Ali Baba very bad: A week in 'post-conflict' Baghdad

You are listening to IQ4 Radio, live from Baghdad... music is your passport to freedom

 Earlier at dinner in the Flowers Land Hotel, an old guy sang– "performed" is a better word– maqam, uttering from his ample gut an unbroken, ordered succession of moans, his breath more than his fingers faintly rattling the strings of his pot-bellied lute, called, I think, a ganoun. Mood-inducing maqam, the improvisational classical music peculiar to Baghdad, has had its problems surviving the inhibitions of Islam and the disinhibitions of pop. Even Saddam was concerned.

Now with the clubs closed and the city looking like the end of the world– or at least the opposite of the world I just came from– maqam's darker moods, and a cold beer, reconciled the mind with horrors, past and present.

Upstairs in the flat I share with my two companions from Charlottesville, I listen in the dark as a new station at 104 FM plays rap-influenced covers of Queen, and feel, rather than hear, the infrasonic rumble of tank movements on the road behind the hotel. The announcer reminds his listeners in lightly accented English that "music is your passport to freedom." (My American passport is my passport to freedom, and I hope I haven't lost it getting here.)

I listen through my noise-buster headphones. My companions' nerves are raw from jet lag, heat, and Round One of their bouts with the Baghdad belly. Me? Right now I'm just bored– but no more so than usual.

Coming here wasn't my idea. I am here as part of the law school's human rights committee– maybe I'm supposed to bring to the task the perspective of the down-and-dirty practitioner of law– this is not really my trip.

It's Rosa's trip, really, Rosa Brooks, an associate professor of law at UVA and a scholar who observes the law first-hand as it re-emerges in post-conflict nations such as Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and now, Iraq.

It is her colleague Paul's trip, too. Paul Stephan, also a professor of law at Virginia, began taking these kinds of post-conflict trips as the Soviet empire was collapsing.

That's oversimplifying, they would complain, if I woke them up to ask. I would agree that calling this place post-conflict is an oversimplification. But no one cares what I agree with, and right now I'm looking at ways to get some sleep.

In Baghdad in August 2003, it's not easy to sleep at night, and too dangerous to do anything else, even if your hotel has its own generator kicking in as the power fails every couple of minutes.

It's easy enough to tick off the reasons the AC won't work. Saddam starved the south of electricity to punish them, which benefited Baghdad. Now the distribution is fair, and the Baghdadis are suffering. The power plants are out of date. The grid has been damaged by the theft of copper, or sabotage. When customs duties and taxation disappeared along with the government last April, Baghdadis went on a shopping binge for TVs, refrigerators and, of course, air conditioners– all of which are about half their price in the States. When they're plugged in, they impose an even greater load on the grid.

The first and last culprit to blame for the power shortage is the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority. This American agency, led by Paul Bremer, runs and is rebuilding the entire country. If something goes wrong, it's either because the CPA wants it that way or can't do anything about it. No one is ever sure which. At a physiological level, it doesn't really matter. Hot is hot.

How hot is it? Ask a private in an MP brigade wearing 40 pounds of body armor, pulling a two-hour shift at a 50-caliber machine gun up on the roof of the local police station, and he'll say it is 147 degrees F, but last week hit 155. He drinks six liters of water a day through his Camelback. Ask an officer inside the air conditioned CPA HQ in the People's Palace, at least a mile behind a security perimeter, and he might laugh and say maybe it was 140 tops.


Ali Baba

 Sleep in Baghdad is getting to be a problem on the rare cool nights, too, because of "ali baba."

As nearby as Amman, tell someone you met Ali Baba on the road, and the response is one of polite puzzlement at your bringing up the Thousand and One Nights. Of the several hundred folk tales in that collection, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," is the best known and least likely to have been part of the original. In that story Ali Baba isn't a thief at all. He's the adversary of the thieves– although it's his slave-girl, Marjana who single-handedly vanquishes the thieves.

So it's a tale from and not from the Thousand and One Nights, in which Ali Baba is and is not the hero. But he's never a thief– unless entering the thieves' cave with that "Open Sesame" and stealing some of their loot makes him a thief.

In Amman, a thief, if there is such a thing, is a thief, not an ali baba. Maybe it was that way not so long ago in Baghdad.

Since the looting began last April, in Baghdad at least, "ali baba" means thief. And ali baba is now breaking into heavily secured residences while its occupants are at home. There are no banks, so the sum of people's wealth is in their home if that's where they are.

At home, everyone has more than one Kalashnikov, as Baghdadis call the Russian assault rifle, elsewhere also known as the AK-47. They picked them up for about $50 each after the fall of Baghdad. Few know how to use them, except for increasingly infrequent moments of celebration. If the universal possession of Kalashnikovs can't stop home invasions, how much good is it to carry a little Tariq 7.65mm pistol, the Iraqi-made knockoff of a Beretta, on the street?

CPA Order No. 3 says it's okay to keep these weapons at home, but don't carry them on the street. Although the CPA could issue carry permits to private citizens, so far it hasn't. The choice is clear to most Baghdadis: Risk being detained or shot by Coalition forces if you pack heat, or get robbed of your life savings (or worse) if you don't. Or stay off the street after sunset.

Take your chances by day, unarmed, and hope for assistance from an armed bystander or a Coalition patrol. The armed bystander might be your better bet. To illustrate this, a driver in his 40s, with a family to support but some time to spare, showed me bullet wounds in his knees and ankles, now healing nicely. He told me how last May he was on the job at one in the afternoon, in an upscale neighborhood, when unmasked men with guns attacked him.

Shot in the knees and ankles and clubbed on the neck, he still managed to stagger out of the car and yell, "ali baba, ali baba." No one helped him, not even the Coalition forces who observed the attack. Not part of their job description, they told him. He lost his ride, his family's savings, and nearly his ability to walk.

He's got a replacement vehicle now with a couple of hundred thousand kilometers on it, rigged with a Mad Max style anti-theft device, which he must deactivate in a secret way every few minutes or all hell breaks loose; some kind of apparatus that allows him to use either gasoline or diesel; and a few other security measures best kept secret.

In August, just a couple of days ago, by contrast, two guys tried to carjack a taxi. The driver jumped out screaming the familiar "ali baba, ali baba." The new Iraqi police, the IPS, exchanged pistol shots with the carjackers– without much effect. The local merchants killed the thieves on the spot and continued about their business.

Opinions about this emerging vigilantism, like those about the exact temperature, differ. An American platoon sergeant inside the stifling, sandbagged bunker that is the local police station thought it was good. A CPA bureaucrat thought it was bad.


Getting around

 With nothing better to do, and no reason for being here– not even the usual reasons a tourist musters to reassure himself– I went out to the al Mansour district looking for someone said to be the best maqam artist in all of Iraq. Finding his shop is not easy. Except for the main drags, the maps don't name the streets in Baghdad. The numbered addresses don't seem to help, either. Maybe this is a consequence of Saddam's paranoia, guaranteeing that the enemy– which is to say, everyone– gets lost.

It means stopping at every corner and asking the guy selling cold sodas, or exchanging dollars for Iraqi dinars ($1 buys 1770 Iraqi dinars of wildly varying hues and ink saturations), or renting time on a Thuraya satellite phone, or hawking the ubiquitous perfumed facial tissues, or cigarettes, or sunglasses– and after exchanging ritual greetings– asking directions, again and again.

There's no way anyone– a Ba'athist gangster killing GIs, or a guy from Charlottesville killing time– moves through this city without the street vendors– an exclusive, interactive, living street map of the city– knowing what is going on, and in some measure assisting. They are a dormant network of snitches– or if you prefer, a neighborhood watch– waiting for the right bunch of cops to mobilize them.

The musician's shop, which sells tapes and CDs, is closed, though, and covered with burglar bars, not far from a house leveled after a tip that Saddam was holed up there.

With the phones out (except for those satellite Thurayas), and mail delivery not yet resumed, internet cafés have sprung up all over the city with their own generators and satellite links. Under Saddam, access to the internet was possible only through the phone system. That's not a problem anymore: There is no phone system.

But Baghdadis are just starting to get into the habit of checking their email and surfing the web. On the other hand, NGOs– employees of humanitarian, non-governmental organizations who were at least for a time flooding into Baghdad– can be found in these cafés at any time of day, and in internet cafés in their hotels all night, if only because they are air-conditioned.

The UN compound had a room on the ground floor with pretty good Internet connections available for free to press and NGOs and drifters like me, and in the hall around the corner in poor repair, Western style toilets, a rarity even in the Palace. (But that was before the August 19 terrorist bombing that killed at least 20 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy in Iraq.)

Upstairs in the UN office, under the best air conditioner in the country (dropping cold air down on your head like a waterfall) is a chic, chain-smoking woman– a passionate opponent of almost everything the Americans do, with particular fury over the injuries and deaths of Iraqis at Coalition checkpoints.

She was (and hopefully still is) the single most outspoken critic of the CPA in the whole country. That someone– presumably to demonstrate his opposition to the American presence– would try to kill her a few days later, and would in fact kill many of her like-minded colleagues, shows just how crazy this place is.

There's another place in town a lot closer, where the NGOs hang out, a hotel with a pool and a hopeful, yet wary, singles-bar atmosphere. Once in a while the Australian embassy staff drops by for a swim. They're accompanied by a security detail consisting of two or three commandos. Are the commandos impressed by the pool? They are not. To the Aussie troops, Iraq, with or without this pool, is "all bitch, no beach."


Seeking justice

 Has the UN bombing changed the scene at the pool? Are more NGOs just hanging out, waiting until the situation quiets down, or have they begun to pack up and leave? Or are they indifferent to the danger? I met one of them in the third category in the bar next to the pool.

Listening to her, like listening to maqam, induces a mood– and not a happy one– more than it communicates a message. She never cracks a smile or misplays a somber note. Like the woman in the UN building, breathing and smoking have been aesthetically, or efficiently, combined. I get her an ashtray while her assistant lights her cigarettes.

This woman, working for one of the humanitarian NGOs, is, of course, against the death penalty in the forthcoming war crimes prosecutions, so she wants some international– anti-capital punishment– representation on the tribunal. Iraqis favor capital punishment and rankle at its suspension by the CPA, so a tribunal composed only of Iraqis is sure to impose the death penalty. But she, like the Iraqis, is profoundly in favor of payback.

There's this huge cache of Saddam's execution orders over at the Released Political Prisoners Association. There's documentary evidence over there of maybe two million murders, much of it still unsorted in a haystack-sized pile, or bursting out of bags, boxes, and file cabinets. These guys, these former prisoners, mean well, but they don't have a clue, she thinks, how to build a case or even preserve evidence for those who could build a case.

While I listen, I watch someone doing laps in the pool. I consider the rich man's house full of death warrants, facing the Tigris. I wonder whether the Released Prisoners owe their survival more to their amateur standing and obvious lack of prosecutorial expertise, or to the fact that they're squatting in the luxury villa of a Ba'athist bigwig who didn't make the Coalition's list. He's been released, to the disbelief of every Baghdadi whose opinion I sampled, and is suing to recover his house, ideally in one piece.

This pending litigation may be one more reason the house with its evidence of a holocaust has not yet been bombed.

Listening to her, I can't help but wonder at the world of difference between her and what in this country are called peace activists, who opposed the war– as did she– out of concern for its potential Iraqi victims. Now that the victims of the recent fighting are real, with names and faces– and millions more no less real victims, with names and faces revealed in the files of the Released Prisoners– those anti-war activists, unlike her, appear to have exhausted their efforts, at exactly the moment when they could do the most good.

It wouldn't take much– a couple of dollars, an old laptop, a scanner, some sandbags for the windows, a word of encouragement– to multiply the good done by these amateurs by a factor of 10, or a hundred, or more. A tipping point between civilization and its opposite can be found at this address, if anyone cares to visit it.

But I was just looking around, not looking for a job. If I were, I might not end up on the side of the angels.

I was leaving the next day by car across Saddam's superhighway, headed for Jordan. She was staying on indefinitely. I asked her if she didn't think news of her presence would eventually spread far enough to reach the ears of someone who meant her harm. She shrugged, exhaling smoke, at the same time saying that it would. But it was necessary that she stay. The UN bombing was still a couple of days in the future. I never got a chance to try the pool.


Leaving Baghdad

 The plan was to leave the Flowers Land Hotel in a convoy at 5am. At that hour, it's dark, and the doorman reclined on the hood of a car, cradling his Kalashnikov in his arms, in the din and exhaust of the hotel's generator.

The driver of the car hired for the return to Jordan was huge and shambling for a man, but for a djinn (the Arabic word for genie), compact and nimble. Call him the Shaq of Iraq.

Like most of the drivers on this route, he favored a white GMC Suburban. His 1996 model had 600,000 kilometers on the odometer, prayer rugs on every horizontal surface, and the Koran in the tape deck. Every handle or knob was protected by layers of tape. He flew into a rage if you slammed a door, and yet anything short of slamming would not close it. Like all the drivers, he believed that he would save gas if he drove 150 kph with the windows down and the AC off. Like all drivers, he smoked Marlboros incessantly and toyed with prayer beads, often at the same time.

Around 5:30 a convoy formed, composed of three white Suburbans and a yellow Mercedes improbably bearing the Iraqi tag number 911– nine and one being the only numbers that are the same in the West. This convoy began the journey west, traveling sometimes within inches of each other's bumpers, to avoid a rolling roadblock by carjackers or to save on fuel.

The trip east to Baghdad had begun about a week earlier in Amman at 1am, timed to hit the border around sunrise. The times of departure and the use of convoys are as much a secret as the color of the Suburbans, and about as effective a defense against bandits.

Gasoline is more expensive at the border– 125 dinars, or 7 cents, a liter– compared to 20 dinars, a little more than a penny, in Baghdad. But at 5:30 in the morning at the border, there's no waiting. At best at other times, the wait is an hour or so in Baghdad, and you might end up buying your gasoline on the street for as much as 250 dinars a liter, wondering if it's been adulterated.

En route to Baghdad, the car had stopped again just beyond the Iraqi border to allow a check for damage after we blew through a Bedouin's herd of sheep at a sluggish 100 kph, killing three animals and enraging the lame shepherd who chased after the Suburban, brandishing his crutch/crook.

Once, in Baghdad, the Suburban had again proved its worth, driving up on sidewalks and over lawns, on the wrong side of the road, turning into the path of intimidated, oncoming traffic, always moving through the traffic backed up in front of the ruins of the Jordanian embassy. Men in plain clothes– IDs hanging around their necks and Kalashnikovs in their hands were barely able to wade through the traffic.

Most humanitarian workers travel between Amman and Baghdad on UN flights. Others, if luckier than I, can get a seat on Airserv, a small private carrier with headquarters near the UN office in Amman. Royal Jordanian– at least until last week– was planning charter flights. There used to be two theories why it was safe to fly.

The first was that whoever has the SA-7s, the shoulder-fired Russian equivalents of a Stinger, is saving them for the first jumbo jets to fly in. The second theory was that no one would harm humanitarian workers. There are problems with both theories, but there are problems with driving as well, problems with the electricity, problems with the water. All bitch, no beach.

During the week, Tom Friedman's Wednesday column reported that he had been attacked and robbed by bandits on the westward journey to Amman. He worried that the proceeds would fund insurgency. His many readers traveling that road that week, though, had concerns more personal than geopolitical.

By 6am, as the sun was starting to rise quickly, we could start to relax, to the point of being amused to see on the side of the road what looked like some teenagers fooling around with a tow truck, one of them trying to drive it for the first time while the others rode in the back.

Then a dirty white Corolla, poking along in the left-hand lane, slowed and swerved into the path of the Suburban. As it slowed and swerved, its windows sprouted Kalashnikovs with banana clips and cut-off stocks.

Shaq, feigning mild surprise, pulled over and turned the Suburban off, muttering, "Ali baba very bad."

Except for one, the bandits seemed young, in their teens anyway, the bottom of their faces covered with the red-checkered hakh typical of this region. One guy looked to be in his 40s, though, with a more up-to-date mask made of the sleeve of a dirty t-shirt. He seemed to be the boss of the four-man crew.

Their instructions to the occupants of the Suburban were simple: "moneymoney, moneymoney, moneymoney." To the guy tasked to rob me, I handed over a wad of dinars, my flash money, which he immediately began counting and, losing track, recounting.

Iraqis are heirs to a legal tradition dating back 4000 years to the Code of Hammurabi, although in this century it owes something to the French model of justice, with some effects of the later British occupation. The condemnation of robbery, as illustrated by the Code of Hammurabi (section 22 prescribed death as the punishment) or by the story of Ali Baba, is hardwired in Iraqis.

Even while granting that there may be a political motive, and definitely a political consequence, behind the highway robberies, Iraqis still regard the perpetrators as thieves. Whatever the precise relationship of crime to politics in post-Saddam Iraq– and it was never clearly separate before April 9– a thief is still ali baba and not a freedom fighter.

The driver had some kind of alarm on his car that started honking the horn. Or was someone still in the Corolla honking its horn? Whatever its source, this was the signal for the bandits suddenly to leave the Suburban and, bundling like circus clowns into a car which seemed too small for all of them, their guns, and their booty, head down to the road to rob the others. The others must have been waiting for them, because the Corolla couldn't run down anything on that road, except the tow truck. The tow truck, passed again up the road, was participating in some obscure way in another robbery, this time with the kids in the back waving Kalashnikovs

At the border, the GI said the bandits had recently started killing people and that they, the Coalition, just couldn't get a handle on the problem. Waiting to cross the Jordanian border on a business trip, an Iraqi engineer said hello. As an employee of an American contractor, he foresaw a prosperous future, but was losing his patience. He talked about the robbery with the same detachment as about the Baghdad water supply– the latter, despite its antiquated equipment, obviously a source of pride.

This man had been robbed as well, but he seemed to accept it as a kind of gratuity, extracted at the point of a gun. He was more concerned that the Coalition did not recognize the message the fact of the robbery sent to Baghdadis. If the Coalition could not secure 30 miles of superhighway, how could it promise eventual safety for the residents of a city of five million residents?

He proposed providing intense air cover from, say, six to nine every morning, and letting travelers schedule their transit of the stretch between Al Fallujah and al Ramadi accordingly. In this suggestion, he expressed the prevailing Baghdadi view that the Coalition was omnipotent. The Coalition could make anything happen.

The rival hypothesis– to which he gave equal weight– was that these things happened because the Coalition was impotent. It's one or the other, and in either case the fault of the Coalition. All bitch, no beach.

There are about 10,000 practicing attorneys in the Baghdad area and even more female law graduates sitting at home married, or contemplating spinsterhood. But most of them have never been outside the country, and badly need some kind of contact, any contact at all, with the greater world– for example, with Charlottesville– in order to bring their talents to bear on the rebuilding of their society.

The court of appeals at al-Karkh kept working all but two days during the fighting. Today its darkened, low-ceilinged halls are mobbed with Iraqis signing marriage contracts, filing this paper or that, or waiting to see the judges. Judges sit sweating at their desks, in ties and coats in the 150 degree heat, as confident as Hammurabi himself in the unshakable rule of law.

Shut the AC off in Atlanta in August and see if that happens.

Shaq has a bad case of road rage once he reaches Jordan. A long lunch and listening to passages from the Koran don't seem to have helped. Maybe he lost more to the bandits than I thought, or he's worried about his tip, or– and who could blame him? maybe he's just fed up. He's a master at lurching his Suburban at pedestrians, without actually hitting any who get in his way– as though the car were an extension of his djinn-sized body.

Once we're in Jordan, Saddam's four- or six-lane divided, limited access superhighway (complete with picnic pullovers) turns into two-lane blacktop through a flat desert covered with black rocks stacked in cairns by Bedouins or some other force of nature.

For reasons that are never disclosed, Shaq likes to drive in this setting on the left-hand side of the road into oncoming traffic. Maybe he's daydreaming of driving in Scottish highlands.

The road becomes hilly as it nears Amman. Shaq is impatient with the driver of a truck full of tomatoes struggling up a hill, and tries to force it off the road.

Failing that, he tries to start a fight with its driver. Later, calmer, he makes small talk in broken English about car maintenance. Like most Iraqis, he spends the extra money required for American or German motor oil, and he's not too happy about the effect of Iraqi gasoline on his engine, either, especially at speeds in excess of 150 kph.

Shaq's bottom line on Iraq, the beginning and end of his politics: too much ali baba.

Baghdad is the marginalized, repressed chaos of life in Charlottesville, its flipside. The consequences of our need for domestic security are exposed on the streets of Baghdad. The air-conditioned safety of our homes, and our quiet streets, is the stifling heat of their barricaded rooms defended with assault rifles, and trash-filled highways patrolled by foreign tanks, a source of pride to some of us.

But the people are the same. They have as high a percentage of college graduates as we do. They like to stroll over to the neon-lit al Faqma's on Jedirayah Street for an ice cream on a summer night, even now when it means risking their life. They will sit around the table talking over a meal of shwarma, spicy meat on a stick, or the smoke of a clay argilla, trying to make sense of all this. Unlike us, they are not able to tune out the disaster, or export it to a foreign shore.

Up on Saadoun Street there is a traffic circle around a fountain. Everyone calls this Ali Baba Square. Its official name is Kahramana Square. The kahramana, or heroine, in question is Marjana, who killed the thieves. The fountain, designed by Iraq's greatest living sculptor, Mohamed Ghani, now in his 70s, is dry. When the water is flowing again, it will fall from the jar Marjana tips toward the jars below her. In the story, 37 of the thieves hid in these jars, and the water was boiling oil.



Baghdad is the marginalized, repressed chaos of life in Charlottesville, its flipside. The consequences of our need for domestic security are exposed on the streets of Baghdad.


Unlike us, they are not able to tune out the disaster, or export it to a foreign shore.


Shot in the knees and ankles and clubbed on the neck, he still managed to stagger out the car and yell, "ali baba, ali baba." No one helped him, not even the Coalition forces who observed the attack.


Like all the drivers, he believed that he would save gas if he drove 150 kph with the windows down and the AC off.