Republic of the Green Zone
The cousin, his wife S. and their two daughters have been houseguests these last three days. They drove up to the house a couple of days ago with several bags of laundry.
"There hasn't been water in our area for three days..." The cousinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wife huffed as she dragged along a black plastic bag of dirty clothes. "The water came late last night and disappeared three hours later... what about you?"
Our water had not been cut off completely, but it came and went during the day.
Water has been a big problem in many areas all over Baghdad. Houses without electric water pumps don't always have access to water. Today it was the same situation in most of the areas. They say the water came for a couple of hours and then disappeared again. We're filling up plastic containers and pots just to be on the safe side. It is not a good idea to be caught without water in the June heat in Iraq.
"I need to bathe the children and wash all these clothes," S. called to me as the older of the little girls and I hauled out their overnight bag. "And the sheets -- you know nothing has been washed since last weeks ajaja..."
We call a dust storm an "ajaja" in Iraq. I don't think there's a proper translation for that word. Last week, a few large ajajas kept Baghdad in a sort of pale yellow haze. What happens when an ajaja settles on the city is that within a couple of hours, the air becomes heavy and thick with beige powdery sand. Visibility decreases during these dust storms and it often becomes difficult to drive or see out the window.
On such occasions, we rush about the house shutting windows tightly in a largely futile attempt to keep dust out of the house. For people with allergies or asthma, it's a nightmare. The only thing that alleviates the situation somewhat is air conditioning. The air feels a little less dusty when there's an air conditioner pumping cool air into the room.
One dust storm last week was so heavy, E. slept for a couple of hours during its peak and woke up with little beige-tipped lashes from the dust that had settled on his face while he was dozing. You can even taste the dust in the food sometimes. These storms can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
After the ajaja is over and the air has cleared somewhat, we begin the cleaning process. By this time, the furniture is all covered with a light film of orangish dirt, the windows are grimy, and the garden, driveway and trees all look like they have recently emerged from a sea of dust. We spend the days after such storms washing, wiping, polishing and beating dust out of the house.
"I've been dying to wash the curtains and sheets since the ajaja..." S. breathed, pulling out dusty curtains from the plastic bag. She paused suddenly, a horrific idea occurring to her, "You have water, right? Right?"
We had water, I assured her. I didn't mention, however, that there had been no electricity for the better part of the morning and the generator was providing only enough for the refrigerator, television and a few lights. The standard washing machine consumed too much water and electricity -- we would have to use the little 'National' washing tub, or 'diaper machine' as my mother called it.
The pale yellow plastic washing tub is a simple device that is designed to hold a few liters of water and to swish around said water with a few articles of clothing tossed in and some detergent. Next, the clothes have to be removed from the soapy water and rinsed separately in clean water, then hung to dry. While it conveniently uses less water than the standard washing machine, there is also a risk factor involved -- a sock or undershirt is often sacrificed to the little plastic blade that swishes around the water and clothes.
We spent some of yesterday and a good portion of today washing clothes, rinsing them and speculating on how our ancestors fared without washing machines and water pumps.
The electrical situation differs from area to area. On some days, the electricity schedule is two hours of electricity, and then four hours of no electricity. On other days, it's four hours of electricity to four or six hours of no electricity. The problem is that the last couple of weeks, we don't have electricity in the mornings for some reason. Our local generator is off until almost 11am, and the house generator allows for ceiling fans (or "pankas"), the refrigerator, television and a few other appliances. Air conditioners cannot be turned on and the heat is oppressive by 8am these days.
Detentions and assassinations, along with intermittent electricity, have also been contributing to sleepless nights. We're hearing about raids in many areas in the Karkh half of Baghdad in particular. On the television, they talk about 'terrorists' being arrested, but there are dozens of people being rounded up for no particular reason. Almost every Iraqi family can give the name of a friend or relative who is in one of the many American prisons for no particular reason. They aren't allowed to see lawyers or have visitors and stories of torture have become commonplace. Both Sunni and Shia clerics who are in opposition to the occupation are particularly prone to attacks by "Liwa il Theeb" or the special Iraqi forces Wolf Brigade. They are often tortured during interrogation and some of them are found dead.
There were also several explosions and road blocks today. It took the cousin an hour to get to work, which was only twenty minutes away before the war. Now, he has to navigate between closed streets, check points, and those delightful concrete barriers rising up everywhere. It is especially difficult to be caught in traffic and that happens a lot lately. Baghdad has been cut up into sections and several of them may be found to be off limits immediately after an explosion or before a Puppet meeting. The least pleasant situation is to be caught in mid-day traffic, on a crowded road, in the heat -- waiting for the next bomb to go off.
What people find particularly frustrating is the fact that while Baghdad seems to be falling apart in so many ways with roads broken and pitted, buildings blasted and burnt out and residential areas often swimming in sewage, the Green Zone is flourishing. The walls surrounding restricted areas housing Americans and Puppets have gotten higher -- as if vying with the tallest of date palms for height.
The concrete reinforcements and road blocks designed to slow and impede traffic are now a part of everyday scenery -- the road, the trees, the shops, the earth, the sky... and the ugly concrete slabs sometimes wound insidiously with barbed wire.
The price of building materials has gone up unbelievably, in spite of the fact that major reconstruction has not yet begun. I assumed it was because so much of the concrete and other building materials was going to reinforce the restricted areas. A friend who recently got involved working with an Iraqi subcontractor who takes projects inside of the Green Zone explained that it was more than that.
The Green Zone, he told us, is a city in itself. He came back awed, and more than a little bit upset. He talked of designs and plans being made for everything from the future US Embassy and the housing complex that will surround it, to restaurants, shops, fitness centers, gasoline stations, constant electricity and water -- a virtual country inside of a country with its own rules, regulations and government. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of the Green Zone, also known as the Green Republic.
"The Americans won't be out in less than ten years," is how the argument often begins with the friend who has entered the Green Republic. "How can you say that?" is usually my answer -- and I begin to throw around numbers Ã¢â‚¬â€ 2007, 2008 maximum... Could they possibly want to be here longer? Can they afford to be here longer? At this, T. shakes his head -- if you could see the bases they are planning to build -- if you could see what already has been built -- you'd know that they are going to be here for quite a while.
The Green Zone is a source of consternation and aggravation for the typical Iraqi. It makes us anxious because it symbolizes the heart of the occupation and if fortifications and barricades are any indicator, the occupation is going to be here for a long time. It is a provocation, because no matter how anyone tries to explain or justify it, it is like a slap in the face. It tells us that while we are citizens in our own country, our comings and goings are restricted because portions of the country no longer belong to its people. They belong to the people living in the Green Republic.