Baghdad by Bus
(Warning: Don’t try to go yourself as of now. I wouldn’t. My own personal risk was substantially smaller and more in proportion with my determination than at this time, I benefited from circumstances and givens you do not know, and I researched it thoroughly before I went in ways perhaps not accessable by you.)
I got a little suspicious when the original seat I had chosen suddenly flapped unfastened in my hands after I had been fumbling around with it. Could the whole trip be a scam, if the seats were? Was it bound to soon end near the Iraqi highway, the ambushers informed by cell phones? How should they know that my salary averaged only 100$ which was what l had on me, (a fact that was evident to anyone I told where I worked, even the occasional beggars ceased begging as a consequence) It was too cheap to be true, too ( ca. 6JD). But gradually the bus to Baghdad started filling, people chatted with me and became less obscure, even two ladies got on board, one bleached blonde, both more or less scarfed, and as I had reaccommodated, some other poor person had to sit it out the next 15 hours plus on the seat that I had damaged beyond repair.
The only truly creepy moment was when it turned night and the bus stopped to stay next to the road for some hours after we had crossed the border to Iraq. Crossing the border is a long process on the Jordanian side, a short stamp into the passport—as a woman I was waved to the front of the long line—on the Iraqi side, the interesting bit was to see 2 GIs eating pie out of a box, sitting at a desk in front of the small immigration building. “Nothing ever happens here”, they said. Probably true, because when I returned several days later, they recognized me even through the bus window, despite my scarf and waved at me. It’s a homely part of the world when nobody’s using them guns. Kind of like my reminiscences of Texas: Barbecues, (a.k.a. Kebab) unintelligible language of which you only ever to pick up the singsong and beginnings of a drawled “you sure” or “there ain’t (alternatively: “Mafi”), driving through the desert, and when your friend behind the wheel gets nervous as she seems to have gotten lost after taking a wrong turn, the hour approaching midnight, and you wonder what in the world could happen in such a homely place such as the highway in her home state, she’ll point at the holes in the traffic signs: a different kind of pass time. Texans don’t like speed-regulating superimposing traffic signs—were they homesick Texans who demolished the omnipresent supersize murals of Saddam Hussein with their machine guns?
As the light was turned off and everyone in the bus went to sleep, I wondered what I could do if I had to go to the loo. I am a person who can tell you and finds it essential to know where all the best public loos in every city I’ve ever been are. It was pitch-black out side and I really didn’t want to be out there with the potential “ambushers”—“nobody knows who they are” I was told, the war, as had been predicted, made way for these gangs to come over from God knows which countries.
At dawn, when the sky turned into a pulpy red and then orange over the cinemascopically wide desert, I saw that there was another bus with us. During the whole trip, they stopped twice at surprisingly well frequented restaurants (or truck stops) with clean ladies rooms, coke and food that smelled very tempting at the highway on the Iraqi side. During the return trip, the pregnant woman next to me, whom the bus picked up after the taxi she and her husband had rented had broken down, also refrained from eating anything, as we didn’t know how long the ride would take and in the flat stretched out desert there were no bushes to speak of. There was another lady n board, and she was visibly pregnant, too, I couldn’t think why so many pregnant women took the burden onto themselves to go to Jordan at their stages until I heard of the effects of depleted uranium used by the US military and the lack of medical equipment in post-war Iraq.
When she got on the bus with her husband and was given the seat next to me, I expected to be able to practice my mediocre Arabic, but was amazed as she responded in perfect English when I offered her one of my lukewarm water bottles. The jeans under her gabeya (kimono-style gown—she said she never had to wear it to be safe before the turmoil brought forth by the war) surprised me, too, and most of all, the cooler full of ice-cold coke cans they had brought and then shared with me, sorry owner of 6 remaining liters of Jordanian water I had brought on the first trip in case the vehicle broke down for good, which I had been warned about. I don’t remember how may hours she said they had waited under the shadow of that bridge until a bus would come and pick them up. 2 people with luggage weren’t likely to find places in another taxi, and it must have been a scary experience to not know who else might come along while they stood there. Not to forget that taking a pee which you would basically be able to see all the way to the 3 bordering countries wasn’t, as aforementioned, my personal favorite situation, so when she handed me that ice-cold coke, (as in the very brand name, and many more were to follow) it was quite surreal: Like this old Pepsi commercial starring Cindy Crawford.
I would also like to mention that as I managed to lose track of my only remaining Jordanian note (until I found it several months later between some papers), and as Saddam-money was not wanted once we had crossed the border, different people turned out to have paid part of the fare for my return trip for me, as the original trip was suspended when bussed were changed. Another driver had offered to go right through to Amman rather than wait and sleep at the border in the same bus which would have been the alternative, and I suddenly needed more different rides in different buses to the main bus terminal. The guy at the Jordanian bus station also didn’t make a fuzz when I was a few notes short of the whole fare as this early in the morning no moneychangers were around. It impressed me: nobody gave me a hard time and made me feel like a faredodger (which I wasn’t) or a slob (which I truly am).
I also wonder where this rubbish comes from that women are not ever respected in Islamic countries: For instance I don't recall ever having to even drag my luggage from bus to bus. The husband of the pregnant lady did that for both of us, sombody else volunteered to shlepp the Jordanian ton of water into the bus for me. I don't feel disrecpected when people help me. I also appreciated the fact that I wasn't expected to sit butt to butt with a male passenger. It sounds weird, but thanks to all those people who made it so it's the coziest journey I ever made.
I want people like that to live, and I want those pregnant women to have normal-looking, healthy babies, not like those without faces due to the uranium contamination I read about. It's even in the water, in the produce. You can't really avoid it when you live there. After coming back, an Iraqi biology professor told me about the dramatic increase of cancer in the years after the first gulf war. He had it, his little daughter had it. I drank the water, too.
Flesh and Blood
Here with me is the actual Iraqi national with whom I will later exchange various tokens and thoughts. She also showed me how to drape the scarf a bit sexier and make it stick to my head where it continued to slip off in quarterly intervals. Her family prepared especially lactose-free meals for me--in the meat-based muslim culture this is usually hard to relate, but they were very understanding. They also got me kilos of food for the return trip and made the costly effort of calling me to hear if I am okay months later when I was distinctly not so.
Friend cannot currently be reached by last given number so I don’t know if dead or alive. Thera are many bombings and shootings in Baghdad and allover Iraq. People stay in after dark, but I also noticed how claustrophoic it makes you to stay indoors all day. ( So I, like most people, didn't) In the background you can see a bit of the famous hotel complex with part of the Meridian building on it—otherwise known as Palestine— which is where all the reporters stayed during the war, and still do so. The whole complex is like a fort, people are refrigerated inside, no frequent power failures there unlike in the area of my hotel or my friend’s house with mostly gadget devices like non-working ac or ventilation, fridge, TV, light, telephone. ON-off, on--off. Then, most communication centers had been destroyed anyhow.
On the left you can see the netting applied by the army. There is a tank right in front of the hotel facing the circle with its posts of money -changers, somtimes kids, sitting out in the open at tables and desks waiting for customers. The vehicle is not really hidden by the net or anything, so I am not telling any military secrets. I was not allowed to take a photograph of it. Talking about perspective, I of course also approached the one or the other GI.
Now, Iraqis and generally people in the Middle East know very well how to distinguish between people and governments of hostile countries. But I was fully aware of how this would look: I was talking to someone (painfully young, transpiring what seemed like a liter a minute in his full military gear in the Iraqi summer heat, humble and open-minded) in full vulnerable view of the population. I had questioned people on the subject and 99% saw the army not as part of a liberating (as the soldier indicated he saw himself) force, but as part of the killing force that invaded and destroyed their country rather than use other means to get rid of the man the US had helped built. Nobody missed Saddam though. Instead of now fearing outlashes and suppression by omni-present Saddam, the people I asked were now scared of speaking out or being photographed because of what the new power--the occupying forces--might do to them.
The friend was not allowed to go to see the view from the Sheraton with me, (which is supposed to be the best you can have of the city, or rather, back then on the fires and frequent shootings) because her father didn’t want her to be out and about and perhaps shot as happened to her sister months earlier. The sister had 7 holes in her body which look like those bruises on an apple when you press your thumb into it and leave it lying around for some hours to change color. She always smiles back a little too late and tended to sway back and forth a lot. She couldn’t be up much and didn’t want to be photographed -I didn't want to ask why but I could imagine she didn't want to be a "thing" with bullet holes to look at as someone had made her that already. She also couldn't be in a room with an American male person whom I had invited along once for educational purposes. (She stayed in her rooms because he was a man and not because he was American)
She had gotten up especially for my visit and was as light as a feather when I hugged her. It was very hard to see her like that and to know that 9-11 that killed my loved one lead to her being in this state and not being able to do anything about it and she was so young and couldn't leave her house anymore. She'd hear and see the instruments of her suffering all over. Mostly I stayed with them in their home or in the car when they would dropme off. Even driving to a store to buy was a risk, and still is.
When I later left the Sheraton to go back to my cheaper hotel to defrost there was indeed sudden shooting going on and as we had all made it unscratched, the taxi driver demanded an extra tip, likely because he was the only person who hadn’t been able to duck in the car as he had to watch where he was going and he may have been a bit upset that these things were happening in his country because of these bloody foreigners. For the most part I involuntarily faredoged my way around town as people insisted to pay for me.
At one time everbody turned around when I climbed into bus and they wanted to know all about me rather than drive off, including the bus driver. When I made the one unsuccessful attempt to purchase food at a restaurant which turned out to not have anything vegetarian the owner asked what I really wanted, walked me to a falafel (chickpea-type burger) joint a few blocks away, bought the food for me, had me eat it in his place and invited me to tea. I got cautious. The tea had a strange flavor to it…could it be ..almond-arsenic? It was cardamon, my neighbor had told me about it on an earlier occasion. But you see, people were too friendly, I was used to a little bit from my stay in the ME, but not like that.
I also didn’t WANT them to be so nice, I mean I had come to explain things and say how sorry I was, and then I got this extreme friendliness and generosity all the time. It shocked me that they were so nice even though they had had such a hard time with the bombs every night and losing people and getting injured.. They got “it”, losing somebody, the war, terrorism, I didn’t need to explain much and I read the despair and bitterness I knew from my own in many faces. No jokes, jealousy, indifference, accusations. But fear: It took my friend's family a while to tell me what they really thought about the war, after being vague about it initially. Their question was: "What did we do that they did this to us?" I also just didn’t want this to have happened to those I couldn’t run into anymore because they were dead. That it happened doesn't make it right.
The hotel in which I stayed in Baghdad had an elevator, but the stout female hotel servant had smiled and shaken her head as she balanced my suitcase on it and ascended onto the first of 5 flights up rather than use the elevator to which I had pointed wonderingly. That was before I knew of the power cuts, and it was also where downstairs, some Iraqis always sat to watch TV in the lobby (when the power was on), and where the foreign aid workers cooked their food one evening when I came in and where I hung out with some. Several months later the hotel had been attacked with a car bomb and the lobby exploded and several people had been killed. Talk about bad karma-or effects of irresponsible foreign policy decisions leading to this, by people other than me! Needless to say, my digestive system was a bit upset again.
I wish everyone I met on that trip in flesh and blood, whatever side they may be on, is still safe and sound. I stopped checking those body-count sites. It doesn't help to stop this mad waste of human life. Meeting people helped me to understand there is no we and them, violence taught me the senselessnes of violence other than agony and heartache. I hope more people "get it" without the finality of this experience. In Iraq, the people I met did.