“Do you have any rooms?” we ask the hotelier.
She looks us over, dwelling on my travel partner’s bald, white head.
“No,” she replies.
We try not to notice that there are sixty room keys in pigeonholes behind her desk–the place is empty.
“Will you have a room soon? Maybe next week?”
She hesitates. “Ahh… No.”
We return to our current hotel–the one we want to leave because there are bets on when it is going to get hit–and flick on the TV: The BBC is showing footage of Richard Clarke’s testimony before the September 11 Commission, and a couple of pundits are arguing about whether invading Iraq has made America safer.
They should try finding a hotel room in this city, where the US occupation has unleashed a wave of anti-American rage so intense that it now extends not only to US troops, occupation officials and their contractors but also to foreign journalists, aid workers, their translators and pretty much anyone else associated with the Americans. Which is why we couldn’t begrudge the hotelier her decision: If you want to survive in Iraq, it’s wise to stay the hell away from people who look like us. (We thought about explaining that we were Canadians, but all the American reporters are sporting the maple leaf–that is, when they aren’t trying to disappear behind their newly purchased headscarves.)
US occupation chief Paul Bremer hasn’t started wearing a hijab yet, and is instead tackling the rise of anti-Americanism with his usual foresight. Baghdad is blanketed with inept psy-ops organs like Baghdad Now, filled with fawning articles about how Americans are teaching Iraqis about press freedom. “I never thought before that the Coalition could do a great thing for the Iraqi people,” one trainee is quoted saying. “Now I can see it on my eyes what they are doing good things for my country and the accomplishment they made. I wish my people can see that, the way I see it.”
Unfortunately, the Iraqi people recently saw another version of press freedom when Bremer ordered US troops to shut down a newspaper run by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. The militant Shiite cleric has been preaching that Americans are behind the attacks on Iraqi civilians and condemning the interim constitution as a “terrorist law.” So far, al-Sadr has refrained from calling on his supporters to join the armed resistance, but many here are predicting that the closing down of the newspaper–a nonviolent means of resisting the occupation–was just the push he needed. But then, recruiting for the resistance has always been a specialty of the Presidential Envoy to Iraq: Bremer’s first act after being tapped by Bush was to fire 400,000 Iraqi soldiers, refuse to give them their rightful pensions but allow them to hold on to their weapons–in case they needed them later.