I gleefully return to Baghdad, drink too much, and become depressed about the American overseers of this country.
I’ve been back in Baghdad a few days but have been running around so much and, really, socializing too much, and I’ve just not sat down and written. I was in Amman the right amount of time. When I was driving back in to Iraq, I felt excited. I was so glad to be coming back and eager to start reporting again. That’s good. I was pretty burned out when I left.
I came back with a friend of mine, Jen, and she’s started writing a web diary as well at www.mideastdiaries.com/jensite . We’ve been traveling together the last few days, so her diary covers what I haven’t been writing. Maybe I felt OK to take a break, since she was posting things. So, go read her diary as well. I haven’t read it yet, because I wanted to write fresh, so maybe we’re covering the same ground here. Probably are. But with excitingly different perspectives.
Things have quieted down so much in Baghdad and the reporters are relaxing so much more. The hotel across the street has this great pool and pretty much every night there’s some kind of party or gathering there with drinking and swimming and eating. At times I have to remind myself I’m in Iraq, in Baghdad. It feels like a fun vacation at some resort. It’s been so much that last night I had to leave the party early and just go get some sleep. A few weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine that the most tiring thing in Baghdad would be drinking and laughing until late in to the night. Although the heat continues to be so overbearing that it is hard to work.
I feel sort of disjointed and jumbled and I don’t think this’ll be an award-winning entry. I also am kind of sick. It could be any of the many things I’ve eaten and drank in the last few days. Salads, humus, chicken, water. I am eating mostly, as the soldiers say, on the local economy, and I think that just means being sick a lot. Some people have gotten very sick. A friend of mine who I ran in to in Amman was rushed out of Baghdad and had to have surgery on his intestines. So many people are clutching their stomachs and mumbling about feeling off. But then there’s the flip side: constantly saying no when very nice people offer you a glass of tap water or some salad or something.
Getting out of Amman was a bit of a chore. There are so many of these GMC cabs running the Amman-Baghdad route, but it was hard to pick the right one. A fixer in Amman told me I must use her driver, even though he’s $450. She says he’s safe and reliable. But other friends told me he’s just awful and tries to take your money and is a general asshole. Another fixer told me not to go with a Jordanian driver, they’re too expensive. I should just go with one of the Iraqi guys who hang out at the oddly named American Parking Lot. They only charge $100. But someone else said some of them are crooks and get word ahead to looters inside Iraq who then rob you on the road just outside Ramadi, about an hour west of Baghdad. I felt stuck. And I felt responsible. Jen was traveling with me. And then another guy showed up in Baghdad who was a good friend in Junior High and High School, a photographer, who I haven’t seen in 16 years. And he had two friends traveling with him. Since I was the only one who had actually done all this, I was putting it together and wanted to get the right driver. The morning of Wednesday (we were planning to leave early Thursday morning) I still hadn’t picked a driver when I suddenly remembered this odd thing. Just two blocks from my place in Brooklyn there’s this little grocery shop, a bodega, run by a Jordanian bedouin who I became friendly with. Before I left for the Middle East in November, I asked him how to get from Amman to Baghdad and he told me to just call his brother who runs a car service. I checked my wallet and was surprised to see that his brother’s number was still on a piece of paper in my wallet. I called him and he said, don’t worry, everything is taken care of. I will give you the best drivers, the best cars. He started going in to all sorts of details that I didn’t understand about the make and model of his GMC’s and how they are better than other peoples. Then he insisted on coming by our hotel and going over everything in person. I had taken these photos of his brothers when I was in Brooklyn, so I could show their family what they’re up to. The guy came over and I showed him the pictures. The brother I like the most in Brooklyn, Rajab, is this big, funny, great guy who everyone in the neighborhood loves. I showed the guy in Amman Rajab’s picture and he was laughing and saying, That’s Rajab. He’s fat like me. Then I showed him pictures of his other brother, Thayer, who is sad and unpleasant and dark. The guy in Amman (I forget his name and am too lazy to go get my wallet) just looked at the picture and got quiet and looked sad and said, that’s Thayer. My brother. I don’t see him for ten years.
The guy said he had been in the Mukhabarat, the Jordanian secret police. I told him I wanted to know more about that. He said we must have dinner when I return. He was very upset that I called him too late to have dinner now. All these traveling friends were there, and he said you must all come to dinner. I’ve probably written this before, but it is so absurd that Arabs have this reputation of beligerence and war-mongering. Arabs are by far the kindest, most generous, peaceful people, overall. This happens all the time, Arabs can’t just meet you briefly and talk business. They want to eat with you, show you hospitality. Another guy came by the hotel, a friend of my Baghdadi translator who wanted to send some clothes and other things home to his family. He was also so upset that he couldn’t bring us to his house for dinner, that we didn’t have time. He also insisted we come over when we get back to Amman. Another friend of my translator’s came by to drop off a bunch of cartons of cigarettes, brands I had never heard of, that he wants to see if his cousin in Baghdad wants to sell them in Iraq.
I felt so good about arranging the cars through this Bedouin guy. I felt, maybe foolishly, but I don’t think so, that I was truly protected by Bedouin code. I am a friend, a guest, of the family that owns the company. They cannot let anything happen to me.
Before I leave Amman, I do want to say how pleasant it was. Cold air-conditioned room, room service, an afternoon floating in the dead sea. When I was in Baghdad I kept saying I need at least two weeks of relaxing somewhere, just sleeping and watching movies, and reading and sleeping. I got to Amman on a Friday, spent Saturday sleeping and going to movies. By the time I went to the dead sea on Tuesday, I felt completely relaxed. Completely finished with the exhaustion and tension of Baghdad. And, to my surprise, ready and eager to get back.
It’s best to leave Amman at around midnight. The American-controlled Iraqi border doesn’t open ’til eight (seven Amman time) and it’s only a three hour drive to the border. But it’s best to leave early so you’re at the front of the line at the border, so you can get across early and drive as quickly as possible to Baghdad so you get there before the looters around Ramadi wake up and start doing business. I felt kind of stressed out by driving all night, figuring I won’t be able to sleep. There’s this pharmacy near my hotel in Amman where an older man, British educated, likes to talk to Americans about how horrible America is. We went by there and got what he offers to everyone going to Iraq: Xanax. He says normally you’d need a prescription but anyone going to Iraq should have some, prescription or no. He asked us if we really thought Osama bin Laden was responsible for September Eleventh. We all wanted that Xanax so we just sort of nodded and mumbled something about who knows. He said, that’s right. Bin Laden couldn’t do it. He’s not sophisticated enough. Mysterious forces are responsible. When he turned his back, I pointed at myself (a Jew) to show my friends who those mysterious forces are. We all laughed, quietly, got our Xanax and left. That Xanax is strong. We took some and just slept the whole way. Thick, restful sleep. We had to wake up to deal with the border. On the Jordanian side it’s surprisingly normal, you wait in line with your passport, get an exit stamp, pay the 5 dinar exit fee. Just like you’re going to a normal country. Then you drive in to No-Man’s-Land between Jordan and Iraq and sit there for an hour or so with hundreds of other cars. I couldn’t figure out who everyone was. Mostly Jordanians, judging by the passports I saw. Someone said something about how lots of Jordanians are driving in with cars to sell. It’s best to do the drive with a convoy of other journalists. The thought is seven or so cars driving together are less likely to be stopped by looters. Also if someone gets a flat tire or something, they’re covered. We spoke with so many reporters who just said, meet us at the border. But we couldn’t find anyone. So, it was just our two cars and the car of these two British guys who were going to start the first independent English-language paper in Iraq. We crossed the border, stopped for the much-cheaper gas, filled up, and fell asleep. As we neared Baghdad I really felt excited, almost like I was getting there for the first time. Like there’s all this excitement ahead of me. I was surprised at how happy I felt. I left knowing I’d be back, but thinking I’d stay as short a time as possible, do my work, and get out for good. Now I was having thoughts about staying a long, long time. Which I don’t think I’ll do, but only because of the heat.
Baghdad, in just a week, seemed even more normal. Many more stores open. The previously chaotic and dangerous gas stations were well-mannered and protected by US soldiers, though the lines are still more than two days long. A lot more intersections have these volunteer traffic cops. Just guys in regular clothes who stand out there and direct traffic. Most of them have even gotten themselves whistles. I love these guys. They really make me feel very good. The city is in chaos and they find this one thing to do to sort out one area.
We got in, and went to a friend’s room and a whole bunch of my crowd were there. It felt like exactly the place I wanted to be. Sitting in that room, laughing with these guys. I felt very happy to be there. But I felt an obligation to leave and go to the first press conference of Paul Bremmer, the new US head of Iraq who replaced the constantly befuddled Jay Garner. I actually, somehow, had high hopes for this guy. I read good press about him, someone told me they followed him when he was the US man in charge of anti-terrorism and that’s he’s smart and straight. I am always kind of optimistic about things like that and somehow thought maybe he’d really start getting Iraq in shape. The press conference was in the same hall where Garner had his first. But then it was air conditioned. Now it was just fucking hot. Bremmer stood up and my heart sank. He started off talking about what a tyrant Saddam Hussein was and how great it is that he’s gone. He said, sure, Iraq has problems, but there isn’t anarchy. That’s our goal? Not to have anarchy? It seems like we should pretty much expect that there wouldn’t be anarchy. And that even without anarchy, there’s room to be upset about the general chaos, the constant crime, et cetera. Bremmer just seemed like the perfect asshole bullshit politician. Everything he said implied that everything is going great, just a few to-be-expected bumps in the road. People were asking questions and I kept wanting to stand up and say, could you please repeat everything but this time say it as if we’re not a bunch of idiots. He said that more people in Iraq have electricity than ever before. This is not true. When asked about the general lawlessness and crime, he said the US forces had arrested 300 people that week. That’s not an answer. They need to rebuild the Iraqi police force, have an overall security plan. I feel too tired to remember and go in to all the things he said that seemed like total bullshit. But trust me, everything was ridiculous. It made me feel really bad. I actually missed Garner, who at least talked a bit straight on the rare occassions he talked at all. I talked with a friend afterwards about the conference and she said it wasn’t for us. He knew we all knew he was full of shit. He was talking to the American people. That night, I checked the news stories about the conference and they all quoted him pretty straight. None of the reporters I read pointed out that he was totally full of shit. The articles had headlines like “No Anarchy in Iraq.” He won.
The next day we went to a mass grive site that was so powerful and upsetting. Jen writes about it well on her site so I won’t go in to it in great detail. But walking up to the mass grave, I kept thinking about the holocaust. Coming across this ground that was hallowed and desecrated by such massive human tragedy and not knowing how to approach the place. Wanting to be respectful but not sentimental. It was too much. All these bags of human remains and families wailing about not finding their loved ones. Others quietly digging through the bags looking for some sign that their husband or son or father or whatever is there. That they can burry them. Or maybe they’re still alive, in some undiscovered prison somewhere. I wanted to stay there a long time and take it in, to absorb what I was seeing. But I found myself having these excuses to go to the tent nearby and sit with other reporters and talk about how to do the story. I had this strong feeling that it is so fresh. That I was, horribly, lucky to be there to witness this in its freshess. That in a few years there would be a memorial here and it would be a piece of history. But right now, it’s raw and inconceivable and agonizing.
That night a big party for my best friend here who was leaving, finally, after spending months, including the war, in Baghdad. Eating amazing lamb another friend cooked, drinking and swimming in the pool and laughing until 4 am. Then Saturday, mostly lying around recovering.
Today we went to the ORHA office, the former Saddam place where the Americans are who are supposed to be running Iraq. I’m too tired to go in to too much detail. But the place had the feel of a model UN field trip. There are all these tiny offices that have sheets of white paper with laster printing on them–Ministry of Trade; Ministry of Oil–or whatever. And you see two guys in there on laptops. We were hosted by a friend of a friend who works for ORHA. He confirmed all my worst fears and my strong sense that ORHA was a total mess. One thing that really upset me: he said that they’re never allowed to go out in to Iraq and explore the place, meet the people. He’s worked on other reconstruction efforts in other countries and said the most valuable time is spent wandering the streets. That’s the only way to learn what the people need. But the ORHA people are trapped in that building. He joked about calling Human Rights Watch and reporting Americans being trapped in one of Saddam’s palaces. I am tired and want to go to bed. This ORHA trip seems important and I’d like to write more. But I’m so tired. Maybe tomorrow. Or Jen will. Suffice it to say: the place is fucked. At one point, I ran in to the army guy who is in charge of public affairs for financial issues. He kept asking me questions, really basic questions, about the Iraqi economy. He doesn’t know anything. Because he’s not doing what all us reporters are doing: going out and actually talking to actual Iraqis. He asked me to send him my reports so he could understand what’s going on. When an ORHA person wants to leave the building they need an armed army escort. It’s ridiculous.