In 2005 and 2006, we ran a series of dispatches from our friend Abu Ray, who was reporting from Iraq. Abu Ray is now back in Iraq and has sent a new dispatch:
The day after I arrived, I found myself heading back to the airport, that familiar ride through west Baghdad, past the checkpoints, with the bubbles in the stomach wondering whether the flight would be canceled or some other unforeseen disaster would prevent escape.
This time was for work though, and I wouldn’t be flying anywhere, just on hand to watch a young Iraqi boy return home after a year in the U.S. It was a good thing I’d just arrived and didn’t yet have that trapped, desperate sensation I always remembered after leaving here for six weeks at a time.
It would have been a too much of a tease to come all the way to the airport, with all its accompanying emotions, and then not leave. This time around, though, I was okay with it – freshly arrive and still trying to figure out how much the place has changed.
So back in 2008, a young Iraqi boy scarred in a house fire when he was a child came up to an American checkpoint in Ramadi and asked for help. His father had been killed for working as a translator for the marines and then his uncle was killed when he went to morgue to pick up the body.
His mother was told she would be next if she had anything to do with the Americans, but Mohammed went on his own.
A National Guard major from Michigan then spent six months getting permissions, raising money and organizing a host family to so that Mohammed could go get operated on in the states.
He succeeded and a year and five operations later, Mohammed was coming home. Our news agency had done a big story on it out of Michigan, we just needed to do something about him coming home, tearful reunion, all that – pretty cut and dry.
Supposedly walking into the airport with photo and TV cameras was all worked out as well. Except it wasn’t. We weren’t allowed in, they didn’t know who we were, and if we wanted to get inside with those things there were some procedures to follow.
It was almost funny how familiar it all was. After years of Middle East bureaucracy, it almost felt natural. Off to the media office, where we needed to get a letter.
After lots of hemming and hawing, the guy there agreed to write up the letter for us on the spot – while assuring us that normally it would take days. That seemed easy enough, but wait, there was the signature of the general manager to obtain.
Eventually we got that too and he sent a bustling veiled matron off with us back to the arrivals hall. None too soon, I thought, as through the glass walls to the baggage area I could see a little boy in a baseball cap escorted by a big white guy in a baseball followed by a camera crew.
Bugger! The NBC camera crew had gotten in ahead of us, clearly their bureaucratic skills were better than ours. But we weren’t going in anytime soon, as our bustling matron headed off with the letter to get permission from security.
It was probably only half an hour before she came back, but it felt like hours, and we were only saved from complete agonized meltdown by the utter slowness of the Iraqi baggage claim which kept the boy stuck there. I tried to unilaterally force my way through security to him, but was told I needed a letter from the media office. Yes, yes, I know.
Security approval obtained, we head out to rescue the photographer and cameraman stranded outside, but now they have to run their equipment through the dog sniffer and the metal detector which inexplicably takes forever.
I break away and stare longingly at the little boy being interviewed by the NBC camera crew before finally were allowed in just as their bags come around the carousel.
Not surprisingly after being badgered by NBC and a transatlantic, Mohammed, 13, is a bit reticent to talk. His sponsor, David Howell points out that it’s been a long journey and he’s bit worried about coming back – and the two are about to be separated.
Howell, after getting Mohammed his operations, playing baseball with him for the past year, and essentially being a surrogate dad, has to catch the next flight back. Mohammed, half his face still showing burn scars but otherwise much better, looks up, frightened, saying, but “I don’t want you to go, can’t you stay a little longer?”
I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Mohammed was getting tired of losing his father figures.
But no, his plane is leaving, and the family is supposedly meeting him, but out in the parking lot. Apparently they weren’t allowed in the terminal. I told Howell that we would make sure he got to the family, it seemed the only thing to do.
So Howell enfolds Mohammed in his arms and gives him a big hug as we all watch. Then as they separate, the NBC cameraman barks out, “do it again, the microphone was in the way.”
So they had to hug again.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt quite so ashamed of being a journalist.
And so we all escorted little Mohammed out of the baggage areas into the arrivals hall when out of nowhere barrels a squat woman with a headscarf who grabs him up, tears pouring down her face.
It was his mother, unknown and unlooked for in a corner of the arrivals area, patiently waiting for her son to come home after a year away while camera crews made her son to repeat hugs.
There were no repeats this time, she spun him around, they sat briefly on the chairs so they could be filmed and then the airport officials (where the hell had they been before?) ushered them away, stopping us from following, which frankly I was happy with.
It was a rare good news story and got decent play the next day. It felt a bit symbolic for me, coming back to Baghdad after so many years away to a place that was much better off.
The daily tolls, for the most part, are way down and driving through the city at night shows packed restaurants and outdoor cafes.
There’s also less Americans around to annoy people, which is a good thing unless everyone starts killing each other again and the referee has left the building.
The country is in the midst of post-election haggling. Two months after the vote, they haven’t even agreed on what the results mean, much less started negotiating over a new government.
Right now it looks like everyone’s so obsessed with their own status that it could bring the whole fragile edifice crashing down again. Or maybe everyone’s too tired for another civil war... and they just won't want to do it again.
The Arabist is published and edited by Issandr El Amrani, a writer and analyst based in Cairo, with contributions by friends.
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