The day I get back from Baqubah, my Iraqi painter friend, Esam Pasha, insists on playing an episode of Friends for me on his computer. Its a late episode, in which the humor seems self-referential, the characters tired. Its a show I love to hate, but my teasing leaves Esam unimpressed.
Theres something else he really wants to show me, however. He produces a large tube from under his bed, sealed at each end with a U.S. army rations bag, and carefully withdraws a big roll of paper. We roll it out on the floor -- its a huge Miró aquatint that was stolen from the Saddam Arts Center after the invasion. Hes been tracking it for months and bought it for a pittance from a seller in the Bab Sherji marketplace. Miró is one of his favorite artists. The print measures perhaps three feet by four feet, and is typical of the late work, with loose black marks suggesting stars or moons, and simple, bold overlays of yellow, red and blue. It is beautiful and I can see why Esam loves it: it has the kind of simplicity that he strives for in his own painting.
Hes made no secret of his trophy, which has been recently valued at around $20,000. He intends to return it to the art museum when its rebuilt, and has already been interviewed by several journalists about his find.
Poolside at the al Hamra Hotel I discover that my friends have gotten much better at swimming. Ahmed al-Safi, another painter friend, has new goggles and does a passable breaststroke; Esam swims the length of the pool at the deep end. Over a round of beers we discuss evolution, a theory that Esam doesnt believe. He professes to take the Bibles version of creation literally. I try to convince him that the ark would never have been big enough to hold all the species that exist -- and anyway, how would polar bears, for example, have managed the trek from scorching Mesopotamia to the North Pole?
Esam is unswayed. "Well I dont know about these things, Im really just a simple guy," he says disingenuously. Our discussion is interrupted when the blonde reporter at the other end of the pool starts stroking a cat.
"Oh, why cant I be that cat?" sighs Esam.
Its late and the streets are almost deserted. Esam heads back to his neighborhood and I share a cab with Ahmed. Its a classic Baghdadi car, an ancient Russian model, windshield crisscrossed with cracks, the dash covered in old pieces of carpet and decorated with gaudy pictures of Shia martyrs. The driver is drunk, but thrilled to have a foreigner in his cab. He eagerly talks, craning his head back to address me, not watching the road. He meanders onto the highway and I hear the sound of screeching brakes as a car swerves to avoid rear-ending us.
"This guys completely drunk," I say.
"What did he say?" the driver asks Ahmed.
"He says, there is a problem with your car."
Off the highway, the driver slows to a walking pace so he can keep talking at us. Were headed straight for a concrete road divider. Angrily, I grab his shoulder and indicate for him to watch the road. We finally make it the hotel. Ahmed says, "He have a problem. He want to talk, but he has nothing to say. So he talks and talks about the father of Muqtada Sadr, nonsense things he has heard. But he is very happy; he thinks he told you many nice things about Sadr, made you think in the Shia way."
Ahmed and I go shopping for art supplies one morning. The options are fewer since the invasion, but there are still some half dozen good suppliers located down by Rashid Street in the old part of town. Passing the Shebander teahouse and Mutanebi Street crammed with booksellers, we duck into a covered souk and wind our way past stalls of stationery goods and poster sellers hawking the latest Muqtada posters decorated with burning humvees.
On the next street we descend into a small pedestrian underpass lined, improbably, with art supply venders. Here we find stacked tiers of Chinese oil paints, brushes and ink from Iran, English varnishes in 30 year-old bottles, everything tightly crammed together. There are pen nibs fastened to reed sticks, odd selections of Italian oil paints, mostly dried up, and dusty rolls of canvas. For some reason this musty tunnel makes me wonder if it was a similar experience buying artists paints in colonial America.
The sellers are eager to gossip and talk shop. A man has just started a line of Iraqi oil paints, and gives me a free sample. "We had to build the machines, everything! The quality is good, not great, good. They have to be cheap."
Its lunchtime and we enter a falafel place off crowded Russafi Square. The square is presided over by the dowdy yet dignified sculpture of the eponymous portly poet in a suit, which has recently been painted a garish gold. The restaurant is packed, and I signal to Ahmed that Ill wait outside. Two doors down, however, I find another falafel place thats less crowded. The exuberant owner is making the falafels up front, tossing the fried balls into the air and catching them in pockets of bread.
"Where you from, mister?"
"American?" he asks, surprised, making a cutting gesture across his neck. Hes quite friendly however, so I sit down at a table in the back.
Here there are about a dozen young men grouped at the tables, chatting. I notice that there are posters of Muqtada Sadr decorating the walls and columns. Next to me a man asks, "Mister, you like Muqtada?"
"I think its good that he stopped fighting and became a politician," I say diplomatically.
"We love Muqtada. We are mehdi army! This man here, he fight in Najaf," he says.
"That picture, from Washington magazine." Miming the gesture of Muqtada, the man sticks his finger up like hes making a point and presses it against his face, between his eyes. The gesture is perfect and pompous, and I cant help but giggle, and make the same pose.
I cant tell if they understand me, but when Ahmed finally arrives, one man says to him, "Translator, why you leave him alone for so long?"
Another asks, "Someone from CIA told foreigners to come?"
"No," Ahmed replies humorously, trying to lighten the mood. "Fedeyeen Saddam must have sent him!" he says, referring to the notorious Baathist insurgency group.
"Youre a smart man, you should know that the CIA is responsible for sending spies," the first man says to Ahmed. I ask Ahmed to ask them if theyre fighting the U.S. army.
"Yes, they know what we do in this war," the man replies, cryptically. Most of the men are chuckling at the conversation, but one guy is angry. "But he mock the Said," he complains, referring to my imitating Muqtadas gesture. "We will fuck America in the ass!"
"Tsh, tsh, tsh, dont talk in such a shameful way!" says Ahmed.
The other men are also displeased by the profanity. "Shame! Shame!"
Undeterred, the man says, "What they say if we kidnap him?"
The threat seems more playful than real, but I finish up and we leave, with hearty goodbyes. Outside, Ahmed says, "I think, better we leave this area."
The next morning Im awakened at dawn by a big explosion. Looking out the window I see a large black cloud moving swiftly across the dark horizon, over the Green Zone. I throw on some clothes and go to the roof to see whats happening. Another loud explosion rocks the area around the palace across the river, where the U.S. army and Iraqi government have set up their huge security zone. The explosion is followed by a second big plume of smoke. As the sky starts to brighten, a battle starts up to the northwest, in the area of Haifa Street, where a third sulphurous cloud rises. Small arms fire and larger caliber rounds are being shot in thunderous volleys, amid sirens echoing across the Tigris. This continues for a couple of hours, while more mortar and rocket strikes land in the Green Zone. The area of the battle continues to belch black smoke. Blackhawk helicopters are landing in the Green Zone, while Apaches, Kiowas and Little Birds buzz around the fight, which I can hear but not see, over buildings up the river.
As the fighting dies down, two Kiowas cross the river and skim lightly over the buildings of Russafi and Bab Sherji, deftly bobbing to avoid power lines and banking as they weave in between the huge, concrete ministry buildings. They roar over my hotel, and then dip down towards the reedy flats of the Tigris. They look as cold and menacing as a pair of barracuda cruising a coral reef. I learn later that the helicopters had just shot missiles at a disabled Bradley on Haifa Street, and possibly also into a crowd of Iraqis foolishly celebrating over the trophy. Thirteen Iraqis were killed and many wounded.
One afternoon, Ahmed and I go to visit Haider Wadi, a young sculptor. He lives with his parents and brothers in a nice house in a middle class neighborhood of Baghdad, not far from Sadr City. Haider is an ambitious artist who has traveled to Europe, and shown his work in Syria. Hes just gotten a scholarship to study sculpture in France for six months.
Our conversation ranges from politics to the meaning of the Venus of Willendorf. Iraqis love to talk, and its not uncommon to spend the whole day sitting in someones living room chatting the hours away. From the kitchen Haiders mother sends out dinner: tomato soup, a chicken dish, an omelet and bread on a large stainless steel tray. Haiders older brother joins us. Formerly an officer in the army, hes more conservative than Haider. They get into a spirited debate about removing the words "Allah Akbar" from the Iraqi flag, a phrase that Saddam added after the Gulf War, trying to recast himself as an Islamic hero. Haider and Ahmed, who strongly favor a separation of religion from politics, want to see it removed.
The electricity comes on for about 20 minutes, then dies, and Haiders brother starts up a small generator outside. There are occasional explosions in the distance.
"Fighting in Sadr City?" I ask.
"Yes, sometimes we hear a lot of those," says Haider.
Suddenly theres an explosion from nearby, followed by several more. I recognize the sound as a mortar launch.
"Theyre firing at the Americans, but they dont know where theyll land, says Haider.
"Last week we saw them on our street, firing from a van."
"Wed better go" I say to Ahmed. Its 11 pm.
"Maybe its better if we stay here," he says.
No, Ive got to call my wife, or shell worry. My sat phones back in the hotel."
"We have a mobile you could use," says Haider, "Let me ask my father."
From behind the door I hear his dads gruff voice. "He says you must stay here tonight." Haider pulls out three futons. Its gotten quiet again outside, and the talk goes on for another hour.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the 15th installation of his "Baghdad Journal."