For the past two months my hair has been falling out. Clumps in the shower. Strands around my desk. My hairdresser commented on it, the rate and amount of my hair loss. The only answer I had for her was, “I’m really, really stressed. I have a big trip coming up.” “Where to?” “Iraq.” “Really? Where in Iraq?” “Baghdad.” She lowers her arm and we stop shouting over the whir of the blowdryer. “Don’t go there,” she says. “Wallah, it’s no place for anyone. They shoot people in the street.” She clicks her tongue and continues partitioning my hair into clips, muttering about my youth and my femaleness and my complete insanity.
I was, honestly, very nervous to go to Baghdad. The night before I left I had a real-life emotional breakdown—crying quietly in my bed because I couldn’t find my wool socks. I wouldn’t be staying in the secured green zone, instead I’d be in a hotel in Karrada district, spending my days in the communities to take photos and gather statements. I arrive after dark on the 24th, met with wind and rain and an airport employee named Samir. “Welcome!” he smiles, grabbing my bag and leading me through the myriad of checkpoints. “U.N. Lebanese. Working. Five days.” He fields all the questions while I stare out the window and zip up my fleece jacket past my chin. It is much colder than I had anticipated.
The city seems like it is crumbling, barely hanging on to remnants of what once was a cultural and economic hub. There are blast walls everywhere and garbage litters the streets, floating in roads that have become streams during the relentless rainy season. Checkpoints make it so that the traffic is unbearable. There are no stoplights that work. When we go out to more conservative parts of the city, I am told to cover my hair.
“And when you greet people, just say asalam w alaykum, so they don’t hear your accent,” Amir advises. Baghdad feels inhospitable, yet I am incredibly protected because of my status as a visitor and a young woman. After the seventh time my colleagues ask me if I feel safe, I fight the urge to tell them I’m not so fragile – but I just acquiesce to their suggestions to hide my camera, to put on my scarf, to lay low. I am breakable, I am human.
It is also incredibly beautiful. Palm trees line the Tigris River, and the city is steeped in green. A damp haze encircles each streetlight, and the crowded, colorful streets just seem so bustling, so Arab. One night, we stop to get kunafeh in the busy shopping area in Karrada, a security guard out of sight, but tailing us nonetheless (“He was in Blackwater,” a colleague tells me, as if this will assure our safety). We swap stories while cutting the syrupy, cheesy pastries with plastic forks – the crispy outer layer is bright orange, as if to fit in with our bold and disorderly surroundings. I tell my colleagues about Amman and I show them pictures of my twin sister because it’s always a great conversation topic. “My father was a communist,” Assim says, puffing on his cigarette, “we always listened to Lebanese singers.” I laugh because I’m nervous and also confused at the connection, but I don’t question it.
My days are spent hopping from one community to the next, shuttled between rural and urban areas, taking photos when I can and writing things down when I can’t. In Latifiyah, one of the most dangerous areas in the early 2000s, I see a long factory building with chunks taken out of it, a fan still spinning in one of its windows. The stories I’m gathering are ones of resistance: hundreds of Iraqis, forced to flee from unstable areas of Baghdad years ago, are now back, creating their lives anew in the midst of a paralyzed country. This is why I am here, to show the hope and momentum and easy grace with which so many residents continue to move forward. From baking lessons, to makeup tutorials, to greenhouses and beekeeping farms – here, it is the ordinary that is exceptional, that is unbearably moving. I see a 50-year-old woman learn how to decorate a cake, and think how brave and also sad it is that she is piecing together her livelihood now. I am fed lots of warm bread by lots of warm people. Soon enough, Thursday comes, Thanksgiving, and I am set to travel to the airport, mentally checking that I have everything that I need.
“Listen, you better get there okay,” Amir tells me as I jump up into the SUV. “Or Obama will make a problem for us – they’ll invade us again, this time because of you!” Laughs from all the men, I roll my eyes. I thank them for their hospitality, which has been unparalleled. Five checkpoints later and I am safely in BIAP, watching some kids chase a flock of pidgeons that have somehow made it inside. I buy nail polish from the sparsely-stocked duty free shop and give myself an at-the-airport manicure. I exhale and wait for the boarding call.