15 October 2003
“So what’s it really like over there?”
That’s the question I get from everyone.
To base your opinions on what you see on television, you’d have a pretty dim view of life in Baghdad. Then again, if you put a television camera in the middle of Central Park, an uninformed viewer would think that Manhattan was an island of leafy green trees, gentle ponds, great meadows, and chirping birds. It’s certainly a part of it, but not by any stretch the whole thing.
“Every time CNN or the BBC shoes a bomb going off in Baghdad, that’s good for me,” one visiting American private equity investor recently quipped over dinner. “It scares away the competition and lets me come in a scoop up the best deals.” In case a journalist ever wonders whether or not his words and images have an impact, well they can rest assured that they do.
Progress in Iraq is steady, not dramatic. There are little, unglamorous improvements everyday; improvements that aren’t sexy enough for Pulitzer-chasing journalists. A small factory reopens here, 100 people get rehired there, pension checks are issued again with comforting regularity. “Thank you so much for your assistance,” the note from the leader of a group of Shi’ias read. (The same Shi’ias you are told that hate us so much.) “Please accept this small gift as a token of appreciation for all that you and the coalition are doing. We will never forget you, dear son.” As I lifted the gold chain from the envelope, I stared in blissful surprise at the little gold crucifix dangling in space. I felt for a moment the oneness of the humanity and forgot temporarily about races, religions, and creeds.
Of course, the cameras weren’t there for that.
What is it really like over here? Iraq is another country, not another planet. And Iraqis are people, with the exact same qualities you’d find anywhere in the world. If anything, the Iraqis possess a dignity and sense of humor that is more developed and more refined than your average person. “I’m sorry you had to stand in line so long to get through the checkpoint,” I told a sweat-stained businessman who’d come to see me. “I’m sorry to have added to your suffering.” “That’s alright,” he replied. “I’m an Iraqi. Suffering is my job.”
Of course not all Iraqis are appreciative, huggable hosts right out of central casting. Some are down-right annoying.
“Nothing has changed since you got here! In fact, things have gotten worse!” These were the words of a frustrated contractor back in hellish July, delivered to me at a public forum I’d convened for the local business community. “I can tell you one thing that’s changed,” I replied. “You just stood up and shouted at an army officer. I bet you couldn’t have done that six months ago. Or at least you couldn’t have done that and still gone home to your family.” The seated businessmen who understood English laughed out loud as they fanned themselves with their notebooks. A second round of laughter came forth after the translation was complete. The frustrated Iraqi looked around, and, realizing the truth of the moment, started to laugh too. Then he sat back down and started recording the information I was putting out. Small notes in a small notebook. One man plotting in a small way how to put his life, and thus his country, back together.