At Checkpoint One, a short distance from the tarmac, Im the last person left waiting for a ride. The flights famous corkscrew landing wasnt scary so much as spectacular. I was seated on the side with the views: Baghdad in all its grimy glory straight below me, shining in the hazy morning sun, helicopters circling beneath our landing path.
At last I make out Esams massive figure in bright white shirtsleeves striding past the security guards down the road. Hes here with a taxi. I first met Esam Pasha back in September, when he was translating for a Florida National Guard company where I was embedded. Hes a self-taught artist, who also works as a translator and fixer for journalists, an occupation he loves both for the excitement and the closeness it brings with Americans. Yet to me, hes a curious mass of contradictions. A devout Sunni, he prays five times a day, facing Mecca. He takes the Quran and Bible quite literally and doesnt believe in evolution, yet knows as much about American technology and popular culture as any mall-rat, privileging in particular Friends and Garfield. Hes generous and open-minded, but also a self-proclaimed monarchist who believes that the International Brotherhood of Free Masons exercises a strong influence over world events. His perfect English was picked up from watching American movies and TV. When I asked him if actual Americans seemed different from the way we portray ourselves in movies, he said, No, they are very much the same, very open, honest and friendly. I really like hanging out with Americans.
After checking in at my hotel, we spend the day wandering around downtown Baghdad. Im trying to gauge how much things have changed since I was here last, back in March, before all the violence with Muqtada Sadr and in Falluja. Were hanging out in the park, underneath the massive sculptural mural in Tarir Square when Esam notices that someones got a gun underneath his shirt. We leave, but in fact, I cant shake the impression of a certain optimism pervading at least this area. Businesses are open; the streets are relatively clean and bustling. People seem as friendly as ever. One shopkeeper kisses my shoulder when I tell him Im American. Esam advises me to tell Iraqis that Im Canadian. I find myself oddly resistant to telling this lie. I havent yet encountered overt hostility. Ive met a lot of Iraqis while out drawing. If they havent been happy about my nationality, theyve politely kept it to themselves. Yet it would be foolish to imagine that Im safe here.
A couple of nights later I meet my friend Naseer Hasan, a poet, who works at a city architectural office. Ive brought him two books by authors he asked for: Derek Walcotts Omeros, and the collected stories of Luis Borges. Naseer has been translating Borges into Arabic, and puzzling over some discrepancies hes found in English versions on the web.
Just words, he muses, flipping through the pages. I cant tell you how nice it is to have these.
We talk about the situation here. Naseer is surprisingly sanguine. You know, I feel as though we are emerging from the tunnel, after all these long months. Its like we are only now establishing a new morality. You can see this, for example, in the behavior of the police. Before, they were only clever at taking bribes and so on. They are starting to change, not just sitting, waiting to be paid by the Americans. We are expecting them to sacrifice.
After so much bad news from here in the last few months, Im very moved by the eloquence and simple nobility of Naseers words. I find my pessimism lessening a little. Naseers life was difficult and dangerous under Saddams regime, and hes accustomed to the idea that victories dont come easily. He pauses to collect his thoughts:
New values will begin to emerge, in the battle with the remains of the regime. You can see in the statements from the Minister of Defense after the recent bombings, the police and the new army are going to locate terrorists in all places. He says we will find them and show no mercy. Its the only choice: either this or no solution.
What happened in the last year is very exceptional, make a paradoxical situation. The Americans came here and defeat the regime in some weeks. The remains of the regime were waiting for chasing, for punishment.
To leave them alone. . . they benefited from this. It gave them the very necessary time to activate themselves, to reconstruct and take the initiative, especially with the assistance of so many terrorists who have entered our country. Now if even a person tries to welcome the Americans, they are afraid.
This paradoxical situation will start the process of eliminating the terrorists. I am actually optimistic on this point. The coming six months are very decisive. I feel we are at a time when leaders, strong men, show up just when history needs them. Men who can construct a new country with new principles -- the pioneers. Can we call them so? Someday the parents will tell their kids that now you are living in this progressive way because some generation 50 years ago was brave enough to take this challenge.
I spend a lot of time at Ahmed Al Safis studio, down in the working class neighborhood of Bab Sherji. I take a bus here in the mornings (actually a van that someones operating privately along the standard routes). I shout out Nozil! when I want to get off, though I recently discovered that Ive been mispronouncing the word for some time and have been shouting Victory! which must have mystified if not irritated the other passengers. I buy fresh bread and cream from the local stores and then call up to Ahmed to let me in.
The last of Baghdads famed shena-shiil houses are falling apart, crammed with poor people, and prostitutes who leer down at you from the decrepit balconies. Wastewater meanders down the partially paved streets. Like most of Baghdads artists, Ahmed loves the old houses, and mourns the recent loss of four buildings, to a fire set by an angry pimp. He thinks that the city should give the abandoned buildings to artists to turn into live and work studios.
The sanctions were boom years for Ahmed. He sold out several shows of paintings and sculptures, both to UN and NGO personnel as well as to Iraqis. For a time he was rich by Iraqi standards. He wishes hed bought some property then, when the dollar was sterling against the Iraqi dinar. No one is selling much art now. Ahmed has a wry sense of humor, which comes through despite his broken English. As were sitting over tea he tells me a story about his time in the Iraqi army:
There is an officer. He is from Falluja, but he is good guy. He want me to paint scene of Falluja. But I say, No, I cannot, I never was in Falluja.
He say, Yes, its easy: There is a bridge.
So, I paint bridge.
He say, here there is a street, very straight.
OK, I paint a street.
Here, he say, there is tire shop. I paint that too.
He, very happy! He cry, Yes! This is Falluja!
Ahmed, Esam and I are having lunch at a local Bab Sherji restaurant. My presence at these places always elicits interest. When I get up to wash my hands, someone asks where Im from. Hes Canadian, says Esam.
Is he Jewish? asks the stranger.
No, says Ahmed. Dont you know Jews look like us? With the same big noses?
That evening we go the swimming pool at the Al Hamra Hotel. Esam and Ahmed have been suggesting this outing for several days and at last I have time. The Hamra, like the Palestine, is one of the fancy hotels that well-heeled news organizations set up in. The pool is outdoors, surrounded by a patio for eating and drinking.
Theres a $5 charge to use the pool, a substantial amount for Iraqis. Esams already in trouble with the restaurant here for leaning back on one of the cheap plastic chairs and snapping the legs. Hes reminded that he still owes them a new chair.
It turns out that neither Esam nor Ahmed has ever gone swimming here before. We change and I jump into the cool water. There are a couple of reporters studiously doing laps, but after Esam and Ahmed tentatively enter the pool and start splashing around like kids the lap swimmers soon leave. My friends arent strong swimmers and keep to the shallow end, practicing their dog-paddles. Completely unselfconscious, they whoop it up, their kicks sending sprays of water at a nearby group of journalists having dinner, who nervously eye them but leave them alone.
After an hour Ive gotten cold, and get out to have a cigarette. Esam and Ahmed wont leave the pool. An hour later theyre ready to have dinner, but after we eat they jump right back in. Esam likes to submerge and then come up, his long, glossy hair streaming down over his eyes. He says he can check out the gaymar (Arabic for cream, i.e., blondes) that way without them knowing hes spying.
Looking across at the crowd of journalists eating and chatting, Im reminded of summer dinner parties in New York, among artist friends. But thinking of my companions here in Iraq, I feel proud to be with them. My project has allowed me the time and luxury to become close to people with whom I dont need to have a professional relationship. Im wondering if it will ever be possible for them to travel as Iraqi tourists to the U.S.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the 11th installation of his "Baghdad Journal."
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