Rising to stretch my legs, I surveyed my fellow travelers, who had just endured a 3 a.m. flight to Baghdad. Among the Iraqis, there was a preponderance of plastic and/or leopard-print overnight bags. The men had big mustaches and weary eyes. The women were generally in their 30s, wearing colored headscarves, some of them no doubt coming back to Iraq for the first time in years. The plane smelled of sweat and perfume.
I felt weak in the knees. An Iraqi girl sized me up with a hardened glare. What did you expect? her eyes seemed to inquire, and I let my head fall.
In the beginning, Iraq had seemed like the center of the universe. On a bitterly cold New York day in 2003, I had marched with several hundred thousand others, as much out of a conviction that the war was wrong as that it was inevitable and deserved respect. Things got heavy fast. In the first weeks of battle, an old boss of mine lost his life when a Humvee flipped. Reeling from all the mixed signals, I found myself editing what felt like Very Important Pieces about the 1,000th death of a U.S. soldier, then the 2,000th. What the hell was going on over there? Over the years, good friends went in and out as correspondents; a few even served as soldiers. But with time, the conversation veered to other wars.
By 2006 and 2007, I admit I had stopped reading: So many dead dumped in ditches, countless American fuckups, too many tragedies to fathom. In the ensuing years, the endless grinding of Iraqi parliamentary democracy—failed coalitions, muddy alliances—faded into the hum of a world gone wrong. Much of what had happened was our fault, but what could be done? The once-inescapable Iraq—subject of so many urgent conversations—had at last, again, become a ghost.
Then my wife accepted a job in Baghdad, and it became inevitable—like it or not—that Iraq would come roaring back to life.
It was just after dawn when we hit the tarmac. Behind a battered desk stood an Iraqi official, armed with a gleaming .45-caliber pistol. My wife had e-mailed me a photo of the "airport fixer," Muthana, who was supposed to meet me. In the photo, his enchanting twin girls sat on either of his knees. In the throbbing early morning heat and dust, among the guns and the uniforms, I stared at the image on my phone—knowing Muthana had left these children to help me—and I nearly retched.
When I finally saw him, Muthana was beaming like a proud father. He pushed through the scrum and disappeared into the Iraqi official's office. Emerging minutes later, he had sweat on his brow and a tight smile as he worked over with the Iraqi official.
"You have badge?" the man said.
"Uh, no," I said, mystified. "Did I need a badge?"
I assumed he was looking for some kind of press pass. Shaking, I took out my wallet and browsed stupidly. I found a gift card from Dunkin' Donuts, a wad of Turkish lira, a canceled credit card, my Florida driver's license.
Pawing uselessly at the stack of plastic, I saw Muthana wilt. The official with the .45 stepped forward to grab my wrist and look into my eyes.
"No badge?" the official said, motioning at my wallet. "Look again."
I pawed again through the cards and bills. The official leaned into me with some feeling.
"You sure you don't have anything?"
Breath held, knees weak, I felt the desert heat mounting, the smoke from a dozen cigarettes swirling around my head, the lack of sleep taking effect.
"Here," I said, ecstatic, holding my passport open to an old visa. "Saudi Arabia. Journalist. In Arabic. No problem!"
The slimmest of pretexts met, the official patted my wrist, opened his mustached lips in a split of teeth, and with another tenuous agreement between visitor and visited, I was in.
On the other side of passport control, my wife held me. "Don't worry, we're safe now," she said. I grabbed her hand, wondering.
In the armored truck, with half-inch glass windows and iron paneling, the ride into town was an endless series of checkpoints. Beside great towers of poured-concrete blast walls, heavily armed Iraqis regarded us sourly and used a sort of divining rod to see whether our car had explosives. If shooters approached the truck and opened fire, I was told, we would have an hour before bullets breached the armor.
Everything was covered in a thin layer of brown. A mural thrown up along a great blast wall surrounding Camp Victory—the sprawling U.S. military base—was a painting submerged in mud. Buildings were shrouded in a soiled coat. Shrubbery and stunted trees sagged with dust. Even the Tigris flowed like a warm chocolate milkshake.
We shared the streets with Iraqi Humvees and armored personnel carriers that looked shabby next to the American war machines, which drove fast and sported powerful gun turrets that, with their quick, rotating movement, appeared to be insects from some violent brown planet.
My wife's U.S. military badge, which had taken her months to get, granted us access to the International Zone, the vast walled campus once known as the Green Zone that is now home to the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government institutions such as parliament. It was our best path, bypassing the grueling traffic that snarls the city most days.
But anyone entering the IZ is a suspect. At one stop, a big German shepherd lunged at the truck, tugging at his chain, and I imagined I could smell the dog's meaty breath. Given how narrowly I'd slipped into the country, it wasn't a surprise to be challenged by an animal.
At last, we arrived. My wife shares a two-story villa with several other foreigners working in Iraq, rented from an exile who lives in Jordan. It's on a walled-in street, and it felt like our own tiny IZ, with a garden of grass and flowers in full bloom. In the vast kitchen—two ovens! two sinks!—we made coffee.
Sipping at hot cups, my wife's Iraqi colleagues asked me how I liked Baghdad.
"But I've only been here a few hours," I said.
"That's why we're asking you now," a man named Ghassan said.
Up on the roof, we heard twin explosions. My wife told me that if it was a car bomb, we'd see a big column of black smoke. These dull booms, she said, were probably a round of mortars being fired at the IZ.
I stared at the brown sky. Helicopters roared, and she said the men in the machines were probably looking for attackers.
Lunch at the house was a communal affair, with everyone heaping plates with chicken and rice. We fought over sweet honey and nut pastries. I could still hear the helicopters.
To say that I felt bad, or guilty—eating delicious things, safe behind the wall, free to see it all and make some fresh judgment—was to be partially right. I was also excited and honored, blown away to see it all up close, hoping the darker forces of death and destruction would keep their distance and that my own enthusiasm to learn more, to believe that maybe things—with my wife, with Iraq, with America—might actually be all right, that my trip wasn't another miscalculation, that I wasn't another person searching for an answer to a question that shouldn't have ever been asked in the first place.
Blood pounding, I ate a freshly plucked date still warm from the sun.
Violence was inescapable in Iraq, even on a routine chore to the bank. The modest office of the Bank of Baghdad was located in the Al-Hamra Hotel, which was home to many foreign journalists before a deadly car bombing in January 2010.
That blast, which left mangled bodies, destroyed buildings, and a crater reported to be a dozen feet wide and 6 feet deep, was one of three coordinated car bombs targeting hotels that day. Nearly 40 Iraqis died, and scores more were wounded.
Nine months later, according to my wife's security policy, we traveled to the bank in the armored truck, which was followed by a "soft car"—in this case a late-model Peugeot sedan. Crawling through the dust-covered neighborhood around the Hamra, we nosed slowly around deep ruts in the road and then sped past idling cars containing unknown men. Even on an errand, I found my fear mounting: a ringing in my ears, the taste of copper in the back of my throat, the way I clutched my pen too tightly.
Past a rather lazy checkpoint—the area's residents and businesses insufficiently ruffled or maybe too busy to improve security even after that deadly blast—we parked in the street and climbed the stairs to the hotel's dusty lobby.
Red-eyed men welcomed us laconically, and we plunged deeper into the gloom, exiting a glass door to the pool, which stood empty and caked in brown. It was both hard and too easy to picture all the journalists hanging out around the now emptied basin, splayed in lounge chairs, so many pink and authoritative.
Where the bank stood in the bottom of the hotel's second tower, the rooms were partially ruined by the bombing, and workers had simply bricked-in the parts of the building that the blast carved away. Roofing tiles hung askew and lights flickered. In the bank office, a gloomy money cave, three unsmiling women in tight head scarves rose from cluttered desks.
With everyone else occupied, I stole away to explore. Behind the long-abandoned check-in desk was a yellowed newspaper entombed in ash. Mail was still waiting in a few slots behind the desk. A stack of brittle paperback novels gathered dust.
Around the corner, a single bare bulb lit the partially ruined women's restroom, where pipes dangled from the ceiling. I wasn't sure there was running water, but I spotted a bar of soap and a tube of toothpaste. When I opened the door to the men's restroom, meanwhile, all I saw was a dark pile of rubble that rose as high as my shoulders.
Nearby, I found an office lit by a flickering fluorescent bulb. A heavy layer of grime sat atop everything in sight, and the scene was a working man's life, frozen in time. A coffee cup stood on the desk, beside a pair of Iraqi flags mounted on a wooden dais.
I had no real sense of how much of Iraq was as physically devastated and frozen in time as the Hamra. Standing in the dust and heat, I guessed even the country's unbombed buildings were stifling.
The next morning, at 6:30, we awoke to the concussive boom of a nearby attack. Groggily, I turned to my wife, whose eyes were shut tight.
In a city on edge, car bombs were generally planted by Sunni extremists and al-Qaida-affiliated groups, while airborne strikes from mortars and rockets typically originated in the Shiite enclave east of Baghdad. This morning's attack, we soon learned, had been three rockets launched from a Sunni stronghold north of Baghdad.
We drank coffee and heard that one rocket had reportedly hit the nearby IZ, injuring two of the prime minister's guards. Another landed in the Tigris, and a third struck a building less than a mile from our bed, killing two civilians. That last blast was the one that had woken us up.
That night, with bombs on my mind, my wife and I headed for the river. Our hulking, proud driver, Ahmed, gunned the engine around a long line of cars.
"We are VIP," he explained in Arabic to a lot attendant, and we ground gears in the heavy truck along a road that ran high above the swirling waters of the Tigris.
Growing nervous at the prospect of a dinner among Iraqis—how many Americans had ever imagined eating dinner in Baghdad?—I thought how monstrous it had been for Ahmed to call my wife and me the important ones.
Passing several packed restaurants, we at last pulled to a stop. The road continued into darkness, but Ahmed said this furthest fish place was the best. Divided between a men-only section and family section, there were sparsely grassed lawns with dozens of picnic tables on either side of a kitchen and a roaring open fire. Ahmed stayed with the truck—company policy after a vehicle left unattended had been blown apart by a bomb placed underneath the car in 2008.
The air was wet next to the river, and a spray of mosquitoes dined on our ankles. Families around us smoked shisha and picked at colorful salads. People laughed and talked animatedly. Some women wore tight clothing, others were head-to-toe in black.
It seemed crazy for us to be here, but just as crazy to cower in fear. After all, the Iraqis hadn't given up. My wife and I held hands under the table.
The meal arrived. Once caught in the polluted Tigris, the type of river carp we ate for dinner was now farm-raised. After a generous bath of lime and salt, the fish had been set on its side an arm's length from the fire. It took as much as an hour, but the slow roasting produced a crispy skin atop steaming, succulent meat.
As we ate, a mortar landed about a mile away. Surprised by the deep boom, I nearly fell out of my chair in fright. An old Iraqi couple—amused by my reaction—allowed themselves thin smiles. My wife laughed nervously, and we struggled for conversation.
With the meal concluded and with the bill yet to be paid, I told Kelly I'd go fetch Ahmed, who had the cash. Summiting the hill, I saw him as a dark figure, the red bead of a cigarette dancing as he gesticulated into his phone. He shook my hand, accepting my offer to watch the truck while he paid the bill.
But almost immediately, my plan felt foolish. I paced the dark gravel.
Then I heard shots. An Iraqi army patrol below us hit the lights on their Humvee. A pack of men was headed from the gloom toward me. In my heightened state, I searched for Ahmed and Kelly—where were they?—and didn't notice a man who split from the pack and was suddenly poking me in the chest, slurring in angry Arabic.
I met his wild eyes and smelled liquor on his breath. He sputtered in frustration. I wasn't sure what to do. His crew stood there, ogling. If I tried to speak Arabic, they'd know I was a foreigner. If I stayed mum, he might hit me. Then Ahmed and my wife crunched up on the gravel, and my challenger scrambled away.
In the truck, we locked all the doors and Ahmed assured me I had been in no danger. He cranked the truck to life and said the man was sakran, Arabic for drunk. (In the same way Baghdad was gun-happy and militarized, parts of the city were also awash in liquor. The river, Ahmed said, was one of the few places men could drink and fire their weapons.)
At home, safely behind walls, my wife and I called friends on the computer. None of the day's events felt as if they had actually happened, and I wasn't ready for any of it—the smell of cooking fish, the sound of gunfire, the dull fright and shame I felt next to the truck—to become more than parts of some good story. I talked into the computer and said words meant to convey feeling and fact. We slept deeply.
The hardest part of my visit, I suppose, was knowing that no matter what I saw, I'd be leaving my wife behind.
My last full day, we visited the site of a massive car-bomb attack, which had nearly obliterated half a city block when it detonated several months earlier. The target was the local office of a Dubai-based, Saudi-funded TV station whose reporting some perceived as insufficiently anti-American. En route to the scene, my wife looked out the window and said the homemade bomb had killed four.
The carnage seemed to defy conversation. The sun beat down; this was the most daylight I had seen outside the car or company compound since I arrived. My wife walked off to speak to a clutch of grim-faced army officials. Spending some of my final hours on a grave, I scoured the grounds for a clue.
The crater was filled with chipped rock and asphalt. A palm tree was scorched from the ball of flame. I found half a belt, a pair of sunglasses broken in two, and a scarred sandal. The street was a devil's playpen of torn, blasted cars, every surface a burnt and battered witness to all that could go wrong in the world.
Standing there in the bright, I knew I'd encountered a place that, as an American, I had a tremendous burden to care deeply about, but one that—no matter how much emotion I brought, no matter how hard I tried—would resist any efforts to package or describe, could just as easily slip again into a forgotten background, was mostly a place that wanted me gone.
Kicking at the rubble, I felt sweat pour down my neck and yearned to be far away.
For my wife's sake, I took a deep breath. She was standing in the shell of the collapsed building, arguing with one of the soldiers. I watched her fingers squeeze into a white fist, saw her smile in frustration.
For the time she'd live and work here, I had no choice but to trust that she would find her own balance, that she'd figure out how to care, giving herself over as much as she could to the project of this caring, without leading herself or others into harm.
I slipped a shard of twisted metal into my pocket and closed my eyes. More than seven years later, each of us, as ever, is still finding our own reasons to care—or not—about a country in the Middle East named Iraq.