A glut of stars hung over our roof on this six lane highway while we roared forward. A flat expanse, a clear night, a bumpy freeway, and a mostly quiet road after the roughed up appearance of that border checkpoint with its prevalent razorwire and piles of rubble in a cool evening. The crowd in this GMC Suburban had been good so far, shouting down the man with the entry stamp who wanted an AIDS test in spite of his own country’s lack of an effective government and assumably a superior who would even care for the results. Often I had mused in the past five hours since boarding this vehicle how my health may be more compromised not by bandit attacks or tank fire but by the sheer volume of cigarette smoke fogging the interior of this sprawling cab; however, I made solid attempts at ignoring it and looked outward into the desert, a low blue horizon, amazingly cold at night in spite of its midday heat.
A few internet searches, a photocopy of an old guidebook map and idle information culled from other tourists who had visited Iraq since the war and I had found the GMC ranks in Amman that ply the road to Baghdad. Eager to take me, though less so given my adamance to take a shared vehicle with commuting Iraqis for a smaller fee, it was early morning when the border hit; and now, after some kebabs and tea at a truck stop just before Ramadi, we were thundering east again as Ramadan’s obligations kicked in and dawn worked its way over this blanket of sand and a sole six lane road that sat like a zipper and ended in Baghdad. For a country recently at war and currently fighting a guerilla conflict against its occupiers, the roads were sure in nice condition.
The smell wafted in for the first time after dawn; slightly damp sand easing from its near freeze, a lineup of old GM trucks and Mercedes in a sprawling gas station – no sign, oily concrete and puddles of black in the sand around it, all arabic lettering and small clutters of kids with large open tin cans sloshing petrol into other cars at the edge of the station. A heavy crowd just after sunrise, we left the vehicle briefly as the fuelling ensued and I watched the stream of vehicles wander east and west, on overpasses and in dirt roads. Everyone seemed to have a car, an automotive collective, and in that usual developing world manner no one seemed bothered in the least by the stench of fuel.
Slowly, evidence of a military presence appeared. Hummers decked with gun turrets and soldiers to match were in cavalcade down the road, and we passed them like any other vehicle. “Ramadi”, a bulky fellow to the right, smoking in spite of Ramadan’s daybreak, pointing outward to a patch of palm trees. Indeed – the scenery had changed while I was drifting in and out; he motioned with his hands upward. “Beautiful,” he smiled. Ramadi, after endless hours of desert darkness, was relief indeed.
To Fallujah then; the fellow sitting behind me pointed it out. It too was beautiful, though along the freeway’s side were two tan coloured tanks, one riding rather close to the road. The driver slowed down, noticing its proximity; seconds after, the tank turned a hard right, running down the metal barrier and stopping in the middle of the freeway. Us and another vehicle screeched to a halt. Its barrel pointed directly at us, and a soldier on top pointed firmly in the opposite direction.
It was going nowhere. The driver hesitated briefly, then backed up and turned around; a few seconds of honking and dodging oncoming cars, left off the road and into the sand, cutting to a freeway exit that went into Fallujah. Renowned for their recent attacks on American forces was all I knew of the place; but in this ride I found out it had a really nice mosque.
The bulky man left, waved goodbye, and wandered into the busy street. In the distance, in the direction of the freeway floated a plume of black smoke. Starting our path again, getting back onto the highway was a simple matter, avoiding in a wide berth the area blocked by Americans. Roadsigns in English and Arabic hung overhead, the road spread wider to more lanes, and into a morass of vehicles we merged, a large automotive funnel reminiscent of all large cities: Baghdad finally, around nine in the morning. Twelve hours by vehicle from Amman.
The driver offered to take me to a hotel, interpreted by another heavily smoking fellow who as well sat behind me. He spoke some english; and in broken phrases, expressed his opinion in no obscure language that the Americans were evil, and here for their oil. I took it in with a grin, tried to ask him deeper questions, though his vocabulary was insufficient for complicated conversation.
Traffic culminated in thick lanes, winding roadways, and clogged amongst us were more military vehicles sporting soldiers staring forward and back, turreted weapons at ready, goggles and helmets glaring meanly in the morning’s yellow sunlight. Over the Tigris this time: how it looked so much like news reports. Somewhere on this bank must be that hotel were all the journalists are holed up, though I would not be staying there. Far too pricey I assumed, I was to be taken someplace a little less expensive. Along a wide boulevard thick with traffic and a heavy dose of active businesses as well, we pulled up alongside one amongst many hotels that all looked the same from outside.
A sign with four stars was displayed at the entrance, though to which standard was debatable. He said that while attending Baghdad University he stayed here, and it was not a bad place at all. No matter; I had arrived, and with wishing them off wandered to a quaint double room boasting a beautiful view of a wholly gutted television office, its communications tower on top a little bent and burned while it had no outside walls to speak of.
It was being repaired, though. A bulldozer sat outside, protected by an unkept looking fellow acting languid with his AK-47. In spite of my napping in the GMC, the order of the morning was another nap, this time in a reasonably comfortable bed.
Wide boulevards and heavy traffic, an idle comment that I would be going out for awhile to the hotel staff at the desk, and out the door. There would be only one way to find out if this was the most dangerous city on the planet, as a magazine article I had read stated – for a little walk.
So alongside the cars on Baghdad’s slowly healing sidewalks I went, following Sa’adoun street, a major boulevard one hundred metres from the Tigris. A few stares; a few glances, but otherwise a three block trip to the internet café I had been told to visit was uneventful. Where were these random shootings? Intense anti-western discontent? Anarchy in the streets?
Ducking into a corner store, there behind the counter stood a smiling female, unveiled and english speaking. Reciting my price for a few chocolate bars in my own language, I thanked her and left with more confusion – evil, oppressed Baghdad? Newfound liberation? I walked past churches as well – small and tucked into side streets, they lacked the grandeur of Baghdad’s still standing mosques – though they were there. A secular urban sprawl indeed.
Sa’adoun street ran all of the way to Tahrir square, and along that wide road were many items of interest – money changers both in shops and straddling the roadside, a mosque or two, the Palestine Hotel – with its two layers of concrete dividers topped by razorwire, and several tanks parked under camouflage netting with barrels pointed outward. Small satellite dishes were propped on the balcony railings of every upper level apartment, and indeed it looked like the epicentre for Iraq’s media machine.
In the morning, not intent on meeting rebels or finding Saddam, I wanted to stick strictly to Iraq’s ancient sites and see old ruins rather than new ones. Marking mosques on my map scanned from an old guidebook, I walked along the boulevard again and to Tahrir Square – quiet in the morning, with several policeman sitting and watching the traffic flow, it appeared that my next stop after the mosque near the Palestine Hotel would be across the bridge – Al-Zawra Park. The “Green Zone” apparently was over there as well; and walking onto the bridge I again came upon those television images, with a few destroyed buildings and the striking view of the Tigris running through Baghdad’s centre.
The opposite end of the bridge was different. Razorwire was thick, and several destroyed buildings surrounded a gate protected by four tanks, a checkpoint, and many other soldiers standing firmly alert. Rubble was strewn around the sidewalks, and I made a decision to cross the street.
A casual walk in Baghdad. Young kids stared while I wandered past some bakeries and small grocery stores, onto a torn sidewalk and up to an even larger collection of sandbags, razorwire, tanks, and soldiers. On my map, Al-Zawra park should be in front of me, but instead I was greeted by a massive fortress of barriers and militaria; and I had left my passport back at the hotel. In spite of this, I rounded a corner and walked along more sandbagged roads, private security guards keeping watch on pedestrians and many Iraqi men sitting on the roadside, watching. I arrived at another intersection in time to bump into a team of eight American soldiers, fully armed, walking across the street while young boys tagged beside them to simply stare upwards in awe.
So Al-Zawra park would have to be scratched off of my map; I wrote ‘occupied’ beside it and hurried down the road to another bridge, passing dozens of clean apartment buildings in a quiet neighbourhood, each one numbered in western letters and stretching into the distance. A large poster of the country’s former poster boy, Saddam, had been burned off the wall of one building. Past a few more shops I arrived back at a sight I had seen while coming into the city, a collapsed market: a blackened roof now at ground level, insulated pipes and wires hanging down from a bent structure; blown out windows, rubble and garbage inside, though no sign of anything worth salvaging.
Another mosque was across the river, along with a palace of Saddam’s and a street renowned for shopping. I found none of this: there was a sealed gate, a few empty lanes with beautiful ancient balconies, and piles of garbage from empty shops. Some activity ensued amongst the neighbourhood’s patrons, though not enough to consider it a souq or carsije of any sort. I wandered the empty streets, taking notes of who was looking my way and who was not, observing heavy traffic patterns and looking for anyone on the road who was selling some decent souvenirs. Finding none of it, I walked past a destroyed television building where several men were high up and pushing debris off the edge, into piles of dust below.
So it was back to Tahrir square, where I hopped in a taxi with a younger driver who spoke some decent english. I told him my hotel.
“You are not safe here,” He told me in a halting accent.
Odd – I seemed safe so far.
Back to the hotel, we arranged a private drive south to the ancient site of Babylon, and onwards to Nasiriyah where I could see Ur of the Chaldees. This private drive would not be cheap, though in spite of my smug attitude I followed their recommendations – shared vehicles are fine for Iraqis, but definitely not fine for a lone foreigner.
Southwards the following day, in another orange and white taxi; the driver was busy washing it when I walked out to the street, I was mildly disappointed that I would again be taking an automotive relic along Iraq’s wide highways. This was not a fast ride; perhaps eighty kilometres an hour at most, onto a freeway exit with the rattle and hum of this old carbeurated vehicle.
A throng of Iraqi men were straddled on a scaffolding, building a brick wall, assumably around an important American military camp. It was two layers thick; the inner layer already completed, they worked hard on the outer layer under the watch of tall outposts. Beyond that, a massive junkyard boasting dozens of rusted tanks and personnel carriers, trucks, and abstract shapes of brown metal scrap stretched along the road for another kilometre. “Old Iraqi army,” the driver offered.
In spite of a seeming anarchic quality, the roads south were dotted with frequent checkpoints and clogged with many military convoys. And not only American: Spanish, Polish, Dutch, Italian, it was obvious then this coalition was indeed that.
Babylon sat below a palace previously owned by the dictator formerly known as Saddam, and was protected fiercely by a well fortified coalition checkpoint policed by Polish soldiers. I wandered out with my camera, put on my best stupid tourist face, and said “Babylon”. Indeed they were aware that the ancient ruins lay behind them, though it would be one half hour of waiting while convoys of American Humvees rolled past until I was handed an email address and told to make an appointment for tomorrow. “I will be back in a few days,” I offered, explaining my Nasiriyah itinerary.
Soon we were back on the highway. The deal was to switch drivers in Hillah, head deep south to Nasiriyah; he pulled up at the taxi stand, and enlisted a brusque man who did not appear too intelligent. Indeed I paid my money to the first driver; “No money!” I waved my hands in the air to the second driver, making sure that he understood the first one would be dividing it between them as he saw fit. And with that, in another aging orange and white vehicular contraption, we rolled south.
Midday was clear and hot, and I became nervous; this road was best known for banditry. The driver did not seem concerned though, and several hours of open highway interspersed with the occasional town and checkpoint allowed us to emerge in Samawa, in southern Iraq. Still a good hundred kilometres from Nasiriyah, he was becoming more concerned at his ancient wheels, and pulled into a taxi stand. He jumped out, wandered around for a bit, then motioned for me to follow him with my bags.
“No Money!” he said confidently, and pointed into a shared taxi. Private drive this was not; though it appeared as though I would have little choice, him being concerned for the general health of his vehicle and seeming confident that I would make it to my destination without error. Inside, seven of us to this ancient Chevy Caprice, the driver understood his obligation and offered a cigarette. I declined, and tried to get comfortable on the console of the front row, better known as the Middle Seat in the world of shared taxis.
Samawa to Nasiriyah: less clutter, no towns, a straight road and high speeds. It was afternoon, and fewer police checkpoints were present. In spite of it all, the nomadic Bedouin tribes still seemed to live in their tents out in the desert. One hundred kilometres was the distance, and it flew by in a weaving dance performed by heavy trucks and tiny cars on these roads. If the police were here to monitor laws of any sort, it was not those related to traffic.
Some factories sat in the desert, and the gates of Nasiriyah loomed before us. A checkpoint, where my bag was searched. In Arabic the other passengers mused at the stupidity of the police searching the bag of a white tourist. In thick traffic again, we crossed one bridge, and the driver flicked his hand in my direction. “Where?”
“Jisr…. Zaytun?” I offered.
“Ah, Jisr Zaytun!” He turned left, and there, behind a long coil of tall razorwire and crowds of kids walking home from school, he pointed. Ah, the other bridge in town.
The street was blocked off and bereft of vehicles, though crowds of children quickly surrounded me: “Hellow Mistah,” they all repeated incessantly, as I wandered from house to house, looking at guards and people, trying to find the house of the fellow I was looking for.
I found it eventually. At the end of the street, near piles of rubble that spread outward from a large building which had a bite taken out of its corner. It was here, only four days ago, that a truck had broken down the sandbags in front of the Italian Caribineri office and detonated itself. A suicide attack, a massive explosion, garbage and glass were still littering the street. The road had been sealed off, but this could not stop the idle hands and lives of Nasiriyah’s street children.
I had been set up at the town’s pre-eminent hotel, the Al-Janoob, in a comfortable room with satellite television. The Dubai Sports Channel would keep me occupied with its irrelevant programming as I watched the sun set outside. It was time for a walk.
Two men dressed in black approached me and made hand signals to look at my passport. I did not have it on me. “Tourist…. Canada,” I offered.The larger fellow of the two shrugged his shoulders and patted me on the back.
A knock at the door the following morning, a small man with glasses greeting me, stating that he was appointed to be my guide. Ara was a pleasant fellow, and spoke my own language well. I told him that a simple wander around town would be fine, and we did just that: through Nasiriyah’s cluttered central roads, along shops and sidewalks heavily adorned with signs; merchandise was abundant, cardboard boxes full of soft drinks and television monitors and satellite dishes turning the sidewalk into its own open market. “Since the war, we have been able to get new items in Iraq,” he said, “and now everyone is trying to get one appliance of each.”
New cars clogged the roads as well: “before the war, all you would see are the old orange and white Volgas. But now, people go to Kuwait to buy new cars. And they are everywhere. Perhaps we have too many cars now, because it is so difficult to drive in town anymore!”
Around to the Euphrates, where I had been walking the previous afternoon. I had noticed a large amount of war damage, large swaths of office buildings without windows and doors, their walls knocked down. He explained that looters had done more damage to the town than the fighting between Americans and Ba’ath party loyalists, with the local Iraqis stealing windows, doors, trees, and even bricks after the loyalists had fled. Indeed, they had created most of the destruction along the Euphrates, and dozens of newly formed political parties were now squatting in the many offices that had become vacant: parties like the “Iraqi Hamas Republic movement” and “Islamic Communist Party” had banners strung across open doorways; some buildings boasted three or four parties all living harmoniously together under one roof.
“What were these people thinking – this is our town, our things to use,” he said, kicking a torn tile from the sidewalk. A crowd of teenagers was working beside the river, trying to bend a piece of aluminum from a former roadsign together. “The kids here are all looking for stuff to sell. They can get a few dinars from some scrap metal. And look at those two – trying to wreck the kid’s seesaw!” He yelled at them, while they were throwing a boulder at the base of the seesaw, and they wandered away.
We were back at the Italian’s old building, populated by policemen searching for things while crowds of kids lingered. Looking for more scraps, when the police turned their backs they would jump inside the site, looking to pilfer anything worth selling. One kid on a bicycle was commanding his small group, as they gathered items and brought them to him; he would observe them and appraise them, throwing away those things without worth while throwing others into a fabric bag. These were the same children who had surrounded me on my arrival the previous day, and I asked Ara why they were not in school.
“Perhaps because their parents do not care. They just want them to bring back money, no matter of where it comes from.”
We stood observing Italian soldiers secure the perimetre while they brought in a crane to remove two shells of vehicles. The police were pushing an old woman out of the site, the lady trying her best to swipe some wooden scraps to be used for firewood. In spite of all this the site was open, and children waited near the edge of the property to make their moves.
We continued onward down the road, Ara greeting other friends and pointing out other Italian offices. They had secured the museum, the hospital, and other large Ba’ath party buildings. Though we wandered past a theatre, the only one in Nasiriyah, its roof hung down, windows missing, and nothing but broken bricks inside. He explained the fight between Americans and the party loyalists, who had fled to the theatre, and caused the theatre to be struck by a missile. Once the missile hit and the loyalists fled again, looters stole all of the lights and chairs.
Sheep were grazing in the grass around another collapsed office building, and we stopped for lunch, though this involved myself simply purchasing chocolate and heading back to the hotel. Deep into Ramadan, he was adamant of not eating, and our afternoon was punctuated by a visit to a local internet café and a search for my chocolate bars. Sweets sellers were still doing solid business, and in fact, business of all types was quite active.
A few streets had been blocked by piles of stone and brick, and outside this hotel there was open traffic and a policeman or two. Late afternoon, I wished Ara well, and was content to spend the evening again with the Dubai Sports Channel.
A different fellow in the morning, Mahar, and he had a car. An old Impala, late seventies that is, and this was new to him. “I bought it from Kuwait just a few months ago,” he told me, and I told him that today I wanted to get to Ur.
Mahar had strong opinions of the war, a full supporter of it. “You know, before, I had nothing. I was working wherever I could to get food for my family. But now, only six months later, I am working for a company, I made enough to buy a car, I have a cell phone and several appliances in my home.” We wandered the food market where he said he visits every day, to purchase fresh food for his evening meal with his family.
However, he was not happy with the security in Iraq. “With Saddam, at least, you had safety. I could take my family to the river at night for tea, but now it is far too dangerous. Now there is crime, and no fear, people do whatever they want. I always need to worry about someone going into my house and taking things, for the safety of my wife and children.”
I let out a nervous laugh and offered “Welcome to the free world.”
Back to the hotel to get a camera. A crane was laying concrete barriers out front, though I paid no attention. With my best tourist face, we waded through traffic over the only open bridge and out to the desert. On the horizon was a massive monolith: though still many kilometres in the distance, Ur loomed on the flat expanse, the ancient Ziggurat of millenia gone. And in front of it, a lightly protected American checkpoint. As with Babylon, paperwork would have to be submitted and I would have to return tomorrow.
Familiar images persisted here on Nasiriyah’s outskirts: on the opposite side of a road from the American’s military camp, crowds of older Iraqis sat idly and waited for opportunities to rush the fences and pilfer whatever they may find. They were selling medals, and the road towards town was dotted with several restaurants and souvenir stalls for the largest influx of tourists Iraq had ever seen, the American Army. Carpets, swords, medals, and Osama Bin Laden lighters were on sale beside tea stalls and kebab stands, an impromptu merchandise fair for the travelling military caravan.
At the hotel again, and concrete barriers and razorwire had been erected outside. Driving back he bemoaned the increased difficulty of getting around, of the extra roads blocked that day, of the closed streets around the hotel. A dozen Italian journalists had checked in, and extra precautions were being taken. However, he was still not pessimistic of this occupation: “Of course we know the Americans are here for oil,” he began. “We have always known that. But with Saddam, the oil profits would only go to the Ba’ath party members. For everyone else, we had nothing. At least now, maybe they will hire some of us to work with them and regular people can get some wealth from the oil.”
The Italian journalists were wholly uninterested in me, though they cluttered the lobby in its entirety. Morning had come again, and the Americans had not contacted me regarding visiting Ur, as they said they would. So, Mahar greeted me in the morning and once more we went out to the site, Ur in the morning, and the same soldier greeted us.
“Uh, sorry, your form didn’t get submitted to headquarters,” he said dumbly, fumbling with his equipment, appearing far less confident about my situation than the day before. “But I’m going there now and will submit it, so hopefully they will get back to you soon.”
“I have nothing else on my agenda for today, so I will wait here.” He nodded. The checkpoint had an interpreter today, an Iraqi fellow, and he greeted us profusely, extolled the virtues of Ur, and stood in the way of oncoming vehicles.
Some time passed before a different soldier, a female, approached us. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow. They need a day to process your information.”
I explained I did not have tomorrow, that tomorrow would be a day spent on the way back to Baghdad; it was now, or not on this trip. Wandering back to her post and leaning into her radio, she made a return trip to our position and repeated all she knew.
Disappointed, I was not impressed. “They should not be so protective of these sites; what about the tourists who want to visit them? How will we get them here if it is so difficult to see?” Mahar offered. I agreed, but suggested that we take the road around the camp’s perimetre so I could get a few decent photos of the place.
Past the thieves sitting idly on the roadside opposite the camp, he found a dirt road and turned off into some drying mud. Bedouin tents were sprawled sparsely amongst the muck, and we crawled slowly along to within a half kilometre of the Zigurrat.
I happily snapped away, he turned the car around, and two men approached our vehicle. Heated discussion began; they were local Bedouin, chatting intensely with Mahar, and their tones of voice were certainly not optimistic. Camera low, him looking dumb, they eventually left our vehicle and we grumbled back onto the paved road. “I told them I was looking for a nearby village and had lost my way. They say that they are allowed to stay here as a favour of the army, but must arrest anyone they do not recognize coming around here.” His excuse was good enough for them.
The soldiers were not hard to find: several of them had taken up positions on their side of the road, machine guns at ready, heavy eyes on the crowds of Iraqi pilferers who were now cowering in the dirt and still looking for a magic opportunity to dash to the camp’s fence and find something to take. I had been negotiating with Mahar regarding a return trip to Baghdad, and he was keen on taking me; not for free, but he seemed an easier person to trust than the men who drove the orange and white contraptions around the nation.
Into town, and navigating Nasiriyah’s streets had become a hard chore. This one closed, another guarded and blocked, the only one open to everyone seemed to be the main street through town that was at a standstill from traffic.
As close as I could get to Ur, and an appointment for tomorrow morning at Babylon; the arrangements were made. It was one final evening in Nasiriyah of pre-recorded soccer games and a half-cooked Kebab, sun setting on the Euphrates, and another surprisingly cold evening, a silent night bereft of explosions and gunfire. As well, in my room was a gift: a new space heater, which I used to its fullest.
“Forty Kilometres, then I will be eating and smoking under the sun.”
He was referring to Ramadan, and the general rules. Though if he indulged once outside of the forty kilometre limit that the Koran had stated, he would have one more day to make up at the end of Ramadan. For him, it was about sacrifice and discipline, though perhaps this explained his eagerness to take me north.
More food was on the road, with a steady convoy of well protected trucks moving in our direction. On the rear of each trailer was a printed sign in english: Thanksgiving Meal Order. An easier way north without a shared taxi stop, we were one half hour early for my appointment at the Polish checkpoint.
I was not alone. There was a French reporter with his two Iraqi aides, and later a duo of Ukrainian origin joined us. It was ninety minutes that tried all of our patience until a large soldier ushered us into a minivan, and we went a kilometre inward after being searched. At least, I would see Babylon.
Though, the site had been heavily reconstructed by Saddam Hussein. The Ukrainians had hired a tour guide for their trip, and due to military security we were forced to stay together. Most of Babylon had been rebuilt, sprawling empty courtyards, and each new brick had inscribed in it a sentence praising Saddam’s reconstruction. The two journalist teams scanned the horizon with their cameras, making sure they obtained enough footage. The soldier wandered over.
“You are tourist? It is a bit…. dangerous here in Iraq, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know…. it seems okay, “ returning a friendly smile.
A small patch of ancient Babylon remains. Nearest to Saddam’s palace, in spite of its most ruined state it came off as far more fascinating than the beige bricks built in this recent era. Mostly a maze of walls, though there remained some relief walls with animals carved from them and grafiiti etched in the bricks that goes back as far as the second world war – scrawls like “Johan, 1940” were clearly legible below the animals. As well, there was an old statue of a lion that had stood the test of time, and was the culmination of the organized tour. The guide pointed out that most of Babylon’s greatest treasures had been plundered for decades, from the Germans, French, and British; there was little left for the Iraqis to call their own. I gave a thumbs up to the soldiers at the checkpoint. “You happy?” one asked.
Onward north to Baghdad, we passed tanks and queued for fuel again. There was a massive fuel shortage in the country, and Mahar blamed the Iraqis, who had been tapping pipelines and damaging them in the process, thus destroying the infrastructure to transport gasoline effectively to the entire country. “They always think about themselves, can they not see a little in front of their eyes?”
The ride from Hillah to Baghdad was rife with activity: Polish soldiers had surrounded a bank in a small town along the highway; American soldiers were propped up against a dirt mound and aiming rifles outward into the desert; Iraqi police had found bombs buried in a median on the freeway. One hour more, and Mahar uttered “I have not been back to Baghdad since the war.”
His face was filled with shock at the extent of damage. Every television tower had been destroyed, along with other buildings in his sight. He knew the city, but not entirely well, and was looking for an office he remembered where the GMCs went back to Amman. In circles a few times before he stopped to ask a well dressed man for directions, it was many turns and stops as he made no mistake to ask for guidance at every intersection. In a clean neighbourhood untouched by the invasion we found our office.
It was late afternoon. He asked the men inside if there was a vehicle heading back to Amman soon, and they said no – only in the morning, as the evening is far too dangerous. So another night in Baghdad for me – until a teenage boy ran from the office, yelling our way. “He says he knows someone going tonight.”
Over the bridge and back to Tahrir square, deep in the traffic, a Caprice filled with a few heavily smoking men. Bargaining hard for the price, making sure it would be no more than I paid to get here; though he was only going to Trebil, the border with Jordan, and from there it would be more to reach Amman. Fair enough, I said.
However, Mahar stood dumbfounded beside me, admitting he knew nothing of Baghdad. He knew how to get here, and a few of the roads, but he had no notion of hotels and restaurants, and meekly offered “it is too late to return to Nasiriyah, only one hour of sunlight left. And it’s dangerous to be out at night.” I squared him away with some dollars and the business card of the hotel I had stayed, and with that kissed him on both cheeks and entered the vehicle.
It would be a half hour of vicious combat to get out of Baghdad’s city traffic. Even when the stoplights worked, people ignored them; this was a lawless society, a country without a government, a place that had been so used to order thrust down their throat that they could not handle so much freedom given to them so suddenly. Roaring back out onto the six lane highway, the driver was a lean man who needed a cigarette in his hand every moment. He browsed the radio stations, through clattering Arabesque and western pop, from The Temptations to Al Ustath Al-Gubbenchi and finally to some old English classics. The sun was working its way downward, and Mick started wailing with his sympathy for the devil.
“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.” It was dark by then, though the horizon was still purple, and tires burned on the roadside, while convoys of trucks inched along like broken neon lights, and we broke Ramadan’s fast at a truck stop. “But what’s puzzling you, is the nature of my game……”
It was back on the highway with a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounding us, the heat of the day giving way to a cool night. Further on the freeway, past Ramadi and its palm trees, into the open flat expanse of the desert and the deep evening, a glut of stars hanging once again over our roof as we wound westward.