Saturday, April 24, 2004
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Before I say anything else, I am now back in London.. and a note of thanks to all those who wrote wondering about my whereabouts.
As with the rest of the trip, flying out of Baghdad was yet another surreal experience.. Not many Iraqis have even been to Baghdad Airport in the last 14 years… so there was a family debate on how best to get there.. The biggest worry was the safety of the road itself, not to mention the fact it’s now a military base for the American military… Consensus was that I go with my nephew in his old .. make that very very old Toyota… Frankly no one knew what to expect so we decided to call in the services of a subject expert.. The expert came in the form of a guy who lives 2 streets away who is a decorator and has been to the airport several times recently to do some paint work.. Get the picture? 3 rough looking men in a clapped out old Toyota hoping to sweet talk their way into the airport..
In “normal” times the trip is a mere 20 minutes.. The expert warned that security checks can stretch that into an hour or two, so now we know why the delectable Mr Sami at Royal Jordanian office insisted on getting there early.. So come Monday morning I was ready and packed.. Saying goodbye to everyone took a little longer so we set off at 9 am… My superstitious sister dutifully poured a bucket of water on the road after the car set off (an old Iraqi custom to ensure a a safe trip… Highly recommended…try it yourself!!).. some 10 minutes later we were at the turn off into Airport road, by the Umm Al-Tubool Mosque where Saddam was said to have hid for 2 days around 6-7th April 2003… As with most countries airport road is a lavish highway with a huge central isle that used to be populated with eucalyptuses and palm trees on both sides of the road and in the central isle.. Most of the trees have gone now.. their charred trunks lay sadly everywhere.. Incidentally this is now subject to a court case raised by the Iraqi Green Party against the CPA as I mentioned before… The first few miles of the road are adjacent to a residential area.. Al-Amerya (the site of the bombed bunker back in 1991).. That together with the fact it’s a predominantly Baathist area makes it .. how can I put it.. not very American friendly district… The houses are set about quarter of a mile from the main road.. It would seem the distance is close enough to launch roof top RPG attacks on moving objects along the airport road.. Consequently the road bears the marks of where scorched vehicles were hit… occasionally you see a burnt out military vehicle that hasn’t been removed yet.. There is a popular story in Baghdad that during the war this road witnessed the heaviest battle of the war and that the Americans resorted to using a lethal weapon that settl ed the outcome.. People talk of lorries ferrying top soil to remove harmful materials for a good 2 weeks after the fall of the airport.. There is no way of telling how true this is.. We will have to wait for the war history to be written in the future to find out..
Once we cleared Al-Amerya we were effectively inside the military base.. Now there are palm tree forests on both sides of the road with the occasional high wall hiding one of the palaces.. It is said that Saddam built a series of lakes with palaces on both sides of the road… Later on I had a birds eye view of this area and I counted 9 lakes.. some with palaces placed in the middle of the lake… I am sure these are now serving as excellent R&R facilities for our visitors!!
As we approached the airport security became more visible… signs warned of “lethal force authorized to kill” if you don’t follow orders strictly.. Eventually we slowed down to join a 3 lane queue which was around ¾ mile long and full of military and private transports.. My nephew noticed the rightmost lane was moving faster than the other 2 lanes so he duly changed lanes.. Our expert did not offer any advice at this stage.. We finally came across the first human being standing on the road.. A smiling American soldier who dutifully offered a handshake followed by a well rehearsed “Assalamu Alaycum”.. I explained to him I was flying today and need to get to the airport fast.. He said we were in the quickest lane and we should stay on it.. That we did to our cost because when we finally reached the front of the queue we were told this was only for American mili tary use.. We were sent off the road to do a U turn and rejoin the queue again some ¼ Mile from the front.. The hundreds of cars, lorries, tanks etc waiting in the queue provided an interesting insight about the mechanics of occupation.. There were military convoys returning from duty I guess, tankers carrying fuel and with no number plates (Kuwaitis are safety conscious too!).. Many pickups and small lorries carrying construction workers.. A large number of brand new BMWs and Mercs occupied by either Americans, Europeans, Iraqis and occasionally a mix of ethnicities.. They sometimes show a machine gun laid on the passenger seat, and all wear a number of security badges.. Not sure who these civilians are, contractors? The funny part is that nearly all of these private cars carry no number plates.. Are they aware of the latest pronouncement from the Traffic Police that after 22nd April all cars not carrying number plates will be impounded? I can imagine some tense situations taking place just like in the old days when Traffic Police had to beat a retreat when faced with an offending member of the security services…
We moved slowly along the middle lane towards the front of the queue again.. One incident happened worth mentioning here, a lorry driver on the leftmost lane spots someone driving a pickup across at the privileged lane.. He yells out to him:
Hello Hassan.. where the hell have you been?
Hassan: I am around but been busy of late… He gives his answer and immediately turns his head to look ahead..
Driver: You should let us see more of you man.. call in sometime eh?
Hassan: Yes sure..
The conversation sounded like a regular every day chance meeting between friends.. So I couldn’t understand why my companions fell about laughing.. When I admitted I cannot see what was funny, they explained to me that Hassan has been “clocked” by the other man as working for the Americans since it was obvious he had the necessary badges to drive on the right lane.. He must have been keeping a low profile where he lives so that no one knows his job.. Now its too late.. He has been discovered! They carried on joking about Hassan’s change of fortunes… They guessed he will not be calling at home for a while from here on and wondered whether he had a change of clothing to use in the next few weeks.. Iraqi sense of humour is a form of black comedy based on irony.. did you expect anything different?
Finally we reached the check point where we were invited to leave the car and a number of soldiers carried out a thorough search, complete with a sniffer dog while we ourselves were being searched.. After the search we were asked to drive into a nearby compound to wait for the airline bus to pick me up while my friends can embark on their return journey.. The compound was wasteland surrounded with a wire fence and contained a solo portacabin room.. Myself and 4 other passengers were now under the watchful eyes of a retired Girka soldier who was part of the private security set up in the airport.. His job was to arrange for the bus to call at the compound.. He did this with the help of a crackling walkie talkie..Eventually the bus arrived and we were taken to the terminal building at the airport.. This is the first time I lay my eyes on Baghdad International Airport as it was built after I left Iraq.. It seems to be in good shape, though I must report the air condition system is not working.. A myriad of nationalities manage the airport and its facilities.. Not many Iraqis though.. I realised that some of those private cars using the privileged lane back on the airport road were in fact delivering privileged passengers to the terminal door.. As I stood waiting for my turn to have my luggage screened, some of those passengers were able to avoid the screening and walked through to the flight gate unhampered… Suddenly I had that feeling I am used to when I travel in Europe or the Middle East, where even the mighty British Passport fails to offer the dignity of free unhindered passage once immigration people spot that word printed against place of birth field.. Baghdad.. Particularly in the last 13 years I have become used to seeing the welcomi ng smile disappear to be replaced with a cautious look.. Questions fired in quick succession.. some resort to giving the passport a hard inspection.. could it be faked document they wonder.. In European airports the matter soon ends in a stamp of approval, at Arab airports the story is different.. I have been detained overnight in Kuwait, made to wait 2 hours in UAE.. Egyptians are more efficient, a mere 45 minutes wait (good consistency.. same time delay over some 6 visits).. Over the years I always wondered how it would feel to be entering and leaving in a free Iraq… I must admit that even though there was no delay to speak of at Baghdad International, I still had that anxiety feeling I felt at foreign airports.. Seeing all those foreigners running the airport and others having privileges.. I felt I wasn’t at home.. or better put, it felt as though being Iraqi did not count for much…. I make no political points here, just how I felt at the time… This was a sad note on whic h to end an exhilarating and on the whole a very happy home coming…
As if it was by deliberate design, Royal Jordanian compounded the irony by flying me on board an appropriately named Fokker airplane!!
Before I close here, I wanted to record what must be a rare scene for most Iraqis in the last 20 years.. A birds eye view of Baghdad.. As I mentioned before the sight of the palaces by the airport was quite interesting.. Baghdad itself was looking dull as it was raining (for the first time since I arrived in Iraq).. I have no idea about the direction the flight took but I was pleasantly surprised to see lots of agricultural lands below.. We flew over a town which had 2 bridges crossing the river.. I wondered if this was Falluja… some 30 minutes into the flight I assumed we have gone beyond danger territory.. This was a good time to release tensions.. I fell asleep all the way to the outskirts of Amman!!
Sunday, April 18, 2004
10 am Sunday 18/04/04
Well, this is D day minus one.. All being well I should be at Baghdad International airport this time tomorrow to sample their much publicized Duty Free.. I have finally booked an air ticket out of Baghdad after hearing one more road horror story… The airline asked me to turn up 3 hours ahead of the flight… can anyone work this one out.. there are only 2 commercial flights per day.. so why do they need 3 hours to process people? Just wondering if the flight is from a different airport somewhere.. Beyond this trip I am not sure about the next step… I am told the flights from Amman to London are fully booked with no waiting lists for the next 10 days.. We shall see what happens when I land in Amman Inshallah (my sister keeps insisting I mention the mantra God Willing just in case!).. Otherwise I should have a pleasant stay in Amman, I have a suite booked at a holiday flats establishment for less than $10 per day.. so I am told… and yet another nephew at hand when I arrive there (Inshallah).
Perhaps this is the time to write final impressions and draw big conclusions about my visit to Baghdad.. But yet again electricity shut down pressures come into play.. so I will postpone this to another future missive… Besides.. I have been thinking how best to spend my final day in Baghdad.. I found the thought of paying a barber a visit on my final day irresistible.. OK so I am one hell of a sad visitor.. so what? It’s a free country aint it?
Of course much about what to do today is out of my control.. My Mum and sister have decided on a feast already and distant relations aware of my departure will be descending on us in the afternoon.. I hate this part.. there will be too many good bye presents to cope with leading to the inevitable luggage weighing problems… Aggrrr.
Last night a local record shop struck lucky when I shopped for music… Ended up buying some 20 cassettes.. the salesman was at loss with me when I had to confess ignorance of the most famous Iraqi artists in recent years.. The negotiation was something else.. We haggled over the number of free of charge cassettes he had to throw into the bargain!
We had what felt like the entire American airforce flying over the district all night long.. But there are no news this morning of any large trouble in the area.. On the way back from buying the air ticket yesterday we were stuck in a traffic jam at Baghdad’s busiest intersection when suddenly 3 American soldiers ran passed our car.. One of them brushed my elbow, which was sticking out of the window… Ahhhh contact at last! They were trying to force a gap in the traffic so that a convoy of 4 jeeps guarding a civilian white four wheel drive can pass through.. The boys venturing out of their jeeps looked absolutely terrified… Iraqis too become very tense.. You could even slice the tension with a pizza rolling knife.. Luckily no one started a demonstration and no cars backfired so they were able to thread the convoy through the traffic with no incidence.. My nephew volunteered the information that the white civilian car was carrying high ranking officers.. Something about they like their comforts and these cars come with air condition unlike jeeps.. A dangerous practice if you ask me… If my nephew knew they were officers, the entire country would know it too…
Well my nephew is beckoning me to go to the Internet Café now.. He had asked his uncle to teach him “all about the internet” some 3 weeks back and now its his last chance to add another skill to his many not so polished skills..
If I am able to, I will write from Amman.
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
3.20 pm Wednesday 15/04/04
Still not sure about the safety of the main road to Amman… beginning to seriously consider the flight option… One of the Arabic Satellite TV stations is now carrying a running list of countries asking their citizens to leave Iraq… I notice the UK is not on the list yet.. I guess that rules out a free flight!!
As I sit here typing this, there were two big thuds.. perhaps 1 mile away.. make that 4.. the table shook a little and so did the windows … These are mortar shells which come in bundles of 2-3 at a time.. Basically fired by teams of twos who set up and fire these as fast as they can then leg it… Soon the helicopters will be circling trying to find out the source of the missiles…. I had an unnerving experience with an Apache helicopter 2 nights ago.. We were out in the garden, 3 adults and a child.. One of the nephews was watering the flower beds.. I tried to make a phone call using the Baghdad mobile… It is now established fact, you can only get a signal with these outdoor.. I am not sure what attracted the pilot’s interest.. He first made one pass then turned round and made another, then slowed down and tipped the machine side ways to have a good look.. The chopper was barely 100m above us.. By now I had established contact on the phone as luck would have it and I wondered if it was the radio signal from the mobile that attracted their attention.. Anyway I had to make a quick apology to the person on the other end of the line and beat an orderly retreat inside the house… Prior to this incident I had discovered the best signal is when I am on the house roof, but following this episode I decided not to try to make roof top phone calls just in case..
One aspect of the recent troubles has been the solidarity amongst Iraqis.. Last Friday the local mosque used his loud speaker to announce a collection for the people of Falluja.. The locals managed to fill a van with medicines and some foods.. this scene was repeated all over Iraq.. So much so that a doctor in one of the Falluja hospitals appeared on TV a day later saying he has no more room left even in the hospital back garden to store more medicines… But one incident at the main Adhameya mosque made me feel sad.. They made a huge collection of donations and were about to load it all on a trucks when the Amercians turned up suspecting some of the food sacks must have hidden weapons.. They ransacked the entire consignment leaving all food and medicines strewn all over the floor of the mosque.. You can imagine how what appears to be a prudent security measure to the Americans leaves Iraqis, especially the ones who made donations feel.. The solidarity was refreshing to see though.. There are people opening their doors to refugees from Falluja and Baghdad churches making money collections…..
Feeling I must make my contribution to the people of Falluja, I went out last night to a famous Falluji owned restaurant in Baghdad called Zarzoor… It is named after a variety of small Iraqi birds known for their speed of flying.. Now this joint is famous for its Faluji kebab (mince meat on skewer) which tend to be generous in size.. The normal order arrives with 2 skewers and the friend who took me there warned me I will not be able to eat it all.. I took on the challenge and failed having eaten one full skewer (nearly 14 inches long) and struggled to eat half of the second skewer.. I guess the moral of the story is not to bite on something from Falluja more than you can chew… As with all my stories there is something funny to observe.. At Zarzour restaurant the waiters wear a maroon coloured top with a huge letter Z embossed on the top pocket of the garment.. Ever seen an old episode of Zoro, the man with the swift sward? Well he too used to have letter Z written all over his clothes and uncannily both his and Zarzour’s letter Z’s come in the same font!!
Do you remember when I mentioned how Baghdadies look at reductions in electricity supplies as some kind of punishment from the Americans? Well I wrote that as a funny tale of local misinterpretation of American intentions.. Guess what happened ever since the Falluja trouble started last week? First the all night supply was reduced to 3 hours on and 3 hours off as per the day supply… and since yesterday there is some pinching of the odd hour such that for a couple of times in the day you get 2 hours on and 3 hours off.. Given that the maximum temperature has now crept to 33 degrees C (91 F), it really is no fun to have the electricity cut off in the afternoon or middle of night.. Yet everyone here is laughing at my complaints when they tell me I should have been here last summer when they had temperatures of 55 degrees and no electricity for days at a time… When I ask how they managed, out comes a mixture of home made remedies.. Some people flood their houses with water (most Iraqi homes have tiled floors) then sleep naked over the wet tiles.. alternatively, taking showers every hour… or better still taking sleeping pills! …. Some people make deals with relations or friends who live in an area with electrical supply hours opposite to theirs.. so household A go to household B when electricity is cut off at A and then move back to A when B’s is cut off… Someone had an even more ingenious plan..This man had a good air condition system in his car.. He used to load his family and they set driving about during the hot afternoon hours.. They even take their lunches in the car!
My friend in the Apache is circling overhead again… Better go check the news to see the latest..
Sunday, April 11, 2004
5.30 pm Saturday 10/04/04
This is an unexpected diary extra as I should have been back home by now.. alas I am stuck! I suppose I can’t say much you don’t know about the causes.. so let me parade my options.. The safest route out of Iraq right now is via Mosul, to Damascus in Syria then down to Amman in Jordan.. The circular trip is around 15 hours to Damascus plus 1 hour in shared taxi to Amman.. A shorter route is via Baiji (near Tikrit!!) then some country lanes leading to the Baghdad Amman expressway some point beyond Falluja and Ramadi.. This is by road.. My visit to the Royal Jordanian office last week produced a third option, flying.. yes flying out of Baghdad to Amman at a cost almost equal to the return ticket London-Amman.. There is of course the small matter of someone taking a shot at the airplane!!
I should mention something about the RJ Airline office.. It is situated behind the Palestine Meridien.. the famous hotel where reporters stay and hang out… The hotel is secured by a maze of barbed wire and concrete blocks and inside the compound they have 2 mean looking tanks.. you get searched 4 times before being allowed into the hotel.. Sadly no recogniseable journos were in the lobby when I visited last Wednesday.. The area is full of airline offices.. all shut down for the last 13 years.. The Jordanian was the only functioning office… err.. functioning is a generous word here! After much waiting and queuing they had bad news to tell me.. If I miss my flight on Thursday 8th they cannot offer me a seat or a waiting list for the following 3 weeks… which incidentally is beyond the validity of my ticket anyway.. The office manager (a wheeling dealing Iraqi) was interested in selling me a ticket on the Baghdad-Amman flight.. After some negotiation I managed to bring down the price to a manageable $300 from $550… Only to be told that I had already missed Wednesdays flight and that Thursday’s flight lands after the London flight had taken off… So the option was not much of an option anyway.. So since I haven’t been in a war zone before I thought of extending my stay another week and hope it would be fun time…Gulp!
Now that I am writing with several days worth of war “experience”, I thought of describing some of the goings on here.. As you probably know Baghdad is made of many districts and neighboorhoods.. Some are predominantly Sunni, some are Shia and some mixed.. What happens in each area depends on its religious mix.. In Shia areas we have cars roaming around with 3-4 young men in them, most probably armed They give everybody long menacing looks but so far I haven’t seen them do any harm.. Sunni areas look calm and peaceful but they have a tendency to mount quick mortar rocket attacks which brings around American helicopters and the atmosphere suddenly becomes deadly.. Speaking of rocket and what have you, yours trully is now an expert in analysing distant thuds.. I can now tell the diffe rence in sound between roadside bombs, rocket attacks and grenades.. Also had the pleasure of hearing an American tank mounted heavy machine gun doing its business when I stayed at a friends house the other night.. It was barely 2 streets away.. I am glad to report that electricity is unaffected (3 hours on 3 hours off) so far and in fact most people continue to go about doing their business in the mornings and early evenings..
I am also plugged into the local grapevine.. A system of rumours which exaggerates every event and tends to freely change the names of places, etc.. Also been watching lots of Satellite TV, of the Arab variety.. The first night of troubles in Falluja was interesting to observe.. Al-Jazeera managed to smuggle inside Falluja one of their ace Egyptian reporters.. A rather over excited characters who painted a picture of World War III.. with much of his reporting dedicated to describing his own bravery in being there.. I think he is angling for a pay rise if you ask me.. Al-Hurra, USA’s answer to Al-Jazeera insisted on laying on an all night long fashion show… Al-Iraqiya, our local station insisted on showing 3 full length football matches!.. Al-Alem, an Iranian government sponsored Arabic station, focussed on long debates about young Mr Al-Sadr’s escapades.. Seems they like him! MBC, the Saudi owned station concentrated on entertainment showing the Arabic version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.. Egyptian and Lebanese stations played it safe with pop music..
Meanwhile we had 2 press conferences by the Occupation Authority (its now official folks).. We have a General by the name of Kimit who has less charisma than a cardboard shoe box appears in full army fatigue and repeatedly replies to questions by either “I have no information about this sir” or “I will cover it in the next press conference”… I really don’t dig this obsession with secrecy Americans have.. Just what is the big deal if they admit to losing a soldier in an ambush or admitting to causing collateral damage? They are immune from any court proceedings anyway.. The result is Iraqis and Arab satellite TV’s start to make up their own theories about what is going on.. resulting in a complete disconnect between occupier and occupied.. Take another example.. Reconstruction.. Than ks to lack of publicity, most Iraqis regard the last 12 months as a waste of time.. almost all say “the Americans have done nothing for us”.. yet behind the scenes and in almost total secrecy there are 1000s of projects being executed… Just why they are so news shy beats me.
I must mention a little episode I saw the other day which must be uniquely Iraqi.. Baghdad is full of flyovers and bridges.. There is this flyover which has a car park below it.. The car park boundary is the wall which covers the area underneath the flyover.. This car park turns out to be Baghdad’s lovers lane.. The park against facing the flyover wall… Unknown to them some 20 feet up it is possible to look down from the flyover to see the car parked directly below.. you get to see through the windscreen enough of the front seats.. Get the picture? Now couples are forced to use the car park during day hours for safety considerations.. As soon as a car uses the car park, you get a few people stop their cars on the flyover and get out of their cars to look down for a spot of free peep show entertainment! Other cars driving by toot to ask if its worth stopping to look.. we did that too and one of the audience turned round and told us its not worth it… “these two are hopeless amateurs!”..
Monday, April 05, 2004
I am on a count down now to my leaving date next Wednesday.. I can’t believe how quickly 2 weeks have gone by.. This is particularly worrying as I will be travelling on my own and I am at the receiving end of all kinds of conflicting advice about the safest way to leave Baghdad to Jordan. After what happened in Falluja yesterday I am a little concerned about the return trip.
Meanwhile the last few days have been full of incidents and surprises.. I did a memory lane trip the other day to old Baghdad… My old Baghdad.. It started with leaving our car on the Karkh side of Baghdad (left of Tigris) not far from the old British Embassey.. which incidentally still has a little of its old glory left but spoiled with tons of concrete blocks and barbed wire on all approaches… We left the car on a main road running some half mile parallel to the river.. to get to the river we had to negotiate Bab AlSaif.. one of Baghdad’s ancient neighbourhoods.. The place was just shear delight to visit.. little narrow winding roads and alleyways.. each house had their small sewage canal pouring out their kitchen waste water into a sewage pit running in the centre of the road… The stench w as unbelievable and there were frequent spots of flooding sewage as it makes its winding way into the river.. The houses were all very old and built to the old Baghdadi style of a central open air courtyard and rooms surrounding the courtyard.. Almost every door was open to enable the constant flow of neighbours moving in and out of each other’s houses.. Apparently as many of the party apparachicks in the last regime originated from districts like this one there was a law banning anyone from knocking down these houses by way of preservation… Of course as the old families who struck the fortunes of party membership moved out from these neighbourhoods to their lavish government gifted mansions, they left behind a vacuum soon to be filled by people moving up the ladder from even poorer districts like Thawra City (shanty town on edge of Baghdad populated by migrant peasants from the South).. Consequently these neighboorhoods became pr edominantly Shia… This is quite obvious when you see the number of posters stuck everywhere almost at every door and window depicting Shia heroes..
Eventually we came to the open space between the neighboorhood and the river which is at much lower level, hence there are frequent staircases leading down to the water front.. We took a boat ride for ID 150 (10 cents) to the Risafa side of Baghdad.. This method of transport is necessary not because of lack of bridges (there were 7 when I left Iraq and there is about twice as many these days)… But parking is a major problem in old Baghdad… First we hit River Street (Shari Alnahar)… this used to be the place for women’s fashion shops in my time.. I remember the odd “site seeing” walk in my teenage years.. the good news was they still have some fashion shops but somehow far less pleasant scenery to sight! The place is now primarily a money changers paradise.. you are accosted all the time by p eople flashing their bundles of dollars or Dinars in your face asking if you want to buy… I soon discovered saying no is the wrong answer because they quickly follow up with “ok then do you want to sell?” .. we walked up the street towards the old Sooq AlSarai street… This is one of the ancient markets which specialises in all things to do with paper… Its our WH Smith.. you go there to buy anything from pencils to notepads to very old foreign books.. My father read in 4 languages and I remember phone calls from traders in this sooq telling him about the arrival of nuggets like German philosophy books etc..
The word Sarai is Turkish for Government.. Just beyond the market and hugging the river is a huge complex of ancient buildings which were once used by the Othomans to rule Iraq.. There were no Green Zones with barbed wire those days as is the case with our latest rulers.. At the other end of the sooq and running good way half way up the market is the old Al-Mustansereya.. the worlds first university built in the age of enlightenment in the Abbaside muslim rule.. Our dearly departed regime has made a not too bad an effort to renovate the fabulous Islamic architecture of the university.. There were the inevitable security guards manning the various entrances to the university so I didn’t attempt to look inside.. Probably just as well as I heard this too did not survive the looting spree.. Lead ing up to Sooq AlSarai were a couple of new markets to me.. they looked like extensions to the old market.. The first specialised in antiques and old money.. lots of silver was on offer both jewelry and ornamental.. This was followed by the Rawafeen market.. an amazing ancient art of repairing clothes.. you can slash your jacket with a razor and these people would return it to you mended and you wont be able to spot where you slashed it… Not sure how they are making a living these days but they seemed busy enough.. The walk in the old Sarai sooq finally brought me back that old Baghdad smell.. little tea shops were dotted around the place.. and the older book sellers consumed in reading their merchandise and totally oblivious to what is happening around them.. At the far end of the market was Abu Ali’s little restaurant.. He sells a unique type of Kubba made of crushed wheat and stuffed with spiced meat and onions.. He has been here longer than anyone can remember… We decided to give Abu Ali’s kubba a miss on the way in because frankly it’s a heavy meal and best left for later in the day..
At the end of AlSarai sooq we turn right into AlMutanabi street.. This street is the centre of Iraq’s publishing and printing industry.. The street is appropriately named after one of Arabia’s best known poets who enjoys Shakespearean standing in the Arab world.. As a side AlMutanabi has a big bronze statute at an important square in Baghdad and I am pleased to report it was not damaged or looted last year.. The street was a beehive of activity with people running around pushing cart loads of paper or finished posters etc.. Well if they have to publish 200 newspapers in Baghdad, someone has print them, so this industry is facing a huge revival, especially after the sanctions years when paper was on the sanctioned list of items and they were resorting to recycled paper to print books and news papers.. We visit the office of a local businessman who is a stationery dealer.. He tells me that whatever he manages to import is being sold instantaneously and asks if I can fix him up with a distributorship for British stationery firms.. He already has dealerships for some important German brands.. Of course success in business means risk of kidnapping hence his office resembles a police station rather than a place of business!
The one memory I took from AlMutanabi street was that of endless bundles of religious posters being sold wholesale…
At the top of Almutanabi street we enter Baghdad’s most famous street… AlRasheed Street (named after a famous Khaliph) has not changed much.. except many of the old businesses have changed hands and nature of business.. Traffic now is one way and it hardly moves.. Near the ancient Haiderkhana mosque I look for a shop who was famous for his cookies (shakarlama) but without much luck.. But joy of joys, Haj Zbalah’s shop is still there.. This family business have been selling a unique drink made of dried grapes at the same place since the 1920.. In his heyday in the 1960, even ministers of cabinet used to make a stop after a long day at the office for a quick drink.. The shop walls were covered with black and white photographs of the Iraqi Royal Family.. A glass of this drink sets you back noth ing more than 15 cents.. Of course I tank up with 4 drinks and have my photo taken with the current member of the family running the business…
Now turning back down Rasheed street and walking past a part of the street specialising in Barber shop equipment where you can buy a locally made barber chair for a mere $15.. Imported brands came with much higher price tags.. There is an important issue here.. Can the Iraqi cottage industires and larger scale businesses survive the onslaught of free capitalism? For many months now all custom duties has been suspended allowing cheap Chinese imports to undercut locally made products.. Some businesses are already closing down under competitive pressure.. I have a friend whose family ran a chicken farm for the last 50 years who tells me they have sold out their equipment and shut down the farm.
Half way down Rasheed street we turn left into Shorja, Baghdad’s busiest marketplace… I am told no one carrying a wallet in his back pocket can walk the market from one end to the other without having it stolen.. I take up the challenge and survive to tell the taleJ Shorja is a weird mix of old fashi ned spice merchants, coexisting next to electronic shops selling the latest in mobile phones.. in between you can just about buy anything you can think of at amazingly low prices.. But it is difficult to walk the market because of the numbers of shoppers and cart wheel boys running merchandise up and down the place.. The old Baghdad smell was here.. in abundance! The market has fixed shops at both sides of the road while the middle of the road is occupied by stalls that also have air of permanence about them.. One stall owner stops us to entice us with a child toy (spinning top).. My friend M has the following conversation with him:
Seller: Go on buy one of these and make your child happy..
M: what if I don’t have a child
Seller: God will give you one if you buy the toy.
M: Would God give a child to a single man?
Seller: of course, haven’t you heard about cloning and test tube babies.. He actually said the last sentence in English with a very wry smile..
Like everything else about this trip I would have loved to stop by to chat some more with this educated toy seller to see how on earth he ended up doing this for a living.. Alas..
There were a few more markets visited in this outing (like Sooq Hannoon, pet animal market) but I think you have a good flavour now for my old Baghdad… The return trip was using the same routes but covering parallel streets.. All in all I think I walked 7-8 miles… phew!
Last night I was out for a drive with a friend.. We were using one of the expressways which I am yet to become familiar with.. It was late afternoon and the road pretty free of traffic.. at a major junction the traffic lights were not working (they hardly ever do in Baghdad).. The few drivers negotiating the intersection managed to show enough disregard towards each other that the entire junction became locked.. Cars were facing in every point on the compass and they were all barely inches apart.. Tempers were high, but no one in the mood for compromising.. they were nearly all hooting their car horns simultaneously.... New comers were adding to the chaos.. some had their windows wound up and listening to loud audio music to the dismay to the people they were blocking.. The scene was unbelie vable.. a human made jam… some 10 minutes later people were beginning to show road rage signs.. A chap in an elegent well pressed dishdasha and neat head gear (looking like a tribal shaikh) decides to do something about it.. he opens his car door and proceeds to climb out of his seat.. My friend says to me prepare to duck if you see a machine gun! As it happens he didn’t carry one.. He walks over to the van which was facing his car head on and instead of throwing a fit he wispers a few words to the van driver.. The van driver gets out of his van and askes the man behind him to back up a few inches.. a few more cars did shuffled a little and there was enough gap created for our Shaikh to pass through.. The cap created allowed for undoing the jigsaw slowly and everyone was able to negotiate the junction… I am still wondering what was said in those few whispers!!
Poker is another ancient Iraqi religion… those foreign reporters don’t tell you this because they have no idea how Iraqis have fun.. I had a get together the other day with some old childhood friends.. They stayed together all these years and they enjoy the odd game of poker every now and then… Naturally one is held in my honour.. Yes I did lose but not much!.. The game took place at someone’s veranda in the cool Baghdad evening breeze.. We were accompanied by the hum drum of our hosts slightly in need of maintenance generator… Half way in the game the generator packed up as it ran out of fuel.. Luckily there were a few cars parked in the driveway and petrol was quickly siphoned out of one of them to keep the generator going… Just to illustrate to you why poker is an Iraqi religion in its ow n right I was told that many schools in Baghdad continued their overnight games throughout the war last year.. You can just imagine the small talk across the green tables when all around you is going up in flames.. For those interested in keeping records this particular game was attended by 3 Sunnis, 2 Shias and 1 Christian…. See what I mean?
Just wanted to thank all those taking the trouble to write emails to me about this diary.. I am really sorry for not being able to answer all emails at the moment.. Once I return to the UK next week I promise to write personal email replies.
Friday, April 02, 2004
It has arrived, but consists of a series of indecipherable squiggles, so have asked for another copy. Be patient! Ed.