Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

Jogging in the twilight zone
By Haider Hamoudi

BAGHDAD - As befits these benighted times, most of my thoughts concerning the nation of Iraq, where I currently reside, tend to focus on failure, incompetence, deception and disappointment. But while such a focus is unavoidable, it is nonetheless necessary at times for all human beings, irrespective of their condition or circumstance, to find something to provide relief in trying times. One cannot live in blackness forever.

To that end, and at considerable risk to myself, I decide to take my first jog. The danger lies not so much in the run itself but where you take it, though normally a man running around anywhere in Baghdad would attract a fair amount of attention (unless of course he were being chased by a larger man, or at least a man with a larger weapon, in which case it might be regarded as commonplace).

My run will be inside the exclusive Green Zone, administered entirely according to US customs and standards by the good men and women of Kellogg, Brown & Root, with the invaluable support of the US military. In any event, I am not the only jogger in the Green Zone; today three women pass me on my run wearing only sports bras, Lycra shorts, Walkmans and sneakers. This takes place nowhere else in Iraq, I assure you.

But danger there is, nonetheless.

Outside the Green Zone, a US citizen who is an ethnic-Iraqi Arabic speaker, like myself, can blend in readily and avoid being targeted, to some degree at least. Within these castle walls, safety generally reigns, as Iraqis generally cannot gain entrance, and even Americans cannot enter with their cars unless they have a badge, which I am fortunate to have, given my status as a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor.

It is the transition between zones Green and Red that is troublesome. (It was in this transition zone that a suicide bomber blew up Izzedin Salim, head of the Iraqi Governing Council, or IGC, on May 17.)

Once I near the walls, it is perfectly clear where I am headed, and those small, tell-tale signs that make it obvious that I have not been a resident of this country for the past several decades suddenly become noticeable to all. People you pass note that you wear a seat-belt, that you have a goatee, the expression on your face, the cut of your suit, the style of your hair - and the indifferent glances of only two kilometers back change to hostile glares. It is remarkable - in the space of five minutes I have been transformed from an ordinary Iraqi into the face of the enemy.

It was not always thus. There was nothing close to this level of hostility when I arrived last summer. To be sure, there was danger, and those perceived to be working with the US were always targeted by some, but there was a time when this really was limited to former Saddamists and foreign fighters, so that entry to the Green Zone was considerably less tense, notwithstanding the occasional car bomb.

It is very different now. The general population may not be in broad uprising, but it is fairly obvious that their sympathy does not lie with those who enter the Green Zone. I have become accustomed to this.

However, while I have watched the hostility grow into resentment, disgust and anger, it is not rebellion - that seems unlikely in the near future. I tend to think that with every US blunder, angry and frustrated Iraqis stare into the abyss of what life might be like if young firebrands such as Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or al-Qaeda-linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, most recently identified in the videotaped beheading of a US citizen, have their way. So they pull back from taking any drastic steps. And it will likely remain thus.

But neither will the anger and disgust dissipate quickly - anyone approaching the Green Zone can tell you that.

In any event, once safely inside, I find an appropriate place to park my car. Then I go for my run.

I begin at the convention center, just across from the Rasheed Hotel. The Rasheed was perhaps the only decent hotel in Baghdad at the time the former regime fell, Baghdad's other five-star hotels having long been degraded through the sinister combination of Saddam Hussein's criminal negligence toward anything not built for or used by him, and the debilitating sanctions of the United Nations.

The Rasheed's most famous ornament, a mosaic of the first president Bush - George H W - in the central lobby, was removed by the US forces soon after their arrival. The hotel is now the domain of the occupation forces and is not open to the public. It is also the target of frequent mortar attacks, as it lies dangerously near the entrance to the Green Zone. My badge gets me inside, and at times I do venture in for a cigar or the pirated digital video discs (DVDs) sold in the lobby, but for the most part I avoid the place. It is too stark a reminder of the most negative aspects of the occupation. I have nothing against all the US soldiers being compelled to fight this war, and my greatest sympathies extend to them, but I still don't feel comfortable watching armed and jackbooted 20-year-olds from the backwoods of the United States tracking dirt around Baghdad's finest hotel.

My run continues deeper into the Green Zone, toward where the IGC meets. It is the group of 25 Iraqis picked by the US to advise on matters concerning the United States' administration of their nation. By way of fair disclosure, I should note that I have recently begun sitting on one of the committees created by the IGC, reviewing and commenting on the types of legislation sought by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Nevertheless, to say that the population of Iraq, which was by and large patiently supportive of the IGC at one time, has been greatly disappointed by its performance would be a massive understatement. It is widely considered by Iraqis and CPA officials alike to be corrupt, inefficient and out of touch with those in the street. The problem is not generally with the members themselves. The Americans by and large picked - with certain widely known exceptions - respected figures, and their work seems well intentioned. Nevertheless, as an institution, the IGC has been one of the most profound and significant failures of the occupation.

Its most recent fiasco, the selection of a new national flag, is paradigmatic of some of the problems in the eyes of the general population. The reds, greens and blacks that dominate every Arab flag are absent, as are the typical broad stripes, prominent stars and bold contrasts. Instead we have a white background, two blue stripes, a small yellow stripe and a big blue crescent in the middle of the flag. I think the idea was to signify a dramatic break with a dark past, but the fact that the flag is an esthetic monstrosity and resembles no flag in the region save, vaguely, the flag of Israel is in the end what matters, not the intentions of the individual IGC members. That the council actually believed something like this would gain currency among Iraq's population perhaps signifies how out of touch it can be.

In any event, I have not seen the new flag flying anywhere since it was announced. I have, on the other hand, seen a number of old Iraqi flags fluttering about, many more than before, an act of defiance, one supposes, against the US occupiers and their hand-picked advisers. Despite my connections to both the IGC and the US government, I am actually relieved by this; there was a time months ago that defiance took the form of a picture of Iraq's heinous dictator. The flag is a considerable improvement.

The IGC building is a bit off the road, it is guarded by former Gurkhas, and access is strictly limited. As I jog by, I look inside and see nobody there. The Gurkhas eye me suspiciously and I keep running.

I turn a corner and come to Celebration Square. The square is meant to celebrate Saddam's "victory" over Iran in what he termed the second Qadissiya war (the first Qadissiya war being the original Arab victory over the Sassanian Empire of Persia that led to the Islamicization of modern-day Iran). The second war was a victory because Iraq regained exclusive control of the river that flows between it and Iran, at a cost of nine years spanning the 1980s and a million lives.

As perhaps the single best example of exactly what a million lives meant to Saddam, he later adjusted the border by treaty with Iran in an attempt to get his former enemy's support for his invasion of Kuwait. The river was shared between the two nations, precisely as it had been before their war: nine years of unfathomable destruction for the right to control a waterway exclusively - for nine months.

Celebration Square is dominated by two major monuments, one architecturally impressive and the other grotesque in the extreme. I pass the impressive one and proceed to the grotesque, a parade ground of reverence to violence, murder and mayhem.

It is a large rectangular paved square with the dimensions of an oversized soccer field. On each side a set of two arms, cast from the arms of the dictator himself, are thrust from below the earth, each holding a sword aloft so that the swords are crossed. One set of crossed swords constitutes the entrance and the other the exit. Most repulsive of all, the ground out of which the arms rise is surrounded by the actual helmets of dead Iranian soldiers who fought in the war. Bullet holes and other vestiges of violence appear on many of the helmets, Saddam's arms crushing the skulls of Iranian boys.

I saw this once before, in 1990, after the war with Iran and before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, when Iraqis were given a brief respite before being thrust back into another conflict, this time with a much more powerful enemy (the United States). It made me sick then, and makes me angry now. A well-known Iraqi dissident, Kanan Makiya, says the monument should stay as a symbol of Iraq's darkest era. I cannot agree. I cannot bear to look at the upraised arms of the man who single-handedly destroyed a nation of such vast potential, murdered millions and stole billions.

Unable to tear down the monument itself at that moment, I spit in its general direction and continue on around the parade grounds to the other end. Along the way I pass the building where the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) once sat. The RCC was, in theory, responsible for legislative and executive authority in Iraq in the Saddam era, though in fact Saddam alone ruled, and the RCC was just one of his many tools. In theory, the judiciary was an independent branch of government, but I am aware of only one occasion in which a judge (Judge Dara Nor al-Din, who now sits on the IGC) ruled an RCC decree unconstitutional, and he spent two years in prison for his trouble.

The RCC building is going to become the locus of the Special Tribunal that will try members of the former regime, a fitting irony indeed given that the larger criminals were all at one time or another RCC members.

I finally come to the other end of the parade-ground monument and stand directly under the two swords overhead. Two Iraqi policemen eye me suspiciously, until I show them my US badge, then they wave and sit down again. An old Iraqi flag flies in front of where they sit, almost midpoint between the swords and slightly behind them. Even in the Green Zone, it seems, the new flag cannot be flown. I stand for a moment, and turn back. I have had enough of the swords, and the run has already taken almost three-quarters of an hour. I need to get back.

On the return, I pass by the monument for which I have considerably more respect, the Tomb of the Unknown Martyr, identical in concept to America's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, though the name varies slightly in keeping with the more hyperbolic nature of the Arabic language. The tomb itself is fenced off, and two Iraqi policemen guard the entrance. I hide my Iraqiness by refraining from Arabic, muttering something in English and flashing my US badge, and keep running. In Hong Kong, where I am from, this sort of thing never bothered me, but there is something fundamentally wrong with receiving better treatment when you can show you are not a citizen of the country.

The Tomb of the Unknown Martyr is a solid circular upward-sloping structure with a hole at the summit; the tomb lies below. I take to the side of it and run up, by now fairly exhausted from the heat and exertion and determined to make this the end (I can walk back to the car). Breathless at the top, I take a moment to look. The tomb is just ahead of me, with flowers laid by its side. Nobody is supposed to be here, access is very limited, so it's either the police or the cleaning staff who have decorated the grave. This is a proud people, proud of their nation, their heritage, and their religion. Anyone who seeks to rule here should take heed. Even those who work with the Americans do not forget their martyrs.

In front of the tomb is a nonsense quote, no doubt by Saddam, though his name has been scratched out, about how the mothers and fathers of the unknown dead can take comfort here where the unknown martyr lies. Empty words indeed, and emptier still when one considers the pathetically small amount of compensation Saddam offered to those whose loved ones died in war. In the West, Saddam's payments of US$25,000 to each Palestinian suicide bomber are prima facie evidence of his support of terrorism, and indeed they are, but to Iraqis, they are first and foremost a criminal diversion of resources. The number of families struggling to survive because of the loss of a breadwinner in one of Saddam's many wars is staggering. This, to Iraqis, is where the money should be directed, not to a war in another land.

When I finish the run I look out on the city of Baghdad. The River Tigris flows nearby, the Palestine Hotel stands by its banks, the suspension bridge over the river further downstream. Famous mosques dot the landscape, and they have just begun a call to prayer. Gardens of palm trees are visible near the horizon. Sometimes, at times like this, despite the war, the violence, the hopelessness and the occupation, I never want to leave. May Baghdad live forever.

It is time to go. I walk back to the car. The T-shirt, shorts and sneakers slip off, and on come the cotton shirt, dress trousers and polished shoes worn by Iraqis. While I normally prefer not to change into clothes like this after a run and before a shower, it cannot be helped in this case. There are few things more dangerous than to drive around Baghdad in obviously American clothing. I comb my hair, take a drink of water, and drive out of the Green Zone.

Haider Hamoudi is an Iraqi-American lawyer now working on a US government-funded legal-education project in Iraq.

(Used with permission of The Standard, Hong Kong.)

May 27, 2004

Iraq's religious tide cannot be turned back
(May 26, '04)

Bush's vision of Iraq vs reality
(May 26, '04)

How the Middle East is really being remade
(May 21, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong