Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Night's rebirth?

Going out to dinner, a club or a movie are things I take for granted, and I don't have to worry about a militarily-enforced curfew.

Baghdad is another story. Years of violence have meant people stay home at night, away from car bombings targeting restaurants and theaters. Clubs are few and far between, and the streets must be completely clear by the midnight curfew.

A recent lag in violence has coincided with a rise in evening social activities. Nightlife may be making a comeback in Iraq's weary capital.

I worked with Anthony Shadid on a story about a new, enormous, spectacularly-decorated restaurant called the Lebanese Club. If you'd enjoy reading Anthony's story about this Baghdad destination, click here. He really captured the flavor of nightlife in Baghdad.

The main dining room of the Lebanese Club. The manager, chef and much of the wait staff are actually from Lebanon.

Outdoor seating affords a view of the Tigris and a distant oil refinery.

The main dining room. (The air conditioning bills for this place must be outrageous!)

A V.I.P. room, "ala Scarface," as Anthony put it. The best quote was from the Lebanese manager of the club, Antoine al-Hage: "Where there's war, there's lots of money."

The guard room outside the Lebanese Club. Because, V.I.P.'s of course have lots of bodyguards.

In comparison, one of Baghdad's more typical eating establishments--bright, colorful and full of glass.

This family restaurant also had a bit of a unique style, complete with live parakeets, mannequins and a saxophone-playing Santa .

Chile restaurant had a shisha cafe attached. Wish I could have smoked one there, but glassy restaurants are still pretty much off-limits to foreigners.

Some young guys smoking shisha in the cafe.

Anthony and I also attended the premiere of an Iraqi-made feature-length movie, the first to come out in a long time.

The movie was called "Son of Babylon," was directed by young Iraqi Mohamed Al-Diradji and was filmed entirely in Iraq. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was all in Kurdish with Arabic subtitles, so I couldn't understand much of the plot. Basically it's about a boy and his grandmother who go in search of the boy's father, sometime around the American invasion in 2003.

Another great story by Mr. Shadid can be found here.

The street where the theater was located was closed off to traffic and guarded by Iraqi National Army soldiers and tanks.

Everyone got the friendly pat-down at the door. It was a pleasure to see so many people at the film's red-carpet premiere. A very special evening for Iraqis.

No popcorn at this theater, just hamburgers. And tea.

Then the audience found their seats and waited for the movie to start...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Baghdad's blast walls

(A version of this post appeared on the New York Times AT WAR blog on June 11, 2010.)

Baghdad's blast walls are a blank canvas. They reflect Iraqis' shared history--both proud and painful facts of life here in the capital. The walls document how life is, as well as how people would like it to be.

Most of the blast walls, free-standing grey concrete structures lining main streets and the Green Zone, are ugly, bare and foreboding--daily reminders of war. Last August, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the walls removed from Baghdad's streets. Days later, a double truck-bomb at the Finance and Foreign Ministries killed at least 95 people, and the plan to remove the walls was scrapped.

It is impossible not to notice the walls, and the paintings and markings on them become like landmarks.

Artists have painted some of the walls with reminders of things Iraqis have in common--ancient Mesopotamian history, religious symbols, portraits and patriotic slogans. Pedestrian, spray-painted graffiti occasionally adorns the walls. Faded and peeling campaign posters from Iraq's 2009 election are still glued in place.

The walls also record bomb blasts. Pockmarked with shrapnel holes or blackened with soot, these sections remind us why the walls exist in the first place.

Graffiti, Qadisiya neighborhood.

A boy squeezes through a crack in Sadr City's blast walls.

An artist painted some of Iraq's ancient artifacts, like this Sumerian statue, on the outside of the French Cultural Center blast walls in Abu Nawass.

Painting of an Iraqi soldier with an RPG outside a military camp. The walls were put together backwards, causing the eagle to miss part of his tail.

A veiled woman, outside an Iraqi politician's residence on Zeitoun Street.

A map of Iraq with the words "Paradise, our homeland" stands on a blast wall outside the destroyed Ministry of Justice building on Haifa Street. A van packed with explosives was detonated outside the ministry on Oct. 25, 2009, in one of the worst days of bombings in the capital in the past year. As many as 30 children were killed in the blast, which destroyed the ministry's two day care centers.

Workers pick up trash in front of a painting of a man fishing along the banks of a river, Sadr City.

A blast wall is splattered with blood where a bomb detonated outside the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel on Jan. 25, 2010. At least 36 people were killed in a string of suicide bombings at the Sheraton, Babylon and Hamra Hotels.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Road Trip Yemen

I teamed up with Abigail Hauslohner on a road trip from Sana'a, Yemen's capital, to Aden and back last November. She shot and produced this lovely video report for Road Tripping in Yemen.

I wouldn't say that a road trip through a failed state is ever something that would have occurred to me, but I am glad it occurred to Abby. I feel fortunate to have been part of such an eye-opening experience.

Yemen is without doubt a troubled place. As Abby reported, lawlessness, a water shortage, a conflict with Houthi rebels in the north and clashes with separatists in the South continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula's poorest state, making it fertile ground for extreme Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Yemen is an intensely tribal place, and the central government doesn't seem to control much outside the capital.

Not many independent reports come out of Yemen, and this was a chance to see a deeper, more human side to a place at the heart of so much turmoil.

We started out traveling by bus from the Old City in Sana'a.

Because of attacks on buses carrying Western tourists, we had to get special permission from the tourist police to travel by public transport outside the capital.

A village seen from the window. Nearly every woman I saw in Yemen was completely covered in public.

A young bus passenger peeks over her seat at me and Abby, the two foreigners, the only women not covering their faces with niqab, the face veil.

A qat market, seen from the bus window. One of the first things I learned about Yemen is that everyone chews qat (pronounced "gaht" in the Yemeni dialect), a leafy plant that contains a mild narcotic. Afternoons are for sitting, chewing qat, and discussing life. Business shuts down by 2 p.m. and men and women are chewing by 4, if not earlier.

The bulging cheek, filled with qat, is a common sight all over Yemen. The narcotic in the leaves gives one a mild buzz.

Men chew qat in public, sometimes in stalls lining the streets like this one in Sana'a, or in the mafrage of the house. A mafrage is a room with cushions lining the walls, often on the top floor of the house, where everybody sits and hangs out. Women chew qat too, but men and women don't generally hang out together.

Moving on...

I was stunned by the scenery as we traveled south toward the city of Taizz. We stopped overnight in these mountains in a village called Al Qaeda. (Really! But not that Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda" means "the base" in Arabic.) We were invited to a wedding by a fellow bus passenger, but because of Yemen's intensely conservative culture toward women, it was unfortunately impossible for me to photograph it. Read Abby's story about the experience here: A Wedding in the Town of Al Qaeda. Totally other-worldly experience, and we were the honored guests.

A relative of the bride, Bandar, drove us from Al Qaeda to Taizz, where he often does business in the qat trade. Notice the casette tapes stacked under the console and to the right of the steering wheel, fantastic Yemeni music.

Bandar takes a cigarette break in Taizz, a city sprawling beneath the mountains.

The ultimate host, Bandar wanted us to see a bit of Taizz before we departed for Aden. He started our tour by taking us to a huge hotel on the side of the mountain, where families sat outside and took in the view of the city. I tried (and semi-succeeded) to make friends with the women with my minimal Arabic.

From there, we visited Cairo castle, a refurbished fort on the side of the mountain in Taizz.

A view of Taizz from the castle.

Finally, Bandar wanted us to experience camels in a whole new way... drinking milk fresh from the beast! That's Yussef, 13, taking a swig. I didn't try it, but Abby did, brave soul that she is. She declared it "salty and warm."


From Taizz we covered our faces and hopped in a shared taxi that would take us to Aden. Road trips are an excellent time to chew qat.

To chew, just tear up the leaves and stick them in your cheek, where they will stay for the next several hours.

The shared taxi stand in Taizz.

And we're off to Aden!

An improvised shelter and a girl, seemingly in the middle of nowhere along the road. According to UNICEF, around 50 percent of Yemeni children suffer from malnutrition.

A mosque and rugged mountains.

Guys sitting, chewing qat and watching traffic pass.

Abby and I shared the front seat with the driver.

The shared taxi driver, on the outskirts of Aden.

This is Aden, a city built on a giant crater.

A fisherman at dusk near the Fish Market. Yemen's fishing industry is suffering from piracy and overfishing.

Fishermen fixing a boat. The fishermen sometimes stay out on their boats for days at a time, fixing their meals and sleeping at sea.

Aden Harbor visitors' center, near where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed a decade ago. Aden was once a thriving center of trade and therefore more open to different social and cultural attitudes. It seemed slightly less conservative than the rest of Yemen.

Families board boats for a tour of the harbor.

Baskin Robbin's, Aden.

Men kicked a soccer ball around on a beach just outside the city.

Unlike some of the beaches I'd been to in Aden, women actually went into the water here, abaya and all.

We asked our friendly driver if he knew where we could find a henna artist. And that's how we ended up in the home of one of his relatives' being hennaed by three teenaged girls.

The girls decided to take us to Aden's amusement park, Seera Fun World. It was just one example of the generosity and hospitality we experienced in Yemen.

Most of the people at the park seemed to be women. University and secondary school students were out for the Eid al-Adha holiday, so the park was especially packed.

It was fun to watch everyone having a good time.

I got motion sick on this ride.

Taking these last images and our new friendships with us, we returned to Sana'a.