Eerie Calm Before Desert Storm
In her fifth dispatch from the Iraqi capital, Jo Wilding describes life in Baghdad as families buy up rations and coffins and porno films are all that's on at the cinema.
25th February 2003
Last night I sat down to dinner with Saddam Hussein. Remarkable, I know, and what's more, he propositioned me. He said that he had always dreamed he would make love relationship with a Christian girl. I quickly disabused him of the notion that I or Julia were any such thing and we all carried on as before. He's studying French literature at the University of Baghdad and his father named him after the then vice president 27 years ago, predicting that the Big Man would go on to greater things.
Saddam was translating for us in a meeting with the National Union of Iraqi Students (NUIS), who are now "responsible for you". You have to have an organisation which is responsible for you in Iraq, and if you want to film anything you have to be accompanied by a representative of that organisation, so we had to get their approval for our plans. All these things take time and time means hospitality and hospitality means food and there is no phrase in the Iraqi-Arabic dialect which translates "I am not hungry thank you."
Saddam struggled valiantly to explain what we wanted to Jalal and Sirwan (a Kurd from Sulemaniya), from the NUIS committee, but there were baffled looks all round when he informed them that we wished to conduct a door-to-door immunisation campaign against measles in the poorest parts of Baghdad. Beginning again we managed to establish that it was not us but the primary health care clinics who were conducting the campaign. We were only asking permission to go out with them.
In any case, all these things take time to organise, and we have a few quiet days. I wouldn't want you to think I'm not taking this seriously, but yesterday we were taken for a picnic. We met Majid at the Student and Youth Conference last week. His brother Ra'id is an architect living in Jordan. Their mother is Iraqi, their father Palestinian and they lived in Jordan for several years before moving to Iraq.
He used to work in an Iraqi satellite TV station while he was at university. Fifty per cent of the programmes had to be "political" and a further 15 per cent news. My companion, Julia, suggested it might be quite scary to be a journalist in Iraq. The brothers laughed. "It's quite scary to be an Iraqi." But still Majid said life is better in Iraq than in Jordan.
We drove out to a man-made lake, in which two palm trees stand improbably on island pedestals. Ra'id explained that they were there before the lake was built, so they were left there. On mounds, between the lake and the engineering college opposite, an anti-aircraft gun and a radar emplacement have the look of museum pieces. Khaki men fiddle about with them while passers-by ignore them as everyday sights. As we drove up to the toll booth, just past the mounds, Ra'id muttered, "Don't speak English now."
We'd heard about a boat that goes up and down the Tigris with music and dancing - some kind of party boat, a nightclub maybe. The brothers had heard of it and laughed when we said we'd like to go. "It's not a nightclub," Majid said. "It's a nightmare." It's really crowded and sweaty and it smells bad: thus far it sounds like most nightclubs, but apparently kids stand on the bridges waiting for the boat and drop stones on it, so you get rained with broken glass and nails. "You have to wear a helmet."
In 1991 the government decided to close the nightclubs, and since then young people go out to the theatres for dances. Alcoholic drinks are kept concealed under the seats, behind the drinker's legs until no one is looking, or else disguised as some innocuous soft drink. But by 10 or 11 o'clock everyone is loud and silly and a bit unsteady on their feet because Iraqi beer is cheap and strong.
As for the cinemas, fabric banners outside depict the sort of films on offer. "Life After Sex" declares one, with a picture of a blond couple under a bed sheet. It's mainly men who go to the cinema here. On my last visit, in August 2001, Muna - who ran a money exchange - said women used to go to the cinema, but now all the films were pornographic. The brothers say all the films are from the 1970s, but most films are available on bootleg before they even reach cinemas in the US.
When we got in the car, Avril Levigne was playing on the stereo. Living in Jordan, Ra'id has access to all the major films, unrestricted internet service, McDonald's; all the consumer junk of life in western capitalist economies. He says he would like to see more freedom in Iraq, and that would include some American things. But he doesn't want America to come along and impose its culture, its Pax Americana. He doesn't believe that the US intends to act in the best interests of the Iraqi people, but even if they did, he doesn't want the US to come along and "rescue" or "liberate" the Iraqi people.
As for their family's preparations, their house is stocked with food and water and guns but not to excess, as they say some families are doing. Each house is 'an independent state' equipped with all necessities, but one family friend showed them the shopping list of provisions to be got in for the war, and the list included coffins. I said what do you want coffins for and he said in case someone gets killed. I don't know what they think they're going to do - bury them in the front garden and just carry on.
The brothers joke a lot about what might be coming, as do many people - a satirical gallows humour that testifies to the spirit which has brought the Iraqi people still smiling, still warm and welcoming through over twelve years of sanctions. It reminds me of the stories Carl from the Human Shield group told me about the London blitz.
Majid suggested going to a tower nearby for the view. Ra'id thought it a very bad idea. The tower overlooks one of the presidential palaces. Bringing two British people there isn't likely to be good for your health. Instead we went for Turkish coffees and a narghila. The basic set up is that there is coal on the top, on foil, over a mixture of fermented fruit or other flavouring and tobacco, then a long neck leading down to a bulbous bit at the bottom, containing water, which makes the smoke less harsh on the lungs, then a pipe through which you inhale.
This one was mint flavoured and the top part was fringed with strings of beads. It was maybe three or four feet tall, and the mouthpiece was shaped like a cobra. In a narghila shop on Al Sadoon Street there were smoking mixtures in strawberry, apricot, banana, cardamom, vanilla, liquorice, coffee and an almost endless array of others positioned beside rows and rows of narghilas - from the simple glass to the exquisitely decorated; from handbag size to full scale pillar and in any colour you like but mostly blue.
There was a plume of thick black smoke over the city all day yesterday and on our way back the lads realised what it was - an oil refinery on the south of the river. I don't know where or how it caught fire, whether it was serious or what was being done about it, but it was still burning this morning. The air was no worse than usual: it always reeks of petrol fumes because petrol is freely available and almost free of charge and there are far too many cars, mainly knackered ones, often made out of two even more knackered ones, cannibalised and welded together across the middle.
Today, among other missions, like sorting out our visa renewals, we went shoe hunting. There's a little boy who begs by the Press Centre whose shoes are almost entirely detached, top from sole, with the backs flattened and his heels hanging over the end. We drew round his foot on a piece of paper and obtained an exceedingly unhelpful broken line and some mud to help us on our search. In the end we picked a couple of pairs of trainers in different sizes, reasoning that there were plenty of other street kids needing a whole pair of shoes. As it happened, they were both too big.
Shop after shop is closed down, with a thick metal grille across the front, and the goods are on tables in the street. There's loads of stuff for sale, if people can afford it. You don't have to look at the label for where things are made: they're made in China. The buses, the tractors, the fire engines, the clothes, shoes, fake designer belts, cosmetics, toys, household items. At a push, you'll find something made in Syria, but overwhelmingly it's Chinese. There used to be a fleet of British Leyland buses, but the UK companies refused to supply the spare parts. By cannibalising, they kept a dwindling fleet running for a while, but in the end the whole lot were scrapped and replaced with Chinese.
Yet everywhere, "Hey Mister. Welcome."