Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Things are shifting.

After days of critical reports about the administration's plans and motives in Iraq, the White House is overhauling its Iraq and Afghanistan missions in a move meant to speed up the reconstruction. Some say it's a slap at the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld, who's been slammed for not having more of a clue that Iraq would be so difficult to put back together.

Since getting home in July, it's been difficult to think of anything but Baghdad, but time has helped.

I've had plenty of distractions, from a journalists conference to a week of sailing off Martha's Vineyard. I've covered Arnold Schwarzenegger, the second anniversary of 9/11 in New York and the hype and spectacle of Fashion Week. But nothing got my pulse going like the one-sentence email from an editor two weeks ago: "you up for a return?"

So tonight I had a romantic dinner with my husband, to celebrate my birthday. Tomorrow I get on a plane for Amman, and on Friday, hopefully, I'm on a plane back to Baghdad.

It is a little weird to go from writing about Beyonce in the front row to thinking about whether I should convince my former driver to give up his BMW for a less-likely-to-be-carjacked vehicle.

My parents don't understand why I want to go back. They still haven't forgiven me for going to Iraq the first time, from late April to the end of June. This past weekend, I met them in Philadelphia for an architectural conference celebrating former University of Pennsylvania dean of architecture Paul Cret, who taught many students from China, including my grandfather, Robert Fan Sr., class of 1921. Having argued terribly with my Dad about going back to Baghdad, it was comforting to be with him, rediscovering my grandfather and thinking about how my family ended up in this country.

"I must thank Yang Ting Bao,'' my father said, crediting another U Penn graduate who told my grandfather on a 1951 visit to Beijing that the capital's weather wouldn't agree with him. It was a strong hint and my grandfather, who had already fled to Hong Kong, chose not to return to China (The next year, he helped my father sneak out of Shanghai). Other students returned to China to help rebuild their country only to have their careers and lives irrevocably changed by political upheaval.

Now I wonder about an Iraqi-American contact who has returned to help rebuild the country of his grandparents. I try to imagine - for each of the people I interviewed last time - what it's like to face a wildly uncertain future.

I'm eager to see the Iraqi friends I left behind and hear how their opinions of the Americans have shifted. I want to see whether the US-appointed Governing Council (which didn't exist last time I was there) has any hope of winning over a majority of Iraqis. I want to know how the US plans on fixing the mess that is Baghdad and who they're going to hire to help them do it.

But first I have to pack.