite and then went out through the crowd. I’m reasonably sure they aren’t actually pro-Zubeidi anyway, they just got paid to be there. But my point is that the troops have this heightened sense of terror about crowds of Iraqis and especially Iraqis with guns. But all Iraqis or most Iraqis have guns. It’s not a big deal. I was on the street where dollars are traded for dinars and every few minutes someone would shoot a gun in the air. I don’t know why. But it’s just normal. It seemed embarrassing that the soldiers were so out of touch with the reality of the situation. I guess they have to be vigilant and everything, but shouldn’t somebody explain to them basic things about Iraq.
I really have a bad feeling about the reconstruction effort here, as I write all the time. A friend of mine talked with some of the people on the ORHA team’that’s the group of Americans who are recreating Iraqi government and infrastructure. The ORHA people said it’s a total mess. It’s the opposite of a power grab. Every group is trying to take as little responsibility as possible: the US Army, USAID, etc. They’re all terrified and asking everyone else to take control. The ORHA people told my friend they have absolutely no plan. They came to Iraq with no idea about what to do. Jay Garner, the head of ORHA, looks and acts like what he is: a retired Grandpa from Florida who is playing at running a country. It’s so depressing. I’m sure I’m wrong and they’ll figure it out somehow and it won’t be as fucked as it looks. But it sure looks fucked. A big part of the problem is that their public relations effort is without question the worst I have ever seen in my life. Every reporter says the same thing. There are a few thousand reporters here covering reconstruction. Most are staying in one of two hotels right next to each other. And ORHA–just like the US Army–has no public relations contacts at the hotel. Every once in a while, they’ll post a flier on a window. That’s about it. This is probably the biggest US foreign policy stories in a long time, and they’re just not making contact with us. Which is idiotic, I think. They’re trying to give the impression that they’re running things very smoothly, but we have no way of contacting them. A few have sat phones, but they never ever answer them. I’ve been calling for days and I’ve never reached anyone. So, I drive around the city and interview Iraqis about how fucked everything is. Garner says they have contacts at all the ministries. So, I drive to the ministries and meet high level people who tell me they’ve never spoken to any Americans. Nobody is helping them in any way. I’ve spent a lot of time with the director of research for Iraq’s Central Bank–he’s just hanging out in this house with a lot of other central bankers, doing nothing–and he said nobody has contacted him or anyone he knows. So, I report all this. Which is bad for the US. A lot of people listen to the radio show I work for. And I’m just one reporter. We’re not reporting what they want us to be. And if they have just had some idiot at the hotel sitting at a desk, I’d be obliged to put in some quotes from him about how they’re on top of everything and everything is going really smoothly. But I can’t find anyone from ORHA to comment on anything. They’re fucking the press operation up so badly, maybe they’re doing a brilliant job at everything else, but it doesn’t seem likely. The other thought I have is that they’re not fucking up the press operation, they’re keeping us out of the loop on purpose. Bu the conclusion, then, is the same: the operation is not going well.
Monday was the most frustrating day for a lot of us. ORHA was holding it’s second big meeting of Iraqi tribal, religious, and political leaders. It’s at this convention center right near the hotel. I showed up there, and the army guys explained that press can’t drive in the main entrance, but has to go around the back. This is not far. Like a block away. But the army has closed off so many roads, that we literally drove for two hours to get that one block. We had to drive 15 minutes out of Baghdad to get on this other road that comes around to the back. This is insane. They should want reporters covering this event. It’s good news for them. But more than that, why do they cut off so much of the city. If it pisses me off, imagine how an Iraqi feels just trying to get to his house. When I made the two hour trek around town and got to the checkpoint, they said only 8 media people are allowed to cover this massive event. Somehow, I got past the check point, but they turned away the New York Times and the Washington Post and who knows who else. But I wish I had been turned away. Because making it past the checkpoint only meant I got to sit in a parking lot for several hours waiting. They wouldn’t let anybody in to cover the actual event. They wanted us all to sit there and we’d be able to do a 15 minute press availability at 6 in the evening. At 2:30, I left. Everyone who stayed said it was such a disaster. It took several hours to screen all the reporters and then they wouldn’t let them report anything, just take pictures of random unidentified Iraqis speaking in Arabic. Didn’t we liberate this country for freedom? Isn’t freedom of the press an important one of our freedoms? I don’t know, man, it pisses me off.
Despite all this stuff I’ve written, Baghdad just feels like a normal, poor city now. Most stores are open. Most restaurants, too. Traffic is horrible. You do see bombed out, looted buildings. But for the most part, it doesn’t seem like a place reeling from war or a place with no government, no laws. It’s true that if you ask any one of the many people wandering the streets you will quickly realize this place is in crisis. But driving around, it doesn’t seem that bad.
I’ve been avoiding local food, because almost everyone has gotten sick. Yesterday, a friend asked if I wanted to go to this great restaurant. I felt like it was time to get over my paranoia about food, so I went with him. And of course, I’m sick. Not horribly, not the many days in bed feeling agony that friends have had. But I am kind of sick and it’s unpleasant and I’m taking the day off and I’m going to stick to eating MREs.
Taking the day off allows me to actually have thoughts that seem semi-coherent. Which is why I’m writing so damn much today. This story has turned. We’re all monitoring how media are covering Iraq these days and noticing that it’s just not the big story anymore. It’s kind of depressing. I check Reuters first, and yesterday was the first time they didn’t have a special Focus on Iraq page on their website. They only had two stories form Iraq. Everyone seems interested in this SARS thing, which I have not followed and only sort of understand. The New York Times–as you probably know’stopped their Nation at War section and only has one or two Iraq stories on the front page now. My friend watched the BBC yesterday and for the first time the first ten minutes had no Iraq coverage. I had a story last week that never aired. That’s a first. They said it was very good, but got bumped for more pressing local events and SARS stories. Fuck SARS, man. Journalists are leaving here in droves. The photographers are most eager to leave. They say the story is no longer visual. It’s all about meetings now and meetings just aren’t interesting to photograph. Every day some friends leave. Every day people ask: how long are you staying? When I say at least another month, people groan. How could you stand it? There are still new people arriving every day and people say it’s now the B-team coming in. The star reporters are leaving. One major paper, where I have a lot of friends, is sending some metro reporters with no foreign experience. Iraq is now for the trainees. It’s also harder and harder to get stories. The first week or so, I just walked out of the hotel and stories hurled themselves at me. Now, I drive around and around and many days I find nothing. Things are still fascinating, but I can’t do a story every day about how the whole country is fucked. I can’t do a ‘there is no government’ story every day. Can’t do a “People are broke and miserable” story. The palaces are so cool, but that’s been done to death. Now I wish I wasn’t doing daily stories. It now feels like it’s more a lengthy magazine story place. But I have to feed the daily machine and I’m just too tired and overworked to do anything else. And things are so inefficient. It’s so hard to work without telephones. Without knowing where people are. I wish I could just find some family or some neighborhood and just sit and drink tea with them and go deep. But I can’t afford the time for that. The TV networks have someone sitting at a computer all day checking the wires. But I can’t do that. So, most days, I don’t know what’s happening in the city until the end of the day, when it’s dark and too dangerous to go back out. I was going to write that I’m not complaining. But I am complaining. It is frustrating. I had a big fight with my editor. I yelled at her and said I’ll just leave. We worked out this arrangement where I call her at 6:30 every night, she reads me the wires from the day and I have one hour to go get a story related to the day’s stories. I said I don’t want to chase wire stories. I don’t want to do what everyone else does. But I have to some days and then other days I can do longer pieces that are my own. It’s such a stark education in how the media works. A story is hot when it’s very hot and everyone comes and then it gets cool and there’s just a lot less reporting done. I know that some of my friends are doing great work. And I’m sure there will still be lots of stories coming out of here. But it’s not the same. I think it would be better if there was a bigger commitment to doing these stories in-depth for a longer time. But that just won’t work, somehow. We’d still be reading lots of Rwanda and Kosovo and Afghanistan stories. And what about other parts of the world that haven’t been hot for years: Central America or whatever. We can’t hold focus attention on every story forever. I feel mixed. I’m very impressed by a lot of the reporters here. They dig and find amazing things. But I also have the feeling that we’re not getting the real essence of Iraq somehow. We report on the day’s events and we report that the Shi’ites are doing something big, organizing and protesting and that’s going to be something important to deal with some time soon. We all have the sense this thing could get very ugly. That there will be suicide bombers against American troops some day soon. Maybe a year, I don’t know. That there will be some clash caused by the Kurds and the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. That Iraq will experience unbearable turmoil transforming from a basically pre-modern state into a what? A liberal democracy? A theocracy? A civil war? I don’t know. Just changing the economy from socialist (Saddamist, some people called it) into capitalist will be massive and will cause huge disruptions. I keep feeling like if I was paying more attention, if I was digging more and getting more in-depth, I could do a better job preparing for what the future will become. How many reporters in 1967 were able to predict the next 36 years of misery in Israel and the West Bank. How many reporters at the end of World War I were able to lay out the turmoil that would be the Middle East for the rest of the century. Maybe a lot did, I don’t know. I feel like a lot of us just have a sense of the chaos and the stakes, but we don’t know where it’s going. It’s funny. There are such differences between different kinds of reporters. A lot of the daily news reporters have such strong opinions and strong analysis. They say things so definitively. But I just feel confused and overwhelmed. A friend of mine who left the other day who is a great magazine writer was telling me he goes to all these places and the daily reporters always seem to know everything, they talk like they have definitive answers to all the questions. But he just looks around and doesn’t know what the fuck is happening. He just feels overwhelmed. And he writes about that. There are also the adrenaline/war-junkies who just want to be around the hot hot story, the bang-bang, they call it, and don’t have any interest in going in depth. The photographers, in general, are like that. So, this is torture for them now. They just want to go home and wait for North Korea or Syria or who knows what to heat up and then they’ll go there for a few weeks. We were talking the other day about what the next big thing will be. People seem to think Syria won’t be a war. Neither will North Korea. So, they don’t know when we’ll all do this again. One photographer friend told me that I’m really different from everyone here. He’s never met someone like me in the field. Curious about the deeper, longer term story, not interested in bang-bang, not interested in getting on top of the day’s story. I find I just don’t care about the specifics. I don’t care about getting the exact number of dead and wounded or being the first to report something Jay Garner is doing or getting up at 5 in the morning to drive to a hospital in Falluja and piece together exactly what happened between the American soldiers and the Iraqi protestors. I just want to sit with people, not especially important people, and figure out how their lives used to work and how they work now. This seems like showing off or something and I feel embarrassed to write this, but I made a promise to myself to just type what’s on my mind and not worry about it. A friend just called, as I wrote this, telling me there was more shooting in Falujah and Donald Rumsfeld is here and she drove all over town hunting him down. I do get this panicky feeling whenever I hear something like that. Like, fuck, I’m not on top of the story. I’m missing everything. I’m such a bad reporter. I have that feeling at least once a day. What I really want is to sleep for two weeks and then come back and only have one magazine story to write. Maybe I can work that out some day soon. It’s so hard to get perspective. I took today off, but I’m still so wired and I can’t take a nap. I can’t focus on a book. I’m just watching movies (The Longest Yard) and the Simpsons on my computer and playing solitaire. I play a lot of solitaire. An embarrassing amount, I must say.