Al Mutanabbi Street
A small bird roosts in a cage just outside the door of the Shahbandar café on Al Mutanabbi Street, where poets and philosophers refuse the chessboard for the stimulant of engaging conversation, debate, and intellectual inquiry. As I take a seat beside Mohammed Jawad, a 63-year-old biology professor, I can't help but notice the framed photos of those who died in a 2007 bombing that killed dozens inside and outside the coffee shop. When I ask him about the attack, Jawad says, "The bombings are like the rings on a tree. What do you call them? The growth rings?" I nod as he continues. "Trees experience fire and times of no water. It's a matter of periods. The growth rings show us the good times and the bad times. These are the bad times now, but it's all a part of the growth of the tree." He pauses, sips his chai. "Let me tell you, history is manufactured by war."
Later, as I walk down Al Mutanabbi Street, where tables are stacked with poetry collections and textbooks for sale, I notice the many short, hard glances I'm getting from those going about their business. It's Saturday, around noon, and the street is busy but not packed. Although I hadn't noticed it at first, something inside of me has clicked back into place. I catch myself turning in slow, smooth circles as I walk—I'm scanning the scene behind me to determine if there are any threats. It's a habit I've mostly broken back home in the States. I try to look casual, as if I'm merely curious about the books I've just passed, but in fact I've instinctively reverted back to my days on foot patrol. Whom do I discover trailing me? A poet, who simply wanted to resume a conversation we'd started in the café.
"Of course, I'm a poet," he says. "What else can you do but write poetry in a country like this?"
In Firdos Square the ghost of Saddam Hussein hovers over the pedestal where a statue of him was famously pulled down. So many people here will tell you that although they may have wished for Saddam's removal from power, they miss the grand vision in which the difficult seemed possible during his reign. After one of the bridges over the Tigris was bombed during the 1991 air campaign of the Gulf War, for example, Saddam vowed that the bridge would be operational within one month. It was an audacious deadline that locals say the construction crews succeeded in meeting. In contrast, the Saddam mosque at the center of the city remains unfinished after more than a decade. Massive concrete columns and rebar rise to impressive heights, while the domes they're meant to support exist only in the architect's blueprints. It was envisioned to be the largest mosque in the Middle East but stands now as a mere sketch of greatness.
The Private Club
Tonight I find myself smoking a sheesha, or hookah, loaded up with mint-flavored tobacco, at Al Alawiyah Club near Firdos Square. Swanky. Once past a maze of blast walls and bored security personnel, I sit in a large gazebo near a water fountain lit by blue filtered lights. A well-dressed and sober-faced man smokes his own sheesha two tables over. According to gossip, he's an Iraqi Army general who would rather smoke alone than go home to his wife. I'm told this by Rawaa al-Neaami, the businesswoman who invited me to the club.
Al-Neaami wears jeans tucked into black leather boots, a frilly blouse, and huge earrings. Her hair is cut short and dyed a mixture of colors, mostly reddish hues. She's started a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad to empower young adults. Classes at her school include yoga, dramatic dance, filmmaking, graphic design, and creative writing. "I believe, as a human being, not just as an Iraqi woman, that these skills have a major role in developing students. In fact, they are the soul of our life," she says. "This is the real jihad. The real jihad doesn't mean I have to carry a weapon and kill."
Her latest project, she tells me, involves going into juvenile detention centers in Baghdad to encourage young people through art. She's been surprised by those she's discovered there. The inmates range in age from 5 to 18 years old. Many are simply orphans created by the years of sectarian violence. She plans to film a documentary to tell their stories.
One evening I decide to get a haircut on Al Karradah Street. When I was here as a soldier, three of us once left an abandoned house where we'd set up an observation post to buy a block of ice from a delivery truck. It was August, and we didn't spot a truck. But on the way back to the house we passed a barbershop, and I mentioned that I could use a haircut.
"You want to get a haircut?" my squad leader asked.
I don't know what any of us were thinking, because the security situation in 2004 made sitting in a barbershop with a plate glass window ludicrous. Still, I went inside while my squad leader and grenadier pulled watch out on the sidewalk. The only other customer was an out-of-work university professor who spoke excellent English. I propped up my weapon within arm's reach, sat down, and had an amiable conversation with the good professor while the barber worked his trade. So I guess I got what I was really after, a sense of normalcy.
Congenial as our talk was, running through the back of my mind was a wide variety of dangerous scenarios. The plate glass window facing the street was an invitation for all of us to make a small-print, page-18 news column back home. When the barber scraped the bristled hairs on the back of my neck with the flattened edge of a straight razor, I felt alert to every nuance possible within the moment. A subdued but crackling tension seemed to fill the air.
I now sit in a brightly lit and busy barbershop. The atmosphere is relaxed, even cheerful. It's after sundown, and outside, a man with a pushcart kitchen slices thin cuts of meat from a rotisserie for shawarma, or flatbread sandwiches. Redolent smoke drifts along the crowded sidewalk. Inside the barbershop, mirrors in front of and behind us create an illusion of multitudes. As the hair falls to the floor below, I'm acutely aware that for some of those present, I'm beginning to look more and more like the soldier I once was.
The New Baghdad
Before leaving Baghdad, I stop in Al Karradah district to buy an Iraqi-made hookah to take back home. Jaywalking through early evening traffic, I notice how energetic street life is. Shop doors are propped open. Upscale fashion retailers feature the latest clothing lines on headless mannequins in glass-front displays. Toy stores, hardware stores, cell phone shops, local grocers—there's a bustle and vibrancy of activity not only among the street vendors but also among the established merchants.
Even so, only yesterday a mortar crew attacked a Shiite gathering in Baghdad, wounding five. A bomb exploded near a mosque in Al Utayfiyah district, injuring three. In Mosul a woman's body was left in the street. When I speak with people here, I recognize years and years of frustration in their voices. And yet, as I look around city neighborhoods, beyond the T-walls and the Hueys patrolling overhead, I also see signs of renewal and growth.
Something has changed within me as well. With each passing day, the adrenaline that accompanied my return to the city has subsided. I can see more clearly now that Baghdad is becoming a new version of itself—not a place defined by war, where journalists and the addicts of danger ply their trades, but a more livable, thriving place. Although it will certainly take time, and the aftermath of war will leave an indelible signature here for the rest of our lives, Baghdad has begun to reimagine itself as a majestic city once more.