Letter From Baghdad

Life in the wilds of a city without trust

Now that the roads into Iraq have effectively been closed to Westerners by banditry and insurgent attacks, the best way into Baghdad for ordinary civilians is by air from Jordan, aboard a decrepit airliner, an old Fokker that shuttles two or three times a day between Amman and Baghdad—that is, as long as the airport is open. The airplane is operated by Royal Jordanian, and is flown by a South African crew—people who for whatever reasons are willing day in and day out to risk ground fire and surface-to-air missiles in a thin-skinned machine with limited maneuverability and no active defenses. For passengers willing to share briefly in the same risk, the ticket price is stiff—about $1,500 round-trip, for a one-hour flight each way. Nonetheless, dozens of takers show up at Amman's airport every day, many lugging duffels heavy with booze and body armor. They filter silently through the dim, dingy terminal, and collect at the gate in an elongated waiting room that seems to have been chosen for its isolation. There they eye one another with a single paradoxical question in mind: What sort of fool would travel voluntarily to Iraq these days?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Iraq's Walled City" (October 13, 2004)
William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad.

The answer varies. A few are elite Iraqis, heavyset men in old three-piece suits, sometimes with their wives, returning home as people strangely insist on doing, out of habit or perceived necessity, and quite possibly to die. Some are Western war correspondents, the real thing, young-looking and scruffy in their street beards and their rumpled shirts without epaulets, who are less concerned about missiles than about the daily challenge that awaits on the far side, of doing their work while somehow preserving their necks. Others seem to be engineers or technical consultants, and first-timers in war; they are middle-aged men with wedding rings, carrying briefcases and appearing unsure, as if they took a wrong turn somewhere and are surprised. Still others are returning Green Zone hands, trading certainties among themselves with a familiarity bred in the relative safety and isolation of their fortress lives within the sprawling American compound at the center of Baghdad. But most of the passengers on most of the flights are different again, visibly tough and muscular men, British, South African, and American, often tattooed and clean-shaven, with close-cropped hair—contract warriors among the thousands who have signed on to ride shotgun for the Iraqi infrastructure projects where so much American and Iraqi money has been ploughed into the ground. All these people are acutely aware of their destination. The trip lies ahead with the inevitability of a sentence that has been pronounced on them. The mood in the waiting room is not fearful, but it is decidedly fatalistic.

During the short bus ride across the tarmac the passengers stand for the most part silent. But then there is the flight itself, at the start of which a couple of pretty South African attendants maintain the pretense of normalcy, performing an ordinary airline welcome ("Thank you for flying Royal Jordanian") and advising the passengers on the standard safety rules—to fasten their seat belts, for instance, despite a sentiment in the cabin of "Why bother?" and the unavoidable contemplation of the effect of a missile strike. In a war like this one the battlefield takes so many innocent-looking forms. The airplane climbs over Amman and heads east at high altitude across a desert of tans and blacks. The desert is scarred by military works. At some point it becomes Iraq. The attendants serve coffee with smiles. There is a boxed snack that it is wise to avoid. The captain comes on with the weather ahead, which for most of the year is simply hot. Then the Euphrates appears below, and the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia, and finally the Tigris, and Baghdad itself—a sprawl of a city, hazy with dust. The airplane holds overhead the Baghdad airport at 15,000 feet, above the range of the insurgency. When cleared for the approach it descends rapidly, with the landing gear and spoilers out, in an aggressive left spiral that is intended to reduce exposure to ground fire but, given the proximity of insurgents, offers no guarantees. After a final left turn it immediately touches down. During the taxi to the terminal a flight attendant says, "Welcome to Baghdad," but has the grace at least not to wish the passengers a pleasant stay.

It is a strange sensation to be delivered alone and so quickly into the radical world of a shapeless war. The Baghdad terminal is a grandiose, nearly deserted edifice, roamed by heavily armed guards, and sometimes shaken by the distant thumps of outgoing artillery or incoming mortars—at first it is hard to tell which. The new Iraqi government provides a visa on the spot, and stamps the passengers through amid confusion and delay. They get their bags and go to the curbside, where U.S. government employees and contractors are picked up in armored convoys for the drive to the Green Zone. Those who do not qualify for such treatment—which now means mostly Iraqis and Western journalists—catch a minibus that takes them several miles to a heavily defended checkpoint at the airport perimeter, where presumably they have arranged for someone trusted to pick them up. If that person does not appear (a common problem in a place where telephone communication is inadequate at best), there is no choice but to return to the terminal and try somehow to get a message through from there. The alternative of taking a taxi, of which there are many in Baghdad, has become impossibly dangerous as criminality and the insurgency have intertwined and spread, and the street price for a captive American has risen to $25,000, or so it is said.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In