The Breakfast Table

What Is the Point of My Being in Baghdad?


I hate the feeling of being trapped inside concentric ringed walls of security, barriers, security guards, blast walls, and razor wire. And half the hotel windows still got blown out last week by a car bomb that blew up outside the building where the Australians have their base a block away across Karrada. I hate never being able to get out of the car, being wrapped in black anonymous folds of the abaya, of watching my driver check the mirror nervously to make sure we are not being followed. The fear comes in waves, but it seems it is possible to get used to anything; what is more difficult is the circumscribing of the reporting. The frustration. I cannot talk to ordinary people, I cannot walk down the street, I cannot do anything but go to an interview in one of the neighborhoods that is still safe (that’s about 25 percent of Baghdad at this point—do you know there are mujahideen checkpoints on Haifa Street, less than half a kilometer away from the main entrance to the Green Zone?) with someone I know or have a clean, good connection to. It is a shut-in, shut-off existence. Half the time I stand out on my balcony and watch the kids in the yard below bang potato chip packets and let off firecrackers—bang bang, in reasonable imitation of the other bangs that crack the quiet morning—and think: What the hell is the point of me being here at all?

Something is better than nothing—maybe. At any rate, it is clear that Baghdad is too dangerous, too fragmented, violent, and frightening to understand anything now except the fact that it is a city suffering a siege of fear and that my own experience of it is probably not that dissimilar to that of many of its inhabitants. A friend of mine, Anas, was a garrulous, smart, streetwise man six months ago, now he is depressed, anxious, and unsmiling. He has two small boys, and there have been kidnappings all through his upscale neighborhood. There is a kidnapping epidemic. A friend of Anas’ got held up in Karrada recently by four gunmen who wanted his BMW. He resisted and they shot him; his leg has been amputated. It was a crowded street, but what can anyone do with four gunmen? It’s a weird thing, but when you see a police car, which is often in the OK neighborhoods and never in the ones under de facto muj control, you are half-relieved, because it might deter the bandits, and half-scared in case it attracts a rocket attack. Certainly, when an American Humvee patrols roll down the street, you don’t want to be anywhere near them. They have signs now: “Keep back a hundred meters. Deadly force authorized.” You’ll be shot as a potential car bomber, in other words.

Baghdad’s a tide of rubble and smashed-up shoulders, trees ripped down to provide better fields of fire and view, its crumbled buildings pocked by bombs, crumpled concrete, and endless miserable stretches of razor wire caught with the shreds of floating plastic garbage bags. This is a war, or as one security company grades it, “a low intensity conflict.” And in the middle of this, they’re having an election. And we’ve just heard that they are not going to allow civilian traffic on Election Day at all. I don’t think I am going to walk to a polling station to find out if the polling station is going to get blown up or not. I don’t think I want to be the only car on the street either, signaling Press or worse: American With a Security Pass! As one colleague put it to me, “Terrific, another day hiding our heads under the table.”