Iraqi Muse

November 24, 2008

nanowrimo-2.jpgI found Iraq to be a very seductive place. There is something about the country, Baghdad in particular, which I found akin my experience of some parts of India. Life is such a precarious thing in these places that people grasp it with both hands and make the most of what they have. Those who live in the face of guns, under the prospect of random and butchering death know how to live. We have no idea. Read more

I am Bulletproof Until the Lord Determines Otherwise

August 1, 2008

jesse-strong.jpgThese words leapt off the page when I was reading this week an article on those from Vermont who have died in the current mid East conflict (Article here, titled Home of the Brave). Apparently Vermont, with a tradition of military sacrifice going back to the Revolution, has recorded more combat deaths per head of population than any other state. Read more

970,000 American Casualties. Is Iraq Worth It?

September 23, 2007

Naturally even departing Baghdad is extraordinary. How many international airports require you to pull over on the approach road, empty your magazines and then dry-fire your weapons to demonstrate nothing is “live”? No others spring to mind. Then drop your bags on the road outside, in a large concrete revetment while a bomb dog crawls over your gear. Then imagine a third world mess inside – at least in terms of organisation and graft. 8kg underweight (baggage that is) and I am still up for USD25 for excess baggage. But if you want out of here…! I happily paid up. All of that will sort itself out in the end. I am normally a very patient traveller but by the time I got to Jordan and endured my ninth bag check I was feeling very irascible. Even after being dropped off at the aircraft in the Baghdad heat there was a pat down and bag check. You do what you have to do.

To answer the question, the short answer is yes. Not only from a personal business point of view but also from a broader perspective as well. This place is on the mend but there is no denying it has a way to go. And it is on the mend because local Iraqis are resolved to mend it. Be they the occasional and too infrequently met local, the public servants or the young diplomat I met in the queue waiting to check in this morning. He and a few others were off to Rome to do a course. He has high hopes for Iraq and his belief in what was possible was heart warming and encouraging. People like this make the effort worthwhile I think. Interestingly we discussed the convulsions that have been at the root of the building of other nations. Starting with the US – which is “united” at the cost of more than 970,000 of its citizens dead and wounded. Can you imagine that body-count being reported in today’s press? About the same number of Americans killed by each other as perished in WWII. (And as a footnote is it not interesting that the US had a 12 year Reconstruction period after its civil war? We all want Iraqis to sort themselves out in a couple of years!). Japan. France. Even present day Russia. Vietnam. India. South Africa. The Balkan states. If we could forge nations in other ways we could and should. But sometimes it happens in the worst way. We parted with a handshake (when I was called to a spare seat on an earlier flight (not everything that happens in Baghdad is bad!!)) and a controversial observation – he cocked one of his eyebrows at me and wryly noted that none of their Arab brothers were coming to their aid – it was all the Christian states who were helping, and he said Iraq would always remember its friends. This young man has an interesting diplomatic career in front of him to say the least. But it is that freedom of expression that comes with all other freedoms that we all want to see in Iraq. He said something he would not have dared utter five years ago. Now he feels free to voice his views to a stranger. If we can achieve that, without him eventually becoming a casualty for his forwardness, then Iraq’s people are worth it.

Baghdad Rooftop Reflection – with some help from the Frogs

September 22, 2007

At about 11pm a half moon hangs in the sky. I’m sitting on a flat roof reclining in a dusty poolside recliner (though there is no pool), in a hot breeze. Just listening and watching. It is still but not quiet. This city does not sleep. But it is a softer city in this dusky light. Frogs among the eucalypts rhythm their quiet and indolent blues. Distant mosques broadcast their calls and prayers in a melodic tone that is beguiling, a soft chorus that hints at more civil and ordered things. Of better things. The normal city background rumble of traffic adds its background hum. Flares drift down through the trees. Silent, and betraying an unheard and unseen helicopter. Occasionally the drone of piston engines carefully buzzing their surveillance, also unseen. Drifting in and out of the peaceful stillness. Which is broken every now and then by Pumas or Blackhawks thundering in pairs over the house, roaring in then fading out swiftly. Leaving us again to the mullahs and the frogs. A civil airliner flashes its strobes as it lazes its line north, unlike the unseen military jets that occasionally bore through the sky. In and out much more quickly. I am out of here tomorrow and I find myself up here in a reflective mood. There is nothing like being here, if only briefly, to appreciate just how critical the momentum needs to be maintained in getting this place on its feet. It can be done, and it is a work well underway. There are moments when you worry about the place, as we did this afternoon when four or five “booms” carried to us on the wind. Initially we thought they were artillery but eventually decided they were bombs. Unlike hearing them in the news, these carry a clear personal message – that someone has been hurt, and for no reason. Somehow those blasts now seem a lifetime ago as I sit up here under the moonlight and soak up the evening. The frogs are now the constant background theme, far better than the murderous noises heard earlier and throughout this visit. I am hopeful that with some perseverance Malik and others like him will soon be able to relax and get back to their rooftops in the evening, the “booms” being only a bad memory from a distant era. I certainly pray so.

A Lizard Kills a Stereotype

September 20, 2007

Shouts and commands from behind a walled compound yesterday had me carefully checking over the roof balustrade. It all sounded a bit urgent and well, commando-ish. The wall encloses a large park like area and through the trees I could see AK47 armed, headband wrapped men dashing forward and heading our way. I had to decide whether this was a training exercise or whether I should be thinking about making myself scarce. Just at the point I was thinking I needed to scamper someone called a drink break. Phew.

On another boundary a short time later the complete antithesis (there is a word for CT) with squeals of terror mixed with laughter getting my attention. That had me intrigued and when I checked it out I could barely contain my own laughter. There has been a lot of construction work next door and the place has been busy with burly, deeply tanned men, most of the them large and muscular, pouring concrete, shaping steel and sweating their hearts out in the sun. The site is now largely done and painters have been in. These blue singleted, bearded, tough men were squealing like 6 year old school girls (that stereotype remains) as they tried to get out of the way of a lizard. One of the men had managed to catch the reptile and was chasing his colleagues with it. They were all flapping their hands in horror, squealing and trying to get to vantage points such as truck decks or cabs. Any stereotype of construction workers, Arab or otherwise vanished in a heartbeat. And at the end the lizard was carefully let down in a shady pool of water, no doubt terrorised by his adventure with these guys. In a land of indiscriminate death it was nice to see the lizard get off lightly.

("Mandela’s") Answer for Iraq

September 20, 2007

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? And who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people wont feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to be the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Nelson Mandela, Inaugural speech 1994

Postscript: 22 Sep. Always check and double check your sources. When I finally got to check Nelson’s addresses here and here seems these words were not there. A further check suggests they should be attributed to Marianne Williamson from a volume called “A Return to Love.” (Kind of ironic since I would not ordinarily cite someone writing in this genre.) But then I have not been able to check that source either. I’ll leave the words here since they caught my ear when thinking about Baghdad and still have relevance, regardless of author.

An Obscenity We Don’t See or Feel – Is Still an Obscenity

September 18, 2007

I was going to leave off writing about Baghdad for a spell – it becomes a bit self absorbing after a while. Then this morning a bomb rattled the windows. As I got to the roof only seconds later to get a fix on the location a second one went off. The smoke from the first was starting to disperse in the stiff breeze but soon the smoke from the second was roiling up. Ten minutes later the whole sky was smudged by it. My point of reference is the GBU10s and GBU12s, dropped onto air force weapons ranges. As I went out onto the roof I thought to myself “that felt like a GBU12” – 500lb of “bang”. In the event I don’t think there was that much explosive but it was 5km away and still rattled the windows.

It is a sobering thing to watch as you realise you are witness to someone’s day being ruined – all for nothing as Malik would say. But it is sobering for other reasons as well. The delight at watching aircraft fly around now becomes a guilty sin. Being on the edge and feeling alive is now at someone else’s expense. At the expense of real people I have met in the street. And you feel equal measures guilty and equal measures angry for what the incident becomes to everyone else – meaningless or irrelevant. A non event. A tree falling in the forest unheard. The booming crump and the shuddering glass never makes it to most of the on-line papers around the world. Heck, it barely makes the coverage of those carrying Iraq news. The BBC carries a small article. I confess I am surprised that only 7 people are killed, 20 are wounded. The blast felt bigger than that. People bombed lining up at the hospital to identify dead relatives. Obscene, cowardly, diabolical. I am offended by that. But also by the normalcy such a “small” blast has become. By the fact that no one else in town turns their head (no doubt relieved they were not incidental to its maw). I am offended for these victims that the press got it wrong – there were two blasts. And the lack of human touch in the press – who is that man, and what is his story? His pain? And what are we doing about it? The memorial stain of smoke over the sky is an obscenity as well, in part for its brevity. Who of us in our own cities would tolerate a stain like that? No, I thought not. But here it has become part of the grist of life and barely stirs a ripple. An inexplicable sadness for that knots my stomach for the day. I don’t know what else to say.

My Name is Malik and I Live in Baghdad

September 17, 2007

My name is Malik and I drive to work each day in Baghdad. I leave my house in the suburbs. There are palms and olive trees, and a small patch of grass outside my house. The house is walled in like many houses in the Middle East. But I have grown up in a fenced and gated community all my life. It is hard to get out of the habit but right now it is best not to drop my guard. I am careful to look up and down the street as I leave to see that everything is normal. I drive an old Datsun, with dented panels, some shrapnel holes in the trunk and three bullet holes in the passenger door. The windscreen is damaged where a rock hit it, and it is running retread tyres. I had not seen them here when Saddam was around but these days getting parts for cars is hard and I have to use what I get. The steering is wobbly but I can’t afford to get it fixed. I get nervous driving along the street when we get to a checkpoint. All the traffic banks up. Anything can happen here. Suddenly a convoy of armoured Fords, probably carrying a VIP, needs to cut through the traffic. An American soldier indicates what he wants me to do by throwing his rifle into his shoulder, leaning forward and pointing at me. I stop. He keeps pointing. I back up. There are hundreds of cars behind me. I can go no further. I hope he does not shoot. People in cars around me get out and put their hands up. Just in case. They take no chances with the American. He is a young man. Young men with guns are more dangerous than old men with guns. You don’t see many old men with guns. The Fords pass and we are allowed to creep forward. I do not look at the American in his armour and wrap around shades. He looks past me at all the other cars. I drive past Iraqi police cars and SUVs. Some of them have ZSU23-2s mounted on them. I was in the Army but Bremmer sacked me along with all my buddies and I have no money. But I recognise all this equipment. Some of it ex military no doubt. My goodness, Russian twin 23mm cannon, designed to shoot down aircraft. To control traffic? If they hit my car retreads will be the least of my worries. Lots of police with all sorts of machine guns and made up armoured cars. In Somalia the US military called them “technicals” – SUVs with a 50cal or something on the back. What are they pointed at? What are they protecting? I have no idea. I drive on and past a locked down Bradley. It looks dormant but who knows who is in there and what they are watching. I get past all that checkpoint stuff and drive through a roundabout with lots of traffic. That makes me nervous too. Things go bang here. I watch another collection of Chevy’s take no chances and block off the traffic so their central vehicles can race through. It is efficient. But the locals here are left to their own devices if something goes bang. I was in the Army but now I sell shirts on the edge of the round about. I cannot afford glass in the windows and have to rely on a steel grill to keep things secure at night. Shops on either side of me are the same.Open, and with only simple goods to sell. No one parks in front of my store. But few want to stop anyway. Or walk past. Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere else. Stopping can be fatal. The shirts are all carefully stacked in their plastic boxes. At the beginning of each day I wipe all the sand and dust off the plastic. With no glass in the window I do not bother running the airconditioner, although even if I did I have no idea how I could pay for it. I sweep the footpath clean and greet old Mahrus next door. He is an old man and respected around here. He stands in the doorway of his shop. But it is empty. So what else can he do? I don’t know his story except he lost family in Saddam’s time and like all families here now he has lost even more loved ones in the last three years. They say there is no family untouched by the recent madness. It is criminal, not religious. We are Sunni and Shia married in the same house for years. Lots of Iraqis live together like that. Old Mahrus comes down here every day and stands in his doorway and watches the world turn on the roundabout in front of him. I say hello and he smiles at me from under his grey beard and moustache and Kurdish style headgear. His name means “protected by God”. Maybe that is why he keeps smiling. I wish we could fix up the front of our shops. All the cement rendering has been blasted off and the bricks look shabby. One day perhaps. At least nothing has gone bang here for a while. Maybe this period of quiet will last. They are talking about dropping the curfew. That will help. Or will it? People die in the night. For no reason except they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my neighbour who was putting his rubbish out. Was shot in the head and his body dumped. No one ever found him – except a hospital kept a record of his body when it was found 13 days later. But they don’t know where he is buried. Put the rubbish out and die. For no reason. No reason. Die for a cause, yes?! But these deaths are for no reason, like our war with Iran. No reason. Family had no idea where he was. It is Ramadan. I drive home early and I am very careful near the checkpoint again. I move over to let an American tank go past. But if I stop they might think I have a bomb. I keep rolling slowly, hoping he will not crunch me into the concrete wall on the side of the road. I try not to look nervous. I know the soldier on this corner and he waves me though with a nod. The Americans drive past and look somewhere else. I carefully drive home and pull up to the house. I look up and down the street but everything seems normal so I get out and open the gate before driving in and locking myself in. No one bought any shirts today. Maybe tomorrow will be a little better. If I am alive that will be a good start.

(An invention based on an amalgam of things and people seen, and conversations with locals in the last week. I could fill 10,000 words like this – Baghdad is a seething story and everyone has a tale to tell.)

Baghdad Layers

September 17, 2007

I spent an hour on the roof this afternoon reading Duiker’s “Ho Chi Minh” until the sweat and dust got too much. But its good to get out of the room. The Apaches were tooling around again. They don’t do laps here for practise so I was tuned in to what else might be going on. As with the previous day their presence coincided with military ground units moving around (you hear turbines whining and roaring, tracks rumbling or wheels whirring on the asphalt and sandy coloured camouflage flashing through the palms) and with Blackhawks flying out of a nearby base. Perhaps all of them watching over a VIP moving between various US bases. But other things catch your eye up here as well. A plump dove sits on a neighbouring roof. Kids bikes lean against a wall around the corner. A white blimp sits high in the sky while yesterday even further up I surprised myself by finding a Predator flying lazy, silent circles. I happened to be watching a chopper then caught the massive drone in view immediately behind at 20,000 feet or so. You could stare at the sky all day and never see those. Which is the idea of course. As you take all that in and look across the perfectly serene and settled suburbs, hear the kids shouting as they play and fight you are struck by just how many layers there are to this place. Starting at the top – unseen but always heard – the fast jets boring holes in the sandy blue sky, a Predator team somewhere doing remote reconnaissance for something. Choppers and a blimp lower down, doing their thing. None of which are necessarily connected by their missions by the way. Lower again and across the roof tops aerials mark homes and unseen TVs and living rooms and squabbles over the remote control. Smoke lifts and curls in lazy grey off the gas burning flue at the refinery just over the river and everywhere Iraqi flags snap away in the hot wind. Under those flags public servants beaver away like public servants do or don’t anywhere around the world. Apartments and high rise buildings stretch away to the horizon, interspersed with TV towers, and domes of mosques. And a surprising amount of foliage. And under my feet kids play, puppies yelp, a lizard scampers and a dove nods off in the heat. Layers on layers, most not connected and the lowermost ones being those you pray become the settled norm here one day.

On the Lighter Side

September 16, 2007

Part of the preparation for visiting a place like this is to have a “Run Away Quick” bag. More colloquially known as the F^%* off Quick Bag in another organisation I once worked for. Or perhaps simply a “Grab Bag”. Its not a bad habit to have when you are travelling. Have all the survival essentials in one little bag along with your passport and tickets in case you have to make a run for it. Leave the suitcase and souvineers behind for the new ruling junta and keep the essential stuff.

I thought I would share some of the essentials to surviving in Iraq – which is actually a very civilised place in which to survive. For me at least. A snapshot of the workdesk reveals some critical items – and tells some of the story of my stay.

Green Numerals First.

1. Diary. What was I doing here again? Good to have a note here to remind yourself. Actually a boiled down version of the RAQB – every contact, meeting, appointment, timetable, itinerary all in one document. Sachet of cash as well. If worst comes to worse the diary, passport, tickets and wallet are all I need. Clothes probably help too.

2. Lamp. Made in China. Chinese instructions still pasted across it. Careful of the lead, one of the lads gave himself an electric shock on one. Room is dim and cool, to combat that 43 degrees out there. So a light becomes important.

3. Indonesian betatine – past its use by date but still stings like crazy. Useful if a limb is lost.

4. Pepsi. Sits side by side with that other cola drink in the fridge. Important part of the Dubai Tea Formula. See “8” below.

5. Movie. Black market version but keeps Hussein in his little store in food and water. I have not seen a reproduction as bad as this in twenty years – filmed in a theatre, so the audience contributed to this version as well. It’s taken me four sittings so far and I have not yet finished it – which indicates how bad it is. Good therapy though.

6. Dental Floss. My new South African friend hands out biltong which he has made himself. Its actually very good. But you need floss for three days after to dig the last of it out from your teeth. This is a multicultural environment in more than one way.

7. Would hate to leave it but would if I had to. But new RAQB designed to include this. I no longer travel with a separate laptop case.

8. My Saudi friends introduced me to this stuff as Dubai Tea. Regardless of brand, age, malt, it is all Dubai Tea. As in, “I think I will nick over the border this weekend for some Dubai Tea.”

9. Pocket New Testament. Food for the soul and balm for the heart.

10. Pear Soap. And something for the body!! Advantage – cake dries very quickly (almost instantly) after use and can be thrown into bag without leaving soapy slime everywhere. Sorry, nothing here about whether it is good for your skin or not. I still have a baby soft bum after 45 years anyway so don’t need any special soap.

1. Multivitamins –Executive Stress formula. Need that around here? Am convinced the stress stuff is good marketing baloney but the multivitamins are not a bad idea when you are on the road. Sometimes (most times) local menus need supplementing.

2. AA Batteries. Longest life ones you can find. Nothing worse than the lens retracting into the camera as a battery dies just as the shot of a life time pulls into view. Be careful of AA’s loose with coins in pocket – nearly started a fire once. They were Beijing back lane AA’s which lasted for 3 photos but had enough zap to start cooking me. I think they were radioactive. My theory and I am sticking to it.

3. Listerine. Helps with process at 6 above.

4. It is a civilised place after all, so mixing Green 8 with Green 4 in the can is not the done thing. Use the mug. Never wash it out of course, we are not THAT civilised.

5. There is a tray of 24 of these at my feet, all being fed into the fridge where they have a very short time to cool – I am going through 4-6 of these a day.

6. Passport with wallet (out of sight) – with exit visa stamped and signed. Part of the RAQB but out on the desk since I need it on a daily basis to get around this place.

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