An Iraq that Iraqis deserve and long for
Jeff Severns Guntzel, NCR staff writer
Three years ago this week I was making last minute preparations for my first real reporting job: two weeks in post-invasion Iraq.
I had been away from Iraq for almost two years. I arrived a couple of weeks after CNN showed bungling Marines pulling down a statue of a towering tyrant who had been reduced for a time to a sort of human pinball bouncing from place to place, sinking into and popping out of small holes.
My assignment in the new Iraq lasted just 14 days. On my first night, with gunfire coming from all corners of the capital and American tanks rumbling down the street in front of my hotel, I jotted down a few thoughts, which I later adapted for an article:
These days I think often of that visit to Iraq -- my last. I think often of Iraq, period. My first child is due sometime this week or next and increasingly my thoughts are about the Iraq that child will know. There will no doubt be countless books by war correspondents, retired generals and veterans of the current war, but I want my child to know Iraq better and more authentically than any of them. Lately, Ive been daydreaming about how that might happen and Ive devised the first step -- that great, if often flawed, experiment: the family vacation. I figure it will happen around the time our child is the age where homework is a bunch of photographs pasted to poster board surrounded by place names with words misspelled in puff paint -- maybe 10 years from now -- and I hope a deep and desperate hope that Iraq will be ready by then to accept visitors.
I have gone so far as to buy a highway map of Iraq and a street map of Baghdad. And I have gone even further: a draft itinerary.
Heres a sample:
Our first evening in Baghdad, no doubt, will take us to the Palestine Hotel, best known today as a headquarters for what is left of the international media in Iraq.
The top floor of the Palestine is all windows and a bar that, when I used to visit, served soda, non-alcoholic beer, and cake. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed a panorama of Baghdad and the Tigris River that snaked through it, dividing the city into halves.
It used to be that young lovers who could afford it would steal away to the Palestines remarkably private top-floor booths for cake and sunset. I caught every sunset I could there. It was a marvelous site. As the sun neared the horizon, the thick city smog would transform it into a giant, wet orange ball that seemed to melt into the square houses and date palms at the outer edges of endless Baghdad.
What a great place to start.
Im tempted to say well stay with friends, but when I start to write that, a chill creeps in: Kamal, who used to work at the Palestine, died of a heart attack a few weeks ago. Adnan (not his real name) is desperate to leave the endless chaos of his beloved Baghdad, and no doubt he will. Saad is missing after the shooting death of his brother and difficulties at home.
But we will try to stay with friends. And if we stay with Adnan, I will ask him to show my child pictures from his own childhood, when his father worked for the Iraqi railroad and took him every weekend to Iraqi cities north and south.
Well visit my favorite restaurant on Saudoon Street and well eat Masguf (actually, my child and I will eat Masguf, a famous Iraqi dish featuring a fish that my wife Laurel, who has also been to Iraq, finds acutely unpleasant). Its a great restaurant and Id recommend it to you but I cant say its name -- Im superstitious. It has so far survived the car bombs that occasionally target popular cafes and restaurants.
I ate at this restaurant when I was there just after the invasion and I got terribly ill. It was the undercooked chicken. Im usually careful with meat but I was distracted by the conversation of American soldiers two tables over (their Humvee took up three parking spaces out front).
Next I will try to enlist one of my friends -- if I can find them -- to accompany my family on a road trip. North of Baghdad well stop at Samara to climb the famous spiraling minaret and to look to the revered Askariya shrine. Last year insurgents damaged the top of the ancient minaret, which had been a snipers nest for American soldiers. And the gold-domed Askariya shrine, of course, is rubble. But there are pledges from outside Iraq to rebuild the dome, and the minaret, even with the damage, can still be climbed, if not all the way to the top.
South of Iraq well visit the spectacular Shiite holy city of Najaf. I will explain to my child the subtle but intriguing differences in the mechanics of prayer for Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Next well stop for a picnic at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Qurna. Some believe Qurna was the location of the Garden of Eden. Thats a long discussion, but I am more interested anyway to see if the long-abandoned Adams Ice Cream Stand is still standing.
Well visit the southern port city of Basra, of course, and well rent a small boat for a sunset cruise on the Shaat Al Arab waterway, where I hope the sunken ships of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War after that will have finally been cleared.
On the floating dining platform attached to a popular dinner club, I will treat my family to french fries, hummus, and orange soda -- a tradition of mine.
There is much more, but Ill spare you the endless narrative too often associated with family vacations.
It all may seem a bit delusional, even cruel, to dream of something so presently unthinkable as a vacation to Iraq. Today sectarian fighting has displaced tens of thousands and is displacing families daily. The dead are turning up in groups, bearing torture marks and bullet holes to the head. Electricity and clean water are often scarce. Hospitals are overburdened and under-stocked. And something so simple as a trip to the corner store could mean kidnapping, or death, or both.
Delusional indeed. But cruel? No way. All Im really doing is imagining an Iraq that Iraqis deserve: an Iraq safe for something as banal as the family vacation, theirs and mine -- and, more to the point, an Iraq where the only Americans are tourists.