Traveling always brings to light new experiences and new understanding. Having been in Baghdad for just over one week, it doesn’t appear to be a war zone. Before I came to Iraq I would tell people that the war never ended, that it is still going on in Iraq. But sitting at a computer in a flat, listening to music and typing an article, it’s hard to feel like it’s a war zone.
Despite the current moment’s respite however, I know I’ll hear the helicopters overhead again soon, I know the power will be cut within a few hours, I know when we take a taxi later today to our next interview we’ll see the dozens of cars in line waiting for just a few liters of gas. Maybe, if we’re really, really lucky, we’ll even get to see American tanks or Humvees on the street.
Inahaa Harb. This is the war. After a week in Baghdad I’ve learned there is a different face to war. “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” are two American films about World War II, which lead me to believe that the face of war is the sound of machinegun-fire and explosions, dead bodies in the streets and death around every moment. Perhaps Hathee Fallujah, Hathee Ramadi, Hathee Qaim. In Baghdad the war has a different face.
In Baghdad the war centers around the failed reconstruction projects, the lack of security, and gunfire punctuating eerily quiet late-nights, watching the television, for some news or entertainment, not knowing when the power will be cut again.
Lives on pause, children selling black-market gas on the side of the highway, rather than attending primary school; women, tending their babies and living off the kindness of other Iraqis, rather than teaching these children in their primary schools; men, driving aimlessly all day, hoping to make a few thousand Iraqi Dinars pretending to be taxis, taking the few Iraqis with places to go around the city. Each of these individuals knows that this could be his or her last day.
A week in Baghdad has provided a great deal of insight. A week in Baghdad has also provided insight into my vast supply of ignorance about war, the Iraqi People, and the Resistance. Every Iraqi I have met is against the American Occupation, and supports the Iraqi Resistance. However, many of these people consider themselves members of the Resistance, but not by arms, rather by peaceful means, aid to their fellow Iraqis, producing news and media to provide some semblance of “truth” in a different perspective on the events unfolding in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
I believe right now the movie version of the play “Rent” is out in theatres in the states, or was recently, or will be soon. There is a famous song in the preview, which I saw before leaving for Iraq, that asks how one measures a year, totaling up the length of a year in minutes, seconds, hours. In Baghdad, even a week can be measured in many ways.
Perhaps a day or a week is measured by power cuts, on average that would be 4 power cuts a day, 28 power cuts a week. The day could be measured by the amount of city-power available each day, between twelve and sixteen hours, on a very good day, perhaps eighteen. Or you can measure the week in the number of candles you burn in order to get around your home-a minimum of seven if you’re living alone, many more if you are a large family or afraid of the dark.
In 1990, Baghdad was the capital of the fifth richest country in the world. Iraq had a phenomenally literacy rate that put the United States to shame, and the idea that children would die from a lack of access to clean water was unheard of. Twelve years of sanctions devastated a proud country with a long heritage. The memory of life between the war with Iran and the war with Kuwait is a bitter one. Even after the war with Kuwait, the electricity grid resumed within a matter of months over much of Iraq.
After a week of living in Baghdad, going out amongst the Iraqis almost daily, it would be trite to say I feel a kinship with them. Unlike the multitude of other western journalists in Iraq, the power cuts are a daily experience for me. The gunfire and police are right outside my door constantly, and not in a friendly, “Don’t worry Mr. American, we’re protecting you from the Bad Guys” sort of way. I’m not asking for sympathy, because this was something I chose to do. But after a week of living in Baghdad, I want it to be clear that this is not the life most western journalists are living here.
In some ways, living in the Iraqi neighborhoods might hinder my journalistic integrity, putting me too close to my subject. However, my viewpoint on Iraq has already changed greatly since being here. Nearly every Iraqi has taken pains to assure me that there is a Resistance, a legitimate Resistance, and there is also Terrorism. Many of them take similar pains to make clear that what they see as the Terrorism of the Americans is far greater than that of the foreign fighters, but both exist.
My time in Baghdad has shown the great diversity and tolerance of the Iraqi people, and how far this virtue has fallen. There is no real traditional conflict between Iraqi Sunna and Shi’a. What conflict there might be is reminiscent of debates between American Protestants and Catholics, despite the Media painting it as something more similar to Belfast and Dublin in the last few decades. Every Iraqi has friends who are Sunna or Shi’a or Kurd or Christian. If there were more Yezidis-a small religious sect in the north of the country, they would probably have friends who were Yezidis! Khulood, who I interviewed on Friday, is a Sunna, married to a Shi’a. Fatima, who I interviewed earlier in the week, is a Shi’a married to a Palestinian Sunna! Rana has Kurdish and Arab blood. Nearly all of the Iraqis I have met on the street, however, identify as Iraqi first.
A week in Baghdad will show you the war. It is perhaps unlike any war in history. Its reasons are still shrouded in mystery, conspiracy, and conflicting interests. Its eventual conclusion is anyone’s guess. The only thing certain is that the longer you spend in Baghdad, the more questions you will have; the more riddles unanswered; the more incomprehensible hospitality you will experience. As with many things in life, I have felt the more I learn in Baghdad, the less I know.