‘A land where all the children smell of petrol’

The Observer’s ‘state of the union’ report from Baghdad. Summary: total anarchy:

A hundred and fifty dollars or so for an AK-47, double that for a pistol because it’s easier to hide. You can buy them rather easily from the street-markets. These are patrolled hourly by US forces whose job is to check for people selling guns. The traders get round this with diabolical cunning by looking at their watches and, once an hour, hiding all the guns. The liberating forces offered a cross-Baghdad amnesty a couple of weeks ago: the grand total of guns deposited was a magnificent none. … If a silhouetted someone tries to wave you down, with a gun, in a long hot road full of heat-mirage and six-year-olds siphoning petrol, you have to choose: chances are it’s a Bad Person so you keep the foot down, but if it’s the Americans and you race past, they’ll shoot at you, lots, because they’re as scared as everyone else in this shambles of a city.

Then a classic story:

One night I visited a friend about a mile away, and foolishly stayed up talking, and ended up trying to get a late taxi home. Outside the hotel they shrugged, and then one brave young thing disappeared for a minute and came back carrying lots of guns and walked me through the blackout for 10 minutes until we came across a darkened little street party of severely scary drivers, the fat moon winking its light off a battery of gold teeth and metal teacups and, for all I’m really sure, recently bloodied scimitars. Not for 10,000 dollars, I was told. ‘Ali Baba, Ali Baba,’ they repeated. Some Iraqis get annoyed by this – the thief of the 1,001 Nights was Kuwaiti – but the verbal shorthand is fast and always works: the thieves are out, and have guns, and even though we have guns too we’re not going to risk it. Are you mad? Where are you from?

I mention Scotland, and we have one of those extremely odd late-night conversations, this time about Mel Gibson. Apparently one of the very favourite films in Baghdad is Braveheart, because Saddam used to show it repeatedly, nightly, with furious subtitles, to demonstrate just what bastards the English were. I explain that few Scots have a television because most are still running around in woad, thanks to the English. We raise a happy toast – sticky, sweet tea – to the general fog of historical propagandising and the more specific idea of ‘Freedom!’. Somewhere nearby – a mile away? A street away? – another stupid pop-pop gun battle breaks out, and they really won’t take me home, and so I say I might walk, and they raise their teacups again and say you must be either very brave or very stupid, when the truth of course is that I am neither, but something else again relatively new to them, which is very quietly drunk. I bravely wake up my friend and sleep on the sofa.

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