Monday, August 3, 2009

ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation

     I spent my final night in Baghdad under palm trees with my cousins, laughing hysterically and enjoying every moment over chai until the chatter faded and the time came close for me to leave.
The remainder of the night, or morning, was exhausted listening to Summer of ‘69 while packing for my flight. Once again, the east and the west in me battled head to head. Shouldn’t I be listening to some old Iraqi folk if I am so in love with this place? Why am I listening to some house remix of Bryan Adams while mentally planning my next trip back?

     I thought about the trip, and whether or not it was actually scary. Did I ever feel like my life was threatened? Not often. The soldiers never scared me—they were all dolls. We didn’t witness any bombs. We heard what may have been a gunshot once. There was a fake bomb scare one night. Oh--and at one point, there was a sniper aimed at my head...but not on purpose! We just happened to drive through some guy's target. None of these things scared me. What did scare me, when I was scared, had been the lack of value in human life. Don't get me wrong, it is not that Iraqis disregard human life--it is that life is lost so often and so tragically here that it is impossible for Iraqis to mourn the way we do in America. There are so many kidnappings that it is impossible to report them all on the news. There are many deaths that a whole newspaper would need to be dedicated to obituaries, rather than a humble section of a the Times. In America, human life is valuable. Comatose individuals are attached to machines, left without a voice or blink for months or years before they are allowed to pass. If a 13 year old gets caught in a gang crossfire, we generally hear about it in the news. If a child is kidnapped, I receive an Amber Alert text. If a dog is saved from an abusive football player in Nowheresville, the civilized world goes crazy. In Baghdad, if a camera is turned towards a group of people, and whoever is behind the camera is accused of being a journalist, one stray bullet will lead to nothing more than another lifeless human being. Another death. Another family that will mourn with the rest of the country—possibly for a second, third, fourth, or fifth time. So there I was. 5 am. iPod was on The Clash by now. Getting ready to leave what was the grim reality of life to 22 million people.

     En route BGW, Baghdad’s International Airport. Like a binge eater after starvation, my eyes were glued to the road. I didn’t want to miss a thing. What if it took another 7 years before I could come back? What if, what if, what if? I put on my shades…young, lost, and fabulous—I guess some things will never change. Palm trees under the orange desert sky alongside old masonry buildings tangled in barbed wire never looked so beautiful. As Gibran so eloquently stated in The Prophet, the desert, with its endless monotony, put me to dreaming. Goodnight, Baghdad.


so they left me in charge of the family video...

a day at the tailor


A lot of things changed in Baghdad--except for one thing has remained the exact time. Note the structure in both the first and final photographs of this set. Saddam's Mosque. Not a crane has moved since I left it in 2002. Saddam was building the world's largest mosque, and naming each of the 7 doors after his family, which is considered blasphemous in Islam as such honors tend to be named after the holy. The minarets were to be higher than those in Madina as a direct act of disrespect towards a city holy to all of the world's Muslims. After Saddam fell, construction ceased. And, like a 20-storey fly on the wall, the structure seems untouched as it looms over a poorer district of the city.

"what makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well"

ilee y'reed shee y’oof shee (he who wants something leaves something)

The irony of the gas station in one of the most oil rich countries

Where electrical poles do not discriminate against balconies

I am constantly asked whether I think like was better pre or post-invasion. Though I don't think it is fair to ask someone who isn't living in the country, there are some obvious differences between the now and then.

For one, electricity has worsened. With the Gulf War, electrical plants were bombed and destroyed. As a result, Iraq’s electricity has constantly been in and out, constantly rotating between various parts of the city. In 2002, before the war, Baghdad’s electricity patterns were 3 hours on for every 6 hours off. Generally, you know when to be home and when to charge your cell, when to operate kitchen appliances, and especially when not to shower. I can’t count the amount of great memories that involve someone yelling from a dark shower due to a nighttime power outage.

In 2009, despite the incredible amounts of money claimed to be pumped into Iraq’s infrastructure, the devastated power plants remain in use as electricity worsens. Days passed when, literally, we enjoyed 2 hours of electricity, neglecting the remaining 22 hours in a day. The electricity even cut out at the International Airport—twice! My cousin questioned the ability of x-rays machines and other security measures at that moment—and we were only able to laugh. But like Abraham Flexner once shrewdly noted, “no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both.”

The quality of life has dramatically deteriorated. Nights aren’t the same when you can’t get home after 11 pm. In Baghdad, men refuse to risk their lives by driving late at night and women refuse to ride in taxis at night due to safety concerns. Also, in my gated district of Kadhimiyya, cars aren’t allowed in past midnight. I always try to figure out why I do things or abide by rules, but I was not able to figure this one out. Leave it to the social butterfly to be so bothered by the fact that I needed a cohort of men to leave the house in safety after dark, and to question it. But seriously, the only thing that I encountered was a soldier trying to flirt with me once while I was crossing a checkpoint. He thought I was alone, not realizing I was part of the large group ahead. I guess I understand why men shouldn’t be out too late—as all young Iraqi men are always careful not to look suspicious. But I cant help but wonder if it is actually dangerous for women to be out at night or if everybody is, very justifiably, overly cautious due to the imminent danger that lurked in preceding years.

Previously, we would go out without fear. There were certain parties that ladies would avoid, as it was rumored that Saddam’s sons would attend the parties and grant themselves all access passes to any ladies. And for a lady, it was follow directions or be killed with your family (very likely after much humiliation and torture). Of course, one also had to be avoid saying anything about Saddam or his family. That would be a one-way ticket to…something grim. Who knows what.

On a more positive note, salaries have increased, as has the cost of living (well, positive for those who can make through serious inflation). Saddam’s regime had become notorious for ridiculous salaries that people used to receive. Doctors would receive a meager salary of a couple dollars per month.

And of course, another change is that there is now MTV. For better…or worse, I was able to catch up on The Hills one late night. Really, though—what would a summer in Baghdad be without Justin Bobby? Baghdad, pre 2k3, was limited to a few channels controlled by the government. I remember being forced to flip through watching Saddam act as loved as ever, strolling through crowds as a hero’s hero, on channel 1…or a Lifetime movie, dubbed and ancient, on channel 2. I think it was one of those summers in Baghdad where I learned to appreciate a good book.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the incredible resilience of the Iraqi people. Without electricity, sanitary water, under all sorts of wars and sanctions, Iraqis have managed to endure making a living and difficult schooling. I recently read an article about an antique shop owner who shut down his shop and sold goods on the side of the road to feed his family when times became tough (I recommend the article—very interesting! Likewise, I clearly remember watching my cousins study under a candle when electricity would cut out during earlier trips to Baghdad. In 2001…not 1901. My neighbor’s daughter is completing her final year of high school, at 24, after putting school off due to the war. She became embarrassed to confess that she had not been done with high school while I was younger than her and a Masters candidate. I was embarrassed that I take my access to education so lightly.

Call me an optimist, but I have a lot of faith in the power of the Iraqi people. War torn and tattered. Sanctions. Peace or war. Dictator or democratic fantasies. DIY generators or the real electrical deal. I have faith…

one step closer to the free world?

Kidding! It's impossible not to get a good laugh out of Mickey Donald.

the dystopian [non]fiction

Outside the gates

Inside the gates

Curiosity gets the best of us outside of a bedroom

Saddam's dining room (now public restaurant) with calligraphy and verses that are commonly about Allah written about Saddam

Saddam was known for his incredible extravagance as his country starved. He had numerous palaces, estimates run between 40-80 costing $2 billion, throughout Iraq. One palace in Baghdad even had a tank on a tall palace wall. I remember the feeling of paranoia as I would try to peek through the peripheries of my eyelids every time we would drive past that particular palace. I just wanted to know what was behind those walls! Or, atleast, how on earth they got that tank up on the concrete wall.

With his fall, pictures surfaced of his palaces being looted by randoms or being used as a basketball court by foreign troops.

One of his palaces, in Hilla (home of the Babylonian ruins), is to be converted to a museum. 90 kilometers outside of Baghdad.
His palace was designed to mimic a Ziggurat. At four-storeys, some 1,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes in order for the residence to be built. With Saddam's fall, it was understood that the palace was clearly never used and had unfortunately become looted. Even the lightswitches on the wall were stolen.

Beneath the palace is the ancient 600-room palace of palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Archeologists were horrified as Saddam laid 600 million bricks over the 2,500 year old site, (random fact: the new bricks began to crack 10 years after construction). Inscribed in the bricks: "In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon."

The palace is now o
pen, when the military feels like it should be, for outsiders to roam. Of course, outsiders do not roam because the road to the ruins was known as a death road in its recent past, leaving the palace and the ruins virtually empty.

As we crossed through the gates to his palace, I couldn't help but feel that 1984-esque, big brother paranoia. Is he watching? The last time I was here, crossing these gates meant getting shot. For those of you as curious as I have been to get a micro-glimpse of how Saddam lived, enjoy.

**Update. It is February 2010, 1:45 am, and I am working on my thesis re the Iraq Museum. Slightly delirious. But check out what I just found! This dude photographed Saddam's palaces while being used as housing by US troops.

eero saarinen meets baghdad?

I fell in love with this mosque. So much love that I had my uncle stop the car in the middle of traffic to run into it, talk to more military officials into allowing me to take pictures within the mosque's gates. Outside of the mosque is a military office, which allows for renovation according to one officer. Again, the officers were incredibly polite--immediately removing the initial fear I always have when approaching somebody with enough power to get me killed for believing that I am a journalist.

Nonetheless, I love this mosque because it is so representative of Iraq's interest in Modern architecture during the prime of the movement. I want to assume that this was built around the same time that Gropius was designing the University of Baghdad, but I cannot say that for certain. The architect looks like a huge Saarinen fan (non-architects, Google image TWA at JFK--my favorite work of American architecture). I will find a name for this mosque and research it, and hopefully be able to update this post.

a [war kissed] night at the museum

Most legible view of facade without getting picture of military


Corridor before museum

"Treasures Room"

The first written law/"constitution" in history, Code of Hammurabi, 1790 BC

I suppose there is one pro to war. Ok, a very selfish one, I admit…but as it turns out, museums are not on peoples' must-see lists in the midst of a war. Admit it, you would feel the same way if you were in a building full of artifacts, antiquities, and ruins from the beginning of time, alone! 6,000 years BC, if not more! Chilling with the Code of Hammurabi and Babylonian ruins! Amazing. I remembered how it felt to love again. Ok, kidding--not that dramatic. Maybe just to crush. I spent much of the time envisioning what the museum could and might become one day. The artifacts are worth traveling across the world to see.

The National Museum of Iraq was looted at the inception of the war in 2003, and those who looted it were not even merciful enough to leave the marble on the floor. Locals took some of the antiquities to their homes until the chaos calmed, and returned the pieces back to the museum. Other artifacts are rumored to be floating in black markets in Dubai and France. One space, labeled “Treasures Room,” stands eerily dark and vacant amidst columns that pre-date Christ. On a brighter note, one space is dedicated to artifacts that have been returned. And it is very obvious that a lot of care was put into the renovation of the museum, as well as the maintenance since it reopened half a year ago.

The potential of that Art Deco building with the military bunker in front of it is so incredible...