At the small car service office in Amman, an avuncular Palestinian adjusts the gas heater in my direction. The night air is cold and it's raining. I pay him 20 JD -- $30 -- for the trip to Baghdad. I'm sharing the car with Nedie, the driver, and two women, each with a three-year-old child, a boy and a girl. Everyone's happy and excited as we leave, driving the ubiquitous "dolphin," a 1990s Chevy Cavalier. It's comfortable, but has weak headlights that Nedie liberally flashes at all oncoming cars. No one speaks English, but they seem to enjoy my attempts at Arabic.
The drive turns into a grueling 17 hours, fueled with Nedie's incessant Arabic pop music tapes. We stop at a restaurant near the border famous for its huge bulletin board filled with journalists' business cards. The women and the kids briefly come out to use the bathrooms but retreat to the car while Nedie and I eat dinner. In many restaurants there's a separate area for women without their husbands, but often they elect not to use it.
At the border a Jordanian customs official says, "Wait five minutes, please, sir." It takes an hour. We speed off, but my heart sinks when we pull into a big restaurant parking lot on the Iraqi side, packed with cars, pick-ups, vans and tractor-trailers. Nedie turns to me. "We sleep now, Mister!" He gestures into the murky distance down the highway. "Danger. Ali Baba!" Within five minutes all the Iraqis are snoring, barely having shifted the positions they've held for the last seven hours. I'm cold and can't sleep -- dawn doesn't come soon enough.
When it finally does and Nedie stirs, I'm hoping we'll just leave, as many cars already have, but we have to eat first, followed by chai. As usual, the women stay in the car. This trip is becoming leisurely.
Finally we leave, in convoy with a GMC. After a couple of hours the landscape turns a bit lusher -- we're in the Sunni triangle, watered by the Euphrates. As we go through Ramadi we spot our first U.S. soldiers on patrol. There was no U.S. military presence at the border, or until now -- only some graffiti on a bridge: "Kilroy was here -- MC." Now it's up-armor humvees, helicopters swooping through the rainy, overcast sky, hovering over houses. Sun sometimes breaks through.
Wet mud is thrown up into the air by the traffic. It's a dramatic entry into Baghdad, around noon.
My hotel, the Orient Palace, is filled with Iranian tourists heading to Shi'ite religious sites. I'm lucky to get a room.
A couple of days later I'm getting ready to meet the freelance reporter Steven Vincent and leave the hotel for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters to see about embedding, when an enormous blast shakes the building. The glass balcony door has turned opaque with dust from the concussion, and indeed, when I look outside, dust hangs over the streets like London fog. It's impossible to tell where the blast came from.
Steven and I decide to walk to the CPA, which we've learned was the target of the bomb. The Iranians are milling about outside the hotel, boarding buses to take them to their religious sites in Najaf, or to Karbala. The usually paralyzed traffic is even worse now. It's a long walk, past the Palestine Hotel on Firdos Square, past Tahrir Square, where Jemhuriya Bridge is blocked off by U.S. soldiers. We continue north to Sinak Bridge, cross over and double back.
The site is cordoned off about a block from where the bomb exploded. There's broken glass everywhere from the buildings nearby. We can see wreckage from the blast -- a burned-out bus and perhaps 10 cars. Iraqis are cheerfully sweeping up the glass and milling around the edge of the cordon, while the American soldiers are keeping a watchful eye. An MP tells us there are a lot of charred bodies being removed from the wreckage.
Afterwards we go to the former convention center where the CPA holds its press briefings. There, an Iraqi who's on the Governing Council gives a brief statement describing what everyone already knows: the terrorists are responsible and will be held accountable. The briefing is sparsely attended. A BBC reporter questions the term terrorists -- terrorists like foreign Al Qaeda or are they part of the native resistance? Of course no one is saying. No one knows.
The sun has come out. We head back to the hotel, a pleasant walk in fine weather.
Besides the Iranians and a Mennonite NGO group from Canada, the hotel holds a contingent of Quakers recently arrived, who've brought along the Canadian rock musician Bruce Cockburn. Steven learns that he's here for a week to "investigate the situation." Among the Quakers' gripes: that the U.S. soldiers are wearing sunglasses, considered disrespectful by some Iraqis. Steven counters by asking them if they've looked into the mass-murders committed by Saddam, to which one responds "We know about all that."
There's a South African reporter here on her own dime, to try to locate the body of a colleague captured and probably killed by the Iraqi army during the invasion. Also arriving are big groups of Pakistani and Filipino workers, contracted to work at the catering facilities out at the airport. Billeted several to a room, these guys love constant chatter. Late into the night and early in the morning they're banging doors and visiting each other. All these people have their translators and drivers hanging out at the bar as well, creating a cacophony of languages, not to mention agendas. I haven't seen the hotel filled like this since the UN pulled out.
The next day I take a taxi to Hewar, but only get part way there due to a huge Shi'ite demonstration for elections in June. It's peaceful, and I stroll along, admiring the typically bright colors of the Shi'ite banners. I talk to two students. One congratulates me for being American, but his friend says he wants the Americans to leave soon.
At Hewar, I meet Qassim, who says he's waiting for some of "your countrymen." He's preparing one of his renowned grilled fish lunches. Soon the guests arrive: it's the Quakers with Bruce Cockburn, who eye me warily. I don't think Qassim realizes how much foreigners tend to avoid one another in their jealous rush to befriend Iraqis. Or maybe he does, and enjoys watching the snubs and one-upmanship. I take my leave, and relax in the teahouse, when the artists Ahmed al Safi and Haider Wadi show up. They seem like old friends now, and I'm happy to see them.
That evening Ahmed and the painter Esam Pasha come by the hotel for dinner. Esam gives me a great bear hug. It's terrific to see him again. He's done working for the Americans: the National Guard unit he's been translating for is going home. He's got some money so he plans to paint.
One morning I draw around Rusafee Square. A huge traffic jam has paralyzed traffic -- it takes about 30 minutes just to cross the circle. Everyone is honking, but people seem resigned to the insanity. I'm meeting Esam at 3:00, so I walk to Hewar, about half an hour away.
The latest in the steady trickle of Western visitors are a Czech artist and curator, who have come with an Iraqi exile living in London. They're here for five days to see if they can come up with some art "projects," which they're vague about. The artist is like a caricature, haughty, ironic, dressed in tight black clothes, hair wild. His catalogue shows him on the cover posed as Michael Jackson from the Thriller album.
"Do you like Michael Jackson?" Esam asks innocently. "I hate Michael Jackson!" says the artist. "So do all the soldiers that I worked with" says Esam. I can tell he's impressed by this guy and his too-cool-for-you attitude. Esam invites them to his studio the next day, and I can only hope that it goes well. Ahmed is less impressed, and later observes, "I think, even though he says he hates Michael Jackson, secretly he wants to be like him."
Esam, Ahmed and I go to Esam's house, stopping for a gyro on the way. Esam lives with his brother in a state of quiet war. He plays us his favorite Yani videos, which I have to admit frankly I don't like, even though I can see how much they move him. Instead we talk about which backup singer is sexiest.
The next day I go coat-shopping with Ahmed in the market near his studio, by Tahrir Square. We shop among huge piles of used but clean coats, which cost a dollar. We wander around the marketplace. There's an area for CD-videos, the cheap version of DVDs that are easy to pirate. In covered stall after stall, Arabic music plays at ear-splitting volume. Each stall has a crowd of men around it watching the TV screens, which are playing a bewildering mix -- belly dancers, Imams giving sermons, people dancing at parties, atrocity-footage of prisoners being beaten in Saddam's prisons.
A man tries to sell me a video which purports to be American combat footage from the battle of Nasiriya. It's grainy and intense, with close-in fighting, set to a high-voltage soundtrack of Arabic music. Suddenly I recognize it.
"That's not real, it's from the movie Black Hawk Down!" The seller grins sheepishly but insists, "No mister, no. Real."
A lot of stuff here is real enough. At the next stall a man grabs me by the arm. "You see this, mister! American soldier." He makes a slashing gesture across his throat. Someone's head is being cut off. It's a notorious video of the battle for Baghdad airport. Ahmed says he's seen it and thinks the execution of an American is real. He says he couldn't keep watching it.
The place is intense, an assault on the senses.
We go back to Ahmed's studio and watch Presumed Innocent, a comedy starring Leslie Nielsen (he's huge here), until the electricity goes out.
Back at Orient Palace, Steven is at the bar, stewing over an anti-American insult from one of the non-Iraqi translators here. The guy left abruptly before he had a chance to respond. Soon, however, Ahmed and his friend Mohammed show up. The offending translator is nearby and we make a point of steering the conversation to the crimes and defeat of Saddam, a topic which our Iraqi friends are only too happy to banter about. The translator keeps silent. As we leave the Filipinos are roaring out a rendition of I Did it My Way to the accompaniment of the piano player.