Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Name is Malik and I Live in Baghdad

My name is Malik and I drive to work each day in Baghdad. I leave my house in the suburbs. There are palms and olive trees, and a small patch of grass outside my house. The house is walled in like many houses in the Middle East. But I have grown up in a fenced and gated community all my life. It is hard to get out of the habit but right now it is best not to drop my guard. I am careful to look up and down the street as I leave to see that everything is normal. I drive an old Datsun, with dented panels, some shrapnel holes in the trunk and three bullet holes in the passenger door. The windscreen is damaged where a rock hit it, and it is running retread tyres. I had not seen them here when Saddam was around but these days getting parts for cars is hard and I have to use what I get. The steering is wobbly but I can’t afford to get it fixed. I get nervous driving along the street when we get to a checkpoint. All the traffic banks up. Anything can happen here. Suddenly a convoy of armoured Fords, probably carrying a VIP, needs to cut through the traffic. An American soldier indicates what he wants me to do by throwing his rifle into his shoulder, leaning forward and pointing at me. I stop. He keeps pointing. I back up. There are hundreds of cars behind me. I can go no further. I hope he does not shoot. People in cars around me get out and put their hands up. Just in case. They take no chances with the American. He is a young man. Young men with guns are more dangerous than old men with guns. You don't see many old men with guns. The Fords pass and we are allowed to creep forward. I do not look at the American in his armour and wrap around shades. He looks past me at all the other cars. I drive past Iraqi police cars and SUVs. Some of them have ZSU23-2s mounted on them. I was in the Army but Bremmer sacked me along with all my buddies and I have no money. But I recognise all this equipment. Some of it ex military no doubt. My goodness, Russian twin 23mm cannon, designed to shoot down aircraft. To control traffic? If they hit my car retreads will be the least of my worries. Lots of police with all sorts of machine guns and made up armoured cars. In Somalia the US military called them “technicals” – SUVs with a 50cal or something on the back. What are they pointed at? What are they protecting? I have no idea. I drive on and past a locked down Bradley. It looks dormant but who knows who is in there and what they are watching. I get past all that checkpoint stuff and drive through a roundabout with lots of traffic. That makes me nervous too. Things go bang here. I watch another collection of Chevy’s take no chances and block off the traffic so their central vehicles can race through. It is efficient. But the locals here are left to their own devices if something goes bang. I was in the Army but now I sell shirts on the edge of the round about. I cannot afford glass in the windows and have to rely on a steel grill to keep things secure at night. Shops on either side of me are the same.Open, and with only simple goods to sell. No one parks in front of my store. But few want to stop anyway. Or walk past. Everyone is in a hurry to go somewhere else. Stopping can be fatal. The shirts are all carefully stacked in their plastic boxes. At the beginning of each day I wipe all the sand and dust off the plastic. With no glass in the window I do not bother running the airconditioner, although even if I did I have no idea how I could pay for it. I sweep the footpath clean and greet old Mahrus next door. He is an old man and respected around here. He stands in the doorway of his shop. But it is empty. So what else can he do? I don’t know his story except he lost family in Saddam’s time and like all families here now he has lost even more loved ones in the last three years. They say there is no family untouched by the recent madness. It is criminal, not religious. We are Sunni and Shia married in the same house for years. Lots of Iraqis live together like that. Old Mahrus comes down here every day and stands in his doorway and watches the world turn on the roundabout in front of him. I say hello and he smiles at me from under his grey beard and moustache and Kurdish style headgear. His name means “protected by God”. Maybe that is why he keeps smiling. I wish we could fix up the front of our shops. All the cement rendering has been blasted off and the bricks look shabby. One day perhaps. At least nothing has gone bang here for a while. Maybe this period of quiet will last. They are talking about dropping the curfew. That will help. Or will it? People die in the night. For no reason except they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like my neighbour who was putting his rubbish out. Was shot in the head and his body dumped. No one ever found him - except a hospital kept a record of his body when it was found 13 days later. But they don’t know where he is buried. Put the rubbish out and die. For no reason. No reason. Die for a cause, yes?! But these deaths are for no reason, like our war with Iran. No reason. Family had no idea where he was. It is Ramadan. I drive home early and I am very careful near the checkpoint again. I move over to let an American tank go past. But if I stop they might think I have a bomb. I keep rolling slowly, hoping he will not crunch me into the concrete wall on the side of the road. I try not to look nervous. I know the soldier on this corner and he waves me though with a nod. The Americans drive past and look somewhere else. I carefully drive home and pull up to the house. I look up and down the street but everything seems normal so I get out and open the gate before driving in and locking myself in. No one bought any shirts today. Maybe tomorrow will be a little better. If I am alive that will be a good start.

(An invention based on an amalgam of things and people seen, and conversations with locals in the last week. I could fill 10,000 words like this - Baghdad is a seething story and everyone has a tale to tell.)


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