Well, this is no doubt old hat to my veteran journalistic colleagues here in Baghdad, not to mention diplomats, aid workers, contractors and, most importantly, Iraqis themselves, but first impressions are important.
I know 40 or so words of Arabic, so here in Baghdad, my eye is naturally drawn to any English-language sign that one happens to see. And one happens to see a lot, because moving (rather, trying to move) around Iraq's capital means spending endless hours waiting at checkpoints, moving through checkpoints, cursing at checkpoints. One of my Iraqi colleagues likened the whole business to a real-life version of the "Tomb Raider" video game.
Naturally, this leaves a lot of time to look at the warning signs posted everywhere. I mean, a visit to the heavily fortified international enclave known as the Green Zone (the rest of Iraq, every bit of it, is known as - you guessed it - the Red Zone) can mean a dozen ID checks, four pat-down searches, removing the battery from your cell phone(s), an airport-type luggage scan, maybe even a sniffer dog. The guards are Iraqi, Peruvian, or Ugandan, the latter employed by the security contractor Triple Canopy.
The Ugandans somehow manage to import and retain their infectious African smiles to this dusty, barricaded city. "You live in the Red Zone?" one female guard asked me incredulously yesterday. "Is it safe?" I gave the only reply I could think of in a moment's notice: "Inshallah." God willing. It's an Arabic cliche, made more poignant by the capriciousness of life in Iraqi circa 2009.
On our way to an interview at the heavily guarded Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) today, an obvious terrorist target since it will organize and conduct January's national elections, I encountered a security firm I had never heard of: Blue Hackle. They have nice polo shorts, with cool logos.
OK, back to the signs. Deadly Force is Authorized doesn't even phase me anymore. It's like the electricity that goes out every 90 minutes. Freaked me out at first. Now I just listen for the generators to kick in. Ten days in Baghdad will do that to you. Deadly Force is About to Be Used would probably get my attention.
But what about No Long Weapons Allowed?? I saw that sign at IHEC. Presumably, pistols and sawed-off shotguns are OK? How about a cross-bow? Poison blow-gun?
There are plenty of admonitions in the vein of "wait here," "do this," "don't do that," "don't even think of using your cell phone here." But I thought Do Not Enter or You May Be Shot was a bit direct, impolite even.
Near Nisoor Square, where in September 2006, employees of U.S. security firm Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians (case still in court, last I checked), there is a sign that, belatedly perhaps, lays down the law to private security contractors. It tells them to slow down their vehicles, use No Sirens and that, if they fail to comply, they could have their driver's license, or even their company's operating license, revoked.
The notice announcing that everyone will be searched Females Included was a bit superfluous, I thought, since everyone is searched, repeatedly.
But I guess the prize goes to the sign that reflected that worst of American imports, the cheerfully insipid alliteration that is meant to inspire in corporate cubicles 'cross country: Polite, it read. Professional. Prepared to Help. Prepared to Capture Criminals.
PS: Don't Even Think of Parking Here.