The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Lobster, grilled fish (12)

May 31, 2006

The other day I got to experience one of the few perks of the job out here and attended a monthly lunch for journalists thrown by Baghdad division commander, Major General J.D. Thurman of the 4th Infantry Division.

I had to use his name in a story once and asked a subordinate what the "J" stood for and he blanched and said he'd have to get back to me. J.D.'s a beefy fellow from Oklahoma who describes himself as a "straight shooter" who just wants to touch base with us folks every month or so.

I'll give him this, he put on an impressive spread of t-bone steaks, lobster, shrimp and grilled chicken (where does this stuff come from?) before subjecting himself to our barrage of questions about why this place is such a mess.

The briefing is off the record and just meant for bureau chiefs, but our bureau chief is Francophone Tunisian who doesn't think he wants to spend time with a general from Oklahoma. So I get the lobster in his place.

It's also a good chance to see what the Baghdad press corps is up to, since I don't get out much. Sitting a few people down from me, that time, near the general was Kimberly from CBS. I'd only met her one or twice but I had a lot of respect for her.

She'd started out in a little weekly newspaper in Cairo called Middle East Times in the mid-1990s that I would go on to write for four or five years later. I remember when I worked in DC seeing her byline on articles. Later when I was introduced to her in Baghdad and found out she was with CBS, I was immensely gratified that someone could go on to be a success from such a humble background.

Perhaps there was hope for all of us local press scribblers after all.

CBS is in the same hotel as AFP and I caught a ride back with her from the Green Zone once a few months ago. As we left the Green Zone she returned the guards leering greetings in decent Egyptian Arabic, showing she'd picked up a thing or two while living in Cairo.

CBS travels in armored Mercedes with New Zealand security guards and they wear their flak jackets inside the car, whose heavy doors close and seal with an almost hermetic thunk.

She told me about the early days at Middle East Times when she worked with a mutual friend Steve Negus and her subsequent move to London and the realization that she'd have to make the jump from print to television to make ends meet in such an expensive city.

Two days after that luncheon, CBS was out in Baghdad doing a Memorial Day special on US soldiers on patrol -- Thurman's 4th Division as it turns out -- and a car bomb went off next to their convoy, killing her cameraman and soundman and sending shrapnel into her head.

I saw a picture of the cameraman, Paul, and realized I celebrated Christmas Eve with him when CBS hosted a dinner for everyone. Not to be cliché or anything, but he was a really nice guy, great sense of humor. I found a picture from that dinner, we'd all had a lot of Australian wine, he was making a face at the camera.

They weren't the only ones to die that day. Monday wasn't a good day for Iraq and our death count topped out at about 60, as I recall, though we had the usual arguments with the French desk because our numbers didn't much, and someone had overlooked a death somewhere.

We got a report that a professor at Mustansiriyah university had been shot dead on his way home, but I couldn't even give him a line of text, not when I had to fit in the twin car bombs in one neighborhood, the bus bomb that went off across the river, and the 12 workers who died to the north.

But as I was typing it all up, it was the faces of the people that I knew that made my stomach churn.

And then in breezed Wael, our tech guy, with a bunch of others from the office bearing platters of mazgouf, Baghdad's grilled fish delicacy, along plates of salad to celebrate his engagement that day.

He showed us a chunky gold ring to rival my own and soon we were looking at pictures of the engagement party on one of the computers--it looked like a formal affair of everyone dressed to the hilt sitting on overly ornate furniture with big grins, though I never saw the fiancée in any of them. Accompany the fish were also plates piled high with some veiny organs that I stayed away from no matter how much lemon they suggested I add.

He was over the moon--I guess this was his second engagement and he was desperately excited about it all this time around. Most times Wael is relentless cheerful as he manages the unfathomably complex technology that keeps us running and online, but that evening he was flying.

I couldn't find it in myself to join in, too much of the days events roiling through my gut, so I ate my requisite bite of fish (was that much of chore, really) and had to make my excuses and flee to my room for the solace of a bottle and a phone call to Helen.

Tony was here the other day. Blair, that is. Though the thought of a visit to Baghdad by Tony Soprano is pretty funny. I have to admit that unlike almost all my British friends who despise the man, I've always had a soft spot for him. He was like a Clintonian protégé and having him around was like a little slice of nostalgia of a better time -even if he was dealing with the devil these days.

After all, he gave a great post-9/11 speech.

He's looking faded now, and stretched thin. He was cross and short tempered in the press conference, gritting his teeth during the questions, his eyes flitting unceasingly around the room-which is fine, we all have our quirks.

But when a journalist asked him that maybe Iraqis weren't better off before the invasion, he refused to even consider the broader implications of question, shooting off a pat response that just the fact that you are allowed to ask me this question and put me pressure shows what a different place it is.

Yes. Just the fact that I passed through six checkpoints and am in a heavily armored enclave surrounded by blast walls and razor wire outside of which dozens of people are dying every day outside shows what a different place it is.

Of course it's good that the fascist regime here is gone, but how many of the people who've lost family members, and I reckon there's a few of them, wouldn't be ready to make that trade between stability and freedom?

I watched the new government being sworn in a few days before that. Ahmed, he of the nose and blue eyes, had to borrow my phone while we were waiting because he wanted to call his wife. Because his wife and children now live in Damascus, because he had them sent them away.

He doesn't follow them there, because he doesn't think he could find a good job, but he doesn't want his family living here any more, not after someone tried to break into the place next door to his house in the dead of night, not when his he and his two brothers had to take shifts guarding their house every night.

The swearing in ceremony for the new government I saw could well be the turning point for this whole situation which has only gotten worse since I arrived here when it was supposed to have been getting better.

JD thinks so. He says they'll be handing over security to the Iraqi police and army by the end of the year.

It seems a bit hard to imagine.