Duraid Isa Muhammad was an Iraqi CNN producer: fast talking, a ball of energy that couldn’t sit still. He was young, full of grins, jokes, and American accented dude-speak. He had a wife and two small sons. I met him only once, when my translator, Othello (he has a brother called Caesar; his father is a Shakespeare fan), took me to meet him and ask for his help in finding some contacts.
We chatted for an hour or so, sitting in his room at the Palestine Hotel, with its view of the Americans in the Green Zone (formerly the Republican Palace) across the river and a rocket hole in the corridor from the war. It was late afternoon. He offered us tea, coffee, Coke, 7 Up, and vodka. He poured himself a Smirnoff alco-pop and passed around a tray of chocolates. We were chatting. He told me about working for CNN during the war. When the bombing began, the Mukhabarat approached him and asked him to come into their office the next day to answer some routine questions.
“I was like, you gotta be kidding, man,” said Duraid. “I’m gonna go down there voluntarily?” He was laughing at the ridiculous idea that he would turn himself in a few days before the whole regime would be gone. He fled down south, got lost for a bit, and came back up with the Americans. He never looked back without saying, “Those assholes!” and shaking his head.
We agreed and laughed together, batting conversation back and forth. Yeah, Baghdad was fucked these days, it was true. Oh, man, the traffic, jeez.
I told him about seeing a traffic conflagration on Sadoun Street, a flashpoint fender bender. One man got out of his car, shouting. He waved a silver pistol in the air and fired a couple of bullets, just out of frustration.
“And no one paid any attention,” I continued. “Not even me! Sadoun Street, packed with cars, jammed up against the queue for gas a hundred cars long and guarded by a couple of Bradleys.”
As if on cue, an explosion sounded, as they often do, and we went out onto the balcony to see if we could see the smoke. The light was golden and glinted off the Tigris. The city looked lovely from 10 floors up: dark green palm trees starring against the blue sky, long shadows on the sand-colored houses. There was some black smoke—it looked like it was near Assassin’s Gate (where a suicide car bomb did go off a few days later, killing at least 25 Iraqi workers lined up to go through security on their way into work in the Green Zone). It could have been a tire burning, we weren’t sure. Nothing interesting was coming over the radio; we went back inside.
Duraid was killed a few days later on Highway 8, south of Baghdad. He was in the second car of a two-car CNN convoy. The armed guards were sitting in the front car with the correspondent; Duraid was in the second car with a driver. A sedan drew up beside them, and a gunman opened fire standing up out of the sunroof. The driver also died.
“Six bullets in his body. He was wearing a vest, but four of them went in his head,” said Othello. “The whole back of his head was missing.” Duraid had no brothers, and so Othello and another friend from college, Fawas, a doctor lately returned from Amman, washed and anointed the body to prepare it for burial.
Othello, Fawas, and Duraid were part of the educated class of Baghdad, the sons of educated families of doctors, academics, and diplomats. The Alwiyah Club is a sort of country club in the center of Baghdad, with sun rooms and restaurants and a large garden with several swimming pools, where the rich and well-heeled were used to gathering of an evening.
On the third day of Eid—a festival of lamb-slaughter, charity, and visiting relatives, the culmination of the annual events in Mecca—it was full of hundreds of Baghdad’s young people. We got a table and ordered tea and Pepsi, although it would have been possible to order a beer.
“This is the place where Iraqi guys come to check out Iraqi girls, and Iraqi girls check out Iraqi guys,” Fawas said. Walking around and around, along a great sweep of walkway, the throng perambulated for show. Groups of girls, groups of boys. From time to time, I even spied girls and boys together.
It’s like a Jane Austen garden party, I told them, as we looked around and marveled at the extraordinary sight of uncovered women.
“We used to call it going on hajj, like it was a pilgrimage” laughed Fawas, looking about himself at the show, the chicks, the good time. “Because we always walked in circles!”
The girls were dressed to the nines, blonde and strawberry streaks in their hair, plumped lips outlined in cherry. Turquoise eye shadow, leather knee-length skirts with fringe, shimmery snakeskin, leopard print tops, tottery-high stiletto ankle boots, a lot of ruched, distressed, sequined, and adorned denim. One fantastic denim suit was covered with red velour zebra stripes.
It looks like normal having-fun life, I said, amazed. I’ve forgotten that you hardly see women on the streets these days.
Fawas was looking about him and greeting the odd cousin. “People are hungry to go out. It’s been such a long time.”
We caught sight of one woman, a wide-girthed matriarch covered in floaty black chiffon hijab, lacey down to her toes. She was wearing huge stacked heels, two solid gold ankle cuffs like manacles, wide gold bracelets on her flashing wrists, a vast gold ring over a black velvet glove. There were more gold rings on her other, ungloved hand, and around her neck a heavy gold rope and a massive gold dagger—Ali’s dagger, the sign of the Shiites—which bumped over her bosom. A man who looked like a bodyguard with a pair of wraparound shades stood a little way off.
Othello and Fawas talked about Duraid. When they remembered him, they smiled and laughed. “He was like that. He was so funny,” said Fawas. “Sometimes now I just remember something he said, and it makes me smile. He had a terrible sense of humor.”
“But he’d never kiss your ass, it was straight to your face.”
“If you think about it,” said Fawas, looking about him, “he never really belonged to this society; he rebelled against it.”
And then they remembered that he was dead, and their sorrow spread into melancholy and the wide flow of existential frustration. Othello, working for me while waiting for the foreign ministry to take on young diplomats again, was shaken and morose. “Our lives are worth nothing,” he had cried, banging his hands on the steering wheel, as he dropped me home one day during the funerals. “What we are doing is worthless, it doesn’t mean anything. And any time a bomb can blow up and kill you, anything can happen on the roads.”
Now, with a Pepsi in his hand and this display, which made Fawas and I laugh, all around him, he still couldn’t shake his despair.
“Yeah, hopeless,” was mostly all he said.
A helicopter came over flying low, the noise of the rotor looming loudly.
Othello looked up at it, disgusted. “Thanks so much,” he said sarcastically, “for reminding us that we are still occupied!”
“Do you remember Sept. 11?” Fawas asked me.
I was in London. How were things here?
“I was shocked. Then I thought, we are dead meat now. We are next. I was pro-American. I wanted them to come. I was prepared to try to escape under Saddam. You know, doctors couldn’t have passports. It meant six months in jail if they caught you. But now, no.”
Fawas is going back to Amman soon to apply for a visa to continue his medical studies in Britain. He wants to specialize in psychiatry or plastic surgery or gynecology.
“I don’t see any future in this country,” said Othello, looking down at the table.
Don’t you want to stay, be part of your country, rebuild? I asked them.
Othello was almost angry: “Stay? For how long? That’s what my parents have been saying for years! That it will get better! And we’re still waiting!”
We talked a little more, about the reconstruction of Germany and Japan and Korea, and the Americans painting schools in Baghdad. Then someone mentioned the Shiite-Sunni civil war thing, and we stopped ourselves from going further into that.
“Look at these people,” said Othello, as we were leaving. “They’re trying, but it’s not really happening. Everyone is dressing up, but inside everyone has their worries.”
Duraid was a DJ on the Odai’s Voice of Youth radio station for a while. After he died, Othello went through his things and found a tape Duraid had made for him.
Driving back, Othello and I switched off 107.7 FM Armed Forces Radio Freedom—an incongruous American sing-song radio voice announcing, “Highs today in Mosul will be 54, Tikrit cold at night, possible showers”—and Othello fast-forwarded until he found the song he was looking for: “Missing You,” by Puff Daddy * (the one with the sample from “Every Breath You Take” by The Police).
“The words are exactly about Duraid,” he said. “The first time I listened to it, I had tears running down my face.” So we listened.
It’s kind of hard when you’re not around
I know you are in heaven smiling down
Watching us as we pray for you
Every day we pray for you
Til the day we meet again
My heart is where I’ll keep you my friend.