The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Half way (11)

May 14, 2006

It was hard coming back. I mean it's never easy, but this time around, after three weeks in Cairo and getting married, it just seemed that much tougher. I also knew, I was now half way done.

I waited two hours at the airport until the security team was free to come pick me up. Already in May, the hot wind was like a hair dryer in the face, presaging just how awful it would get over the next few weeks.

We worked our way through light midday traffic, through a city so broken down that it makes Cairo look leafy. A blue and white police pickup truck with mounted machine gun pulled up next to us and I slumped lower in my seat. As it passed, I saw that the back of it was filled with blood spattered corpses, limp hands and feet dangling over the tailgate.

In the three weeks I'd been in Cairo, getting married, seeing the family, eating well and even disappearing to the beach for a few days, the plague of corpses had continued. As the politicians wrangled and the new government remained unformed five months after those landmark elections, the militias were carrying out their own brand of late night politics that left its mark in the mornings.

Old scores were being settled and it was up to us to keep count.

Only a few hours after I was back in the office I was writing about a guy who a drove pickup truck filled with bags flour into a busy marketplace in Tall Afar, near the Syrian border, and then started selling his wares below market rate. Not surprisingly in such difficult times, everyone flocked to the truck to buy the bargain flour-and then he detonated his bomb, and blew himself and 17 other people up.

The next morning, not far from the city of Baquba, east of Baghdad, gunmen pulled over a mini bus filled with people on their way to work at the local electric company, ordered the women out, and machine gunned the remaining 12 people. Then they set a bomb that exploded when police came to investigate the scene.

At night, I tried to disconnect it from it all and loaded up the video game I'd been playing back in Cairo, following the exploits of James Bond-like spy character-until the virtual gunfire of my game was echoed by the staccato sound of the real thing just outside my hotel window, making me feel a little silly.

The first full day I was back the gunfire just north of the hotel seemed to last all day--could be insurgents, could be the rival security forces of the nearby justice ministry and state television station that just can't seem to get along.

And then there's the other side of it. Everyone in the office was thrilled to see me. Not just the other journalists on the desk but the drivers and photographers that I actually don't interact with very much. Everyone knew about the wedding and if there is one thing you can do in the Middle East to make everyone like you, it's getting married.

There were hugs and kisses all around as they congratulated me. I'd sent the office a picture of Helen and I at the wedding and it had since been printed out and taped over my desk.

Two days later, while I was busy typing out the daily toll of madness around the country, they threw a party for me in the office, complete with cans of coke and a birthday cake with candles. They strung a line of leaflets across the office reading "Paul and Helen, congratulations" and "no more booty for Paul", the last a contribution from the lone other American in the office.

The three French guys in the bureau were each like "what eez bootee?" One looked it up in his pocket dictionary and said, "oh, like pirates' treasure." Something like that.

So I blew out candles (why were there candles?) and then it was another round of cheek kissing, more congratulations and wishes for many children. "Happiness and sons" is the phrase they use here. It rhymes in Arabic.

The other day I'd read an LA Times article about a military briefing given by the #2 US general in Iraq to his subordinates about the need for the US military to be nicer to the Iraqis and more in tune with their cultural norms.

He urged his commanders to come to terms with the "man-kissing thing" in the Middle East and recognize that they would probably be expected to kiss a few tribal sheikhs and Iraqi military officers.

We have the "man-kissing thing" pretty much down at the AFP office.

They've finally refilled the massive circular pool in the hotel gardens and going down and swimming for half an hour at sunset it's almost possible to forget where I am.

At night the Chinese ambassador and his subordinates take their evening exercise and walk through the hotel gardens, during the day they sometimes swim, under the watchful eye of two guys with assault rifles.

When I swim laps, I do the diameter of the pool, the Chinese swim the circumference--must be a cultural thing

That's one of the surreal little things about our hotel, not only is it home to AFP and CBS, but the third floor houses the Chinese.

Maybe they chose the Mansour hotel because it once had its own Chinese restaurant in a pagoda like buildings in the garden overlooking the Tigris--now a ruined building filled with the glass of shattered windows when the looting swept through this area after the war.

The satellite television in the hotel includes a Chinese channel, apparently at the embassy's request, which is always a bit odd to watch. Even weirder last month the Kurdish channel was showing Chinese movies subtitled in Kurdish--talk about inaccessible.

About a week after I got back, I finally saw Ahmed, a former interpreter who now works for the video department, putting together television stories about life in Iraq that are then dubbed into French.

Ahmed is known around the office as "al doktoor" for his PhD holder, and he seems to feel the sorrows of Iraq a little more than anyone else in the office. His father died last week and he's only just returned to work.

We'd worked together on stories a lot when I would turn his video work into a print stories.

I said hello and said I was sorry about it all, feeling ineffectual as usual, and he looked at me with his fierce blue eyes and a nose that rivals the moon's surface for texture, and said "at least he's gone from this mess now and doesn't have to see it anymore. It was the situation that killed my father, it just broke his heart. For the last year he couldn't leave the apartment because of the violence and car bombs. He would just sit there every day and ask to go out."

Then he congratulated me for my marriage and wished me many children.