When will I die? That’s the question circling in my head when I awake on Wednesday. I’m sweating, as usual. My muscles ache from another long night of no electricity in weather only slightly cooler than hell. As I dress for work, other questions assail me: How will I die? Will it be a shot in the head? Will I be blown to pieces? Or be seized at a police checkpoint because of my sect, then tortured and killed and thrown out on the sidewalk?
I gaze at my wife as she sleeps, her face twisted in discomfort from the heat. What will happen to her if I die? Soon she’ll have no one in Iraq but me. Will she be able to identify my body? Will I get a proper burial?
I’m a dentist in my mid-20s, married to an aspiring dentist. My father is a prominent orthopedist who fled Iraq after being threatened by both Sunni radicals in al-Qaeda in Iraq (which wanted to recruit him and extorted money for his life when he refused) and Shiite ones in Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (because he is a Sunni). My father-in-law, who works in the oil ministry, has also been menaced; he will leave the country at the end of this month.
In fact, my wife and I left Iraq in July 2006 and went to Jordan. But I wasn’t able to find any work there, so we came back to Baghdad. Now we live here as quietly as possible, keeping a low profile. I don’t use my family name anymore. (And I am not using my full name for this piece.)
I walk to my job at a government clinic 15 minutes from my home at the intersection of a Sunni and a Shiite neighborhood. We’ve had lots of bombings nearby. On my way, I see the hulks of burned-out cars. Barbed wire and concrete blocks line the streets. The ground is strewn with bullet casings. Death is in the air. A car passes me slowly in an alley, my heart beats rapidly and I pray that I won’t be kidnapped or asked what sect I belong to.
At the clinic’s gate, I greet the guards. (I’m afraid of them; they might be members of a militia. Here in Baghdad, everyone’s suspect until proven otherwise.) I sign in and get the bad news: The diesel generator is almost out of fuel. We have enough for about one more day, and my boss thinks it could be a month or longer before the ministry of health will provide us any more.
How can we treat our patients? I ask angrily. My boss shrugs. We were already short of supplies. I feel bad for the patients, some of whom are really in pain, so I work as fast as I can. The clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and we have five dentists and three chairs. Normally, we can take 15 patients a day, but on this day, I treat eight myself.
* * *
I’m proud of my work today as I head home, where, as usual, there is no electricity.
In my neighborhood (and most of Baghdad), we depend on ourselves for power. In most places, there’s someone who owns a large generator and sells other residents eight hours of electricity a day. I pay $120 a month for that service. For an additional three hours a day, I use my home generator. That costs me about $150 a month because fuel here is so expensive. We have to wait six to eight hours in line to get any at the gas stations, which close at 6 or 7 p.m. The curfew starts at 11 p.m., so many people sleep in their cars until the stations reopen in the morning. This farce has created a booming black market in which fuel sells for double its official price.
Over lunch, my wife, who has just finished the final exams for her last year of dental school, tells me how scared, bored and hopeless she feels. How long will we stay in Iraq? she asks me. Until one of us dies?
If we leave again, I want to go to a country where we might have a future. I want children, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t have any as long as I’m living in Iraq. My children don’t deserve to be born in this country. I won’t make the mistake my parents made.
Later that day, we go shopping for food. This is the only entertainment we have in our lives, apart from the Internet. It’s so hot. I wish I could go out in shorts. But the militias don’t allow it. It’s too much to ask in Iraq. It’s too much to ask to be able to wear a goatee or a gold necklace. It’s too much to ask to drive my BMW because I could be killed for it. There’s too much that’s too much to ask for in Baghdad.
We have fun at the market, but on the way back, a pickup truck drives by with a dead body in the back.
* * *
On Thursday before dawn, an explosion rocks our house. I lie in bed, unable to get back to sleep, until it’s time to get up for work.
When I arrive at the clinic, my fellow dentists are sitting on chairs in the yard. That means we are out of diesel. We’ll have four hours with nothing to do (because we’re required to stay at work even if we can’t do any work), so I join them. The talk turns to the situation in Baghdad and the U.S. presence here.
“As soon as the Americans leave Iraq, Iranian jets will be over Baghdad bombarding every neighborhood that is not loyal to them, whether Shiite or Sunni,” one of the doctors says. I offer my opinion: “The U.S. should stay, because it’s not just Iran or neighboring countries that we have to fear. The Iraqi National Guard and the police are also our enemies now.”
In contrast, many uneducated or less educated Iraqis think that the U.S. military is at the root of every problem. They believe that if the Americans leave, there will be peace. I agree, up to a point, that U.S. troops are responsible for some of the trouble we have, but I don’t blame them. I blame the Iraqis who let this happen, who enjoy destruction and death — the sectarian government and the militias. They are the real cause of this tragedy.
We talk about the insurgents and the militias, both Sunni and Shiite, and about sectarian violence, which is skyrocketing. So are civilian casualties and the government’s lies, which are supposed to convince the world that it’s doing its job, that it’s winning victories against terrorism and that the terrorists are fleeing Iraq. Aren’t they ashamed of themselves? The only ones fleeing Iraq are good, honest Iraqis.
“What do the insurgents want?” another doctor asks. “What have they achieved after all those explosions and all those people dead?”
They have achieved nothing that a sane person would consider an achievement, I respond. They’ve made the country impossible to live in; they’ve terrorized people, killed Americans, made us afraid to leave our homes. They’ve taken control of neighborhoods after the people who lived there fled for their lives. All of this is an achievement to them, but not to a sane person like you or me. They have been brainwashed by fanatical religious clerics; they have been tempted by the money that flows from Iran and other countries or that they get from kidnapping and crime.
In the end, we all agree: The only losers are honest, patriotic Iraqi people. For them, democracy, liberation and freedom are just myths. All we want is to live a normal life.
When I get back from work, my wife and I take a taxi to Adhamiya, the district where my father-in-law lives. We normally spend Thursday and Friday with him. The driver, as usual, is afraid to enter the neighborhood, so he leaves us at the gate in Antar Square and we walk from there.
As we make our way to my father-in-law’s house, a confrontation starts behind us. We dash into an alley. I relive in my mind what happened the previous week: A sniper from the Iraqi National Guard shot at us and forced us to cower in a ruined building for what seemed like hours. It was on the same street, the only open road that leads to Adhamiya. People call it the “street of death.”
We finally make it to my father-in-law’s. After dinner, we decide to sleep upstairs, but just as my head hits the pillow, there’s an explosion in front of the house, followed by gunfire all around. We rush downstairs, where it’s safer, and sleep on the floor. We spend another day full of nonstop explosions and gunfire at my father-in-law’s before heading back home at noon on Saturday.
* * *
Sunday is a beautiful day. My wife and I make popcorn, sip cola and watch the Iraqi national soccer team beat Saudi Arabia 1 to 0 in the final for the Asian Cup. My neighborhood erupts in celebratory gunfire. Why don’t the shooters think about where their bullets might go when they hit the ground? Two people are killed and six are wounded from falling rounds.
After the shooting stops, I head out to buy cigarettes. I am amazed by what I see. There’s unity at last. People stream from Adhamiya and al-Saab and al-Kahira and meet at the al-Nidaa mosque intersection. They are celebrating on the same spot where on other days confrontations erupt, blood flows and people die. An Iraqi National Guard convoys rolls through, with soldiers dancing on top of the Humvees. I laugh out loud and feel safe for the first time since returning to Iraq.
I hurry home to get my wife and the digital camera. We head out to Palestine Street to watch the crowd and snap pictures. Then my wife gets an uneasy look on her face. All these people, she says, might attract a suicide bomber. We go home.
On the news that night: 16 people dead and 66 injured in Zaiona; 10 dead and an unknown number injured in Mansor. They were innocents celebrating the victory of their soccer team. Can’t they give us one happy day? Is that too much to ask? May God have mercy on their souls.
* * *
The next day, dozens more die across my country. This has become normal. We’re used to it. Iraqi lives are worth nothing; we’re just numbers in the news. In the past, Iraqis would wear black to mourn a young man for many years. They would cry forever. But not anymore. Now we bury in the morning and forget by the evening.
On Tuesday, my wife gets her grades from dental school. She has done well. I am so happy that I vow to confront terrorism and live a normal life for one day. I decide to drive my own car and take my wife to a nice lunch at the only good restaurant left in Baghdad. I leave work early, head home and remove the cover from my car for the first time in a year. And with it, I remove my fear.
Oh, how I’ve missed my BMW. When I tell my wife that we’re taking the car, she is afraid, but I convince her that nothing will happen. It’s just one day, I say. For once, we’ll live like normal people. I drive to the restaurant and feel so happy — and fearful at the same time. But we arrive safely, although I’m stopped at a police checkpoint and asked about my sect. Normally, they just ask where you live or where you’re heading, which are also clues, but this time they ask me directly. I have to lie, but luckily I have a neutral name that isn’t obviously either Sunni or Shiite.
We have a wonderful time at lunch. But much later, after I finally go to bed at 3 a.m., after the neighborhood generator stops, the eternal questions start up again. Will it ever end? When will I die?
© 2007 The Washington Post Company