The Real World: Baghdad (Life Behind the Blast Walls)

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | Baghdad, Iraq

Attending a meeting in Baghdad requires a unique wardrobe.
The company compound where I stayed during my time in Baghdad was really nothing more than a few city blocks beside the Tigris River enclosed by high blast walls. The neighborhood was once prime real estate, however—just up the river is the former epicenter of Saddam Hussein's regime. Today that area is the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone).

Given its prime position, the neighborhood was previously home to some of Saddam's closest cronies. His wife and other family members owned many of the houses in the area, as well as the mosquito-infested swampland leading to the river. Our security guards swore to me that Chemical Ali used to live in the villa facing the one where I slept.

Saddam's crew fled in 2003 with the arrival of US troops, and a private security outfit moved in and slapped together the compound walls, using a mix of concrete slabs, sand bags, and shipping
containers that remains today. Inside the villas, however, redecorating was a low priority for the new occupants; the trappings of a distincly Arab opulence remain. While the villa where I stayed was less ostentatious, others sported gilded china cabinets, a marble fountain, or inlayed swords above the mantlepiece. In one house, the security contractors had converted a former dining room to a gym. Beneath crystal chandeliers and gaudy Quranic wall hangings, thick-necked Brits and Kiwis curled dumbbells or pounded a punching bag. Above the bench press, a tapestry proclaimed—in glitzy Arabic calligraphy—the Fifth Armored Phalanx's allegiance to whatever Baathist insider once owned the home.

Beside the security teams, the compound held the development contractor for whom I was working, a few remaining Iraqi families, and the office of an international NGO dedicated to recovering missing persons. The German archaelogist and American lawyer who composed their Baghdad staff both got their start working in the Balkans in the 1990s, but today teach Iraqi forensic scientists to excavate mass graves and identify human remains. In the yard below my bathroom window, they buried cow parts for the trainees to practice excavating.

* * *

Security at the compound was tight. Non-Iraqis could only exit the three sets of barricaded traffic gates in a convoy of armored vehicles, which generally traveled only to a handful of prescribed locations. Also not allowed were standing on a roof, a balcony, or any other elevated point where you could be seen (and therefore targeted) from outside the compound walls.

For the compound's residents, the confinement quickly led to cabin fever. Each day, we spent every waking hour together, ate all the same lousy meals together, worked all day together, then drank more than we should have together. Add in the constant stress of security threats, and it was a volatile mixture. Even after a few weeks, I could understand the long-term residents' feeling that they were in a prison.

Luckily, after many tours all over the country, the security contractors had plenty of stories to help fend off boredom. One told of a firefight in which an Iraqi comrade had been shot through the hinge of his sunglasses. Supposedly the bullet continued at just the right angle that it entered the side of his helmet, ricocheted in a perfect arc around his head, and exited the helmet's other side, leaving him with only a few grazes and a broken pair of sunglasses.

Another told of a lavish casino that Saddam Hussein maintained under a lake beside one of his Baghdad palaces. As the story went, Saddam would invite groups of European construction executives to Iraq to bid on highways, dams, or other projects, and entertain them each evening in the casino. There he would ply the men with drinks and prostitutes. When the day of negotiations arrived, Saddam would pull out a video of the executives' exploits—filmed by hidden cameras—and threaten to share it with their wives back home if they did not offer a bid more to his liking.

Finally, if the stories drew to a close or we ran out of liquor early, we could always call in the secret weapon—"Guitar Hero" at the bone diggers' house.

* * *

Inside the compound, we received only a few reminders of the city beyond the walls.

There was the occasional snarl of an American Black Hawk helicopter in the sky. More frequently, a crackly call to prayer would reverberate over the walls from the neighborhood mosques. And some afternoons, an orangey Martian pall would descend upon the compound, announcing the arrival of an evening thunderstorm, which tended to blow more dust than rain.

The most sobering reminder of all, however, was the muffled thud of a car bomb exploding at a distant checkpoint, or a suicide bomber detonating in a market somewhere across the city. Some days we would hear three or four explosions, and other days none at all. The randomness of it gnawed at some people, each bombing sending them steadily closer to the edge of insanity. The security providers, on the other hand, were beyond jaded. After a particularly loud explosion one evening, I asked a guard what had happened, expecting to hear a rundown of the type of bomb, its location, and maybe the resulting casualties. Instead he shrugged and, in that peculiar Kiwi patois, replied, "Enhhh, sem-fecka-jest-blew-hemself-ep."

* * *

I frequently reminded myself that as bad as we expats might have envisioned our surroundings, the Iraqis were the ones who really had it bad.

During my downtime, I sometimes chatted with the local staff in the office. A translator named Kifah (I've changed his name, just in case) has lived in Baghdad his whole life, and worked for a series of international companies since 2003. I asked him if it is still dangerous to work for the Americans today. "Yes, very dangerous." He told me, "Only my mother knows I work here. I told her so that in case something bad happens to me..." He paused. "So that someone in my family will know. But for my wife and for my kids, I can not tell them. For them it would be too dangerous."

For me, the compound was an oddity. For others, a prison. But for the Iraqis who drove through Baghdad's streets to come to work there every day as office clerks or security guards, the compound was a haven—albeit one that came with its own risks.

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