We were living in the Flowers Land Hotel when I decided I wanted a house. This was partly pragmatic. The hotel, like most of the good ones in Baghdad, cost around $100 a night, and that was more than I could afford if I was going to stay for many months. But there was something else—something emotional or psychological. I can’t describe it precisely. I wanted permanence there. I wanted to feel that I was closer to Iraq than all those other, itinerant journalists. When I went home to New York on vacation, I wanted to say: well, yes, my home in Baghdad is quite lovely.
I had a very specific vision of my house. It would be not just the perfect home in a war zone, or a home as good as could be made in postwar Baghdad. But the perfect home. A home that would be ideal if it were anywhere in the world. I intended to become a great war correspondent, and this would be more easily done, I thought, if my home were a refuge from the chaos outside. The house would be quiet, spacious, full of light. There would be enough bedrooms to house my favorite visiting reporters. There would be an agreeable mix of Iraqis and Americans, so we would not feel cut off, as others did, from the local population. There would be high-speed wireless Internet and satellite TV.
I knew the house would be in Jadiriyah, one of Baghdad’s two wealthiest neighborhoods. The other, Mansour, is much larger, with busy commercial streets-nice for shopping but far too chaotic to live in. Also, Mansour was home to many American contractors and their massive security details, and so it felt like a possible target. Jadiriyah, by contrast, was quiet and safe. Adjacent to the largely Christian Karada district, it was friendly to foreigners: home to the Hamra Hotel complex, where most of our journalist friends were staying, and a short drive to the Green Zone, the protected U.S. enclave where we interviewed American officials.
One afternoon in September 2003, I went out with my girlfriend, Jen, my translator, Muhamed, and my driver, Ahmed, and we drove around Jadiriyah looking for TO LET signs. They were everywhere. The first house we toured-a wide, two-story mansion on the main road, Karada Outside Street, across from Baghdad University-was like many we would see in the coming weeks. The outside was boxy and plain: concrete walls, a large metal gate, dark and heavily curtained windows. Inside there was a kind of gaudiness that a friend of mine had once dubbed “the Louis Saddam style.” The walls and floors were a rich, black marble, and the furniture tried desperately to signify wealth-red velour couches with thick gold braiding, glass cabinets filled with ceramic sculptures of birds in flight and horses galloping through surf. The house smelled of sweat and dust. We were guided around by the owner’s teenage son, who gestured wordlessly at each room as we passed. Upstairs, in the master bedroom, his entire family sat on two beds, surrounded by packed suitcases. They said they were ready to leave as soon as someone took the house.
On our way out the door, I asked how much they wanted. The young man, who had been joined by a slightly older cousin, said $200,000 a year. I nodded and continued to walk. The cousin said: how about 150,000? . . . 100,000? . . . Would you rent it for 90,000?
That day and for the following week, we saw homes that were similar: gaudy, gone to seed, the owners desperate but overcharging. One house was right out of the Hollywood Hills, all horizontal lines and huge walls of glass. Another imitated a giant sandcastle; yet another was a faux Greek temple, with a dozen life-sized statues of rearing horses. The homes were just as bizarre inside. One was a spiral, with curved walls and round rooms. Another was built in a star pattern, with hallways jutting off at extreme angles. Most of the homes had two kitchens-one for show and the other for actual work. Most also had several living rooms, each with a specific purpose: one for family, another for regular guests, the gaudiest for important visitors.
At first, we approached only homes with TO LET signs, but we soon discovered that any homeowner would eagerly invite us in and offer to rent us his home. Although most of Jadiriyah’s residents had once been wealthy, because of sanctions they had spent the last fifteen years or so living off of their savings, selling their furniture and carpets, or finding other ways to survive. One proud old man told us that he owned Iraq’s largest candy factory, but it had gone to ruin under sanctions and was destroyed by looters just after the war. Renting out his house would allow him to make enough money to care for his children and grandchildren, all of whom lived with him. Another day, in the smallest and most broken down of the houses we saw, we sat in the living room as the husband told us how his home had once been among Baghdad’s finest. In the 1970s he had rented the place to a major German firm and, he implied, had made a great amount of money. He seemed to believe that just maybe, despite the horrible smell and the dirt and the peeling paint, he could rent it out again and have some money and comfort in his final days. I wished I could rent the place and take away his troubles, but I knew I never would. I did take the obligatory tour, during which I accidentally opened the bathroom door on his wife.
One day soon after, Jen came back to the hotel and told me they had found a realtor. She, Ahmed, and Muhamed had come across his office on Arasat Street, one of the ritziest addresses in Baghdad. The realtor, Abu Hannah, was extremely eager to help, and soon we were visiting him daily. He told us that he had been a general in the Iraqi Army in charge of anti-aircraft defense. He had retired in 1998 but was ordered back to service just before the war. He was shocked by how badly the military had declined in five years. The antiaircraft guns were ruined by neglect. But it didn’t matter, since the soldiers had no idea how to use them. “We knew we’d lose,” he said. “But what can you do? You have to defend your country.” He had become a realtor just after the war, and I got the idea that we were his first clients.
Eventually, Abu Hannah mentioned that his next-door neighbor was looking for tenants. We went to the place, and it was simply perfect. It was almost exactly what I had pictured. Behind a tall concrete wall and metal gate, lovely flowers and thick bushes bordered a large green lawn. At the end of the garden, an umbrella of water sprang from a circular fountain, lit up by a ring of lights around the base. The house itself, though a bit grand by American standards, was among the more understated and elegant we had seen in Jadiriyah. The floors were a beige-and-white marble that made the space feel open. There were two kitchens-again, very common, one for show and the other for work-and a small settee just inside the entrance for the drivers and translators. To the right of the show kitchen was a long hallway with a beat-up upright piano and a small rock garden, leading to an indoor fountain set high in the wall and cascading down an abstract fresco of colored tiles. The living room was so large that we would later subdivide it into three: a dining room, a work area, and a smaller living room. Across the hallway, on the other side of the fountain, was a traditional Arabic sitting room, with thick cushions all along the walls-perfect for relaxing with drinks and cigarettes.
The house had six bedrooms, two on the first floor and four upstairs. The master-bedroom suite, where Jen and I would live, was particularly inviting. Twice as large as the other bedrooms, it had a master bath with Jacuzzi and had, above the bed, a hand-painted scene out of the Kamasutra, in which two Indians-she flesh-colored, he painted blue-sit on a swing and stare at each other longingly.
We told Abu Hannah that we wanted the house. He said it would cost $80,000 a year. This touched off an elaborate series of negotiations. The process was made more difficult by the fact that the owner had fled to Jordan. We never found out exactly what he did-“I am in the perfume and other businesses,” he said once-but we were suspicious of anyone who had to flee so soon after the fall of the old regime. Eventually we realized that Abu Hannah’s chief concern was his own commission, which normally would be a percentage of the rental price. One day we told him that we would pay the same large commission-$1,000 per month-no matter what the house rented for. That did it. Soon we worked out a deal: $14,000 (including Abu Hannah’s commission) for three months, renewable every quarter for the rest of that year.
We filled out a long contract in Arabic, which I signed. That night we celebrated in the cushioned sitting room. Abu Hannah came over from next door with beer. He is a Christian from Mosul, he explained, so he could drink. For the first time, we chatted with him about matters other than real estate. He told us how much he admired Saddam Hussein. During the first Gulf War, he said, he had been in the north, and his unit had shot down an American plane. Saddam had called and promoted everyone in the unit on the spot. Abu Hannah said that if Saddam came to his house, he would welcome him and protect him. This was when Saddam was still in hiding and there were rumors about him staying in the homes of regular Iraqis. I told Abu Hannah that if Saddam did come to stay, he should make sure to invite us over for an exclusive interview.
At first, the house was home only to Jen and me and to one other couple: Jack Fairweather, the Baghdad correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, and Christina Asquith, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, among other newspapers. (Jen, whose last name is Banbury, was covering the war for Salon.com.) Jack said that they would pay $2,000 per month. That meant I had to come up with a little more than $2,000 per month for the rest of the rent, $750 per month for a DSL line, and a few hundred each month for food and water, as well as something for the staff. I was shocked to learn that we would be getting phone and electricity bills from the appropriate Iraqi ministries-it was hard to believe they were functioning well enough to meter lines and bill customers. Luckily, they were still using the Saddam-era heavily subsidized tariffs, so those costs would be around a dollar per month.
Our first staff members, of course, were Muhamed and Ahmed, with whom Jen and I had become quite close.* Ahmed, stoop-shouldered and wiry, was constantly amused at the absurdities of Iraqi life; Muhamed more often brooded, sometimes angrily, about the future of a post-Saddam Iraq. I asked them how I could put together a security staff, and right away they told me that they knew the perfect people. Muhamed proposed his uncle, Abu Ali. Ahmed proposed his brother-in-law, also named Abu Ali, and his father-in-law, Abu Paris. These men, they assured me, were welltrained former army soldiers who had fought in various wars and were vicious. We would also need a housekeeper; and since neither Ahmed nor Muhamed wanted any of the women in their families working for us, Muhamed approached Um Qais, one of the women who cleaned our room at the Flowers Land. He reported that she had agreed to come in a few times a week.
Ahmed and Muhamed felt that the reasonable rate to pay the guards was $500 per month for full-time work. Since the two night guards would each work half-time, this somehow worked out to $350 per month for each. Um Qais was to receive another $350. This brought my monthly expenses up to more than $3,200 per month-more than I was paying at the hotel and considerably more than the $ 1,000 per month my employers had offered to reimburse. But, I hoped, enough other journalists would rent the spare rooms that I could make up the difference, and perhaps even make a little bit of profit.
Soon we had our first tenants: Rory McCarthy, the Guardian’s Baghdad correspondent; Patrick Graham, a Canadian freelancer who was covering the war for various newspapers and magazines”; and Samantha Appleton, a photographer who worked mostly for The New Yorker and Time. I made up a rate for each person based on how much his or her company could reimburse. I charged freelancers a fraction of what I charged staffers, because the staffers could expense a lot more. So someone on full-time staff might pay $600 per week, while a freelance photographer might pay $1,000 per month or even $500 a month if he or she would sleep in the Arabic sitting room, which was less private. Anyone who pleaded poverty would inevitably get a sizable discount.
The tenants each came with drivers and translators of their own. The Iraqi staffers would all sit together in the alcove at the entrance or around the dining table in the front kitchen. They chatted and laughed with one another and prayed together right there at the entrance of the house. Jen and I often would have lunch with the drivers and guards; I would practice my Arabic and ask them to clarify things about Iraq that confused me. Daytime Abu Ali (we called him this to distinguish him from the other Abu Ali, the night guard) was, I discovered, the sheikh of his small tribe, and I was particularly interested in talking to him about this role. I had known some Arabic before I arrived, but with the help of a tutorand of the always encouraging Abu Alis, 1 was becoming conversational’ in the particularly difficult Iraqi dialect. I had fun shocking Iraqis with my decent command of Baghdad street slang-something no other Westerner I met could do. I even bought a dish” dasha, the full-length robe worn by Iraqi men, and took to wearing it around the house.
My entire staff was Shi’a, but Jack’s-for no particular reason-was Sunni. Ghassan, his translator, and Abu Ghassan, his driver, had never been friends with a Shi’a before, and I was a bit afraid that there would be, tensions. But within days, they all got along so well that I would have to remind myself they had only just met. Samantha’s driver/translator, Abu Emir, became a particularly large presence in the house. Tall, rotund, and jolly, he greeted everyone who passed the alcove with a hug and handshake, and elaborate kissing of cheeks. He. and Jen became fast friends, and Abu Emir made a point of telling me that Jen was now in his tribe. If I did anything wrong, he said, a few hundred tribesmen from Sadr City would come to set me right.
Most of our tenant-guests-Jen called them “frenants,” because they tended also to be friends of ours-came for two or three weeks, while some stayed for a few months. They were mostly print reporters: a few from major American magazines, some from smaller newspapers. We had several, photographers, a couple of documentary filmmakers, and at least one other public-radio reporter besides myself. I tried to be selective, inviting only those people I thought would fit in well. I didn’t want any reporters who were too competitive. When a lot of reporters get together-especially newspaper reporters-there can sometimes be an unpleasant one-upmanship that affects every conversation. I tried to pick housemates the same way I might pick guests for a cocktail party. As time went on, we had more and more photographers, because, it turns out, photographers are generally more fun than writers. We tended to have more women than the other houses and hotels, which usually were exceedingly male.
Pretty much every night became a dinner party. Jen or Christina would cook. There were a couple of decent supermarkets where we could buy canned goods, pasta, juices, milk, and coffee. All over Baghdad were great vegetable stands with fresh in-season green beans and lettuce and cucumbers and okra. There were plenty of butchers selling lamb and beef. Since we were right next to the Christian neighborhood, Kanada, we had several liquor stores nearby. There was usually some Johnnie Walker whiskey or Absolut vodka available, and it was easy to get beer: Heineken, Amstel (not light, just Amstel), and Efes, a Turkish brand.
I made a point of inviting outsiders often-particularly U.S. officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority, who were always thrilled to escape their gilded prison with its heavy cafeteria food from Kellogg Brown & Root. Because they were not allowed to leave the Green Zone, we had to sneak them out across the bridge to our neighborhood. I promised them that the dinners would be entirely off the record. My general aim was to get them drunk enough to actually say something truthful. And often they did. One night we hosted a friend of a friend who had flown out just a week before to start a six-month tour as a CPA bureaucrat. By the time he came to dinner, he had already decided to abandon Iraq. The CPA’s horrible bureaucracy, he said, prevented any improvement in the country. We soon learned, over the course of our dinners, about the warring camps into which the CPA was divided. Career civil servants despised Republican political appointees, and vice versa. The military hated the civilians. We heard story after story of months spent on a project-trying to rewrite Iraq’s traffic laws, or to fix a power station, or to fashion a new constitutionthat was ultimately stymied by bureaucratic interference. The CPA public affairs office had been quite good at preventing us from learning anything substantive. Only at our dinner table did we learn how low morale was, and how little was getting done.
Most nights we would hear gunfire, maybe an explosion or two. We learned to differentiate. Car bombs made the floors shake; rocket-propelled grenades popped; mortars made a distinctive whoosh. But we felt extremely safe. Our colleagues in the Green Zone or the big hotels might be at risk, but no one would waste a bomb on our little house.
Problems with the staff began almost immediately. When Abu Faris, one of the two nighttime guards, arrived at dusk before his first shift, his first question was, “Where do I sleep?” Obviously I thought that he shouldn’t sleep at all. A few weeks later, when I had been napping at a time I normally was out, I came downstairs to find daytime Abu Ali sacked out on the couch in our living room, watching the satellite TV. seeing me, he jumped up and went to patrol the street in front of the house. I recounted this to some of my guests, and they told me that this happened all the time. Abu Ali, I learned, spent much of the day either watching TV or sitting in the back yard making shish kebabs.
Nevertheless, there soon was a series of raises. Muhamed and Ahmed had both argued that the pay scale was unfair. Ahmed was furious that Muhamed’s uncle made more than his relatives. Muhamed complained that Ahmed’s family made more on a perday basis. Um Qais, the cleaning lady, wanted more money, too. I liked them all, and they were older than me and made only a few hundred dollars per month risking their lives for me. I gave them all whatever raise they asked.
There were other, unexpected costs. One of our two refrigerators broke, so I bought another for $400. In addition to the DSL modem and Internet hub and cords, which together cost more than $500, I had to hire Muhamed’s brother to install everything-another several hundred. We needed desks and chairs and lights and heaters and towels and pillows. When the generator broke-at 5:00 P.M. on the night of the start of the weeklong feast of Eid Al Fitr, meaning we would need a new one that night or else live in darkness for a week-I drove out and bought a refurbished Indian model from a store owner who, sensing my desperation, charged me $5,000 rather than the $3,000 it was worth. When our guests complained that there weren’t enough showers or hot water, I bought a new water heater and paid for a plumber to install a shower downstairs.
In short, I was hemorrhaging money and desperately needed the tenants to pay some of it back. I didn’t keep very good accounting records and just hoped that the money coming in would somehow equal the money going out. It never did. Compounding the problem was that I was very casual about reserving rooms. A friend would email that he or she wanted to come stay, and I’d agree. Then the friend’s trip would be delayed and a room would be unused-and uncharged-for a couple of weeks or so.
Meanwhile, our housekeeper was becoming increasingly erratic. Um Qais told us that she had worked in the household of Saddam’s sister, and had given manicures and haircuts to many of Saddam’s female relatives. She brought in photos of these relatives, in elaborate hairdos and nail extensions. She offered to make up all the women in the house in this fashion. She would show her affection to some of our female guests in another, more disturbing way: on occasion, Um Qais would come into their rooms in the middle of the night-at three, four in the morning-to wake them up, hug them, and kiss them on the cheek.
Soon Um Qais began to insist that we hire her husband as a guard. She said that daytime Abu Ali was a thief and a very bad man. Every day she reported to me that Abu Ali had stolen a bottle of apple juice, or a few frozen chickens, or some ground beef. Indeed, I did notice that our food seemed to be disappearing a bit too rapidly, but I couldn’t tell for sure. When I brought it up with Muhamed, he replied that his uncle would never do such a thing; it must be one of the other guards, one of Ahmed’s relatives. Eventually, I told Abu Ali that someone was stealing things from our fridge and that he, as the guard, would be held responsible.
Thus began a not-at-all subtle war among the staff. On one side were the pro-Abu Ali staffers-Abu Ali himself, Muhamed, and Muhamed’s brother Kasem, whom we had hired to install and monitor our computer network. On the other side was the anti-Abu Ali team, captained by Um Qais but joined by Ahmed and his relatives: nighttime Abu Ali, Abu Paris, and Abu Mahmud, who was an occasional driver. Both sides agreed that I needed to make a decision. I had to fire either Abu Ali or Um Qais.
Um Qais grew more and more frenzied, to the point that she was unable to do her job well. The residents’ clothes soon became interchanged-I would find other people’s underwear in my drawer and see them wearing my shirts. Eventually, she began simply to pile all of our wet clothes together on the couches. In the end, she was the one to go. Daytime Abu Ali could barely hide his triumph.
Although the full-time staff held steady at four-we had a new housekeeper, Um Dumya, a Christian woman who never bothered anyone-dozens of other Iraqis were drawn into the house’s orbit. The kitchen and vestibule were filled with our drivers and translators, as well as those of previous guests; when a reporter left Iraq, often his or her driver would continue to come by the house, hoping to pick up work from the next resident. Some of these men soon became fixated on our female guests. The women who stayed in our house understood that they needed to dress reasonably modestly when out on the street, but at home they sometimes wore tank tops. For the Iraqi men this was difficult to deal with. It was simply more female flesh than they had ever seen in their lives. As a few of the single women began to date other reporters, Muhamed told me that all the men could do was talk about this woman, or that one who had let a man sleep in her room. One night, Muhamed told me, all the drivers and translators heard one of our houseguests loudly making love to her new boyfriend. Daytime Abu Ali became quite serious about one of the single women, even offering to make her his second wife. Another woman, a photographer, became the subject of obsession because of her frequent male guests. Muhamed told me that he heard she might sleep with an Iraqi man.
An even more serious source of tension among the Iraqis was Abu Emir. Although he first came to the house as Samantha’s driver, Abu Emir had since become a sort of transportation mogul in the postwar journalism scene. From his nephews and neighbors and friends he had built a network of drivers, whom he would pay $10 per day from the $70 to $100 per day he charged each journalist. Now Abu Emir had decided that he wanted to control all the driving for my house. One day he had asked me if he could leave his large, black SUV parked in our driveway, and I had agreed. A few weeks later, though, I learned that this was causing profound distress to the other drivers. Muhamed explained that Abu Emir’s car in our driveway was a symbol to all other drivers that he, and he alone, controlled access to the house. After this, I tried to be fair in parceling out the newly arriving guests between Abu Emir and the others, but it made little difference: they continued to detest him.
By January our dinners, which at first had been pleasant, adult affairs, had as often as not become drunken blowouts. It had become clear that the situation in Iraq was getting worse every day, and dozens of Westerners from other houses and hotels would show up unannounced to drink away their tension. I would tell people-sometimes yell at them-not to park all their cars in front of the house, because I didn’t want to attract attention. But they rarely listened. Things got particularly rowdy after we befriended Jeff and Ray, two Boston natives who had hitchhiked to Baghdad-just to “check the shit out,” they said-and had somehow become volunteers for the CPA. Several nights a week they would walk a few miles from the Green Zone to our house and invariably get very drunk, as we all would. One particularly hard-drinking night, I was up quite late talking to a specialforces soldier when I excused myself, walked out of the living room, and vomited all over the marble hallway.
Managing the house had become a full-time job. When I was in my bedroom trying to write or rest, the tenants and staff would knock on the door every few minutes. A guest would complain that the Internet connection was down for the fifth time that day, or Muhamed would tell me that two drivers were fighting and needed me to resolve the dispute. Frequently I would have to rush out and replace whatever had broken: a microwave, a new modem, countless lightbulbs. Some days I could do no reporting at all.
At first, I had been so eager to make sure that everyone liked me-the Iraqis, our guests-that I had agreed to almost anything. But the constant staff mutinies and guest laxities convinced me that just as Iraqis say their country needs a strong leader, our house would need one as well. I began to charge a flat and firm $100 a night and became furious when people asked to pay less. I became deliberately icy to the staff and screamed at them in Arabic when they acted poorly. I would still joke with them often, and they began to call me “Saddam al-Beyt”the Saddam of the House.
In March ,2004, my ex-girlfriend Nancy came to town, and she asked me for help in finding a driver. I arranged for her to work with Abu Walid-a sweet man in his fifties who had worked for Abu Emir long enough to buy his own station wagon. Abu Emir was furious to hear that Abu Walid had begun working on his own. He went to Nancy’s hotel and told her that he, Abu Emir, would be serving as her driver instead.
When I learned this, I was livid. I had long known that Abu Emir was manipulating journalists and his drivers to make money for himself. But I felt that he recognized my position as head of an important house. He had always treated me with special respect. Now Abu Emir had disrespected me, and I could no longer trust him. I told every driver I saw that I was furious with Abu Emir, and that he was to come see me immediately.
Later that night, Jen and I were in the master bedroom when Abu Emir knocked on the door. He was shaken and sweaty. He had only just gotten back to Baghdad from a trip out of town, he said, and had been told that I was angry. He had taken the long trip from his house, despite the dangers of driving late at night.
I told him that he should not treat me like just another journalist. That I gave him a great deal of work and considered him a good friend. That he had betrayed my trust.
He began to talk very fast, as he often did. He said that of course he respected me tremendously. Of course he wanted me to remain his friendno, more than a friend; a brother. He did not think of money when he thought of me, he said. He would happily give me all his money and work for free. He would do anything, anything, to prove that our friendship was real.
I reassured Abu Emir that all was fine; that we were friends, yes, even brothers. But he would have to move his car from our driveway. He could not park there anymore.
By the next morning, every driver in Baghdad knew that Abu Emir had been humiliated. To save his pride, I soon found out, Abu Emir had begun spreading a different story. He did not move his car because I had demanded it, he told everyone; he moved it because my house was under surveillance by the insurgency and might be attacked at any moment. He told some people that he had warned me to move out immediately.
Soon this rumor had traveled throughout the entire community of Iraqi staff and, in the process, had become grander and less specific. A driver for a major U.S. newspaper told me that he heard my house would soon be blown up. Was this still Abu Emir’s rumor, I wondered, or something real? Either way, I worried that my guests would hear the rumors and start moving out. I had yet to break even on the house, but I had calculated that if I could keep it at full occupancy for another two months, I would make all of my investment back.
Around a week later, on March 17, the Mount Lebanon hotel was destroyed by a car bomb. First reports had the death toll at twenty-seven (though we later learned that only seven died). Everyone who covered the event agreed that something had changed that day. The crowds of onlookers were not just curious; they were angry. And they were angry not just at the U.S. soldiers but at the U.S. reporters. Before this, Iraqis had always seemed to differentiate American citizens, whom they generally liked, from the American military they despised. But no longer. A few days later, when I went to an Iraqi home, a man told me, “I don’t like America.” Not the customary “I hate your president, I love your people” but “I don’t like America.”
The next night I had an experience that was, in a way, even more terrifying. I was staying late at a party at a nearby hotel and took a cab home. The driver was not a regular driver of journalists, and he and I had never met. As I was explaining how to get to my house, he said, “Oh, you mean Beyt Said Adam”-“Mr. Adam’s house.” Later, I told this story to some friends and they said that, yes: whenever they got in a cab, they would simply say, “Mr. Adam’s house,” and the driver would know exactly where to go. I was, I realized, one of the best-known Americans in Baghdad.
For the following few days, I became severe with the staff. I screamed at them to actually start guarding our house. They needed to realize that we were in danger and would likely die. Should even one guest be killed, I reminded them, the others would leave immediately, and all the money the staff was making would disappear. Ahmed frequently assured me that we were safe and had nothing to worry about. I finally screamed at him that we were not safe. We had everything to worry about, and if he refused to take that seriously, he should leave. I feared for him and Muhamed as much as I did for myself. Although no Western journalists had yet been kidnapped or killed by the insurgency, some Iraqi staff of foreign press outlets had been attacked, and at least one had been killed. Muhamed wasn’t worried, he told me, because he never told anyone that he works with Americans. Ahmed joked that Muhamed should worry but that he was safe; the insurgents had targeted only translators, not drivers. The lives of our tenants and staff were in my hands, and I had no idea how to protect them.
We consulted some friends who were more experienced war correspondents than we. They told us that our house offered no protection from anything. Even if our guards were vigilant, they were too inexperienced, old, and out of shape. Our house was so well known by now that surely we were on the list of every insurgent in Iraq. And since we so frequently had large parties with women and alcohol, we had given mortal offense to the Muslim sensibility. Indeed, the fact that we had hosted so many CPA guests for dinner meant that our house had become an extension of the occupation, and thus was, in one friend’s exact words, “a legitimate Up military target.”
Up until just a few days before, I had considered the security excesses of wealthier newspapers and TV networks to be utterly absurd. Even when Baghdad had been relatively calm, one TV producer I knew had not been allowed to leave his hotel without the permission of his network’s British security company, and then only with an armed escort, who would study the route and plan various escape paths beforehand. The house of one newspaper I visited had enough armed guards to constitute a small militia; I’ve heard that their head security contractor, also British, once proposed they bury land mines in front of the house to stop suicide drivers. I was convinced that these contractors did little more than make their customers paranoid enough to keep paying their exorbitant fees.
But now I could see that these private security companies were the only hope for saving my home. I ordered Ahmed to drive me to Mansour, to the network of small streets that had been commandeered by the companies, each with its own checkpoints and team of armed guards. Perhaps two dozen of them were operating in Baghdad then, most hailing from the United States, Britain, or South Africa. As we drove, Ahmed made it clear that he was angry and insulted that I would trust foreigners more than my own Iraqi staff.
We settled on two, and paid visits to their fortified offices. The first was ISI, which made its headquarters in a large and pleasant mansion well within its own, large security zone. There, the security director-a calm and confident American-listened to us and drew out a sketch of our home. The other we approached was Erinys, which had recently been founded by people with connections to Ahmad Chalabi. It had quickly procured contracts to guard Iraq’s oil pipelines and had grown to a staff of more than 14,000 in a matter of months. The Erinys offices were in several interconnected houses, at the center of which we saw a command center worthy of a James Bond film. Rows of muscled Afrikaners, formerly of South Africa’s special forces, manned high-tech communications consoles under detailed tactical maps of Iraq. Both companies offered to send a man by.
The ISI security director visited a day or two later. He showed up at our house alone, in a regular old car. He was tall, quite thin, and balding, and he wore a pistol on a belt holster. I think he said he had been a cop in the United States. He moved slowly, with great measure, pacing around the house; he went up to the roof and scrutinized every angle. His conclusions were relatively modest. We might want to hire some more guards, he said. Also, we might erect some barriers-staggered, like a slalom-at the end of our street. These would slow down car bombers. Mortars were not an issue, because Iraqis did not know how to aim them. The only way we would be hit, he said, was if they were aiming for someone else. In his opinion, our most pressing danger was a kidnapping or drive-by shooting.
Shortly after he left, an Afrikaner from Erinys arrived in a hulking SUV. He had with him several armed Iraqi guards, who immediately took up positions along our street. Short and stocky, but with quite a lot of muscle, he cut a very professional figure. He carried a briefcase and made his notes on pre-printed security analysis forms. His recommendations were a bit more drastic and in line with my own, growing terror. We needed to take control of the entire neighborhood, he said, by putting up a series of manned checkpoints at every intersection. We should inspect all cars and forbid entrance to anyone who seemed suspicious. Also, he said, we should put sandbags around the interior of our outer wall; Iraqi cement is so weak that it would do little to stop damage from a car bomb. Finally, he advised that we station a sniper on the roof.
I gathered the Iraqi staff together. I told them I had come up with a plana melding of the two consultants’ advice, scaled down for our budget. All guards would have walkie-talkies, and one guard would always be stationed at the corner where our road met the, main street. No one would be allowed to leave the house until the guards had checked the street first. To further confuse would-be abductors, our drivers would have to vary their routes to and from the house, and the guests would have to vary their daily schedules. I asked Muhamed to hire a few friends to make sandbags and pile them inside the outer walls.
We hired more guards-another uncle of Muhamed’s, some relative of Ahmed’s-and for a day or two the guards made a show of following my new directions. But soon it was clear that they saw this as yet another of my momentary whims. I stopped reporting almost entirely and spent my days supervising the guards. I bought wireless cameras and installed monitors in the kitchen so we could constantly watch the street. The chatter about me, meanwhile, had not abated. A friend told me that a tribal sheikh I knew was telling people I was a CIA agent.
The next day, Jen and I were sitting in Ahmed’s car while he bought sandwiches at a shish kebab stand. A black BMW passed us, then circled the block and passed again. It might have passed a third time. Insurgents were known for driving black BMWs. We screamed at Muhamed, who was in the passenger seat, to drive. He thought we were joking, and it took some doing to convince him. As we sped off we saw a black car behind, but so far behind that we couldn’t tell-was it a black BMW? Muhamed weaved through side streets. Eventually, we stopped and looked: there was no car behind us.
That evening, Abu Emir again knocked on our bedroom door. I let him in, and he sat down. He looked at the floor and then looked at me and said, seriously, “It is time for you to leave.” He spoke softly. As if he knew that it would be difficult for me to hear but that, as a friend, he had no choice but to tell me. Jen asked him why. He just repeated himself: “It is time for you to leave. It’s time. Take a break from this place.” He would not tell us anything more.
We could not leave fast enough. Every extra day seemed an invitation to death. I told Muhamed and Ahmed that they could fight over everything I owned and take it all. Four large closets were completely filled with our belongings. We had amassed dozens of books and hundreds of DVDs and some Iraqi art. Jen and I threw a few of our most valuable things into boxes and hired a driver to cart them to Amman. We ourselves would fly. At the Royal Jordanian office in the Green Zone, we bought tickets for the next day’s only flight out of Iraq.
On Sunday, March 28, Ahmed drove us to the airport. A checkpoint had the airport highway stopped nearly dead. A quarter-mile from the entrance, Jen and I finally got out of the car and walked. At airport security, an American contractor told me that my ticket was void. I would have to leave the airport. I screamed at her, telling her she had no idea how to read a ticket. I pointed out that it was a one-way ticket, so only the return was void. At the airline check-in counter, a Royal Jordanian attendant told us we were not on the manifest and therefore couldn’t fly. Again I began to scream. I told him that people were trying to kill me. That if I stepped outside the airport I would die. I needed to be in Amman that night. He told me there was nothing he could do. I grabbed the manifest and read it. Many of the names on it were repeated multiple times. There are plenty of seats, I told him, if he would only look. Finally, he relented. That night we checked into the Grand Hyatt Amman and slept, for most of the next few days.
Within two weeks, the rest of the occupants of our house fled to secured hotels. My few friends who remain in Baghdad tell me that these days Westerners there no longer live in private houses, unless those houses are well within secured safe zones. One friend told me that he drove by the old house recently, and it was empty. Nobody lives there now.
|* In this account I have changed the names of the Iraqis, who today might be threatened or worse if it were known that they had once worked with Americans.|
|* Including this one. see “Beyond Fallujah,” June 2004.|
|Adam Davidson worked in Baghdad from April 2003 to March 2004 as the Middle East correspondent for the public-radio show Marketplace. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Prince Among Thieves!” appeared in the September 2002 issue.|