Inside Iraq

/ Wednesday, May 20 /

Inside Iraq

Deborah Haynes, the Times’ correspondent in Baghdad (winner of the
inaugural Tony Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism)
maintains an excellent blog about life under the radar in Iraq.

Me and my last samoon

One of her best posts:

The ten things they don't tell you about Iraq

A newcomer writes....
Landing in Baghdad is like arriving anywhere you've heard a lot about.
The real thing is always so different from the picture in your head.
Pitching up in Iraq, even though security has improved so much, I was
still expecting a war zone. And parts of it are, of course, but the
most striking first impressions were far from the barbed wire and AK47
wasteland I was anticipating. Things no one had told me about Iraq

Flowers at The Times1.
Plastic flowers are an integral part of life. When I arrived in The
Times' bureau, one of the Iraqi staff placed a vase full of plastic
lilies on the table to welcome me. The Times' office itself looks like
a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with plastic vines
trained around the picture frames and an orange plastic shrub
flourishing in the corner. The many, many checkpoints in Iraq have pots
of plastic flowers balanced on the concrete barriers, restaurants are
covered in them, and I saw one market stall entirely devoted to selling
enough garlands to supply a hundred Hawaiian fancy dress parties.

2. The sandstorms close the airport and empty the streets. That in
itself is known about, because it affects combat operations. What they
don't tell you, though, is what sandstorms do to your look. After a
"sand day" in Baghdad, my hair was so dry and frizzy that it would stay
upright if I ran my hands through it. It felt like goat hair. Even my
eyebrows went curly; I looked like Susan Boyle.

Prayer beads at Kerbala3.
There are tourists as well as terrorists here. Not Western tourists,
sure, but tourists nonetheless. People are flooding into Iraq from the
Gulf, Syria, Lebanon but most of all from Iran to visit mosques and
shrines. Most of them are Shia and, in Kerbala, the holiest Shia place,
there are thousands of foreigners and hundreds of market stalls selling
candy-coloured prayer beads, Kerbala snow domes, kebabs and tea, and
new hotels are opening. The death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims this
week in suicide bombings is a sad sign that there are now so many of
them, they have become a target.

View of palms from hotel4.
Baghdad is really green. A river city, not a desert wasteland, its
parks and public spaces are now being cared for again, but most
impressive are the thousands of palm trees and other trees everywhere.
From the roof of the hotel, Baghdad is a sea of palm leaves with
buildings in between. Central Baghdad, anyway. I guess Sadr City
probably isn't that lush.

5. There are people who seem untouched by the war, and pretty
much everything else, too. Driving from Baghdad to Kirkuk, there were
clusters of mud brick villages in the desert, where everything was the
colour of bleached sand, and the houses didn't have satellite dishes.
There were men in grey dishdashes and ancient keffiyehs herding sheep
around the occasional palm tree. They looked like pictures of ancient

They do a weird thing with fish. In the street, there are guys who
split a fish and flatten it out, then put it in a metal device that
looks like two tennis racquets and put it on the edge of a circular
barbecue-type pit of coals. It's called mesgoof, and in Baghdad they do
it with carp - James Hider says its full of tiny bones - but in Basra
apparently they do it with a sea fish, like a flounder, and it has
aphrodisiac qualities. The women make it on Thursday night, I've been
told, to encourage their husbands to start the weekend with gusto.

7. Iraqis love disco. This may be an unfair extrapolation, but after a
road trip punctuated with Abba medleys, and tales from a friend of the
BeeGees on loop while spending time with Iraqi friends, I'm starting to
associate Iraq with synths and falsetto.

The world's third-largest mosque (after Mecca and Medina) looms on the
Baghdad skyline. Started by Saddam, Al Rahman mosque was never finished
and it's spooky and vast. It looks a bit like a spaceship, or rather
like hundreds of R2D2s of different shapes and sizes clustered
together. Cranes tower above it, and the Shia and Sunni militia have
fought over it. If anyone ever finishes it, it's going to be
magnificent and hideous in equal measure.

9. There are loads of shops selling furniture and homewares who have
their merchandise out on the street. The best are the shops that only
sell headboards. They specialise in huge, carved wooden things which
look a bit like the brontosaurus ribs Fred Flintstone eats in the
opening credits of The Flintstones.

10. It's so fattening. After a few days of eating sheep, rice,
bread and chicken, I knew my descent into morbid obesity if I stayed
here was sealed when we were in a traffic jam. A boy knocked on the
window of the car selling not gum or tissues, as they do in so many
places, but dozens of bags of candy floss which he was carrying on a
stick. We had just eaten an epic lunch with five types of starch, and
were all stuffed to the point of incapacity. But one of the guys bought
two bags of candy floss anyway, and offered me some. I was so full I
literally thought I might die if I ate it but I figured in war-raddled
country of where they put plastic flowers on their checkpoints and
disco on the stereo, dying of a surfeit of candy floss would be kind of
a suitably kitsch way to go, so I took the risk. This time, I lived to
bite another day.

Inside Iraq Blog

Copyright © Gaurav Monga