Over Here: Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the Abstraction
One day in the summer of 2004, while I sat in the western Baghdad studio of Radio Dijla, Iraq’s first all-talk station, listening to a deputy interior minister being interviewed, a man named Haithem called in. His story sounded garbled and frantic: late at night bandits had forced him off an unlit highway overpass, destroying his car, crushing his chest against the steering wheel, and shattering his leg. After twelve hours, American soldiers found him under the highway and called the Iraqi police, who stole his money and gun before loading him into an ambulance. The next day I went looking for Haithem in a modest neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. He lay sweating in a dark room, a radio and phone by the bed, sunlight burning around the window curtain. There was a towel wrapped around Haithem’s waist, and his bandaged knee was held in traction by metal pins and a primitive sack of bricks, sand, and lead weights that hung from a wire over the bed frame. It looked as if torture, not healing, was going on in Haithem’s room.
As it happened, the same leg had been fractured by Saddam’s secret police in 1992. This latest injury seemed to have broken Haithem’s will; he said that he’d attempted suicide by sticking his finger into the power strip on the floor. “I have no manhood right now, I can’t feel my manhood. I’m asking you through the spirit of brotherhood to help me find compensation. I’m desperate–I have three children, how can I raise them, what can I do for them? I took money from my brother for cigarettes–it’s killing me to say this. I don’t want to go to charities as a beggar. I want to be a human being, and I want a human being in front of me who can give me my rights. I want any person to come and help me just like the Americans did–just for anyone to come here and help me as a human being.”
As for the American soldiers, he was still marveling at their kindness. This was his second encounter with Americans; the first occurred a month earlier and did not go well. On that night, he had been careening down a side street at high speed when a Humvee emerged from the darkness. Unsurprisingly, Haithem ended up on the ground with soldiers screaming at him. But the Americans who heard his cries from under the highway were different; they offered him water and spent an hour dressing his wound. “This latest accident changed everything for me. I understood not everyone is the same. The soldier who treated me–the last thing he said as they put me in the ambulance was, ‘Don’t cry, you won’t die,’ and he wiped my tears. I never got the name of the soldier, and I’m sorry about that.”
In Haithem’s telling, the story became a parable of how some things had changed in Iraq while other, more fundamental truths had not. Ordinary Iraqis could now complain to a deputy interior minister on a call-in radio show, and the official might order his men to follow up; but the police were as corrupt as ever, the hospital care just as indifferent. Americans had humiliated Haithem and Americans had shown him humanity. But the Americans could not give Haithem the justice he craved. There would be no happy ending for him.
The Iraq War introduced entirely new kinds of cruelty to the world, so it’s strange how many of my memories are of kindness. I often think of Abu Malik, a bearded, imposing man, his leather coat buttoned tight across his chest. Abu Malik would have been a frightening sight at a militia checkpoint in Sadr City, but whenever I came to stay with friends at the New York Times compound on the east bank of the Tigris, where he was chief of security, Abu Malik threw his arms around me, kissed my cheeks, and told me, in the openly tender way of Iraqi men, how much all the security guards had missed me. The last time I saw Abu Malik, a family I knew in Baghdad had just received a death threat and was trying to find a safe route out of their besieged neighborhood and then out of the country. Abu Malik, whose house was near the family’s, got on the phone and offered these complete strangers safe passage to the airport.
I think of Muna, a social worker whose husband disappeared under Baath Party rule. In early 2004, she began a weekly therapy group in an abandoned building. Her patients had all been punished by the former regime and a judicial system that indelibly marked the bodies of army deserters, non-voters, and those who spoke ill of the authorities. Some had their ears sliced off, their tongues cut out, their hands severed; others had their faces tattooed with derogatory symbols. They all called her “Mama” and she called them “my sons.” “Even the child on the street looks at them and makes fun of them,” Muna said. “This is a great humiliation for a human being. If he were dead it would be better. If his son asks him, ‘What happened to your ear?’ what is he supposed to say? If he wants to marry a girl, her family will say, ‘We can’t give you our daughter–you’re a criminal.’ For one and a half hours they talk and cry, until they get relief. Then they all laugh together.”
Finally, I think of Steve Miska, an Army lieutenant colonel. On his second tour, as the surge got under way, Miska was in command of a small base in an old Shiite neighborhood in northern Baghdad. The area had fallen largely under the control of the Mahdi Army, and Miska’s troops spent much of their time going house to house in search of fighters and weapons. But Miska also spent a lot of his time–more and more as his tour ground on–arranging passage out of the country for the unit’s Iraqi interpreters. The interpreters constantly received death threats, and once the Americans were gone, they would be easy prey. Miska understood that their fate would, in a sense, be a verdict on the war, and he likened his effort, which involved running a gauntlet of Iraqi insurgents, Jordanian border officials, and American bureaucrats, to an “underground railroad.” A few of the interpreters even managed to get visas to the United States.
In wartime Iraq, perhaps in most wars, viciousness and generosity were never far apart. The menace in the streets of Baghdad was always overwhelming–the suspicious piles of roadside garbage, the dark sedans casing other cars, the checkpoint that wasn’t there thirty minutes ago, the hard stares in traffic, the hair trigger of American gunners, the heedless SUV convoys, and the explosions that always seemed to happen three streets away. In this national ruin, any act of kindness, even as small as offering someone a ride, created solidarity. You were always meeting someone who had run out of options, and someone else who would risk far more to help than he would in normal times. Perhaps it was part of their culture, and perhaps these were not normal times, but Iraqis lacked the sense of shame about heartfelt declarations and naked emotions that people in more secure, better functioning places possess naturally. All of this made them harsh and lovable, and it was possible to spend an hour with Haithem or Muna, or to see Abu Malik once every six months, and feel that more human business had been transacted than over a hundred New York lunches or dinners. The same was true of soldiers with whom I would have had nothing to discuss back at home. Without these connections, Iraq would have been unbearable.
I linger on these memories because they capture something elusive and hard to describe that was nonetheless a signature of the war. The American invasion of Iraq was, above all else, a revolution in the lives of Iraqis. Their institutions, their everyday routines, their futures, their sense of order were all turned upside down. This revolution, which is still ongoing and will play out for years to come, was the opening of a prison. When they staggered out into the light, most Iraqis didn’t know where they were, what they wanted, even who they were, and the Americans who had so quickly and casually broken down the gate were standing around as if they had never even considered what to do next. The Americans were nominally in charge–the Iraqis expected them to be, and after the first few weeks of paralysis, the Americans flung themselves into a flurry of activities befitting an occupying power–but it was all illusion. No one was in charge. By the summer of 2003, when I first went to Iraq, it was clear that a void had opened up and the best-armed and most ruthless groups had moved in. Although it went through many phases and assumed a variety of forms, the process of mutual disenchantment between Iraqis and Americans began early. It was this process that interested me most about Iraq, because it went to the human heart of the matter: the experience of suffering, hope, illusion, need, violence, and disappointment that transformed both sides and made the war so painful for each.
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