At the beginning of the American-British invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, Nuha al-Radi was living in Beirut. She was born in Baghdad but grew up mostly in India and went on to study ceramics in London. Thereafter she spent her time between Lebanon and Iraq trying to avoid coups and wars. She began to write a diary during the first bombing of Baghdad in the first Gulf War. It appeared in Granta 42, her first published work. The extracts that follow are from her new diary, of a month-long stay with her family in Iraq after seven years away.
April 30 – Beirut Airport. Our fate doesn’t seem to have improved since the fall of Saddam. Trying to get back to Iraq is a major undertaking. Everyone is afraid of being invaded by the US, so Syria has closed its borders to Iraqis and Jordan only allows a transit if there is a convoy waiting to take you straight from Amman airport to the Iraqi border. Through friends, I have got myself an invitation with an ABC television convoy. I am nervous as a tick. Will I make it? Cess dropped me off, so I said, ‘What do you think is going to be the outcome?’ ‘Many divisions,’ he said. ‘Kurdistan split in two, the Shi’a split in two, a big fight for who is to keep Baghdad, which might get divided like Berlin.’ What a depressing scenario. Yahya says it all depends on the economy, if the US brightens up all will be okay, but the US is in a bad way economically and to cover it up, they will attack somewhere else.
Amman – First hurdle over. I got through the airport, and the convoy leaves at 4 a.m. Amman airport was peppered with forlorn Iraqis sitting on various chairs awaiting their fate. I am horrified to hear that the US has taken over and is in residence in Baghdad College. That makes them my neighbours.
It’s 3 a.m. and the convoy is getting ready. New huge white GMCs with a cargo of cameramen and equipment. It’s a real industry, this going to Baghdad. I have already seen two convoys packed and gone.
May 1. Day 1 – There is no Iraqi authority on our side of the border, only US Marines in all their gear – goggles, earmuffs, helmets, bulletproof vests. They can hardly walk. When our car reached them, one looked at our passports and yelled out to another marine in a nearby tank, ‘One Eyeraki, and two Jordanians.’ We were on our way. On the road every now and then a solitary burnt-out tank and three burnt buses, miles apart. Mariam, one of the producers at ABC, said they’d been full of Arab volunteers for the war. They never had a chance.
I hardly recognize Baghdad after seven years away. The city is covered in dust. Bombed and burnt buildings, huge plumes of smoke hovering. Barricades and US tanks all over the place. The only shiny things are the hundreds of new mosques – huge, bulbous growths, finished with ornate decorations. What was Saddam trying to prove? There are also hideous new flashy houses, built with the strangest architecture. Lots of huge columns and pseudo-everything in style.
We reach the Sheraton where Mariam and the ABC crew are staying. People everywhere. Kids selling bananas in singles. Journalists galore. Outside the hotel areas it’s like a deserted town. Plants overgrowing their fences and coming out of the sidewalks. They are not expecting me at home. I surprise Ma and Needles, who have survived the war and are tired, but still in fighting spirits. Tomorrow I will go and check the house in the orchard.
Day 2 – My poor garden, part overgrown, part desert. Trees, the beautiful palms, are still there, though three died this year. I saw a magpie, a black-and-white kingfisher and a crow. The birds seem okay, they must have adjusted to the bombing.
Constant firing from across the river. They say the army is practising, but what do they need to practise for, they’ve just fought a war? Ma and Needles live by the Tigris. Across the other side of the river used to be a military security complex and club. It is now occupied by the US Marines, who rush about all day in their tanks kicking up dust.
Day 3 – Cleaning house and working in the orchard. Palm trees are the umbrellas for the citrus trees growing underneath. All orchards are planted this way in Iraq, otherwise the orange trees would not survive the long, hot summers. The crop of oranges this year will be zero. At the beginning of the war there was a huge sandstorm that lasted many days and took all the blossoms away. The dates fared a little better, with a little help from Ma. The male palms bloomed during the war and it was not easy for the climbers to pollinate the trees. At the end of the war, when the US occupied Baghdad College just beside us, the climbers were too frightened to climb. So Ma stomped off to the marines and asked to see the boss. When he showed up, she explained that it was the time for the palms to be pollinated and that in Iraq people climb the trees, as opposed to the US where they have ladders, and that the climbers were afraid that they would be mistaken for sharpshooters and be shot at. So he asked Ma whether they carried guns. ‘How can they carry guns when climbing?’ ‘Okay, then they can do it,’ he said. Ma said, ‘We don’t want you.’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ he said. ‘We know.’
Still, no one seems to be in power. It’s a coup with no leaders. They should have taken lessons from us – we have had many. First thing is to take over a radio or TV station with a tank or two, and then announce the takeover and declare a curfew, then read out: rule number one, number two, etc.
The television is not working – a fuzzy snowstorm. The only station it gets is an Iranian satellite station in Arabic, broadcast from Beirut. Ma and my aunt, Needles are hooked up to the generator at the Kubaisis next door, and they help out when there is no electricity, which is most of the time. It’s good to have such neighbours.
My cousin Corset tells us a wonderful a story today: a mullah in the mosque near the orchard, the day after the fall of Baghdad, makes his Friday sermon. ‘May God preserve and protect Saddam and keep him forever, etc.’ and ‘Down with the USA,’ the usual speech. Of course he was immediately removed and asked what he thought he was doing. So he said, ‘Well, I had already written this speech and didn’t have time to change it.’ He was on automatic pilot. Anyway, he is out of a job now and roaming the streets of Suleikh; we just saw him.
Day 4 – The new US mayor of Baghdad, Barbara Bodine, doesn’t meet with her employees. When they ask her what they should do, she says, ‘Just keep things going.’ But how can they, when nothing is moving? They sit in their various offices until noon and then leave. Bodine, meanwhile, meets with Americans in other offices, and nothing is passed down from these meetings.
Hala, Saddam’s youngest daughter, wrote a letter to a satellite TV station to say that Iraqis are a very ungrateful lot. Her father built them houses and gave them shoes and they have no right to treat him this way. Poor misguided girl, she’s in for a shock. Someone answered her saying, ‘We saw your palaces with gold taps, and we are embarrassed to say what we found in your cupboards . . .’ Corset says, ‘Maybe sex toys?’
The poor orchard is so dry, we have just bought a diesel generator and a water pump to get some water out of the river. It’s new, green, Indian, with spare parts, but it leaked immediately so they have gone in search of other spare parts. A lovely start. Every shutter in the house has clusters of bees and horrible hornets. ‘They are not honey bees,’ says Um Hussein, my guardian of the orchard. She says they also build their hives in the long grasses of the orchard and she walks into them sometimes and they swarm all over her. It’s a good thing she’s covered up from head to toe.
Two ministries, trade and communications, have been brought back with their old ministers in an effort to get them working again. I must say that as occupiers the US are a most inefficient lot.
Day 5 – I am still at Ma and Needles’ because I have no water or electricity at home. I hope everything will be working by tomorrow. Even the orchard might get water. I have geese with eleven babies wandering about. Every day we hear stories of mass graves being found. Tanks rush about spewing pollution. Petrol queues are miles long, so mostly one buys black market. No cooking gas at all, so some people have started cutting down trees for fuel.
The Italian Ambassador took a big US military chief to see the damage in Amal’s house done by the recent bombing. He said, ‘Sorry, ma’am, we didn’t do it.’ So who did? She was embarrassed to say anything because of her friend the ambassador.
Day 6 – The new diesel pump has now been working for a day and a half and by tomorrow the water might reach us. In the old days, all agricultural land had to have a river frontage to help the irrigation, so properties came in long strips. Ma and Needles are on the riverside while our houses are a distance away. The Ottomans, to encourage settlements, gave land to their officers. My great-great-great-grandfather, Suleiman Faik Beig, was katkhuda, or deputy ruler, of Baghdad while it was still part of the Ottoman Empire and was given our orchard. He was also a writer and historian. He died in 1896 at the age of ninety-five having produced eight sons. Daughters, if there were any, are not mentioned. My great-grandmother put the orchard rights in my grandfather’s name as she knew her daughter, my mother’s mother, known as Granzy, was a bit wild and something of a gambler and could have gambled it away, as she did much of her property. And so, thanks to my great-grandmother’s foresight, our orchard survives.
We now have eighty parties vying for a place in the new government to be formed. Iraq, we hear, is going to be divided into four parts. We are having a west added; we already have a north, middle and south. Garbage in heaps and flies everywhere.
Day 7 – Still no government, no wages, the banks are closed – a lot have been broken into, looted and burnt. Three days after the war started Ma went with Amal to check her shop, where she also has lectures and cultural activities. Ma saw the bank next door’s door open, so she said, ‘Oh look, the bank’s open . . .’ It was being looted.
I now have water and electricity at home, only to discover all of my three loos are either busted or leaking. So it’s buckets in each one, as replacing them is out of the question now.
Today a tape is circulating with a Saddam message in a croaky voice. Is it him or is it not? It’s the bin Laden story all over again: no Saddam, no bin Laden.
The Kubaisis next door keep getting searched – three times so far: tanks, the lot. Their house is a huge new flashy palace with columns and balconies, the inside a dizzying design of black-and-white marble and lots of plastic plants. Um Mustapha, the lady of the house, got such a shock at the first search that her face swelled up with hives and has stayed that way. They even wanted to see the architect’s drawings, just in case Saddam might be lurking within. The US army is taking over all the big government houses.
In the evening, a knock on the door. It is Adnan Pachachi, head of the Independent Democrats, and just behind him, Arta. Arta spent twelve years in jail and has written his memoirs but couldn’t publish them under Saddam. ‘I’ve already sent it to press,’ he told us. We all went out to the garden. No electricity, but it was still light outside. A new beginning. People tell Adnan, ‘What do you want with this headache?’ (It’s an Iraqi expression.) He says, ‘I’ve lived a good life, worked for my country, and if I am called to do this last thing, and I can, it’s good.’ We all wish him luck. US tanks and marines are at the door wanting to know what’s happening because of the big cars and security guys. Big Brother is watching you.
A French chef was asked to prepare food for 350 Iraqis and Americans when they met for a two-day conclave. Everything was prepared in Kuwait and sent by refrigerated truck to Baghdad with an armed escort. Couldn’t they bring a few generators for the hospitals in the same way? Everybody agrees that the lack of electricity is intentional.
Day 8 – I have been here a week now and we’re still cleaning the house. Sol, Michael and Mac arrive tomorrow, to check on the museum robbery. Water got to the orchard today; the geese were thrilled. I’m kind of detached now and don’t get so disturbed when I see the tanks with the marines in all their gear roaming around. Everyone insists they must have a cooling substance in their helmets, otherwise they could go stark raving mad in this heat.
More stories of mass graves being found. Horrific.
A US Marine has been shot and killed on some bridge in Baghdad. No Iraqi is allowed out of Iraq now, with or without a residence permit abroad.
Day 9 – Rumsfeld says everything is improving day by day. I suggest he come live here for a couple of days and then say that. Still intermittent water and electricity, no cooking gas, no petrol, queues miles long, no salaries, no government, no security. So what has improved? The only thing the US got working was the oil industry, just as the oil ministry was also the only ministry they protected against looting and arson. They’ve found the engineers they needed. The war has been over a month today.
I just heard on the radio that families are putting up black rags to announce the demise of their relatives who are featured in the deck of cards – the US’s fifty most wanted of Saddam’s men. It’s a tradition that started during the Iran war, when public mourning was forbidden by Saddam as too many soldiers were dying. A length of black cloth with the victim’s name and age, etc. would be strung up outside the house announcing the death. In the countryside a few of the wanted men had their families put up these signs, but they didn’t get away with it. Most of them are still on the loose.
Rumsfeld says they now have a presence in every town in Iraq and he is very pleased. Actually, what happens when a tank arrives is that there’s always a congregation of kids and people. One is never certain if the people are being friendly or taunting the marines. I’d guess both. I just saw some very angry marines guarding the Adhamia mosque. The marines were yelling and shooing away the people. That’s how accidents happen.