Monday, May 19, 2003

On Saturday night, there was a small party down by the pool. Journalists were dancing to Madonna and Missy Elliott, sipping wine and unwinding after interviewing pimps, photographing grieving widows and chasing government ministers. It felt a little weird. A photographer I’ve been working with kept telling me to relax but it’s so hard to turn it off. Part of it may be guilt, but mostly I feel as though I might miss something or go soft or lose my focus. Dion Nissenbaum, who dropped by briefly, called it surreal. But the photographer was right about hitting a wall. You can get burnt out so easily by working 17 hour days six or seven days a week in 100 plus degree weather.

My translator, Ali Abbass, and driver, Hassan Abdul Razak, came by the pool, interested in our music and our stories about how men and women interact at home. Ali, 21, gets teased by his Cassanova-like pals because he doesn’t have a girlfriend. But the reality is Ali wants his freedom. He is a good student who wants to travel and have female friends who, after a few discreet dates away from the prying eyes of friends and family, won’t turn to him and say "I love you, let’s get married." He and Hassan are both fascinated by a story that another fixer here has lost his virginity and told his journalist employer, who has in turn told everybody else.

Ali’s first contact with a foreigner was only a year ago, when his businessman father Abbass Nabhan, 60, brought a German couple home for lunch. They did not speak Arabic and Ali’s father did not speak German, but somehow they understood each other. Ali, curious as he was, just stared at the couple. "That was the first time I faced a foreigner face to face," Ali said. "I was confused. I didn’t know what to say."

Then, after Baghdad fell, and employees couldn’t get to work, Ali helped out in his father’s hotel, and began to meet some of the overflow of journalists from the nearby Palestine hotel. Ali was carrying a guest’s bags up the stairs to the 6th floor during an electricity blackout when they struck up a conversation during a rest on the 4th floor. But when the journalist asked Ali to work as a translator, Ali demurred, amazed that anyone would think his English was good enough. Instead, he suggested the reporter hire his brother, Amar. Eventually, a radio reporter from the Netherlands asked Ali to help, and Ali finally said yes. Ali’s uncle also began to translate for some British journalists, and another brother, Maher, got a job as a driver for a journalist from the New York Times. Soon, the family’s after-dinner conversation offered an amazing window onto Saddam’s regime.

"Everybody was saying, ‘I did this, I went there.’ Maher was trying to find people who had been tortured or who had their ears cut off. Amar found some underground jails. I went to the intelligence agency to look for documents," Ali recalled. "It was amazing and horrible."

"Initially my first reaction to the war was that I didn’t like the American forces. Nobody wants their country to be attacked. If I heard that the Iraqi forces did well, I was happy. But then when I thought about it, and when I saw these unbelievable palaces and underground jails, really I felt that I am lucky to be alive. We lived under not just criminals, but crazy criminals."

Ali’s father, who worked in the construction business and imported aluminum and lead piping before operating a hotel, was imprisoned briefly in a round-up of all the lead importers after one of them was jailed because of his ties to a trade and industry minister. Even after his release, Ali’s father lived in fear that he would be locked up at anytime. Twice, he fled his home – once, to Syria for three months.

"Just yesterday, I was talking to my mother and she was complaining that the Americans had not fixed the electricity, the security, and that nothing was getting better," Ali said Sunday. "I told her we were patient for 35 years. Now we are free. We have to give the Americans some time. It is not easy to fix everything. My father laughed and said now I am talking like an American."

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Yesterday marked the end of two weeks in Baghdad. I no longer flinch at the sound of gunfire that sounds as if it’s coming from just below my balcony. Restaurants and shops have re-opened, even though the electricity still sputters off and on.

Here at the al-Hamra hotel, just south across the Tigris from Saddam’s Republican Palace, we are lucky to have a working restaurant and room service - such as it is - for when you have to eat and file at the same time. They have even filled the swimming pool, which beckons when the dusty afternoons reach 42 celsius..

When I arrived, it was quieter and no one ventured out at night, but in general, the city didn’t feel like a war zone. Reporters didn’t seem to be using their heavy protective armor. There were specific places where you could see the rubble left by heavy bombing and each government ministry was either bombed or burned by looters, but Baghdad appeared functional.

Now I see that the longer you stay, the more pain and damage you see.

Sometimes it’s behind a wall, as with the posters of the missing and the lists of the executed that are posted by the Committee of Free Prisoners on the inside garden wall of the former home of a Republican Guard.

Sometimes it’s in a conversation, as when a squatter who’s been evicted from her home tells you she cannot afford bananas – which cost mere cents - for her two children. Or when her neighbor, a retired engineer, begins to cry as he tells you how he was tortured with electric shocks.

Sometimes it’s closer to home, as with the lantern-lit memorial service held on a fifth-floor rooftop of our hotel in memory of Elizabeth Neuffer, the Boston Globe reporter killed along with her translator when her driver smashed into a guardrail near Tikrit.

Yesterday, my driver decided to speed through a waterlogged street near a water main break. I was worried about hydroplaning but the greater danger turned out to be that Hassan flooded a nearby car with open windows. Four angry men pulled up next to us, shouting and waving their fists. My first thought was wondering whether they had guns, but I didn’t find out because Hassan dodged down a side street and then circled back another way. I didn’t know whether to be angry with him or thank him for his evasive moves.