Friday, June 19, 2009

The ordinary becomes magic in Iraq

McClatchy Newspaper Last night I went out for supper. One of the most ordinary acts we can do. But it was the first time I'd ever done it in Iraq. Last year Leila Fadel, the McClatchy bureau chief, Hussein, a reporter, and I were on the verge of venturing up the street outside the guarded compound where the bureau is to an ice cream shop. We'd talked about the security situation and decided that since several Iraqis and a few foreigners they knew had already gone there, we'd give it a shot. A couple nights later, from the rooftop we were forbidden to go to, we watched the ice cream shop burn down after a car bomb blew it up. So much for a chocolate cone. Last night Jack Dolan, the Miami Herald's bulldog/watchdog reporter, and I decided we wanted a burger. There were plates in the fridge left over from lunch, but we both took one look at 'em and shook our heads. "Burger," we said at the same time to Laith, a bureau reporter. To me, "burger" meant the cafe downstairs in the hotel we call home. So I started to move, wearing sandals and the traffic-cone-colored shorts I wear after dark when nobody but the staff is around. Both Jack and Laith looked at me. "Uh," said Jack, "those might, ah, set us apart a little." You want me to change into jeans? They nodded. Well, OK, it's only people from the hotel, I thought, but all right. I changed. We got downstairs and I headed toward the cafe. It was closed. They were walking out the guarded doors. Outside. Outside! The only times last year I'd been outside the wire had been in an armored Mercedes, an armored Humvee, a 25-ton mine-resistant rig, a Black Hawk helicopter and a C-130. The drachma dropped. We were going outside the compound. On foot. In jeans and sandals and a shirt. Last year my time on the streets of Baghdad consisted of three tense five-minute interviews: one with a fish restaurant manager; one with a bookseller; one with a magazine kiosk owner. While Hussein, his head on a swivel, translated, our driver loitered a few meters away, engine on, in case the presence of a 6'3, 220-pound westerner caught somebody's attention whose attention we didn't want to catch, and we had to make a run for it. But last night we walked past the security guards manning the iron rail across our road and came to Jadriyah Street. Cars and trucks and scooters buzzed past in two lanes either side of a weedy verge. It turned out the most dangerous part of the night was getting across that street. We came to the Tazij ("Fresh") restaurant. Many tables inside, a few on a terrace in front--a short grenade throw from the street. Inside or out, Jack asked. Wherever it's cooler, I said, immediately regretting it when Jack decided it would be cooler outside. All I could think of was the scene in "The Killing Fields" when the New York Times reporter and his freelance photographer friend were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Phnom Penh and a Khmer Rouge guy on a scooter cruised by and tossed a bomb. But Laith led us past the terrace behind a high hedge where dozens of tables sat on green grass. Red and yellow fairy lights were necklaced on the hedge. An orange cat meowed his way from table to table. A little girl in a pointed party hat ran through the opening in the hedge and onto the terrace. On the street as we were ordering, a wedding party in several cars drove by, horns honking and people shouting. The smell of charcoal drifted through the starry night. Jack and I had lamb burgers, Laith a chicken burger, Pepsis all around. They came on buns the size of salad plates, French fries on the meat forming a double layer of delicious. I leaned back in the metal chair. And relaxed. It still seemed a dream--to eat a meal outside in Baghdad. Before the insurgency got real in early 2004, reporters and Iraqis alike could still do this in post-invasion Iraq. But that small luxury, that little slice of heaven, like so many other parts of a civil society, had been swept from the table by four years of violence. After we ate, we talked, mostly about girls and sports. How normal is that? As we crossed the street heading back to the compound, I felt as if I'd also crossed a threshold. Last year in May, I wrote the first, or one of the first, stories about the sharp decline in violence and what it might mean: 'After weeks of relative calm, two questions are being asked in war-torn Iraq and in the United States: Will it last? And when can Americn forces come home?' I knew I was going out on a journalistic limb, but intellectually, I thought the timing was right to raise the questions. Emotionally, though, I harbored deep doubts about how long the calm might last. Our supper Thursday night eased some of those doubts. Hell, I've been around long enough to know that all it might take to keep people cowering again in their homes is another Alaskari Shrine incident--the 2006 bombing of the sacred mosque that lit the fuse that touched off civil war for the next two years. And as American combatants pull back to their bases outside major Iraqi cities by the end of this month, knuckleheads may test the Iraqi army and police to see just how tough they are. More bloodshed is inevitable. But last night's plain and simple walk to eat a meal outside the walls gave me more hope than I've ever felt about this place. Sure, it could all turn back to dung in a white-hot heartbeat. But for one easy hour or so, sitting with two friends at a quiet cafe in south central Baghdad, it seemed anything was posible in Iraq. Even peace.

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