Dear Lisa --
Call it the equivalent of taking a day trip out of the city. Fed up with moseying around the funduk, or sitting in an over-air conditioned office drinking yet another Pepsi as I interview someone, I wanted to kick back in a car and let the Mesopotamian miles roll by as I contemplated life. But where to go? About 100 kilos to the south is Fao, a small port city where security is good, the Shatt nearby and memories of the Iran-Iraq War still fresh. I asked Layla if she wanted to go, figuring she, too, felt cooped up in the city (actually cooped-up in Iraq, is more like it) and we scheduled our little jaunt for Friday, the second day of her week-end.
Layla being Layla, of course, she just didn't accompany me to Fao, she organized the whole damn trip. At 10:00, a cab pulls up to the hotel, and I climb in even as Layla begins reciting a list of contacts she's arranged--the town mayor, the police chief, the head of a teaching organization called the Education Union, and so on...With traffic light on prayer-day Friday, Abbas, our sayyiq du jour has us out past the city limits in no time, bounding on the road toward the Arabian Gulf.
Although it's not officially begun yet, this summer is hotter than usual, or so say the locals here. I have no basis of comparison, but I can believe the estimation is true. By 10:30, the temperature is already scorching, forcing us to roll the windows part way up to keep the air inside the car from spontaneously combusting. The a/c system is so overwhelmed that the air it blows into the car is like the blast from an electric hand-dryer. And if I'm hot, sitting in the front seat, I have to keep in mind Layla in the back, her head wrapped in a light blue scarf, her body encased in a thin black abiya.
The countryside between Basra and Fao is flat, dry, parched except for some sickly-looking salt flats, and almost completely destitute of vegetation. Tattered black flags--Shia flags--fly from sticks jammed into small hills out in the desert, on the horizon, an enormous oil refinery smokes and burns and shimmers in the heat. With Layla translating, Abbas tells us how, a quarter-century ago, this expanse of dessicated earth once flowered with palms, trees, flowers, wildlife of all description--a verdant garden of date groves and streams and blessed shade. But the Iran-Iraq War destroyed it all, Abbas continued--bombs, rockets, machine gun fire cutting down and churning up the groves like a gigantic scythe and plow.
We flash by berms and small hillocks with sloping sides--tank defenses and artillery emplacements. Twisted, rusting metal fragments of oil installations obliterated in the Iranian fighting. Charred and blackened stumps jutting up by the roadside--the last remains of nakhil, or date palms. A large mural rising up from the desert floor, Arabic words carved in a large slab of black stone. Abbas slows the car as Layla translates. "Fifty-two thousand Iraqi men killed in the battle of Fao...One hundred-twenty thousand Iranians...over six million artillery shells falling in this area..." She pauses. I glance back to see she is crying.
What this memorial only suggests--and what Layla remembers all-too-vividly--is the absolute horror of the war. Three days previously, I spoke with Mahmoud, a desk clerk at my hotel. From 1986-1988, he served in a chemical weapons unit, specializing in skin blistering, respiratory and nerve agents. Around Fao in 1987, he recounted, his unit fired respiratory-inhibiting gas at Iranian soldiers, only to have the wind shift and the poison blow back on Iraqi lines. "I was in the hospital for a month," he said.
On another occasion near Fao, his unit fired nerve agents at advancing Iranian armies; several days later, he witnessed the aftermath of the shelling. "The ground was covered with dead soldiers. But since we were not supposed to be using chemical weapons, someone had gone to each corpse and shot them with a pistol in the head. I don't know how thousands of dead bodies, each with the same bullet hole in the forehead, was supposed to fool anybody, but that's what the Iraqi army did."
Fao itself is like many southern Iraqi cities--a collection of widely dispersed pre-fab=fab cement blockhouses, separated by large fields of scrubby plants, concrete debris and trash. In the "center" of town stands a deserted amusement park, its ferris wheel inert, the other rides rusting and inoperable. Since it's Friday, almost no one's working, and the heat made even the fishermen--their colorful skiffs, canoes and boats crammed together in crowded berths--seek the relative cool of the shade. Meanwhile, on the horizon east of the city, three huge pillars of black smoke rise into the thin blue sky, marsh fires erupting on the Iranian side of the Shatt-al-Arab.
In a small room inside building bearing the English sign "Educational Union," Layla and I meet with the town notables. Unlike most Iraqis I've met, they are surprisingly upbeat: security in the town is excellent, they have 24-hour electricity, water is okay--their only real problem, in fact, is unemployment, but a new port expansion project, set to begin within a few months, promises to remedy that situation.
I then ask about the Iran-Iraq War. The mayor, police chief and a third man who had served in the conflict as an officer in southern Iraq, begin talking at once. Fao came under Iranian bombardment almost as soon as hostilities began in 1980, they tell me, resulting in the mass exodus of every citizen from the city. Overnight, a municipality of 80,000 turned into a ghost town--then a wasteland as the war destroyed every building. "The Iranians occupied the barren fields and turned them into a military base," the men relate. "All the structures you see in Fao date from after 1988, when the war ended."
The men have to break for mid-day prayers, so we gather together a small crew and drive toward the Shatt, creeping slowly among some rutted roads past Fao's shipyards--actually, the hulls of dhows under various stages of construction--passing into a thicket of rushes and wetlands, cormorants wheeling overhead, a wild boar staring at us for a moment before bounding back into the reeds--eventually disembarking from the cab and walking about 100 yards through stifling heat to the shore. Here, salamanders and crabs are scuttling about in muddy flats, lapped by small waves from boat wakes on the waterway. After meeting some friendly fishermen--who take Layla, our guides and me for a little riverine tour of the Shatt--we return to the car. To the east, the flames are leaping higher and higher, spewing black funnels toward the sun.
There's not a poignant end to this tale. We returned to the Educational Union, where the mayor and the police chief and other assorted Faoians wanted to continue to talking. But I was hot and tired. I suddenly had a deep longing to be alone, something that is difficult to do in Iraq, where there always seems to be someone watching, observing, eavesdropping...and for foreigners solitude is particularly difficult, since we can't even go to a local store without someone's company...
I walked out of the building, then down the empty boulevard toward the Shatt. Across a wide, empty field to my right, the deserted amusement park shimmered in the heat. The wind blew with a high whistling sound, kicking up swirls of dust. I found a nebk tree on a traffic island which cast just enough shade to make the heat tolerable. There I sat, listening to the wind, smelling the antiseptic smell of desert heat and feeling the thoughts drain from my head as I watched Iran burn.
A MESSAGE FROM BAGHDAD
Readers of In the Red Zone may recall a section having to do with a woman named Hadeel, who, as I relate in the book, was killed in a suicide car blast in January 2004 as she waited in traffic to get to job in the Green Zone. Recently, I received an e-mail from Zena, my friend in Baghdad, telling me that she had been in contact with Hadeel's family and had provided them a copy of Red Zone so they could read the passage about their daughter. I asked Zena for an update on the family, and this is the e-mail she sent; I present it without comment.
Just before Hadeel died, her father passed away, leaving behind Hadeel and her sister and two brothers. Then Hadeel's death, which further devastated the family. Her sister was married and pregnant, and her husband had to go to Mosul to complete some documentation, as the mother wanted the family to leave Iraq and move to Syria. On the road to Mosul, an accident occurred and the car overturned, killing the husband and badly injuring the sister. She survived, however, and by a miracle the baby she was carrying was unharmed. After she recovered, the mother took her daughter and two sons, both of who are in college, and moved to Syria.
The point for me is that the situation is so tragic in Iraq, but so common for us living here. Saddam Hussein used to say that his tyranny would leave a story in every home in Iraq. He is gone, but the stories continue.