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Dispatch VI from Iraq - some odd stories from the different characters frequenting the streets. More to come...
I just returned from a few days in an american military hospital at a huge, heavily fortified base north of baghdad in the middle of the freezing desert. It was, er, interesting. I figured I should do it while I had the chance, because i dont think they are going to continue letting the media have this kind of access. I will write something about that experience soon.
What follows is just a kind of summary of some people and incidents that happened here. Mostly it is about foreigners, but it gives some idea of what this place is like at the moment.
Crazy Mother Fuckers
In the two weeks before I came to Iraq, I developed a strange muscle tension in the left side of my neck. It would begin about eleven in the morning, growing increasingly stronger as the day went on, as I ran around town tying up loose ends, purchasing equipment, and reading everything I could lay my hands on about Iraq and the Middle East. By evening my neck muscles would feel hard and stiff, and I would usually have the unpleasant sensation of choking or almost vomiting at least three times each night.
I wasn’t sure if it was psychosomatic or physical. The news was filled with reports of bombings and attacks on US troops, and many people were advising me not to make the trip to Iraq at all. Great, I thought, this is just my luck, to develop a health problem, right as I am about to leave on an important job.
Then an old friend, whom I had not seen for a year, arrived in town. He came to my door early in the morning, and we spent the whole day walking around the city and talking about friends and lovers, the ones who are still with us, and those who have ridden on ahead.
And that day, with my mind on something besides Iraq and war and explosions, I did not experience the tense neck-muscles and nausea. So I knew that what I was feeling was, of course, merely stress and anxiety about my trip. And the day I boarded the plane to Jordan, it went away.
The reason I relate this story is that after all of the thinking and
subconscious worrying that I did before arriving in Baghdad,
it is shocking to meet people who seem to have no idea of the reality of the situation they are stepping into. Sometimes Americans are simply oblivious to the rest of the world, even when they are standing in the middle of a war zone. And there are times when I find myself getting a little reckless, even here in Baghdad. But stranger still are the bizarre people who have wound up here, for different reasons, guided by their own, malfuncioning, inner compasses.
It was in mid-December that I encountered the first strange person. I had alerted the staff at the hotel that I was expecting two friends from America to arrive, and that they would be staying
in my room. I was over at the Occupation Watch office meeting some people, when an Iraqi friend told me someone was waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. “Just one person?” I asked.
“Yes, I don’t think he is one of your friends. He just needs a place to stay, and heard you had extra room.”
“What? Who is this guy?”
“I don’t know. He says he has no luggage, and no money.”
Uh-oh. My mental Wingnut Alarm, honed by years spent in the left-bohemia of Austin, Texas, rang in my ears. This did not sound like someone I wanted to meet.
When I returned to the hotel later, I spied the man immediately, sitting nervously on a couch in the lobby. He was white, about thirty
years old, with a three-day growth of beard and long, dirty-blond hair. He was wearing a rumpled linen suit and looked as if he had been sleeping in his clothes. He made me think of a low-level Mafioso who had been chased out of Miami by a rival gang. Whatever he was up to, I wanted no part of it. I slipped past him and up to my room.
After a few hours working, I completely forgot about him. Then there was a knock on my door, and The Kid entered, who is a twelve-year old, semi-street child that has been sort of adopted by the hotel residents. He wanted to go and get some food, so I grabbed my jacket and we went down the stairs.
The sketchy man was still in the lobby, clutching a bag of day-old bread that the hotel staff had given him. Unfortunately, he had figured out who I was, and approached me immediately.
His name was Dennis, he explained, and he was from Colorado. He had left Jordan in a hurry, and he had no money, only a bank card.
“I didn’t realize that there were no A.T.M.’s in Baghdad”, he said.
Standing closer to him, I noticed that his white leisure suit was very soiled, and there was a rip in one leg from the knee to the crotch,
revealing camoulflage longjohns underneath.
“Why did you decide to come to Iraq, of all places?” I asked him.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he shrugged, not looking me in the eye. ”I just decided to come here.”
Yeah, right, Dennis From Colorado, I thought to myself. You mean your prospective heroin deal went bad in Amman, and you had to bug out of town before you got dumped off of a pier in Aqaba. And you thought no one would follow you here. Get the Jesus fuck out of my life.
At that moment The Kid piped up. “There is money machine in Sheraton Hotel, in lobby.”
Dennis perked up immediately. “Really?” he said.
“Yes, very easy you find it.”
We explained to him how to get to the Sheraton, and he set off out the door with his bag of bread and ripped suit. And no one has seen him since, though when my American friends finally arrived, they expressed interest in meeting him, strictly out of curiosity in his strange, dodgy story.
Many people have simply come to Baghdad to get involved with human rights projects, finding their niche when they arrive. And so it was with a man who arrived about two months ago, to work with Occupation Watch.
Right away, he began to attract, ahem, suspicion. He is thirty-three
years old going on seventeen, with all the manic radical naivete of a campus revolutionary, backed by the willpower of a grown man.
His first night here, he heard tanks moving down the street nearby, a regular occurrence. “Heavy troop movement!” he exclaimed.
He wrapped a khaffiyah around his head, intifada-style, and charged into the street to follow them, an excellent way to get oneself shot.
A week later, at a demonstration for prisoners’ rights, he jumped up on a parked car and began waving a red flag and an Iraqi flag over his head, in front of the guarded headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Then he leaped down and spraypainted “Yankee Go Home” on a blast barricade in broad daylight. Everyone began calling him Crazy Man.
He claimed to want to join the Iraqi resistance, and spoke in heated words about Kalashnikovs and militant struggle. He also said he had spent time among the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, firmly establishing his Wingnut Credentials.
He was with us one night in Adamiyah, when a man walked by waving an Iraqi flag and shouting at us. Instead of just ignoring him, Crazy Man got up in his face, until we had to drag him away from a possible fight.
Eventually, he left Occupation Watch because they weren’t printing anything he wrote. He began chasing down any and all street action with his Nikon, trying to sell photos to news agencies. His recklessness worked well to this end, and lately the would-be armed revolutionary says he is working for Reuters, although we hear he is strictly volunteer.
And he has managed to piss off several people, as well. He gets very belligerent with folks, and has a penchant for making public scenes in the hotel restaurant, where he insults the people he has fallen out with. He seems oblivious to the repercussions, the same way he is oblivious to the dangerous city he is in. Most of the journos treat him like a pariah, and a couple of Iraqis tell me darkly that he should watch his back, as he insulted one of their friends. The hotel staff keep asking us about him, as he has been sleeping on the couch in the lobby. We deny any connection, and do not try and explain him. "He is crazy," is all we say.
I am curious to see what will happen with him. And again, I wonder why the hell he came here.
The Man Without A Country
He has closely cropped hair and a beard, with a large, dark tattoo of a tear just below his left eye. His hands are covered with tats as
well. He is standing in front of the large monument in Firdas Square, former site of the giant statue of Saddam that was pulled down, early in the war, by a group of Chalabi loyalists for the T.V. cameras. Behind the plaza loom the twin hulks of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, heavily guarded and slightly pocked by rocket attacks.
The man’s name is Ken O’Keefe, and he is surrounded by a pack of journalists. He has come today, he says, to attempt, for the third time, to renounce his United States citizenship. He has tried twice before, but his act has not been recognized. So today he will burn his U.S. passport, again.
He says he is doing this because, as a veteran of the first Gulf War, he has come to realize that the U.S. is a corrupt empire, and he wishes to divorce himself from any association with it. However, he smacks of being most concerned with drawing attention to himself.
O’Keefe was one of the founders of the Human Shields, the people who came to Iraq before the war, hoping to stave off wanton destruction by placing themselves near strategic sites like power generators and water plants.
Many left when the war started, or were thrown out by the
suspicious Iraqi government, O’Keefe among them. But more than a hundred stayed on for the duration.
Now Ken O’Keefe is back in Baghdad for a week, to make his statement to the world, again. The cameras roll as he reads a strident statement condemning U.S. aggression, and the scene is fairly ridiculous as they all jockey for a good shot of the burning passport. I don’t stay for the Q&A afterwards.
He seems to me like a prototypical American: his politics can only be expressed through individual, grandiose acts, be they of
self-sacrifice or whatever. His reputation amongst the Human Shields, not surprisingly, is of being an egotistical control-freak, who, after leaving Iraq, told people to stop going, as the project was officially over now that he was no longer in Baghdad, despite the others who were.
Later on I run into him at a gathering in the apartment of a British writer friend. “What’s this guy’s deal? “ I ask her.
“He’s bonkers,” she replies. ”Stark and raving.” Yeah, I sort of figured.
Wasn’t That A Party?
A week ago, a man called The Painter disappeared. He is a British activist who makes stencils with anti- Occupation themes, and goes out during the night, spraypainting them on walls and blast barricades around the city. The stencils are quite good, my favorite being one that uses an image from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, of a woman pouring oil into barrels that contain
U.S. soldiers. “America, Here Is Your Oil”, it says in Arabic.
So The Painter went out one night stencilling, and did not return. Three days later he resurfaced, having been caught by the police and spending two nights at an American-run prison camp among suspected Iraqi resistance supporters. He was then turned over to the British Army, who promptly released him, even driving him back to his hotel. They issued him no warning and no threats, just freedom. He counted himself lucky not to have been deported.
I had passed by his apartment several times after his release, because I wanted to interview him about his art, which he intended to continue doing. He was working on a series of silhouettes of families that he wanted to paint onto destroyed buildings, as if the images were ghostly reflections of the civilian casualties. I do not count him among the Crazy Mother Fuckers of Baghdad, as he is very down-to earth and determined, if a bit reckless.
On the night in question, I had still not found him at home when I knocked on his door. But I had remained in the same building, because there was a going-away party for a woman who had come here to work with a group of circus performers, who are travelling around giving shows at children’s hospitals and refugee camps. It was about midnight, and twenty or so people were gathered in the apartment of the circus people.
The night was already a strange one, as an Iraqi hash dealer had tagged along to the festivities, hauling a case of beer. Now he was
vomiting in every available container, reassuring
us that he was fine in between
bouts of heaving. Everyone was trying to ignore him.
Right about then there was a commotion in the
hallway outside the apartment, and opening the door, we saw an American journalist who
lives in the same building, surrounded by five Iraqi police officers. Everyone from the party spilled into the hallway, demanding to know what was happening to him. The Painter, explained the journalist, had been out stencilling, and he had been with him,
writing a story about it. They had both been arrested by the security guards from a bank, suspicious of the two of them moving around
the bank after dark, and they had spent the last night locked in a room there, before being turned over to the police the next morning.
The problem was, the journalist had forgotten to
bring his press credentials, so the police did not believe he was a reporter.
So now they were escorting him to his apartment, to retrieve the documents for the judge the next morning. They were also suspicious, said one cop, because the journalist had a large full beard, like Osama Bin Laden. The Painter was still in jail, at the moment, for the second time in a week.
We all began arguing with the cops, one of our Iraqi friends, a singer in a
heavy-metal band, translating for us and doing quite a bit
of haranguing himself. The hash dealer kept popping out into the hallway and offering burning joints. One cop kept drinking our beer.
We tried to delay their leaving, so that they might simply leave our friend be. One of the performers, a six-foot former British soldier
and outlaw biker with shoulder-length hair and a handlebar moustache, began displaying his ample juggling skills for the police in the hallway. A Frenchman started pulling ping-pong balls out of his mouth, and then reaching over to remove them, magically, from the cops’ ears. A third woman strapped on her four-foot stilts and began blowing soap bubbles around. The cops were all laughing, in between arguing with us.
I was filming all of this. One officer kept striking dramatic poses with his Kalashnikov for my camera, then demanding that I rewind the tape so he could watch himself. Every time I would turn the camera on a laughing or smiling cop, he would immediately look serious. Then a soap bubble would burst on his face.
Despite all our attempts, the police insisted upon leaving with their charge. We insisted on going with them.
Five of us piled into the back of a police pickup-truck with the arrestee, and everyone else from the party followed in three more cars.
Everyone drove very fast, whipping through the empty streets in a tight convoy,
our friends whooping and hollering out the windows of the
cars. I filmed interviews with the soon-to-be-jailed-again journalist and my comrades in the back of the police truck, with the blue lights from the siren flashing on their faces.
The police station we went to was on Al Rashid street, in a very grim-looking part of town. Our Iraqi friends looked visibly nervous when we dismounted from the cars and entered the plain concrete building. The police at the front desk did not want us to see the actual holding cells, but we simply walked past them en masse: fifteen half-drunk, half-angry,
half-partying crazy mother fuckers, confronting the cops in
a country that hasn’t had due process in twenty years. Damn straight.
The Painter woke up when he heard us coming toward his cell, and the police opened the door and put the journalist inside with him. We were all gathered outside their cell, laughing and joking, one of the clowns still blowing soap bubbles everywhere.
I turned the camera on The Painter and asked him through the bars, ”So what is the role of the artist in
society?” Everyone cracked up.
“To occupy the occupiers,” he replied casually, opening a beer his cellmate had
“You’ve been in jail twice in one week. Do you feel honored?” asked one of us, an Australian woman who works with street children.
“Absolutely. It’s been the role of a lifetime, one to die for.”
“What about the rumor that the stencils are actually being done by space aliens?” I queried.
“No comment,” he said.
The police seemed to be reaching the end of their
patience, and one of our Iraqi
comrades was urging us to leave. “They’ve been very nice, ”
he said to us, “But really we should go now.”
It seemed like we had more-or-less
accomplished our objective: we had seen the prisoners with
our own eyes, and videotaped them, so hopefully they couldn’t be disappeared or hurt. We had also demanded to know specifically what they
were being charged with, and how long they would be held. Since the U.S.
military certainly isn’t going to agitate for police
accountability, so we might as well do it. The police, however, seemed to
operate somewhat like their Mexican counterparts: they had
arrested the two men, but had not decided what to charge them with yet. They
told us to come back in the morning.
We crammed into the cars and rolled home, our young, rocker-Iraqi friend blasting The Scorpions on the stereo. The woman who was leaving the next morning, a 22-year old Christian clown
from Philadelphia, sang along as we drove. Her going-away party kept jumping until four in the morning, fueled by a huge, blue-tinted bottle of Arak, the strong, sweet Arab liquor made from anise.
I woke up the next morning lying on the carpeted floor next to the juggling master, who was still wearing his multicolored jester’s outfit
from the night before, which he had put on when we returned from the jail. He was snoring soundly. Two or three others were stiffly getting out of their sleeping bags to return to the police station, to accompany The Painter to his hearing. I pulled on my jacket and crawled home.
As it turned out, after hours of waiting at the police station that day, the charges against the stenciller were dropped. The police had no
evidence of anything, and the Iraqi judge threw the whole thing out, lecturing the accused on the dangers of going out late at night.
"Why don't you just make your paintings during the day?" he asked. "There is no law against painting!"
Lately, the cops who came over that night have been returning, hanging out at the apartment and drinking beer. I think, or rather, hope, that they are just happy for some new companions.
One has even offered to go out stencilling with The Painter. "It sounds like fun," said the Iraqi policeman. "But we have to do it during the day, okay?"