Baghdad Burnout

Dispatches From Iraq

Baghdad Burnout

Dispatches From Iraq

Baghdad Burnout
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 17 2004 2:18 PM

Dispatches From Iraq

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After almost six straight months in Baghdad, I burned out and went to Dubai for a week's R & R. Baghdad's calendar is marked with explosions rather than dates, and time seethes: New Year's Eve was the Nabil Restaurant bombing, then a pause, then the Green Zone gate car bomb, the Ashura bombings, the Mount Lebanon Hotel blast, four burned Americans in Fallujah. People talk about "before the intifada" or ask: "Do you remember the time of Operation Iron Hammer? There seemed to be more random gunfire back then."

April was morning mortars, like a wake-up call. One day it was an improvised explosive device a couple of blocks away; I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Most of the time it is impossible to tell what has gone bang or where. You hear just a momentary percussion: an interior crunch, might be a car bomb; a thudding whoosh, an insurgent mortar being fired; vacuuming booms, ordnance being blown up in situ. If something blows up and there are no media cameras to record its aftermath, can it be said to have blown up at all?

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One night during the intifada, there was an electrical dust storm. The wind bellowed thickly and banged metal against roofs, vast hammering thunder; the sky flashed white with lightning, lit up like a flashbulb or one of the lantern flares the Americans use to illuminate fighting at night. For about five minutes I was genuinely unsure if it sounded like war or weather. Then the rain fell, and I thanked God that he could put on a more impressive show than the Marines.

I knew I was burned out because I had not been able to concentrate enough to read a book for more than six weeks, because I could no longer follow an interview through a reasonable arc of narrative, because I no longer cared about—well, whatever I was supposed to be interested in. People looked at my red-rimmed blanked-out eyes and said, "Five and a half months, no break? Jesus, Wends, that's insane."

I know, I told them, I am now insane, and I tried to laugh about it a little.

Baghdad International Airport is like a box. It is large and concrete and has those yellow signs with arrows that direct you to check-in areas and passport control and gates. The floor is carpeted in swaths of grass green, the seats in the departure lounge are green-plush upholstered, there are plenty of toilet facilities. The big wide space is deserted. Three or four flights a day through an airport the size of La Guardia, and the only place you can go is Amman, Jordan. Takeoff is an ascending spiral to 15,000 feet in about 90 seconds; the world turns below like the view out of the window of an orbiting shuttle, and the neatly parked rows of Apache helicopters turn into tiny insects.

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Two days later, I arrived at the five-star Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai, where they showed me a room with a marble bath on the 40th floor. I asked the rate. The previously pleasantly obsequious woman said $500 a night.

This was the beginning, and it got worse. I had imagined fluffy towels and a flop from chaise to pool, a gin and tonic with a slice of lime, and reading Hello magazine. But the ease was not easy, and it had to be paid for. I ratcheted up my credit and was tortured. The people at the Emirates Tower Hotel rang around and found me a $200 room at a place called the World Trade Centre Hotel. It had an executive lounge and was populated by middle management from global brand-name companies. It had a nasty swimming pool surrounded by a slightly threadbare green Astroturf. I was relegated, ripped off, and miserable, and no amount of lying on the beach and being washed over by jade foaming waves and reading Hello magazine (which cost $18) and laughing at all the scandals I'd missed could make up for this. But I guess somehow the dislocation shifted—at least I was somewhere other than the claustrophobia of Baghdad. The shut-in alienation of concrete blast blocks and checkpoints and roads that are too dangerous to drive down had given way to the half-remembered fact that there was a larger world out there.

I've seen photographs of Dubai from the late '50s, when it was a few miles of asphalt road and a single brick building. Dubai has spontaneously generated glass and steel from the desert, manufactured artifice like an Epcot Center for adults: malls and hotels and interior atrium plazas, marble of every color, and brand new Hyatts and Sheratons and Meridians. The restaurants are from all over the world, like the people (only 8 percent of Dubai residents are actually Dubai natives), and the sushi bar is next to the Italian place with the wood-burning pizza oven, which is next to the Chinese buffet and across from the Irish pub.

Outside all is highways and high-rises and construction cranes hovering above vast sand pits filled with bits of erector sets. The median strips between the highways are the most beautifully landscaped in the world, manicured lawns grown on imported soil, palm trees planted around fake lagoons spouting fountains, strips of roses , and other decorative devices. In the rush hour traffic jams, Gulf Arabs in pristine white dishdashas and red headdresses and mobile phones sit in Lexuses next to minivans full of imported brown laborers. Dubai is a place where you can buy anything in the world except a decent book. Hot and cold running amenities and a running tab of heart-stopping expense.

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I was lying by the pool at the Grand Hyatt when I overheard an American saying to his American friend, "Yeah, man, it was a thousand-dollar bill!"

"What y'all order?"

"Crab."

"Crab?"

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"Yeah, and Sparky said to the waiter, 'A thousand bucks for this silly little crab?' "

Sparky and Satan were F-18 pilots from the NightHawk Squadron, on shore liberty after two months on the USS George Washington. They were joined by Banker, D.B., Joker, Georgia, Eve, Chuckles, Tank, and others. Beers were drunk, and then a few more. We compared notes: Baghdad from 15,000 feet versus Baghdad from the ground.

I told them we could hear them overhead but that the noise was disproportionate—a roaring wall without direction. It was hard to see them up there, just sometimes if you looked up you could catch a tiny silver arrowhead against the blue sky. It seemed to reassure them to learn that they were almost invisible.

We went drinking that night and another night. I liked them a lot. They were straight-up guys—polite, interested, interesting, good company.

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We talked about Iraq a lot. I told them my stories, and they nodded grimly. After a couple of hours of me talking about bombs and death and everyone being scared and hopeless, Sparky asked me for a good-news story. I found myself stumped. I tried to tell him about the playground that had been built a couple of months ago on Haifa Street, but then I found myself saying: It was the cheapest bashed-tin slide and some bright blue painted concrete, and within a week someone had stolen all the outside lighting. I talked to one boy playing football there, and he broke my heart, scratching his bare foot in the dirt and the broken glass and the trash, saying, "Yes, it is very beautiful."

Sparky laughed and said he was trying not to seem too much like a right-wing kind of guy in front of me, and I said I appreciated that, because I was trying to tone down my bleeding liberal outrage.

We agreed though, that Iraq was messy and complicated, and I said I didn't think anything different would happen on June 30, and Sparky sighed. If there was no handover, it meant probably they weren't going home for a while.

The flyboys were sympathetic. They said they took great pains to avoid casualties in built-up areas. They were shocked and downhearted at the prisoner abuse scandal. "It's a shame because you just know there are real heroes down there doing the best job they can." They were proud to support them. They wanted to make things better for America, to help in the war on terror. They understood the Iraqis hate them, that things were a hell of a lot more complicated now than they were a year ago and are likely to get worse. And then we ordered another bucket of Coronas.

The longer I was in Dubai, the more I missed Baghdad. I realized that I have been here long enough that I have begun to live here, as awkward a living as it is. Flying home, the desert beneath looked like a rose-colored Star Wars Tatouin billowing up a sand storm, Baghdad covered in dust and looking baked even at altitude. The spiral descent pushed G-force into the back of my gut. The plane banked 45 degrees, and the view through the cockpit window spun like a merry-go-round. The ground rushed closer and the plane juddered and I opened my eyes to the dust and the decapitated palm trees and the hot broken-down war fear everywhere. I looked out of the window, and further up I saw a fighter jet hovering starboard, and I wished just for a moment that every American could see what I saw. Because the Earth looks very different when you are standing on it, scarred and full of rubble and anger, than when you are far above it or far away on another continent.