The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What happened to the shoe? (6)

January 24, 2006

You could feel the reverberation of the explosion in your chest as it shattered the morning calm of the office.

We always hear bombs from around Baghdad from our 7th floor perch overlooking the city, but usually they are just distant thuds that sends everyone to the balcony, scanning the skyline for the telltale plume of smoke.

This time though, there was no need to go looking as the sudden flash only 200 meters away followed by the a massive boom made it pretty clear where it was coming from.

I heroically fell off my chair and crouched under my desk as most people in the office dove for cover, before a few photographers went running out to the balcony to capture the moment on film.

Panicky policemen acting as they often do to car bombs by randomly spraying bullets into the air, soon sent everyone scurrying back inside the building.

The car bomb went off next to the Iranian embassy just down the street from us and was apparently targeting a police checkpoint there. The road also leads to the nearby Green Zone and we often drive along it.

Two new arrivals to the AFP office had just come in from the airport and were spattered with debris from the explosion as they were walking across the hotel parking lot. The car bomb was packed with chopped up pieces of the reinforcing iron bars used in concrete.

The first images appeared up on Iraqi TV about 20 minutes later and showed someone’s severed bare foot lying in the street and the burnt body of a policeman sitting inside his smoldering pickup truck.

The really weird part is that only five minutes earlier, the same television station had been showing children’s cartoons as part of its regular morning program. You have to wonder if the children were still watching when they showed the foot.

Since I’ve been back, the country seems to be sitting in a strange limbo. First there were the elections, then the results, then a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations over fraud followed by an intensified spate of violence. Then came the mid-January religious holidays and things quieted down.

Final results are out for the elections and negotiations are starting out for the new government, the one that has to represent all Iraqis, defuse the insurgency, rebuild the country and start making daily life better for people.

It’s a bit difficult to see how that’s going to happen.

I got a very warm welcome from the staff in the office when I came back, especially the Iraqis and there were bear hugs all around which felt pretty good until the daily grind settled in.

Everything for the past week has been overshadowed by the slow uptick of violence and the kidnapping of American freelancer Jill Carroll. It’s pretty strange seeing someone you know appear on one of those grainy videotapes broadcast on Jazeera.

I knew Jill in Cairo where she lived for about a year between stints in Iraq, studying Arabic and doing a bit of freelancing. She was really nice and we exchanged views about the hassle of working as freelancers. She went back to Iraq and during my first six weeks here, she was on an embed with the US military so I didn’t run into her again.

Now it looks like it’s going to be a while before we get a chance to renew our acquaintance.

The other night I went to a dinner at the Washington Post’s house, a guarded villa inside a compound of guarded hotels where most journalists live. It was a weirdly normal evening, ten people sitting around a table eating pasta drinking wine, talking.

The subject of Jill never really came up, but several of the people in that room were her friends and had written articles about her disappearance and described the last time they’d seen her. Considering she lived in that complex, she normally would have been sitting around that table, adding her own two cents worth into the rambling conversations.

It was also an interesting night because it was one of the only times I didn’t sleep in my own hotel or the Green Zone, though after the 45 minute drive over there through a dark electricity-deprived city made more murky by a massive sandstorm during the day, I had to question if I wanted to do it again.

Just to go to that dinner and sleep over at a friends hour was a two car operation involving two drivers and four guards, including a twitchy teenager with an AK-47 sitting in the back seat next to me. Not to mention the surly French security director who doesn’t like taking the cars out at night.

He showed up a quarter hour early the next morning to pick me up, and seemed to delight in how hungover I was at 6:45am.

Hard to resent them too much, though, since it’s difficult to kidnap someone in a car full of armed, twitchy teenagers.

That same, long, hungover day I discovered there’s a coffee shop inside the massive converted palace that is the US embassy in the Green Zone. It’s called the “Green Bean” and it’s in a huge converted ballroom covered in marble and mirrors. Whatever went on in this particularly gaudy room back in the day, I don’t know, but now it’s filled with people in business suits and fatigues sitting around little round tables sipping double skim milk lattes.

We were escorted there for a cup of coffee before doing a round table discussion with Senator John Kerry, who, as it turns out, is a very tall man.

He walked into the room, came up to me, looked me in the eye, gave me a firm handshake and told me he was pleased to meet me. He went on to do the same to the other dozen journalists in the room, but it was hard not to feel that he really meant it.

So he talked to us and then asked us what we thought about things and he said some really intelligent things and complimented us on what a great job we were doing. And I couldn’t help but think this whole place wouldn’t be quite such a mess if someone else had been winning the past few elections.

That and I wanted to scream at him, “how could you so let us down?”

Tomorrow, the Saddam trial starts up again, and I’ll be taking that short drive over to the Green Zone at 7:30am and depending on what street our surly French security director decides to take, we’ll probably drive by the spot a severed foot was lying just the day before.