Cotton Candy And 'The Matrix' Amid The Rubble
I've decided that one of the really fantastic things about human beings — well, some human beings anyway — is the imagination and creativity that goes into their efforts for survival. Cockroaches might be the most tenacious of God's creatures, but I personally would award mankind the silver for its sheer adaptability in the face of bad circumstance. Not that war is a circumstance like, say, an earthquake or a tornado. But it's a natural disaster, even if that disaster is human nature.
And that applies to the adaptability of the human psyche as well. It's one thing to be in a safe place and let your imagination run wild — a la America, where I personally got panicky more than a few times over talk of dirty bombs and terrorist boogeymen. It's entirely another to casually laugh off the most recent round of local gunfire or bombing before ordering your next coffee and going about your business. Terrorism in the U.S. is very much a threat that festers to varying degrees based on our own imaginative creativity (see Colin Powell's speech before the United Nations, March 2002). But it is not the same as the very real threat that someone could walk up to you on the street, shoot you in the face, and get away with it because there is a total absence of law. And I make that point because our fear of terrorism — based on what are considered by many to be tenuous intelligence reports — was the justification for invading and upending another country, our temporary 51st state. Now they must deal with the very real terror of lawlessness and pervasive violence — not just by insurgents, but by criminals run wild. The philosophy that it is better to fight terrorism abroad before it lands on our shores is little comfort to many Baghdadis my age, who are having the living daylights terrorized out of them. I'll step off the student council soapbox for a second, but I tossed out my little sermon for a reason, namely that I wanted to talk about adaptability in the face of duress. Call me un-American, but I think Baghdadis, who have lived through three wars in the last 20 years, are better at adapting to threats than we are.
Today we visited a Shiite family that is living 19 to a room in the rubble of a former Mukhabarat office on the banks of the Tigris. Those offices were leveled by the precision bombing of the U.S. They have, like the umpteen hundred other Baghdadis, formed their own temporary political party and are now fishing in the river for food and rigging up their own generators for power (more reliable than the Baghdad grid). The whole scene of a family living in rubble had a vaguely "Mad Max" feel to it, but it is in many ways the norm for what used to be the lower classes in Baghdad. Prior to the war, apartment rentals for lower-class families could be subsidized by a paycheck — Saddam's Iraq was a brutal dictatorship but it was also a socialist country, so some kind of paycheck was virtually guaranteed. But once the war started, demand popped for available housing when looting and "collateral damage" forced some out of their places. Since the economy has ground to a standstill here — with the reigns relatively tightly controlled by the Coalition Provisional Authority — the renters have been without a paycheck for months. So the squatter class has appeared in Baghdad en masse. In horse tracks, chicken farms, school dorms and bombed-out buildings, families continue on as refugees in their hometown. Funny thing too about those Shiites on the Tigris river banks: They love the Americans because the U.S. soldiers keep the Minister of the Interior off their backs. Chalk up 19 more hearts and minds. What would you do if your hometown were wrecked, you rented an apartment and your paycheck was kept on hold for seven months? How would you survive?
We visited an amusement park that was opened especially for Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. Just so Baghdad doesn't seem all doom and gloom, it was one of the most wonderful thing to see kids playing, riding rides and eating cotton candy. Admittedly, there are armed guards and razor wire all over the amusement park, but still. Life goes on, joy is possible and holidays can be happy, even at wartime.
We met a young entrepreneur, Hayder, a 17-year-old DVD pirate whose business would be just another bootlegging outfit on your local street corner in the States. But a little creativity and imagination has turned him into a booming salesman. He dubs CD-Rs of the latest titles and sells them to an eager public on Karada Street, Baghdad's big market area. In a country where people are scared to leave their homes at night and spend a lot of time in front of the tube, he is always in demand, taking special orders when necessary. I find his assessment that the final two "Matrix" movies were better than the first to be a bit worrisome, but war does funny things to people and sometimes stuff gets lost in translation.
Tomorrow, we're off to Al-Muajaha to meet the staff of Iraq's first alternative paper, started by a 17-year-old and his friends. I'm off get some sleep.
Read Day 2: Baghdadis Still Have Hope
Read Day 3: What Those Plumes Of Fire Actually Did To Baghdad
Read Day 4: Cotton Candy And 'The Matrix' Amid The Rubble
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