months right after fall of Baghdad there were no civilian flights into Iraq, and the military flights were hard to get, so you really had to drive in. You could go from either Kuwait in the south or Jordan in the west, generally traveling in a convoy of SUVs, since there had been bandits and kidnappers along the route who would try to force lone vehicles off the road. I was in Amman — Jordan’s capital, sometimes known as “The White City” because so many of its buildings are painted white — and I was lucky enough to be staying at a fancy, Arty-Decoey hotel called "Le Royale," which had a complimentary breakfast buffet, omelettes and all. (I found out only later that the hotel was part-owned by Uday Hussain, one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s sons who would die in a firefight just about a week later.) My ride was due to leave at 2:30 a.m., and I was very nervous about the trip and for some reason had this feeling there was very, very bad luck in my immediate future. They had a small indoor shopping mall beneath the hotel, and I went down to the movie theater there to see a British comedy called Johnny English, shown in the original with Arabic subtitles. It got my mind off things for as long as it lasted, but after the show I just went back to feeling jittery, and it was a relief when the car finally showed up. The fixer (a sort of contractor for foreign journalists) had described the two guys taking me to Baghdad as “Palestinian race-car drivers,” and told me the older one had been dubbed "Scarface" by the other reporters who had ridden with him because of a large, unexplained scar across the left side of his face. As a result, I had imagined some kind of thug, but he turned out to be more like somebody's friendly-but-quiet uncle, moustached and wearing Western clothes, and able to speak a little English. I didn’t ask him about the scar though. The other guy was maybe in his mid-20s, and he wore a beard and keffiyah and other traditional dress. We dragged the duffel bag holding my luggage and an armor vest I had been given into the truck and then immediately headed to a night market so the two drivers could buy huge bags of pita bread to sell once we got to Baghdad. (The body armor, by the way, was not so useful, more of an ill-fitting Halloween costume that I never ended up using, as it would have just made me stand out as a foreigner.) Scarface also bought us all soft-serve ice cream cones, presenting one to me in a generous gesture of Middle Eastern hospitality. The younger guy drove the nighttime part of the trip, the easier part through Jordan to the border. Since he didn't seem to speak English, I used my lousy Arabic (it was one of the languages I studied in college, but that had been more than a decade earlier), and I managed to pretty much exhaust my entire vocabulary within the first half-hour, doing the usual “Where are you from?” “Do you have family?” “Where have you traveled?” and such. The younger driver had strong religious beliefs to go with his traditional clothing, and while I probably understood only a couple words per sentence, I got that he was trying to tell me how Islam was a peaceful religion and does not believe in terrorism. He also pointed out the few local landmarks we passed, though they were mostly invisible in the darkness. For a good number of miles along the road to the border, there are a series of mini-hills, kind of like giant speed bumps. He told me they were called the "camel's humps," which took some explaining since I didn't know the word for "hump." The up-and-down motion of the drive across the humps made me seasick, and I soon nodded off.  the border crossing just as the sun was rising. It looked like the combination of a big toll-booth complex and a truck stop, with a couple small, one-story buildings and some trailers. It was surprisingly crowded, and after we had parked in line with the scores of other beaten cars and well-used trucks, we made our way over to the office where the exit stamps were given out. Inside, there had to have been 50 or 60 people, all men, most of them in the keffiyah-and-thawb outfits, chain-smoking. (And outside the entrance, there was a small group of foreigners, a possibly Australian guy and a backpack-carrying Japanese TV crew, also chain-smoking.) The office had counters with glass windows like at a bank, and the Scarface guy took our passports and made his way through the crowd swarming around the couple counters that were open. The younger driver and I watched for a while as the mass of Iraqi-bound travelers jostled at the windows, mostly the one on the far left where the passports were returned after being stamped. Every few minutes, the guy behind the counter would lose it and begin shouting at the crowd to step back. This seemed to work for a minute or so, after which the eager group began crowding the window again, causing the immigration officer to start yelling and the cycle to begin anew. Every 20 minutes or so, the officer would call out a list of names of those whose passports were ready, and and maybe because it’s not unusual for Arabic men to share completely the same names, he would also call out the nationalities. Most of the people were Jordanian, but I couldn’t help noticing there were also a lot of Yemenis. The Yemenis were all dressed in traditional clothing and had a stern, we're-not- fooling-around look to them that made them seem very suspicious. I asked the younger driver about this: "There are many Yemenis. Why do Yemenis go to Iraq?" DRIVER: I don’t know. Maybe their families. ME: Are there many Yemenis in Iraq? DRIVER: No. Beside the passport control, I had another small piece of business at the border crossing: A friend of mine, a wire-service photographer doing a rotation in Baghdad, had asked me to pick him up a carton of Marlboro Lights and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black from the duty-free shop. I had huge doubts that a duty-free store even existed at the Jordanian border, but there it was. Probably the fanciest thing at the crossing, the shop was air-conditioned with freshly tiled floors — in fact, it looked like a Los Angeles gourmet grocery store, except that all it sold were  cigarettes, booze and candy. After a few hours we got our passports back, and just before taking off into Iraq, we melodramatically hid the cash I was carrying inside one of the seats in case of banditry. My employers had me bringing $10,000 in cash to Baghdad in order to replenish the hotel-based bureau’s cash and settle its debt, since of course there were no banks operating in Iraq at that point. I thought it was funny having that much money on me, and it made me feel like a gangster. Past the Jordanian checkpoint, we drove about 100 meters down a roadway with chainlink and barbed wire on either side, and then into the Iraqi border point, which was a much simpler structure than its Jordanian cousin, something along the lines of a fast- food drive-thru made of big red bricks. There were a couple of bored-looking civilians loitering in one of the two lanes, standing underneath an obligatory defaced picture of Saddam Hussein. With no government in Baghdad, no visas were needed to enter, but Scarface explained to me in English that starting the week before, the occupation authority had sent some local guys out to the crossing points to stamp passports with a stamp that said "witnessed entering at Tarbil crossing." He got our stamps from a guy in a plain green uniform without insignia, and he also sold him a bag of pita bread from the stash they had picked up in Amman — the whole thing took no more than a minute. There was no military presence other than a Humvee, parked about a half mile past the border point, with a couple of U.S. soldiers sweating inside in the crazy desert heat.  would take us through Anbar province and the so-called “Sunni Triangle” where loyalty to Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was strong, and while in simpler times the trip would have involved stopping for gas along the way, that was now deemed way too dangerous for fancy Land Cruisers and their foreign occupants. Instead, we hit up a makeshift gas station less than a minute past the border crossing. Basically it was the tanker part of a gas-tanker truck, half- buried in the sand, and gas from it was transferred one jerry can at a time into the tank of your vehicle. Scarface told me the guys running the operation were all from Sudan, almost whispering as if this was some kind of secret. The only other thing in the area was a small tent city of Iranian refugees, apparently not wanted in Iraq, Iran, Jordan or anywhere else. The main tent there had a big Red Cross emblem on it, and the place was laid out in neat rows. No one in the camp was outside, maybe not surprising given the baking summer temperatures. Anyway, after filling up we waited as two other vans came in from the Jordanian side in order to form a convoy. The drivers were chatty with each other, but I only caught a brief glimpse of their passengers, which included a couple dudes wearing those khaki fishing vests with the many pockets that some journalists seem to go wild for. Finally, we headed off into the desert, where the daytime high was something hilarious like 120 degrees American, supposedly hot enough to cook a steak medium-rare without using an oven. I was starting to get a little headachey from the temperatures, and after downing most of a bottle of mineral water, I stretched out in the back and fell asleep.  Some hours later, I was awoken in the middle of empty nowhere at the first and only U.S. military checkpoint of our trip. They had a tank and a couple Humvees and a squad of guys, baking in their bulky body armor and long-sleeved camouflage uniforms. We all got out of the car and went to the side of the road while they searched the three vans in our convoy. One of the soldiers told me they were looking for a vehicle carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers. After a couple minutes we were back on the road, and I downed another half-bottle of water and again fell asleep. By the time I woke back up, we were already nearing the Fallujah turn- off, a little less than an hour outside of Baghdad. The scenery had changed: It was now green, with crop fields of some kind and clusters of palm trees and scattered single-story mud-brick storehouses with no glass in the windows, like the houses in “The Flintstones.” The highway itself was pretty modern-looking, and every few minutes we would pass by some sort of war debris, like a giant tank sitting in the grassy median separating the two sides of the road with its turret missing. But as interesting as all this was, I was distracted by the need to piss and was feeling miserable with a pounding headache. But then finally, Baghdad, which to me looked like it was composed almost entirely of beige-colored buildings and palm trees, more palm trees than I’ve seen anywhere else. Traffic was terrible, since Baghdadi motorists were used to driving with traffic lights, and those traffic lights now lacked electricity. We crossed a bridge spanning the murky green waters of the Tigris River and onto Abou-Nouas Street, where Scarface pulled over at a riverfront park so I could run out and relieve my bladder at a convenient palm tree before spending another 45 minutes in traffic to get to the Hamra Hotel, where the news bureau was located. Once we arrived, I settled the bill with Scarface, and then as I was about to head off into the hotel lobby the younger driver pulled me aside. In a difficult mix of Arabic and what was the first English I had heard him speak, he asked me if I could somehow buy him a Nintendo videogame console, maybe sending it to him via the fixer. Too surprised to think of how best to handle the situation, I just told him I’d see what I could do. Realistically though, it was pretty much out of the question, but I hope somehow he was able to hook up with the Mario Brothers on his own.
Amman to Baghdad, 2003
In the
In the summer of 2003, 100 U.S. dollars could buy you a brown paper bag filled with rubber-banded stacks of these 250 Iraqi dinar notes, featuring the portrait of a young Saddam Hussein. (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
(A radio news agency I worked for sent me to Iraq in July 2003 on temporary assignment.)
A view of the outskirts of Baghdad is visible in this detail of a photo taken from a balcony at the Hamra Hotel in 2003. Baghdad had more palm trees than anywhere I’d seen, and most of the buildings were khaki/beige color so that the city reminded me of the schools and other public buildings in L.A. where I grew up.
For whatever reason, the Jordanian government required anyone going to Iraq to sign a sort of liability waiver, pictured above.
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