By guest blogger Matthew Schofield, Kansas City Star
I went out for ice cream Friday night.
There's nothing special about that, in most places on Earth. But this is Baghdad. Everything in Baghdad is a little different.
It started as these things do: Hussein was looking at his lamb and rice dinner and shaking his head, clearly not interested in lamb and rice.
"We should go out," he said.
"You don't like that?"
"We should go out. Maybe shawrima?"
I wasn't up for a large sandwich. I explained that earlier in the day, Laith, another member of the staff, had insisted that I eat a real Iraqi breakfast with him, so he'd fixed Bagilla wa Beidh, bread soaked in broth, and cooked with potatoes and beans, covered by an egg.
He tutted. A big meal was out. Then his eyes lit up: "Ice cream?"
"Faqma's," he said. "We can walk."
And he was right, we could walk. Whether we should, or not, I wasn't sure. Faqma's is one of Baghad's favorite ice cream parlors. It's so popular that when it managed to open, even in the worst times, the crowds came.
Of course, that's also why the bombers came, three times. The most recent car bomb exploded just over a year ago, January 2008. Iraqi newspapers wrote about how the store cleaning staff helped clear the street of the dead. Six months earlier, another car bomb had killed 20, and ignited 15 cars parked nearby.
So it hasn't been so long since the idea of going out for an ice cream cone here screamed of danger.
Still, Hussein was craving ice cream, so we walked. Picking a path through Baghdad after dark is, in itself, a bit of a challenge. The sidewalks are in shreds, sometimes torn apart by roadside bombs, sometimes simply crumbling from age and neglect.
We walked by the shrapnel pocked facade of the long abandoned Australian Embassy.
I remember watching the rooftop snipers in there on patrol, as they scanned the city streets for danger. In bad times, I thought it was comforting.
That was before January, 2005, when Al Qaida sent a truck bomb to it. The Australians moved into the Green Zone, across the Tigris River, soon after.
But while our walk brings back memories, it also brings scenes of life. The sidewalks may be crumbling, but they're packed with stalls hawking kebab, roast chicken, fresh vegetables and, of course, black market gasoline. Lines at gas stations can be so long as to scare away those needing it, so the black marketers fill large clear plastic jugs, and sell it, at double the price, to those in a hurry.
And the people are out. A little girl pulls her father along by the hand, skirting chunks of missing sidewalk, pointing at a restaurant and laughing. Six boys have found a patch of unused dirt, and are using it to play soccer, and passionately argue about whether a ball shot over the shirt used as a goal post is in or out.
As the men fetch a meal, veiled and robed women sit in their cars outside restaurants. Hussein wonders how they can enjoy such a night out, sitting by the side of a honking, stinking street, but the car windows are open wide, and their voices sound merry as they chat.
The streets are that odd mixture of Baghdad traffic: lanes have long since vanished, the traffic just flows like water through a boulder strewn stream. On this night, the weddings are out in force, brightly lit cars for the wedding couples, vans packed with young friends, honking and cheering, and often ululating trailing behind. Iraqi military Humvees squeeze by them, their armored machine gun turrets slowly spinning, to watch the whole street. And every 100 yards, there's another police officer, just watching. A squad car pulls up to two and a hand comes out the window, holding a paper with new orders. The officers, who don't carry radios, grab it and read.
The walk is only a mile or so. When we reach Faqma's, despite the rips in the building facade, the fact that the old decorative awning still hasn't been replaced, and the memories, the place is packed, as is the pizza place next door.
The crowd is no different than it would be anywhere on a warm spring evening, people out enjoying friends, and colorful explosions of ice cream. I wonder if perhaps Iraqis aren't more in love with these moments than, say, Kansas Citians, because of the bad times they've come through, the bad times many fear are ahead.
But, on this night, it really doesn't matter.
Hussein turns to me, whispering in my ear so the English isn't heard in public (still a very bad idea): "What do you want?"
I think for a minute: "Just a vanilla cone."
He gives me a mock frown, laughing a little. "Not very adventurous tonight, eh?"
I look back down the path we've just walked. A path I wouldn't have dared take on previous visits to this city. A path I would have believed would never have been open to me.
"Tonight," I say. "Vanilla is about all I can take."