Despite its name, Baghdad's Nadha Garage is a large parking lot choked with exhaust fumes and crowded with beggars, vendors and luggage-bearing travelers. Walking past the lines of SUVs and Chevrolet Caprice Classics (nicknamed "Dolphins" by Iraqis), I listen to drivers as they chant the names of cities-"Kirkuk, Kirkuk;" "Mosul, Mosul," "Karbala, Karbala"--stopping when I hear my destination: Basra. Within seconds, a man in a black kheffiya escorts me to his Dolphin, we settle on a price of 20,000 dinar (just under $14) for the 330-mile trip--and we're off. It happens that fast.
Along with food, water and conspiracy theories, transportation is plentiful in Iraq. A combination of imported cars flooding in from Jordan and Kuwait, cheap gas and unemployed men means that taxis are as available as AK-47s and securing a ride between municipalities a simple matter of finding the local "garage." Fares are extraordinarily cheap--a four mile cab ride in Baghdad can cost locals as low as $1.50 (foreigners, of course, pay more). Cross-country jaunts are proportionately less expensive--especially if you share a vehicle with other passengers to lower costs. (As for buses, they are so cut-rate they might as well be free.)
This vehicular convenience, of course, means that Baghdad is frequently shrouded in a chador of hazy smog with traffic jams that make midtown Manhattan look like the Daytona 500. Even outside the city, traffic back-ups a quarter-mile or so more are common--like the one we hit 20 minutes out of Baghdad where Highway 6 crosses a tributary of the Tigris. The bridge that used to cross the river took a couple of JDAMs during the war, but the U.S. military has seen fit to replace it with a metal span that allows only one lane of cars to pass at a time. "Why can't the Americans add a second lane?" gripes our driver, translated by a fellow passenger, a Baghdadi clothier named Ahmed. "It would be easy for them, and do a lot to help us." Stopped dead between a truck hauling tomatoes and a pilgrim bus bound for Karbala, I have to admit my sayyiq has a point.
I'm heading to Basra this beautiful February morning to check out the life in Iraq's second largest city. I also want to investigate the security situation in southern Iraq. When I made this trip last fall, my driver refused to be on the road past 2 p.m. for fear of thieves and carjacker-- "Ali Baba," in Iraqi parlance. A few months back on these long stretches of highway, unidentified assailants attempted to rob the SUV carrying New York Times reporter John Burns. A week ago, gunmen opened fire on a religious group traveling these highways, killing one. Particularly hazardous are the 100 miles between Amarrah and Basra, which highwaymen have claimed as their turf. "My wife begged me not to take this trip," Ahmed remarks. "She's terrified of the Ali Baba."
Still, with the heavy traffic on the roads this morning, I figure the odds are with us. Settling in the Dolphin's backseat, I watch the squalid towns of Jisr and Aziziyah roll by. Soon, the terrain opens up to flat, scrubby desertscape, broken only by the occasional palm grove, wrecked Iraqi tank and roadside religious shrines. We're in Shi'a country now, where 16-foot murals once displaying Saddam Hussein's mustachioed mug now feature the impossibly handsome visages of imams Ali and Hussein, early Islamic heroes whom the Shi'a venerate with near-idolatrous passion. From Baghdad to Basra, these icons (designed and mass produced in Iran) appear everywhere--on posters, stickers, t-shirts, key-chains, rugs, banners--creating a flood of religious kitsch that demonstrates the profound grip Shi'ism has on the people of southern Iraq. This is not a land that separates its mosque from its state.
We stop for tea, pulling into a kind of post-Apocalyptic rest-stop consisting of a shabby teahouse, men in soiled dishdashies working on broken-down machinery and packs of feral dogs. I watch in amazement as travelers purchase refreshments, then casually throw their garbage into huge rotting piles of trash--even as hordes of young attendants soap down and rinse off drivers' SUVs and Dolphins with loving care. One of my fellow passengers, an Iraqi journalist stationed in Dubai, shakes his head. "Everytime I come back to Iraq, I feel my spirit being drained," he says, exhaling a slow stream of cigarette smoke. "Life here is so harsh, it causes me to lose heart."
Back on the highway, we reach the last police checkpoint before Amarrah. "Is it safe the ahead?" the journalist asks a teen-age cop hardly larger than his machine gun. "Yes," he shrugs, "but you should look to Allah for help." But instead of providence, we're trusting in Chevrolet horsepower, as the driver suddenly guns the Dolphin past 100 mph and we rush down the highway like a desert wind, tail-gating cars so closely we could press another Arabic numeral in their license plates. "The driver is nervous now, Ahmed whispers. "Everybody's nervous now," the journalist adds, as car after car pulls aside to let us pass.
The Ali Baba's modus operandi is to run their own fast-moving cars (Mercedes seems to be the conveyance of choice) up beside a driver and, brandishing weapons, force the unlucky vehicle off the road. Usually they only take money, equipment and passports--roadside slayings are rare, which is why the recent killing of the religious activist was so distressing. "Why can't the British or the Americans this part of the road?" our sayyiq complains. I mentioned the Bulgarians and Poles who operate in south-central Iraq and he laughs. "They only eat and sleep."
We fly past women standing between the highway lanes selling fish from the adjacent Tigris, black abiyas blowing in the wind like crows' wings. Five story brick smokestacks from kilns rise across the yellow-green plain, several of them spewing thick black clouds of soot. No-name villages of blocky brick houses and rusting automobiles appear and disappear, the local children playing in the dirt. It was here that the Iraq's marshlands once began, the ecological treasure only now slowly coming back to life after Saddam Hussein nearly destroyed them in an attempt to deny sanctuaries to Shi'ite revolutionaries. Soon, we're roaring by the town of Qurna, supposed place where the Garden of Eden once stood--now the epicenter of Ali Baba activity. But instead of highwaymen, we're relieved find another police checkpoint. In possibly no other country are the police such a welcome sight as in Iraq.
At last the arid wastes give way to broad avenues and dirty, low-slung buildings: Basra. The driver slows, everyone relaxes, another transit through bandit country completed. We pass by gas station with over 100 cars lined before the pumps, even as two British jeeps draped in camouflage netting pull out in front of us. Lightly armed--at least compared to the up-armored Americans up north--the English seem engaged in another war, as if Monty's army were still in pursuit of the Desert Fox.
I point this out, but no one seems amused. Although we've safely reached our destination, the Iraqis seem in grumpy moods. "Daily existence for us is so difficult," Ahmed explains. "Bridges out, electricity on and off, endless gas lines, you can't travel to Basra without fear of being killed." We stop to disembark the journalist. Collecting his gear, he pauses by my window. "When you write about this, mention to your readers that its the small details that do the most to undermine Iraqi faith in the Coalition." He pauses, giving a hard stare as if I were Paul Bremer's personal representative. "We're all grateful for liberation, you understand, but how long can we remain grateful under conditions like these?" My heart sinks as the Dolphin pulls away. I wanted to respond to the journalist's question, but for now only Allah knows the answer.