“…I dial Tom Ramsay again. It rings.
“Hi, Tom, this is Michael Hastings from Newsweek.”
“Michael, I have terrible news. We lost Andi today.”
“What? You have to be fucking kidding me.”
“No, Michael, we lost Andi today.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”” (209)
Reading Michael Hastings’ I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story (Scribner, 2008) and watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker (2009/2008) – set in Baghdad/Iraq – one could discern a pattern in the way a war-torn city like Baghdad in particular and Iraq in general is represented in the western cultural productions. Baghdad turns out to be the archetypal empty space for the westerners to play out their anxieties about love, longing, and domesticity; a dangerous space which by reinforcing an absence of these values reminds the western readers/audience the necessity to reassert these civilizational values so as not to lapse into the barbaric, a la Iraq and other conflict-torn Muslim countries.
Hastings – like many other young men/women of his generation with a dream of making it big in the world of journalism – joins the Newsweek in its New York office. The lure of quick success and recognition makes him request his seniors for a posting at the Newsweek bureau in Baghdad. Days before leaving for Baghdad after completing the mandatory security training in Virginia, Hastings is sent (by a gossip website for which he was doubling up as a freelancer) to interview Jerry Springer at Rosa Mexicano on 57th Street. Andi – Andrea Suzanne Parhamovich – was representing Air America (a co-sponsor at the event) as one of their publicists and was in charge of hosting and organizing the event. They converse for about fifteen minutes after the event. She refuses to give him her card in case her name comes up on the gossip website.
Two days later, Michael receives a call from the Baghdad office asking him to report in August 2005. In the short intervening time, the usual boy-meets-girl story unfolds between Michael and Andi as they go out on their first date where he breaks the news of his going to Baghdad. The city of New York becomes a space for a blooming romance:
“We were in love before we said it; we said it only after we were far apart, when I was six thousand miles away and eight hours ahead. Later, she would ask me, “When was the moment, when was the moment you knew?” I’d say, “When I saw your face at the Jerry Springer party I knew.” Or, “When we went out to dinner at Shelley’s on 57th, when I convinced you to try an oyster, which you had refused to try in the previous twenty-six years of your life, that face you made, I knew then.” On a night in July in my bed, near climax, I told her I loved her. I whispered it. I don’t know if she heard. I was worried she might have heard. It just slipped out, in passion, and then I rolled over on the futon, the bed she made me get rid of, and wondered if she heard and if she loved me back (37).”
The City of New York – the modern metropolis where youngsters spin their hopes, dreams, and desires – is woven into the narrative as a humane space for ‘civilized’ ways of living and loving – a far cry from the ‘barbaric’ space of Baghdad, a decayed metropolis that once was the cradle of human civilization.
Soon after, Michael arrives in Baghdad, a city torn by sectarian violence, insurgency, and western military intervention. In Baghdad, life is segregated between the Green Zone and Red Zone, reminiscent of the colonial times when the cities used to be divided up between the white settlements and the native areas. The Green Zone in Baghdad is a highly secured space meant for the western military, diplomats, officials, aid-workers, journalists, and the Iraqi elites. A miniature recreation of a western city that does not quite fit as Michael observes during his first escorted drive from the airport: “Nothing seems to fit. I don’t want know what it is. It may be the heat or it may be lack of sleep. Or it could just be the adrenaline coming down. I have this sensation that I am seeing too many parts that don’t quite go together – randomly scattered signs of America in this completely un-American place, sun-blasted and slow-moving…” (13).
Michael’s life revolves around the Green Zones except for the ‘embeds’ he undertakes with the army to gather news about the fighting and bomb disposal first hand. The book gives a graphic description of many of his ‘embeds’ in Baghdad, Najaf, and Mosul. On his first ‘embed’ eleven days after his arrival in Baghdad, he gives a vivid description of his first impression of the city:
“Trash is everywhere in Iraq [Baghdad]. It is the most distinguishing feature of the landscape. The trash defies description. There are huge piles of it outside homes, on doorsteps, in street corners, filling any vacant lot. No triple canopy jungle or endless dunes, just pile upon pile of twisted and discarded junk, plastic, scrap metal, empty bottles, tin cans, cardboard boxes, gasoline containers, decaying fruit, a stunning collection of random shit. It is mind-boggling, as if every family in Iraq decided to toss their garbage cans out the front door at the same time, and when they figured out that no one was going to come pick it up, it just proceeded to cover the trash with more trash. In all that trash the insurgents hide their deadliest weapons, the IEDs. The IEDs are camouflaged as trash. They look like almost everything else on the ground. Very clever, very scary, very hard to see (45).”
Baghdad – the decayed, squalid, trash-filled, and dangerous city – an antithesis to whatever New York City stands for, takes its toll on his relationship with Andi. Baghdad is no city for love, longing, and romance. In his description, the city is emptied out of Iraqi people, who still live, love, copulate, and dream about a better tomorrow.
In December 2005, Michael returns to the US for a Christmas break to spend time with Andi and meet both his and Andi’s family. In a poignant description of leave-taking, Baghdad is reduced to the ‘Other’ of human civilization:
“The flight starts to take off…I smile. I smile in a way I haven’t since the days before I got sober seven years ago. The addict in me is alive again and oh what a feeling. I survived. I made it. I didn’t fuck up. Bliss…It feels good to live after death. It feels good to not be dead…Fucking Baghdad…Two hours after takeoff, Dubai appears…I had forgotten the finer things in life. I’d gotten used to a stew and rice for dinner, to mosquitoes and flies and bats and lizards, to nothing ever working right. Dubai is the opposite, a return to civilization, it is the Hong Kong of the Middle East, Las Vegas meets Islam, no open gambling but plenty of money laundering, row after row of towering buildings, an indoor ski hill, the only seven-star hotel in the world, a man-made island shaped like a palm tree (67-8).”
It is ironic that the cradle of human civilization is reduced to a cesspit, a place of violence, murder, a theatre of barbarism in which the Iraqis play their self-destructive roles and in which the westerners try to save the barbaric by restoring them back to civilization. The western journalist happy to be leaving Baghdad seems to be completely oblivious that Baghdad is still a city of five million Iraqis who do not live in the secure Green Zone. The mundane life of ordinary Iraqis in the city of Baghdad is erased because it is not newsworthy in the eyes of Newsweek and its predominantly American/western reader. [A very similar description of escape from Pakistan is found in Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (Holt Paperbacks, 2009).]
In the late February of 2006, the Golden Mosque of Samarra is bombed sparking off a civil war in Iraq between the Shias and the Sunnis. The city is in a siege and is under curfew indefinitely. In their Christmas break Michael and Andi already planned for their next holiday in Vienna and Prague, those ‘civilized’ cities where love could be indulged in. Michael manages to reach Vienna once the curfew is relaxed. Andi had already arrived. The description of Vienna and Prague is rich in their cultural legacy in contrast to the stark, minimalist description of Iraq:
“Two days in Vienna then we catch a train to Prague. (Budapest or Prague – Andi wants Prague. She makes the right choice.)…We take a walking tour of the city. Kafka and Kundera, the Brothers Grimm. Castles and Gothic structures, small, dark mysterious streets. We have a picture taken of us on top of a famous clock house; a picture near the castle overlooking the city; a picture on the Charles Bridge…We eat dinner at Allegro, overlooking the river and the Charles Bridge. We walk across it before midnight, holding hands” (125).
Sensing Michael’s wish to stay back in Baghdad for a longer tenure, Andi explores job options in Baghdad. She applies to the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), two nongovernmental organizations that had over 140 offices across the world. She lands a job in the Baghdad office of IRI which is located in the Green Zone, quite close to Michael’s office. His first reaction after hearing that Andi has landed the job at the IRI is quite telling: “What I feel is pride. To give up a prestigious public relations job in New York to come to Iraq to help fix this mistake, to help this country function, to work for democratic ideals and women’s rights and to work for half the pay. I am immensely impressed with Andi, and proud…I am excited that she is coming. She will be working at the International Republican Institute’s Baghdad office. Her job description is media development, working with Iraqi leaders and their parliament to set up a public affairs office, with the larger goal of getting to establish a free and independent press. I love her bravery and her guts” (145).
Andi arrives in Baghdad in September 2006 and is driven straight to the Green Zone where the IRI office is located. Despite being close to each other, romance in Baghdad lacks its natural fervor as going out of the apartment involves heavy security drills and checks. Andi’s contract with the IRI comes to an abrupt end. She applies for a job with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) whose office is located in the Red Zone (the unprotected area in the city outside the Green Zone) to be in close proximity with the Iraqi people. Visiting each other becomes more difficult as it involves heavy security excercises and escorts. They spend the Christmas and the New Year in their respective Green and Red Zones. On January 6, 2007, Michael goes over to Andi’s place to spend the night there. Their conversation lacks the usual romantic undertones and revolves more around their work: “We talk more – about Iraq, about the projects she’s been working on, about the friends she’s making at NDI, about how she’s adjusting to being back in Baghdad, about my story on Saddam, about Newsweek’s Palestinian fixer, Nuha, whom we had spent time with in Jerusalem. Andi tells me she likes the idea of working in Jerusalem. We discuss our next vacation – I’ve made reservations in Paris for Valentine’s Day. We were aiming for that date, hoping we could both get out at the same time. We drift off to sleep” (191). Michael plans to propose to Andi in Paris with a diamond ring from “DeBeers, princess cut, 1.5 karats, size six” (219). Because that’s what Andi liked!
On 17th January, 2007, Michael receives a phone call from Tom Ramsay. Tom Ramsay of the National Democratic Institute in Baghdad was not “fucking kidding.” Andi had been killed for real by a group of insurgents/terrorists on her way back from a meeting at the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad. In the first and the last chapters of the book, Michael reconstructs the events of the day as the investigations regarding her death failed to provide any conclusive narrative of events. As her three-car security convoy left the Iraqi Islamic Party office, the insurgents propped up a car in front of the first car and lobbed grenades under her car. She was burnt alive and her mortal remains could not be separated from that of her security guard who tried to cover her in a bid to protect.
The book concludes with Michael accompanying Andi’s body back to America on a chartered military flight which also carries the bodies of other American soldiers killed in Iraq. Michael’s grief at losing his love is manifested in his utter disgust for Baghdad/Iraq: “Fuck them all. Kill them all. Bomb this country and make one giant parking lot. Better yet, build a giant runway to go bomb every one of these other Arab countries off the face of the Earth. Nuke everybody, put on protective antiradiation suits, take their goddamn oil. Fuck all of them, these savages, this fucking criminal government. The birthplace of civilization, but there’s a reason that civilized people left, migrated, got the fuck out this shithole. I don’t really mean that, I tell myself” (221). It is immaterial if Michael means what he says. The point here is the improbability of love, longing, and domesticity in Baghdad, a scorched space beyond the pale of human civilization. The last chapter, which imaginatively reconstructs Andi’s last thoughts as she was dying a slow death-by-fire at the back of the car, further testifies how the pleasures of a normal life could only be found outside Baghdad (and in the west): “She sees the rest of her life. She sees the ring. She sees a pure white wedding dress and an aisle. She sees her parents and brothers and sisters and friends smiling proudly. She sees the children and the house. She sees the reunions in Ohio; she feels the warmth and hears the laughter and feels the love for her” (257).
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009/08) has created a history of sorts by winning the first Oscar for a woman director ahead of her ex-husband, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), considered by many a more deserving contender for the award. Based on the war journalist (like Michael Hastings) Mark Boal’s first-hand account of American bomb disposal squads in Baghdad, the film depicts Bravo Company’s fearless attempts at defusing the IEDs planted with impunity across the city. The film provides snatches of Iraqi life in the crowded bazaars, kids playing soccer on the streets, men and women perching on their terraces, reduced to the role of spectators in this theater of war and violence.
What stuck in my mind about this film is particularly the last scene (this is probably the only scene in the entire film where two Iraqi men seem to be playing active roles, one as an interpreter and the other as the living, ticking bomb) in which an Iraqi man is strapped in metal with a time-bomb. As the man pleads in Arabic with the bomb disposal squad to save his life, the Iraqi interpreter tells Will – the man given the responsibility of defusing – what the man says: “I don’t wish to die. I have a family. Please take this [the time-bomb] off me. I have a family.” His repeated reminder that he has got a family is the only reminder of domesticity in Baghdad. The man, however, is blown up in a matter of two minutes as Will fails to take off his bomb in time. On the way back to the base, a dejected Sanborn tells Will: “I fucking hate this place,” echoing what Owen – on his way to the army hospital to recuperate – told them a little while back: “Get out of this fucking desert.”
The improbability of enjoying the normal pleasures of domesticity in Baghdad is contrasted with soft domesticity in the very next scene. Will returns to America for a holiday with his family. The pleasures of buying cornflakes in a supermarket, enjoying a light autumn drizzle, hovering around his wife in the kitchen as she prepares a meal, chopping off vegetables for her, and playing with his baby fit into a moving picture of happy domesticity, something that Baghdad/Iraq is incapable of offering.
In both the book and the film, we come across a theme of the improbability of love, longing, and domesticity in Baghdad/Iraq. At the risk of a sweeping generalization, I would like to assert that the western cultural productions on Iraq present Baghdad as a barbaric space, completely emptying it out of the Iraqis who live their mundane lives under the glare of gun and bombs. An emptied out Baghdad is turned into a theater for performing American/western anxieties about romance and happy domesticity.
[Michael Hastings got a contract worth USD$500,000 for his book from Scibner three weeks after Andi’s death. He along with Andi’s family set up The Andi Foundation for supporting young women working in politics and media. The website: http://www.theandifoundation.org/
Michael Hastings has recently been in news for his article (“The Runaway General”) on Afghanistan in The Rolling Stone, which led to the ouster of Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan.]