Fear and loafing in the Green Zone

Welcome to Baghdad's post-decadent stronghold: Menacing Peruvian mercenaries, Chinese prostitutes, concealed beer and doughnuts -- and Iraqis eyeing a foreboding future.

Published August 4, 2008 11:17AM (EDT)

I'd had a mental picture of Baghdad's Green Zone before I went to Iraq. I thought I was going to encounter a tightly guarded, luxurious enclave where Westerners and a select few Iraqis lived a life of decadence. More or less the way I'd found it described in "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Rajiv Chandrasekaran's excellent book about the Zone after the fall of Saddam.

It's a Tuesday morning in late May when we touch down at LZ (Landing Zone) Washington, the Zone's helicopter port. (One day later than planned, after a sandstorm had kept all chopper traffic on the ground.) This is only my second time in a Black Hawk, but I'm already getting used to the troop-carrier as flying taxi.

Inside the little building that comprises the terminal at LZ Washington, I take off my flak jacket and helmet. So this is Baghdad. Let the decadence begin. Berlin-born essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin may have denied the very existence of periods of cultural decline ("Es gibt kein Verfallszeiten"), but we'll see.

I need a Baghdad press center pass in order to move freely in the Green Zone, so the first thing I have to do is get to the Combined Press Information Center. But when I try to leave the terminal to look around outside, a guard turns me around and points me back to the waiting room.

LZ Washington is guarded by employees of the Triple Canopy security solutions company. In Baghdad, Triple Canopy employs mostly Peruvians. Rumor has it that these guards once worked for special forces units within the Peruvian army. Having routed the Sendero Luminoso at home, they've now been dispatched to combat al-Quaida in Mesopotamia and keep an eye on things in Baghdad, where they earn $75 a day.

American soldiers speak of the mercenaries with an admixture of fear and contempt. "These guys are real bastards," one U.S. soldier tells me. I may be in Baghdad, but for the time being it looks more like Little Lima.

I try it again with the Triple Canopy employee. "Amigo," I venture. "Prensa." An added complication with these particular hirelings is that they speak little or no English. The guard flexes his right forearm, his fist clenched. I know by now what that means: Stay where you are. The language of coercion is understood around the world. He who has the bullet no longer needs poetry. The bullet is poetry. I call the press center and say: "I'm afraid you'll have to come and get me."

Twenty minutes later a G.I. shows up to escort me to the press center. There I undergo an iris scan, have my picture taken and leave behind prints of all ten of my fingers. A female soldier takes my fingers one by one and rolls them around on the screen of a little machine. Perhaps it's a by-product of my days embedded with the 25th Infantry Division, but having my fingers rolled around on that little machine feels like the erotic zenith of my existence.

Half an hour later they hand me my press pass for the Green Zone. After that no one pays attention to me anymore. A couple of Iraqis, probably journalists, are drinking Cokes and checking their e-mail on the press center's computers. I am a free man.

In the Green Zone there is precisely one hotel, the Ar-Rashid (sometimes referred to mistakenly as the Al-Rashid). After the First Gulf War, the floor of the lobby there was decorated with a mosaic depicting former president George H. W. Bush. The tiled caption in English read: "Bush is criminal."

I'm hoping to enter the Red Zone as well later on, but I'll need backup if I want to do that. The city is quieter than it was in 2006, but a Westerner is still worth good money. And carefully filed away in my memories are the words of a colleague from the Independent, who I met in Afghanistan in 2007: "Dying isn't so bad. But being kidnapped; now that I dread very much."

There are slews of companies selling protection in Baghdad. Finally I go with Edinburgh International. They seem to know the ropes. And what's more, Edinburgh International also rents out rooms. Even with my press pass, they warn me, it would be foolhardy to cross town to the boardinghouse on my own. Alex from Edinburgh International will come and pick me up.

Alex, as it turns out, is a professional Fijian soldier who's been in Baghdad for about four years. He drives around in an old Mercedes.

My first glimpse of the Green Zone is a disappointment -- dusty, rundown and inhospitable. It turns out that it is not a single zone but a number of them, separated by checkpoints manned by the Peruvians of Triple Canopy. The neighborhood within the Zone known as Little Venice, for example, where several prominent Iraqi politicians live, is off-limits to those without the right connections. To get in there, one needs an invitation.

Within the Zone you have different passes of different colors. The more badges you have, the faster you get through the checkpoints. My press pass places me on a par with an Iraqi just barely allowed into the Zone at all. Alex, too, is a hireling without privilege.

After waiting for half an hour it's our turn, along with about 20 other drivers. The doors of each car must be opened wide, as well as the hood and the trunk. The passengers have to stand behind a wall so they can't see what's happening to their car while it's being searched.

Cell phones and weapons are placed on a plastic tray. There are signs posted that read: "Deadly force authorized."

Someone, I believe one of the Peruvians, has made a painting on the wall: A mountain, and written beneath it in Spanish, "Lord, forgive us our iniquities."

I am the only Westerner in a group of about 40 Iraqis. Some of the Iraqis stare at me in puzzlement. A Peruvian tosses a bottle of water to an elderly Iraqi. I have never seen people wait so passively. This is a dedicated kind of waiting. I have the feeling that I'm in a monastery, but then one where deadly force is authorized.

Twenty minutes later our group is given the sign to move on. A checkpoint by definition, whether in Iraq or down at the local airport, is there for our safety. Yet anyone who has waited at a few checkpoints in Baghdad soon gets the feeling that the checkpoint is not a means but an end in itself. We live in order that we might pass through it. And what comes after the checkpoint is another checkpoint.

Edinburgh International's boardinghouse is located along a sandy backstreet and doubles, as it turns out, as the Iraqi headquarters of Edinburgh International. I am welcomed by Adam, whose job description is "Operations Officer." Particularly talkative Adam is not. "Take your stuff upstairs," he says. "Then you can grab some lunch."

The other guests at the boardinghouse seem to be hirelings as well. Later, an American diplomat will explain to me that most security firms work with mercenaries from a specific country. Blackwater with Americans, Triple Canopy primarily with Peruvians, Edinburgh International largely with South Africans. The Edinburgh International people once belonged to the special forces of the South African army. Now they're protecting me in Baghdad.

There is a guidebook for tourists to the Green Zone, written by the American diplomat Richard H. Houghton III. The first edition of the guidebook had as a subtitle: "Written by tourists for the tourist." That subtitle has since been removed.

Houghton is prepared to meet me, as long as I promise not to talk about American politics. The Green Zone has almost no restaurants for us to meet in. In "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Chandrasekaran speaks of countless Chinese restaurants -- all gone now. But next door to Freedom Café and Supermarket, which Houghton says is pretty much the only restaurant in the Zone, Freedom Chinese Food opened its doors only a few days ago. (Later, in another section of the Zone, I discover the restaurant Arabian Nights, with its souvenirs on sale including little wooden camels, small lamps and a selection of carpets.)

To get to Freedom Chinese Food you have to cross a little bridge. The bridge's sole purpose is a decorative one, and it's so slippery that you have to hold onto the railing for dear life as you go. The Chinese girls there, newly imported from China, look like transvestites but also seem to be prostitutes.

Richard Houghton is a tall American in short trousers. He sports a large tattoo. He speaks English, German, French, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

"So what about the Baghdad Country Club?" I ask. The "Baghdad Country Club" was once the Green Zone's premiere nightspot. The place where it all went down.

Houghton laughs. "It's been boarded up," he says. "One of the guys who started the Baghdad Country Club went on to open a liquor store, and then a restaurant. But then he had to close the place; the people who worked for him didn't have the right badges."

Without the right badges in the Green Zone, one is dead meat. "You know," Houghton adds, "the days when everything around here was wide open are pretty much finished. The party is over."

Freedom Chinese Food is, indeed, post-decadent. If you want to order a beer you have to ask for "pee-you," which is Chinese for beer. You get your beer in a coffee cup. In Iraq -- unlike in Kuwait, for example -- alcohol can be served legally, but even in the Green Zone it remains a touchy business.

"So what's left to do around the Zone?" I ask.

"Not far from here, a German fellow has started a doughnut shop," Houghton tells me. "They tried out about 30 different recipes, but I think they've got it pretty much figured out now."

"And the Chinese ladies who work here, are they prostitutes?"

"I have my suspicions," he says. "Judging by their Chinese, they're not from Peking."

"So how did they end up in Baghdad?"

"Well, boy," Houghton says. And, after a slight pause: "How did you end up here? How did I end up here?"

Across from Freedom Chinese Food is Café Dojo, the doughnut restaurant -- nothing more than a little shack along a sandy street. If you didn't know better, you'd never believe they made doughnuts there.

Three men are sitting on the veranda. A guard tries to stop me. "What do you want?" he asks.

"I want to eat a doughnut," I say.

A young Asian man brings me a doughnut on a plastic plate. The doughnut is accompanied by a horde of flies, and as soon as the wind comes up everything is covered in a layer of grit. The white men sitting next to me have huge bellies. In the Green Zone, no one need be ashamed. Every age calls for an anus of its own. Baghdad is the anus of our times.

I have an appointment at the Ar-Rashid with a senior official from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He's willing to talk to me on the condition that I don't mention his name. He's of Kurdish origin, but he's skeptical about the Kurdish cause. He is, I estimate, more or less my age. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, his father was killed by Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas fighting for the Iranians.

"At the street markets, the fundamentalists won't allow merchants to display cucumbers next to the tomatoes," he says as we help ourselves to cucumber salad from the buffet. "That's one sign that the fundamentalists are on the decline." It's noon on a Friday, and we're the only guests in the restaurant.

"We pay a high price for freedom and democracy," he says. "We pay for them with blood." We both take a glass of fruit juice. "But," he says, "next year everything will get better -- then the five years will be over."

"The five years?"

"The five-year period in which people have been allowed to hold a top position in the Iraqi government while maintaining dual nationality. When the five years are over, that won't be possible anymore. Then you'll have to choose. Then you can no longer say: 'What do I care, I've always got Syria to fall back on.'"

"Will that really make such a difference?" I ask. He nods with conviction. "Things seem to be calming down already, anyway," I say.

"Yes, but that's because of the money. First al-Qaida came around and said: 'Here's $200 if you plant a bomb.' Then the Americans came and said: 'Here's $300; all you have to do for it is not plant that bomb.' That's effective.

"A suicide bomber's family used to receive up to $100,000. Do you know where that money came from? Saudi Arabia. In reality, what was going on here was a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And I'm not convinced that that wasn't the plan from the start."

I press him about what he means by that.

"An American once said to me: 'The final choice is the best choice.' If everything had gone according to plan, there would be no reason for them to still be here with 150,000 soldiers."

"And what about Iran?" I ask. "Is there going to be a war against Iran?"

"I hope so," he says. "Iran is the source of all the trouble. The Persians have always hated the Arabs. But that war isn't going to come just yet. Maybe 15, 20 years from now."

For dessert, we have fruit. "The imams," he says, "told people: God wants you to fight against the Americans. But God doesn't want you to fight against the Americans. Because if you fight against the Americans you're going to lose, and God doesn't want you to lose. The Americans have military bases in Germany, the Balkans, in Kuwait, in Qatar -- so why not here? With their help, Iraq can become the hub of the Middle East. We're wealthier and more highly developed than Egypt."

When it's time for me to leave he walks outside with me, and waits there in the burning sun till Alex shows up to take me back to the boardinghouse that is actually a kind of prison.

"What Iraq needs now," he says before I climb into the car, "is an interim pope. A benevolent dictator, like the one they have in Dubai. The man's a dictator, but his people love him. Elections aren't the start of the democratization process, they're the end of it. I didn't vote. I knew the politicians were no good."

On the final day of my stay I visit the Red Zone at last. With three cars. But unobtrusively. An old van decorated with Arabic lettering drives in front of us, its curtains drawn. No one would suspect that it contained heavily armed men, and the dilapidated jeep behind is bristling with weapons as well. On the seat beside my driver, beneath a keffiyeh, the Arab scarf, is a machine gun.

A one-day trip to the Red Zone with bodyguards costs $7,000. I've been told that reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times in the Iraqi capital operate under elaborate security as well. My press pass may not be worth much, but if you've paid $7,000 for backup you cruise right through all the checkpoints.

The Red Zone -- or at least this section of it, the road to the airport -- seems to be a succession of checkpoints, with Iraqi army units posted every 20 meters. My destination is the Al Hamra Hotel, where I'm going to meet with two Iraqi acquaintances of a correspondent friend who visits Baghdad regularly. The Al Hamra, where lots of journalists stay, is a fort. A series of checkpoints, concrete walls. But once you're inside there's a swimming pool.

Luay is a friendly, rather plump Iraqi who works for a journalist from USA Today. When the journalist isn't in town, he has time off. We sit down in the deserted restaurant of the Al Hamra. The waiting staff consists of one man, standing at something that looks like a lectern.

Luay tells me: "My confidence in my religion diminishes with each passing day." He doesn't want anything to drink, but he smokes like a chimney.

"You have to go where the power is," he continues. "You have to be pragmatic." He lights another cigarette. "I've been told," he says, leaning over to me conspiratorially, "that when Iraqis go to the Green Zone to secure a contract, they take girls with them to win the favor of the men who do the signing."

One hour later, Ammar joins us. Ammar used to have a hotel, but people stopped coming to it. Both Luay and Ammar are Shiites. "Al-Sadr's days are numbered," Ammar says, referring to the leader of the Madhi militia. "People in Iraq are sick of religious fundamentalism."

"And what's the situation here with prostitution?" I ask, following Luay's earlier remark.

Ammar shrugs. "What's the problem? How do you think the Iraqis who have fled to Syria make ends meet? One or two daughters support the whole family."

Luay says: "We Iraqis want only one thing: to live."

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

By Arnon Grunberg

Arnon Grunberg was born in Amsterdam and published his first novel at the age of 23. His most recent novel, "The Jewish Messiah," was recently published by Penguin Press. His work (novels, plays, stories and essays) has been translated into 23 languages. Grunberg currently lives in New York. Visit him on the web here.

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Blackwater Iraq Iraq War Middle East National Security U.s. Military