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The Muckraker

Shane Bauer's Blog

Friday afternoon at the Shandabar

BAGHDAD—Hisham Mustafa lives for Habermas. In a corner of the Shandabar café, he is taken away by his love for the German philosopher. "I cannot say that I study him. Study is such a big word," the literary critic says modestly, looking at me with gentle eyes through coke bottle glasses. "I simply try to understand him and apply his criticisms to Arabic literature." He pauses to take a long puff on his water pipe, then waxes on: "You know? Things are always changing. Language is alive. Religion gives us a view of the past. Nothing is static. Nothing is absolute. This is what I have taken from Habermas."

It's Friday, the Muslim day of rest and the day of gathering at the Shandabar café. During my visit, the only beverage being served is lemon tea, a distinctly Iraqi drink. Plumes of sweet nargilla smoke twirl into the air and pairs of elderly men are enraptured in animated conversations. The yellow brick walls are covered in ancient black and white portraits of old Iraqi sheikhs and prints of colorful landscapes. The café's patrons take pride in the fact that backgammon and cards aren't allowed. This isn't a place for idlers. It's a place of culture.

Outside, people pick through stacks of books on Mutanabi Street. Great works of Arabic literature stand next to collections of Picasso, military books from Saddam, and tattered copies of Stephen King novels and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down. At one end of the pedestrian avenue, an Iraqi hummer guards the entrance. At the other end, people sit on benches along the east bank of the Tigris. Here, the oldest part of Baghdad is just a replica of what it used to be. Blown to rubble throughout the war, it was recently rebuilt in its image. Today it's bustling.

The fact that we had to wait to find a seat in the Shandabar café is symbolic of the fact that Iraq's intellectual scene is slowly coming back to life. The doors of the 92-year-old café—originally Baghdad's first steam-powered printing press—reopened a month and a half ago. It was rebuilt a year and a half after being devastated by a suicide bomber in a bomb-laden truck. Thirty people were killed. Portraits of its old managers hang on the wall under a sign that reads "café of martyrs."

Hisham says Iraq is undergoing a new, slow renascence, coming to life after intense restriction on intellectual freedom by Saddam and violent repercussions by militias after the American invasion. He calls the new government a tribal one, where politicians answer to their kin and religious sects before anyone else. Several of his friends are bedridden, but he is clearly excited with the fact that he and his colleagues to sit together in one place. They even publish a philosophical newspaper. Before I get up to go, he asks if I would like to attend one of their twice-weekly discussions next week. They will be discussing Hegel.

Walking the streets of Falluja

The sparsely trafficked six-lane highway from Baghdad to Falluja is a welcome change to the clogged streets of Baghdad, where it can takes hours to cross the city. For most of the one-hour trip, I am lulled by the open road, staring out into the plastic bag littered desert and the flat horizon occasionally broken by villages of cement. Occasionally, we pass by stacks of crates, lined up four of five in a row, that are piled with oranges, bananas, and bottled water. Boys of about 10 years of age stand on the road and wave cars to pull over and buy their produce.

Outside Falluja, we stop at a gas station to wait for out escorts, the so-called Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, the American allied militia-turned-police force that now runs the city. The weather is hot. As we sit in the car, I see a man approaching, his figure initially obscured by the orange, dusty air. His face is wrapped in a red checkered kafiyya and he's dressed all in black. My heart pounds and I brace myself as he nears our vehicle, looking in our direction. As he passes the front of the car, he turns and waves, continuing up to the highway to flag a ride toward Baghdad.

We drive with our escorts through the countryside. Crumpled up car frames, the remains of exploded vehicles, lie amid the tall brown reeds that line the river. Families pick barley and wheat in the fields. Sparse cows nibble on grass. The dusk buzzes with the sound of generators.

In the city, my colleague and I get out of the car. Next to me, people ride bikes across the bridge where American security contractors for the company Blackwater were burned and hung in 2004. A building across from it is crumbling over itself, bombed during the American siege of the city in 2006. We approach a group of people standing on the corner, our armed escorts standing guard across the street. We introduce ourselves as journalists, and someone steps forward from the crowd, "Journalists? Why haven't you come until now? Why weren't you here two years ago?" Our Sahwa escort steps forward, pulls him out of the crowd, and hands him to the nearest police officer, who puts him in a car. "I don't like that kind of talk," he tells me later. It is clear who controls Falluja now.

Another man steps forward. "This is the city of martyrs, the city of the dead, the city of men that were patient and confronted what was put upon them." He shakes his finger in the air as he bellows. "This city was pounded a number of times because its people resisted the occupation. This building in front of you was bombed by the enemy. The Americans need to leave in a hurry. This is not their land, nor their country."

Down the road, two carpenters walk us through the upper floor of their building, a hole in the ceiling and pulverized blocks of concrete on the floor. "About three quarters of the city was destroyed. Hardly anything here has been rebuilt. There is just an unfinished hospital. We get electricity for two hours during the day."

His friend adds as we walk through the rubble: "The Americans are going to be gone and we are going to be left with problems. Everyone is putting money in their own pockets. The Sahwa, the contractors, the politicians. The only things that have been built in Falluja are a bridge and a hospital, and neither are finished."

We go downtown, to talk to shopkeepers. Each person, one after the other, refuses to speak to us on the street. Our escort buys us a soda, and we leave the streets before sunset.

A day in the Green Zone

I walk down the street outside the Green Zone. Kebabs sizzle on grills and suited Iraqis move around the National Police, who tell everyone exactly where they are allowed to walk.

As I enter the Green Zone, through the gap in the cement blast walls, I pop out my cell phone battery, a strongly enforced precaution against cellular activated bombs. At the entrance, I stand on a small wooden pedestal where I am patted for weapons. From there, I walk down a rocky path, walled on each side with cement, the other with a chain link fence and barbed wire. All I can see is the sky and a couple of lampposts. Then another checkpoint. An American soldier stares at a screen while I pass my bag through an x-ray machine.

This isn’t the route I’m used to. Usually, I don’t see American soldiers here, just Peruvian and Senegalese Triple Canopy contractors who pat me down, search me, send me through metal detectors and instruct me where to put my hands in the full body x-ray machines. This time, I end up on a road thick with American military vehicles. A sign tells me that deadly force is authorized. I’m lost in the Green Zone.

I stroll down a road, passing the suspicious and searching eyes of Iraqi soldiers. In one direction, apartment buildings cover the block. In another, I see the famous pairs of crossed swords standing over the road, next to an empty football stadium. A convoy of grey SUVs with tinted windows blast by, breaking up the light traffic. One blares a siren. Its white passengers in green berets scan the surrounds attentively.

I’ve found my bearings. After passing through a checkpoint where parked cars are being checked by German shepards, I walk past the parliament building. Across the street, small jets stand in a parking lot. An American drives a busload of suited Iraqi men past. A parked SUV plays loud music lamenting the death of Hussein over heavy, steady beats.

I find the Rasheed hotel. I enter the search room with the contents of my pocket in one hand, my passport, and press ID in the other. “American!” the Peruvian security contractor shouts. “Don’t search.” The metal detector beeps as I pass. The Iraqi guards step aside.

I proceed through another checkpoint, where I’m signaled to a small wooden building. There, I’m told to put my bag on the floor along with ten others. A heavy white man twirls a role of tape in his hand, staring ahead blankly, waiting for us to leave so he can bring out the search dog. We wait for five minutes in a designated area outside, next to a “duck and cover” bunker, an inverted U-shaped piece of reinforced cement.

I pass through several more checkpoints. At the last one, I put my belongings back in my pockets and notice a drawing etched in a wooden stand. It’s a skull, wearing an army helmet, with a sword for a neck.

I make it to the military press office just in time for lunch, served free in a tent by a KBR employee tattooed with a red iron cross and skulls. I scoop macaroni and cheese and corn on the cob onto my plate. I grab a Coke from the fridge, sit down on a slab of cement in the designated eating area, and dig a plastic fork into my coleslaw.

Fishing by the Green Zone

His eyes only leave the end of his line to tell stories about the fish he's caught in the Tigris over the last year. "One time, I was here from the early morning until nine at night," the fisherman says, his friend silently listening. "I put the last piece of bait on the hook before going home. The line tugged. I reeled in a little. It tugged some more. Then I got up and fought the fish all the way to the shore. It was huge," he showed me with his hands—about 12 inches around and three feet long.

He comes to this bank of the Tigris, at Baghdad's Zawra park, when he's not working as a low level employee at the Ministry of the Interior. "It passes the time," he says, picking through his plastic bag of bait. A year ago he couldn't do it, he says. The park was closed during the worst part of the war, but no one would fish in the river anyway, he tells me. There were too many floating bodies.

By Iraqi standards, this fisherman is still somewhat of an adventurer. Many people still won't eat what comes out of the river—he and another man argue over whether all the bodies have actually been removed—but he says its fine. Even less worrisome for him is the pipe of sewage pouring into the water next to him.

"It all runs downstream," he says, shrugging. So does two-thirds of the capital's raw sewage, to be piped back from the river into the city's drinking water. Purification plants filter much of it as it comes out, but they can only do so much. Two summers ago, a cholera outbreak spread across Baghdad. Over half of all Iraqis still don't have access to clean drinking water.

Along the riverbank, couples and families walk up and down the 250 acre Zawra park. Here, people can forget briefly about their militarized lives. Teenage boys play soccer in a dirt field. A father pushes his children on an aging swing. Scattered families spread out on blankets and the patchy grass. Men drink Pepsis in one of the rundown pavilions.

To get inside, visitors have to wind through a maze of concrete blast walls painted with Roman style murals. Iraqi security contractors search their cars for explosives.

Across the river, the Green Zone sprawls as far as the eye can see. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's home is on the opposite bank, behind walls, razor wire, and soldiers, not far from where Saddam used to live. Barely downstream, the largest US embassy in the world—roughly the size of 80 football fields—enjoys constant electricity and its own water treatment plant. The fisherman I'm chatting with gets no more than seven hours of electricity a day.

I ask him what he thinks when he looks across the river at the Green Zone. "I have nothing to do with them. As far as I'm concerned, those people are nothing." He tugs the line. "I hear they do like fishing though." He tilts his rod. "USA STIK," it reads, an American flag waving next to it. "Seahawk. Quality Fishing Tackle."

A quiet election day in Baghdad

On Iraq's first provincial elections since 2005, Baghdad is nearly car free. The government enforced a vehicle curfew for the entire day to prevent car bombs at the polls. For the first time, I can hear the birds singing in the palm trees that stand over the buildings, their chirps occasionally blocked by the sound of jets or low flying American helicopters. In Jadiriya, kids ride bicycles down the streets. Young men lounge on the medians. Boys chase soccer balls down major thoroughfares, moving bricks set as goal markers whenever government, media, or the occasional American military vehicles come through. Iraqi soldiers and National police sit idly in the sun on nearly every block.

In Karada, people walk through outdoor metal detectors surrounded by police to enter a polling station and cast their votes. When I get there, at around 10 am, there are more journalists than voters. The Iraqi government has only permitted cameras in five polling stations in the city. In each polling room, cameramen cram into a corner and photographers slink along the floor to capture people casting their ballots. Some Iraqis, trained by the last elections how to grab the media's attention, raise their purple stained fingers to be mobbed by photographers, shutters ablaze.

An old woman enters a cardboard voting booth with her ballot that unfolds to an unwieldy list of parties. Her son is by her side to do the reading. In Baghdad, a province of its own, people are choosing between 2,400 candidates to fill 57 seats. Skeptics say many of the candidates have no clue about local politics but are motivated by the spoils that corruption can bring. The hope for wealth in Iraqi politics isn't baseless—Transparency International says the country is the third most corrupt in the world after Somalia and Burma.

I ask 23-year-old, Amir Hassan, a security worker, his thoughts on the elections. "We want more safety. The Iraqi people are tired and we want to rest."

At dusk, I walk out of my hotel to enjoy the tranquil day and buy some fresh bread. I ask the baker whether the election means that Bush was successful with his mission in Iraq. "No, Bush has nothing to do with this," he says. "Seyyid al-Sistani told us to vote, so we voted," he said, referring to the powerful Shia Ayatollah in Iraq. "We do what he tells us to do."

Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East, where he has spent much of the past six years. He is a correspondent for New America Media and his writing and photography has been published in the US, UK, Middle East, and Canada.

A skeptical street in Karada before elections

Baghdad is splashed with color. Campaign posters blend together on the cement landscape as I creep through the stifling afternoon traffic. Paintings of palm trees or cascading waterfalls reminiscent of the Swiss Alps give a bright façade to the 12-foot blast walls that still separate many neighborhoods. Billboards abound: "Freedom is a responsibility. Use it wisely," reads one over a crowd of Iraqis stretching to the horizon. "Towards a peaceful spring," reads another, over an image of a little white girl blowing a dandelion under a blue sky.

We park our car in Karada, near a blue and yellow domed Husseiniya—a Shia mosque— surrounded by blast walls. The slabs were erected after a car bomb blew up outside it over a year ago. When we get out of the car, a kid shoves a ticket in my fixer's hand. He laughs. "You can't park anywhere without a kid trying to get money from you in Baghdad."

Here, election candidates compete with pictures of Hussein for wall space. One poster shows a suited man, Mathaal Alusi, in front of an image of a child drinking water out of a puddle. "His platform is fighting poverty and corruption, restoring basic services, and providing electricity," my fixer says to me. "It's the same platform as everyone else, but no politicians actually do it."

The mostly Shia neighborhood used to be the site of regular car bombs, but today tarps covered in neatly arranged shoes and sandals sprawl across the sidewalk. An old man sells figs and nuts from a wooden cart, smiling when I ask to take his picture. Shops sell brass souvenirs and fake flowers. A table displays pirated copies of American films like "The Girl Next Door" and Leonardo DeCaprio's "Body of Lies." Iraqi police are on nearly every corner.

We stop for tea. As I sip the strong and sweet drink, I ask the tea seller for his thoughts on the elections. "There are too many parties," he says, handing out tea to another customer. He pours the hot liquid onto a little plate to let it cool before sucking it down and moving on. "In America there are only two parties, why do we have so many? It's backwards." Today, 14,431 candidates from more than 400 parties are competing for over 444 seats in 14 of Iraq's eighteen provinces.

He complained about corruption in parties' campaigning, claiming that he recently witnessed one candidate giving out $100 bills, a blanket, and a heater to anyone who would put their hand on the Quran and swear to vote for them. The rumor is widespread in Baghdad.

If he votes for anyone, he says, he'll vote for Al Maliki, who he accredits for providing security. "There used to be explosions everywhere around here. There was one there and there and there," he pointed. He refuses to let us pay for our tea, shoving my fixer's hand back into his pocket.

As we turn down a side street, a group of twenty-somethings, leaning idly against their bicycles, cower. "Oooooooh. Ooooooh," they boo softly. I look back and see a convoy of American Strykers and Humvees rolling slowly by. "Whenever we see them, we're afraid," one tells me. "They shoot easily. All it takes is someone to run out in front of them." I ask about the elections and the youngest of the group marks an "x" on his hand with his fingers. Over the last few days, many people have told me they will draw an "x" on their ballet to prevent anyone from forging it. "Why should we vote?" he says. "What are we going to get out of it? I might do it. I'll see what my dad says."

At a checkpoint of the National Police, I ask the burly commander, Majid Hassim, for his thoughts. "Out of (the 2,400 candidates in Baghdad), not one deserves to be elected. In five years, this government hasn't done a thing for us. Why do we still have no electricity (Baghdad has about 7-8 hours of electricity per day)? Why isn't our water clean? Where is all of the money going?"

Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East, where he has spent much of the past six years. He is a correspondent for New America Media and his writing and photography has been published in the US, UK, Middle East, and Canada.

First day in Baghdad

Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East. A fluent speaker of Arabic, his work has largely focused on the Middle East and North Africa, where he has spent much of the past six years. He is a Middle East correspondent for New America Media and his writing and photography has been published in the US, UK, Middle East, and Canada including outlets such as the L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Slate.com, The Nation, Aljazeera.net, San Francisco Bay Guardian, E: The Environmental Magazine, and Black Entertainment Television.

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.

Southwestern Baghdad from the air. Photo by Shane Bauer.

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.