Archive for the ‘print’ Category
My first NY Times Magazine column on what politicians say and what they can actually do about the jobs crisis.
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 first heard a description of how corruption works in Iraq through an unexpected friendship with one of the country’s richest men, a tribal sheik from the troubled Anbar region. We met shortly after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled and got together a few times a month for the next year in his office — a converted mansion, gone a bit to seed — in Baghdad’s wealthy Mansour neighborhood. The sheik is a large man, overflowing with humor and self-confidence. We’d sit in his office, chain-smoking and drinking sweet Iraqi tea. He seemed to delight in shocking me with tales of backroom deals.
At first it was all history: He explained how Hussein’s regime worked, but he wouldn’t talk about the present, afraid of angering the new American overseers of Iraq. He told me that Hussein’s cronies would invite him to their offices, offer him multimillion- dollar contracts for constructing a new bridge, say, or importing a few million dollars’ worth of medical supplies. The contract was his as long as he kicked back half the money to Hussein’s people.
The first time I came to Baghdad was last April, a few days after most of the city fell to U.S. troops. I drove in at night, down a road still heavy with gunfights. It was scary but bearable—until I had to stop my car (there was barbed wire across the road) and in dim light saw those giant crossed swords held up by massive reproductions of Saddam’s hands. Then I was really scared. There was something about that massive self-obsessed testament of personal power that made the whole city feel alive with terror. For the next few days I saw such signs everywhere. Saddam’s portraits were still hanging, a few on every block. His other great monuments—the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the many palaces, the huge ministry buildings—grabbed all visual attention. The new U.S. military encampments—small, ad hoc, functional, uninspiring—couldn’t compete at all. Baghdad felt exactly like what it was: a city that had belonged to one man and had been violently wrenched away. It was a place whose aesthetic—dictatorial solipsism—had been somewhat dismantled but not replaced with anything new.
BAGHDAD — I’ve spent the last few days driving around looking for those signs of exuberant jubilation that you see on CNN. I don’t know where they find them. I’ve come across one anemic parade down Karada Street, a few dozen men and a handful of women chanting out, “Saddam is nothing.” The women were the most exuberant. Four older Shiites in black abaya robes saying, over and over again, in Arabic and English, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Along Karada, the main shopping strip in Baghdad, men stood in front of their shops, staring blankly at the revelers.
Benji Breitbart doesn’t go to Disneyland every day.
“I wasn’t here last Thursday,” he says as we walk down Main Street. “I usually come six days a week.”
We’re moving quickly. “I have things I need to do,” Benji says. He’s canvassing the park, looking for anything new or out of place.
“We’re reopening the Electric Parade, so they’re getting ready,” he says, indicating some people in white uniforms scurrying about. I hadn’t noticed them, and it’s hard to tell exactly what they’re doing. But Benji knows. He knows everything that happens here almost as soon as it happens.
Fadi is a 23-year-old unemployed computer programmer who lives in his parents’ apartment in a nice, middle-class neighborhood in Amman, Jordan. Down one street is the big Amman McDonald’s , down another is Fadi’s mosque, where he prays several times a day. Stocky, with a big, messy beard, Fadi speaks softly, hunched over, looking at the ground. When he makes an important point, he asks you to repeat it, and when you show you understand, he lifts his head, leans back with a great smile and says, ” Sah ,” ”correct.” One day, he explained to me in careful detail why he wants to be a shaheed , a suicide bomber against the United States, quoting at length from the Koran. But when he’s not talking about blowing himself up and killing American troops, Fadi talks about his other great dream. ”I want to be a programmer at Microsoft ,” he says. ”Not just a programmer. I want to be well known, famous.”
For some people the worst possible caricature of American architecture came to life at UCLA a few months ago, when a dozen leading architects spoke at a student event called “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.” The stage had the usual two long tables forming a V, with a seat and microphone for each speaker. Strangely the V bent away from the audience and the architects sat with their backs to the crowd, talking to one another as if nobody else was present. There was a lengthy discourse about the importance of deconstructing the path of travel through an art exhibition. For a long time a photo of several clean Dutch children dyeing Easter eggs was used to make a point about the faces of morphing “manimals” and their essential relevance to structure. Most of the work discussed was paper architecture that would never be built; only other architects would ever see it—or understand it. In other words, it was just one more day in the life of progressive architecture.
After an hour or so the oldest architect there, 58-year-old Thom Mayne, was asked to speak. He did something surprising: he turned around, faced the audience, and talked about his feelings and what he was hoping to accomplish in clear language easily understood by the uninitiated. Mayne spoke about built work—buildings he designed that had actually been constructed and exist in the world. He described the Diamond Ranch High School, completed in 1999, which he says moved him from being a paper architect to someone whose ideas and designs interact with the world outside progressive architecture. And, he said, the experience changed his life: “I was over 50 years old and this was the first time I produced a piece of work that I could believe in. This was the first project where the aesthetic act and the social act were singular.”
AT ANCIENT GROUNDS, A RELATIVELY NEW WATER-PIPE CAFÉ IN SILVER LAKE, FOUR Arab men are playing gin rummy in a corner. For an hour they sit, engaged in their game, dragging on water pipes and happily chatting. A few tables away, I suck on my own pipe, a sort of gorgeous, elaborate bong. Suddenly, everyone starts screaming, raising their hands, throwing cards at one another. I don’t understand what is happening — the fight is in Arabic — but one man, Mohammed, yells the loudest, standing over everyone and pointing his fingers. Soon the others call out to an old man with sad eyes sitting near the entrance, “Abu Yusef, Abu Yusef.” Abu Yusef walks over and speaks quietly with the men. Mohammed storms out and paces in front of the store as the others laugh and go back to playing cards. Abu Yusef sits down again, and I approach him.
“Ninety percent of the Arabs who come here are Christians,” he tells me. “The Muslims are harder. They have their own places.” Mohammed, the one Muslim, is outraged, Abu Yusef explains, because he threw down cards he meant to keep. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t just pick them back up. “I told him, ‘You made a mistake. It doesn’t matter what you meant, it matters what you did. You blew it.'”