Baghdad, Impressions After a Long Absence
Baghdad, and most other places, experienced its second severe sandstorm today in as many weeks. The dust finds its way into every nook and cranny, the bane of housewives throughout the land. Once the municipality decides to turn the water on, multitudes are prompted to wipe, wash and spray. But only a downpour can really wash out the layer of beige that coats every wall, every pavement, and every leaf. At least face masks are readily available, sold at traffic chokepoints at about 20 cents a piece; a sizable proportion of the population, of every class, dons them on.
The pleasant surprise is that the solar panels that feed street lights with power still work through the coating of dust. Yes, you got that right: we’re environmentally sound in the department of finding alternative power. Al Gore, how about a shout-out?
Even traffic lights, newly in place, are powered by the sun. Yet it still takes a burly and scowling traffic officer to keep the unruly drivers in check. “Put it in reverse and get behind the crosswalk” they warn, and people comply. It’s not the gun that intimidates, but the ticket book. Failure by the driver to buckle up could cost up to 25 dollars, doubling if unpaid within a month. The ticket is posted online within 24 hours. That’s one of the ironies of the new Iraq: park illegally and you’ll get digitally fined, yet a national ID card is still registered on voluminous ledgers by pen. (link to a piece I wrote about Iraq's bureaucracy...)
The Iraqi police and army are everywhere. Security vehicles—Chevy trucks, Korean 4x4s, Humvies—are as ubiquitous as taxis. Many checkpoints are equipped with handheld explosives detection devices that are even sensitive to perfume and deodorant. A common and funny sight to behold is that of soldiers holding purses away from cars to see if the device would still beep. However, a pretty girl riding would also warrant a longer than usual search, perchance for a young buck to strike up a conversation and discreetly pass off a mobile number. To all intents and purposes, the Americans have been out of Baghdad for some time; it is rare to find an American patrol out and about.
The hassle and wait at a checkpoint run smoothly, which is remarkable considering that a car lacking air-conditioning and prone to chock on fumes at every brake can turn an otherwise nice and decent chap like yours truly into a poster child for road rage. The vast majority of vehicles are as broken down as my own, yet the vast majority of people are civil, although sullen. It is all taken in stride, patience being a commodity not lacking in a country that requires tons of it.
Security is fine. Things are safe until they aren’t, which is rare nowadays. The recent spate of bombings feel a lot like late 2003 and early 2004: if you can hear it then you’re still alive, and if you’re still alive then nothing else matters. The violence provokes no more than a shrug for those lucky enough not to be directly touched by it.
Moving around is another matter. The fear is still fresh in most people minds, and it isn’t surprising to hear of people who are making forays from east to west Baghdad, or in reverse, for the first time in years. Going to places like the Jam’ia neighborhood, until recently a ghost town terrorized by Al-Qaeda, manages to draw looks of bewilderment coupled with sincere, unsolicited advice against doing so again. But Rabi’ Street, the main thoroughfare there, has come back to life, and it is remarkable that not a few Shiites never left. I have an elderly relative there from my dad’s side there who is protected, catered for, and driven around by the four young sons of her Sunni neighbor, a family itself displaced from a Shiite neighborhood. For good measure, the relative still displays the name of her late spouse, unmistakably Sunni. It seems to me that a lot of these social links never broke, and counter intuitively got strengthened despite the sectarian battle lines.
Every house in Jami’a bears a mark in bright red spray point. An ‘X’ means that the house has been forcibly taken over. A check sign (…like the Nike logo) with a line through it means that the family now there is legally renting the home. A check sign alone indicates that the owner still lives in the house. In the balance of power, it is clear that the government’s security forces are in control of the main roads and neighborhood entry points. Deeper into the residential areas, one finds Sons of Iraq checkpoints, with armed men who seem bored out of their minds.
Roaming the residential side streets is restricted by immovable road blocks. While some main roads, closed since 2003, are being re-opened around Baghdad, greatly easing traffic, it seems that the concrete barriers will be in place for a long time. It is very disorienting for someone who had been away to find one’s way around this new reality, but like everything else, one’s gets used to it. However, in some places, there is significant popular resentment against the seeming permanence of these barriers since they effectively choke off mercantile activity. The road blocks and the security gates in Kadhimiya are probably the best managed of their kind in the whole country, but it also means that while the suburb had become Baghdad’s primary hub for all sorts of economic activity since the 1970s, now the markets are empty and customers go elsewhere to get their goods.
To say that people have moved beyond sectarianism is inaccurate. One can have a spouse, a business partner, a relative, a friend or a neighbor from the opposite sect, but when it comes to perceived political power as a guarantor for present and future wellbeing, everyone reverts to their sectarian identity. This had been the case for a longtime before and after liberation, and it will continue to be the basic instinctual motivator in how Iraqis arrange their political loyalties. What’s important is that no one thinks that violence can change the balance now in place, and only the last vestiges of the ancien regime and cooks like the jihadists would wield it in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to turn back the clock.
Iraqis, it seems, have issues in mind far beyond sectarianism and security. Which is why the departure of US troops in a couple of days isn’t a major conversation starter. The heat, the dust, getting things done, petty corruption, and so forth is the stuff that gets their attention.
Among regular people, any social face-to-face interaction that lasts more than 30 seconds must bring up the issue of electricity. Nothing riles up Iraqis, understandably so, than the recurrent cuts in power. Almost everyone runs lines from privately-managed generators to get a few amperes here and there, not enough, except for the super-affluent, to run power-hungry equipment like air-conditioners. When the ‘national’, that is government supplied, electricity comes, there’s a moment of euphoria that never gets old as the legions of the sweat-drenched amble around their homes switching on the ac.
Every phone conversation invariably brings up the word ‘shabaka’, or network. Cell phones are notoriously unreliable. Conversations are held in 10 second increments before voices get scrambled and calls are dropped. That is, if the call gets through in the first place.
Petty corruption seems to have abated to a large extent. There’s a palpable fear, reinforced by anecdote, among state employees that getting a bribe for a signature or a stamp may land one in prison, and to a large extent one would be hard pressed to see the kind of unabashed sleaze so common and in full view just six months ago.
High caliber corruption, the kind that involves millions of dollars, is still in vogue though.
For all their daily woes, Iraqis are lucky enough to be able to vent, and vent they do, vocally and colorfully. The state’s television station is still lacking in sophisticated graphics and able presenters, but two shows caught my attention and truly impressed me. The first one is called ‘A Copy for Archiving’ and the premise is that the host goes around the country and gathers a town-hall audience and faces them off against a representative of the legislature, whether local or national, and a representative of the executive branch. In a rapid-fire exchange, citizens cite specific issues or neglected projects and reforms, and the officials must reply, with brevity, whether it is doable or not. At the end, a representative is elected from the audience who signs a ‘document of honor’ with the officials, witnessed by the TV host, that will be retrieved in six months time to see if the officials had managed to deliver on the issues and projects they said were doable.
The other show is called ‘You Are the Minister’. The host takes a minister along for a walkabout, and hands over the microphone to a citizen who is asked, ‘If you were the minister, what would you do?’ It makes for great television, with some smart and feasible ideas put on the air. The minister is then forced to explain why these ideas haven’t been put into effect yet.
Generally, people are very hopeful. Sure they curse Maliki every time the electricity goes out, and lament the fact that Iraq doesn’t have Istanbul’s weather, but there’s a sense that things have stabilized and will improve, quickly. There’s a lot of money in the country, a direct result of pumping oil profits into salaries. New cars are everywhere despite the needed ‘look’ of frugality that people affect to ward off the attention of organized crime rings and kidnappers for ransom. The nightlife, as has been reported, is back and with force, mostly of the lewd variety. Social clubs like the Hunting Club and Alwiyah provide islands of normality whether upper middle class teenage girls and boys can dress up like their age and class peers anywhere in Amman or Beirut. Leftie intellectuals and artists have found a spiffy oasis at the Dar Al-Mada on Muttanabi Street. Even on weekdays, the main street of Karadeh stays vibrant until 11 PM; compare that to DC that shuts down at 10 PM. Thursdays and Fridays brings the whole city out to the streets, and I even saw families picnicking on rotaries in some of the scariest areas of Old Baghdad, no go areas even in Saddam’s time.
Baghdad is coming back to life, that’s the sum of it.
Well, that’s enough for now. The electricity is out, and you lot should be thankful for technological marvels such as backlit keyboards and internet connections that keep going despite the power cuts, making it possible for me to write something, anything at all. It’s too hot for any more writing tonight, but I’ll put up some more posts over the next few days.
Here's something else I wrote about Baghdad's main library to lay you over.