During his final year and a half as lord of misrule, Saddam Hussein liked to joke that Iraqis should win the contract to rebuild the World Trade Center since they had so much experience at reconstruction after the Gulf War of 1991. As events unfolded, something like the opposite happened. The military-industrial complex that recently destroyed so much of Iraq will now be hired to repair the damage. Few Iraqis this summer believe that the postwar contractual arrangements are a coincidence. “You encouraged the looting and burning after you got finished bombing,” a maintenance worker at the Baghdad Polytechnic Institute told me, “so you could get paid for putting it all back up again.”
When the war began in March I was in Hanoi, where the US Embassy helpfully sent a fax to “American citizens in Vietnam” warning of the danger posed by “armed conflict with Iraq.” “Remain vigilantly aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile…. This Public Announcement is being updated to alert Americans to an increased potential for anti-American violence,” and on and on. Since Vietnam is neither a Muslim country nor one where threats against Americans have occurred–it is only a country we invaded a few wars ago–the conclusion was inescapable that the government knew how widely unpopular its action would be. Intellectual isolationism had led to global unilateralism, with the British as the tail of the kite. September 11 had both scared and emboldened us into the second of our new blitzing wars.
Dry, blazing, ignited Iraq is a country whose capital does not loom over its landscape but instead shimmers up out of the desert as though it may or may not eventually materialize. As soon as I arrived in the second week of July it was apparent the country’s needs are so simple as to be alliterative: security, services and structure are the mantra, the liberté-égalité-fraternité of this proposed revolution from despotism to something resembling a representative distribution of power. There was still only sporadic electricity, the water was polluted and Baghdad was considered so dangerous Americans were warned not to go out at night and never to go anywhere without a driver and translator. “This is a rule,” an American said to me the day I arrived. “Don’t break it.”
Yet there was something else, even more obvious than danger though easily overlooked in the rush to keep up with unfolding crises, that quickly became clear. Between most Americans and most Iraqis is a gulf more unbridgeable than the nearby Persian Gulf itself, both in terms of worldview and self-recognition. Like Americans, Iraqis have all kinds of opinions, but almost all of our new subject citizens have such utterly different concepts from ours of words like “freedom,” “liberation” or even “country” and “national identity” that to speak of these where they are concerned is to court major misunderstanding before we have even begun. “Democracy,” of course, has been pounded out of shape on the postwar anvil.
The best time of day in Iraq is between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, when everything is still in shade or shadow yet there is enough light for observation. Tradespeople are coming to work and merchants are filling the souks, offering a range of goods from air-conditioners to shoelaces to newly available magazines to fresh lamb. You could almost be anywhere east of Greece, and if you looked only at the market stalls and not at the scarred, charred and blasted buildings above, you would not know at such a time that although its army and government did not so much lose as melt away, this is now a conquered country. The worst time of day is late afternoon, when you expect the onset of coolness, relief from the inferno of noon, yet it is still so hot you could bake bread in your car, and no one is moving who doesn’t have to. Again, if you kept your eyes on the somnolent bazaars and the vendors who are now bestirring themselves only to ward off flies, you could easily forget you are in a territory occupied by a foreign force whose nationality you share and whose presence is the occasion for both earnest gratitude and violent resistance. The Bradleys rolling down the littered streets tell you where you are.
Know your colony. With a population of 26 million, Iraq possesses the approximate area of California and at least as many citizens who consider themselves candidates for leadership as are running to become that state’s governor. Culturally, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was thriving 4,000 years before Christ. Take numbers, for example. In A History of Mathematics by Carl B. Boyer, the author finds “a high order of civilization” with “progressive mathematical achievements” that include a Mesopotamian numerical base of 60 rather than the more common 10, a system that “has enjoyed a remarkably long life, for remnants survive even to this day in units of time and angle measure.” Examples of their mathematical facility abound: “The fundamental arithmetic operations were handled by the Babylonians in a manner not unlike that which would be employed today…. One finds among the Old Babylonian tablets some table texts containing successive powers of a given number, analogous to our modern tables of logarithms…. The solution of a three-term quadratic equation seems to have exceeded by far the algebraic capabilities of the Egyptians.”
All right then, politics. This is where we run into some problems. Hammurabi brought forth a system of laws admirable for its day, which was 1,750 BCE, but its commonly remembered feature was the vengeance code of an eye for an eye. Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians while extending his territory in the sixth century BCE, and his Babylonian magnificence was supported by slaves. Saladin, a Kurd to whom Saddam Hussein has likened himself, successfully beat back the twelfth-century Crusade, captured Jerusalem and built himself an empire extending from what is now Egypt to Syria to Yemen. It didn’t last.
In recent centuries Iraq has seen itself traded from the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire in a deal that led to an ocean of oil for the West. With boundaries settled by a League of Nations mandate in 1920, Iraq gained its independence from Britain in 1932 and was ruled by kings until the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, which happens to be the only time I was in the Middle East until this past July, a detail whose usefulness I’ll try to make clear presently. There followed a series of brutal coups until the Baath Party emerged, leading in due time to Saddam Hussein’s ascendancy in 1979. Moreso than his predecessors, Saddam maintained himself through what has been described as the exemplary use of violence. According to the historian Charles Tripp, Saddam “reinforced certain tendencies in the history of Iraq, building up a powerful apparatus that brooks no opposition and provides scarcely any space for political activity other than on terms set by him.” Just before I left for Iraq, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, explained Saddam’s weakness to me: “He saw himself as the emperor of Mesopotamia, but unlike the Roman emperors who always kept one slave nearby to whisper to them that they were mortal, Saddam forgot to have that particular slave.” Charles Tripp concludes that once Saddam is run off into history, “the contest for control of the narrative of the Iraqi state will continue, but in these circumstances there is a strong possibility that existing privileges will be entrenched and Iraqis will have good reason to fear subjection once more.”
“Of course, Saddam Hussein’s men tortured and imprisoned indiscriminately, that is true,” said Memdi Salih, a former journalist who was my first interpreter in Baghdad. But there was a hesitancy in his tone, as well as in his use of the word “men” instead of personalizing the acts to Saddam himself as Saddam’s more fervent enemies do, that pointed to Salih’s own complex history. Many of the educated elite in Baghdad are tainted, if one is looking for purity, by some association with Baathists. Salih himself, a furrow-browed, thoughtful man, was in the party because, he said, “You had to be to do anything at all. We were all Baath Party members.” This has rendered him unemployable by the returned exiles who Americans have put in charge of certain fields. “The new communications czar won’t let any of us be hired,” Salih said, “because he lived abroad and hires only exiles, who aren’t really welcome by most of the public.”
Salih’s anger at the United States is only a membrane from the surface. He expresses it by criticizing American-appointed Iraqis, such as those members of the governing council who either lived abroad or have no following, or both. He remains even more critical of the former regime, making a transitive verb of “vanish”–“Saddam’s men vanished people for no reason at all.” Then he returns to his earlier hesitancy. “The Baathist crimes are statistically exaggerated. It was possible to live in Iraq decently and comfortably under Saddam if you weren’t actively opposing the regime.” He said he had been patient with the US-British coalition, but so far he had seen very little progress. “Right now we need someone to issue orders, pay salaries, make communications work which are so very backward, educate people to the new tasks,” he said, possibly with a shade of nostalgia for the days of firm leadership. “Maybe the coalition has made a step forward with the governing council, but I’m not too hopeful.”
You can find support in these postwar, pre-peace days for any prix fixe opinion in Iraq. The coalition is in trouble. Easy. The occupation is popular. Also easy. Americans should stay/go/print new money. All well represented. The occupation is increasingly unpopular. Slam-dunk. You may have to wear thicker blinders to draw the conclusion that everything is rolling along smoothly after a predictably rocky start, but you can find that if you’re determined to. I was looking for something beyond opinion, something including feelings and beliefs that would point to the American footprint and the Iraqi response. As we drove into a neighborhood that has seen vociferous arguments between pro- and anti-American factions, Salih and I noticed a placard in English. Leave Us, someone had painted in red; someone else had come along and crossed it out in a splash of blue. Your guess is as good…
Sahih’s own mixed opinions found another outlet; he was fond of taking reporters to the Abu Hanifa Mosque, an important shrine dedicated to one of the principal saints of Islam. It had been a center of support for the Baath Party and in fact was the last place Saddam Hussein appeared in public. I visited a number of mosques in Iraq; they are social as well as religious gathering places, especially for men, and students even come to them to study for exams. My wife, Alicia Anstead, writing for the Bangor Daily News in Maine, accompanied me to this mosque, which required some preparation. Salih took her to a clothing store and had her buy a long black dress; given that the thermometer that morning was 122 degrees Fahrenheit and rising, this amounted to a gender fine, but Alicia was willing to pay it. She also had to put on socks under her sandals and of course a hijab, or headscarf, that hooded her thoroughly.
In the cavernous hall that surrounds the mosque’s sanctuary were the intricate designs of a faith that does not permit representations of the deity or of saints. On the columns, walls and ceilings every variation was present that I could imagine a line becoming–circles, squares, rhomboids, lines soaring, dipping, lines playing games with other lines, swirling, pointing, angling, sharp, soft, eight-pointed stars, winged lines, more shapes than I’ve ever seen. Lines and curves were raised to a level beyond mere art forms to unassailable facts of the universe. Carpets and prayer rugs were spread over the floors, their own designs of such a celestial nature that people I know would happily convert and pray the requisite five times a day to get these coverings into their living rooms.
I was permitted into the sanctuary while Alicia remained outside. This was similar to the hall but even more elaborately decorated with stars and geometric shapes on its columns and walls and in its vaulted arches and curved ceilings. The tomb of Abu Hanifa is the sanctuary’s sacred altar.
In the hall before the service we were surrounded by boys and young men, who were curious and friendly. We asked them how they felt about Americans. They all spoke at the same time, but one voice, belonging to a student training to become an imam, was most authoritative. “We like you if you come as visitors and go back home,” he said as Salih translated and smiled approvingly, “but we don’t want you to stay as soldiers and run the country. Be our friends, not our occupiers.” The young men parted to form a path as a courtly gentleman came up to us and, in impeccable English, introduced himself as the former minister of industry, retired since 1989. What did he think of the current situation? “Ah,” he said, “ask the young lads here, we’ll all give you the same answer.” Salih nodded his own agreement as the former minister turned and passed into the sanctuary.
When he had completed his prayer service, the imam of Abu Hanifa, Sheik Mouyad Al-Adhami, sat with us on one of the prayer rugs. He is a vigorous, rocklike man in his early 40s, from a line of imams in a 600-year-old family that measures its descent from Mohammed himself. He had been more or less exiled from this mosque until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, after which the former imam disappeared and Sheik Al-Adhami returned. I asked if Saddam had worshiped here regularly, and he said, “Saddam Hussein is the devil, and devils cannot worship.” The imam has not seen one of his brothers for twenty-three years. “They made it a crime if your relative flees from Iraq,” he said, “and my brother went to live in England. I was arrested and beaten, and after they let me go I remained under surveillance.”
We asked the imam what he tells his congregation now. “I am trying to find a way to help them recover from psychological wounds brought on by the American war,” he said. “There are other ways to change even this bloody regime, not through war. I have told high-ranking American officers we need security and settled conditions. The people need jobs. They feel the Americans are not serious and don’t work for their betterment. The officers promise to do something, but we have seen nothing.” As for the newly appointed governing council, the imam was skeptical. He did not feel it was truly representative of Iraqis. This seemed to be the moment to ask Sheik Al-Adhami, who is considered a moderate, whether politics and faith each have distinct places in the life of Iraqis. “Islam is not confined to the mosque,” he said, “but is linked to economics, politics, every field of life. I tell my people, ‘Do not store Islam in the mosque.’ Some of those on the governing council want a separation of mosque and state. This is wrong and unacceptable. Iraqis do not want a secular regime. We will be questioned one day by God about all these matters of religion and politics. In Islam there is no right to separate policy from faith.”
That seemed to invite no further clarification, so I asked what kind of government he would like to see. “We do not accept any dictatorship,” he said, “any unjust group of men who want to impose principles on us or to limit our freedom. But there is a big difference between the Islamic idea of democracy and Western democracy. An election based on money and propaganda is wrong. We believe in controlled freedom, and freedom in the Western world is not controlled. The looting and burning that occurred here were accidents that happened because of unjust treatment and a lack of control. This is not the normal way of the Iraqi people. In Western society, crime is normal. Here it is an accident.”
Are Islam and Western society destined, then, to be enemies? “The Almighty creates different societies in order to maintain life,” said Sheik Al-Adhami, “and in the Koran all people are created as male and female. He who is good is closest to Allah. If the societies have bad will and are run by sick souls, they will clash with each other. If they have good will, they won’t clash. It’s simple.”
This was surely a holy man of good will himself. But it was hard not to worry about power residing in true believers. Before leaving for Iraq I had gone to Washington, where I was briefed by a number of officials, including one at the State Department and one at a Defense Department think tank. To a man and woman, they all shook their heads at what one of them called our highly ideologized policies. We have our own true believers, and they currently have more power than ever before. If true believers come to power in Iraq, our two societies will have even less in common. Alicia and I decided to pursue the imam’s social policies.
We asked Sheik Al-Adhami if a woman can be equal to a man in Islam. “Women in Islam are highly admired, autonomous, and a husband cannot interfere in his wife’s property but must spend whatever he can on her to benefit her and satisfy her needs. She can become a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, whatever she wishes.” This was protective, of course, but it did not add up to equality. The imam turned to Alicia, and though he didn’t address her he seemed to be appraising her. Then he looked back at me and asked me how I like having Alicia all covered up. Before I could say, How do I know, she’s barely visible, the imam answered his own question. “You like her better,” he instructed. “You appreciate her more covered in this manner. This is how she should always be.” I looked over at Alicia, wrapped and hooded, but for all I could tell she might have been Trent Lott and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
Alicia asked why a woman has to be so completely covered. “To be covered gives a sign to all men,” the imam said, “that they must be kind to women. There is no right for any man to enjoy a woman except only her husband. Women shouldn’t be treated like animals and go around without cover.” We let it go. It did appear, however, that the imam feels that men are so out of control they immediately turn predator if they see as much as an ankle of the opposite sex.
It was time to go, and I asked the imam if he had ever traveled abroad. “No, never,” he said. Then he shook his head at himself, smiled, and added, “Well, yes, I went once to Syria, on my honey-moon.” He smiled again. I said we were on our own honeymoon now in Baghdad. He raised his brows and looked from one of us to the other with a question mark. Really? Yes, just married. With a satisfied smile he congratulated us, and then he said, “You deserve each other.” While we were left wondering how to take that, he chanted a verse from the Koran about Muslims doing no harm to non-Muslims. Then he looked up at us and said, “We will all meet in Paradise, all of us of different faiths.” Not too soon, I hope.
American soldiers in Iraq are as differentiated as Iraqis. They believe firmly in their mission of pacifying an enemy people and bringing democracy to them, or they think they’re wasting their time as peacekeepers, or they hate it and want to go home, or they grit their teeth and follow orders. Morale is mixed; some soldiers I met feel they were misled and have to stay in Iraq much longer than they were originally told, but others maintain a steely resolve to see the job through, whatever the job turns out to be.
Sweltering as they protected a US compound in Baghdad, two GIs from Florida said they came to Iraq as part of a QRF–quick reaction force–whose wartime job was to rescue downed pilots. What they do now is stand guard, day after day, wearing heavy flak jackets and helmets. Each is Latino and in the National Guard, one originally from Puerto Rico, the other from Mexico. Both are fathers. The Mexican is training to become a policeman, and the Puerto Rican drives a bus at Disney World. “The duty here is OK,” the policeman said. “We’ve done what we came to do, took over the country. Mission-wise, we’re done.” Three men from their unit of 130 had recently been killed, and they were still thinking about that. “Ambushes, man,” the bus driver said. “This country is not under control, and it never will be under control.” His buddy took a swig of bottled water. “I guess I’m glad we came and did what we did,” he said, “but a lot of the Iraqis, now, they have a big problem with us staying here because they want to take over their own country. Us staying here doesn’t give them a chance to start anything, run anything on their own.” I wondered if their not being Anglos possibly contributed to their understanding of how an occupied people feels, but other GIs were equally wary of being part of an occupation force.
Romeo and Juliet, almost. Dating between soldiers and the local population is forbidden not only for security reasons but because it is offensive to Muslims. When it happens it is furtive. A young Muslim woman–not Iraqi but a Lebanese import–who works for the US government in Baghdad was flat on her back on a couch, drying her eyes, the first time I met her. Her name is Randa and she told of her relationship with a GI named Jeff. Jeff’s ambition to become a lawyer was diverted when he enlisted patriotically after 9/11. Stationed in Iraq, he met Randa. “We really bonded,” Randa said. “We both loved debating, and we’d debate anything from a favorite ice cream flavor to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jeff was an only child, and Jewish, and he said, ‘Gee, Randa, you’re the first Muslim I ever met in my whole life.’ We kept exchanging books and magazines. I gave him a book on Islamic fundamentalism and told him to get up to chapter six by the next time I saw him, and he did it, so then we debated some more.”
Randa and Jeff couldn’t see each other often, but they e-mailed constantly, then met when they could after her office hours were over and he finished duty at Baghdad University. Randa said Jeff was so full of charisma, charm and intelligence that she was sure he’d become President of the United States. Jeff was shy, which increased his attractiveness to Randa. After two months they were very close. “We were both 23, and I really liked hanging out with him,” Randa said. Then it ended. “It’s so hot here, you know,” Randa said, “and one day Jeff went into the cafeteria at Baghdad University for some ice cream. He came out and while he was walking down the steps of the building someone just came right up to him and shot him dead. As quick as that. I guess you could say I’m in mourning now.” The next time I saw her Randa was busy again, plunging back into her work, which involves interviewing Iraqis, especially but not exclusively women, who have been mistreated. Recently she sent an e-mail. She still thinks about Jeff, still is certain he’d have become President. Her job continues, she finds it rewarding to help people, and she likes her colleagues. “I’m doing much better,” Randa wrote, “taking it one day at a time.”
How about the arts? A theater director came to see me several times. Rasim Mansour, a long-faced man with a severe yet quizzical expression, manages to look like both James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He seemed to want nothing more than a conversation, and he was fresh from a postwar triumph, his presentation of Desire Under the Elms, which he said was a smash hit in Baghdad and had just closed. Beneath his black-framed round glasses, his eyes flashed as he explained that O’Neill’s play is close to Iraq’s situation now because a cruel father–i.e., Saddam Hussein–had doomed his entire family–in this case his country–to tragedy. He also admired Arthur Miller, who he felt had joined Eugene O’Neill in communicating American civilization to the world.
Rasim, now 32, made his start in the theater by playing Macbeth, for which he was praised so much he began to receive grants and commissions to direct plays. Chain-smoking very long cigarettes, Rasim said his Macbeth, even though it deals with a usurping king, slipped by Saddam Husein’s censors, but many other plays, such as Caligula and Richard III, did not. “Our second most important export, right after oil,” Rasim said, “became our artists and intellectuals. I wouldn’t leave because I felt my country needed me to stay here, and good or bad I love it.” The censorship is gone now, he said, but half the theaters in Baghdad are destroyed while the other half are used by Americans for storage. The O’Neill play had been presented in a borrowed auditorium. “An American captain told me, ‘Kiss my ass,’ when I asked if we could have a theater. I’m glad Americans got rid of Saddam, but conquering us was not a good idea. Americans have harmed this country, and traces of the occupation will remain a long time. You never thought how to save Iraq, only how to conquer it in order to terrorize and warn the entire world. I can’t believe that four months after they won the war they have still not restored basic services like electricity and water. So who’s worse, Saddam or the Americans? I’m a great fan of George W. Bush as an actor and I hope he’ll be performing in a theater one day very soon.”
At the Polytechnic Institute in Baghdad, I felt I was on a campus that had substituted rage for electricity as its power source. By now my translator and guide was Sa’ad Al-Izzi, a tall, stout man of 29, though he seemed older due to his having had to mature quickly at the age of 10 in order to take care of his mother and sister after his father died of diabetes. Izzi, an English major himself, was appalled at the condition of the institute, which he had not visited since the war began. The custodian of buildings and grounds, who lives in a house just inside the college gates, displayed a broken tooth he said he’d received while defending the institute against a gang of looters that included Kuwaitis, Syrians and Palestinians. He brought out his 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son; the daughter had shrapnel in one of her eyes, the son had shrapnel in his head, both from wild firing, the custodian said, by US troops. The soldiers, he said, fired a few times into the grounds of the institute but otherwise simply watched from their tanks across the street while the college was looted and burned. Becoming angrier as he spoke, the custodian said Americans had refused him the money to pay for an operation to restore his daughter’s eyesight.
A professor of computer science told Izzi the vandals had burned every book in the library, which he said had been the largest scientific collection in the Middle East. The gutted and hollowed library is now being used as a cafeteria because the cafeteria itself was burned to the ground. Two women professors–of geography and mechanical engineering–very politely said they hoped Americans would stay until there is a secure and stable government. An older student, who said he is in his 30s, agreed with the women professors and said most Iraqis want Americans to stay for now.
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.”
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.
To the victor. Saddam Hussein’s opulent Republican Palace, which still displays four massive sculpted heads of the dictator, is now the American headquarters as well as Bremer’s office, re-inforcing Iraqi suspicions that the new governing authority is not a different form of leadership but simply a replacement of the old. As Izzi and I approached the throne room, which he had never seen before, he told me Iraqis had been known to vomit or even faint when they were summoned here. They did not know whether Saddam was about to reward or behead them, and he liked to keep them guessing. The throne room is now used as a chapel for the US military. Inside the vast chamber, just above one of the gold thrones, is a mural of SCUD missiles soaring skyward either toward an opposite mural of Jerusalem or possibly toward the other Republican Palace 8,000 miles away. Three chaplains–one each from the Army, Navy and Air Force–took turns posing with a long, shiny ceremonial sword that had belonged to Saddam Hussein. The Air Force chaplain clapped one of Saddam’s Gothic World War I helmets on his head and sat on the throne with the sword while the Navy chaplain photographed him. When I approached the Air Force chaplain he put his hand over the name plate on his uniform and turned away. The victors have the spoils but may not want you to know exactly who they are.
One American I met at the Republican Palace is, if anything, even more cheerful about the occupation’s prospects than the Hodgkinsons. Steven Connolly works for a private firm contracted to USAID, renovating such facilities as fire stations, clinics and elementary schools. A veteran of the Peace Corps in Africa, Connolly has lived abroad most of his adult life and has already hired more than a thousand Iraqis for his current projects. “The reason the electricity is still not fully on in Baghdad,” he said, “is not because Americans aren’t paying attention. It’s years of neglect compounded by sabotage. Fifty thousand Baathists out there are trying to wreak havoc.” Connolly is fully supportive of the war itself–“Saddam Hussein had a repressive regime, he wanted any weapon he could acquire and he had a history of using whatever he could get his hands on”–as well as the aftermath. “We’re off to a good start,” he said, “but we need replication a thousandfold. The big players are coming in, Bechtel and the others. Now we’ll see some real progress.”
On the other hand.
The following day an imam, who looked like Christ if he’d lived to be 50, told me solemnly he believes that Iraqis killed under the American occupation are several times more numerous already than under Saddam Hussein. “Saddam was a terrorist,” he said, “but Bush is also a terrorist. We demand the Americans withdraw immediately.” Like Sheik Al-Adhami, he said Islam specifically rejects any separation of religion and politics. “Shia and Sunni are united as sons of this land in opposing the crime you committed with your decision to come here.” The imam urged me, as an American visiting his country, to go to the Mother of All Battles Mosque to see how Iraqis feel.
On the way to the Mother of All Battles Mosque I had to stop at a hotel that is entirely rented to ABC News. A producer there told me the network had just taken a year’s lease on a smaller hotel, indicating they’re in this, like our government, for the long haul. I wondered what the Iraqis would think about our attention to them, and whether the attention would last a year or fade, as it has in Afghanistan.
The Mother of All Battles Mosque, which was built by Saddam and has minarets shaped like weapons, was the scene of the largest demonstration I saw in Iraq. The demonstration was peaceful, but it was also passionate. “This is a special day,” an intense man with a black beard said to me as crowds flocked toward the mosque, “because we are here to resist the occupation.” Many of the men wore white skullcaps and long white robes, dishdashas, and the women were either scarved and covered or in the full abaya, a black nunlike garb. Alicia asked a small group of women why they had come, but she was answered by a man. “We’re here to resist you, and if you won’t listen in your democratic way to our wish that you leave, we’ll make you listen in another way.”
Two Humvees rolled by with soldiers standing manning their guns. I thought they were on the wrong road at the wrong time, either accidentally or provocatively. But no one showed the slightest interest in them, and the Humvees kept right on rolling.
The crowd, which had arrived in cars and double-decker buses from homes, businesses and other mosques, sat around the outside of the mosque in blistering heat to listen to speeches over booming loudspeakers. The first cleric welcomed a throng he estimated at 20,000. Although the attendance was large, almost circling the mosque itself, I’d have cut his estimate in half. We were not in the section reserved for the press and television trucks, but it was well placed to view both crowd and speakers; the White House media team may have an opposite number among the mosques in Baghdad. The next cleric said it was unacceptable for the governing council to declare April 9–the day Baghdad fell to the Americans–a national holiday because it was a day of disaster for Iraq and Islam.
Speaker after speaker alternated religious chants with exhortations to resist the American occupation. There was special condemnation of the sweeps conducted by US forces. “The invaders are false, and when they make their raids on our homes they spread their destruction and corruption everywhere,” an imam said. “They should save their blood and their money and go home. Shia or Sunni, we don’t care, but whoever governs us must be an Arab.” Loud cheers interrupted him. “The UN Security Council does not deny the right of resistance to occupiers. It is the right of Iraqis to fight the American and British invaders.” One of the imams emphasized national reconciliation. “Do not be vengeful toward the Baathists,” he said, “but instead let the courts do their work. We must not let the occupation be an excuse for revenge. The occupation will end, a weak shadow never lasts.”
A speaker sounding like a cheerleader at a political rally yelled out “no to ethnic and religious division, yes to the liberation of iraq!” The crowd responded with “yes!” I wandered among the demonstrators and saw that many were praying or fingering their prayer beads at the same time as they were responding to the speakers. There was no division, as the imams had told me, between their politics and their faith. A particularly impassioned sheik focused on women and Iraqis working with the Americans. “The occupier humiliates and searches women. A man should sacrifice himself so no one puts a hand on his woman. And you translator agents who work with the occupier, you should know we can issue a fatwa on whoever works with the Americans and you will be killed. We prefer to negotiate, to restrain our anger, but when a man restrains his anger a long time and then releases it, the result will be overwhelming.” (This imam had read his Freud along with his Koran that morning.) “Now we are only speaking, but if the occupier keeps on provoking us, we will use the other option.”
Before we had entered the mosque grounds, Abu Mustafa told us, in a rare burst of English, “If what anything happens, you come quick to my car.” Izzi thought the moment had arrived after the last speaker as the crowd began surging toward the buses and cars. “It’s not that anyone is necessarily violent,” he said, “but when a demonstration ends things can happen.”
When we were back in Abu Mustafa’s car, Izzi said the speakers we had heard were only moderates. I asked what was his definition of a moderate. “The moderates say it’s your duty to resist the occupation,” he said. “The extremists come right out and say kill the infidel. Now.” Izzi believed the crowd at the mosque represented only a minority of Iraqis, but it was a growing minority. I asked how he himself felt. “No one wants his country invaded,” he said, “but imagine if you had leukemia. You can’t get rid of it with surgery, so you have to have chemotherapy, which is hateful and kills your immune system and is even more hateful because it makes you ugly. But it keeps you alive. Once it’s over and you’re recovered, though, you don’t want any more chemo. Saddam was leukemia. Iraq looks ugly after the American chemo, which makes us weak and vulnerable to other diseases, yet the chemo was needed to keep us going and give us a chance. Now the US occupation is a chemo we don’t want.” Did that mean Izzi was ready for the Americans to leave? “Actually, no,” he said. “You created this mess. You put the mud in the muddle we now have. You have to clean this up before you leave.”
But don’t expect thanks. When I was in the Middle East the first time, in Egypt in early 1958, the streets of Cairo were thronged with revelers rejoicing in the proclamation of the United Arab Republic formed by Egypt and Syria. The force behind the merger was Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was hoping to initiate an expanded Greater Arabia that could defy the West and be the scourge of Israel. Because President Eisenhower had prevented Great Britain, France and Israel from reversing Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal two years earlier, Americans were greeted in a very friendly manner. An Egyptian at the Pyramids told me the United States was pretty good, then added, unforgettably, “I hate the British and French like I love my eyes.” Nearby was an American from the Ford Foundation, who was in Egypt to teach scientific farming methods that would allow Egyptian cotton and other crops to compete successfully on the world market because they would be grown so much more efficiently. I said I guessed that between Eisenhower’s intervention on Egypt’s behalf and the work of people like himself, Egyptians must really like Americans. “I think you’ll find,” said the agricultural specialist, who had been working abroad since the end of World War II, “that gratitude is a difficult emotion to bear for very long. After a while, it turns to resentment.”
The larger point from the United Arab Republic, which was shortly joined–or rivaled–by Jordan and Iraq, forming the Arab Union, is that the vision of pan-Arabism in 1958 remained just that. Arab nationalism, which looked to me both hopeful and frightening when I watched it celebrating itself in Cairo, stumbled over disagreements, contending interests and tribal vendettas going back centuries. Both earlier and later attempts to coalesce the Arab world have ended ingloriously, abetted by Western ruses, with the vision remaining a rainbow. In Iraq, despite feuds between sects, factions and tribes, pan-Arabism has so far not competed successfully with the resolute nationalism expressed in every province, even in the north by the Kurds.
The Jewish question. At a significant number of stops along my journey Jews and Israel were identified as major problems. Jews were once estimated to constitute almost 20 percent of Baghdad; they’ve been gone for decades. Iraqis have worked for the cause of Palestine since the 1930s, when they tried to mediate between the Arabs, the British authorities and what was then the Jewish Agency. In the 1948 war that followed the establishment of Israel, and in the Six Day War of 1967, Iraq fought somewhat desultorily against Israel’s existence. What I found this summer was something like an article of faith that Israel equals belligerent Zionism equals Jews.
At the Polytechnic Institute, a student had identified his own fury at the governing council as rooted in one member who had done business with the Israelis. “Can you imagine that,” he yelled, “dealing with Israelis? Shaking hands with Jews!” He almost spat out his words. One day while I was at the American headquarters, I was told that extremists in a Toyota Land Cruiser had fired a volley of bullets into the lobby of a Baghdad hotel because they heard Jews were staying there, which was untrue. The imam who looked like Christ at 50 had warned his congregation that Jews were buying up houses in the neighborhood. He complained that the American authorities had summoned and questioned him for doing this. I asked what evidence he had that Jews were investing in Baghdad real estate. “It’s only a rumor,” he said, “but I felt it was my duty to pass it along. The Americans say they’re staying for five years, and if that’s accurate then Iraq will be transformed into a second Palestine.”
“Never forget the Palestinians!” one of the speakers at the Mother of All Battles Mosque had commanded. “As soon as the roads are open we will go to fight in Palestine to support the Palestinians as part of our jihad!” Another imam led the crowd in a chant: “oh jews, oh jews, the army of mohammed will be back!” He followed the chant by intoning prayerfully, “God condemns Zionism. We will make no other decision but jihad.”
Rasim Mansour, the theater director who had scored his first success playing Macbeth, maintained that Desire Under the Elms achieved a fuller meaning because O’Neill wrote the play about a Jewish family destroyed by its corrupt, aggressive patriarch. I pointed out that the families in the play are the Cabots and Putnams, venerable New England names, anything but Jewish. Rasim held his ground. “No,” he said, “this shows what O’Neill thought of Jews and it is also our opinion as Arabs.” I reminded Rasim that his other American playwright hero, Arthur Miller, is Jewish. “Yes, it’s possible,” he said, “but Miller knows the American soul. I’m not against Jews but against some of the Jewish ideas.”
What might those be?
You can imagine my surprise when Rasim said the Jewish ideas he doesn’t like have to do with money. “Thanks to Israel the American movie industry is great and rich, and movies are mostly in the hands of Jews,” he said. “Hollywood is very advanced technically, but I admire the Italian movies more because they have real ideas. Titanic is all the Americans can do well. Spielberg is a Jew and he gives his money to Israel. He’s the model for American movies, and he’s a good model but he bears Jewish ideals. Why didn’t American movies find a place for Orson Welles to work? He only got to make Citizen Kane and afterward he was banned because he didn’t adopt the ideas of the Jews.” (Somehow it didn’t seem worth pointing out that the original screenplay for Citizen Kane was written by a Jew, Herman Mankiewicz.) “Yes,” he went on, “it’s true the blacklist happened to some Jews as well, but eventually Hollywood adopted Jewish ideas, the main one of which is to run after what is profitable.”
I asked whether, as a creative person himself, he admires other artistic Jews besides Arthur Miller. “Oh yes,” he said, one of my favorite poets is a Jew.” He paused, and I wondered who this educated and well-read man was going to name. “Ezra Pound,” he said. For the first and only time in Iraq I found myself yelling, “no, ezra pound was not a jew! in fact, he hated jews so much he made broadcasts for our enemy during world war ii and was arrested for treason afterward. he was not a jew, rasim, please!”
Rasim remained admirably calm. “No, no,” he said benignly, “Ezra Pound was a Jew.” He smiled. “And a very talented one, too.” It occurred to me that when Rasim was having his triumph as Macbeth, perhaps Macduff, just for one performance, could have used a real sword. Rasim is not an Iraqi everyman but neither is he atypical. A high level of culture and education exists in Iraq, along with a persistent strain of tribal superstition, and sometimes these can both be found in the same person.
The point is not that Iraqis are about to mount a pogrom or march on Jerusalem. The point is that anti-Jewish feelings, as well as rhetoric, constitute a theme, religiously and politically, in the life of countless Iraqis. I was told that the killer of Randa’s friend Jeff undoubtedly received a bonus when it was revealed that Jeff was Jewish. The Bush Administration has its hands full if it proposes to construct an Iraq that accepts Israel, that can distinguish between Jews and a Jewish state, that can regard a Jew as an individual and not as an embodiment of evil motives. Unlike the other tasks of the occupation, this will not be a reconstruction; it will be an original piece of architecture. The dream of US policy-makers that they can use Iraq as a talisman to bewitch the rest of the Middle East into embracing democracy and Israel may prove as illusory as the Arabs’ own quest for regional unity.
Our imperial errand is not so hard to begin, not so easy to complete. We conquistadors currently have a government for whom the dollar is a communion wafer. How much of a surprise is it, then, that we hope to make Iraqis buy everything from education to medical care? If we won’t provide these at home, can we really be expected to give them to a vanquished enemy? And then there is the resistance. Each day the bulletin board at US headquarters lists coalition accomplishments–new schools in session, police academy graduations, a clinic reopened. Casualties are also noted–one soldier killed, ten injured, for two days no casualties, then five soldiers killed. With postcombat American deaths surpassing those of the invasion itself, we might ask, What is the acceptable balance among these statistics?
In a sleight of hand faster than the eye can see, combined with an Alphonse-Gaston routine, a US official answers a question about what is going on by telling you to ask the Iraqi governing council, it’s their country. Go to the governing council for the answer, and they say the Americans are in charge, ask them. They are both accurate, both insincere. This gives the press the opportunity to cover events staged either by the coalition or the resisters, which allows a pessimist to conclude everything is a mess while the optimist can say it’s all going according to plan. The fundamental US public-relations effort is driven not by accurate information but by political doctrine. Eventually, whether we condemn or support the occupation, we look at it through a moral lens, but the lens is ground, and grounded, in America. Iraqis, with their own lens, will never see the same view.
Forget the Bremer operation for a moment: He’s doing a good job or a poor job, he has good people with him and they’re struggling, or he has self-interested bureaucrats who want to award contracts and then catch on with their clients like Kellogg Brown & Root or Bechtel once the initial phase of the occupation is over. The uglier fact jumping up to be seen and heard is that we are two vitally separate kinds of societies. What the majority of Iraqis I spoke with (of both genders) want to do with women should not happen, in our view, to any human being. Conversely, the society we want to make Iraqis fit into never worked with groups as disparate as Native Americans and Vietnamese, so what makes us think it will work in Iraq?
Japan and Germany are what make us think that. Both of them are, however, homogeneous societies with rich histories of organization, and the main thing we had to do was shift that organization. In both cases it took seven years, but we were able to do it because they were rigorously structured in the first place. Crucially, we had beaten them in long wars that utterly sapped their will to resist, and in the case of one of them we had dropped, in the space of seventy-two hours, two bombs that took the lives of more than 200,000 people, almost all civilians. “Collateral damage” be damned; the civilians were the point. In the case of the other, it was the second time in three decades they had fought, and lost, a major war. No more fight left in those dogs. The army of Iraq mostly did not fight at all, and it assuredly did not surrender.
Iraq today is unarmied, but it is hardly unarmed. Many thousands of former soldiers are out there still, angry young men without jobs or purpose, and you feel this wherever you go in Iraq. They will choose when, where, and whom to attack. In addition, Islamic fundamentalists are coming–a trickle? a stream? who knows?–through the sieve of Iraq’s borders from all over Arabia to fight the infidel. In August the insurgency struck down the valiant peacemaker Sergio Vieira de Mello along with at least twenty-two others at UN headquarters in Baghdad. “It just breaks my heart and leaves me so angry,” a UN colleague of Vieira de Mello’s e-mailed me, “at the arrogance and stupidity of US policy that has created such a muck-up and ruined the lives of so many innocents in the process.” Vieira de Mello, who could have been a worthy successor to Kofi Annan, instead became a victim of holy rage stoked by the vanity of a US President who invites violence with his swaggering “bring ’em on” challenge to militants.
One afternoon in US headquarters, at a sparsely attended press conference, an American official from somewhere in the hierarchy’s mid-range was announcing the appointment of a number of Iraqi bureaucrats to positions in the police and fire departments of Baghdad, as well as to chairmanships of district and neighborhood councils. Since the event was not considered important enough to warrant the presence of a translator, and since the appointees of course knew what their new jobs were, they simply sat and looked up appreciatively at the speaker they did not understand. “The power,” the American official concluded truthfully, “has just now shifted back to the Iraqis.”