Baghdad Taxi

It was well past dawn when Mithak Al Azaweh — a 30-year old Baghdad taxi driver — awoke in his small room. By the weak light of a narrow airshaft, he and his roommate, Uday Adai, rolled their sleeping pallets off the floor, and cleaned themselves up in the closet-sized squat toilet that doubles as their washroom. But they did not eat and they did not drink. It was a Friday in Ramadan — a holy day in the holy month — when both such activities (and several others) are forbidden between sunrise and sunset.

Adai, 26, was off to visit his home village outside the city. He put on his Friday best, and hovered over the wooden bureau upon which the roommates keep their valuables: two wristwatches, an almanac in English which neither can read, a boxed bottle of Black Jack for Men cologne, and, resting high atop the mirror in an elevated position of honor, a palm-sized Koran. Adai sprayed himself with scent.

“Be careful with the Black Jack; you going home,” Al Azaweh said to Adai in broken English. “I think you love your mother.”

Al Azaweh is not an average Iraqi. He’s a city slicker, Baghdad born. He’s too photogenic — with a darkly serious face, wavy hair, and suede bomber jacket, he looks like an Egyptian movie star. He’s too well educated, with degrees in history and German, a popular language from the days of the Eastern Bloc. He belongs to the Sunni minority, and, since he once hoped to become a diplomat, he was also a Baathist.

But a day in Al Azaweh’s taxi, a rusted-out metallic blue 1983 Volkswagen Passat, a car model so common that it is known locally as a “Brazilli” after its country of manufacture, is about as typical a day as one could spend in a divided city. And even now in this violent Ramadan, seven months after what to some was a liberation and others an invasion, a typical day in Baghdad, though not without its hurdles, is more mundane than militant.

It was nine o’clock by the time that Al Azaweh left the apartment building to take Adai to the bus station, and about half-past by the time Al Azaweh changed a flat tire. The delay afforded an inspection of their neighborhood: a working-class district on the east bank of the Tigris, made up of three-story tenements built over street-level shops which surround a dilapidated children’s park. A large blue Panasonic sign above the square advertises “Ideas for Life” in English. Not far away, there is a cemetery for British soldiers, its dusty white tombstones turned khaki, remains of the last occupation.

At the bus station, after sending Adai on his way, Al Azaweh picked up his first fare. Salah Al Shamah, a 57-year old Sunni, a retired bureaucrat in a gray suit, was in town to buy his 16 year-old son, Ahmad, a bicycle as a reward for doing well in school. Ahmad is the youngest of his ten children. Though polygamy is common in Iraq, Al Shamah has just one very busy wife, he said.

Al Shamah is also enthusiastic about the American presence, and hopes that Iraq will soon join the ranks of the most modern nations.

“George Bush should make every Iraqi a Swiss citizen, make Iraq like California,” he said.

On Port Said Street, a the broad avenue at the center of town, an Ali Baba market gathers daily for the trade in stolen goods. On the opposite side of the street, hundreds of bicycles clog traffic for the Friday bicycle market.

It turned out that Al Shamah’s hometown, As Suwayrah, to the west of Baghdad is in fact Al Azaweh’s own ancestral home. When he discovered this, Al Shamah proposed dinner at his house. “And bring Paul Bremer with you,” he said, referring to the American administrator of Iraq.

In the meantime, Al Azaweh needed gasoline, or benzene, as locals call it. At a station on Al Sadoun Street, there were 25 cars, 11 of which are also Brazilli Passats, waiting for pumps. Gasoline is inexpensive in oil-rich Iraq. The price here was 21 cents a gallon. But with many refineries damaged and gas stations looted, there are shortages, long lines, and a rash of fly-by-night gasoline dealers who buy up supplies from established stations, and then sell fuel at a premium on the street from jugs and cans.

Heading further down Al Sadoun, the car passed the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, two of the city’s tallest buildings that now are fortified foreign outposts for journalists and American companies, surrounded by tanks and cement blast walls. Al Azaweh turned left and stopped at a garage to get his flat fixed. As the mechanic re-aligned the tire to the wheel rim, he recounted the recent history of several apartment projects across the street. They were once housing for government employees, who, being Baathists, were promptly evicted after liberation by the squatters and homeless families who live there now, according to the mechanic. The former residents would have had ringside seats to the regime’s, and their own, discomfiture. The buildings overlook the circle where, in the enduring televised image of the American victory, tanks pulled down a statute of Saddam Hussein.

“We have benzene, we have tires, we could go anywhere,” Al Azaweh said. “Kuwait, Saudi, jalla, let’s go.”

The rigid travel restrictions of the old regime are history, and such a journey would indeed be possible. But the road trip lasted only two blocks when Al Azaweh picked up his next fare, Labeeb Mesekh, a strapping 30-year old Sunni on his way home to Ramadi, a town west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle and a hotbed of unrest.

“The highways always have explosives, so people are scared to use them,” he said, explaining why he was taking the railroad home. Still, he and his neighbors were in favor of the resistance. “People who do things against civilians are terrorists, but people who go after soldiers are considered heroes.”

As the taxi headed west towards the Central Railway Station, over the river on the Ahrar Bridge, bookended by burnt and shell-pocked government buildings, Mesekh talked about himself. He’s a volleyball player, a graduate student in physical education at Baghdad University, and he hopes to continue studying in Europe. Mesekh and Al Azaweh realized they have a mutual friend and made plans to see each other again.

Near the train station, Al Azaweh stopped from an older woman in a headscarf, Sahira Abdu Satar, a teacher who said she’s 63.

“Ah, you are so young,” Al Azaweh said.

“No, I am old, I have no teeth,” she replied, pinching him. “Under Saddam we had no benefits, and my health is not good.”

Satar asked to be taken to Al Mansour, a well-to-do neighborhood where the Americans had bombed a building believed to be occupied by Saddam at the start of Operation Shock and Awe. Al Mansour is home to many army officers, and Satar said her husband was a general in the now disbanded Iraqi Army.

“My husband is very glad of the American liberation,” she said. “But we are scared for the future. We are scared to be an occupied country.”

It was close to noon, and Al Azaweh needed to start back for his own neighborhood to be on time for Friday service at his mosque. He picked up a father and son, Mohammad, 39, and his son Mustafa, 10, who were going in the same direction.

Mohammad declined to give his last name, but said he was Sunni, and a taxi driver. Or at least he was until his car got stolen four months ago.

“All this crime comes from the bad dealing of the former regime, ” he said. “Torture and poverty make people commit crime. Most Iraqis were victims of the Saddam regime.”

The call to prayer was already sounding at the mosque by the time got there. He washed his hands and feet in the bathhouse. The cloudy sky had cleared by now, and the white stone mosque, built three years ago by a Baathist high official, shined in the midday autumn sun. Al Azaweh removed his shoes and entered the building. Several hundred men, only men, filled the large room beneath a dome with gilt Koranic script, while an excess crown kneeled on carpets laid outside. A stout, white-turbaned sheik, Mullah Huesh, climbed the granite stairs of a speaking platform and began the address, an hour-long call to jihad.

He compared the current struggle in Iraq to the prophet Muhammad’s triumph over pagan Arabs at the beginning of the Islamic conquest in 7th century. “Mohammad fought for belief,” he said. “The unbelievers fought for nothing. Just like the American people who came to fight the Iraqi people.”

“Why do you think the Americans gave control of Babel to the Polish Army?” he asked, referring to the ancient Iraqi city. “Because Poland is full of Jews. Poland is full of Jews and Protestants.”

Resisters killed in action were guaranteed a place in paradise, he said. The bodies of the martyred give off a sweet perfume. The bodies of Americans give off a foul stench.

Back in the car, Al Azaweh said that he is not particularly religious.

“For religious men, no alcohol, no women,” he said, still using halting English even though a translator was available. “After Ramadan, I drink beer and make ficky-ficky.”

This is probably wishful thinking. Al Azaweh has a girlfriend, Iptihage Ikabi, a former fellow classmate at Baghdad University, but seeing her is difficult. He is not allowed to visit her house and he has never met her parents. But the two had set an assignation for that afternoon by the road leading to her home in the northern suburbs.

But the streets were busy as mosques emptied all over Baghdad. Suddenly the car was stuck in traffic, a few blocks away from Al Azaweh’s own apartment. For twenty minutes the car crawled. Traffic jams are one of the most frustrating parts of the new Baghdad. Since the fall of trade restrictions and car tariffs, new vehicles have flooded the roads, while at the same time American soldiers block key bridges and roads for security. Trips that took ten minutes now can take an hour. Al Azaweh worked his way out of this jam by hopping a meridian and driving the wrong way past the root of the problem: a broken stoplight.

Al Azaweh found another fare, Ahmad Resan, a 27 year-old owner of a damaged Brazilli Passat taxi who complained that there are too many taxi drivers in Baghdad. Al Azaweh dropped Resan off in the 7th of April District, a workers’ neighborhood named after the founding date of the Baath party and filled with children, trash heaps, and the occasional herd of goats and sheep. Al Azaweh’s sister lives nearby in a cement house walled off from the street. As he quickly ducked inside, a group of children, several of whom were his relatives, surrounded the vehicle.

“This is a beautiful car,” squeals a five-year old with unrestrained delight. The older children repeat the phrase with less delight and more irony.

Al Azaweh wanted to clean himself up before seeing his girlfriend, so he stopped by his favorite barbershop. It was busy, as is usual on a Friday. He spots a friend, Mohammad, a barber busy giving a customer a final shave, Arab-style, with a piece of string that pulls out small hairs when tightened between the fingers and teeth.

“Because I am a rich man, Mohammad drops all work for me,” Al Azaweh said, though Mohammad was in no rush.

A youngster with blond hair and green eyes, the son of the landlord, was getting a buzz cut. Khalid, who is 11 years old, said he is often told he looks like an American, but was too shy to say whether in today’s Iraq, that was a blessing or a curse.

After a trim and shave, the sun was going down and Al Azaweh was late for his date. He speed north, a race not so much against the clock but against the fading light. At sunset in Ramadan, most Baghdadis try to be at home with their families to break fast.

He spotted Ikabi walking on the service road besides the highway, a woman in her late twenties with brown eyes, a headscarf, and a round face. Iraqi men appreciate a full-figured woman, he said, citing Monica Lewinsky as the ideal, and then was surprised to learn that she is Jewish. Al Azaweh pulled over to pick up Ikabi. She was less than overjoyed to see him.

“You left me in a difficult situation, waiting by the side of the road,” she said. Al Azaweh apologized profusely. He drove her home, but stopped short of her parents’ house. Before she left, he stole a kiss from her hand.

Al Azaweh’s intentions towards Ikabi are unclear. She expects him to marry her, but he dreams of continuing his studies abroad.

“There is no where to go for a Ph.D. here. There are no libraries in the whole country, they have all been looted,” he said. “I want to go to America, and marry an American woman.”

It was close to sunset, and Al Azaweh headed home, stopping along the way to pick up another fare, two brothers, a baker and a blacksmith from the Shi’a holy city of Karbala, who complained about the old regime and passed out pistachio cookies. The brothers, as travelers were exempt from fasting. Al Azaweh pocketed his cookie for later.

By nightfall it was chilly again, and Al Azaweh settled under a tent in an outdoor restaurant in a neighborhood plaza. Men at the next table smoked flavored tobacco from water pipes. The waiter arrived with beef and liver kebabs, sweet dates and a yogurt drink. Over steaming tea, Al Azaweh pondered the novelty of a day spent talking to strangers about politics.

“We never could have done this before, we would have been killed, they would have killed our families,” he said, referring to the censorship of the old regime of which he was a tiny part. “The Baath party was everything.”

For his part, he’s glad the past is past, and referred to Saddam Hussein with a newly acquired Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

“It was an aimless life, and day by day it got worse,” he said.

The final muezzin’s call announcing night blared from an adjacent mosque, and the sound of nearby machine gun fire filled the air.