September 10, 2003

Running Into Abbas

The sky was overcast, but it wasn't raining yet, when I ran into Abbas Kadhim on Euclid. I found him standing before a row of newspaper boxes, bent forward scanning front pages, while a frenzy of students and professors went back and forth to lunch. Between the moving people, I sidled up to him and said hello. He looked up and gave me a huge smile and hugged me like a brother. He pushed back away from me, his forearms against his waist, and looked at my face as if he didn't believe I'd made it back from Iraq, his home.

Seeing him, I felt something I hadn't felt for two weeks, a living connection to the people and place--the stories--I left behind.

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August 28, 2003

Baghdad's Shame: Story Published


As of last night published our story about how children are dying because of major problems with the distribution of medicines.

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August 25, 2003


Sitting here at a 24-hour Internet cafe in the relative calm of the Shmeisani district listening to Tracy Chapman ("Talkin' bout a Revolution"), it feels like we are now in a distinctly different time, as though the swirling, rushing madness of Baghdad existed hundreds of years ago and now the city of Baghdad, like Ur, Babylon, Nimrud and other great cities before it, has been reclaimed by the silent desert sands.
But the sounds of that city still echo in my head -- nontangible but compelling proof that we were indeed there. The mad honking in the street, the gunfire, the deep, friendly revving sound of generator engines rumbling to life, the faint chant of the muezzin drifting on the wind five times a day. The voices are there too. I can almost hear the chatter, the animated discussions that often sound like shouting, the alveloar snap of the tongue, kind of a Tsk sound, when we've said something stupid or wrong.

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August 24, 2003

Goodbye to Zeke and the Guns


In room 201 above us Zeke and Eli were smoking hash. Our last night in Baghdad, I went up to take Zeke [see The Devil's Palace part I] the empty coke bottles he wanted for The Barn, the small café he was building within Camp Victory which made him smile thinking, calculating about a dollar a day for each of the 7000 troops living within the compound. The Pakistani, Sangi, and the Kurd, his name I never knew, were sitting with them. But they hadn't smoked. They are Muslims. Eli mixed tobacco and hash in the ashtray in front him, and pulled the filter off the emptied cigarette and rolled everything in the "strongest and thinnest rolling papers in the world" or so he said. Zeke ate from a plastic tray of pumpkin seeds and peanuts. He offered. The Kurd with green eyes the color of Caribbean coral reefs and not the azure blue of the Dead Sea, and Sangi stood up and went to the couch behind us, pushing aside a 9mm and sitting in its place. The guns at night were usually all over the apartment. They brought out the Uzi, the 9mm, the 357 Magnum, the MP5 machine gun, some of them loaded, some of them old without a safety. They played with them like toys and pretended to be spies, CIA. They cradled their guns and imagined espionage.

Zeke was talking about perspective, though I wasn't sure how he got onto the topic, talking about how everything is relative, how a broad landscape fills the eyes the same way a woman's body lying next to you in a bed can fill the eyes and be just like a landscape, saying the whole world, depending who's perceiving it, could be beneath his fingernail--that philosophy.

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August 23, 2003

Last Night in Baghdad

A policeman leaning out of his car was shooting. We didn't see him at first, so we didn't know it yet. We were out late last night making arrangements for our trip to Amman. After more than three weeks in Baghdad we were leaving.

Abu Abdullah, Brandon and I coasted through the dark as if the constant Baghdad knife-to-the-throat danger were not in the air of the Al Mansur. Our windows were down. Warm air flowed through the car and it felt as good as an Al Hamra Hotel nightswim. Pop! The three of us slid down into the seats, bullets in the air and our fear from the ignorance about where they were headed. The same sudden hyperawareness I had on that day near the railroad tracks in the Kadizmiya with the soldiers chasing after gunfire [see Riding With the 1-13]. I saw the police cars first, their red and blue lights swirling in the night black. Most of the street lights were out in Al Mansur, but there was a fluorescent blue light on top of a building illuminating a parking lot and some of the street. One of the chasing police cars drove through the light and I saw the policeman leaning out of the passenger window firing his gun. Pop! His arm stretched out in front of him, the gun bucking in his hand and him trying to steady it as he fired.

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At the U.N. II

There are about 15 camera tripods set up in a long row at the edge of the drive the journalists have taken over, maybe 100 meters or so from the Canal itself. The front of the blue and white four story building had collapsed. IN the driveway, there were maybe 100 or so of us rushing like eddies in a swirling river, quickly amassing around anyone who might have some information and then rushing off again. I don't know what the collective noun for journalists is but in this instance it should be a multi-eyed beast, perhaps a"shoggoth," to borrow a term from H.P. Lovecraft, who was describing a shapeless horror "much vaster than any subway train with a myriad of temporary eyes forming and unforming." That would work. And what's more this "shoggoth" was hungry.

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August 22, 2003

At the Al Coquette


For two days political party leaders and members attended Democracy workshops led by the National Democracy Institute in the banquet hall of the Al Coquette. Twenty-five new and old political parties were represented including the Brotherhood and Peace Party, The Yazidi Party (the Yazidi clan have been oppressed and killed by all ethnic groups in Iraq), the New Democracy Party, members of the old Communist party, a Shia Party leader, and two parties dedicated to pushing women's rights.

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August 21, 2003

At the U.N.

I have Abu Abdullah drop me off at the Conference Center where the CPA and Governing Council holds many of its meetings. The new rules are that you must be an hour and a half early to press conferences given by General Sanchez or Ambassador Bremer. Our acquiantance, Hassan Fattah Pasha, a guy raised in Berkeley who started an English weekly paper in post-war Baghdad, was late to one of these meetings and was then arrested -- face on the ground, plastic ties around the wrists behind his back, the whole works -- when he protested. For once, I am on time, but gnash my teeth when I see on the big white board upstairs announcing that all meetings have been cancelled today. Apparently, Sen. John McCain is in town today so Bremer bowed out in deference to the good senator, just in case he wanted to hold a press conference himself. Only problem is that McCain never showed either.

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August 20, 2003

The Road to Duwiniya and Musings on the Condition of Animals


There was a donkey carrying a bundle of dry twigs and reeds on a dirt path that ran parallel to the road to Duwiniya. "That is a spoiled donkey," Salaam said. "This is no good. A donkey should not be spoiled. He will ruin the other donkeys." We drove through Al Kassam, a small town with a big mosque--one of the holier mosques in Iraq where one of the prophet Mohamed's grandsons is buried. We drove through a busy marketplace that made good use of the beasts of burden. Donkeys pulled flat carts stacked with bricks, scrap iron, beat-up gas tanks, chopped palm wood, long blocks of melting ice, and mountains of grapes. Some were stooped over in the sun eating hay, others listlessly blinked their eyes resigned to their donkeyfate, waiting for their owners to mount the carts and beat them into traffic again.

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August 19, 2003

Technical difficulties

Our Internet modem is kaput. So we're stuck using Internet cafes in the middle of the day. Cannot write long now -- will do a proper entry soon -- but there's too much to do with too little time in the day. Adam is on the road to Duhwaniya today, riding with Salam Feleyeh, one of the former exiles who we met in the States. Salam is doing a needs assessment for the schools and is going to Duhwaniya to collect surveys on underage kids who have left school. I am working on an electricity story around Baghdad, and, as long as I'm here, perhaps a story about the booming Internet cafe business in Al Mansoor. Also will be attending a press conference with Bremer later. THere are one or two things I'd like to ask him...

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August 18, 2003

The Man on the Tank

Something hit the back of the car, and we ducked forward and down. Maybe we drove over a land mine and the car hadn't yet come apart. We could be dead soon. Abu Abdullah slammed on the breaks and then something hit again, the sound ear-splitting. We ducked again. I looked back, but couldn't make out anything at first, the light blocked by some form I couldn't identify. We rolled forward a foot or two, then I could see there was a line of tanks and humvees, each one crowned with a man behind a gun. They must be shooting. "Oh my god, they're shooting," Abu Abdullah said, waving his hands wildly above the wheel. They must be trying to kill us. Then I saw the man atop the tank.

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August 14, 2003

The Devil's Palace, part II

We head down Saddam's private highway, built especially as an escape route to the airport from the Republican Palace. We hit another Coalition checkpoint, this one in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected after the Iran-Iraq War (here, of course, they say "Iraq-Iran War").
"No civilian cars allowed on this road unless they have a military escort," the young MP tells Zeke. "Sorry, sir. No exceptions." As if on cue, the MP then waves a Chevy pickup driven by non-military types on.
Even though Zeke has driven down Saddam's highway every day for the last 10 weeks, he keeps his cool. The MP offers to get his seargant, who is lounging in the tent at the side of the road. "No, no man. I don't want to get you in trouble," Zeke says to the MP," You stay here, I'll go talk to him." Zeke walks over to the tent and a few minutes emerges with the sarge. Both are smiling. "He's OK," says the sarge.

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August 13, 2003

The devil's palace, part I

It's early morning. A soft grainy light hits the buidling tops but it's still cool and breezy on the street below. We're in line to enter the grounds of the Republican Palace, the nerve center of the Coalition Provisional Authority. There are five of us crammed into a small orange Honda taxi suffering from a cracked windsheild and a bad tank of gasoline. Meanwhile, Adam and I are trying our best to look like engineers. That's the ruse our buddy Zeke (see previous entry "Three days of images") has cooked up for us to fool the MPs at the gate. But beyond sitting up straight, adjusting our glasses, and trying to act serious we have no idea what engineers, who are new to the palace and have no ID badges, are supposed to look like. I have put lots of pens in my shirt pocket for good measure, but I suddenly realize I haven't shaved for days. As we roll towards the cement blockade, the barbed wire, the grim-faced GIs in full gear in front of the white sign with red lettering saying: "No unauthorized personnel," we think maybe this wasn't such a brilliant idea.

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August 12, 2003

Birthday in Baghdad and Bremmer's Hand


After four days roaming hospital wards--some of the worst suffering I've ever seen--I have a kind of hangover. My stomach was sour this morning for the first time since Amman. Didn't fall asleep last night until four a.m. Then I was swimming in a summer-warm Gulf of Mexico scooping sand dollars from the ocean floor. I brought them to the surface for light, to let them breathe. After a second I let them go and swam back down into the blue with the sand dollars floating around me. The most peaceful dream I've had since I arrived two weeks ago.

I woke without covers, because four days ago one of the housekeepers stole my top-sheet, which had been the flat sheet I'd ripped from the other bed in the room (apparently there's a One Bed, One Sheet policy), and I never use the thin blanket which scratches like a big Saltine. It was my birthday. The heat was already overpowering the air conditioner. I sweat. I was in Baghdad. I was a bit depressed about the fact. But I got over it when I stumbled out of bed and into the living room and Brandon behind the computer sang me a little birthday diddy kind of funny.

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August 11, 2003

Of mobs and men


We did many things today, but two things stand out especially. 1) We went to yet another hospital and this time we were mobbed by angry Iraqis who thought as Americans we might be able to talk some sense into L. Paul Bremer and 2) met the inventor of the inflatable penile implant (who also happens to be the newly appointed Iraqi Minister of Health). He's clever, this inventor/doctor person. Adam says he defused my line of questioning with his teeth, which he'd show us in a wide Cheshire grin at the end of every answer. This may be true.

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August 09, 2003

A drive in the country

We are headed to the hospital near Old Deahlah Bridge, some 50 Kms south of Baghdad. Once we are across the New Deahlah Bridge, which has been blown out of existence and rebuilt as a clattering metal one laner, we hit the open countryside on the Saddam Highway. It's like jumping into a time machine -- going backwards fast. Men in dishdashas, boys, sheep all jostle for small slices of shade provided by the few deciduous trees that dot the landscape. The buildings we pass shrink in size until they are simple mud brick dwellings that are the color of sand. The ones that have no windows or doors look as though they could have been built by the Sumerians 20,000 years ago save for the palimpsets of shop signs faded by the wind and time. Then we see a severly damaged armored humvee hanging precariously off the bend of an offramp and are snapped back suddenly into the present.

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Her Baby is Very Sick


A woman at a children's hospital in Baghdad
says the life of her ill son is in God's Hands.

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August 08, 2003

Jordanian Embassy the Day After


The death toll from the car-bombing rose from 11 to 17 today.
All those killed in the attack on the Jordanian Embassy were Iraqi.
The explosion yesterday blew a vehicle straight into the air
and onto the roof of an adjacent house.

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Three Days of Images

A man who works downstairs tells me he rushed two Iraqis to the hospital yesterday after the humvee exploded in front of our apartment. He witnessed the whole scene--he tells me about it today over a breakfast of sweet tea and bread. He has images in his mind. He tells me he saw two American soldiers who had their legs severed from the blast. This image stays with him. Other people in Baghdad had their images too. Yesterday produced lots of images, real and imagined. An AP photographer I spoke to said a soldier had his knee cap blown off in the same incident. A San Francisco journalist still had the image of the severed head of a little girl from the Jordanian Embassy car-bomb a few hours before, as he drank his tonic water and laughed uncomfortably in the Al Hamra Hotel cafe later that night.

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August 07, 2003

Bad day


Helicopters are flying close tonight. I can hear the whump whump of the propellers concuss on the windows as they pass by. They are buzzing our building every five minutes; probably because some hours ago, in broad daylight, resistance fighters blew up a humvee right outside the Rabiya, our hotel. Thankfully we were attending a press conference at the Iraqi Forum and listening to General Sanchez, commander of forces here in Iraq, talk about the attack on the Jordanian Embassy earlier, which killed 12 people and injured scores. Coming back from the conference, we find several blocks of Karada Kharij closed off, guarded by tanks and armored cars while choppers circle overhead. Clouds of smoke are coming from somewhere up the street, but we aren't sure exactly from where. What the hell is going on? Is it our building that's on fire? We wonder. I have that sinking feeling in my stomach -- more like plummeting, really -- and for once it's not the food we've eaten: We have read tons about the attacks on U.S. troops of course and we drive by the places they have occurred daily. But now they have fallen on our doorstep.

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