My current home in Baghdad is the fifth in a year, and a fragile refuge from kidnappings and murder. It is a small hotel, and one of the few establishments in town still willing to accept the risk of sheltering Westerners. It has twenty-five suites and six single rooms on six floors, and stands two blocks off a ruined boulevard, on a street that is partially blocked by concrete blast walls. The blast walls form an imperfect compound that contains my hotel and another, larger one also willing to accept foreigners, along with a few houses and several apartment buildings where ordinary Iraqis reside. Though pedestrians walk freely through gates and gaps in the walls, there is only one way in for cars, and it is guarded by men carrying Kalashnikovs, who open trunks and hoods, and use a mirror on a pole to check the undersides for bombs. The guards come under fire from traffic on the boulevard, but this is considered to be minor stuff, which they answer by enthusiastically firing back. I can mention such details without concern for the consequences, because nearly everyone in Baghdad knows about this place already. Mortar rounds fly overhead destined for the fortified Green Zone, about a half mile away across the Tigris River, and several car bombs have exploded nearby (one recently with the force to blow out windows here), but so far no building in the compound has suffered a direct rocket attack. The immunity may be intentional, since the compound serves the insurgency as a useful collection point from which Westerners emerge to brave the streets in their cars; certainly the exits are watched, cars have been followed and chased, and residents have been kidnapped. But the more likely explanation is that richer targets still exist elsewhere in the city, and the insurgents simply haven't gotten around to this one yet.
My hotel has an awning that stretches forward to the street over an unused entrance path bounded by chains as if to control crowds at a gala celebration. The entrance path leads up a few steps to a small glass-fronted restaurant with a locked door. The restaurant is usually empty. In the mornings, a few guests take breakfast there, of instant coffee, stale bread, and imitation honey. Most of the guests are Iraqi men employed by Western companies. They rarely talk. I have been told that this is because they are tense. The hotel's working entrance stands beside the restaurant, and is also glass-fronted. Inside is a miniature lobby, with a high reception desk and a bald clerk who sits low behind it, handing out and retrieving room keys. There is an elevator big enough for three people in a pinch. It is rarely used, because the national power frequently fails, and when it does, the standby generator often won't start. Across from the reception desk is a benchlike sofa against the wall, where sometimes two or three Iraqi men sit smoking silently. I figure they are not quite unemployed, because simply by proximity to Westerners they expose themselves to considerable risk, but I do not know who they are. They are reliably polite. In the cold months they wear leather jackets. At least one provides security, which means that in case of trouble he might fire a pistol or otherwise make noise. Late at night he locks and unlocks the glass front door. If you ask, he will also unlock a little glass case in the lobby, displaying a jumble of tarnished jewelry and other trinkets that no one buys. There is a painting nearby, apparently for sale, of a woman in a red dress lying alluringly on her back, while a white horse hovers strangely in the air above her. It has bothered me vaguely that the horse can fly but does not have wings.