Another hot sticking night, so I ate with Samir in the empty restaurant where I first met him 7 months ago. Haider the waiter wasn’t looking happy. “They’ve just had their wages cut.” Samir points out, “So have I.” “Why?” I ask, “They claim business is down.” “But the hotel is full” I point out. “Yes but the restaurant isn’t..” Like me the guests are bored with the hotel’s sub standard food, and now the situation seems artificially better in Baghdad people are venturing out to restaurants. This was unheard of a few months ago. Haider brings my wine back and pours Samir and me a glass. “You know these waiters are all graduates Sean, waiting for companies to come and invest in new Iraq so they can find decent work.” It is a waiting game for all Iraqis, with moments of hope that things will settle down and Iraq can be rebuilt.
An American journalists joins us, “What’s the news?” I ask. “Nothing big.” He looks frustrated. I know he is paid for every story he files and when things are quiet here, it means no money for him. “We haven’t had a car-bomb for a while in Baghdad” he points out, “But friends of mine say they are brewing up something big.” I try to read the tone in his voice, is this hope for more stories, hence work, or despair for the people of this war torn land so recently ‘liberated’?
Samir’s met many like this guy before. He offers me a knowing glance and leave’s to the piano. He plays Mozart beautifully, holding his head proud. There are a couple of guests in the empty room that appreciate him tonight. He returns to the table, lighting a fag from the end of his dying fag, and drinks his wine. “You know two people appreciating my music is better then having 100 people in here that don’t, thank god we have got rid of all those mercenaries.” “I’m not sure we have,” the American points out, “After those 4 where killed the other week they are under strict orders to not be seen.” 4 security men from the hotel were ambushed by an army of resistance in a highly organised attack, using information which can only be got from the inside. The American journalist shakes his head, “You know, we can’t afford to trust anyone in here. they all could be spies.”
Haider comes back over to pour more wine for us. He smiles at me. I smile back at him. The American is looking decidedly awkward. ‘You can get paranoid in places like this’ I thought. Which is why some months ago I stopped talking to others about ‘the situation’….. ‘intelligence’ would emerge in the form of rumours of imminent attacks on the hotel. these rumours often came from the western security companies based at the hotel. Their job is to protect big American TV networks and to justify the $800 a day per man, they would make ‘intelligence’ reports that would often put us on high alert for a week of an attack. For me it meant drinking an extra bottle of Scotch with Samir and then sleeping as far away from my window as possible shielded all night in my flak jacket. Then we began to question this ‘intelligence’, no-one knew where it came from or how reliable the sources were. Finally I decided that these security guys, sitting around, day after day, night after night, were simply justifying their $800 a day per man, with their ‘intelligence’. It made no sense and increased suspicion and hostility. So when I look at my American friend I can imagine what is going on in his head… As a result major broadcasting companies like the BBC are sheltered in what seems like safe houses secured by these companies. They are not permitted to venture outside without having a security man at their side. But at least the BBC’S security company are not armed unlike the American networks. The other day a friend of mine saw some private security men driving through a busy street in downtown Baghdad pointing sub machine guns out of their windows.
Haider stands to the side of us waiting to take our order. He is a big gentle giant, someone I have warmed to over the months. He is married with a couple of kids. He was a good time guy before meeting his wife, but now he has changed. He prays 5 times a day and looks forward to a better life like all Iraqis. I can tell that my American friend hasn’t taken the same time to get know him and doubts remain in his mind. He can’t even decide what to eat tonight.
Despite the inherent dangers of living here I feel safe with people like Haider around me, and all the Iraqi friends I have made. I know ‘I can’t afford to trust anyone’ .. but I do here. I feel an affinity with Iraqi people, a trust and friendship I have not felt anywhere else. When they say they will die for you they mean it. But when I look at my American friend, I fail to understand why.
I remember another journalist passing through here telling me a story of when she was shot in Palestine, a young boy leapt out in front of her to protect her. He died and she lived. I always remembered the story. She told it in such a matter of fact way. I doubted whether she really appreciated his actions and felt, like my American friend that some people go through life like that.