Walking The Streets
Of Baghdad

By Dahr Jamail

After being in Iraq nearly two months now, it struck me how much people can adapt to even the most trying situations. In Baghdad, a place that is the front line of a low-grade guerrilla war between insurgents and the occupation forces, daily life for 6 million Iraqis goes on.
When I first arrived here, my head spun with the inherent security dangers. Suicide car bombs, resistance attacks on occupation troops in the streets, mines, bombs-a bit of a departure from my life in Anchorage, Alaska. My biggest concerns there are icy roads, avoiding moose on the roads and whether or not my car will start after a night of minus 30 degree temperatures when Iím going to meet some friends for coffee.
And it dawned on me, while walking from my hotel to meet a friend to discuss writing a story about the work being done by her peace organization, how odd it is that I've grown accustomed to this dangerous situation. Going about business in this situation is a stressful proposition, to say the least. For it is not just about business when every walk down the street can be about life and death.
Yet this has become normal to me now, and I worry about that as this cannot possibly be good on my psyche. It is not without concern about what this has done to my danger threshold that I feel relatively comfortable walking around the streets of Baghdad.
I've learned to avoid the loose dirt and garbage piles that are so abundant along the noisy, congested streets of central Baghdad. It is always better to walk along concrete, rather than tromping across loose bricks or piles of rubbish, as these are often places where the powerful Improvised Explosive Devices, are hidden.
The sound of a rumbling bus behind me has come to mean a US Humvee Patrol, with soldiers manning large machine guns perched on top, scanning the buildings for potential attackers. I try to avoid these when possible, as the civilian casualties from an IED explosion and then the return fire of the American's often outnumber that of the intended targets.
I walk up to a bank to exchange some of my US dollars for the new Saddam-free Iraqi Dinars, and without thinking automatically raise my arms and turn around to be frisked for weapons. With the usual utterance of Shukran (Thank you in Arabic), I stroll inside to do my business amongst more armed guards.
Carrying on down the street, I pass a petrol station with the usual long line of mostly beat up orange and white Passats parked along the road, awaiting their ration of fuel. Razor wire spirals across the ground in front of the filling station, while armed Iraqi police monitor the entry, allowing a car with an empty tank in every so often.
On the corner I smile at the usual congregation of what I think are Iraqi secret service personnel...plain clothed men, and one woman with ear pieces for communication and satellite phones, closely watching all the traffic which passes by.
200 meters past this is the Sheraton and Palestine hotel complex. The two tan monoliths, each with chunks blasted out of their exterior by rocket attacks, loom over a perimeter of concrete blocks stood on end to deter suicide car bombers. Mangy dogs walk past them, pawing small garbage piles where they can reach past the security razor wire.
I am searched for bombs or weapons by the Iraqi security guards at the first gate and again to enter the compound. US soldiers stand by, their nervous eyes watching every person who approaches. The approach takes me down another row of tall concrete blocks, shielding me from potential suicide bombers, as well as a view of the muddy waters of the Tigris River. The barrel of a large M1 American tank is the last deterrent, as I turn left and enter the lobby of the Palestine Hotel.
Once inside, it is a surreal experience. I take a seat in a plush chair to wait for my friend as soft music fills the lobby, echoing off the marble floor. Press personnel stroll by with their flack jackets and helmets, walking from the elevators out the front door past the guards. Meanwhile I see several journalists in one of the bars. This seems a common coping mechanism, for many of the journalists in my own hotel tend to congregate in one of the rooms to toss back the drinks while discussing the goings on of another day in occupied Baghdad. Booze is obviously not too difficult to come by in Baghdad these days, for westerners and soldiers alike are spotted purchasing it secretly around the city. I know this by walking by a small bar near my hotel when I go to pick up my bottled water every few days.
The visits I make to visit people about the stories I write are limited to the daytime, for everyone knows the streets are dangerous after 9pm, and not just from looters and criminals. Just last week a journalist friend of mine was robbed by Iraqi Police just a few blocks from our hotel.
But life goes on here, all of us adapting to this most curious situation, whether we like it or not.




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