`SIR, do you know what is happening outside?"
Even before I checked into my hotel, the receptionist was eager to hear a foreigner's view on whether Baghdad risked another cruise missile attack. International phone lines had not worked that day, and something seemed to be wrong.
But what? For the receptionist, as for most Iraqis, the world is simply a very long way away, seen through a glass darkly. "I don't see anything. I cannot see the world because I am isolated," complained one Iraqi woman demonstrating on July 13 outside the United Nations headquarters here against the recent United States missile strike.
Spurned by the international community, hemmed in by an economic blockade, Iraqi links with the rest of the planet are tenuous at best.
A radio broadcast here and there, captured through the static, a little foreign food or medicine that is exempt from the embargo, some smuggled goods from Turkey or Iraq - that is about as much as Iraqis see or hear. Except, of course, for the UN inspection teams that come here periodically to implement UN resolutions ordering the destruction of Iraq's war machine.
And, like last month or in January, Iraqis see violent manifestations of Western anger: American cruise missiles, launched to punish Iraq for an alleged assassination plot against former US President Bush or to enforce compliance with the UN's will.
All of Iraq's borders are closed, except with Jordan, which acts as a lifeline, and even if they were not, foreign travel is a luxury only a few can afford since the government began demanding a 15,000-dinar deposit from Iraqis leaving the country.
It would take the average government employee 30 months work to earn 15,000 dinars, although that sum is worth only $300 on the black market.
Such loneliness in a hostile world would be hard for any country to bear. But it is especially bitter for Iraq, a nation that had aspired to lead the Arab world into the 21st century. "This dream has been dashed," says Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a Palestinian novelist who has lived here for 45 years, and has taken Iraqi citizenship.
In Iraq's fertile basin, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Mr. Jabra points out, "writing started, irrigation started, government organization started. We were the beginning of everything that matters to man, and we feel we have something to offer the world. I see myself as part of the world, and I feel very angry when I am not allowed to be part of it."
In the days when Baghdad was the capital of the ancient Abbassid Empire, the ruling caliphs used to install a sort of weather vane on their palace roofs, in the shape of a horseman carrying a spear. The ornament was moved not by the wind, however, but by the political climate: The spear was pointed in the direction of the enemy's armies.
Today's metaphorical horseman, pounding noisily through the official press, could choose to aim his weapon at many enemies: Iran, Iraq's traditional foe; the Persian Gulf rulers, anxious to see Baghdad ruined; any of the countries that sent soldiers to fight in Desert Storm two years ago.
But for the government, the world as represented in the United Nations is reduced to one enemy: the United States, which Baghdad believes manipulates the world body with malice.
And as Iraqis worry about whether and when the next US missile attack against them will be launched, Jabra sums up their thoughts. "You have bound the country hand and foot," he says. "Just stop bashing us on the head."