A guy walks into a seedy video store on Rashid Street. After pretending to look at the merchandise he approaches the salesman and whispers, "Do you have pornographic videos?"
"Yes, we do," the storekeeper whispers back.
After a pause the guy asks, "Do you have homosexual pornographic videos?"
"Yeah, we've got those too."
"Well. . . do you have pornographic homosexual videos with young boys?"
"Yes, we do."
Excited now, the man asks, "Do you have such a video, with a young boy who looks just like the kid in Terminator 2?"
"Yes, we have one just like that."
The guy takes the video home and puts it into his VCR, and it's Saddam, giving a speech. He goes back to the store. "Hey, this isn't what I asked for, it's a speech by Saddam!"
The proprietor looks him squarely in the eye. "Well, did you like it?" There's a pause.
* * *
This Iraqi joke from a few years ago goes right to the heart of the perverse logic that was daily life in pre-war Iraq. It was the ultimate don't-ask, don't-tell society.
Akmed Al-Safi, a young artist, puts it another way. "A couple of years ago I made a painting with a shepherd playing a flute, leading some sheep. Zahra [Kadhimi, the Canadian journalist killed by police recently in Iran] was visiting, and you know what she did? She asked me right at the opening what the painting meant!"
He and Naseer Hassan, a poet, shake their heads in wonder. Naseer explains: "Look, in Saddam's time you would never ask such a question; there is no possible answer. You must say it means nothing and sound like an idiot. If you even hesitate it will be noted. Ears are everywhere."
The three of us are sitting in the charming garden cafe of Hewar Gallery, among a crowd of artists grouped around its tables and benches, fans churning overhead. Naseer is a poet and also and a scholar. He's currently translating his favorite Emily Dickinson poems into arabic. Naseer has traveled more than most Iraqis, starting when he was on the Iraqi Olympic chess team in Greece. Akmed, who's in his 20s, is a painter and sculptor, one of he most talented I've met in Baghdad. He works in a neo-expressionist style and uses themes from ancient regional mythology. I've become good friends with both of them.
The talk turns to western activist groups in Baghdad, and then to two young women from the activist group Voices in the Wilderness, who we met yesterday at the Shebander Teahouse downtown. They attracted a lot of attention in the smoky, densely packed cafe, which otherwise was occupied only by men.
Naseer, who was initially interested in talking with the redheaded woman, says, "We disagreed about everything. She wants to have solidarity with the Iraqis against the American occupation. I said to her, 'Do you realize that if we were talking this way last year about Saddam we could be executed for it?'"
"Look, sure the Americans have their interests here," Naseer said. "Everyone has their own interests! We do not ask anyone to be noble. But right now the interests of the Americans coincide with the interests of the Iraqis and we are benefiting from it.
"I spent two years in the army, way outside of Baghdad in the middle of nowhere. Do you know why? Because on the last day of my high school a questionnaire was passed out that asked, 'Do you want to be a member of the Baath Party?' Out of 40 people, I and one other guy checked 'no'. Before they sent me off they put me in prison for a few days. Each night I had to listen to the screams of women being raped. I would hear them say to the officers: 'How can you do this to us? We could be your own wives and daughters'."
Akmed tells how when he was 17 he was in a small town in the south. He decided to make a drawing outside. He was picked up by some suspicious soldiers, put in jail for five days, and was beaten every day. Akmed tells hilarious if hair-raising stories about the fights he got into with the officers when he was in the army because he refused to tolerate their attempts to bully and extort money from him. The sergeants liked him for his spirit though most conscripts felt they had no choice but to put up with the constant harassment.
Both Akmed and Naseer seem more philosophical than bitter towards the old regime, but they're irritated by what they see as naiveté on the part of these activists.
"Zahra [Kadhimi] was the same way. She was opposed to Saddam, but when we saw her before she went to Iran all she was interested in talking about was the American occupation, and pan-Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism will kill us! I mean I feel terrible about what happened to her, but it's ironic. She seemed to have no idea of what she was walking into.
"Here's a funny thing that happened a few years ago," Akmed went on. "There was a big demonstration against the U.N. sanctions organized by the regime. All the peace organizations came to show their solidarity with the Iraqi people, including the Union of Iraqi Women, a Baathist organization, very pro-Saddam.
"I was watching this on TV. In the middle of the demonstration when they were talking about all the children dying from the sanctions, one of these women started wailing, and turning to the camera, said in English, very theatrically, 'Oh my God. . . . Why?!'
"I thought, this is very strange, her ego and superego are Iraqi, but her subconscious is English. It was completely fake, like in a very dramatic moment of some movie. Always after that, when we see some very fake emotion from some person we say they are a member of the Oh My God Why Club."
In spite of what Naseer and Akmed are telling me, I know that opinions on the streets of Baghdad are wildly divergent, and many resent or at least question the American presence here, particularly in the face of efforts by the army and the nascent Iraqi police force to provide security against the rising tide of crime and terrorism.
Trying to measure the success or failure of the occupation is like the proverbial group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant: each person tends to see the war and its aftermath differently, through the prism of their own ideology and experience. Some people talk about the children who died as a result of the sanctions, some talk about the thousands of Iraqis murdered by Saddam.
Watching the BBC here in Baghdad, I get the impression that the war has left a state of worsening chaos throughout the country. Walking through the streets I often have the opposite feeling. Then a bomb goes off somewhere and I brace myself for worse times ahead.
A couple of days later I accompany Esam Pasha, a painter and translator for the National Guard battalion that I'd traveled with previously, to the house where Voices in the Wilderness is based in Baghdad. He's hoping to ask the redheaded girl to dinner, but it's an awkward visit.
Ramses, one of the activists there, is stridently opposed to the American occupation. I can't help but get the impression that he's hoping the American effort will fail. He believes, I think, that it's corrupt at its core.
Esam counters by pointing out how much good the soldiers of the National Guard are doing in their neighborhood. Ramses says, rather patronizingly, "Oh, I'm sure there are some wonderful individuals."
Nevertheless Ramses raises some difficult issues, charging that the U.S. actively encouraged looting of institutions, including banks, in the first days after the war to bolster the impression that the country needed a strong U.S. force. Further, he believes that the American soldiers are running roughshod over Iraqi civilians, sometimes carelessly killing them.
Even if the activists see the U.S. simply as the "occupier," groups like Voices in the Wilderness are an important force here. Initially in Baghdad to protest the sanctions, they're now protesting the occupation, but also monitoring the conduct of soldiers and evaluating social problems in the city, which are numerous and vexing: Iraqi civilians who've been negligently wounded or killed by U.S. forces and whose families have no legal recourse; gangs of orphaned children who live on the streets and are being sexually exploited by mafias; homicides, rapes and carjacking on a scale that apparently dwarfs the number in American cities (actual statistics are hard to come by, so rumors abound). Women rarely venture out onto the streets and many people carry guns. I've seen more fist fights here than I've seen in several years in New York.
But life goes on.
* * *
It's mid-afternoon, when most shops and businesses close down, but I'm hoping to get a drawing done at the Shabandar Teahouse. There's a few older men there, waiting till closing time. I'm chatting with them when a young man in a bright white t-shirt taps me on the shoulder.
"Would you have some time to talk with me? Perhaps 20 minutes?"
He's smiling nervously, and won't make eye contact. I'm a little annoyed by the request, but I'm getting nothing done and the shop is closing, so I suggest we walk together down the street.
"I want to talk with you about peoples in the U.S.," He hesitates.
"Particularly, we can say, homosexual peoples in the U.S." I had a feeling something like this might be coming, and my heart goes out to him. I can't imagine a worse place to be gay. Homosexuals and atheists are considered almost sub-human here. I try to describe gay rights in the U.S., but he's got a more specific question.
"What about the U.S. soldiers? I was talking to some of them about AIDS, and they ask me why am I talking so? Can I tell them about these things? One soldier at a gas station offered to pay money to a young boy, to spend an hour with him. Are they interested in such things?"
I laugh, but I feel like I'm watching a train-wreck about to happen. I can only envision a disastrous situation emerging from his interests, and I tell him I think it would be a bad idea to attempt to proposition any soldiers. I recall meeting an NGO worker who was clearly gay and I suggest that this might be a safer avenue to explore.
"But the U.S. soldiers are cuter!" he protests.
There's not much I can say. He hurries off and I can only contemplate the added layers of danger in his life.
* * *
Esam and I are walking through a part of the Old City frequented by artists and intellectuals (they really do hang out together here). Mutanebi Street is crammed with booksellers, books laid out on the pavement, people moving slowly shoulder to shoulder, perusing the collections.
People keep coming up to Esam to greet him. He comments, "That one back there? He's been cataloging Iraqi artists for many years. He has 3,000 photographs. That other guy? He's no longer my friend. He spied on me and my friends for Saddam's security forces."
We walk past a long palace on the banks of the Tigris. Esam tells me it was built by the Ottomans. The two huge entrance doors have been stolen, gigantic hinges hanging forlornly off the door jambs. The palace gardens have become public, with surprisingly lush hedges leading to a tall clock tower by the river.
"I always wanted to climb that tower," says Esam, but when we enter it we find that the wooden staircase is gone. Instead, a long rope of thick electric wire is dangling from some beams, and high above we hear the sounds of someone banging against the stone, removing the last of the metal clock pieces.
It suddenly strikes me that the city is slowly unraveling itself, its components bundled and sped off to dusty markets or left in heaps in the baking sun.
Everyone is hoping for better times.
* * *
When he woke up from his dream
He stood by the window;
The war was gazing at him.
When he returned from his sadness
He was forty.
poem by Naseer Flayih Hassan
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the third installment of his "Baghdad Journal."