BAGHDAD – “People here are afraid even of their own shadow,” says the Ghost Man. He should know. He’s dead scared.
Saddam International Airport boasts its own VVIP (very VIP) terminal – for government ministers, ruling Baath Party notables and high-roller traders profiting from the United Nations trade embargo. Mere mortals use the Babylon terminal, the only one not idle among others with suggestive names (Ninive, Samarra).
Saddam International – an impeccably neat and very modern airport by developing-world standards – is basically a green-and-white ghost town for most of the day because of the embargo – it is fully equipped with nowhere to go. International flights depart only to Amman and Damascus, and domestic flights to Basra and Mosul. The solitary midnight Royal Jordanian flight to Amman barely alleviates the boredom of customs and security officials.
Mrs Shukur, wearing black pants and an elegant blue blazer, is bewildered in front of a bilingual instruction panel telling Iraqis that they are allowed to leave the country carrying only US$50 – roughly the rate for one night at an Amman hotel. Mrs Shukur, Iraqi-born, hadn’t been back since 1989. She stayed for only 10 days, attending the seventh conference under the official motto “Roots remain home wherever we are” – during which, according to official government newspapers, “expatriates express support for their country’s legitimate demands.”
As an expatriate, secular, upper middle-class woman living in the United Arab Emirates, Mrs Shukur prefers to declare herself “shocked” – basically with the resurgence of Islam in Iraq. “My cousin forces his nine-year-old daughters to go around wrapped in veils.” She boards her plane to Amman with her family decked out California-casual style, mumbling that her relatives in Baghdad have at least “somehow” managed to survive.
Saddam International Tower is a ghost tower – absolutely off-limits to any cameras. A Saddam Hussein statue sits at the base of the tower, pointing to the sky and surrounded by scraps of American missiles that fell during the “Mother of All Battles.” On the top of the tower there is a slowly revolving restaurant – absolutely off-limits to 99 percent of the Iraqi population: a tough steak costs 6,500 Iraqi dinars (about $3.50), more than the average person will see in weeks. At lunchtime in the middle of the week, the only busy table was occupied by a delegation from the Russian parliament.
From the top of Saddam Tower, Baghdad looks like a Los Angeles suburb, with a lot more sand, and mosques instead of gas stations. Less than a kilometer from the tower lies the huge, gray, grim mass of half-finished domes of the Al Rahman mosque, being built by the government. Mansions ranging from $400,000 to $1 million apiece are visible closer to the tower: this is the embassy quarter, and also home to families lucky enough to bypass completely the hardships caused by the trade embargo and the UN sanctions.
The main reason for the strict no-photo policy lies 500 meters away – visible only from above, never from street level: Saddam Hussein’s Islamic-high-tech presidential palace. Entrances are far away from the main building, all of them protected by heavily fortified watchtowers.
Any other top-of-the-tower revolving restaurant on the planet is an instant photo opportunity – but not in Iraq: foreign spies might sell their snaps of the palace to enemy security agencies. Instead, one can have one’s photo taken beside a huge Saddam Hussein painting and buy a “Made in China” doll at the tower shop. No Saddam toys are on sale just yet.
Saddam City during the day is – what else – a ghost city. Locals say it’s home to at least 4 million people, which unofficially would compose 40 percent of the population of Baghdad, roughly estimated at 10 million. Saddam City owes its name to a visit by the president himself: the last of these visits was three years ago.
Saddam City is a dirty, derelict, depressing sleeping-bag city: during the day everybody is out trying to make ends meet, in the formal or mostly the informal economy. That’s why locals say there is no unemployment. Part of the city is off-limits even to locals: it’s the realm of petty crime. Almost everybody is Shi’ite: most of their parents came to Baghdad from the south in search of a better life. Whenever there are siren calls announcing American bombing raids, special police reinforcements are sent to Saddam City: the “system” takes the possibility of a Shi’ite rebellion of the masses very seriously.
Saddam City is where the Ghost Man lives. The Ghost Man lives in fear. He fears the system, he fears the government, he fears fear itself. In another land and under different historical circumstances, he could have been a contender. He is not a hollow man: he is educated, he reads, he’s been to Europe. But the Ghost Man is a victim of every strike of bad luck – or Allah’s wrath – that has fallen over Iraq since the 1980s.
The Ghost Man may live in Saddam City. But he’s never been to Saddam Tower. And there’s no point going to Saddam Airport either because he cannot find the money, or the connections, to board that precious flight to Amman. So he keeps slouching around the streets of Baghdad, chain-smoking, eating the odd kebab, lucky to keep an odd job for a few weeks to feed his family of four.
He may abhor “the system,” but he is too weary even to try to fight back. He persistently asks whether the Americans will attack again – as if it might be the coup de grace capable of relieving him from his misery. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, he’s not busy being born, and he’s not busy dying. But the Ghost Man of Saddam City is not totally defeated. Not yet. Until then, he remains a Dead Man Walking.