In the spring of 2009 I flew from Istanbul to Baghdad. It was my second visit to Iraq. I was to spend half my time there ‘embedded’ with the American Army, in and around Forward Operating Base Warhorse; the other half I spent under my own cognizance in Baghdad’s “Red Zone”, to the extent that that was possible for a foreigner. And, while staring at the Turkish mountains out the window of the plane, I was overcome by the desire to make the same trip by car. If progress had truly been made in Iraq, it should be possible to reach Baghdad by car. If not, well then that much would be clear in any case.
Depending, of course, on what one meant by “progress”. If one were to ask me, I would say: progress means less suffering.
Yet as a definition that is suspect as well. The elimination of suffering can have surprising side-effects.
One year later, on the first Wednesday in March of 2010, I arrive late in the evening at Istanbul’s Grand Hotel de Londres, a fairly down at the heels hotel with a bar whose central element is a large motorcycle; anyone claiming to be an artist, however, receives a twenty-five percent discount on the price of a room. I am carrying neither a flak jacket nor a helmet; this third trip to Iraq will not include a visit to the American Army.
And I will not be travelling alone. In that way, too, this trip will be unlike the others. Gül will be coming along as my interpreter, until the Iraqi border. Having lived in the Netherlands from the age of twelve, Gül is the author of a Turkish-Dutch, Dutch-Turkish dictionary. Last summer, while “embedded” in the Dutch housing tract Leidsche Rijn close to Utrecht for a series of articles about the new neighborhood’s inhabitants, I had stayed with her sister.
And then there is our driver, Űmit, who will take us as far as the border. From there he will be replaced by an Iraqi driver.
Eva is going along as well, an artist who assisted me from the Netherlands during my previous trips, but who wants to see with her own eyes how things are going in Iraq.
Until now, my only contact with Gül has been by email. When I call her on Wednesday evening in her room at the Grand Hotel de Londres, she says: “Could we meet tomorrow? I haven’t slept for two nights.” We agree to meet on Thursday morning in the breakfast room of the Grand Hotel, located in the basement.
Gül reminds me of one of my nieces, who lives in a settlement on the west bank of the Jordan. The same modest attire, a wide skirt over a pair of jeans, a close-necked sweater, the same rounded and at the same time prominent features, the same hairdo, the same high, melodious voice.
By email she’d informed me that she had studied humanities, but that now she was looking for work - it didn’t matter what kind.
As she tucks into her breakfast, she tells me that friends and family have ordered her to find a Turkish husband during this trip. To that end they had offered her a free visit to the hairdresser’s, but she had refused.
I had never been able to provide a truly satisfactory answer to the question why I wanted to travel by car from Istanbul to Baghdad – “What do you want to find out?” “What are you looking for there?”. What I want to find out is usually something I find out only after I arrive. Yet, perhaps, the answer is this: I am travelling from Istanbul to Baghdad in order to find a husband for Gül.
Ramazan Öztürk is a Turkish war photographer and documentary filmmaker of Kurdish origin.
His claim to fame is his photograph of two corpses, a mother and child, killed during the Iraqi poison-gas attack on the city of the Halbya in the spring of 1988.
Öztürk ’s office is in an apartment in an Istanbul suburb, not far from a building bearing a large sign reading “Yoga Academy”.
Öztürk is in his late forties; he wears a black cap and a gray blazer with a white shirt. He dresses more like someone in the fashion industry than a war photographer.
The walls of his office are covered with his own photographs. Above the fireplace hangs the photo of the mother and child killed during Saddam’s poison-gas attack.
I have come to Öztürk because he has good contacts in the Kurdish section of Iraq. They said he also had interesting things to say about war photography.
Sitting beside Öztürk, at a neatly appointed desk with a notebook computer, is his female assistant; a woman his age, a little less fashionably dressed than he. She also works as a journalist for print media.
Öztürk doesn’t feel like speaking English. The conversation goes through my interpreter.
“A photograph can become something the word and film cannot,” Öztürk says. “At a glance you become aware of the evil things people do.” My interpreter sighs.
“It’s amazing, what he says,” she whispers. “It’s so deep.” I have a sneaky feeling she’s got a bit of a crush on Öztürk.
“Your photographs make an extremely aesthetic impression,” I say. “What role do aesthetics play in your work? Is beauty the most important thing in war photography?” Öztürk begins sighing as well.
“When you are standing among the corpses, you don’t think about aesthetics. But, at the same time, aesthetics is a form of intuition you never shake off. My pictures are the most aesthetic pictures, because they are the most natural pictures. I do nothing artificial.” Realism does need someone to come up for it now and again.
Öztürk stands up and points to a photograph of three weeping Serb soldiers. “The war photographer’s personality is expressed in his photos. Suffering takes place on both sides of the lens.” Share and share alike, especially when it comes to suffering.
Coffee and cookies are served, no one touches them.
“Cinema is fleeting,” Őztűrk says, “the photograph remains.” And the messenger’s vanity will outstrip the message. When it comes to that old saying, though, the question is whether I myself will be there when the ax falls.
Murat Belge teaches literary theory at Bilgi University.
Just before leaving for Ankara, I meet him in his spacious office. On the walls are photographs and a painting of a naked woman.
Belge is 67, he has a beard, he dresses neatly.
“When they were renovating this building, the university had plans to tuck the professors away in little cubicles,” Belge says. “I protested, and that’s why they converted this old classroom into my office.” Belge is what they call a “critical columnist” for the Taraf daily newspaper. He also gives guided tours of Istanbul.
The professor, the critical columnist, takes me to a restaurant on campus where he wolfs down a plate of risotto and three glasses of red wine. Halfway through the second glass he says: “I always was an unorthodox Marxist, and I still am.” According to those in the know, Belge was the man to talk to if I wanted to know more about Turkey. He was said to understand Turkey the way a mother understands her child.
“Here, nationalism is everything,” Belge says. “Whatever other ideology you can think of - liberalism, socialism, Islamism - it’s nothing but icing on the cake of nationalism.” Belge orders another glass of wine.
“The Turkish army’s hobby,” he says, “is deposing democratically chosen leaders. People used to think there was such a thing as moderate Kemalists; now it’s clear that all Kemalists march in step with the army.” Kemalists are the adherent of Kemalism, the doctrines of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Atatürk advocated secularism and nationalism. When it comes to the ruling AK Party, however, Belge is mild.
“Once the army has been defeated,” Belge says, “I’ll turn my guns on the AK party.” Finishing the last few grains of risotto on his plate, he mumbles: “Necessity is the most efficient mother of progress.” According to Wikipedia, the newspaper Belge writes for is co-financed by the wealthy, influential clergyman Fethullah Gülen.
Gülen lives in exile in the United States. His objective would seem to be the foundation of a Muslim empire; first in Turkey, later elsewhere. According to a diplomat from the Netherlands, the Dutch secret service file on Gülen is as long as a man’s arm.
Your enemy’s enemies are your friends. You can also put it more nicely: “Necessity is the most efficient mother of progress.” As we walk back to his office, Belge tells me that he’s working on a book about food. “There are only three styles of cooking in the world,” he says. “French, Chinese and Ottoman.” By looking at him, you can tell that the unorthodox Marxist Belge is fond of all three.
The highway from Istanbul to Ankara is broad and easy. When it comes to highways, the prediction that the Middle East would begin after Istanbul falls flat on its face.
Ümit, our driver, said farewell to his wife and sister-in-law in an Istanbul suburb. His hobby is building models. When we stop to fill the tank, he shows us pictures of his model ships.
The hope that the aroma of Iraq will be detectible in Ankara proves false as well. True enough, our hotel borders on an area of slums, but slums are not the secret of Iraq.
Now that I’m here anyway, a visit to Atatürk’s mausoleum would seem to be the order of the day. Without Atatürk, there is no Turkey.
On our way to the mausoleum, Gül says: “Let’s stop here. I want to take a flower along for Mr. Atatürk.” The word “mister” here has poignancy.
Gül is nervous and slightly disgruntled; an American congressional committee has just passed a resolution speaking of “Armenian genocide”.
According to her, scientists still aren’t sure about that genocide. “Anyway,” she says, “most of the Armenians were killed by Kurdish bandits.” Two Turkish soldiers are standing guard before the entrance to the mausoleum. They remind me of the soldiers who used to stand watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in East Berlin.
The cult of personality, the mausoleum’s architecture shows, is not reserved for communist and fascist ideologies. Which doesn’t make the mausoleum any less “impressive” or “beautiful”. A dash of fascism does not necessarily detract from a building’s aesthetic qualities.
“They ‘ve done something terrible to him,” Gül says, “Atatürk used to have a much better place.” Formerly, Atatürk was interred in a palace that now serves as the ethnographic museum. But they thought the palace would be too small to accommodate the huge crowds they were expecting.
Next to Atatürk’s mausoleum is a museum about his life. On display, among other things, are his pajamas, his jodhpurs, his stovepipe hat and his stuffed dog.
I’d like to be deified, too, when I’m dead.
That evening we dine at the Gar Lokantasi restaurant with three archaeologists, acquaintances of my assistant. One of the archaeologists, Ilknur Özgen, a plump Turkish woman, says: “The army is our salvation. I don’t want us to go back a hundred years in time. When I see our president’s wife wearing a headscarf, it causes me pain.” Some Turks want to destroy the army, others want to be saved by the army. One of the archaeologists, Marie-Henriette Gates, an American expat who has lived with her husband in Turkey for twenty years, talks about how much the country has changed since.
“When we first got here, for example,” she says, “you couldn’t get light bulbs anywhere. Except for red and blue ones. When we went to bed we had to unscrew the bulb from the lamp in the living room and put it in the lamp in our bedroom.” The restaurant musicians are singing a love song.
“What’s the song about?” I ask.
“It’s a love song,” Gül says, “called ‘You Have Destroyed Me’.” True love is devastating. The Turks have figured that one out.
After midnight, in the nearly deserted Arpej disco, a man on crutches is playing a keyboard. Seated at a little table is a group of seven men, who suddenly get up without finishing their drinks and leave the building.
A waiter says: “Those were illegal Russians and Ukrainians, they thought there was going to be a police raid.” I stick around for fifteen minutes, but the police never show up.
The gate-keeper is wearing fashionable, frameless spectacles. He gives us a private tour of the Mevlana complex. The complex was home to the Dervishes who, under the leadership of Jalal al-Din Rum - also known as Mevlana, “our master” - believed that dancing would bring them closer to God.
A bit irritatedly, the gatekeeper says: “It’s not dancing, it’s meditation.” The Dervishes whirled around while standing in place.
If you can get closer to Him by dancing, then writing must work too. The question is whether He appreciates that. If I were God, I would appreciate it more if people would discreetly remove themselves from my presence.
“This is where the novice Dervishes had to wait,” the gatekeeper says. He points to a little niche. “After three days, the novice’s shoes were returned to him; if the tips of the shoes pointed towards the door, he had to leave. If the tips pointed towards him, he could stay.” Perhaps I should start a monastery for aspiring writers. I could have them write the descriptions of things that won’t interest me anymore by that time. Landscapes, for example.
As it turns out, Konya, 250 kilometers southeast of Ankara, is the most religious city in Turkey.
In the hotel’s breakfast room, Orçun Madanoc is waiting for me. He is 31, balding, with gentle eyes. Madanoc says: “I was born a Muslim in Izmir. I was a believer, but I began to doubt. My life was a mess; if I picked up a saltshaker, it would be sure to fall out of my hands. I went to school to become an agricultural engineer. By accident, I ended up in a church. That was how I started studying the Bible. The Koran contains frightening things, but the Bible consists largely of love. My grandfather had a broken arm, with festering wounds on it. I prayed to Jesus and his arm was healed. The doctors were mystified. On November 10, 2000, I converted to Christianity.” Madanoc speaks with the urgency of someone who has seen the light, but who realizes that the light can also go out as quickly as it came on.
“I asked myself,” he says, “what I could do for Jesus.” “And what did you decide?” I ask.
“I decided to build a website for Jesus. I’ve built three of them now. According to Google, they’re the most popular sites about Jesus in all of Turkey. My parents didn’t mind my becoming a Christian; Muslims in Izmir are quite liberal.” Madanoc has to catch the bus back to Izmir. He has traveled eight hours to talk to me.
I feel conscience-stricken, and give him some money for Jesus and the bus home.
There was, at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Iraq’s Diyala province, a massage parlor. The masseuses there, all three of whom came from the Turkish city of Adana, were said to offer a “happy ending”: manual gratification that ends as soon as the orgasm has been achieved.
I went in for a massage while I was there, but there was no happy ending. Later I heard from a reliable source that the commander had closed the massage parlor because they actually did offer happy endings.
In Adana, a large, rather grimy city on the Mediterranean, I had expected to find the erotic capital of Turkey.
A man who has almost reached 40 must search for happiness in the arms of women who are a little down and out.
Adana has no shortage of women who are slightly down and out, but I find no consolation with them.
What I do find is the biggest mosque in Turkey, brand new and completely empty, sponsored by a businessman on condition that the mosque bear his name. The doorman offers a visit to one of the minarets for ten lira per person.
A little elevator takes you to the top.
The view is impressive, but the wind is blowing so hard that the minaret sways back and forth and I have the feeling Adana is about to be struck by an earthquake.
Within walking distance of the mosque is an artists’ café where they don’t serve alcohol. You can learn sculpting there, though.
My interpreter and I drink fresh grapefruit juice. She says: “There is no discrimination in Turkey, because Islam says that all people are equal in the eyes of God.” I take a picture of her, for later. We’re sitting under an orange tree.
The interpreter says: “Erase that picture.” I sputter in protest. To which she says: “You’re a disgusting creature. Ever since that donkey in Ankara, I’ve stopped trusting you.” Aha, the donkey. In Ankara we had visited an industrial museum that contained an antique mechanical donkey on which visitors were allowed to sit. I had told the interpreter: “If you go sit on the donkey, I’ll take your picture.” Perhaps mechanical donkeys are a symbol of perversity in Turkey. Blessed be the ignorance of the tourist.
“You’re a major author, so behave like a major author,” the interpreters says to me there in the artists’ café.
How major authors behave in their free time, I have no idea.
Back at the hotel, in the corridor leading to her room, which is beside mine, she says: “I insulted you. Now you have to insult me. Call me names. You’re so good with words, aren’t you?” During this trip I feel like I’ve ended up in one of my own novels. I’m not sure that makes me any happier.
It’s more like a sign that the end is approaching.
The director of the archaeological museum at Antakya has asked one of his secretaries to fetch his raincoat, and now he’s fishing a crumpled piece of paper out of the pocket.
“Last year, 231,000 visitors came to this museum,” the director says as he smoothes out the piece of paper. “Of whom 74,000 were not from Turkey.” On the wall behind the director is a large portrait of Atatürk. Atatürk is everywhere. There is no city without a statue of him. No hotel without his portrait on the wall.
The museum director’s name is Faruk Hinç. He has white hair and a moustache to match.
He tells me that he has kidney stones. Peeing has become a hell.
Hinç signs a number of letters as he talks to me: “I am an archaeologist and I love my work, because I don’t have to do it for the money.” The collection of the archaeological museum consists largely of mosaics.
“We’re building a new museum,” Hinç says. “The cornerstone will be laid this year, three kilometers outside the city.” The director doesn’t know how they’re going to move the mosaics, but he’s confident it will work out.
Two kilometers away from the museum, Ahmet Bostanci runs a little shop called Antakya Mozaik, where exact replicas are made of the mosaics in the museum, damaged and missing stones and all. A layman can’t see the difference.
Hinç barely looks up when I say goodbye. He’s not thinking about the museum, he’s thinking about his kidney stones.
My driver says: “I used to have kidney stones, but not anymore.” He gives the director a little box of pills.
Antakya is in a remote corner of Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The French have been here, the Ottomans; in a referendum, the inhabitants of Antakya and surroundings decided they would rather be part of Turkey than of Syria. And the claim is made that it was here, in a grotto that has been converted into a church, that the first people who called themselves Christians gathered.
The Cave of St. Peter consists of a grotto and an altar. No tourists. Two souvenir stands, two attendants. A hillside covered with children and plastic bags.
It is only at the Cave of St. Peter that it occurs to me that commerce is melancholy.
Gül says: “Atatürk was not only a statesman, but also a philosopher, a scientist and a warlord. Thanks to him, Turkey moved forward five hundred years. That’s why the people adore him, out of respect and love.” Tomorrow we will enter Syria. This is the moment to visit a hammam. After the Cave of St. Peter: the hammam.
The driver goes along with me.
“Do you want to wash yourself or do you want to be washed?” he asks, but adds: “Being washed is better.” The attendant ties a dishtowel around my waist.
A ruddy man with a big belly washes me. The dishtowel is thrown by the wayside.
I think about the first Christians.
In the end, what will be left of the human race is its dead stock.
Anyone traveling from Antakya in Turkey to Aleppo in Syria must cross the border at Bab Al-Hawa. This is a border where they still take their work seriously: barbed wire and gates that are slid aside to let cars pass one-by-one.
On the Syrian side of the border the traveler is greeted by various portraits of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.
There are three customs counters: one for Syrians, one for Arabs and one for all other foreigners. Above the counter where the passports are stamped there is a sign reading “Hope you happy travel.” Ali, who my interpreter says is an Arab who lives in Turkey, brings travelers from Antakya to Aleppo every day. Later, when we arrive at the same border crossing with him, heading the other direction, it turns out that he’s also involved in smuggling tea and gasoline from Syria into Turkey. He hides it under the seat of the car. Cigarettes and whisky are also smuggled into Turkey by way of Bab Al-Hawa.
Hotel Baron in Aleppo is world famous – Agatha Christie once stayed there – but in disrepair. Shortly after we arrive a man comes into the lobby and begins a conversation with my Turkish interpreter.
“He’s such a nice man,” my interpreter says, “he speaks Armenian.” My assistant, who has been in Syria before, feels that men who suddenly show up in hotel lobbies and begin cheerful conversations obviously work for the Mukhabarat, the Syrian secret service. I can’t rule out the possibility that she’s right. As suddenly as the nice man appeared, he disappears again.
That evening I speak with Issa Touma, a Syrian photographer but also the prime mover behind the Le Pont gallery in Aleppo, and organizer of a photography festival and a festival for women’s art, both in Aleppo. He wears a hat, which he removes when we pop into Café Oriento to drink a glass of wine.
“I’ve had the misfortune of being born in a rotten country,” Touma says. “Most of the Christians have already left. I told the government: ‘Before long I’ll be the last Christian in Syria.’ A few years ago I organized a concert in a train station. The acoustics were so good that they converted it into a mosque right away. That’s what freedom is in the Middle East: mosques.” Along with the wine, they serve carrots and cucumbers, which Touma eats with gusto. “The real power in this country lies with the Mukhabarat,” he says. “I made a photographic series entitled ‘Dancing for the Great Father’. Those are photos showing Syrian citizens being forced to dance for Assad, but the Mukhabarat doesn’t dare to do anything to me.” Another carrot.
“There are Muslims here with only one wife, but those are rich Muslims who want to look like Christians. Everyone in Syria acts as though the Muslims and the Christians are great friends, but I don’t trust the Muslims.” In Aleppo I have seen a variation on the burka that is new to me: the women’s eyes are veiled as well. Those women usually walk along holding the hand of a child, who helps to steer them.
The veiling of the eyes has something shocking about it.
“That’s right,” Touma says, “some women do it to keep from being bothered. Others are sincerely religious. But there are also women who are old and not very pretty anymore, and they figure: wearing a veil over my face is practical, then I don’t have to use makeup anymore.” Touma takes me to his home, a large house in the center of town that is in the process of being renovated.
He talks about his problem with the Mukhabarat, and says that various Western embassies have left him the lurch. “My problem”, those are the two words that will keep coming back throughout the rest of the evening.
“Western organizations give money to Arab dissidents and intellectuals, so that they can move to Paris or London. That’s the reality behind the good intentions,” Touma says.
In the dining room there is a bookcase that turns out to be a door. It reminds me of Anne Frank: Touma’s own secret annex. His darkroom is located there.
“Is this so you can hide from the Mukhabarat?” I ask.
“Everyone in Aleppo knows about this,” Touma says with a laugh.
But I have my doubts; you don’t build a secret annex just for the fun of it.
Before I leave, Touma asks whether I am going to Iraq in the hope of being kidnapped. He doesn’t give me time to reply. “If you want to get kidnapped,” Touma announces with a sparkle in his eye, “go to Yemen; it’ll be taken care of within two minutes.”
Hanging behind the desk of the Reverend Serop. G. Megerditchian of the Armenian Evangelical Emannuel Church in Aleppo is a portrait of Bashar Al-Assad. What Atatürk is to Turkey, Assad is to Syria. First, last and always: the cult of personality. But Atatürk is dead, and Assad is still alive.
“We Armenian Protestants are a minority within a minority. There are five hundred Armenian families in this city,” the friendly reverend says. “We’re active in the community, we have a Sunday school for the children, we have a women’s group, we organize spiritual meetings for newlyweds.” The preacher has a gold-colored fountain pen in his breast pocket. On the wall opposite the photo of Assad is a painting of an outsized Jesus knocking on the windows of the United Nations building in New York.
The preacher sees me looking at it.
“Yes, that means we Armenians are waiting for justice.” Beside it is a painting of a weeping mountain with a huge chain around it.
“That’s Mount Ararat,” he says, “crying because Turkey is holding it prisoner.” On the other side of his office is a map on which Armenia occupies a large part of Eastern Turkey. “The homeland,” is what the reverend calls it.
In the Middle East, maps are either behind the times of ahead of them, depending on how you look at it.
“Is it hard to be an Armenian Protestant in Syria?” “Oh no,” the preacher says. “There is a mosque next door here, the imam and I are friends. Christians are free here. Until recently, you couldn’t restore a church in Turkey, and in Egypt it’s no use to even try to build a church. But in Syria you can build as many churches and mosques as you like. What’s your name?” Freedom in the Middle East is building houses of prayer. Touma, the gallery manager, had already said something along those lines.
The reverend jots down my name on a piece of paper. Perhaps some bored employee of the Syrian secret police is interested in my activities in Syria.
Then the preacher shows me his church. “Our services are completely in Armenian; the people have to be able to follow what’s being said, and we Armenian Protestants aren’t very fond of mysticism. Everything has to be understandable.“
That evening I visit a run-down movie theater where they’re showing an illegal copy of a Jacky Chan movie. The only people in the movie theater are men, all of them sitting in their seats as though the movie theater is a house of prayer where one is supposed to masturbate.
Ayhan Dağcilar studied medicine in Marburg. He never finished medical school, but his German is excellent. These days he runs a framing shop in Gaziantep, where he also sells painters’ attributes.
Dağcilar says: “Gaziantep is the border; we’re the last Western city, after this it changes.” “You mean,” I say, “after this come the barbarians?” Dağcilar laughs. “After this it changes,” he repeats. “We’re the last city in the West, and the first city in the East.” At last, the border.
From Gaziantep I’ll be traveling on by train. Not long ago they opened a rail service between Gaziantep and Mosul.
Gaziantep is famous for its excellent food and its pistachio nuts. On Sunday morning I visit a pistachio plant just outside of town.
The factory director picks me up at my hotel, along with his wife who turns out not to be his wife, but, according to her business card, the “quality assurance manager”.
The director, also a shareholder in the factory - which goes by the name of Vitamin - is called Ilhan Eralp.
Eralp is wearing a turtleneck sweater and a sport coat. The quality assurance manager sports All Stars sneakers.
On the wall of Eralp’s office is a portrait of Atatürk. There is nothing unusual about that, but the portrait is made of the husks of the pistachio and the nuts themselves. Eralp says: “We were the first ones to come up with the idea of making art with pistachio nuts, but of course that’s not what we do here. There are two kinds of pistachio nuts, the Turkish ones and the Iranian ones. The Turkish ones are better than the Iranian ones. There are pistachio nuts that are processed as snacks, and others intended for the foodstuffs industry. We supply exclusively to the foodstuffs industry, and to chocolate factories in particular.” My interpreter says: “There are lots of Turkish bakers in Holland, maybe they’d be interested in your pistachio nuts.” The director replies: “I lived in Germany for a while, I have no need of little Turkish bakers in Germany or Holland.” Sometimes I’m afraid that this trip is going to end badly for me and my interpreter. That I will murder my interpreter and spend the rest of my life being tortured in a Turkish prison.
Before entering the factory we have to put bags over our shoes and don a hairnet. Only the director wears nothing on his head; he is also allowed to wear his own shoes into the plant.
The factory looks like a hospital.
We see the conveyor belts where the women – for apparently this is women’s work – still sort the nuts by hand. But today is Sunday, and the factory is empty. That lends the whole thing something ominous.
Half an hour later we go home, but the director and his quality assurance manager stay behind in the deserted factory.
I suspect that they’re going to do the deed beneath the artwork of pistachio nuts.
Unfortunately, the train from Gaziantep to Mosul in Iraq leaves only once a week, on Thursday.
In order not to hang around for five days, I take a train to Nusaybin, a Turkish town close to the Syrian border, halfway between Gaziantep and Mosul.
The trip to Nusaybin takes twelve hours and costs six euros. The train consists of about twenty-five boxcars, attached to two passenger cars. There is, of course, no dining car.
There are fifteen passengers in the train when we leave Gaziantep, including the four conductors. Sitting beside me in the compartment is Suleiman; on his head he wears the Turkish equivalent of the kaffiya.
He is on his way to a funeral in Ceylanpinar, an eight-hour trip from Gaziantep.
Suleiman says: “I sold my car so that my wife and I could pay for our trip to Mecca, that’s why I’m traveling by train. The Turks who go to Mecca are usually old, but most of the pilgrims are young Indonesians. I have seven daughters and a son. My son lives in Kirghizia, I haven’t seen him for twelve years. My daughters are all married. First elementary school, then Koran school and then marriage, that’s how it goes with daughters.” In another compartment is Yasar. His hair is white, the state of his teeth would make even a hard-hearted man burst out in tears. A little section of his white moustache is the color of nicotine. He wears a black watch cap pulled down over his ears. Pressed up against his ear under the cap is a little transistor radio; Yasar is hard of hearing.
When I first see him down on the floor of his compartment I think he’s praying, but he’s eating. He has his food spread out on a newspaper.
Yasar struggles to his feet when he sees me. He says: “I was visiting my children in Gaziantep. Now I’m on my way to Karkamiş, that’s where I live. I have a shop where I sell metal objects. I used to deal in nuts, but my storage place burned down.” From one of his pockets he produces the thing he sells in his shop: a recycled piece of tin.
Soldiers have boarded the train. We’re traveling along the Syrian border now. The soldiers want to see everyone’s passport, they write down the numbers in a notebook one of them is carrying.
Gül enters into a conversation with one of the soldiers. His name is Mersut and he’s from Istanbul, he’s twenty-two.
He says: “I’m not really supposed to be talking to you. A soldier’s life is hard. Sometimes we aren’t given any water, to make us tough. We’re not allowed to smoke, we’re not allowed to call our family, only when we’re on leave and can go into town. First I want to find a job, then start a family.” Gül first gives him some of her figs, then her telephone number.
“A glimmer of hope?” I ask.
“He’s too young,” she replies.
Two women come into the compartment. A mother and daughter. The mother looks like she has a skin disease on her chin. But they’re tattoos, put there for aesthetic reasons.
The daughter starts talking.
“We were visiting a sick relative,” she says.
The mother says nothing. All she does is grab the hem of my interpreter’s skirt, to examine the cloth.
When we ask to take her picture, she shakes her head no.
Evening falls. In the first passenger car, the four conductors are cooking over a samovar on the floor. A greasy red broth with meat in it, and yoghurt soup. Their bread is rolled up in newspapers. They give me a spoonful of soup.
Nusaybin is coming up. The train is almost empty. Only a few soldiers.
Mustafa, one of the conductors, says: “I used to work on the Taurus Express, but that doesn’t exist anymore.” Taurus Express, we will follow you. Whither thou goest, we shall follow.
The only hotel in the center of Nusaybin has rooms that smell of piss.
Just outside of town, though, is an Islamic truckers’ hotel. Nusaybin is on the main road to Iraq, and Turkey is investing heavily in northern Iraq in particular.
The rooms at the truckers’ hotel are clean, but you have to put on slippers before you can go in and they wake you at five in the morning to go to the mosque, the taxi driver tells us.
Ever since I found out that only Muslims are allowed to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, I’ve been thinking about becoming a Muslim. Any man of letters worth his salt should be able to step over his own identity like a tiger jumping through a hoop. But after a train ride of almost thirteen hours, I dread getting up at five o’clock.
Before crossing the border into Iraq I take a detour to the capital of what is supposed to become Kurdistan: Diyarbakir.
Turkey has a lot of soldiers stationed along the border with Syria, but the Turkish military police is also demonstratively present around Diyarbakir. In the old city center I see a police station covered almost entirely with a Turkish flag.
As though the Turks need to remind themselves that they are still in Turkey.
I have an appointment with Askin, a twenty-five-year-old artist who also teaches. She’s Kurdish.
As we walk down the street, I ask her about the political situation. She says: “I’d rather not talk about that in public.” In a little café on the first floor, along a shopping street in the new part of Diyarbakir, she explains that it’s not dangerous to discuss things like that in public, but that people don’t like to hear it.
Two of her friends join us: Sabor, a Kurd who teaches philosophy at a local college, and Ikut, a half-Arab, half-Turkish professor of computer science.
“Will there ever be a Kurdish state?” I ask.
The Kurds I talked to last year in Iraq were optimistic about that.
“No,” Sabor says. “That’s not going to happen. Our best hope is the European Union. If Turkey joins the EU, things will get better for the Kurds here as well.” “What about the language?” I ask. “Are you allowed to speak Kurdish?” A Dutch diplomat in Ankara had told me that when Turkey finally eased its year-long ban on speaking Kurdish, they couldn’t find any Kurdish-speaking civil servants in eastern Turkey: no one dared to admit they knew the language. “They’re still pretty spooked,” the diplomat said.
“Yes, we’re allowed to speak Kurdish,” Sabor says.
Ikut tells me that he has written a book about God as a normal, everyday person.
“While I was in the army,” he says, “I found God. When you look death in the eyes, a lot of things become clear.”
In the center of the old city of Diyarbakir is a mosque that was once a church. Before that it was a pagan temple.
On the square in front of the mosque, Ali Baykal approaches me. He is twenty-two and a student of Turkish literature. He and his friend Mehmet, he claims, have come here to the square to help foreigners.
“Can I help you find something?” Ali asks.
“A fortuneteller,” I reply.
Before crossing the border into Iraq, I want to have my fortune told.
“Come on,” Ali says, “I know a fortuneteller at a church close to here.” Murat, a man ragged and forlorn even by Eastern Turkish standards, goes along with us. First he claims to be a businessman, then a student, finally a musician. According to my interpreter, Murat is probably a pickpocket. He addresses me with the words: “Are you a stranger?” Our little group heads to the church.
There is no fortuneteller there, only an American evangelist by the name of Jerry who speaks fluent Turkish.
Jerry says: “Don’t let anybody tell you that Jesus is the son of God. God doesn’t have children. You should see that symbolically.” Then Jerry hands out books about Jesus in Turkish.
Ali Baykal says the fortuneteller lives in the church across from the evangelical church. It’s an Assyrian Orthodox church, but no matter how we pound on the door, no one answers.
As a token of appreciation, I take Murat, Ali and Mehmet out to lunch. Even pickpockets get hungry sometimes.
In the afternoon I talk to Özlem Örçen, project manager at the Diyarbakir Arts Center.
The arts center is located in an underground shopping center, beside a playground for toddlers.
“The artists whose work is on display here sometimes deal with the Kurdish issue,” Örçen says. “That’s why the government sends someone over to take a look fairly often. They don’t interfere with us at all, because we exhibit in an underground shopping center and not in a public space.” “What about freedom of expression in Turkey?” I ask.
“Excellent,” Örçen says. “We do nothing illegal here.” My driver interrupts to say that his wife makes art by painting silk fabric. He wonders whether she might be able to exhibit her work here. When he is finished talking, he translates for me.
The day ends with a discussion with a Norwegian anthropology student, Mona-Maria. She’s twenty-four years old and has come to Turkey to carry out field research into Kurdish dance.
Mona-Maria is one of those girls whose homeliness makes her even prettier.
“I’ve got a room with a Kurdish family,” she says. “The grandmother told me: ‘If you want to get married, I can arrange it.’ But my mother wasn’t very happy about that.” It starts with field research and ends in marriage. Melancholy rears its head.
Everything is field research: friendship, sex, love and work.
Only when you write do you escape that.
At the last Turkish gas station before the Iraqi border, the women’s toilet has been transformed into a mosque.
It is Newroz, Kurdish new year, so there are lots of Turkish police and soldiers on the road. My Turkish driver expresses his disapproval when we see a car approach from the Iraqi side, full of young people waving the Kurdish flag.
We had stopped along the way in the town of Batman, between Diyarbakir and the border, to talk to the Kurdish physician Zülfükar. He told us about the war between Kurds and the Turkish army that was fought out here from 1990 to 1999. “The Turks and Kurds are brothers,” he said. “It’s the politicians who cause all the trouble” Both my interpreter and my driver, who has started taking more liberties as the journey goes on, begin arguing with him.
“Doctors in Turkey are corrupt,” said Ümit, the driver. “If you need help you have to pay under the table. Kurds all have eight children, some of them have two wives, and all they do is ask the government for money. But pay taxes? Forget it! Here in eastern Turkey it’s the Arab mentality that rules.” The look on Ümit’s face leaves no room for doubt about what he thinks of that mentality.
According to Dr. Zülfükar, corruption among Turkish doctors is a thing of the past. That there are men in the countryside who have more than one wife was, indeed, a problem, but that was only a minority.
At the border I say goodbye to my Turkish driver. He is going back to his wife in Istanbul. The interpreter already left us at Batman. She still hadn’t found a husband, but countless Turkish men now had her phone number and she was returning with seven bags full of presents for her family - which is nothing to sneeze at.
It is forbidden to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border on foot. But because it is Newroz, there are no taxis to be found. For five lira a Kurdish waif is willing to help out. Within fifteen minutes he finds a Kurd who not only speaks a little Dutch, but also owns a Dutch passport. He drives a Volkswagen van with German plates. He claims to have left Frankfurt only three days ago. As far as I can understand, his name is Sandy. He’s willing to give me a lift.
Sandy says he has a shop in Zahko, in Iraq, and that he shuttles back and forth between Frankfurt and Zakho all the time. His bus is full of merchandise.
A border guard stamps my passport and says: “Welcome to Kurdistan.”
Fifty meters further an Iraqi official begins tearing the blackout paper off the windows of Sandy’s van.
“I don’t understand why they have to ruin my car,” Sandy cries out.
From here I am allowed to proceed on foot. With pain in my heart I leave Sandy behind.
My Iraqi driver takes me to Arbil, capital of the Kurdish region. There are almost no soldiers to be seen. If there is a war going on, it seems to be exclusively on the Turkish side of the border.
Arbil is a prosperous city: flashy cars, new shopping centers, an amusement park. And it’s safe for tourists.
The Arbil International Hotel, which everyone refers to here as the “Sheraton”, does still search its guests’ luggage, but that seems to be more in the interests of folklore.
In the lobby I meet Dara, an Iraqi Kurd who works for the BBC.
“There is a lot of money around here,” he says. “But anyone who wants to invest in Arbil has to go through the Barzani family. In the same way that anyone who wants to invest in Sulaymaniya has to go through the Talabanis.” Talabani is the current president of Iraq; Massoud Barzani is the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and president of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Late that evening I see a young man in a pink shirt walking around the amusement park with a Kurdish flag.
Officially I’m in Iraq, but in fact Iraq doesn’t exist here.
To take part in the Newroz festivities, I travel north from Arbil towards the town of Shaqlawa. Just before Shaqlawa we see Kurds sitting on carpets in a field along the highway. The women are wearing Kurdish costumes. I walk over to talk to one of the families. Little families don’t exist here.
“We’ve been here all day,” says the mother, who is dressed rather traditionally.
“Some people say Kurdistan is a police state,” I say.
“Ridiculous,” the mother says. “We’re allowed to say whatever we like. This is the opposite of a police state.” “Will there ever be an independent Kurdistan?” “Inshallah.” One of the daughters is wearing a gray knit top beneath a blue pin-striped waistcoat. Her name is Iman, she’s sixteen. Iman murmurs: “I’d like to go to Korea.” “Why?” I ask.
“Because I love the Korean series on the TV.” The family is eating the traditional Kurdish new year’s dish: biryani, a rice-based dish with meat and raisins and dolmas.
Two bushes further along, Ibrahim Muhammed Ali and his family are picnicking on a carpet.
Ibrahim says: “All politicians are bad. I was a civil servant for 21 years, then they threw me out because I wasn’t a member of the KDP.” The KDP is Barzani’s party; the Barzanis, it seems, are lord and master in Arbil.
“I was born in 1957, “ Ibrahim says, “I have to live on 130 dollars a month, and support my family and half my in-laws.
At another carpet I meet a Kurd who speaks German; he lived in Munich for ten years. He returned two years ago. His name is Tawfik, he’s 33. “What does Newroz mean to the Kurds?” I ask.
“It’s our ‘Sylvester’,” Tawfik says.
Beyond the next row of bushes, I am invited to dance a traditional dance. I don’t dare to refuse. And so I dance in little circles on the carpet. In Kurdistan, the world is reduced to a picnic along the highway.
Later in the day I meet Nian Bakhal, a Kurdish journalism trainee. She fled with her parents to Holland when she was nine, and she now strings for Elsevier, a Dutch newsmagazine, and for the NOS, a Dutch broadcasting company.
“The Kurdish secret police are all-powerful,” she says. “If I would really write something negative about Barzani, they would make my life miserable. There is no middle class here. The wealth is increasing, partly because Turkey is investing here.” “I hear that Israel is investing in Kurdistan as well,” I say.
“That’s right, “ she replies. “They say the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militants, are trained by the Mossad.” These are rumors I have been hearing ever since my first visit to Iraq in 2008. Behind every bush in the Middle East one encounters a new conspiracy theory.
Nian says: “Around here they also claim that the Mexican Flu was invented by the Jews.” That evening, Dara, a Kurdish journalist, will tell me: “Every splinter group in Iraq is supported by a neighboring country. The Sunnis by Syria and Saudi Arabia, the Shi‘ites by Iran, the Turkmens by Turkey; the Kurds are the only ones who have nobody. The only friends the Kurds have are their mountains.” But perhaps the Kurds do have one friend after all: the Mossad.
Early in the morning I pay a visit to General Jamal Taher Bakr, head of the Iraqi police in Kirkuk.
The general’s desk is as imposing as the general himself, with his impressive moustache and his belly to match.
There are seats arranged in front of the general’s desk. The wall on the right is hung with photos in which one sees the general with assorted dignitaries, including Admiral Mullen.
The office is full of artificial flowers and smells faintly of roses. As though the cleaning lady sprinkles rose water on the general’s desk each morning.
The general starts talking: “When I assumed this post on July 13, 2007, it immediately became clear to me that we must not wait for the enemy to attack, but that we must attack the enemy.” “How does the police go about attacking?” I ask.
“First of all, by winning the people’s confidence, “the general says. “When the people trust the police, they give the police information. Until recently, sometimes as many as seven vehicles would explode here in a single day, but this year we haven’t had a single car bombing.” The general knocks on wood.
Kirkuk is a city inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
“Is there partisanship within your police force?” I ask. “How many policemen do you have?” “I am a Kurd,” the general says. “But I don’t see Kurds or Arabs, I see only good or bad policemen. I’m not allowed to say how many officers there are on the force. Thousands. Last year we had a shortage of manpower, but this year I hope to be able to make up for that.” The general has five sons, all of whom live in the Netherlands. He himself lived in the Dutch town of Arnhem for a while. Then he adds: “But don’t talk about that too much.” The general insists that his policemen escort me to my next appointment.
As I’m leaving the general’s office, I run into a group of American soldiers in another part of the building.
On a street in the ‘suburbs’ of Kirkuk, I meet Monir Goran and Baban, composer and poet, respectively. Monir and Baban fled Kurdistan in 1998. These days they live in Utrecht, the Netherlands. They are in Kirkuk for a family visit.
Monir paid an Albanian ‘coyote’ 3,500 dollars to bring him to Italy. From there he caught the train.
“I was taken into detention when I got to the Dutch border,” he says.
An artist joins us.
“When the Americans invaded Iraq,” says the artist, who has brought three of his paintings with him, “Iraq was born.” Later he says: “Don’t publish what I said about the birth of Iraq, I have family here.” (I’m not mentioning his surname; that should be protection enough.)
Al Darwish Bamo, a political cartoonist, joins us.
He has a thin face and a pointed nose on which an inconspicuous pair of spectacles are perched.
“There aren’t a lot of political cartoons, that’s why there’s always enough work for us,” Ali says.
The newspapers he draws for include Gep, which is Kurdish for “speak”.
Muhamed Ibrahim sits down at our table as well.
Muhamed says: “I’m a security guard. I used to be a farmer, but God hasn’t sent rain to Kurdistan for the last seven years. Some farmers are rich and can afford irrigation, but not me.”
The last stage of my road trip takes me from Kirkuk to Baghdad. Under normal conditions, a three-hour drive. It takes me five.
The area south of Kirkuk, they say, is unsafe. The guards I’ve hired force me to wear a flak jacket.
Last year I stayed at the Al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad’s Karada district. But in January of this year the Al-Hamra was bombed, along with two other hotels. I have no choice but to take a room at a “guesthouse”, next door to the villa where CNN resides.
The guesthouse reminds me of a prison.
The problem with hiring guards is that it’s hard to get rid of them again. But I have escaped from them in the past, and I will escape from them this time as well.
After dinner, in my prison, I meet with Jassim, a top official with the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During my first visit to Iraq I had lunch with him at the Al-Rasheed Hotel.
Jassim is a sweet man. That his appearance reminds one slightly of Mr. Bean makes him only sweeter.
“In a few days the election results will be announced,” Jassim says. “The way things look right now, Allawi will get the most votes, but Maliki will get the most seats in parliament because that’s how our system works. The best thing would be for Allawi to go into opposition: the Shi‘ites can’t be in opposition, it makes them violent. Allawi is a Shi‘ite, but his project is a national project, he’s popular with the Sunnis as well. I don’t think Maliki will become prime minister again, someone else will be advanced from within his party. That’s how Maliki became prime minister, too.” Instant coffee is available in the prison.
“What about the violence?” I ask.
“If some groups are dissatisfied with the results, it will increase. Hakim al-Zamili, the former state secretary of Health, a man responsible for thousands of killings, was on his party’s list and got twenty-thousand votes. In Iraq, violence doesn’t necessarily make people fall into discredit. The big bombing in August at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was an inside job; the violence originates with certain people in the government. Maybe they do it at the request of foreign powers, maybe they do it out of fear, maybe against their will.” Jassim’s mother, whom I’m never met, has sent along a present for me, a book about Kirkuk. She ran for parliament as well.
“She didn’t make it,” Jassim says. “We went and talked to everyone. And they all promised: our whole family will vote for you. If they had all done that, we would have had enough votes. But you can’t tell what people do once they’re in the voting booth. The followers of Muqtada al-Sadr [a Shi‘ite theologian who has reportedly fled to Iran and is considered responsible for a great deal of violence against the Americans and Sunni Muslims, AG] were incredibly disciplined. In each district they voted for a different supporter of their party. Some people wait for a cleric’s advice. Al-Sistani [a prominent Shi‘ite cleric – AG] was smart enough not to come out for a specific candidate. He knows that if he did that and people didn’t follow his advice, he’d lose face. If a broad coalition government is formed, not a whole lot will change. But if a small coalition is formed with a strong opposition, things might happen in Iraq. Turkey is the best of our worst neighbors. All they want to do is make money here. Iran and Saudi-Arabia are still fighting out a war on Iraqi territory, using Iraqi straw men. There’s not going to be any Kurdish state. Okay, if we get something like WWI, which effectively buried the Ottoman Empire, then maybe there will be a Kurdish state, but otherwise not. Because no one’s waiting for a state like that, except for the Kurds themselves.” It’s getting late.
“You know what the safest city is outside northern Iraq?” Jassim asks. “Tikrit, the city where Saddam was born. They’ve converted a few of his former palaces into hotels with fantastic bridal suites, and it’s not expensive: fifty or sixty dollars a night.” A honeymoon in Tikrit, now that sounds appealing.
Karim Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. He has just left by train with his entire orchestra for a performance in Basra. I would have loved to go with him.
In addition to symphony conductor, Wasfi is also the founder and manager of the Peace through Art Foundation. In a well-guarded villa in the district of Al Mansour, the foundation gives music lessons to young people between the ages of six and twenty-five. The pupils can also take lessons in etiquette.
At the villa I speak to Wasfi’s assistant, Ghadi Al Tieaá, a well-kept Western-looking woman in her forties. Ghadi is a ballerina, but because Iraq had a ballet school but no ballet company of its own, she has regretfully never danced, only taught.
Her dream is that one day she may be able to give ballet lessons for the Peace through Art Foundation.
“Where does the money for the foundation actually come from?” I ask her in her office.
“From Mr. Wasfi himself,” she says.
“Does the government take part?” “No,” she says, “but sometimes we get money from wealthy people.” “Do you actually believe that peace can come through art?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “we really believe that. The children come here from all ranks of the population. Poor children don’t pay anything, rich children pay a contribution. They come here after school, three or four times a week.” She shows me the classrooms. Some of the dividing walls are made from a kind of thin particle board.
That afternoon I attend a rehearsal by an orchestra of about twenty children. The next day they will be giving a concert.
Ali Khasaf, concertmaster of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, did not go to Basra; he has stayed here to be with the children. He has a moustache and curly gray hair.
They play Händel, a few pieces by Khasaf himself which sound like martial music, and finally Beethoven’s “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” The clarinetist is a short, fat little 13-year-old boy. I can’t keep my eyes off him.
Yasir, a hip 19-year-old, tells me that he first set out to learn the guitar, but was soon better than his teacher. He switched to trumpet, and now he comes here three times a week for lessons. He is in his senior year at high school. It takes him an hour to get from his neighborhood to the center of town.
“How safe is it on the streets?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Better than last year.” I’ve been hearing that ever since my first visit to Iraq. Everyone says it’s better than it was last year.
During intermission, Khasaf says: “We’ve been working on this for four months. They come from all over Baghdad. There is no ethnicity here, only music.” “Where will the concert be held tomorrow?” I ask.
Khasaf hesitates. “I’d rather not say,” he says. “For security reasons. Just write down: in a club.”
Luay is an Iraqi with sparkling eyes who once worked as Baghdad correspondent for USA Today. But USA Today no longer has a correspondent in Baghdad.
We drive around the city in Luay’s beat-up car. His last car was destroyed in a bombing. It’s a cold day by Baghdad standards. I’ve known Luay since 2008. He’s a friend.
At an intersection, a taxi stops. A soldier climbs out. I think: that’s funny, a soldier taking a taxi to work. But the soldier comes over to Luay’s car and climbs in the back.
My assistant, who is sitting in the backseat as well, had taken a picture, and that’s not allowed. It never used to be a problem, but pending the announcement of the election results Maliki has issued a decree banning the taking of pictures on the street. At least, that’s what the soldier claims.
“He said to me: stop or I’ll shoot,” Luay says. “He probably watched an action film last night.” The Iraqi police still enjoy little or no training; what’s more, the corps is divided deeply along religious lines.
A bombing is tough luck. Pistols with a silencer are illegal but popular, and are used to eliminate certain elements.
One of the Iraqi security guards has on his cell phone a film clip of the bombing of the Al-Hamra Hotel. He shows it to me proudly.
Last year a fixer showed me porno he’d downloaded on his phone. Perhaps bombings are the logical extension of porno, only employing other phallic symbols.
The most dangerous places in Baghdad are still the checkpoints, especially at night. What’s more, everyone knows that the metal detectors used there by soldiers and policemen simply don’t work.
Early that evening I meet with Zaid, a thirty-year-old mechanical engineer in a fluorescent, blue-and-white checked shirt. Rumor has it he’s homosexual and would like to tell me more about the homos of Baghdad.
When I meet him, though, Zaid says he’s actually only interested in homos.
“I lived in Cairo for two years,” he says. “What a town. People there have sex in exchange for a little money, the foreigners do it for free. I like taking walks, then I look at the pretty faces.” “Would you like to take a walk with me?” I ask.
“Oh God,” Zaid says. “I might get killed for walking around with a foreigner.” People say that Baghdad is making progress. That is partly true, I believe. But true progress comes only when luxury shopping malls are opened, a hotel that meets Western standards, the first McDonald’s in Baghad.
Until such time, there remains a vacuum.
On my way to the airport I feel lost, because I have to go back. Baghdad is one of the most horrible towns on earth to visit, but at the same time it is hard to leave. As though the city has something special to offer - not despite its dismalness, but because of it.
I look at all the concrete walls, built to provide protection from explosions. I think about the suspicion that seems to be the general rule here, the conspiracy theory as modus vivendi.
Much of what would be improper elsewhere is still understandable and legitimate in Baghdad.
We need war to remind us that self-preservation is not uncivilized.