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from the April 2013 issue

The Last Six Days of Baghdad

This morning, I decide on another escape route to dodge the police surveillance of the rigid Mukhabarat we can’t seem to shake off.

I will jump in the first illegal taxi that comes near the hotel and make a grand tour of Baghdad.

No sooner said than done.

I happen on an old retired civil servant, who’s turned illegal cab driver to make up his pension. In his wreck of a Fiat, Abdelbaki and I take a very long ride into the city, far from the hassle of the security services.

The car is decked with hanging crosses as well as statuettes and icons of the Virgin Mary; our guide is a Christian Arab. “There are about three million Christians in Iraq,” he says. “They’ve been leaving the country in waves since 1991. Life is becoming unbearable!” he adds despairingly. Paradoxically, the United States is a highly prized destination for these migrants. “But you have to wait ten years to get the green light from the immigration services. And of course, you have to have a lot of money,” our man points out. We realize that life is even more painful for Christians. Saddam has played the religious fervor card to the max. In 1991, in the heat of the first—or was it the second, I’m no longer sure—Gulf war, he added the words “Allah Akbar” to the Iraqi flag, which instantly excludes other faiths. Maliciously manipulating religious symbols, Saddam thus sacrifices one of the key pillars of Ba’âthist ideology: secularism. This is how he undertakes the construction of the biggest mosque in the Muslim world, which was built to accommodate a hundred thousand believers. It dominates Baghdad, with its impressive cupolas and attendant giant cranes.

The cabman takes us past a whole succession of destroyed buildings. At Haï Al-Mansour, near Assaha Al-Alaouiya, where the main bus station is located, on the west bank of the Tigris, a monument to desolation draws my eye: it’s an enormous telecom exchange, demolished by American planes, the detached radars hanging off it like ears cut from a mutilated prisoner. Its name: Bordj Al-Maamoun.

One by one, the driver names the streets we pass through: Sahate A-Nasr, Al-Battaouine, Chariî A-Dhoubat, Sahat Al-Andalouss, Chariî A-Saâdoune, etc. At every stop, a scene of apocalypse. Here, the television headquarters. Bombed. There, the “monastery” of information. Bombed. Further on, the Baghdad International Fair. Razed. Somewhere else, the National Library. Bombed. At one point we pass what was “formerly” the American Embassy headquarters. Today the building houses the National Theatre. But curiously, it’s been spared, and we’re not too sure if that’s because George W. Bush, usually portrayed as a coarse, ignorant, philistine Texan, has suddenly conceived a love of culture, or just because Yanks had stayed there.

Another official building is miraculously still standing: the Ministry of Oil. A luxurious building the color of ochre. The documents inside it will later be looted by marines.

Next we make our way to Baghdad Al-Jadida, in other words the new town, on the east bank of the Tigris. A very populous working-class suburb. We’re surprised at how lively it is.

Baghdad’s roads, souks, and main thoroughfares generally are animated and busy during the day. Traffic is only interrupted in the areas where fighting is raging. Here and there you see street vendors hawking their wares, small cafés selling grilled meat to passersby, mini-markets raising their metal curtains for the many outsiders to do their shopping. In working-class cafés, people gather round a game of dominoes and forget themselves, as if nothing was wrong. And wherever you go, kids shout out “hello mister!” As soon as we state our nationality, we’re invited for “chai,” a fine red tea, English-style. From their balconies, women shout warm welcomes. Even the poorest, those whose means of subsistence are irremediably exhausted, offer food and lodging at every turn. It has to be said, an Algerian is truly a king in Iraq. I am amazed by Iraqis’ strength of spirit, by all this courage and generosity.

I have to admit that entering Baghdad my head was filled with TV images showing houses in ruins, civilians torn to pieces, charred cars. I’m agreeably surprised to find the city hasn’t been ransacked to that extent. You don’t see bodies lying on streets or systematic bombing of everything that moves.

The people are good, proud, and fundamentally optimistic. They feel the outcome of the war will be completely in their favor when the snipers in the sky decide to venture into Baghdad’s zouqaqs, in man-to-man combat, on equal terms. Didn’t Saddam promise that Baghdad would be the marines’ tomb? Everyone impatiently awaits the famous Maârakate al-Hawassim, the decisive engagement, the “mother of all battles,” just as, on their side, the Americans are impatient to drop their super bomb, the “mother of all bombs.”

It has been noted: the Iraqis are not completely demoralized. “We’ve learned to live with war,” they say in unison. The way we Algerians have with terrorism. Iraqis are well aware which sites are targets for American planes, the places not to go and the places that are safe, when not to go out, etc. Exactly like Algerians from Chlef, Aîn Sefra, Relizane, Djelfa, Laghouat, Mizrana, Ramka: they know every stretch of the roads, they know where the madmen of God operate, at which intervals fake roadblocks have been erected, and when not to show your face.

How do these people manage to keep going, you wonder? I asked a few Iraqi citizens the same question. A civil servant tells me the government has distributed eight or nine months’ worth of food supplies. “They’ve given us enough provisions to last till the month of August. They paid civil servants in advance. They’ve paid my wages for the next six months,” he tells me.

People can, in fact, get hold of basic foodstuffs (dried vegetables, flour, semolina, milk for children) at distribution centers for a symbolic lump sum of 250 Iraqi dinars. I haven’t heard one Iraqi complain of a lack of food or medicine. “We’ve been living this nightmare for over twenty years. There was the war with Iran, the first Gulf war, and twelve years of sanctions. Inevitably, you develop survival skills, you have to,” observes the father of a family who owns a general electricity shop. “As soon as there’s any trouble, I close my shop and I’m OK. I took my family to a little village near Mosul to protect them. It’s the country there. No need to get hold of food. Cows give us milk and the land provides the rest,” he adds, a smile on his lips.

It’s true, Iraqis display extraordinary stoicism. During the day, they go about their business, and in the evening they take turns at their lookout posts. That’s how it is for Raeed, who’s in his thirties and works in a bureau de change. At 4 p.m., he’s preparing to shut up shop. “I’m going to take my gun and stand guard,” he says, serene as you like. “Aren’t you afraid?” A recurring question, which comes around stupidly, in a loop. It might be stupid, but it’s necessary. Raeed gives a very poetic answer: “God knows, if you put your soul in a bottle, your fate would follow it!” This is Iraqis’ daily life. Life, a stubborn seed that throbs in the most arid of lands, flutters even under bombs. How can you be afraid after such a beautiful lesson in courage and humility?

As far as the “Battle for Baghdad” is concerned, people have no more information than we do. They’re at the center of a global media frenzy and they’re the last to know what’s going on in their own country. This is the fruit of the political, communications, and cultural embargo Saddam imposed on his people, depriving them of any window on the outside world. The only channel through which Iraqis can glean any information is scandalously ill-equipped.

Later, I’ll be astonished to learn that no particular battle plan has been devised for a city as vast as Baghdad, with its wide avenues that require the tightest defense strategy, were Saddam really intending to prepare Baghdadis for urban guerrilla warfare. For a country at war, a country moreover that’s been invaded, that’s made this “combat style” (to quote the Iraqi minister of communication, Mohamed Saeed Assahaf) the apex of its defense strategy, I’ve seen nothing more than a batch of light firearms handed out to all and sundry, and others, less light, abandoned in the countryside.

The fact remains that up until this Sunday, April 6, I’ve seen a population not in the least despondent but yearning to take on the GIs in street fights. Personally I have to admit I was awaiting this Maârakate al-Hawassim, this “mother of all battles” fairly confidently, trusting the outcome would be an honorable one for Iraqis.

The fierce battle at the airport fuels all discussions, which include outbursts of triumphalism. The craziest rumors circulate, quite naturally (as everyone knows) taking the place of information. The vox populi speaks of 105 marines killed there. Our illegal cabman adds: “They massacred the Americans at the airport. They dragged them into a pavilion that had water on the ground. They wet them and electrocuted them with electric cables. They butchered them, every last one.” Our man is certain of what he’s saying. According to him, “The American soldiers are amateurs next to our formidable Republican Guard. They’re just kids, dollar-hungry kids.”

So, sounding out Baghdadi opinion, the observer can only predict a glorious chapter of resistance, whatever the fighting “score.” “The cowards! They bomb us from the sky. They don’t dare meet us as men. They know that if they enter the city, we’ll eat them alive,” fulminates a young Iraqi we meet in the Al-Karada district. A middle-aged man is in total agreement: “We’re all mobilized. If we only hold out for a month, we’ve won. They’re not ashamed to tot up the points they’ve scored. Two superpowers unite against an unarmed population and boast of their pseudo victory. They’ll see what Iraqis are made of!”

Another refrain on everyone’s lips: al-âmala al-ârabiya, Arab treachery. Iraqis are extremely upset with the Arab regimes; Egyptians and Jordanians top the list. They loathe and detest Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II. “They pump our oil for nothing and don’t even honor the contract,” they rage about their southern neighbor, alluding to the oil that flows freely in Jordanian refineries in return for a food program which is laughably inadequate. “They captured a Jordanian soldier, a traitor. They cut off his ears and sent him back to his country, as a lesson to the rest of them,” Raeed the money-changer tells me.

Taking advantage of the fact that my “driver” of the day knows the whole city, I ask him if by chance there are any transport links with Mosul. He drives me to the headquarters of an agency in Baghdad Al-Jadida, in the Al-Khalidj district, where trains leave for the north every day.

After a pleasant two-hour ride, the man drops me at my hotel. He only wants $3. Even though, on the way, he’d paid for a kilo of bananas and a kilo of oranges out of his own pocket. Which is an indication of these people’s integrity. To make a small comparison, in Amman a taxi driver wanted twenty euros just to drop me at the Algerian embassy! In Damascus, the taxi drivers rob you with a smile. In Iraq, they simply ask for their due. I was in a small working-class café, drinking tea. The café was run by two rough-looking boys. As I was about to pay, they said: “Forget it. You are our guest!” After that, how can one believe these same people, filled with pride, so dignified, so kind, so courteous, can change into common museum looters?

For the rest of the day, I continue to meet people, talk with them, find out how they’re feeling, their opinions, trying to further familiarize myself with the human landscape of this astonishing city. In the throng of my observations, I’m captivated by their inventive genius and ability to make do. You only need look at the proliferating range of activities around the Hotel Palestine. As in all wars, each man does what he can to earn a crust of bread. So, in this fiefdom of international press, services have been set up: shopkeepers, illegal taxis, money-changers, lemonade and sweet sellers, shoeshines. And it’s easy to imagine that all these denizens of working-class districts had no right to be here in Baghdad’s prosperous days, amidst all these palaces.

Hichem is twelve years old. He has the face of a real little joker, mischievous and bubbling with life. Walking barefoot, lugging a case in which he keeps a brush and some shoe polish, he’s constantly flitting in every direction, offering his services to the clients of the Hotel Palestine or the Sheraton. On other days, he arrives with boxes of cakes, which he tries to flog us. But Hichem’s true calling is currency exchange: a born money-changer, he knows the fluctuations of foreign currencies down to the third figure after the decimal point. This kid will take the smallest coin, and mix all currencies together. He exchanged my Jordanian dinar for a big wad of notes. Which made me realize that due to the local dinar’s collapse, Iraqis are trying to get rid of their notes as fast as possible.

If Baghdad is a necropolis by night, an immense open tomb, so unendurable is the rain of bombs, quite another city is revealed in the early morning. It’s true that Baghdadis’ rhythm has been completely upended, but life reasserts itself come the first glimmer of daylight. And if one of the squares can symbolically sum up this paradox, it’s Alaouite Square. This square is home to the huge bus station, among other things. As a result, it’s the scene of extraordinarily feverish activity, even at the height of the fighting. Which shows the extent to which this martyred people have learned to live with war.

Iraqis always awake from their nightmare with the same determination to resist, to defend their honor and their dignity, to go down fighting. And everyone, absolutely everyone, is keen to stress they are doing this not for Saddam but for the Holy Fatherland.

Still, it’s a little early to get carried away by blind optimism. I could only hope the outcome would be honorable when the fighting turned to urban guerrilla warfare. But those in the know were already well aware that this tremendous surge of resistance would be shattered on the altar of disorganisation and secret dealings . . .

From Les six derniers jours de Bagdad: Journal d’un voyage de guerre. © 2003 Mustafa Benfodil. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.

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