I went back to Thaura, formerly Saddam City, the place where millions of poor Shi’ites live in Baghdad, where all the looted stuff gets sold. I wanted to see where the poorest people live and we went out in search of Haya Tinik, metal plate neighborhood. To just say that the roads there are unpaved is misleading. It’s more like the neighborhood was built on an enormous pile of dirt, garbage and sand. There are dunes or hills of the garbage/sand. Not graceful, sweeping dunes, but irregular mounds jutting out of the ground. My driver, Thamar, who is always very careful about his very beat-up 10-year-old Mazda drove so slowly and tried to wend his way between these mounds. He didn’t like going there because of the roads. Amjad, the translator, didn’t like going there because he was scared to death.
He had never been in this neighborhood but heard it was the worst place in Iraq, the most dangerous, lawless crazy place to go. He was really scared, but I said I wanted to just see what it was like, so we went. The houses are made of crappy bricks that don’t seem to have any mortar or maybe just so little mortar you can’t see it between the bricks. So, they all look like these small little forts made out of sloppily piled up bricks with metal plate as roofs. It must be so miserably hot in them. The people didn’t seem dangerous to me, just miserably poor, horribly dirty. There weren’t too many people out. It was the hottest time of day. I saw one guy fixing the bricks in his house. Other people just standing and staring at us. Amjad asked if anyone is this poor in America. I said no. We have very poor people. But nothing like this. There’s no sewage, no power lines, nobody had cars, as far as I could see. Just a bunch of these crappy brick houses built on this pile of garbage and sand. As we were leaving, we passed a dump. I saw two kids, young, maybe 5 and 7, looking through the garbage for stuff. Amjad said that under Saddam no journalist was allowed in this area. He didn’t want the people to know how badly off some Iraqis are. Amjad said, ‘Now you can see how bad Saddam is. Fucking Shit.’ I told Amjad that he seems to have changed. When we first met, right after Baghdad fell, he was really mixed on Saddam. He would say he misses the guy. That the country at least ran well under him. His mother is unapologetically pro-Saddam to this day. He’s from a comfortable middle-class (for Iraq) family and they did fine under the regime. He has two cousins who were killed in 1980, but other than that nobody close to him was imprisoned or tortured or directly harassed by the regime. Of course, he says, they lived with the fear all the time. But overall their lives were so much better under Saddam than they are now that he can’t just say he doesn’t like the guy. But now he is so angry about Saddam. He despises Saddam. He said that going around with me, talking to people affected by the regime, seeing the shitholes like this that he never visited before. Going to the mass graves. He’s seeing with his own eyes how bad Saddam is and now he’s very glad the man is gone. He’s still pretty convinced that Saddam and America had a deal and that Saddam lives in the US now in some mansion somewhere. I told him that if that were true it would be the biggest political scandal in the history of the country. That Bush would be impeached immediately. Maybe go to jail. He said Americans are very good at hiding things. I said they’re good, but not that good. It’s too big a risk. I never convince him of these kinds of things.