Friday, August 13, 2004

Combat Football and the Late Show


In the course of a workday, life seems pretty normal. Office, email, meetings, more email, write a bit, more meetings, more email. Outside, traffic flows; shops bustle. It’s been a week of tension, all through the city; all through the country, but you only really know that, here, by noticing irregularities. Someone returns from Amman, overland. They’re extraordinarily bright. Smiles, laughs, and a fevered gleam that comes from extraordinary relief at arriving safely. The there’s the meetings. Too many. With too many people. Behind closed doors. Closing time is prompt. Windows and doors are shuttered early. No one is allowed to walk anywhere alone.

And you know things are coming to a head; that things will get worse before they get better, when the helicopters start thundering overhead, on their way to the next round of mischief and misery, for one side, or another, or both. You know the mischief has indeed begun, with fierce intensity, when blaring horns weave their way through traffic at double the average speed. On their heels come sirens: first police, then ambulance. And you know that the ambulances are in response to fighting somewhere, because they blare everywhere, in every direction, heading for every hospital in the city.

But all of this happens with a bizarre sort of time lag, betwixt the hours when you know things are happening far out of view, that may one day affect your day-to-day work, and some mention—sometimes any mention—on the TV news. First there’s a murmur on the street. ‘It’s bad.” What’s bad? “We just need to get home. It’s bad today.” Yet all around, traffic beeps, shops bustle; a virtual parade of watermelons are carried down the street from the fruit stand. Two days later we see film footage of the extent of the fighting; the hundreds or thousands (hard to tell) demonstrating in the streets in some far-off neighborhood.

Thursday night was exceptionally bizarre in this regard. All was normalcy: the shops, the traffic, the bustle of loading docks. All was awry: the brightness, the meetings, the walk home; the gunships, the horns, the sirens. Then silence. Then cheerful sounds of a Friday evening get-together next door: laughter, clinking glasses, a blaring TV. A game of some kind. The rising and falling cheers of (I’m guessing) a football match. A happy evening. I was lulled to sleep.

I awoke to discover that, instincts intact, I’d just hit the floor behind cover, as a roar of gunfire engulfed the city. It volleyed; it rolled; it thundered; it erupted from beneath my very balcony. Shouting erupted with it, from every direction: hundreds, it seemed thousands, of--of cheers? And fans screaming GOAL!!!!? I realized that I’d been jolted from sleep by—a winning side in a soccer match? Yes! Iraq defeats Portugal! Securing a place in the Olympics! The gunfire was deafening. It grew in intensity. It swept eastward, then westward, then eastward again. Then in a staccato riff on dueling banjos or howling coyotes, distant burps were answered by local reports. As it began to fade, I could once again hear my neighbors clearly—unconcerned, laughing and clinking and happy. I became extraordinarily bright myself. I climbed sheepishly from the floor.

But what goes up, must come down. The velocity of a bullet, having reached the apex of its trajectory, and falling once again to the ground, is the same as it was when it left the muzzle of the rifle, discharged into the sky. Following the jubilation, came a different kind of rifle fire. More pointed. Single shots. With a different kind of shouting. Angry shouting. Angry fire. Some of it from directly beneath my window. Then silence. Then horns. Then sirens. Then, finally, a less easy quiet, with night watchmen milling like disturbed ants on the street. Finally, relief, and, in the wee hours, sleep.

So it came as no surprise to hear on the morning news—having caught up at last with the wind—that fighting in Sadr City had been fierce on Thursday, with scattered fighting thoughout the city. What did shock was the news of a British journalist kidnapped in Basra, abducted from his very hotel room on the very football evening. I spent my Friday alternately doing normal things: a bit of email, a bit of washing up, a bit of writing—with plotting exit strategies and contemplating some security meetings of my own for Saturday morning. Then, in the afternoon, four explosions rattled our windows—about half a mile away, I should think. Then sirens. Then helicopters. And then an evening movie on the tele. And now the waiting, for the news delay, that will tell me what has been.

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