Baghdad, Iraq, January 1999. Poisson préparé à la manière typiquement baghdadienne (Buni), pêché dans le Tigre, coupé en deux et maintenu vertical par des bâtonnets.

Fresh water fish from the Tigris, prepared the Buni way, slit open in two pieces standing on their side against wooden sticks. The gasoline-fueled fire lit the small pool and cooking area, and petrol lamps our table. The U.S were bombing Basrah on the Persian Gulf and on the third day had hit a major power plant. Baghdad was now sending electricity to this southern capital. On my arrival, we had three hours electricity for every hour of blackout. While at this restaurant, it was even, three and three. When I left, the capital was up to three hours blackout for every lit hour.

We ate the delicious fish with 8 different salads, most deli-type, and washed the whole thing down with 7-Ups, which read “Filled by Ugarit Trading Co, Jebleh, Syria, under the authority of Seven Up International,” and tasty 350 dinar Iraqi beers ($.20 the half-liter on the black market). With the cost of one bottle we could have filled the tanks of three cars.

The string of little, mostly empty restaurants was on the very popular Abu Nuwas boulevard along Tigris River. Not far from the Centre Culturel Francais where they were teaching French and Arabic and showing The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Wuthering Heights, all in all four movies with Juliette Binoche. Saddam Hussein’s palace was across the river. “He has thirteen, no, 25 residences. In Babylon we saw one overlooking the ancient palace,” said my host, Sufian junior. In Amman, my Jordanian contact with the Iraqi embassy, a very pragmatic, Westernized man, had told me, “It’s all theatre. Clinton tells Saddam when he is going to hit. Last time he was at his sister’s”.For my birthday, my hosts took me instead to… KFC. They did not know what these initials meant, nor that it is a U.S. franchise. Unimpressed, Sufian junior answered, “The owner has also a KFC in Amman and one in Beirut.” At the next table sat a fat Malaysian couple with 3 well-dressed children, probably some diplomat; to the window came a young boy, desperately looking at the food on our table. The waiter and Ibrahim promptly chased him away. It reminded me of one similar sight in a New York Upper West Side Chinese restaurant.

Un petit restaurateur de la fameuse Abu Nuwas, rue cosmopolite qui longe le Tigre, prépare la spécialité de la capitale, Al-Mazgouf, poisson ouvert en deux, attaché debout à de petits pieux, cuit au feu de bois. Aidé de pétrole, celui-ci est aussi la seule source de lumière car les quartiers de la capitale sont alternativement coupés de courants, trois heures oui, trois heures non, depuis que les F-16 étatsuniens ont touché la centrale électrique de Basra, la métropole portuaire à 500 km au sud, qui reçoit maintenant son courant de la capitale.


Hatra, Northern Iraq, February 1999. Enfants kurdes pique-niquant en famille sur ce site archéologique — le passe-temps favori du Moyen-Orient.

Kurdish children participating in a family picnic, a national pastime throughout the Middle East, in the parks, the valleys or the archaeological sites like this one 150 km south-west of Mosul. Hatra was as multicultural then, with Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman influences, as it is now with Assyrians, Arabs, and Kurds visiting the City of the Sun, considered by some as the birthplace of the Arabic alphabet. Picnic menus are often elaborate and complete, befitting a 5-star restaurant.


Nimrud, Northern Iraq, February 1999.  Le gardien du site gardant les traditionnels lions cinq pattes, ailes et tête humaine. Pendant toute la visite, mon hôte identifiait chacun des bombardements qu’on entendait au lointain.

While visiting Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II’s city, guarded by five-leg (to better guard!) winged human-headed lions, my host Sufian would periodically listen to the distant thumps and identify the source of each, “This is an F-15”, “That is our people firing a \SAM”, “That is a HARM from an F-16”. Many Irakis seemed knowledgeable about what was hitting them on the head. Only later did I myself learn the technical jargon associated with the northern no-fly zone above the 36 Parallel, filled with acronyms, from the simple SAM (surface-to-air missile) to that HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missiles), with in between the AGM (air-to-ground guided missiles), and the GBUs (laser-guided bombs, also called 500-pound precision-guided munition) — choose the latter from types 10, 12 or 24, fixed wings or folding wings. To be pretty fully covered, let us mention the North American EA-6B Prowler aircraft used by the U.S. Marine even in northern Mosul The Irakis have Russian MiGs and French Roland VT1 hypervelocity missiles, which rhyme with TGV, Train Très Grande Vitesse. Not to forget ONW (Operation Northern Watch) nor confuse AAA with what all North Americans have in their mind, the Automobile Association of America. Here it is simply Anti-Aircraft Artillery.

“Les raids, les bombes ne sont pas provoqués par un intérêt matériel, leur caractère est exclusivement humanitaire”, Vaclav Havel à propos de l’intervention de l’Otan au Kosovo (Le Monde 29 avril 1999).  Une famille pique-nique au milieu des ruines importantes de Ja’fariyya, quartier nord de cette ville qui, au 9ème siècle, a brièvement détrôné Baghdad comme capitale des Califes abbassides. Plus au nord, des avions passent à haute altitude, suivis de salves sourdes. Dixit Ibrahim, mon hôte: “Ici, on entend cela tous les jours. A Basra, c’est nouveau. Ça c’est la DCA anti-aérienne qui tire sur les avions étatsuniens”. (Ceux-ci entendent maintenir le nord du pays où sont concentrés les Kurdes, libre de tout avion irakien — la no-fly zone.) “Comment le sais-tu?”. “D’après le son”…


Baghdad, Iraq, January 1999. Un peuple très cultivé et très accueillant avec, récemment encore, un niveau de vie très élevé pour la région. De quoi faire jalouser certains. De quoi faire peur certains. De quoi provoquer certains.

On the surface, quality of life seems unchanged from the high level it had reached before the war. I have never seen so plentiful bazaars, not in Cairo, not in Amman, not even in Aleppo. Sufian senior told me that “Our religious groups are mainly Lebanese, older people who come here to see the shrines, but mainly to shop.” I saw not only the traditional clothing and kitchenware and hardware and handicrafts, but also fax paper, cellular phones, electronic stuff of every origin. When I wondered about the embargo, Sufian senior made a clear, forked move with his hand, “They don’t go through customs at the border.”

The country does not lack anything, it has plenty of goods, oil, water, and prestigious ancient sites, a good infrastructure, and a very welcoming population. The main problem is paper money. From 1/3 of one Iraki Dinar, the dollar is now worth 1,700 dinars. State salaries of 10,000 ID a month, and 25,000-50,000 ID in the private sector, are worth way less than peanuts. My host, Sufian senior was now getting a 500-dinar pension, every three months from the National Office of Tourism — 10 U.S. cents a month !!! Which is why he opened a travel agency specializing in religious pilgrimages.

At the border, under the gaze of an oversize poster of Saddam, wearing a red-checked keffieh and puffing on a narghile, the Health Official who took a sample of my blood, supposedly for an AIDS test, but who promptly threw it in a garbage can, literally begged me for $5, then two, then one. Having already shelled 400 dollars for the visa, I stubbornly refused.


Samarra, Central Iraq, February 1999.  Célèbre lieu de pèlerinage pour tout le monde musulman, site du massacre de l’Imam Hussein qui a sanctionné le schisme entre Sunnites et Shiites.

Fourth Shiite pilgrimage site, Samarra lies 111 km north of Baghdad on the Baghdad-Mosul highway. Number one is at Kerbela, near Babylon, meaning sadness (kerb) and misfortune (ellah) for the site of the massacre of Imam Hussein, who sanctioned the scission of Islam into Sunnites and Shiites.

The textile factory by the side of the 9th century minaret, which is all that remains of what was at the time the largest Islamic mosque in the world, sported a gigantic poster of Saddam. It was definitely easier to take a picture of it from that distance than on Al Qadyssiaha Square in the capital. A police officer had immediately thwarted my attempt at immortalizing a huge statue of Saddam, in spite of Ibrahim’s protests and showing of my travel permit. “This only allows you to visit archaeological sites,” the agent explained, to which Ibrahim replied, in English, “Donkey, donkey, donkey!”, and to me “You really like Saddam? Why take picture, already too many around!” Nevertheless, I saw fewer posters of the leader here than in King Hussein’s Jordan, and many less than in Assad’s Syria.

La lune monte remplacer l’astre du jour sur la Grande Mosquée Al-Mutawakkil, la plus grande de l’Islam. Malgré l’embargo et les bombardements, le pays connaît un flot constant de pélerins-touristes islamiques, dont de nombreux Iraniens, attirés autant par les formidables trésors islamiques que par des prix planchers pratiqués dans les marchés regorgeant de biens de Baghdad. Embargo? A l’ombre des 52 mètres du minaret Malwiya (La Spirale), un poster de Saddam Hussein garde l’entrée d’une usine — de fabrication d’armes chimiques et biologiques qui, selon le Pentagone, pullulent dans la région? Ou simplement de dattes fourrées aux noix comme le prétendent mes hôtes?