Ignited Iraq | The Nation


Ignited Iraq

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Anger resurfaced when we went inside the former library, where the students were eating lunch. Izzi and I were surrounded by students who pushed toward us with complaints. Civil servants haven't been paid; some of their professors have been months without salary; how dare Paul Bremer, the American administrator, not come to see us; we don't want the Baathists back but right now nothing's working; if Bremer won't listen to us he's the second Saddam; I demand to see Bremer, this is my right; Bremer is the new thief of Baghdad; since Americans have the most power and money in the world, they can at least buy us some books. Bringing up the rear, two women students were more soft-spoken but determined to be heard. "It's so unsafe for a woman or a girl to go about now," said one. "Before, we couldn't talk freely but we could walk," said the other, "and now we can talk freely but we can't walk."

Peter Davis was on assignment in Iraq this summer for The

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Peter Davis
Peter Davis is an author and filmmaker who received an Academy Award in 1975 for his documentary on the Vietnam...

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In the early part of the twentieth century, women’s creative talent was far more widely recognized and valued in the filmmaking community.

By the time Izzi and I were back outside, a crowd of students were shouting at us. "Americans are here for oil, nothing else!" "The oil ministry is secure for the Americans, fuck the rest of the country!" "I hate Americans because they're free and I'm not!" "My friend brought his pregnant wife to the hospital, but before they got there they were stopped at an American checkpoint where the soldiers shot him. Who will be the father of his baby?" "Basra is secure under the British, why not Baghdad under the Americans?" "Bush is a liar!" "He promises and does nothing!" "Go tell the American people what happens here so they can hate Bush the way we hate Bush and we hate Saddam!"

I was beginning to think about Randa's friend Jeff who was shot on the other campus. Izzi himself looked concerned, and though he is a rapid translator he couldn't keep up with the epithets and oaths being thrown at us. "Can't you stupid Americans understand what you've done here!" a student yelled, and we left quickly.

"That's the thing," Izzi told me as we drove off. "You don't know when you're in danger and when you're safe." This had also been true for Izzi himself under Saddam Hussein, when one of his jobs had been to translate movies for Saddam and his son Uday. Saddam's favorite movie was Braveheart, and he claimed that if he had an enemy like the Mel Gibson character he would never kill that man but would keep him around for his valor. Uday's own favorite film was Gladiator. The brutal prince loved to see arms and legs and heads go flying, and essentially used the movie as an instructional video for his assassins and torturers. When one movie Izzi translated had a ten-second audio dropout, Uday sent his men to the film office where Izzi worked; Izzi's boss said the translator was out, which wasn't true, and took the beating himself on behalf of Izzi. What worried Izzi now, in addition to the safety of journalists he translated for, was that armed insurgents were beginning to pick off Iraqis just for working with Americans.

One evening, when our confinement in the hotel was beginning to seem as unnecessary as it was claustrophobic, Alicia and I asked Izzi and our driver, a former Iraqi Air Force jet pilot named Abu Mustafa, to drop us at an Internet cafe. We told them to go on home, and we'd take a taxi after we used the Internet. Abu Mustafa, whose antennae were particularly sensitive, said he didn't think it was a wonderful idea. Izzi thought it would be all right, as there were a lot of cabs going up and down the wide street we were on in what he said was a relatively placid neighborhood.

The proprietor of the Internet cafe was the sort of man who runs the candy store in one of those movies they release around Halloween; you don't know if he wants to help you or turn you over to Stephen King. We were unable to send or receive messages on his computers, and we left quickly while it was not yet fully dark. The street was reassuringly busy; Baghdad at night is both lively and deadly. Getting a taxi was easy, although the taxi itself had a desperately sick engine. The driver spoke a little English and said he knew where our hotel was. He didn't, and he had a swimming eyeball. As his taxi lurched forward around an altogether unfamiliar neighborhood, taking turns we knew were wrong, the cabbie asked if we were Europeans. No, Alicia said. Canadians, I said. We were getting nervous but we couldn't clutch one another's hands because we'd been told it was unacceptable for men and women to touch in public. The driver, groping around for our hotel on streets we didn't recognize, asked if we had children. Alicia said we had a 15-year-old. Boy or girl? the cabbie asked. Alicia said boy at the same instant I said girl. That was the only night we disobeyed the rules.

Americans working for the government, despite inconveniences and delays, seemed upbeat. "The state of human rights here is improving every day," said Sandra Hodgkinson, a lawyer in the office of human rights and transitional justice. "For over twenty years people couldn't express a view. Now they can speak, write, march, demonstrate." Her husband, David, also a lawyer, is a senior adviser on transitional rights, and the couple are involved variously with torture victims, helping Iraqis recover property, and reintegrating former political prisoners into society. Sandra became a member of Amnesty International while she was still in high school, and David is an idealist about their work. "What we do," he said, "is so much more interesting and exciting than the big money on tax issues or corporate mergers." The couple, in their early 30s, are the kind of optimists and loyalists who can't wait to get to work in the morning. When I asked them to compare Jay Garner, the first postwar administrator, with his successor, Paul Bremer, Sandra fairly bounced. "Garner got us working together in Kuwait," she said, "and Bremer got us all up and running in the governing phase after we arrived here. All I've seen is two great bosses." A team needs team players. This is the kind of enthusiasm that moved mountains in postwar Europe and Japan.

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