As we descend into Baghdad, the stewardess of the Iraqi airways flight reminds us to turn off all electronic devices and return our seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked positions.
As we descend, the desert that stretches almost unbroken from Damascus to Baghdad gives way to small plots of farmland. Our plane takes a dip to the right and the sun glistens off a small river snaking through the brown earth. A fighter jet coasts between our passenger plane and the expanse of cement houses that grows beneath us.
I wonder about the other passengers. I came by plane because I didn’t want to be a lone American riding across a hostile country. Why were they flying? Two days ago, I went to the station where Iraqis board buses to Baghdad and they told me they were going back because they had to find money to live and they had nowhere else to go. Are these some of the high-class refugees who left because of death threats, but go back regularly to check on their estates? Maybe they are some of the 14,400-odd candidates running in the upcoming provincial elections, returning from a breather in calm Damascus.
I look to the Iranian man behind me, sitting tall with a broad smile on his closely shaven face. At the ticket counter in the Damascus airport, I saw him step into the front of the line with authority, a stack of passports in his hand. “We’re friends of Sistani,” he told the man behind the desk, referring to the most powerful Shiite Ayatollah in Iraq. The agent looked up, staring him straight in the eyes. “Save that talk for over there,” he said. “Here everything is official.” The Iranian went to the end of the line.
We land and head into Baghdad in my fixer’s car. As we enter the city, I am struck by the combination of normalcy and clear signs of war. We drive past blast walls painted in pink, blue, yellow, and red, set up in an attempt to cut down on the sectarian violence that raged in 2006 and 2007. Campaign posters for this weekend’s elections cover shop windows, light poles, and construction sights. In Karada, a mixed but mostly Shiite neighborhood that once saw regular car bombings, people shuffle in and out of shops covered in depictions of Hussein, the revered martyr of Shia Islam. Fruit and vegetable markets line the street. Iraqi soldiers look down from empty buildings with sand bagged windows. “On new years eve, people were out in this neighborhood until two in the morning,” says my fixer, who I’ll call Karim to protect his identity. “That was the first time that’s happened since Saddam fell.”
“Baghdad isn’t like it used to be. It used to be hell, but now things are ok,” he tells me, snapping his seatbelt into place to avoid the $10 fine regularly doled out by traffic police. American brown armored vehicles topped with gunners who can turn 360 degrees, rumble ahead of us. Karim complains about how much traffic they cause. “Security is a lot better, but there are still a lot of people that want to kill Americans,” he says. He tells me that from now on, I am a German citizen of Lebanese origin, and my name is Shamil, not Shane. “You’re Arabic sounds Lebanese and you look it.” Thank God for black hair die, styling gel, and leather shoes.
On the way to buy a SIM card for my phone, we pass the home of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the most popular Shia party in the country. It is surrounded with cement walls, sand bags, barbed wire, and American issued Iraqi army Hummers. The palm trees inside the compound are thick. Across the road, a billboard reads, “For a green spring,” over an image of a white girl blowing a dandelion—a vague sign of hope. Down the road, another reads “Freedom is a responsibility, treat it wisely.”
Karim parks the car on a small road lined with cell phone shops, kebab stands, and tea vendors. “You can come out with me, but don’t say a word,” he says. As we walk around, I search people’s eyes to see whether they are fixating on me. No one does.
Karim invites me to his home for dinner. When I enter, I am struck by a portrait on the wall, framed in fake flowers and twinkling Christmas lights. “My brother was martyred in 2007” he said. “He was killed in his sleep, shot by a stray bullet when a firefight broke out in our neighborhood between the Mehdi Army and the Badr Brigades. I was lying next to him and so was my mother, father, and children. He died in my arms.”
We pick through a spread of hummus, salads, chicken, and fresh baked diamond-shaped bread. They tell me all about his brother—the way he religiously listened to the Lebanese singer Feiruz in the mornings—and debate whether or not to vote in the upcoming elections. As we wind down, sipping tea, someone shouts outside. I tense up. The mother gets up to go out. “Don’t go outside,” Karim tells her. She doesn’t listen. He goes back to his tea.
A few minutes later, the sound of car sirens ring out nearby. It’s the Minister of the Interior’s envoy returning him to his nearby house for the night.
We go out to leave and Karim’s mom notices I’m tense. “It’s ok,” she says. “No one will bother you here.” As they say goodbye to each other, I train my eyes on two young men sitting next to the house with their backs toward me. Could they be waiting for me? They look over and wave. “Ahlan wa Sahlan,” welcome, they say, smiling. I exhale. It’s my first day in Baghdad.