Baghdad, Aug. 18, 2003 -- I arrived in Baghdad four days ago, after a 12-hour trip by car from Amman, Jordan, the usual route taken by Iraqis, reporters, NGOs (non-governmental officials) and whomever else cares to enter Iraq. This was the second time I'd gone this way. I'd been in Iraq before, for five weeks, shortly after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces. At that time I traveled from Basra in the south to Dohuk, near the border with Turkey.
During my first trip, I spent a couple of weeks with the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad, specifically Task Force 2-7, commanded by Lt. Col. Scott Rutter. Rutter was very helpful; I showed up one morning at his headquarters and explained that I wanted to accompany his soldiers and make drawings. He was perched atop his command Bradley, engines roaring. Make art? Terrific! That's great, just great! Jump on! Hoo-ah!
This time things are different. Third ID has pulled out, replaced by 1st Armored Division. Not having fought the war with embedded reporters, these new forces seem a bit more cautious about press, so I've been waiting for an assignment, which should start tomorrow.
I didn't come to depict only U.S. forces, however, so the wait has given me a chance to reacquaint myself with Baghdad and do some drawings of the city and its people. Even though I'd been in Iraq before, I was nervous about this trip. The reports we get in the U.S. make things seem bleak and more dangerous than before. Luckily, my impressions don't quite bear this out -- at least not yet.
Ordinarily, travelers leave Amman at about 8:00 p.m. (or whenever there's enough people to fill the GMC, or "Jimsey") so that after negotiating Jordanian customs (a three-hour task), you catch a couple of hours sleep and at dawn dash to Baghdad, avoiding potential bandits in the Sunni triangle area by passing through at midday, when there's lots of traffic. That is the theory, anyway.
Our car forms a convoy of two with the driver's pal, and after our Kafkaesque crawl through customs we roar across the border at 100 mph. My fellow passengers consist of a young Palestinian man, a middle-aged Iraqi woman (who was in Amman to secure exit visas for her family) and our driver, a Jordanian.
The excitement of the drive along that desolate highway is palpable -- no U.S. forces, just the occasional small convoys that we'd rush past. After a few hours the woman crawls into the rear seat to snooze. I'm tired, but can't keep from constantly monitoring the driver's alertness -- every so often, he vigorously shakes his head.
The driver is listening to sentimental Arab pop music, whose female vocalist warbles on, "habibi. . . Haabiiib-iii." This seems to have a soporific effect on everyone else. At some point in the early morning the driver of the lead car starts to wander off the road at top speed. We roar up alongside, honking and flashing our brights. "Tired? Pull over?" our driver pantomimes. The other driver glared back resentfully and we continue on.
When we arrive in Baghdad at about 9 a.m., the driver and the woman get into a heated discussion over whether he'll drop her off at her house. She turns to me: "Imagine! They expect to just drop me off in the street? I'm a woman, after all!" Once we pull into her driveway in a rather upscale neighborhood, she insists on inviting us all in for chai.
The woman disappears into the back room with her daughters while her husband and son join us. They're not at all happy about the situation in Baghdad. "At least under Saddam there was order, and an Iraqi police force," they say. Finally we're done with tea, and the driver leaps for the door.
I'm dropped off at the hotel where I stayed on my first trip, only to find that this formerly half-empty place is now completely booked for the foreseeable future. There's a UNICEF conference taking place here, and a lot of NGOs staying as well. After much negotiation, the manager allows that there is a suite that I could have for one night. It's too expensive for me to remain in, anyway, so after bringing up my bags I head out to check out some other hotels in the area.
Stepping out onto the street, the heat hits me like an oven blast. I'm just crossing the avenue as a brawl breaks out between a dozen men in front of me. Two guys are beating a third against a truck. His friends dash over from the street corner; one wields a short bat that he brings down hard on the bodies of the attackers. A moment later, the two who apparently started the fight are shoved into their car. They take off, epithets hurled after them.
I'm completely unnerved, from the fight, the heat, my lack of sleep, the sense of danger generally, and the uncertainties as to my lodging. I walk back to my suite and collapse.
2. Eventually I find quarters at the Kandeel Hotel, another place I stayed the last time I was here. At $40 a night it's overpriced, but it will buy me some time to find something cheaper. There are two types of hotels in this inexpensive price range in Baghdad -- ones catering to Westerners and those frequented by Arabs. I don't quite understand the distinction, though in the lower price bracket, say $8 to $12, you certainly get some added color.
I stayed in one such place in Baghdad's Old City. It was esthetically remarkable -- every conceivable surface decorated -- but also the filthiest and most bug-infested place I've ever seen, and I've traveled to many developing countries.
The driver for the Kandeel Hotel, who is named Layth, takes me over to where 3rd ID, 2-7 had its headquarters. Now the place is deserted, the entrance blocked off with a dirt berm. We circle around and eventually find a 1st Armored Division army post, where I ask to speak with a public affairs officer. The troops are friendly, and not overly paranoid about our car. Nevertheless I stay on my side of the concertina wire.
We're directed to another base, then back again. These are long, low-slung blocks of power stations, ministry buildings, empty lots and warehouses, everything dusty, no trees. This time, as we're waiting, gunfire breaks out in long bursts, and seems to come from a large government building across the street.
I turn to the guard, asking if it's target practice -- but he's crouching behind some sandbags, aiming at the building. "There are some soldiers running around over there," he says. "I'd get back in your car." We wait in silence in the still heat. No more gunfire. As in similar incidents to come, we never find out what happened.
Eventually Layth and I arrive at the brigade headquarters, which is situated in the Martyrs Monument. This is a big empty park paved with slick flagstones surrounding large pools of water, very Brasilia. In the center, however, is a spectacular sculpture that can be seen for miles -- two gigantic half domes shaped like lotus petals, tiled in brilliant cerulean blue.
The soldiers with their sandbagged shelters and humvees look very incongruous in the huge plaza. Finally, the PAO, Lt. Alex Kasarla, shows up. He's friendly, but says it could take a few days to get the clearance to spend a week with a platoon. We exchange sat-phone numbers (the ubiquitous Thuraya, which is really more walkie-talkie than cell phone -- a crap shoot at best).
Drawing here takes a little getting used to. The Iraqis are intensely interested in most things western, so the presence of an American sitting on a stoop or at a cafe making a drawing always elicits an avid audience. Every brushstroke is watched, and people have many questions. The Iraqi sense of personal space is very different from a westerner's; here people crowd in so close they're touching me, and men feel free to stab at the paper to point out someone I've drawn whom they know. If an onlooker blocks the view, however, he'll be shouted at to get out of the way. Sometimes a passage is greeted with a round of "tsk, tsk, tsk," which in Iraq doesn't necessarily connote disapproval as much as interest (I think).
I spend a few hours working on Karada Avenue, the mecca for appliances and satellite dishes. It's a major boulevard, the sidewalks cluttered with big stacks of boxes, satellite dishes arranged like blossoming flowers as far as the eye can see in both directions. Sometimes you have to go through a maze of these boxes to continue down the sidewalk. The usual chorus of "Hey, Mister!" follows me as I go. When I locate a good vantage point to draw, the salesmen come out to look, then offer to pose. One pretends to flag down a cab, and then has to explain to several irritated cab drivers that he doesn't in fact want a ride, much to the amusement of the others.
I buy a Pepsi at a small shop and stay to draw two men playing backgammon. The proprietor doesn't seem to mind, even though he and his kids have to work carefully around me as I draw. At a cafe I get several invitations to visit, first the stall of a tea seller named Abu Allah Hammed, then a restaurant, then the office of a local businessman. I only speak a little rudimentary Arabic, so all this communication is done crudely, but the Iraqis' goodwill and generosity relieves much of my earlier anxiety.
The businessman, Sami Kashkol, speaks Russian and has been the local distributor for a Russian machine-parts company, among other ventures. As he talks, it becomes clear that no one has paid him in awhile (the Russians are "Ali Babas") and he's desperate to do business with the Americans who are starting to rebuild the country. His suite of offices are spotless, optimistically fitted out with maps of Moscow and Baghdad, although there's no one about and precious little paperwork to indicate that any actual business is being done. The idea of a Moscow-Baghdad connection strikes me as poignantly ludicrous: two unweildy, corrupt police states, each vying for the status of having more red tape.
3. As far as I can tell from my limited time in Baghdad, Rashid Street seems to be the spiritual center of the city. Running parallel to the Tigris, on its south bank, Rashid is grand on a pre-automobile scale. Its dilapidated stone and plaster houses are built over a colonnaded sidewalk that shields its citizens from the noonday sun. The 18th-century confection of its architecture is splendid -- Corinthian columns, ornate cast-iron balconies, grand windows and skylights, all shabby as can be, on the verge perhaps, like SoHo in the 1960s, of being torn down altogether.
The hidden romance of Rashid Street however, is its back alleyways, which zigzag drunkenly through the Old City, occasionally intersecting with the parallel Jemhuriya Street along the way. Here the city feels medieval. These myriad small streets are often no wider than ten feet, their ancient wooden overhanging galleries less than an arm's-length apart, the whole strung with electric wires tangled like vines, or skeins of paint from a Pollock canvas.
At midday these streets are thronged with people, who dodge the wooden carts of goods pushed by small boys, hollering at the top of their lungs. Half the doors open to small businesses where men huddle over drawers, perhaps stuffed with Toyota parts, sipping tea. Foul water trickles down the middle of the streets, and men passing from one side to another quickly lift the bottoms of their robes. Cats scatter to avoid the inevitable kick from passersby.
I'm going to look for my friend Mhedi. It was in one of these side streets that I encountered Mhedi the first time I was here. Late in the afternoon, the Old City shuts itself down and empties out like the set of a post-apocalyptic film. The only sounds are sporadic gunfire at the sky. On a corner stoop sat an old man in a white robe.
Although more than half the teeth in his handsome brown face are missing, Mhedi's shoulders are still broad, he carries himself erect and walks spryly up the alley to fetch tea. He lives in a tiny office off a tall, narrow foyer, down which is a sewing-machine repair shop. Everyone here knows Mhedi and seems to look after him. He speaks some English, having worked for a British company years ago. Now he earns nothing and no longer gets a pension. His son, formerly an officer in the army, is also without a job now, and cannot help out. Mhedi only gives me these details when I press him -- though he does ask me sincerely when the Americans will fix things.
Now I walk up to the building and there he is, chatting with neighbors."Mister. . . Mister Steve," he says. "You remembered me!" He's grinning, shaking my hand. "Did you bring your wife this time," he asks. "Like you promised?" I tell him that I will, next year, "when there's airplane service."
I ask him how he is. "Same-same, Mister, same-same. Welcome, Mister Steve!" We chat for a while. One of the neighborhood boys, maybe six years old, dashes up the street to get teas and Pepsis. I wink at him and his face lights up in a shy grin.
Mhedi won't take any money from me, but after the third round of tea I insist on paying. We go over Arabic words and grammar, though his pronunciation is affected by his missing teeth -- he scolds me when I can't remember words quickly. I get Mhedi to pose for a portrait, but can't seem to get a good likeness. When I show it to him he clucks and says sympathetically, "Slowly, Mister Steve, little by little."
I ask him about his wife. She lives in their house, far out of the city by the airport. She broke her leg five years ago, and now won't leave the house. Mhedi says when he goes to visit she just demands money, so he prefers to live here, even though he says, "This part, very poor, very poor."
When I get up to go I try to give the little boy a tip for getting us the drinks. Grinning at the floor, he runs off, waving his hand, no. I spend the rest of the afternoon drawing in the neighborhood.