My Iraq: a reporter's 20-year retrospective
The longest-serving Western correspondent in Baghdad tracks the lives of two Iraqi friends – from dinners under the moon and palms to the heartbreak of war.
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It's not something we talk about often. The US soldiers are her son's age, and Nermeen wishes they could go home to their mothers and girlfriends.Skip to next paragraph
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"That day I left Fallujah, I saw all these dead bodies everywhere, demolished houses everywhere," she says. Iraq has become a republic of need, she adds. "It changed my life to trying to help those poor widows and orphans."
Even more reason for her to stay.
In my years going back and forth between Iraq and the US, I've become convinced that it's only distance that makes things look simple. The labels we use – Baathist, insurgent – don't mean nearly as much to Iraqis as they do to us. Even the Iraqis who returned from exile with their fixed ideas of wrong and right found themselves in uncertain territory. And those who lived here through Saddam find themselves strangers in their own country.
In the '90s, when we first met, Bassim knew almost every corner of this city and walked the streets as if he owned them – greeting old friends, helping people during hard times, pointing out the history of every lane and alley.
The evenings are what he and many other Iraqis miss most. People had little freedom, and, under the US-led sanctions of the '90s, hardly any money. But there was a rich social life – dinners that lasted until 2 in the morning, wedding receptions that went on until dawn.
Bassim has reinvented himself three times. From shipping in Basra, he went to Kuwait as a fund manager and was forced out after Saddam's disastrous 1990 invasion. He became a successful antiques dealer here, selling old watches, carpets, and paintings. And now, instead of the retirement he'd envisioned fixing antique clocks, he's a refugee in Jordan.
All that's left of his life in Iraq fits in a canvas suitcase on his bed. The night before he leaves Iraq again, he pulls painting after painting from the depths of the bag – each like an old friend.
"Look at this one," he says, pushing up his glasses to read notes on the corner of a sketch of the profile of a woman. " 'What is a woman but philosophy?' " he reads, losing himself in the works.
"I'm an encyclopedia of Iraqi history, but they drove me out, the bastards. They drove me out," bitterly notes Bassim, whose family photos show his grandfather, who opened one of Baghdad's first clinics, with a top hat and a sword.
Bassim was born into a social class that long ago ceased to exist; its values intensified his hopes for Iraq as deeply as they fed his disappointment.
Because he had a shop, he was allowed to deal with foreigners. He was more direct than most in letting those he trusted know that people feared rather than loved the regime. When Saddam fell, Bassim was ecstatic and grateful to the Americans.
The fall of the regime was liberating to journalists as well. For a few glorious months, with no one in charge, nowhere was off limits. We wandered palaces and government buildings. We took photos without the supervision we'd chafed under or the fear of being shot that came later.
We actually got to know friends with whom we'd had careful conversations for years. People talked and talked and talked. In the streets where Iraqis had been afraid to do anything but toe the party line, a single question would prompt groups to rant for hours. Listening to it, it felt like a welcome rain.
Bassim jumped enthusiastically into the fray. He got involved in trying to reopen the Baghdad stock exchange. And he ran for a seat on Iraq's governing council in 2005 on a ticket of secular technocrats headed by elder statesman Adnan Pachachi. But Iraqis were interested more in religious figures promising salvation, and no one on that list won.