Alive in Baghdad: Day 1 - 10.22.2005

I am on the plane. Holy crap. They are passing out candy. Its really strange. Most of the people on the plane have an aura of bored stoicism about them. I feel as though i could be the only passenger who has never done this before.

I’ve met one American on the plane, a cheerful woman with a kind of Molly Ringwald meets Molly Ivins attitude. Although she works for the “National Democratic Institute” in DC, she doesn’t appear particularly enamored with her organization’s chance for “success” in Iraq. You have to give her points for trying. I asked her briefly about the referendum and she told me, “We’re assisting the election monitors but, you know, it was never going to be a fair election, there has to be a lot of work for this.” We talked some more about the constitution as well as the election in January. Although they were both illegal under international law, she seems to think that, since they are happening, they should be “as fair as possible” which I agree with. Eventually we were ushered onto a bus and once on the plane we were separated.

Across the aisle from me there is a decently dressed gentleman who may be British, but I suspect he is probably also American. I take back what I said earlier, the man who is not quite British is definitely gawping about like a frisky kitten in a yarn shop.

I want to ask him, “First time to Baghdad?” in that cool, yet staid, attitude that everyone else on the plane has perfected. Then I’d provide him some cheer when I jokingly let him in on the secret that this is my first time as well. Which makes me realize this analogy is much better: he definitely appears like an awkward teen in a brothel, seeing naked woman and going beyond simple contemplation for the first time. I want to say these things, but I don’t-he looks British so chances are he’s a bore.

My pen’s shaking all over the page as we head off the runway, I hope this thing holds together better than “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or a Yugo with wings. I’ve already heard some stories from Fayez and Ra’fat.

What’s this? It appears the bore is reading an Arabic newspaper and not just the advertisements, but the actual Arabic language test. Oh, no, wait. Observing his hasty pace through the journal, it becomes clear he’s just looking at the pretty pictures.

Well. We are in the air. After all the horror stories i’ve read, and even heard firsthand in Amman, it is an underwhelming hour and a quarter later when I am jolted awake.

The fasten seatbelts sign has been illuminated and, looking out the window, I can see what is certainly Baghdad laid out below. The Tigris River meanders its easy way through the city. In the cusp of the river I locate what is clearly the “Green Zone.” A moment later I have my camera and am shooting what is sure to be equally underwhelming footage.

The plane lands and everyone is to their feet in an instant. Their stoicism suddenly replaced with an anxious pleasure that the plane landed safely without a single near-miss from an RPG or shoulder-fired missile. At this point I notice the only overwhelming thing on this trip so far: the need to vacate my fluids. It seems unlikely that the jostling mob will let me through to the back, so i settle on getting my things and trying to de-plane swiftly. I curse my luck a moment later to find that we will be de-planing via the rear, but by this time i am too weighed down and crowded in to make for the toilet.

Once into the airport I meet my first kalashnikov-toting guard, a south-asian looking man who watches my bags while I hurry to the restroom. Waiting in the queue a moment later to have my visa stamped, I catch my first glimpse of security forces. The guys, in their mid-20s to early 30s could be US soldiers coming back from leave, except that I can’t imagine they would travel on civilian airlines.

After waiting some time I make it through the visa queue and locate my bags. At this point the Customs officials pick one of my bags to open and when they see my lighting equipment and I explain I am a journalist, they ask about my paperwork for the camera. I tell them I have never heard about such “paperwork” and after a few moments they just let me pass. I guess this is what counts for security in the new Iraq. I meet Abu Abeer, the driver and we are quickly on our way, out of the airport and on into Baghdad…

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