Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Tomorrow I will have been home a week. After having been away since April 9th, everything seems strange to me, even the elevator buttons in my apartment building. I have one more Iraq story to finish up. After finding it so difficult to get news while I was in Baghdad, due to costly Internet connections, I feel as though I'm now inhaling news about Iraq. The unfinished and slow pace of reconstruction seems to me one of the most important stories out there. I can think of little else. But my relieved family and a few of my friends think I'm insane to want to go back. Here's part of an email my fixer sent me after I asked him what was going on. He sent it July 15th, the day I arrived back in New York and one day after yet another US soldier was killed in an RPG attack in the wealthy Mansur neighborhood:

"I think that you know everything that is happening here so you tell me what will happen. The general situation is bad, struggling against the American forces everywhere and threats from Saddam Hussein all the time and the Iraqi people don't know what to do - following the Americans and then be ready for Saddam punishment or by one of his loyal followers, or follow Saddam and be punished (almost killed) by the Americans. We said it before, it is complicated and we are waiting for a solution and until then my regards to you and your husband ..."

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

After 10 weeks in Baghdad, I left on the road to Amman Sunday. It was a relief to escape the heat and the fatigue that had begun to settle in after such a long stay, but I was sad to leave behind the Iraqi families I befriended, especially as the situation worsens and their patience shrinks.

A colleague and I rode in a Chevy Caprice, which followed another colleague in a GMC hired through a reputable Jordanian company. We didn’t join a convoy, due to recent concerns and rumors about bandits possibly being tipped off by Baghdad insiders every time a convoy leaves town loaded down with cash or camera and computer gear.

The 12-hour journey ended at the Royal Hotel in Amman, a luxurious culture shock of a place after Baghdad’s Al-Hamra hotel.

Looking up from my fresh orange juice and pile of fresh fruit this morning, four huge palm trees on a balcony looked like matchsticks inside a towering oval space. There are indoor and outdoor pools, one with water cascading into it. We were greeted with a big plate of chocolate and cookies on our arrival. The bathroom is an expanse of marble. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself.

The first thing I did was leave for Jerusalem, which I’ve never seen before. There are almost no tourists in the old city, where in less than half an hour you can walk from the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter to the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. The Dome of the Rock is still closed to tourists despite newspaper headlines Tuesday that said the area was beginning to re-open to non-Muslims. Tour guides and shopkeepers seemed desperate for visitors and cash, shouting out 50% discounts if you so much as glanced at their window. Even in Jordan, hotel operators in Petra are threatening to sue the US for the drop-off in tourism after the war with Iraq, the latest bad news after the 2000 uprising in Jerusalem and the worldwide economic recession.

After a night at the American Colony, including the most amazing tomato salad in the shade of the hotel’s old courtyard, it was back to Jordan, with a quick stop in Jerash, a 2nd century city of Roman ruins about an hour north of Amman. The border crossing into Israel took an excruciating four hours, which is nothing compared to what Palestinian travelers endure. Coming back, I opted to pay for VIP service, which brought down the waiting time to an hour, not including delays at traffic checkpoints.

Now I’m reading today’s headlines about Iraq and feeling particularly useless. As I put away a croissant and wait for my flight to London, my colleagues are covering yet more violence in Baghdad and Falluja and my Iraqi friends are grappling with a mounting anger and frustration. These are educated moderates who understand that democracy and freedom take time but who are incredulous that the Americans have done nothing tangible to stem widespread security and electricity problems. I’m heading for the comforts of Europe, and eventually a flight home to New York, but they are entering the most scorching month of the year. As US officials insist that things are getting better each day, all I can say is Insha’allah.