Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Children reflect their parents: Patrolling the streets of Baghdad's Al Rasheed district

(Photos are of baby Mena [the one in the white and pink snug-a-lugs] at the Berkeley Public Library, our patrol of the streets of Al Rasheed and some allegedly sexist dogs)

August 7, 2008: "Have you ever ridden in a Bradley before?" asked the sergeant. Heck no. We were getting ready to finally roll out into the streets of Baghdad and he was giving me a tour. "This here's the fire retardant release switch and there's the fire wall door to the gun turret and up here is the fire-resistant blanket." I'm guessing that one of the big dangers of riding in a Bradley tank is from fire?

"Does anyone want to say a prayer before we get in?" asked another member of the platoon I was with, as we prepared to drive off to the Al Rasheed district to visit a COP (command outpost).

"Sure. May mine enemies be in front of me so that I can roll over them." Soon we were speeding along a freeway at at least 50 miles an hour. These tanks can roll!

When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about my granddaughter -- sweet little baby Mena. She seemed so far away. I hope that she will always be safe. I miss my family after only five days away from Berkeley. Imagine how these guys must feel after six months over here. "How do you keep close?" I asked one soldier.

"Technology. Phone calls, e-mails, videos. Last time I was home, my five-year-old kept begging me not to go back."

Then our Bradley exited the freeway and sped past houses and markets and street stalls. We were actually out in Baghdad. Everything looked either bombed out or shabby. What the FREAK am I doing here?

Once at the COP, however, I got briefed by one of the officers and got all enthusiastic again. "This is the Al Rasheed district," he told me, pointing to a satellite map. "It's basically a low-income Shia area now. Originally, under Saddam, it was a mixed area and the Sunni section on one end of the district interfaced with the Shia part on the other. And if you will notice, this COP is located right on the seam. When we first came here, this area used to be the battleground for intense fighting between the Shia and the Sunnis -- plus BOTH sides were fighting the Americans." Sounds like the place was a mess.

"But right now things are quiet." Not too quiet, however. When I first arrived at the COP, the unit's two pet dogs immediately took an intense dislike to me -- since I'm the only female here, I bet those are SEXIST dogs! -- and started barking like crazy and trying to bite me. Seriously. One even succeeded although luckily his fangs didn't penetrate my sturdy Mom jeans. But I gots a secret weapon now. Every time one of them charges me, I take its photo. They don't like the flash. Top gun! That's me. Don't mess with Jane.

"Our mission this afternoon," continued the officer, "is to go to some shops on one of the main streets and give out mini-grants to some of the shop owners -- small-scale economic stimulus packages. Want to come along?" Or else what? Miss a chance to walk on patrol through the streets of Al Rasheed? No way! Sign me up.

But I thought I'd only be at this COP for the afternoon and it turns out I'll be here for two days. Yikes! Lucky for me that I always carry an extra toothbrush in my messenger bag -- but what about clean unders, my nightie and deodorant? And I also don't have my hijab.

"I can't go out on the streets without a headscarf," I whined.

"Sure you can," said a soldier. "Lots of women in Baghdad don't wear headscarves."

"Not me. I'm not going out there without a hijab. It's not polite." So they got me a T-shirt which I tied under my chin. Here's me. Hajja Jane. However, n
othing prepared me for the main street of Al Rachid. I'd seen a few bullet-pocked doors and houses back in Heet, in Anbar province, but this was different. Whole blocks of buildings were gone. Starkly razed vacant lots strewed every block. It was the Urban Redevelopment project from hell.

We started the patrol at a mom-and-pop-style car repair shop. The soldiers talked with the owner and I talked with the neighborhood kids. At first there was just me and this one little boy but then more and more children came and soon there were 30 of them.
"American? Babies? Money? Michael Jackson?" they asked.

"I don't speak Arabic," I replied. "I only know three words. Salaam alekum, yala and shokran." Let's go, thank you and PEACE.

Then the the kids made up a song and we all danced to it. "No money, no chocolate." It was fun. They laughed and I laughed. "Disco!" they cried.

"If they are bothering you, Ma'am, just let me know," said one soldier.

"Nope, no problem," I replied. "I'm used to kids. Not only am I a mother of four and a grandmother, but also used to teach at juvenile hall." But then the glorious thing about teaching at juvie is that if the little darlings don't behave, you can always send them back to their cells.

The only incident that was even remotely worrisome on patrol was when the gunner of my Humvee spotted a gun in someone's hand. But it turned out to be a toy gun.

Most of the soldiers here like being soldiers and are good at it. I read somewhere recently that learning new things every day and continuously having a wide variety of experiences can actually raise one's IQ. And since all the soldiers I've met over here seem to be all pretty smart -- these guys are not even close to being society's dregs -- I can only assume that being in the military will actually raise one's IQ because of all that training and variety of experiences they get. Hmmm. When I get back from Iraq, will I qualify for Mensa? Yeah right.

Anyway, I did talk with one soldier who hated it here. "I just want to be back on my ranch in Colorado." He also talked about how the kids on the street today really pissed him off.

"Hey, it could be worse," I replied. "At least they weren't throwing rocks."

"They used to throw rocks at us."

"Children reflect what their parents think," I reminded him, "and if these children are chatting and laughing with us and not throwing rocks, this is probably the most hopeful indication one can see that the so-called "war" over here is starting to cool down. Finally!" But I refrained from mentioning to him how the US military has been risking its soldiers' lives daily for the past five years to pull GWB's irons out of the fire, because this rancher-soldier already knew where I stood. My "" truckers hat said it all. Except for the part where Bush goes to jail. But I digress.

Then we all drove back to the COP, ate stew for dinner and gave the dogs another chance to demonstrate that they had stopped being sexists. But the dogs blew their chance.


August 8, 2008: Today started out in an extremely interesting way. At 4:30 am, I began screaming in my sleep and then I fell out of bed. I've NEVER rolled off the edge of a bed before, at least not since I was a baby. Maybe I've caught PTSD too?

And I just got an e-mail from my daughter Ashley who works at a gelato shop in north Berkeley. "Dear Mom: Ciao Bella just got in a tub of rice pudding gelato." I spent two years living on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1960s. I know my rice pudding! Will Ciao Bella's measure up to B&H Dairy's? Maybe I should bring my platoon back with me and we could patrol through the streets of the Gourmet Ghetto section of Berkeley and they could give me a mini-grant to go and find out. Hey, American small businesses need mini-grant economic stimulus packages too!