Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I love the smell of cordite in the morning

I spent about two months in Baghdad at the beginning of last year. Things were not that bad yet (everything is relative in a war-zone) and it was a very interesting time for me. The following are bits and pieces of things that I saw and wrote down, in no particular order. Looking back a year and a half later, I am shocked by how things have degenerated, but then again, maybe not. Anyway, I guess this is another attempt to spice up this otherwise boring blog, anyway, here it goes:

  • Night falls over Baghdad. The outlines of the city blur where there is no electricity and sharply comes back where there is, the sounds of nearby gunfire and distant explosions, flashes of lights followed by loud cracks, the faint hum of the transport planes high above, the screeching of the jets cutting through the sky, and the loud chopping sounds of the apaches, so close overhead but still invisible against the dark night sky. All this mixed in with the inelegant drone of thousands of generators and the barking of Bahgdad’s rather large population of wild dogs (who are obviously better informed on impending explosions, but rather poor at navigating the roads).

  • The many carts that fill the roads, carrying fish, vegetables and produce, and scrap metal. Basically a 1 meter x 1 meter square with raised edges, 3 wheels and a large handle that comes up from the corners of the box to about chest hight. The bottom is covered with a plastic tarp which keeps the water in and the fish (somewhat) alive. They gasp and wriggle as they are ferryed around town, waiting to become dinner. I saw a group of GI’s call over a small lad selling fish while waiting for the driver one day. Such a foreign concept for them, all they could muster were jokes about the fish calling for bob and asking the boy would the fish give one of them a blowjob.

  • The piles of new washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioning units and other multitudes of white goods sitting outside store fronts and the rapid rate at which they were moving. I shared a seat on the plane next to one of the CPA people in charge of Power. I asked when we could expect power to stabalise and her answer was that they were already back to pre-war capacity, but had not anticipated that the open market would result in such an increase in demand for power (from all the new units being sold above).

  • The brand new signage on the streets, huge clean billboards advertising everything from consumer electronics to cigarettes, sitting atop old, beaten up buildings with massive holes in them.

  • The beautiful buildings on the old streets of baghdad, the churches, and statues. The mark left by the british is still evident in the architecture around baghdad. Sometimes driving past Abu Nuwas or Al Rasheed streets you catch glimpses of old balconies overlooking tight dusty streets criss-crossed with washing lines and you are transported back 100 years in an instant. I always look, expecting Freya Stark to walk out of one of those doors just at the moment I drive by.

  • The sight of a massive hoard of bedouins coming into the palestine hotel, all with brush-like beards ranging in colour from deep black to henna red to wiry white and all shades in between, all wearing their bishoot , casually tucked under their arms, over dark thobes and black and white keffiyah with sloping iqaals, all with the sand-beaten faces, their desert noses sniffing suspiciously at the smells of the city.

  • Weary Americans, serious Americans, condescending Americans, scared Americans, confused Americans, loud Americans, gesteculating Americans, always armed Americans, sometimes twitching Americans, aloof Americans, pleasant Americans, distant Americans...

  • Stories…so many stories of torture, theft, of abuse, of good and bad timing, mostly of money lost. You could not move 20 meters in Baghdad without hearing one. And they are so sad you can only survive them by forgetting as soon as you heard. Interestingly, they didn't really care if you listened. Just having an audience that nodded and mouthed platitudes was more than enough for their catharsis.

  • Napoli pizza shop and the Barcelona Kebab Shop. Next to our office in Karadat Mariam, there are quite a few places to eat. The one that grabbed my imagination immediately was the Napoli pizza shop which had a huge Italian flag hanging outside their store. The two guys that run it used to live in Kuwait and so we traded a few stories and made friends. They are very popular with the foreigners and the americans have given them an MCI (cell phone-very difficult to get) just to take orders for them. The Barcelona Kebab Shop is just down the road from Napoli Pizza, but I don’t know what it is called. All the guys working there wear Barca jerseys (fake ones they made themselves – now those are fans!). They play regular games each night in the park not far from the Green Zone and I went by one night to watch. The striker is actually very good. We talk football whenever I walk by or go in for a bite and they love it. Edgar Davids was the hot topic of the moment as well as the best role for Ronaldinho, Saviola and Quaresma (as wingers, playing just behind Kluivert, or instead of him) and so on. This was a year ago, of course, but how they must have celebrated when the blaugrana won the league a few months back...

  • Falling phones. Satallite phones are very tempermental things. You have to be outside, facing the right direction on a clear, cloudless day in order to actually get any reception, and even then, you might not. As we are working inside offices most of the time, they are almost entirely useless. At our offices, I have found a window that gets some reception as it faces the right direction, but have to open window in order to actually get or make a call. On a day when I was expecting a call, I had left the window open and the phone perched on the ledge. A few hours later, I thought to make a call since I had not yet received one. I found the window shut and the phone nowhere to be seen. Realising it had been windy that day, I immediately ran down to the street and looked underneath the window, but no phone. Not even the shards of plastic one would have expected from a broken cover. I asked people standing around, but no one had seen a thing. I was not about search people so I assumed the worst and turned to go back up when someone walked up to me from across the street and asked if I had lost something. I said yes, my Thuraya had falled from the window and seems to have disappeared. He put his hand in his pocket and withdrew my phone, “Is this the one?” I could not believe my luck. He had seen the phone, picked it up and waited for someone to some looking for it. I thanked him profusely and took out a bill from my pocket which was a $50 note (about 2-3 months salary). He looked at me as if I had insulted him and absolutely refused to accept it. After a long exchange of pleasantries and much insistance, he finally agreed to have lunch with me and make a donation of $ 50 on my behalf at the mosque of his choice.

Well, I think that is enough for one post...tune in next time when we cover

  • Driving in Baghdad - Wooo-hoo! Get suited, booted an’ ride ‘em, cowboy!
  • Food - You haven’t been to Baghdad until you’ve had masgoof

8 comments:

Bahraini Rants said...

Incredible stories. Tell us more.

Baghdad, I can't wait for the day that I'll be able to visit and enjoy all it has to offer... Drinking Araq in some cafe on Abu Nawas, enjoying Kebab and discussing the Brilliance of Frank's new dream team, marvelling at the architecture and saying HAYCHEE...

I've been mulling a new t-shirt...

give my love to Fustuq

Seroo said...

Hear Hear!

Always incredible stories, can't wait to hear more...

The old buildings in Baghdad... I can see the sun streaming through broken windows of old churches and men sitting on dusty benches on the streets drinking their tea... You exceed everyone's expectations with your writing of what the city really is...

Thank you for taking us to a world we cannot go to, waiting for the next installment...

peace

Anonymous said...

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with a simple push of a button.....

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