Blogs > Cliopatria > The Politics of Mobility in Baghdad

Oct 22, 2004 9:46 am

The Politics of Mobility in Baghdad

Upon my return from Baghdad, I found a note from Ralph Luker and a query as to whether things were any better in the country. He ended up by saying: “It's awfully hard here to get a decent picture of what's going on in Iraq. Some sources report only positive things; some sources report only negative things”. I think the way to answer this question is to look at the context of daily life in Baghdad, and to arrive at conclusions warranted by the evidence, and any evidence is better than none.

On my recent trip to Baghdad, I was confronted with a number of paradoxes. On one level, I daily heard bomb explosions at night, and people often began the day asking each other where the latest violence had occurred. On another level, there was an air of low-key normality that affected everyone I talked to, whether they were janitors, Directors of Museums or shopkeepers. If you didn’t bring up the question of the violent attacks inflicted on parts of Iraq both by the Coalition and the insurgents, you’d rarely hear it mentioned by people on the street or in offices. I think this is a result of two reasons. First, many of my meetings were with professional educators, librarians and Museum directors; I asked specific questions and received specific replies (except where a highly garrulous administrator would wend and weave about the inadequacies of the higher education sector in Iraq). Second, and quite unlike my first trip to Baghdad immediately after the war in June 2003 when strangers were accosting our delegation with their ideas on the past, present and future of Iraq, most people did not confide in strangers as easily, even if they were Iraqis who lived outside of the country. From my family members, I heard horrific stories of near misses on Ministry buses taking employees to work, kidnappings of university deans and the stratospheric increase in corruption on all levels. But on the formal level of Ministries and Research departments, the conversation was all about funding the future, and whether the world community really cared enough to invest in Iraq the billions promised last winter at the Donor’s conference.

Compounded to this sense of unreality was the geographic scale of Baghdad, and the vast problems affecting the transport of state bureaucrats and employees to their daily work. Baghdad is a very large city, and its transport infrastructure is at death’s door. Although many of the traffic lights were working this time, and policemen were everywhere directing traffic, the amount of cars imported over the past year only added to the decrepit vehicles still chugging along the roads and belching black smoke; predictably, they caused massive traffic jams. Being confined to a car on a heavily packed road in the city is not conducive to the usual daydreaming; in Baghdad, where suicide bombers have been known to plow into National Guards’ headquarters on crowded streets, this can be an enervating experience. But my Baghdad-based friends claim that cabs are the most reliable form of transport in Baghdad because, while your misfortune may have you passing by when an explosion has ripped through a police post, suicide bombers would not target a cab deliberately. This is the logic of Baghdad natives who have lived, and are still living, through very violent times, and I am forced to respect it.

So, too, is the emphasis on not leaving the house till after nine o’clock in the morning, or returning before five. Baghdadi residents have timed the explosions; they usually occur at seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and a further reprise may take place at six or seven o’clock in the evening. Even though nothing can be taken for granted, its better to be at home during those hours. In fact, I am told that precisely because of the heavy traffic jams and the timing of explosions, few administrators are lecturing their employees about punctuality.

Finally, it must be recalled that, throughout the past five months, two large city quarters have been pounded almost daily by American guns. Sadr city (consistently referred to by Iraq’s interim government as Revolution city or madinat al-thawra, its older name) is a huge slum that borders some very important real estate (the UN headquarters that was leveled last August 29 was situated close by). Haifa street, meanwhile, has been under attack almost daily by American troops; it too neighbors high-value districts, the Iraqi Museum neighborhood being only one of them. Through it all, Baghdadi residents are grimly going to work, shopping for food, visiting relatives in hospitals and sending their children to school. If you can imagine Brooklyn up in flames while the rest of New York daily goes about its business, you will understand the scale of the daily horror that is being visited on Baghdad.

Although those are my quick impressions of a city in perpetual turmoil, they are but that, impressions. I am lucky not to have seen the violence up close. But for all those Iraqis that were less fortunate than I, whose lives have been wrecked by misdirected bombings, hidden mines, nighttime raids and vindictive revenge killings, I have nothing but the utmost admiration. They are carrying on with a courage that is all that much finer and nobler because their travails are a daily occurrence, and not a rare foray into a danger zone.

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More Comments:

Hala Fattah - 10/23/2004

Dear Ralph,
Its nice of you to have invited me! Thanks, as always, for your great support,

Ralph E. Luker - 10/22/2004

This post is a gem. It is wonderful having your reports at Cliopatria.

Hala Fattah - 10/22/2004

Hi Jonathan,
Thanks a lot for your comment. I'll tell you right away what the Iraqis are asking for: their fair share of the money promised last winter at the Donor's conference. Ostensibly because of security concerns, only a small percentage of that has been disbursed. University officials as well as people at the Iraqi Ministery of Higher Education are appalled by the lack of response to Iraqi academia's plight. I shall write about this more later, but I would think one of the concrete ways US academics can help is by endowing scholarships specifically for Iraqis. Of course,this idea may hit a snag because the Department of Homeland Affairs will delay the visa but its worth a try. Maybe the right kind of pressure can send gifted Iraqis to the US for advanced study.
Thanks again,

Jonathan Dresner - 10/22/2004

Welcome back, and welcome to Cliopatria!

It's so rare to read anything like this: informed, properly qualified, concrete and vivid.

I am constantly amazed at the ability of communities to continue and even to plan under conditions like this.

I hope you'll expand on these impressions, and tell us more about the substance of your discussions on education. I am intensely curious about one thing, but you don't have to answer it immediately: do you believe there is something, or somethings, that American academics can do to substantively make things better for Iraqi educators and students that is distinctive from what we must do as citizens?

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