I understand that one or the other high officials from the UAE visited Baghdad in the 1950s, liked it very much, and returned to his land, extolling the many virtues of the city and telling his people that, “We need to make our country like Iraq, and our cities just like Baghdad.”
Back then, before King Farook was murdered in a coup, Baghdad had many fancy hotels (now, the best among them is the Babylon – but more on that later) casinos and the liquor flowed freely in every corner of the city. Nowadays, one can procure one’s favorite poison in the Christian parts of the city, but officially, liquor was banned two or three years ago. Make no mistake – Muslims drink like fish – many of them – but make no apologies when the religious contradictions are brought up I, myself, managed to escape my bodyguard for an hour the other night and scored four tall Heinekens, Christian lush that I am.
This city of some eight million souls, is positively crawling with soldiers and private contractors of one sort or another. In an odd ironic twist, the most critical security needs are farmed out to Kurdish Peshmerga, who are, as I have learned most recently in Duhok, some of the toughest fighting machines on the planet. I met a few when they rolled into my favorite beer store in Duhok, where they would mix whiskey with lemon juice over pre-frozen, half bottles of ice water. Anyway – as far as booze goes, it’s available and fairly cheap.
It’s hot as hell here, even now, as the end of September looms. It’s a good, dry heat, however, and I don’t mind it much. The traffic, though, is horrendous; it’s not as bad as Cairo, or Manila, but still pretty bad. During my work days, the hour or so in thick traffic going to and coming from work are the most dangerous times. I make sure the armed driver has the Glock out and at the ready, rather than stuck to his hip. Abu Kara is my ex-Peshmerga driver and he’s a Muslim, and I can never completely trust him, but he is bound by a local code of honor that says if a man eats with you, he is required to protect you with his life. This is a tribal thing, and I have learned that it transcends Islam.
One thing I am thankful for here in Baghdad, is that I rarely hear the call to prayer being blasted five times a day as it was in Tripoli and Riyadh, where the godawful sound – quite frankly – nearly drove me insane.
Today I had Kebab, which was surprisingly good. It cost me 15,000 Iraqi Dinar. The exchange rate for the dollar is 1250 to 1, so it cost me about 12 USD, but it was enough for two or three meals. The other night, I was taken out to dinner by my bosses, and we had Mazguf – a traditional fish from the Tigris river that is unceremoniously knocked over the head to kill the poor thing, then gutted, splayed out, and slow-cooked on vertical sticks about two feet away from a blazing fire. It was excellent, but very bony.
Chai is served everywhere and always. The Iraqis and Kurds like it very sweet, as they do their coffee, which is a tasty and devilishly strong Arabian bean. Various pure juices are always on-hand, including the best orange juice I have ever had, during a dinner at the Babylon the other night (Babylon serves no alcohol, but I understand the Grand Ishtar does, so I plan to make a jaunt over there tomorrow night.
Finally, yesterday was a holiday for me, as it is the beginning of an annual, month-long commemoration of the slaughter of the complete family of Ali in the city of Karbala by the followers of Mohammed’s named successor.
To be continued…