From Mike Tharp, who recently returned to Iraq to report from Baghdad for several weeks. He is Executive Editor of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.
Some 26 straight hours in either airplanes or airports (Washington Dulles, London Heathrow, Istanbul), gave a traveler a chance to read for the Nth time Joseph Heller's 1955/61 classic, "Catch 22." Seemed like a good time to catch up on that novel's unique take on war while on the way back to Iraq. One of the conceits Heller uses as part of his sustained black humor is that of "black eyes" vs. "feathers in his cap" for one of the book's main doofuses, Col. Cathcart, who sucks up to everyone higher in rank and brutalizes all subordinates.
Those two categories seem to fit first glances of Iraq after a year away:
Feather in its cap: The Turkish Airlines 3:15 a.m. flight from Istanbul, about a third full, featured mostly Iraqis coming back to their country. A fashionably dressed couple, an old woman and her daughter, dozens of businessmen — all took the final approach to Baghdad International in stride. Last year the flight from Amman, Jordan, held mostly foreigners, many of them private security contractors, on their way to the war zone; nearly every passenger watched tensely as the aircraft circled for a landing.
Black eye: One — count him, one — immigration official on duty when the plane landed at BIA just past 6 a.m. It took 25 minutes for three or four other immigration officials to show up and man their passport-stamping posts. Is that any way to run a railroad, let alone court foreign investors?
Feather in its cap: Iraqi Humvee and SUV convoys dominate the capital's roads the way the Yanks once did, and many of them use a loudspeaker to ask, politely, for civilian traffic to make way for their progress "so we can please do our job." Last year American convoys forced all civilian traffic to the sides of highways and even off the roads as they roared through the city.
Black eye: Some Iraqi convoys still blare out Saddamite warnings — "Get out of our way!"
Feather in its cap: Traffic stacked up on Jadriah Bridge in south central Baghdad (mainly because of final exams at Baghdad University), and while vehicles wormed their way in and out of lanes, men stood in those lanes and hawked all manner of wares: tea towels, Kleenex, gum, small candies (some balancing plates of them on their heads), Chinese-made inflatable dolls. Important for two big reasons: they can sell because it's safe, and it shows the return of Iraqis' entrepreneurial spirit.
Black eye: power in the McClatchy bureau — and all over Baghdad — still goes out several times a day in the steaming summer; if you don't have a generator to kick it back on, you sweat. Feather in its cap: the hundreds of blast walls in the city are now painted with street artists' renderings of animals, fairies, flowers and abstract designs. Last year most were featureless gray monoliths that simply Balkanized entire neighborhoods.
Feather in its cap: a sense that you can almost breathe in (along with the pollution) calm and confidence among Baghdadis.
And that, as Milo Minderbinder chants in the novel, means that "everbody has a share."