Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The news from Baghdad
That would be me sitting at the head of the dining table in Saddam Hussein's palace.
Saddam, of course, had 55 palaces in Baghdad alone, and this is just one of them. This one, in particular, was used frequently by Uday Hussein as a hunting lodge (and, if you believe the rumors, a brothel). When coalition forces arrived in 2003, they discovered gazelles, lions, and other wild animals running around the grounds in a state of utter panic. Now it's almost like a hotel.
The weirdest thing about staying in Saddam's palace is that it isn't all that weird. Sure, there's a certain amount of, "Wow, did one of history's vilest criminals once pee in this very toilet?" But, for the most part, I've just been glad to have a comfy, climate-controlled room with an ethernet cord, even if I'm sharing it with the fabulous Franken brothers.
Rewind. We left Tikrit yesterday morning and took a C-130 into Baghdad. This is a smaller version of the C-17s we've been flying around in. Again, ridiculously smooth flight.
You'd think that, given two relatively light days and a free Internet connection, I would have had the chance to post my thoughts on Baghdad by now, but instead I spent a lot of yesterday napping and a lot of today visiting a hospital and an Army Corps of Engineers building in the Green Zone, and now it's very late and I'm exhausted again. This trip involves a lot of sitting around, waiting, and for some reason it's very tiring.
But here's the quick-and-dirty rundown of how I've spent the past couple of days.
Yesterday, we got in, and the "entertainers" -- that's the term for "people whose autograph someone would actually want," meaning "not Andy" -- went off to a couple of other bases. This gave me some time to wander around this place.
----- Whoa. As I typed the word "place" there, I heard a loud BOOM and my window rattled. This has happened a few times in the past couple of days. We get mortars hitting in the area pretty frequently here, apparently. They generally don't get close enough to pose any real threat. Remember, we're surrounded by all those Bremer walls. The insurgents are pretty lazy and generally don't even bother to aim properly. They just load up a shell, point it in the general direction of the Great Satan, and let fly. Then they do it again twice -- and only twice. That's because once they've sent off three rockets, our guys can triangulate the flight paths and figure out exactly where they are, and that's pretty much the end of anyone stupid enough to hang out after their third shot. Anyway, it's not completely impossible that they could hit us here in the palace, but nobody seems remotely worried about it, so I'm choosing to follow suit. -----
So, my room is pretty sweet, and I'll post some pictures of it later. But the back patio looks out onto this man-made lake Saddam had installed, complete with fish. The spawn of those fish still lives in the lake -- they throw leftover breakfast out there every morning, and it's pretty easy to catch something; last year, Ben Wikler caught what I hear was a 22-inch bass. I really liked the bird sculptures on the patio.
It's really pretty. I was amazed that everything was so intact. After all, we did invade the damn country, and then we spent eight months looking for the guy who sometimes lived here.
No show last night, but I was dog-tired and passed out around 10. Which meant I got a good ten hours of sleep before BANGBANGBANGBANG!
USO guy: Andy, we got you a spot on the bird.
The "bird" being the helicopter to the Green Zone. I guess one of the real entertainers begged off the trip, so I got to tag along. We were going to leave for the helicopter at 9. It was 8:25. I jumped in the shower. Five minutes later: "Andy -- we're leaving in five minutes!" I jumped out of the shower, THREW on clothes, started to run to the lobby -- "Change of plans, we've got some time. Ten, fifteen minutes." That's kind of how everything works around here.
The trip to the Green Zone is five minutes by helicopter, and last year they felt it was safe enough to drive, which probably says something about the conditions here today. I did film the trip for another little video project that I'll try to finish tomorrow.
----- That reminds me. A few people have asked. The music for that last little video is a song called "Flight 180" by Bishop Allen. -----
Baghdad from the air looks like a real city -- palm trees, tenement housing, gorgeous mosques. Kind of like Southern California, kind of like the Bronx. I guess you had to be there. Then you land in the Green Zone, and it's still beautiful, but you can't see anywhere because the Bremer walls limit your visibility to ten or fifteen feet. It's like living in a concrete maze. I'd probably go insane quickly.
We visited a hospital. When we came to the ER, the board of patients was completely blank. "It's a beautiful morning," the attending nurse said, and I had to agree. Apparently, the insurgents like to sleep in, cause some trouble around lunchtime, take a siesta, and get back to it in the late afternoon -- so there's usually a spike in patients around 11 and 4. What a strange war.
We did find some patients, though, including a young Iraqi boy -- maybe five or six. His dad was with the Iraqi SWAT unit, which is how his kid got into the nice hospital. He was hooked up to a ventilator with some rare neuromuscular disease that was destroying his lungs. By the way, ventilators in Iraq look just like ventilators in Minnesota, and so does the brown paste that serves as food when you're on one. Anyway, they were just trying to keep him going until they could figure out all the paperwork involved with getting him to a children's hospital in Riyadh. I did a little prayer-bow to his dad. I didn't know what else to do. He nodded as if to say, Yeah, it's okay. The resident pediatrician (also the resident anesthesiologist) was optimistic, so that's good.
I also went over to Saddam's bigger palace across the river. The gov't types have been constantly pointing out since we got here that Saddam's bling is kinda fugazi. In other words, the marble on the walls is only half an inch thick, apparently, and the intricate designs in the plaster were stamped in. Frankly, this seems a little weird to me. I am capable of holding two ideas in my head -- that he was a monstrous dictator and that he had cool stuff -- simultaneously. I'm not sure I need the constant putdowns of his sense of style.
I probably have a lot more to say about Baghdad, but it'll have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, though, here's something some of you will enjoy. In the "lobby" here, right by the giant Kentucky flag (guarding this place is the responsibility of the Kentucky National Guardsmen in the neighborhood), is a case containing some of the coins (I think I mentioned, people give out coins here) of the folks who have been by.
Yes, that's a WWE coin. Amazing what you find in palaces these days.