June 03, 2007

A drive through Baghdad

I live in a city of shadows of the past. Everyday I'm reminded of what once was, as I maneuver through the maze of condrete blast walls that grace the capital with McClatchy's Iraqi staff.

Yesterday i wrapped my hair haphazardly in a scarf and jumped in the backseat of the car. We weaved through Karada. One member of our staff said it had been the "flower of Baghdad." Now it is considered relatively safe. As one person told me "there is only one car bomb a day."

I looked at the sidewalk covered with stacks of generators next to imported air coolers from Iran. The summer season is upon us and people flocked to buy the mechanisms that would save them from the 110-degree summer heat. In the past week Iraqis have had about one hour of electricity. That's right one hour of air condition, one hour of hot water, one hour of relief in seven days.

We sped past Kahramana square. In the center of the square, a statue of a beautiful young woman tips a jar over jars below her. It comes from the Middle Eastern folktale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The mythical female character pours boiling oil upon the thieves hiding in the jars to kill them. But her jar, once a cascading fountain in this square, is now dry.

We passed through Saadoun street in central Baghdad. Doctors' offices and travel agencies for exotic destinations were once housed here but they are now abandoned. I scanned the rusted metal gates and padlocks on the doorways of Bangladesh Airlines and Air France. The windows of doctors' offices were shut tight, most have fled from the kidnappings and killings and Iraqis pray they don't get sick. Many travel to neighboring countries for treatment.

Tall concrete blast walls lined the center of the street, now painted with murals of smiling people in canoes on a sparkling river, horses galloping through fields and children playing with pinwheels. Images of a distant place, far from the hot misery of the capital.

Outdoor market places were shielded from my view by the dull gray of concrete walls that protect from flying shrapnel.

I remembered what Shatha, my translator and friend, said on my first trip here in 2005 as we stepped over concertina wire and walked through yet another maze of blast walls that protected an Iraqi ministry.

"Nothing in Baghdad is beautiful anymore," she said. She's gone now. Forced to flee from the capital she loved for the safety of a new home.

A fuel line wrapped through the streets as tens of drivers waited for a drop of gas. They opened their doors and sat on the hoods as beads of sweat dripped down their faces. It would be hours before they could fill their tanks.

For a moment I stared at the sidewalks. In the office that morning we'd read the Arabic newspapers together and laughed at a political cartoon. Two unemployed men sat on the sidewalk pondering what they could do. "Let's be dead bodies," they said. It is a dark humor developed to mask the horror of the tens of corpses found on the side of the roads each day.

Then onto Mansour Melia, a beautiful hotel with a shimmering pool near the Tigris River.

There I met with the Tribal Sheikh Fassal al Gaood. One of the members of our Iraqi staff came with me, but his mind was somewhere else. He spent the morning crying behind a locked door. It was over boyhood memories of his cousin. The man was kidnapped last week and the ransom was $21,000. This morning his uncle told him, "We're waiting to find the body."

He recalled how they used to wrestle with each other. He described the deep blue eyes and light hair of his cousin's three-year-old child. She'll grow up an orphan now, he said, fighting back tears. But I could see a small but willfull hope in his eyes. Maybe he would survive.

Gaood the former governor of Anbar walked over to us in a sharp black suit and red tie. We sat in red velvet chairs near a small indoor fountain in the cool breeze of air condition. A small oasis from the heat outside, an oasis protected by gunmen and barriers. We talked about improvements in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq in the west. His home outside Ramadi was destroyed, his cars burned and his life threatened by Al Qaida. They killed five of his bodyguards. 

"It's a slow improvement," he said but he looked down with a confident pessimism. "Violence will return to Anbar soon."

For him democracy is not the answer. He wants powerful leaders and an iron fist, he said.

"Iraq is marching towards the edge of a valley," he said. "Daily killings, kidnappings and bodies in the street."

"We should behead anyone who does a terrorits attack in Anbar," he said. He had been imprisoned under Saddam's regime and two of his brothers were killed. Now life isn't much better. "After the fall I have a family with no home."

We got back in the car and drove away scanning the streets for anyone who might follow us. My mind wandered to a time when Iraqis drove through the streets without the worry of a car bomb next to them, a time when Iraqis spent nights in restaurants with their families and could walk into a hotel without being frisked and interrogated.

My thoughts were interrupted as we drove into our own barricaded hotel. Our cars were searched and we walked inside. It was just another day in Baghdad.


Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

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