Haider, our driver, and I were threading our way through 108 degrees and a narrow concrete path hemmed in by blast walls in the International Zone (IZ). That's what the old Green Zone is called now. We both had to get U.S. military ID badges so we could be street legal and enter places we couldn't go without 'em.
To paraphrase a line in Macbeth, day thickened--with grit and grime from the sandstorm that enveloped Baghdad the past two days. The residue stuck to the sweat on our arms.
At a dozen points along the 20-minute route, we were checked for IDs, and sometimes body-searched, by Iraqi soldiers, police and hard-eyed Peruvians. The modern-day Incas were armed with AK-47s and looked as if they wanted to revenge Pizarro by humiliating any gringo in range. The name of their private security company is Triple Canopy.
In what passes for military logic, some of the checks and searches were only 30 or 40 meters from the last one, in plain sight of the next group of gunsels, who had just watched their comrades force us to dump everything from our pockets into a plastic bowl. We carried it the way a new inmate must lug his bedsheets to a cell.
There were wands and some sort of machine that looked like the black monolith in "2001" where we simply stood for a few seconds, front and back, while it gave us cancer or made us sterile or mapped our genomes in order to let us move to the next station. A first-tour U.S. buck sergeant from Ghana smiled and shook his head at the whole procedure.
And there was one body search that, if done by a female, would have turned on both her and me big-time. Sadly, it was conducted by a swarthy dude wearing wraparound shades.
The only more dehumanizing pastime I've experienced was going through the U.S. Army physical at the Chicago induction facility 40 years ago. Think DMV, cattle slaughter warehouse and Jerry Springer Show. We didn't have to strip to our skivvies during this IZ drill, but the attitude of the searchers was the same: Please just give us an excuse to unlimber these automatic weapons and put you down in the dirt.
So it was with real relief that we wandered from this Hieronymous Bosch landscape into the cool confines of the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC). This is where all hacks, drivers and some other media-affiliated folks have to get hooked up with a biometric holographic ID--a backstage pass to the war.
Besides the air conditioning, the room was brightened by the presence of Soheir Flanagan, in charge of media credentialing. She's from Gilbert, Ariz., by way of Egypt. The Irish part "came from injection," she explained while I filled out the form. Luckily, the CPIC card I got last year had expired only on May 30, so I didn't have to have the retinal or rectal (just kidding) exam or have my fingerprints taken; they were on file.
Ms. Flanagan is a contractor for Government Linguistic Solutions who has spent 25 months total in Iraq. Fluent in Arabic and Southwestern English, she's got five grown kids "spread out all over creation." She lost her husband to cancer some years back.
This is all by way of explaining that she cut me a big break. "I'm making a huge exception for you, you know," she said over her desk. I pleaded ignorance, but knew what it was. I'd forgotten my letter of accreditation from McClatchy; it was in the car, and when Haider and I exited the vehicle, I didn't know that would be the last I'd see of it till we were done.
She told me what I was missing. I told her what had happened. I told her I could either go back to the car and go through the dehumanizing drill all over again (I didn't say 'dehumanizing') or we could fax it or e-mail it to her.
"E-mail, not fax," she said crisply. Then she handed me my brand-spankin' new CPIC all-access badge. Then she smiled.
"It is so nice to find a government official with a heart and a personality," I said, shaking her hand. She smiled again. I e-mailed her the letter as soon as I got back to the bureau.
Since hacks must deal with CPIC on a regular basis during our deployments, it's reassuring to know there's both a lady and a reasonable person working there. She could've gone by the book and tied me down in red tape. But her experience and instinct told her that here was a rule that could be--not bent--but delayed an hour or so.
In the case of Soheir Flanagan, she WAS from the federal government--and she truly WAS there to help you.
Shukran and much obliged, Ms. Flanagan.