White birds, black birds (2)

December 1, 2005

The light here is, quite simply, beautiful.

I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or we’ve just been lucky and not had many hazy days but at sunrise and sunset, it’s that sharp golden light that I associate with the desert.

Especially at sunset, the buildings spread out before our hotel turn a bright gold before gently fading into the gathering darkness. The office has bank of windows looking down at one section of the broad Tigris, which winds like a restless brown snake through the center of the city.

Flocks of white gulls are constantly flying along the course of the river. Suddenly they’ll all stop and settle on the water, letting the current carrying them down river before, abruptly, throwing themselves into the air to wheel around a bit more.

Otherwise the sole denizens of the river appear to be solitary men in small motorboats, casually puttering along the length of the river. I can’t tell if they’re fishing and it almost looks like they are just out for leisurely boat trip.

These are some of the only pretty things is what is otherwise a stunningly ugly place.


Thanks to the curse of cement and concrete and the architectural ideas of the past 30 years, Middle Eastern cities are not pretty places and Baghdad seems to be the worst of them. The area of our hotel, not far from the Green Zone, has a high concentration of official buildings and old ministries, some of whom have never really recovered from the invasion.

Directly across the water is the shattered husk of the communications center which at first seems intact, until you realize you can see the rest of the city through its vacant windows. Other piles of rubble dot the opposite banks, marking other buildings that were bombed and never really cleaned up.

In fact the whole city feels like everyone was just too tired and depressed to clean up the mess from the invasion, from the years of sanctions, from the bombings in 1991.

One American journalist I met, who first started coming here back in 1991, says that what really did it was the big sandstorm back in March 2003 right after the invasion started. Three days of driving sand was mixed into a hard paste by a two days of rain that to this day decorates the buildings.

The place is dusty and decrepit with plenty of vacant buildings showing off shattered windows to the street. The area around the Green Zone in particular is littered with barbed wire and random debris, no doubt leftover from those periodic car bombs that used to go off outside its gates.

Even the Green Zone itself isn’t particularly impressive with its collection of exhausted buildings from the 1970s and 1980s, built when there was a lot of money (and little taste), that are now falling to seed.

From our windows at the hotel, which I rarely leave according to the rules of the job, we often see plumes of black smoke rising from the city. The latest car bomb? Apparently not, just people burning trash.

Still, high up in the hotel you can here the periodic crackle of gunfire in the distance or the pop pop pop of someone letting a few rounds off. What’s been disturbing me lately is the dull crump of distant explosions. After hearing a string of them one night, I inquired and was told that it was probably controlled explosions conducted by the US military to take care of some weapons caches they’d discovered.

Oh, that’s all.

The next day, though, in the “Airpower Daily Summary” from the US Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs office, one of our many lovely emails from the US military, I noted a small item among many saying a fighter jet had “performed an air strike in the vicinity of Baghdad, expending a Maverick missile with successful effects against a building used by insurgents.”

Where did these people learn to write?

Freya Stark, a British adventuress who traveled throughout the Middle East in the 1920s, spent a fair amount of time in Baghdad in particular. I ran across this description by her of the city:

“In the early spring, before the first buds show on the peach trees, a sort of luminous transparency envelops the distant city of Baghdad and its gardens. The pale minarets, the slowly swelling river, the desert itself with darker patches where fields of beetroot lie near the irrigation ditches, the russet lace-work of the willows so frail against the sky—all take on an ethereal quality, as of some faint angelic vision about to melt into its own heavenly atmosphere, some fugitive embrace of earth and sky which has left this print of loveliness behind it for the eyes of men.”

I have a feeling spring is a bit different these days.

Most journalists, judging by their accounts over the years, didn’t really much like Baghdad, even before the latest troubles. Too much oppression, too many minders, too much concrete. The odd exception was Milton Viorst who visited the place several times throughout the 1980s, writing for the New Yorker.

He described it as a lively vibrant city with excellent river side restaurants and a nightlife that far outshone its rival Arab cities of Cairo and Damascus.

What he really liked about Baghdad as well, was the sense of security: “Baghdad, in war, seems remarkably at peace with itself. No tanks are parked at the intersections, as there are in so many Arab cities; there are no sandbagged kiosks in which armed soldier sit guarding public buildings.”

Nowadays it seems that everyone on the streets is carrying a gun. Convoys of dignitaries go by escorted by SUVs bristling with AK-47s or there is a procession of Iraqi police and their white armored pickup trucks, looking remarkably like the images I remember on TV of Beirut militias during the Lebanon war—of course the fact that it appears that the police are controlled by the various militias and carrying out assassinations of various rival political figures, could have something to do with that impression.

The scariest thing to come down the street, though, is a US convoy of armored humvees. Fitted with machine gun turrets, they stop for no one, shoot at anyone who comes close, and drive through any intersection at full speed. Apparently they cause tons of accidents, not too mention quite a few killings. Being stuck in traffic with a convoy coming up behind you is a special kind of terror.

Oddly enough, this is not endearing the US military to the locals.

Getting inside the Green Zone, the vast complex of hotels, former palaces and office buildings commandeered by the US and the new Iraqi government, is a bit of a bother.

The first checkpoint, inside the grim line of blast walls, is manned by the Iraqi army which checks your two forms of id and then waves you on. The next five check points are all run by soldiers from Georgia—the kind from Tiblisi, rather than Atlanta. Car bombs at the gates mean the US prefers not to expose its men to guard duty. The not-so-funny part is that the Georgians speak neither Arabic nor English, but do seem to be uniformly ill tempered, especially when it takes you a long time to understand that they want you to take the battery out of your mobile phone.

No mobile phone use near the check points.

The mood isn’t lightened much somewhere around the third checkpoint and the second search when the Peruvian soldiers show up. Though they at least say hello, they rarely crack a smile. One Green Zone inhabitant said she missed the days when the Nepalese Gurkhas manned the check points—“they always had a big smile for us.”

During one trip inside the zone for a US embassy sponsored election-junket up to the northern city of Mosul, we were met early in the morning near the convention center by what was, as far as I could tell, a soccer mom.

Vicki, as we’ll call her, would not have looked out of place in a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Kansas. She apologized for the early hour and presented us all with cream-filled sweet rolls as we piled into her SUV for a trip to the helicopter pad. She kept forcing more pancakes on one journalist from the Christian Science Monitor before he assured he couldn’t eat another bite.

All the while she careened through the wide boulevards of the Green Zone as though they were her gated suburb back home. She giggled about how she always drives to fast and said she hoped it didn’t bother us. In the distance, we passed a massive sculpture of two crossed swords that Saddam used to march his armies through on holidays.

So I had my first helicopter ride, to be followed by about five more that day, dressed up in helmet and flak jacket and feeling fairly silly.

It was nice to get finally inside one of these buzzing monsters that are so much a part of the city’s landscape. Several times a day, the hulking Blackhawk headquarters roar by, always in pairs, the windows of the hotel. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, we see the Apache attack helicopters, laden with bombs and missiles fly by as well.

The most annoying, though, are the tiny copters, called gazelles by the Iraqis, that carry the private Blackwater security guards used by the Americans. They dive, buzz and weave around our hotel like some kind of horrific horde of wasps.

They leave their doors open and dangle out the windows, sniper rifles at ready. They are the cream of the private security, usually escorting some VIP or convoy.

The worst, though, is at night, when we can hear the heavy drone of helicopter engines go by, but can’t see them. We know, though, that we very clear to them in our lit up, glass front offices, overlooking the dark city.
White birds, black birds (2)
December 1, 2005

The light here is, quite simply, beautiful.

I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or we’ve just been lucky and not had many hazy days but at sunrise and sunset, it’s that sharp golden light that I associate with the desert.

Especially at sunset, the buildings spread out before our hotel turn a bright gold before gently fading into the gathering darkness. The office has bank of windows looking down at one section of the broad Tigris, which winds like a restless brown snake through the center of the city.

Flocks of white gulls are constantly flying along the course of the river. Suddenly they’ll all stop and settle on the water, letting the current carrying them down river before, abruptly, throwing themselves into the air to wheel around a bit more.

Otherwise the sole denizens of the river appear to be solitary men in small motorboats, casually puttering along the length of the river. I can’t tell if they’re fishing and it almost looks like they are just out for leisurely boat trip.

These are some of the only pretty things is what is otherwise a stunningly ugly place.

Thanks to the curse of cement and concrete and the architectural ideas of the past 30 years, Middle Eastern cities are not pretty places and Baghdad seems to be the worst of them. The area of our hotel, not far from the Green Zone, has a high concentration of official buildings and old ministries, some of whom have never really recovered from the invasion.

Directly across the water is the shattered husk of the communications center which at first seems intact, until you realize you can see the rest of the city through its vacant windows. Other piles of rubble dot the opposite banks, marking other buildings that were bombed and never really cleaned up.

In fact the whole city feels like everyone was just too tired and depressed to clean up the mess from the invasion, from the years of sanctions, from the bombings in 1991.

One American journalist I met, who first started coming here back in 1991, says that what really did it was the big sandstorm back in March 2003 right after the invasion started. Three days of driving sand was mixed into a hard paste by a two days of rain that to this day decorates the buildings.

The place is dusty and decrepit with plenty of vacant buildings showing off shattered windows to the street. The area around the Green Zone in particular is littered with barbed wire and random debris, no doubt leftover from those periodic car bombs that used to go off outside its gates.

Even the Green Zone itself isn’t particularly impressive with its collection of exhausted buildings from the 1970s and 1980s, built when there was a lot of money (and little taste), that are now falling to seed.

From our windows at the hotel, which I rarely leave according to the rules of the job, we often see plumes of black smoke rising from the city. The latest car bomb? Apparently not, just people burning trash.

Still, high up in the hotel you can here the periodic crackle of gunfire in the distance or the pop pop pop of someone letting a few rounds off. What’s been disturbing me lately is the dull crump of distant explosions. After hearing a string of them one night, I inquired and was told that it was probably controlled explosions conducted by the US military to take care of some weapons caches they’d discovered.

Oh, that’s all.

The next day, though, in the “Airpower Daily Summary” from the US Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs office, one of our many lovely emails from the US military, I noted a small item among many saying a fighter jet had “performed an air strike in the vicinity of Baghdad, expending a Maverick missile with successful effects against a building used by insurgents.”

Where did these people learn to write?

Freya Stark, a British adventuress who traveled throughout the Middle East in the 1920s, spent a fair amount of time in Baghdad in particular. I ran across this description by her of the city:

“In the early spring, before the first buds show on the peach trees, a sort of luminous transparency envelops the distant city of Baghdad and its gardens. The pale minarets, the slowly swelling river, the desert itself with darker patches where fields of beetroot lie near the irrigation ditches, the russet lace-work of the willows so frail against the sky—all take on an ethereal quality, as of some faint angelic vision about to melt into its own heavenly atmosphere, some fugitive embrace of earth and sky which has left this print of loveliness behind it for the eyes of men.”

I have a feeling spring is a bit different these days.

Most journalists, judging by their accounts over the years, didn’t really much like Baghdad, even before the latest troubles. Too much oppression, too many minders, too much concrete. The odd exception was Milton Viorst who visited the place several times throughout the 1980s, writing for the New Yorker.

He described it as a lively vibrant city with excellent river side restaurants and a nightlife that far outshone its rival Arab cities of Cairo and Damascus.

What he really liked about Baghdad as well, was the sense of security: “Baghdad, in war, seems remarkably at peace with itself. No tanks are parked at the intersections, as there are in so many Arab cities; there are no sandbagged kiosks in which armed soldier sit guarding public buildings.”

Nowadays it seems that everyone on the streets is carrying a gun. Convoys of dignitaries go by escorted by SUVs bristling with AK-47s or there is a procession of Iraqi police and their white armored pickup trucks, looking remarkably like the images I remember on TV of Beirut militias during the Lebanon war—of course the fact that it appears that the police are controlled by the various militias and carrying out assassinations of various rival political figures, could have something to do with that impression.

The scariest thing to come down the street, though, is a US convoy of armored humvees. Fitted with machine gun turrets, they stop for no one, shoot at anyone who comes close, and drive through any intersection at full speed. Apparently they cause tons of accidents, not too mention quite a few killings. Being stuck in traffic with a convoy coming up behind you is a special kind of terror.

Oddly enough, this is not endearing the US military to the locals.

Getting inside the Green Zone, the vast complex of hotels, former palaces and office buildings commandeered by the US and the new Iraqi government, is a bit of a bother.

The first checkpoint, inside the grim line of blast walls, is manned by the Iraqi army which checks your two forms of id and then waves you on. The next five check points are all run by soldiers from Georgia—the kind from Tiblisi, rather than Atlanta. Car bombs at the gates mean the US prefers not to expose its men to guard duty. The not-so-funny part is that the Georgians speak neither Arabic nor English, but do seem to be uniformly ill tempered, especially when it takes you a long time to understand that they want you to take the battery out of your mobile phone.

No mobile phone use near the check points.

The mood isn’t lightened much somewhere around the third checkpoint and the second search when the Peruvian soldiers show up. Though they at least say hello, they rarely crack a smile. One Green Zone inhabitant said she missed the days when the Nepalese Gurkhas manned the check points—“they always had a big smile for us.”

During one trip inside the zone for a US embassy sponsored election-junket up to the northern city of Mosul, we were met early in the morning near the convention center by what was, as far as I could tell, a soccer mom.

Vicki, as we’ll call her, would not have looked out of place in a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Kansas. She apologized for the early hour and presented us all with cream-filled sweet rolls as we piled into her SUV for a trip to the helicopter pad. She kept forcing more pancakes on one journalist from the Christian Science Monitor before he assured he couldn’t eat another bite.

All the while she careened through the wide boulevards of the Green Zone as though they were her gated suburb back home. She giggled about how she always drives to fast and said she hoped it didn’t bother us. In the distance, we passed a massive sculpture of two crossed swords that Saddam used to march his armies through on holidays.

So I had my first helicopter ride, to be followed by about five more that day, dressed up in helmet and flak jacket and feeling fairly silly.

It was nice to get finally inside one of these buzzing monsters that are so much a part of the city’s landscape. Several times a day, the hulking Blackhawk headquarters roar by, always in pairs, the windows of the hotel. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, we see the Apache attack helicopters, laden with bombs and missiles fly by as well.

The most annoying, though, are the tiny copters, called gazelles by the Iraqis, that carry the private Blackwater security guards used by the Americans. They dive, buzz and weave around our hotel like some kind of horrific horde of wasps.

They leave their doors open and dangle out the windows, sniper rifles at ready. They are the cream of the private security, usually escorting some VIP or convoy.

The worst, though, is at night, when we can hear the heavy drone of helicopter engines go by, but can’t see them. We know, though, that we very clear to them in our lit up, glass front offices, overlooking the dark city.