In the last days of Iraq, shortly before the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Ministry of Information, which controlled the movements of all the press, granted my request to travel the country by car.
That was in 2002. My companions on these long and melancholy trips – shadowed by the coming American invasion – were my driver, Munzer, a transplanted Palestinian Sunni whose family had emigrated to Iraq in 1948, and my translator, Reem, who came from Babil Province. Sometimes we were accompanied by a bad-tempered ‘minder’, graciously provided by the ministry, whose purpose was to spy on us and take detailed notes about where we were going and whom we saw.
Occasionally Ali, another translator, a film scholar who worshipped Martin Scorsese, also came along. But he and Munzer had a tumultuous relationship, which sometimes came close to blows, so we tried to keep them separated.
Munzer had a 1987 Oldsmobile, like something out of Starsky and Hutch. I would load the car with fruit and water, a medical kit and emergency supplies, and we would begin, driving up and down, north and south, east and west, across the country.
I knew then, even as we were traversing the endless Saddam Hussein highways – Baghdad to Basra, Baghdad to Mosul – that I would never take those routes so effortlessly again in my lifetime.
With the invasion, and the insurgent war that followed, Iraq would virtually disappear. The land of date trees, oasis and desert would be marked by checkpoints and graves.
I did not know then the extent of the anguish that would fall on this beguiling place, known as the land between two rivers – the Euphrates and the Tigris – but I did know as we drove through those biblical ruins, those languid farming villages, those dusty cities, that they would be closed forever after the bombs started falling.
The American invasion was planned and even had a date, but there was little solid information about it. We were cut off from the world on those trips. The Internet in Baghdad was carefully controlled, and there was no cell-phone service. I did have a smuggled satellite phone, but it was illegal to use it. The Mukhabarat, the secret police, watched us so closely that it would have been impossible to go outside, find a satellite in the sky and set it up without being caught. I kept it for near emergencies.
Occasionally Reem and I would watch Iraqi TV, but mostly we talked to people and got immersed in local gossip, the rumours and paranoia that inevitably come with the end of a regime. It was an overbearingly tense and claustrophobic time: a great sense of doom hung in the polluted air.
‘What will happen when the Americans come?’ I asked Reem, or Ali. In Baghdad, children were digging trenches and sandbags were being piled on street corners, but no one wanted to look too far ahead. Reem usually stayed silent. Once, Munzer answered: ‘We will fight!’ and that was that. We kept driving.
We drove to the sacred Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala, we drove to Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, we drove to Samarra and Babylon and Diyala. We spent Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, with a farmer who proudly slaughtered a goat in front of us in an alleyway – a gruesome killing, and then lunch. Once, Reem and I went to the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala. Reem went inside and came back with a green ribbon for me. ‘It means,’ she said solemnly, ‘you get a wish.’
Reem knew what I wanted. I was getting married in August, and I dropped my head and closed my eyes and wished that I would be happy, would be safe, and that we would have a healthy child.
Along the way on our long days, we met Iraqis from the sects and tribes that made up the extraordinarily diverse ethnicities of the country. We went to stay with the Yazidis and with blue-eyed Assyrians; we met Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Circassians, Armenian Iraqis, Iraqi Jews and Kurds.
We knelt with terrified Christians celebrating Mass a few days before Christmas in Mosul, praying for the war to be halted. A few months later, on Ash Wednesday, we sat with some Chaldeans at St Mary’s Church on Palestine Street in Baghdad, which in 2009 would be blown up by a bomb as worshippers were leaving.
It was surreal to be poised, waiting for war to start. The city was suddenly invaded with international do-gooders who showed up in a last-ditch attempt to stop the bombing. There were feminists – Code Pink – and busloads of hippie protesters who had arrived from Jordan. One night I came back to my hotel in Baghdad to find the Hollywood actor Sean Penn wandering around the lobby, looking lost.
We went to my room and smoked cigarettes. Penn wondered if there was any alcohol (Iraq was dry unless you smuggled in your own) and he talked about how he had come as an average citizen from Marin County, California, wanting to stop the war.
‘It’s up to the Iraqi people to get rid of their own leader,’ he said, which was basically what everyone else, except the American military planners and George W. Bush, was saying too.
In a kind of fever in those last days of peacetime, I collected as many names and phone numbers of ordinary Iraqis as I could, as a wilful verification process. I wanted to go back after the war and find out how many of those people still lived, or how their lives had radically changed.
I went to monasteries, universities, libraries, archaeological sites and hospitals. I listened to the biblical stories of Jonah, who wandered northern Iraq, and the whale; of Assyrian kings; and of Nineveh, city of great sin. I traced maps of Mesopotamia, the ancient land that also included parts of what are now Kuwait, Syria and Turkey.
We stopped driving when it got dark, and slept in eerie, empty, chilly hotels where the Mukhabarat sat in the lobby with their cheap, cracked leather jackets and their drooping moustaches.
They were so horribly obvious, those spies. Don’t they even bother to try to be discreet? I often asked Reem, but she shrugged and said that Iraqis had become so accustomed to them that they often forgot they were there. Still, for years afterwards – and even today when I return to Baghdad – I lower my voice when a waiter approaches a table and feel suspicious of all hotel staff.
In Baghdad hotels, the maids used to go through all our pockets, open our notebooks and search our drawers. There were rumours of secret cameras in our rooms to document indiscretions, which could be used later for extortion. I used to dress in my darkened bathroom and always talked to people with the television blaring, erasing the sound of our voices.
One sunny morning in Baghdad, Munzer and I talked our way into the Iraq Museum, pre-looting. Another time he got us into an obscure Baghdad museum devoted to gifts and tributes to Saddam: a testament to his egomania, like the towering statues and portraits of him everywhere.
But what I remember best in the haze of memory was going to the place that had come to be known as the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Reem and I spent a gloomy day wandering through the ‘gardens’, which were dishevelled and in disarray – a sad fate for one of the Seven Wonders of the World, if in fact they really did exist and were not just a poetic creation.
There were no green meadows arranged by Nebuchadnezzar for his queen, Amytis, and there was no Tower of Babel in the background. It was empty except for a lone family wandering through the ruins and a darkened gift shop selling key chains.
Saddam often compared himself to Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king. Everyone knows how that story ended: he conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. But according to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar was also humbled by God for his arrogance. The king went mad, succumbing to bouts of shrieking insanity and living in the wild for seven years.
Reem was often silent on these trips, sitting in the back seat with her oversized black plastic handbag at her feet. The Gardens of Babylon disturbed her: they seemed symbolic of fallen empires and worlds disappearing.
I knew she felt waves of endless anxiety about what lay ahead for her, her family and her country. Her studies had been halted, as had any plans for marriage. ‘There’s no future for anyone right now,’ she said, with no hint of self-pity.
She stared out of the car window, taking in the endless rows of swaying date trees along the highway. Ali had told me once that the trees represented the soul of the Iraqis: their profound connection to their country, their sacred land and their identity. Those dreamy, plentiful trees haunted me after the invasion. The Iraqi soul had been lost.
The people we visited in those strange, dark days were mostly in a panic. The worshippers in the church in Mosul sat in the cold pews in tears, begging God to spare them from another war. They prayed in Aramaic, the language of Christ, which I found beautiful.
Shortly before Christmas 2002, the relics of St Teresa of Lisieux, a French saint known as ‘the little flower of Jesus’ who had died aged twenty-four from tuberculosis in 1897, arrived in Mosul. Then, there were nearly one million Christians in Iraq. Today, the figure is estimated to be as low as 200,000.
I sat with an older woman, blue-eyed and fair-skinned, bent over her rosary beads as the box of relics was carried through the church. She reminded me of my mother in her devotion and her courage.
She said she would not flee Iraq when the war started. ‘Where will we go?’ she whispered. ‘The archbishop has begged the Christians not to leave. This is our home, our ancient land. If we go, we are deserting what is also ours.’
Together, we joined the snaking line that led to St Teresa’s relics. As we approached, people bent in reverence to kiss the glass that shielded the bones as if the dead saint were a kind of talisman and protection from something dark ahead. Some people simply laid their cold palms on the glass beseechingly, looking inside.
The more I talked to people, the more I realised most of them had no plan for when ‘zero hour’ – the American invasion – actually came. No one really believes that a war is coming to one’s doorstep. There was a sense of denial, a vague hope that someone – some diplomat, some world leader, or God – would stop it. I, on the other hand, had gone into panic mode and had four different locations in Baghdad where I stashed photocopies of my passport, water, food, batteries and boxes of Ciproflox, the antibiotic, in case of biological warfare – not that it would do much good.
It was in Mosul I realised, while talking to a Christian family who had begun some simple preparations – storing water in their cupboards and hoarding candles – that all of these ancient people were in grave danger of disappearing, as people so often did in Iraq: swallowed up like Jonah inside the whale, vanished.
In Bashiqa, a village not far from Mosul, we spent several days with the Yazidis, attending a wedding and a funeral. We stayed with a family and ate with the local mayor. The women remained in the kitchen, preparing vast dishes of incense-scented rice, and passing their fat babies back and forth. Aside from a few rusted Chevrolets parked outside their simple homes, the Yazidis’ traditions had changed relatively little in the past two centuries.
One of the elders sat on the floor and explained their faith; he talked of how they were often wrongly accused of being devil worshippers, and of the injustices they suffered because of it. In fact, he said, they worshipped Lucifer, the Peacock God, the fallen angel. Their bible was something called the Black Book.
There was something simple and humble about the Yazidis’ dignity and isolation, and the fact that they were great survivors. They had been gravely persecuted through the ages, but most of all by Saddam.
Twelve years later, in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (Isis) was racing through Iraq, swallowing up entire Yazidi and Christian villages, engulfing anyone who did not embrace its strict Salafist ways. The Yazidis were once again driven out, seeking refuge on a mountain near Sinjar, facing scorching temperatures by day and a lack of water, food and medical care. They were eventually rescued and brought to refugee camps, but Isis – at the time of this writing – controls most of the areas where they used to live. The Yazidis have become refugees and wanderers, as they feared.
A few days after Isis gained control of Mosul, raiding the Central Bank, driving out families and destroying all religious idolatry and statues of poets, I lay on my bed in my hotel in Baghdad, trying to organise my memories in the way that Iraqis do when they are talking about the past.
My Iraqi friends always refer to epochs: this was back in the Saddam days; that was when I fought in the Iran–Iraq War; this was during the first Gulf War; this was the second invasion; this was after the Americans came.
Iraq had been such a huge part of my life, but in 2004 I had a much-wanted child. After that, I returned to Iraq sporadically, but no longer lived there for months and months in bleak hotels.
There were to be no more sweeping drives through the countryside. Instead, there were requests to get inside the Green (or International) Zone to talk to the American occupiers. Mosul was no more; the ruins I had wandered through near the ancient city of Nineveh were held by Isis. There was no chance to even drive out of Baghdad.
But although I had returned from a long period away, I felt I had never really left Iraq, and clearly, it never really left me.
About nine months after the fall of Saddam, I lay in an isolation ward in a public hospital in a grey suburb south of Paris. It seemed there was a little piece of Iraqi earth inside me that refused to let me go.
It was January, and bitterly cold, and I was the only patient in the quarantine section. It was grim: long putty-coloured hallways where the lights flickered on and off; paper sheets on the cold hospital bed; a blinking television with four channels.
I was hooked into so many wires and tubes and needles that I could not move. My room truly was in isolation: I was so remotely placed that the nurses did not stop by often. I was also heavily pregnant. It seemed that my wish in Karbala with Reem had partially come true.
The unlucky part was that I was very ill. It seems – and no one knew for sure – I had contracted some kind of unique malady, and the doctors were pointing a finger at my time in Iraq. Dust from Iraq had found its way into my lungs; some kind of Iraqi virus had entered my body and stubbornly remained, embedded in tissues and floating freely in my bloodstream.
The doctors asked endless questions, most of which I could not answer: Had I been exposed to any chemical or biological weapons? ( This was still in the days when George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s lies about Saddam’s weapons of destruction were not yet fully exposed.) Had I lived with a family, and drunk local water? Did it taste metallic? Had I been exposed to any nuclear waste? I thought I had, during a Ministry of Information-sponsored ‘field trip’ to Salman Pak, one of Saddam’s key biological and chemical warfare centres.
In the end, medical science failed, the questions were never answered, and the doctors could not diagnose the illness, only treat the symptoms. I stayed in the isolation ward for several weeks, hooked up to a drip of some sort, bored and angry.
One day I woke at dawn, utterly confused about where I was, and hauled myself out of bed. I dragged my IV pole behind me to a window in the hallway, and watched the snowfall line the hospital courtyard.
Back in my room, I turned on the TV and saw a video of a grizzled Saddam Hussein. A few weeks earlier he had been pulled from his hiding place – ‘like a rat’, as George W. Bush put it – a spider hole near Tikrit, where Reem and I had once watched proud Nebuchadnezzar-style military parades.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen – we got him,’ a jubilant Paul Bremer, the man appointed by the Americans to run Iraq, announced at a press conference later that day. But it was no triumph. I was no fan of Saddam’s, but I sensed that a gigantic scab had been picked, leaving a raw and bleeding wound with no chance to heal.
Everyone had left Baghdad. Reem was in Dubai, Ali had gone into hiding and Munzer had run away. The country was being ripped apart at the seams: Munzer’s prediction – ‘We will fight!’ – was correct. Everyone was fighting. The Sunni insurgents had risen up and were battling the US-led coalition; later they would go after local collaborators who worked with the new Iraqi security forces.
The doctors let me go home, eventually. When I signed the release forms, I felt that there were no answers to anything, and that sometimes things were meant to be shadowy, secretive and unknown.
I went back to Iraq when my baby son was six months old. My strange virus was gone, and my son was fat and cheerful. But by then, Iraq was another country: in the first stages of grieving, and loss.