Checkpoint Baghdad: The Constant Barber

Baghdad, March 1, 2007.  We were hanging out in the reception annex of the Iraqi Government Building, being stripped of various possessions and waiting for our visitors' badges while enjoying the cool weather. It should be starting to get hot, but there's a cold snap—Brits would call it warm, but Iraqis are in sweaters—an annual thing much appreciated in the way our Indian summer is; Iraqis call it Bard al-Ajooza, the Old Lady, or more loosely translated, Winter's Last Gasp. Just then our translator, Abu Abdallah, spotted someone he thought he recognized, someone we'll call Mr. X. Mr. X was there to inform the guards that he was an official of the government's Commission for Public Integrity and was waiting for a visitor.

Behind the guard desk was a rather optimistically large board with plastic visitors' cards (color-coded for media, army, police, officials and VIPs) in neatly slotted rows and columns, given out after visitors handed over their ID cards as hostages. It was middle of the morning on a busy Thursday, rush hour for visiting the high and mighty in the 11-story edifice behind the annex, and there were only three other visitors in play. Seems it's always like that here at the seat of transferred power. Given what you have to go through to get this far, it's not surprising, but you wonder how a government governs without receiving citizens a little more often, or at least some Coalition officials. Mr. X moved on, we went our way, up the dingy deserted elevator, through the half-empty hallways, but after a while a little bulb lit in Abu Abdallah's head and he broke into a smile. The man suffers from hemorrhoids, so when he smiles, you know it's something special.

In another life—the one he and everyone else led before we invaded their country and made it safe for terrorism—Abu Abdallah was a neighborhood barber. Baghdad used to be that sort of old-fashioned big city of very small neighborhoods where the local barber really was a center of male social life, where the men all traded local gossip while they got their mustaches trimmed. Some of the shops even have revolving peppermint pole signs outside and reclining swivel stools and combs in jars of blue disinfectant, and until recently you could still get a wet shave and a nosehair trim. Before the concept of bombing civilian gatherings took root, there was little that a Baghdad barber didn't know about his neighborhood, and in this case, said Abu Abdallah with a smug grin, Mr. X was well known as the local pimp. This of course only confirmed Abu Abdallah’s low opinion of the Iraqi government. One of the few high-profile cases that Mr. X's integrity commission prosecuted involved Aiham al-Samarraie, the electricity minister in the initial American-appointed Iyad Allawi government that preceded this one. Samarraie was convicted, jailed in the Green Zone and, lo, escaped, presumably fleeing on his American passport to the United States, where he had previously been a major Republican Party supporter. (He claims innocence, and an Iraqi court overturned his conviction—though he still faced other charges.) Abu Abdallah laughed his wincing laugh again, the barber in him savoring the straight-edged irony of it all.

As with most of our Iraqi staff, Abu Abdallah isn't doing the work he was trained to do. That's true throughout the American press corps. There are dentists and doctors, engineers and accountants, former government officials and Persian scholars on our payrolls as fixers, translators and drivers; those who previously had been actual journalists are thin on the ground because there were just so few English-speaking ones during Saddam's time, other than secret police masquerading as news media. And of course the pay we fork out is a lot better than what they can make in any of those professions, even now four years after the fall. And it may be risky, but it still beats unemployment, which remains rampant one hundred billion dollars later. When we left the government building, we spotted Mr. X again, headed across the street arm in arm and intensely in conversation with another man, and Abu Abdallah cracked up once more. Perhaps, like our own staffers, Mr. X has found his true calling, at least for a while.