Letter from the Road #1

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Dancing in the Streets


We arrived in Baghdad at 1 AM in the morning to a decaying six-story hotel next to the Tigris River. The lobby smells of kerosene used to wash the floors in the absence of detergent. A monkey behind the registration counter climbs to the top of his cage and peers at us curiously as we surrender our passports. A parrot sleeps in another cage, her head buried in shoulder feathers.

In the morning we drive across Baghdad to visit a children’s hospital, getting to see the city for the first time in the morning light. Though it looks generally like I imagined, I am shocked by the recognition that this is the capital city of the “enemy”. The neighborhoods are a jumble of two- and three-story buildings, tired and dusty, strung with makeshift electrical and phone wires, the sidewalks broken. There are larger buildings here and there, some in better shape, but the overall impression is one of exhaustion – the city is exhausted and worn out. The cab we ride in is a good example. The dashboard has a large section broken off, the inner panel of the door is missing, as is the window crank, the speedometer doesn’t work, and the body is an assemblage of colors, its sections repaired over time from different wrecks. It reminds me of Managua and Havana, other erstwhile enemy cities brought down by American sanctions. On the streets are thousands of vehicles like our cab, all groaning forward, belching smoke, sagging buses with dirty windows and dented sides, filled with people who fit the overall theme of the city, tired and cheerless.

This is our enemy? This is what the U.S. considers a threat to the geopolitical balance of power in the world? It is incomprehensible. As I write this we have been here for four days and have made several trips around the city – this impression has only grown stronger. The U.S. wants to bomb this place? What misguided cruelty is this? I think of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz gliding around Washington in their sleek black limousines on smooth roads with curbs, tidy tree-lined streets, impressive buildings whose windows are washed on schedule, carpets vacuumed each evening, with their computers humming with vast interconnected information systems. Here in Baghdad completing a simple telephone call is a major achievement. The contrast, and the trumped-up Iraqi threat, borders on the absurd. We fear a myth.

Today all the talk is about the unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution to send in weapons inspectors. Over lunch I naively suggest it may not be such a bad thing – the Iraqis have the opportunity to make an aikido move and allow the giant aggressor to fall on its face by submitting to all inspections. The old hands here patiently describe to me how the U.S. will make it impossible for Iraq to comply – in the past they have accused the Iraqis of blocking access because of a traffic jam! Because of a blown tire! Because of a lost key! But all this is not the point, I am told by a well-spoken Irishman on the Peace Team. The U.S. is not interested in making successful weapons inspections, he says. They want them to fail. They are interested in the huge sea of oil underneath this land, and in controlling its sale so that the cash spent for it is recycled back into the U.S. economy through purchase of U.S. goods.

I go away hoping he’s wrong, hoping against hope that my government’s only motive is to eradicate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But when an Iraqi I meet at the hotel asks me, “If the inspectors find no weapons here, will the U.S. not attack us?” I find cannot assure him they won’t.

The bridges over the Tigris, most of them bombed out during the Gulf War, are now repaired. As we drive over one I look out at the city and imagine another U.S. attack, this time even more ferocious since it would be followed by invading U.S. and British troops with their high-tech gear, M-16’s, Bradley tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and Humvees. I ask the soft-spoken cab driver, an out-of-work architect and father of five, what he thinks would happen if American and British troops entered Baghdad.

He said – and Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney, listen carefully! – he said, “Let me tell you something. The people here would resist them. Even people who might have disagreements with the government here would fight the invaders. Excuse me, but we will fight the Americans if they invade our city. We will not stand for an American occupation.”

At the children’s hospital we spoke with the sad-faced director who recited the now familiar statistics – lack of medicines, broken, un-repairable equipment, no money to pay staff, post-natal child mortality rates now eight times what they were in 1990. “Iraq has eight machines for radiation therapy to treat cancer. Five are completely broken. The remaining three have no radioactive source. We need cobalt for this, not uranium! But the sanctions do not permit the import of cobalt.”

Two days ago several of us went out to the U.N. headquarters to hold a vigil, a daily occurrence. We stood next to the busy highway holding banners which read, “No U.S. War on Iraq!”, “Peace” in English and Arabic, “Let Iraq Live!”, etc. Cars honked, drivers waved. The Iraqi guards around the U.N. building were solemn-faced. After about 15 minutes two cars pulled up delivering several reporters hung with cameras and microphones. Then a bus drove up and out spilled a most amazing sight – twenty Italian musicians with drums, saxophones, violin, tambourines, and they immediately greeted us with rambunctious, infectious gaiety! In a moment they were wailing away wild jazzy tunes, dancing up and down, laughing and grinning. They had come to Iraq for the week as ambassadors of good will, and good will it was! The scene quickly became something out of the sixties – everybody grinning, dancing, the guy on the saxophone bobbing and jumping, his eyes squeezed shut. Cars pulled over, people got out, more soldiers came out of the buildings to keep a lid on things, but the Italians were irrepressible. Soon even the soldiers were grinning and clapping to the music, posing for photographs with the musicians, and everybody was interviewing everybody, the buttoned-up lady from the Christian Peacemaker Team was surrounded by Italian drummers, each taking snapshots of each other, everybody was laughing, swaying, clapping – as if, for a moment, all of us forgot the poverty, the need, the threat of war, and peace just broke out, happy careless loving peace, right there on the side of the road.

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