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GP 22 February 2006: Out Intrepid Cohorts

Iraqi Meltdown.  “Under the Gun” (Wall Street Journal, February 18-19, 2006) captures Ms. Farnaz Fassihi’s 4-year encounter with Iraq.  She began going there in October of 2002 when Saddam was still in the saddle, and then came to co-manage the Baghdad bureau after he was swept from power.  “For about a year after the U.S.-led invasion—from the spring of 2003 to 2004—reporting in Iraq was challenging, but didn’t always seem life-threatening….  We could go almost anywhere in Iraq on a moment’s notice and discover fascinating stories.”  But, she allows, it has grown to be a nightmare.  With female journalists now being targeted, she has left the country. 

Rebuilding Iraq.  But not everybody is skedaddling.  Amidst death and destruction, there’s a job to be done which lures insouciant souls into the conflagration, eyes wide open.  Jim Lea, faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill and an organizational consultant, reports for us on 3 February about his training stint there: 

This is my first experience in a war zone, and a war zone is definitely what we have here in Iraq.  The pitched battles are over, replaced by fire fights, snipers, and by what’s become this country’s signature on the six o’clock news, the Improvised Explosive Device—roadside bomb, car bomb, vest bomb—the innocent-appearing person or fixture that with the flick of a button blots out individual lives and our common humanity.  The compelling impression is of arms and armed men—the military, the professional security teams hired to protect civilian contractors and the various reconstruction groups who can afford them, and, judging by the pops and rattles of gunfire in the night, many people in the neighborhood around our fortified Baghdad compound. 

I’m here as a consultant to design and conduct management training as part of the reconstruction program.  Our students will provide administrative backbone to various parts of the infrastructure around the country.  It will be at least six months before the impact of the training can be measured, but I believe that given half a chance and a little bit of luck these men and women will overcome 30 years of Saddam and sanctions and make something new and better here. 

Our group of Americans, Egyptians, a Jordanian, and a Tunisian lives and works in a block of buildings measuring about 200m by 50m, a motley collection of old hotels, small offices and modest villas that’s cordoned off with 20 foot-high concrete blast walls and protected by a small army of security professionals.  A street of sorts runs the length of the compound, broken by tall concrete baffles to prevent a vehicle making a fast, straight run up the center. 

The compound is located in central Baghdad, across the Tigris River from the Green Zone (now called the International Zone), the seat of US and Iraqi authority.  The amenities are several stars short of a Michelin rating, with life made bearable by the diesel generators that kick in whenever public power cuts off.  That happens frequently, with an audible snap as everything goes dark and quiet followed by a roar as the huge generators fire up and the lights and air conditioning come back on.  The foreigners nod with grudging satisfaction that at least something around here works. 

But outside the blast walls, in the real world of Baghdad, the citizens sit in the dark, with few generators to make up for the failure of the public infrastructure.  They shrug and hunker down and mark it off as one more thing to be endured.  They continue to try to find, or pretend to, normalcy in the midst of chaos and under the constant threat of unpredictable violent death.  Families in Baghdad who have no real political interests or religious fervor take their kids to school, go to work in their offices and shops, buy groceries, and visit their in-laws.  They chat on cell phones and drive dusty cars.  When the outsiders’ armored convoys sweep through their neighborhoods, sirens blaring and men with machine guns leaning out the doors to warn average people off their own streets, they stare without expression and pull their children behind their skirts. 

Last week, in a momentary lull in the talk around our conference table, we heard a car bomb explode in the city.  The sound is a “bow-mm” with a distinctive metallic undertone.  One of the Iraqi men at the table looked up with a thin smile and said, “It’s not close.  We are okay.”  Not “I wonder what that was,” or “I hope no one was hurt.”  Such statements would be unspeakably gratuitous in this day and time in Baghdad.  Just an acknowledgement that this one no doubt got someone, but it didn’t get us.  For one more day, we’re okay. 

Poetry Chases.  For a richer look at Iraq, one is moved to parse Abu Khaleel’s (his literary name) “A Glimpse of Iraq,” which looks at all the contradictions, even suggests occasionally that there still may be a fire in the ashes in this hellish country, and expands on the narrow lens through which Western journalists view Baghdad and beyond.  He still very much loves his country. 

It’s hard to remember that modern times have been so hard on Iraq and that it once was a seat of learning and art.  We understand it has a various high ratio of PhDs.  Khaleel reminds us of its poetry: 

The Decadent of Baghdad in 750 was the famous Abu Nawas.  He was extremely fond of women and wine and made no secret of it.  He was (and still is) the hero of many popular “decadent” jokes.  His poetry had a distinctively sweet musical tone to it.  A street on the riverbank in Baghdad was named after him.  Appropriately, that street was the center of the outdoor bars of Baghdad up to the mid 1970s.  That street is on the other side of the Tigris from the Presidential Palace (now known as the Green Zone). This was a reason for its decline in fortunes even before the present religious revival.

For centuries, poetry was the first religion for many people.  People’s collective wisdom, their history and heritage, their values and ideals, their pride and achievements are all preserved in poetry lines.  Poetry is so central in Iraqi people’s sentiment and disposition that any glimpse of Iraq would be incomplete without some mention of it. 

I can still remember those poetry matches in Baghdad where, in a coffee house for example, people (ranging from a daily-wage laborer to a university professor) would have what was known as “Poetry Chases”: The chase is usually run between two people.  One contestant would start with a line of poetry.  The opponent would have to come up with a line that starts with the same letter as the last one of the previous line.  Some letters are difficult and there was a great deal of skill and memory involved.  Usually onlookers would act as arbitrators.  I haven't seen such a match in decades. 

For some reason, these “poetry chases” remind us of the poetry slams that have now swept across the United States.  Of course, in some tomorrow, the chases will come back and Jim Lea’s work with administrators will pay off.  Eventually sectarian warfare fades away, lifting, through some invisible logic, as if it were a plague that has to pass away in its own time. 

Even Ms. Fassihi senses this.  She’s now set up her tent in Beirut, Lebanon which, as she says, was: 

a once dangerous, war-torn city … now relatively safe, cosmopolitan and booming.  Two decades ago, foreign correspondents fled Lebanon in fear for their lives; now they are flocking back, setting up homes and regional bureaus as the city reclaims its reputation as the “Paris of the Middle East.”  I can only hope for a similar future for Iraq. 

Viva La Carrera Panamericana.  About the automóbile, we have said “The Thrill is Gone.”  In the developed world, it has become a plague, giving us a dying industry that is currently pulling down the economies of several nations, while providing a surfeit of pollution, wasteful expenditures, and roadway carnage.  The auto industry in the West is simply undergoing painful consolidation. 

It’s not so in the developing countries.  China rising cannot crowd its streets with sedans fast enough, and auto factories of all sorts are giving explosive kickstarts to several Asian economies.  Our friend Stephen Page—entrepreneur, technologist, occasional headhunter, and giver of good parties—demonstrates that the excitement is yet alive in another country, Mexico, where he was co-pilot for a 2200 mile race that terminates in Nuevo Laredo, a little town on the crime-ridden border with Texas, which is rather exciting even when the cars aren’t racing.  “Auto Perplex” on the Global Province will lead you to his vivid racing account.

Off the Map.  As we said in “Falling off the Map,” there’s so much to see and so much to learn in places that are off the map, far from Paris, New York, London, or Tokyo.  It takes wise and foolhardy fellows to reap the harvest that is to be had where ordinary mortals dare not to go.

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