After the end of the Iraq war in the spring of 2003, I anxiously await the arrival of my dad, who I am hopeful will take me back to our neighborhood. Finally, he arrives in a yellow, dust-covered taxi and steps out, ushering me into the back seat. The taxi driver has the radio playing as I make my way into the cramped seat. People are calling the radio station from all parts of the country. Everyone seems to share my excitement about the end of Saddam’s regime. After spending a month imprisoned by the walls of my grandparents’ home, I cannot wait to behold the beauty of my beloved Baghdad. All month, I longed to be able to capture the smell of the hustle and bustle of my city. Everyone buzzed with excitement because Baghdad is now “an American city.” I remain levelheaded, though; I am not oblivious (as the others seem to be) to the fact that a war has just taken place. While these thoughts are dancing around inside my head, I am awakened by an abrupt jolt. The taxi’s tires suddenly brush against the debris-covered gravel and the car comes to a stop. I look up and the remains of Iraq’s most famous tower, Burj Saddam, dominate my view. Seeing this tower torn apart only reminds me of the times I cherished with my family. The very top of the tower was once home to Iraq’s most prestigious restaurant. The debris covering the roads now hinders the extraordinary 360-degree views from the restaurant. The tower, which was once covered with clear glass, reflecting the blue sky, is now replaced by a pile of black concrete, ashes, and burned bodies. My vision begins to blur as I feel tears slowly drifting down my cheeks. The taste of my salty tears along with the smell of smoldering wood, burning flesh, and dead bodies is too overwhelming. I cannot stand this anymore. I reach over to roll up the window, not taking my eyes off the remains of my city. I feel my grip tighten against the ridges of the knob in my attempt to build a glass barrier against reality. The lingering smell haunts me, even after all the windows are shut.
As we make our way past the outskirts of Baghdad and closer to the center of the city, we reach a military checkpoint. From a distance, I can make out an Iraqi soldier walking towards us. As he approaches us, I notice there is something odd about his appearance. Although he is wearing the traditional khaki uniform, he has a black mask hiding his face. In a muffled voice, he asks us for our identification cards. Even with the mask on, it is obvious this man is not a native of the country; his Arabic is clearly broken and carries an unfamiliar accent. He takes our ID cards and rushes back towards a tank, parked alongside of the road. It is the first time I have seen a tank up close.
While we are anxiously awaiting the return of the soldier, my attention is quickly diverted to a loud whistling sound coming from the car. I look out the window to find another soldier passing the shaft of an extremely large metal device underneath the car. The whistling noise in conjunction with the clashing of the metal pole against the car’s exterior begins to drive me crazy. In an effort to filter out this noise, I gaze out the window, observing the people passing by. I realize that the war has not only left its mark on the city’s infrastructure, but on the style as well. The sidewalk, which was once dominated by women in full hijab, is now full of girls parading around in revealing outfits. This makes it easy to differentiate between the religious women and the ones who were only forced into obeying the Islamic laws.
In an effort to distract myself, I continue observing a group of three girls making their way past the bus stop. The oldest of the three girls is dressed extremely conservatively. The only parts of her body visible to the public are her eyes and half of her hands. Her hands hold no jewelry, nor are her nails polished. The slightly younger girl standing to her left is dressed the exact opposite. Her face is plastered with makeup, making her seem twice her age. I can tell she is still in school because her backpack is wrapped around her halter top. She wears a red mini skirt with bright yellow heels. Her outfit is well suited for a night of clubbing, not for a day at school. It is unfortunate that this girl misinterpreted our newfound freedom. She is obviously too young to understand that religious freedom does not equate to the complete disregard for a country’s long-standing traditions. Suddenly, I am alerted by the broken Arabic of the first soldier: “This car is clear.”
Again, I am reminded of the reality of our country as the driver continues past the ruins of the city. In approaching the heart of the city, it is hard to ignore the blaring noise of car horns polluting the atmosphere. Cars are lined up, bumper to bumper, anxiously waiting to cross the four-way intersection. As I look up, I find that the traffic lights are not working. There are police officers situated along the right side of the road; however, they are too busy conversing with one another. Meanwhile, cars are speeding in all four directions, completely disregarding traffic laws. The drivers are cutting each other off and ignoring the right of way. Suddenly, in the midst of the chaos, I watch the driver in front of us pull out his gun and fire several shots into the air. BANG! BANG! BANG! All the cars come to a stop, almost simultaneously. The sound of the horns dissipates as the shots disappear into the air. Every car in view gives way to this man; our taxi driver quickly takes advantage of this opportunity and follows him through the crowded intersection.