City in a Time Warp
War is pushing Baghdad out of the 21st century and back to a bygone age of ferrymen, midwives, donkey drivers and shepherds.
[…] Books had always been Shalan Abdul Ritha’s life. “There’s a famous saying,” he says: ‘The Egyptians write. The Lebanese print. And the Iraqis read.” He used to sell hundreds of volumes each week at Baghdad’s fabled Mutanabi Street bookmarket. Then the war began, and the dapper old men who were his most dependable customers no longer visited his shop. Sales dwindled to only a few dozen books a week. Still, Ritha kept the place open until March 5, when a massive suicide car bomb demolished the market, killing at least 20 people.
Now, with his former livelihood in ashes and his college degree in Arabic languages all but useless, he makes ends meet the same way his father did nearly half a century ago—as a boatman on the Tigris River. The boat itself is the very one that his father operated when Ritha was just a baby. Now it’s Ritha who ferries passengers back and forth across the river, past the ruins of bridges that used to be heavy with traffic. Corpses drift with the current, many of them bound and blindfolded, and the sight of them horrifies the 43-year-old book lover. But every time insurgents blow up another bridge, his ferry business gets busier.
While security is returning to some areas of Baghdad, modern conveniences aren’t necessarily following. The Iraqi capital is no longer the place described in the old guidebooks, a metropolis of casinos, culture and Western-run hotel chains, although vestiges of that city can still be found. Instead, unceasing violence has thrust Baghdad back to a more primitive era, forcing its people to take up pre-industrial occupations and rediscover almost forgotten technologies. The collapse of municipal water services has revived the profession of well-digging, especially in the Green Zone, where foreign diplomats are reluctant to give up their flush toilets and showers. Donkey and horse carts are increasingly common on the capital’s streets; the animals are cheaper than trucks and less likely to be held up in searches for hidden explosives. (A few years ago, after insurgents launched a rocket attack on the Palestine Hotel from a donkey cart, U.S. military investigators were able to follow the singed and ornery critter home, where they detained its owner.) On the lawns of mansions whose former owners are dead or in exile, shepherds now pasture flocks of sheep and goats, a sight that might be idyllic if not for the inescapable din of a city at war.[…]