Every Night is Like a Disco: Iraq 2003

That day at Kassim’s, there was no music. There was almost no sound at all, not even the echoes of battle; I only recall the lyrical float of Kassim’s voice. Even his gloomy prognosis for Iraq’s future was entertaining, but I found it difficult to focus. I shouldn’t even be here, ran the voice in my mind, I should be following security protocols. The war wasn’t over: the day I arrived, my induction tour of the United Nations compound at the Canal Hotel was interrupted by bullets buzzing overhead; part of the natural environment, like the other insects, but with a worse bite.


On my drive in from the airport – the second civilian flight to land at Saddam International Airport since Saddam himself had vanished with the first light of dawn – I had sat next to a braying UN staff member. Before the war – the history of Iraq having been unilaterally divided into two periods, before the war and after – he had been part of the Oil-for-Food programme, one of the most corrupt endeavours in the history of the United Nations, and he was an idiot, holding forth about the way in which Iraq worked, regaling us with stories of his dealings with local politicians, trying to impress the rest of us with his deep knowledge of the country.


All of this while we drove past a city in ruins, a society in riotous mood, an economy that had just had its heart ripped out: he clearly didn’t realise that Iraq didn’t work, not any more, and that the politicians he’d lunched with were dead or had fled. This man’s deep knowledge of the country was the little knowledge that is commonly recognised to be a dangerous thing: the sort of knowledge that can get a brother killed.


The US soldiers grimly guarding the Ministry of Energy – apparently the only Ministry not looted during the post-Saddam euphoria – watched him pass. For a moment, I wondered how the US military had managed to secure the Ministry of Energy when every other had been looted by popular consent, but it was the sort of question that contained its own answer. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory to suggest that the US was deeply concerned about Iraq’s oil; it was just good business, which is to say, the same bad business as the rest of the invasion.


‘There are three types of criminal,’ stated Kassim, with no small degree of certainty, ‘One, the Americans. Two, the political parties. They appear from nowhere, and hop like frogs into your house. Three, the gypsies around Baghdad.’




The first group we visited were Roma – the gypsies that Kassim had warned me about. They seemed reasonably happy with their accommodation, rough as it was. Their main complaint was that the US soldiers would come every night, sleep with their women, but refuse to pay. They didn’t see this refusal to pay as rape, just bad business.


We asked the US soldiers if they knew about this: they muttered and chuckled and Jesus fucking Christ acted like this was nothing, until their ranking officer – and don’t ask me, I have no interest in memorising the insignia of the US military, I have better things to do with my time – absolutely denied the charges. I believed him. The Baghdad gypsies lied, and lied, and lied some more: they lied for gain and they lied for fun: their relationship with the truth might best be described as passing acquaintance, rather than a lasting friendship.


My conclusion wasn’t based on prejudice, just on the way that my guide talked to me, non-stop, as he grabbed hold of my wrist and pulled me around the camp as if this was a comedy sketch. Our first stop was a sour old woman clipping laundry to a line of blunted barbed wire.


‘This,’ proclaimed the guide, ‘is the greatest singer in Iraq! Sing for us, mother, sing!’


The old woman looked at him with contempt, and she looked at me with contempt. ‘No,’ she said with contempt, in a language that I didn’t speak but whose meaning was as clear as desert sky. My guide wasn’t deterred by this setback, or angered by the old woman’s rudeness to his guests, or particularly bothered by the fact that his entire community had been chased out of their former homes in the Abu Ghreib suburb and forced to live in crumbling concrete boxes. He pulled me past the old woman’s home and onto another family’s veranda.


‘This,’ he shouted, ‘is my cousin!’


I tried to shake hands with the cousin – smiling at me as if he understood what was going on, understood that it was all a cruel joke being played on me, or being played on him, or being played on all of us, by somebody just out of sight – but my guide slapped my hand down.


‘You cannot kill him!’ he told me.


‘I don’t want to kill him,’ I replied.


‘But you must try to kill him!’ my guide said, checking his pockets.


‘Why do I need to try to kill him?’


‘Because you cannot kill him!’ My guide continued to check his pockets, as if he had forgotten his wallet when he came out, as if he had a wallet to forget. I looked at the smiling man, but now I felt that he had no more idea of what was happening than I.


Soldiers stood at a distance, pretending that they’d never heard the accusation that they were fucking gypsy women nightly. He gave up looking, and looked up. ‘Shoot him!’


‘I don’t have a gun – ’


‘Shoot him!’


‘I really don’t think it’s a good idea.’


‘You cannot kill him!’


I looked at the smiling man, hoping for – what? Confirmation? Denial? Any indication at all that this was real? I was sweatily conscious that I was trapped in somebody else’s entertainment. I wondered if they even knew who I was, or what I was doing there; or if they really cared that they had been displaced, if it wasn’t just a return to what they had known before Saddam had settled them in a shitty village outside Baghdad, a sort of permanent uncertain voyage, somewhere west.


We had two more stops to make along this road. I didn’t have time to continue this discussion, I – was distracted by somebody else tugging at my wrist, not my guide this time, and not the smiling cousin, but another, smaller man. He had appeared from nowhere, urgently whispering, ‘Do not listen to that man’, whispering, ‘He is a liar’, and then he disappeared again, around the corner of the block, before I had the chance to shoot him, to check if he could be killed.


‘Don’t listen to him!’ protested my guide, laughing, ‘He’s a liar!’




There were official trips, and there were unofficial trips. The official trips were faintly ridiculous, ‘assessment’ visits to the ‘field’ – in reality, twenty minute convoys to Sadr City, the Shi’ite district notorious for its poverty, to be surrounded by people as soon as we stepped out of those big white SUVs, and to step back in twenty minutes later when we realised we weren’t going to be able to assess a damn thing.


An old woman plucked at my sleeve and begged me to help her son find medical help, to help him get better, but I knew from looking at him that it wasn’t medical help that he needed. I recognised the look in his eyes, the stutter in his walk, the slump in his shoulders, from when I had worked with children with severe learning difficulties. He would never get better, and I didn’t know which – if any – of the NGOs descending on Iraq could offer that kind of help; it seemed unlikely that this poor boy and his mother would be a priority in this collapsing country.


The unofficial trips were paradoxically more rewarding: reminders that this was a country with a culture that went beyond the slums of Sadr City. That was easy to forget when you were skim-reading situation reports on the inbound flight from Amman, painfully aware of your own ignorance in the face of what you were being asked to do. The unofficial trips told you some of the stories that weren’t in the travel books: a sense of place that was missing in the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel, or in the fever dream of the Green Zone, or in the hollowed-out Ministry buildings.


Kassim’s cafe – once thriving, now closed – was around the corner from al-Mutanabbi Street, which would later become a magnet for outrage, religious and secular, Iraqi and foreign, but that day the punishment of the grave lay on it. I put my cup of tea down on the small round table between us, and looked out over the city. What was strangest to me was how quiet it was. Everybody had heard the story that Saddam had banned disco-pop criminals Boney M because of the lyrics of their 1978 hit ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. That anecdote was shorthand for many of the shortcomings of the Saddam regime, shortcomings shared by many totalitarian states: lack of humour, ignorance of culture, shortness of temper.


‘Since the beginning of time we have been doing this. Every night is like a disco,’ my new Roma friend told me, but every night was not like a disco. Every night we were herded into the UN compound at the Canal Hotel, where the shower was a tank heated by the sun, the gym was a makeshift basketball court, and the only entertainment was backgammon and bootleg DVDs. Every day Bernie jogged around the perimeter of the compound, as if we were back at the hotel in Larnaca, on Cyprus, where we had spent the previous months; unlike Larnaca, there was no opportunity to get my PADI scuba diving qualification, and occasionally bullets would whistle overhead.




The second group that we visited along the road were also ‘displaced’, but their ‘displacement’ came fully-loaded with quote marks. They were suspiciously well-dressed, suspiciously well-organised, and suspicious of us. The gypsies, they said: the gypsies were always causing trouble. Always noisy. Always stealing. Always whoring. The soldiers go to their camp, late at night. (I looked at the soldiers again, but they didn’t look back.) The gypsies would shoot at them –


‘Hold on,’ I stopped the man who was talking, who seemed to be some sort of leader, although not a particularly good one, ‘The gypsies are shooting at you? Why?’ He shrugged. Shrugging was a good enough answer to any of his life’s unanswerable questions. He shrugged a lot. He shrugged when we asked him where they had come from. He shrugged when we asked him why they had left their homes. He shrugged when we asked him whether they had received any assistance. I wanted shoulders like that man – strong enough to take anything we could throw at him – but I kept coming back to that one question.


‘Are you sure it’s the gypsies that are shooting at you?’ It wasn’t impossible – the gypsies were clearly a tricky bunch, given to random acts of not singing and not being killed – but it wasn’t obvious what they would gain from shooting at their neighbours.


‘And the soldiers don’t protect us,’ he continued. He conjured a conspiracy with one of his hands, which wove in the air above his head like a bird making a nest. ‘They are fucking the women.’


I was starting to worry about the soldiers. If this was true, it sounded like they were doing a lot of fucking. I wasn’t naïve about how the military worked, but if they were in the gypsy camp at night – for whatever reason – wouldn’t they also notice that the gypsies were shooting at their neighbours? Unless the US military and the Iraqi gypsies were in cahoots! In those days Iraq was rapidly filling up with conspiracy theories, many of which were true, and this was one conspiracy theory I could get behind.


His hand finished its work. ‘If they come to clear us out, we have nowhere to go,’ he said, ‘We will have to start looting to survive.’ It sounded more like a threat than a lament. It sounded like an attempt to blackmail us into caring, a promise made with a nod and a wink, a charade that we were all in on, but weren’t allowed to air in public.


If they were displaced, they were remarkably well-prepared. I felt bad questioning whether they were legitimate or not, but something about them didn’t sit right. At first, most displaced people are filled with nothing but sorrow for what’s just happened to them, and worry about what’s going to happen to them; later, that sorrow is replaced by resignation when it becomes clearer that nothing is going to happen to them, and that this is just the way things are now.


This man, and his family, and his friends, on the other hand – they were filled with indignation. I’d met a lot of displaced people, not just in Iraq, and they weren’t usually filled with this sense of entitlement. The US soldiers believed that this group had not lost their homes, but had moved here in order to receive assistance from the US military and the international community.


You couldn’t say it out loud, of course, and you couldn’t base a relief programme on it – a gut feeling that they were trying to pull the wool over your eyes – because the humanitarian endeavour is predicated on assuming the best about the people that you’re trying to help, the direct descendants of the deserving poor of the Victorian era.


This was the question that faced us every time we landed in a new country: who needed our help? The assumption was that there were people who needed our help, but actually drawing a line around those people was trickier than it seemed. There were certain types of help that we couldn’t give, at least not right now – special education for that boy with learning difficulties, for example – and there were certain types of people that we shouldn’t help – such as this group of ‘displaced’. Yet they were all here, in a country that had collapsed around their ears. Surely everybody needed our help? Surely somebody must need the very specific type of help that we could provide?




Container fever was quick to take hold in the Canal Hotel. Baghdad in June was yellow with dust, and burning with possibility. We hadn’t come here to resent the air-conditioning, we had come to try, and try, and try to help the people of Iraq. Not in the way that the Oil-for-Food programme had helped the people of Iraq, with remaindered schoolbooks and overpriced food and rampant corruption. This was serious business: this was post-conflict reconstruction, nation-building, all that good stuff that would launch a thousand hapless beltway policy wonks in the years to come. Huge numbers of graduates were going to get laid on the basis of their anecdotes about the Green Zone, as long as their politics were right, and as long as they spiced up the clear and present danger.


I wasn’t there to rebuild the country (although my employers may have thought otherwise). I was there to stop people from dying as the health system imploded, the water and sanitation infrastructure packed up, the supply chains froze. A solid humanitarian aid worker, that’s how I thought of myself: after going through Kosovo and Afghanistan, I had no illusions that nation-building was anything other than a shell game, in which the international community simply tried to keep the cups moving around quickly enough that nobody would realise there was nothing under any of them.


What I was actually doing was showing Iraqi drivers pictures of their homes on pictures nabbed from the slowly-thawing satellite image providers. One of them squealed with schoolboy delight when he realised that the crow eye of the satellite had caught him walking from his house to his car one fine morning. Sometimes the images seemed more real than the streets we walked through. Pictures of the city before the war; pictures of the city living something close to a normal life, albeit in the straightjacket of sanctions. I imagined Kassim’s cafe filled with writers and poets and playwrights and similar, chucking away their loneliness over sweet tea and dried fruit. We could forget the drunken party that was post-Saddam Baghdad, and the inevitable hangover that immediately followed; the dead could be dug up and dusted off.


One road on those images was a mystery: a bare, faintly apocalyptic stretch running parallel to the airport road that I’d driven in on, heading towards Jordan but leading to a dead end. Block after block of military buildings – barracks, depots, administrative centres, and so forth – that had been deserted by the Iraqi army. These buildings were clearly not constructed for residential use, but into the vacuum left by the army, the dispossessed were drawn: those rejected by society, those who slipped through the cracks, those displaced by the war. In our professional jargon, Internally Displaced People, or IDPs: an acronym decided by a committee, adopted to neutralise the truth, a word that tasted bitter in my mouth whenever I said it.




The final group were also displaced, but this time without quote marks, without any irony at all, just displaced: a motley group of Baghdadis who really had lost their homes during the bombing, and had the sorrow to prove it. They scrabbled together burnt and broken belongings, and pushed them into carts and cars, and went to the only place they could find that could shelter them. They didn’t complain like the ‘displaced’ group, they didn’t ask for anything; the bombs had robbed them of their agency. They were shell-shocked, especially the children, who haunted their parents’ legs.


One of them invited us to his home: a university professor, a lecturer in Fine Art, no less, who had lost not only his home, but his job; there was no room for fine art in the hurt locker. And yet – he reached into his locker, an actual locker, inside the one room that he and his family lived in, and pulled out canvas after canvas. He wasn’t just a lecturer, but an artist himself, and he had managed to salvage a few of his own paintings from the ruins of his apartment building.


He lined them up against the side of the building, his most precious possessions, as carefully as if they were his children. If they had been his children, we could have measured their arms for signs of malnutrition, but there were no humanitarian standards for art criticism. I felt as if I should offer to buy one, both to show that I appreciated Iraqi art, and that I had his best interests at heart.


The paintings weren’t for sale, though, he couldn’t possibly sell them: they were a lifeline for him, a reminder of what had been and a promise for what might be again, if the city, the country, were to be restored to its former glory. If the portraits hanging in the hallways of power were no longer to be a Saddam-themed hall of mirrors: if the entire country was no longer a Warhol exhibition in which every print repeated that man’s face: if the floor in the presidential palace was no longer festooned with a mural of the dictator. If if if.


What disturbed me the most was that I had less to say to these people, less to think about, and less to write about, than with the gypsies and the ‘displaced’. There weren’t any questions here, and so there weren’t any answers: there were just a group of people who had lost everything except some muddy watercolours, unframed, and the clothes they stood up in. I was seconded to the UN by the British government, the same government that tipped the first domino: the old woman tugged at my sleeve, pointing at her boy and calling out; Kassim opened his doors and waited for customers that never came; soon there would be bodies lying beneath the ruins of a collapsed hotel.


The displaced children watched us carefully, as if we were animals, but not dangerous animals. We were the sort of animals that came around the camp at night, perhaps, hovering on the edge of the light, unwilling to come too close. We weren’t animals that you could make friends with, but we weren’t animals that you would worry about making an enemy of, either. We were to be watched, but there were other animals that needed to be watched more carefully. The Americans; political parties; gypsies, perhaps.


None of the three groups – the gypsies, the ‘displaced’ and the displaced – asked us for anything, except in the most general terms. They didn’t ask for food or medical care or education facilities or anything that we could offer them. We were useless to them, and it was obvious to all. It was obvious to them, and it was obvious to us, and it was obvious to the US soldiers that didn’t visit the gypsy camp late at night. We got in our cars and we went back to the Canal Hotel and we shrugged off the heat and pretended that we were useful.




Nobody died, that was the main thing: nobody died. Iraqis were dying, sure, but none of the staff flying in from Larnaca or Kuwait City or Amman. Because none of us died, we started to think it was safe, and people like the idiot from the Oil-for-Food programme that I drove in with from the airport could go on pretending that it was all the same, that their colourful local contacts would keep them safe. I was sick of them; but I was also sick of myself, keeping up the charade that it was all going to be fine – regular infusions of basketball and backgammon and bootleg DVDs – when all I knew is that it was going to get worse before it got better.


American troops were being attacked on a regular basis: by assailants unknown, but somehow known; I started to understand what Donald Rumsfeld was talking about. The soldiers were simple objects of retribution for any remaining Republican Guard, Shia militant groups and assorted Iraqi tribal factions, and it wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination to see that they would, one day, soon, realise that aid workers were equally simple objects, and twice as soft.


I sat in a security meeting and listened to more idiots talk about our situation at the Canal Hotel. One of the more recent arrivals proposed shatter-proofing the massive lobby windows that faced the street; a member of the old guard objected, on the grounds that it would look unsightly. I asked if we could install parking bollards outside my office, on the ground floor, directly beneath the office of the UN Special Representative, adjacent to a plot of empty ground, easily accessible to cars from anywhere, cars that kept me awake at night. I was told that there was no budget for such unnecessary measures, and that was the moment I knew that I would leave as soon as possible.


We were the canaries in the coal mine: when we started to die, that would be a clear signal that everybody should run, run as fast as they could, straight for the surface. I planned on being long gone by then; I wanted to live to see my thirtieth birthday. On my first day in the country – only a few weeks ago, but many years past – I had asked my driver how he felt about the invasion. ‘We are very happy that Saddam is gone,’ he replied, ‘but we hope that you will leave soon,’ and, well, now I could make his wish come true. It might have been the only wish I could fulfil; the old woman was still tugging at my sleeve. My Roma friend was always asking me to shoot his cousin.


After the meeting, I went back to my office and planned my departure: emailed the British government that I would not be extending my contract, started to write my handover notes, said my goodbyes to the people I’d briefly shared this office with. I didn’t know what to say to them, any more than I had known what to say to the displaced: get out, get out, get out? Run from your homes, before you are forced to run? Half of them didn’t have the option, there was nowhere else for them to go, there was nobody else to take them in. The doors were closed, although not for me.




On the flight out, I sat next to an American NGO colleague who chuckled like a child as he told me how closely he was working with the US military. He explained to me how we were all on the same side, how there was no real difference between the UN mission and the US mission, how he swanned through the checkpoints just the same: at the same time flicking through an army surplus catalogue, occasionally tipping it like a centrefold to show me the knives he planned to purchase, the body armour he coveted, that he would buy in any old gun store once he was back in the US; the country that Kassim planned to leave for as soon as he could. Business was good; as good as a bad business could be, at least.


I had never been a soldier, but coming home was still like going back to being a civilian. The war, the war that already felt endless even though it had only just begun, all I saw of it now was what everybody else saw. We had television reports and newspaper articles and radio broadcasts, and you had to work out what you thought for yourself. I tried very hard not to have an opinion. I gave up the right to have an opinion when I walked away. Now I just hoped for the best and waited for the worst.


There was a fourth type of criminal, one that Kassim chose to ignore. That August, the week after my birthday, I watched the news from Baghdad: friends and idiots alike, dead and dying under a building’s worth of rubble; the bomb parked in a car outside the office that I had sat in. The first twenty-four hours after the explosion come to me only as a story that somebody else was telling, a stumble through central London, half a world away from anything that seemed important. I received calls from three continents throughout the afternoon, caught myself flicking through CD racks between calls, stepping back, horrified at my own distance.


I avoided televisions in shop windows, all of them playing the same ruined scenes, with me framed in the darkness of the screen between those scenes. That was just dissonance: over there I was the star of the movie, every moment weighted down with meaning, and everybody else in Baghdad an extra, bussed in for local colour. Now I was a member of the paying public, paying for the war, paying for the spectacle, but I wasn’t the one who had to pay in the end, of course. When it came, the bill fell right into the laps of the people that I left behind on the airport road, the people I left behind in the Canal Hotel; a bad business indeed.



is a writer based in London. 



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