Monday, March 29, 2004
It has been a busy couple of days with much entertainment, news of explosions and scenes of blocked roads… Finally I am beginning to feel as Baghdadies feel as I am now subject to the daily onslaught of bad news, both official and of course the inevitable rumour mill..
It has not been my intention to turn this into a political commentary.. so much so I asked both hosts of this diary not to switch on the comment field.. But I must say some of the comments Zeyad’s crowd came up with were amazing.. particularly where it concerns the bridge repair story.. There are Americans out there who think the CPA is populated with a bunch of naïve technocrats who have no handle on what goes on with reconstruction contracts… American companies have been operating in the Middle East since 1940s.. They are part of the system here and all the practices I described are well known… Some people may not be aware that Bechtel won the overall contract back in 1991 for the reconstruction of Kuwait.. What is happening here in Iraq is a rerun of the same film as my nephew A likes to call it..
OK lets move on to something more interesting… Yesterday I was invited to the Hunting Club.. Until the war this cute number was only open to the elite of the previous regime.. with some legendary stories about the escapades of Uday who was a regular… The club is made up of several buildings for functions, sports facilities and lots of pretty gardens.. These days the function rooms are in daily use by the various new political parties.. the odd wedding do and such like.. The sporting facilities including a heated indoor swimming pool are however open to the public provided they can afford the annual membership… so I visited the swimming pool in the company of my friend M who decided I must have a health-care day… we started the tour with a stop at the whirl pool (can’t spell jacqoozy!!).. strange mix of pensioners and dubious looking and quiet younger men… The conversation was wide ranging… the common sentiment was they were happy with the change to the club fortunes.. I saw a chap jump in the swimming pool who I could swear was Salam Pax.. I remembered reading in his blog once that he was a regular at this club.. Back to the tour, our next stop was the sauna room where they keep the temperature at a mercilessly high degree.. Luckily it was my turn at the massage table after only 10 minutes at the sauna..
I think calling what took place next as a massage is a linguistic travesty.. Abu Raed was a man who took his job seriously.. M tipped him extra money to give me hard time.. this he did with vengeance… Anyway as Abu Raed was systematically destroying my body we had an interesting chat about his previous clients.. He swears he had every minister in the previous regime on his table including the infamous sons.. I remembered reading once in the early days of the sanctions when the president decreed that people in leadership position shouldn’t have swelling bellies… you can imagine the scramble to Abu Raed’s table.. My treatment continued until we reached a point when he used an object to crush my shoulder blades with.. the pain was so bad I had to ask Abu Raed if he was sure he wasn’t the product of the torture chambers.. He laughed at the joke…. But he blushed first!! Hmm that worried me!
Back on the tour I had to shave my beard next… M advised that I don’t shave that day until after the massage (facial massage was also part of the package).. some theory about feeling born again.. It was a bad idea anyway as what followed was the mother of all steam rooms.. I really felt my face peeling off with the heat… still it was a welcome rest for my wrecked body… Onwards and forwards to another part of facility.. did I mention all of these rooms are in the cellar?.. the final chapter was the Turkish bath.. complete with an Iraqi loofa which helped Sarmad (err.. the bath man) to skin me.. sorry can’t think of another word to describe what he did to me.
Following this treatment, it was mid day and time to go attend one of those lunch invites.. across the City to Arasat Al Hindeya and at Lathikeya restaurant.. I should explain that the Arasat used to be an area of Baghdad almost exclusively Christian.. But the sanction years created a bunch of parasitic fat cats who made their money trading in the black market.. these people moved in to live in Arasat.. consequently the district boasts the best restaurants in town.. These days it also attracts kidnappers and the odd car bomb.. I was bundled again in M’s car which has a problem with its air conditioning system.. so after all that cleansing I was now pouring sweat in equal measure from every inch of my body!! .. M has an alternative car cooling system.. open all windows an d drive fast.. There are at least 2 problems with this method.. I can’t light up my pipe and the car look suspicious to all those fingers hugging their triggers and manning building entrances… Lathikeya is a Syrian owned restaurant which is pretty big and used to be full of customers at mid day.. But fear of bombing reduced their clientele to a trickle.. The food was wonderful of course.. I should mention here a wonderful system they have here at restaurants.. If you can’t finish your food you can ask for it to be wrapped up as a take away meal… I think it’s a throw back from the sanction years.. Both on the way to the restaurant and afterwards we did a bit of searching for Andy’s Mushtamal to no avail.. the area you described Andy is now purely a commercial district with shops at both sides of the road.. If it is any concilation, my own birth place suffered a similar fate… But something positive came out from that search .. Discovered a traditional Iraqi ice cream parlour.. something I have been looking for ever since arriving here.. I know who in my family will be especially jealous about this item of news.. Well H, I bought a whole kilogram and I am now halfway through it!!! And it tastes even better than beforeJ
By now I have met a good number of Iraqis from all kinds of backgrounds and persuasions.. I can report 4 distinct groups of people..
- Ex Baathists: with a pessimistic view of the future.. “Americans are here to take our oil and the occupation will never end.”
- Optimists: It will be soon OK with everything clicking in as soon as the spend on projects starts.
- Don’t Care: Had enough of all this misery.. Hand over power to any group in Iraq and end occupation and let us get on with it.
- Can’t Tell: Its all very confusing and no one knows what agenda is going down here.. therefore lets wait and see..
I have no idea what proportions of the population believe in these views… Usually a supplementary about who do you think is causing the bomb attacks brings back some interesting attitudes.. take your pick: Remnants of the last regime, foreign Islamic fundists, Americans, Iranians, Israeli’s, Syrians, Palestinians.. No one mentioned the Irish yet, but give it time!
So far I suffered 2 power cuts typing this, so closing here before I lose the will to live!
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Greetings all… I have been waiting for 2 hours for the electricity to come back this morning so I can type this… so today I thought we talk electricity and all things electric… First some terminology.. Wataneeya (national) is the normal electricity supply.. except it is hardly normal!… Mualidah (generator) is your local arrangement or private generator… The latter term is only used in posh houses.. everyone else calls it it Muhawila (transformer).. Iraqis love coining nick names.. Where on earth would you find: rabbit, little devil, submarine, ghost, Layla Alawai (an Egyptian singer)…. All of these are.. wait for it… nick names for car models.. Back to generators, these range in sizes and prices.. for as little as 3 notes ($1 00 bill is nick named note) you can buy a baby generator that would fill your house with noise and can power a couple of lights and a TV set.. You can alternatively sacrifice watching TV for the sake of powering your fridge.. A kind of Hobsons choice I guess..
In well to do neighbourhoods every house has a suped up model of the private generator occupying the pavement outside the front gate.. this is to help with enviromental noise pollution inside the house! I wish if I had a long lens camera with me to picture a whole street as I am sure the result would look surreal.. These generators by the way come in a variety of colours and shapes… Inevitably some were purchased legally and some where liberated from government establishments during the war… Saddam Hussain coined the last war Mother of all Final Battles.. (Umm Al-Hawasim).. these days the term just refers to the looting and it has been cut down to just Hawasim..
My sister does not own her own generator… She is on a communal system… Its story is somewhat interesting.. Half a mile away from her house is a an all purpose built estate for members of cabinet in the last regime.. A very high fence surrounds the estate with controlled security exits etc… When the looting started some enterprising looters figured out that just emptying the contents of houses was a mugs game.. so they opted to moving in!! As they were new to the neighbourhood they thought some vigilant security was in order.. so their sons man all exits to the complex carrying machine guns.. They also learnt to stop all traffic when one of their people drives out of the complex… OK so far so good… inside the complex there were many medium sized generators which were either put to private use or sold off… But at a corner of the compound they found .. err.. the mother of all generators.. a 1.5Mega Watt little beauty capab le of powering a third of the whole city.. The fact that no one knew how to operate it was soon resolved when the sole engineer trained on this kit was traced to Mosul and suitable incentives made to bring him back to Baghdad to commission the plant.. Sooo they were in business.. main truncks were laid to the top of each street at half mile radius.. consumers wishing to purchase this emergency supply of power have to pay ID 30,000 (around $20) per month plus a connection charge … Oh and you had to supply the cable to run from your house to the top of the road.. In general people use lamp posts to tie their cables to… a little hazard if you ask me as they tend to interfere with the aerials of the big American tanks should they be paying a friendly or otherwise visit to the area.. At the garden gate there is a switch arrangement such that we are able to connect the house to either the Wataneeya or Muhawila supply.. I should ad d that due to cable restrictions we can only use the Muhawila supply to work lighting, TV, fridges, etc.. No kettles, irons or water heaters….. Now that you know the basics here is a typical day at my sister’s house.. we wake up usually with the power working.. then by 8 am the first power cut happens.. now follows a technical conversation between my sister and her sons on whether we are going from Wataneeya to Muhawila or vise versa.. often this requires establishing who knew about the last change..this determines whether they keep the water boilers (they have 2) switched on or off.. then it’s a question of persuading someone to go out to the garden gate to flip the switch over… This procedure happens between 4-10 times per day depending on how the finger on the national grid supply is feeling… Now in the good old days they had to keep the power 100 % up in certain districts and do power cuts at others… Some people used to resort to bribing the officials at the electricity ministry to ensure power cuts are to a minimum in their area, say to ensure a wedding event goes on smoothly… Sadly after the war the practice continued with the added benefit of death threats as a new method of incentive… Luckily someone let the Americans know what was going on and ever since it’s the fair just fingers of an American soldier that we entrust the switches to!
There is more… it seems every now and then a mishap happens to the Wataneeya supply making it disappear for up to 3 days.. In general this follows sabotage operations of the national grid…. But Baghdadies have developed yet another nick name for these long power cuts.. they call them Qassas (punishment)… someone has figured out that these prolonged power cuts follow days of heavy American casualties!!
The practice has now moved on to the people running the local generator too… For unexplained reason they sometimes chose not to switch on their supply when the Wataneeya goes out… Hence this morning I had to wait for the Wataneeya to come back before typing this missive while the Muwalida never came on.. Can we do anthying about it? Not really.. the people operating the Muwalida are a little .. well shall we say dangerous!!…
So what is the morale of this story… That having been here for just 10 days I am getting very pissed off with the electricity supply situation.. yet these people have been living like this at least since 1991. Is it any wonder that there is a general disbelief that things have or will actually change to the better?
Amongst my relatives and friends here (who are roughly Sunni and Shia in equal measures) I keep sensing lack of preference of the political colour of a future government… They are happy with any government under any constitution as long as it happens quickly enough to put a stop to the misery that has become their daily life.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Here is one more dispatch… Sorry for the delay, finding free time to write this is proving to be a problem, especially when power cuts are as frequent as they have been of late. A certain stomach ailment has also put the wind up my sails… if you catch my drift…
Once more I sit facing this keyboard with nothing but a list of subjects I have been gathering over the last few days.. So bear with me if it comes across as a little disorganised.
I think last time we reached Baghdad… Well the first few hours were memorable.. My fellow passengers ensured I had a vivid image of the last few miles into the City and how the scene looked this time last year soon after the war.. I am glad I am seeing it after it has been cleaned up… The main motorway routes into the city still bear marks of severe random shooting. The city looks dusty and pretty dirty.. there is litter everywhere, even in posh neighbourhoods.. I am assured the city looked pretty and tidy before the war…. While I am talking rubbish, here is an anecdote from the sanctions years.. People who collected the rubbish in the city used to sell the truck loads to salvage experts to extract recycled materials.. There used to be a price differential, depending on the area where the rubbish was collected.. So consequently Jadreya and Al Mansour fetched the highest prices… the system still exit now but guess what fe tches the highest prices?… It is the rubbish from American barracks!!
Airport road was apparently lined with trees on both sides… The US military sustained damage when people hid behind the trees and fired at their passing convoys.. So an order went out to Baghdad Municipality to clear the trees on that road.. All went down well.. except there is now a court case raised by the newly formed Iraqi Greens Party against the Municipality and CPA accusing them of causing environmental damage… do Iraqis learn fast or what?
Andy, I have made it to Karradah, but it was late night and you have forgotten to give me some idea where to look for the Mushtamal… But speaking of old Baghdad and the city of today I am struggling to smell the old Baghdad… I have been to many places and I can tell Cairo from Hong Kong or Milan just by the distinctive smells those cities have… Alas the place where I am now does not smell like the Baghdad I knew.. I was sharing this thought with one of my nephews as he drove me around the city the other day and as we drove by a market place I made a remark that it smelt more like Cairo than Baghdad.. His response was, there is a big Falafel restaurant in that market…. By the way the drive through Karradah last night took me to Jadreeyah.. I was taken through a road which had the Horse riding Club, the Boat Club and the Shooting Club.. together with big houses for Uday, Qusay and Hmood (the body guard).. this road was ap parently blocked in the old days and Baghdadies only discovered it after the war.. Hmoods house had an interesting feature.. a security arrangement in the form of huge barracks for special forces attached to it.. The road was dark and empty when we drove through it and I must admit feeling threatened even though I knew the houses were empty…
In between site seeing trips I have been inundated with invites for meals.. The most expensive so far has been at a newly opened 5 star restaurant called Samad (eat your heart out Zeyad!!!)… Alas as the Kurdish owned establishment catered for businessmen mainly, the atmosphere was spoiled by the worry of a car bomb paying a visit… Which leads me to security.. It is much talked about topic here… only second to car models!! It seems that attacks on Americans and Iraqi police etc do not in general happen in crowded places… Public buildings are to be avoided though.. For most Baghdadies the worry is car jackings, kidnappings and house raids.. People simply do not leave their houses without someone staying behind… In places like Al Mansour just about every house has security guards sitting outside (not far from the obligatory power generator… more on these in a future diary note). . People erected road blocks in normal neihbourhoods to slow down speed of passing cars.. Strangers are scrutinised and sometimes followed (keeps happening to me when I walk to the Internet café!!).. There are no sounds of bullets at night and so far I only heard 2-3 thuds of distant bombs… More menacingly however is the fact that my sisters’s house is located directly on the path of helicopters ferrying people and supplies between the airport and the Green Zone.. They fly very low and the house shudders from the noise… Oh and they don’t recognise night time curfews.. so I pity Iraqis who are light sleepers.
I am finding that Iraqis have learned to cope with imminent danger through all these wars… they tend to remain calm in the middle of a storm… Here is a little family story to illustrate.. My sister has been asking her son to take his younger brother to the barber for some time.. the older brother ducks and dives and always has excuses.. One day he is pushed hard enough that he agrees to go with his brother… As they drive to the place where the barber is located, they notice there is a fracas which quickly developed into shots being fired.. The youngster (who was not keen on having a hair cut anyway) asks his brother to turn round and go back home.. The elder brother throws a rage saying I didn’t come all this way just to return without doing the deed… So they park the car in middle of trouble, and have the hair cut.. By the time they leave there were American troops present (which usually increases the danger levels).. anyway they both lived to tell the tale…
I am now the proud owner of a Baghdad mobile phone… The network is called Iraquna (means our Iraq)… seems they started offering the service before they have sufficient towers set up around the city… The software is in disarray too.. Since the parent company is an Egyptian company, someone has forgotten to edit the welcoming text message so you are greeted by something called Mobile-Nile.. Here is current capabilities.. I can call any other mobile in Baghdad but not text them. I can call landlines in Iraq only in the morning.. I can receive calls from the UK and can make calls to the UK anytime but not to other countries..err.. mornings only syndrome again. Reception is very dismal and you are lucky to be able to make a call indoors.
Contrary to some reports, booze seems to be in plentiful supply… so Iraqis are able to carry out their religious duties without much trouble!!
Landlines telephones are almost on the way back… The area where my sister lives is now back online except for 3-4 streets… Official reason so far has been “we can’t find the cable”… But good news this morning… They have discovered that the said cable for this area was in fact looted during the war… We are talking about a cable buried under ground!! Anyway they promised to replace it shortly..
I am stopping here as I have just received yet another invite I can’t refuse..
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
This is my first installment from my little record of my little trip to Baghdad. I am writing this mainly for my family and friends.
Sitting in a well kept garden in Baghdad.. on a large garden swing.. accompanied by bird songs in the background, glorious spring sun, few friendly flies... and a rather talkative 4 year old girl called Mariam..... Its the big family get together day to meet the long absent brother/uncle... I am promised there will be a good dozen more Mariams to keep my company later today…. Help!
I am finding it quite difficult to collect my thoughts to tell you about the last couple of days. There are already dozens of stories worth recording here and countless observations, not to mention what has been a roller coaster of emotions…. Anyway, for the record I will cover the journey from London to Baghdad first.
Royal Jordanian insisted that I turn up at Heathrow not later than 2 pm for a flight that did not leave until 4.30pm… those who know my travel habits would appreciate the huge concession I was making in following this instruction!
As if to add insult to injury, the Pakistani driver turned up 15 minutes early… the 15 or so miles from my place to Heathrow airport took 25 minutes and cost $45 (sorry folks, there is no pound sterling button on this keyboard… the $ is an official Iraqi currency anyway!)… This is rather more expensive than the cost of a luxurious taxi ride from Amman to Baghdad (650 miles) of.. wait for it.. $40. This massive difference is a good indicator of how surprising this Alice in Wonderland of a place called Iraq can be.
Back to the Heathrow ride, my driver (nay, fellow Muslim brother as he put it) was very curious so I let him know that I was heading home after 33 years of…err.. I think absence is a good neutral word… He surprised me with an impromptu speech about how Saddam damaged that country. This is an exact opposite to the point of view I have been hearing from Asian drivers for the last 10 years! .. was he a maverick, or has something changed of late?
The flight was on time and eventless.. only excitement was flying over Israel.. Must be a first for me. It was surprising how little time it took to cross the country (entity for the purists!) from Tel Aviv to the Jordanian border.. I make it 15 minutes..
Midnight in Amman airport, a very impressive airport, courteous police, and of course your usual efficiency from Arab officialdom.. there were 15 immigration desks, 7 manned… but only 1 desk to handle 90% of arriving passengers…. By he way Y, I managed to get through without customs search… so that “honestly just a small bag” has made it without any destructive inspections!
Amman was a beautiful city but pretty cold at that time of the night. By 1 am, myself, 2 friends and a friend of a friend were ready for the journey… Mohammad, a Jordanian driver and veteran of the Amman-Baghdad run set off to cross the city towards the east… Over the years I have read many accounts of the road to Baghdad.. so I am not sure if I can add much new here.. here are a few interesting observations:
- There were many others making the same trip using almost identical cars… GMC Suburban 7 seaters, in white and tinted back windows.. don’t ask me why!
- The road passes through 2 small towns before reaching the border. Both had 24 hour shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. Yes H, I did have cheese pasteries at 4 amJ
- It’s a narrow (read dangerous) single lane bumpy ride for most of the road except for the last 70m before the border where it becomes a smoother ride and with dual carriage way.
- That unmistakable desert sky where you can see thousands of stars…. Ahhhhh!
By 6 am, dawn was just breaking and we were at the border crossing on the Jordanian side… a case of a cold room full of Iraqis of all walks of life puffing at their cigarettes, 2 Jordanian officials of an authoritanian persuation and a loud speaker that coughed and splattered…
Here is the process you deliver your passport to said officials at any window where you can reach them, you are asked to step back and wait for your name to be announced… If you were lucky and carry a British passport it is returned to you stamped within 5 minutes, provided they manage to pronounce your name over the tannoy.. Jordanians and Iraqis may now wait for an hour to have theirs stamped… incidentally there were no visible computer equipment involved in this process that can be excused for the delay…
I think Meso at Iraq List, asked me to describe Iraqi psychie… Well given this was a stressful environment for all, nevertheless, the Jordanian visa room contained over 70 people representing an interesting cross section of Iraqi society… the PhDs in their suits and ties, farmers in dishdashas and ghutras, and car dealers in their jeans, and the odd elegant looking tribal sheikh … all invariably discussing the health or otherwise of the loudspeaker system which went silent for long periods.. Seriously though, they looked beat… a tired nation who just can’t be bothered to even put up a fuss with 2 officials who were tormenting them for kicks…
Before leaving this I must mention this anecdote… I heard these 2 youngsters behind me having a moan about the delay… One of them said… wait a minute, we now have democracy, what if we all hold a protest demonstration to speed up this visa business…. His mate replied, you can’t have a protest demonstration here.. Have you forgot we are not in Iraq now?
Onto the Iraqi border check point… or where it should have been as it does not exist.. By the look of things, someone decided to outsource border manning… the people there were not policemen… just a bunch of civilians who were more interested in making a cup of tea than checking cars or passengers.. all very friendly though… In any case, my group decided to play it by the book so we headed towards the “voluntary” visa building… A lavish sprawling structure to remind you of yesteryear where it must have been manned by every colour of the security services.. They had a couple of young men who were operating at the embarrassing $2 bribery level!! .. there was a moment of excitement about my surname here, the young men turned out to be distant relatives, so I was offered the red carpet treatment of go ing round the corridor to join them in their room and have my passport stamped in a more personalised service….. Yes I know… don’t ask!!!!
The remaining journey is around 350 miles to Baghdad.. The most noticeable aspect was the road itself, built sometime ago and beginning to show decay, yet it is of high motorway (Interstate) standard with built in central barriers, hard shoulder and animal protection fencing… The fencing (wire mesh material) has been looted… in its entirety and on both sides of the road all the way to Baghdad… As if that is not enough there is the sad spectre of looted electricity cables which again ran the entire length of the road… these were mounted on metal pylons.. Someone has gone to the trouble of pulling down each pylon until it buckled in order to make the cable stripping easier… They must have used either cranes or chains attached to heavy lorries to pull these pylons down and rendering them unusable. That said, each buckled pylon had along side it a recently erected replacement… My nephew A, explained the looting to me as follows.. Iraq was Saddam and Saddam was Iraq.. if you loot public property you are looting Saddam… QED.
As we approached bandit country near Ramady (The Triangle folks!) a flurry of activity took place in the car.. wallets and pockets were emptied from money, jewlery taken off and hidden.. Strict instructions given to me to simply hand over my wallet and deny having anymore on me should it happen… Luckily the road was full of army and police activity thanks to the downing of a helicopter… I don’t think the robbers had a good day last Thursday.
As we neared Falluja the road was blocked due to a bomb scare at a bridge further ahead.. So we detoured through Falluja, going through the town centre which was bustling with market activity and heading east towards Baghdad passing by Abu Ghraib prison which looked occupied!!
Speaking of banditry, we crossed over a bridge somewhere near Ramady which was recently repaired after someone had blown it.. The story of the repair went along the lines that the CPA paid Bechtel $20m to repair the bridge… Bechtel subcontracted the job to an Egyptian construction company for the sum of $10m. The latter offered it to a subcontractor in Egypt for $5m who in turn gives it to one of the Bunnya brothers in Iraq for $1m. The latter subcontracts it to a local firm in Ramady for $500K. The repair looked pretty shabby and they did not bother to resurface the road when they finished the job.
Finally into Baghdad and I will tell you in the next installment all about my arrival..