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The Many Faces of Baghdad

Interviewing Iraqis in Baghdad's International Zone. (photo by John Goodman)

In the United States, much of the news we receive about what's going on in Iraq is centered around the US military and US interests, but once your feet hit the ground in Baghdad, you realize that this conflict that has been going on for almost six years has drawn people from around the world to perform an array of jobs. The setting for 1001 Arabian Nights, Baghdad has a hint of that Middle Eastern mystery made famous by 19th Century authors. By the end of World War II, it had become an international community with a growing economy. The economy continued to grow after the war, but cultural persecutions - including the expulsion of Baghdad's nearly 140,000 Jews in the 1950s and the exile of Persians to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s - followed over the next few decades. Foreign banks were banned by the Baathist regime in the 1970s, and the result was a city populated mostly by Arabs. Due to Iraq's oil export revenues, Baghdad remained prosperous and cosmopolitan until the first Gulf War meted out a durable beating on its infrastructure and economy.

Today, many of the city's government buildings sport "million dollar holes" from all kinds of Coalition ordinance, and concrete blast walls and ubiquitous combat helicopters lend to a surreal vibe. However, parts of it have gained an international flavor due to the influx of contractors. People from all over the world have answered the call of money to be made. It depends upon where you're from as to how much you can make, but for most people, the pay is high enough to lure them from home into a place that has been, and judging by the explosions heard now and again, could potentially still be very dangerous. From the Indians and Sri Lankans who clean bathrooms, serve food, and work low level construction jobs, to the Ugandans and Peruvians providing basic security, and the scores of Brits and Aussies providing more advanced security with better equipment (and I'm guessing for higher pay), most nationalities occur in groups here. At a time when unemployment is high in many countries, the rebuilding of Iraq has provided a windfall of jobs for people who might otherwise be desperate.

My classifications of these groups of foreign workers are generalizations - once in a while you'll stumble upon the odd Italian or Ukrainian - but they are part of a big picture pattern of stratification that can be seen here. Despite that, every individual has a unique story - creating a patchwork of human drama that gives this city, country, and even the region as a whole dimension that many of us in the States just don't see.

Are You Being Served?

Spend a few days in any KBR chow hall, and you'll notice that almost all of the people serving your food have dark brown skin and speak with thick Indian (or Sri Lankan) accents. Once in a while, you might hear a voice that is very clearly American - or maybe European - giving orders to the workers. Asking around indicates that most of the men working in the dining facility are from India, lured here by higher wages than they would ever get back home. One day, after arriving late for lunch, my photographer and I took our time eating. After all of the green military uniforms, tan contractor jumpsuits, and mostly white and faces had disappeared, we were the only white people left in the room other than the KBR supervisor. After lunch hour is done for service members and contractors, it's the foodservice staff's turn to eat.

On that particular day, I turned around to a group of guys sitting behind us and said hello. There were four or five of them, all hailing from India's Punjab region, and all of them had been in Iraq for a while. I struck up a conversation with a man named Samar who was probably in his early 30s, and had been in the country for four years. He said that flights home are very expensive, and some checking I did revealed that not only are civilian flights from Baghdad to India and back hard to find, but they can cost $1,500 to $2,000. Samar hasn't been home in the last four years, spending the first year and a half in the north near Turkey, and the last two and a half years in the International Zone. "I am here because I want to be here," he said. "The money is much better than in India." The deescalation of armed conflict has made life easier for him, as he said there were some times when rocket attacks made things a bit dicey.

No Thanks, I'll Take the Bus

When I arrived in Baghdad's International Zone last week, it was by helicopter into a walled airfield called LZ Washington. It sits in the shadow of the old American embassy complex, where you can catch a free KBR bus to most places in the IZ. I didn't know exactly where I was going, only that I needed to get to the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) to pick up my media credentials. The trouble was that nobody else seemed to know how to get there either. The bus driver indicated that he could get me there, so - still wearing a flak vest and helmet from the chopper ride - i clambered aboard the bus with all of my bags and hoped for the best. As it turned out, the guy really had no idea where CPIC was, and when he made some calls to determine its location, it came to light that he was unable to get me in because he lacked the proper security clearance. Luckily, I was able to contact my photographer, who was already with a military escort, and the bus driver had no problem whatsoever stopping the bus, kicking up his feet in one of the back seats, and telling me a bit of his story.

I don't recall his name, but he was originally from Columbia, having long since moved to Houston and started a family. As an American employee of KBR, he had none of the travel concerns of the Indian man in the dining facility, since KBR provides him with regular R&R trips back to Texas. Having been here for about four years, he said he had seen plenty, but with a pay rate of $10,000 per month, he was content to do it for a little while longer. His housing in Iraq, like his visits home, weren't much of a concern either. Food and housing is provided by the company. The shifts are 12 hours, but he said they really only work seven or eight - you can't go back to your room during the day, he said, but he regularly kicks back in his bus for a nap, engine running and air conditioning on at full blast.

Born in Baghdad

In Iraq, you get a lot of stories about people - often highly educated people - who left Iraq during hard times. War has been part of the country's national life since 1980, when the Iran-Iraq War began. Growing up in a neighborhood near the 14th of July bridge spanning the Tigris River, Basil Razzak went on to receive a degree from the University of Baghdad College of Administration and Economics in 1975. He left in 1980 for an oil company job in the United Arab Emirates, and never came back, because when he tried to return a few years later, the Baath Party refused to renew his passport unless he went to fight in the war. The Iran-Iraq war changed the face of society in Iraq, sending many sons and fathers to an early grave. "I didn't want to fight in that bloody war," he said. At that time, getting into Canada was fairly easy, so he moved to Montreal and has been there ever since.

Now Razzak has a wife and two grown up daughters in Canada, but he decided to come back to his homeland to help with the rebuilding process. "I always wanted to do something for Iraq," he said. "I was born here, so I always feel that I have some responsibility to do something for this country." Over the past year, Razzak has worked on quite a few economic development projects as a contractor with the State Department. He said that most of these involve NGOs in some capacity, and he is currently helping put the finishing touches on a project that creates a business development plan for a stretch of industrial land on Route Irish, the highway between Baghdad and Hilla. "It will create tens of thousands of jobs in that area, but [my] job is not to develop, but to make the planning for it and attract investment." The area is to be a pilot for other similar projects to follow throughout Iraq.

Razzak has been in Iraq for a little over a year now, but noted that the country is very different from what he left behind. "I'm home, but I'm not home. I can't go out [of the International Zone]" he said. Since his return, he has seen only one of his siblings a couple of times, but will most likely meet with the rest of them within the next week or two somewhere in the IZ. Razzak said he wants to stay here as long as he can to continue helping.

All of these characters are part of a drama that can be seen in the Green Zone, which is a very specific part of Baghdad. Other parts of the City and the country, where foreign presence isn't felt as much, are undoubtedly different. Iraqis are still living life here, as they have for thousands of years. Outsiders come and go, and old divisions die hard. Only today reports of unrest in the sparsely populated Al Anbar province came in, caused by allegations by tribal groups of election fraud by their rivals. Many seem ready for the American military to make their exit, but what will happen when they leave is uncertain.

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