Monday, August 04, 2008

Fear of flying: The scariest thing about going to Iraq is the turbulence over the Atlantic!

(Photos are of the luggage jam at SFO and the Midnight Sun over Greenland)

"What scares you most about going to Iraq?" someone just asked me. "The bombings? The firefights?" Nah. It's all that turbulence you get flying from San Francisco to Frankfurt! After that, everything else is a piece of cake.

For days before I left to embed in Iraq, I seemed to be living in a state of constant fear. What's with that? I knew that Baghdad was relatively peaceful these days and that I wouldn't be walking into a re-enactment of Iwo Jima or nothing -- so why the big fear? And then about two hours into my flight to Frankfurt, it hit me. Muscle memory. Both my mind and my body had been secretly preparing for the agony that I feel every time I get on a plane. I hate to fly. And when the wings on my plane felt like they were about to shake right off somewhere just south of Greenland and there was 35,000 feet of nothing but air between me and the ground? Forget it. I was terrified. That was it.

But then we made it to Frankfurt okay and the worst was over. Hopefully. but there was still the flight to Kuwait ahead of me.

While waiting around for my next flight, I struck up a conversation with a Muslim doctor from Montana who was flying to Cairo to see his mother -- and he was very upset about a YouTube war-porn video he had just seen, showing some US soldiers raping an Iraqi woman.

"But they don't do that no more," I reassured him. "Their officers won't let them." When was the video taken? Probably a few years ago when Rumsfeld was still in charge.

The doctor also told me that, yes, there was indeed hope for peace in the Middle East. "Muslims are basically very moral people," he said, "and sooner or later they will return to their sense of morality." Hopefully Christians and Jews will do the same. Hopefully the whole freaking human race will evolve. And hopefully they will also be serving dinner and have a decent inflight movie on my flight from Frankfurt to Kuwait.

After having thought about it for a while, I realized that what the Egyptian doctor might have been trying to tell me is that the rape video is being viewed widely on the "Arab Street" and that Arabs are probably thinking that this is the way -- the only way -- that American soldiers know how to behave. And I bet that the main emotion generated by this perception is rage -- out and out rage. And who could blame Arabs if this was indeed standard behavior for American troops? But I truly believe that it isn't -- any more than the way that some American shock jock talk-show hosts portray all Muslims as being blood-thirsty killers.

The flight from Germany to Kuwait was uneventful -- thank goodness! I'm too old for enduring sustained hours of heart-stopping terror. Although I did have an interesting conversation with an Iraqi-American Kurd who was returning to work as a contractor in Mosul. "Do you think Iraq should divide up into three separate nations," I asked.

"Definitely no. But a federal, three-state idea -- like, say, California, New York and Texas -- might be a good idea."

"And what about your family back home? Do they miss you unbearably while you are away? Can they live on what you make over in Iraq?"

"A friend of mine who worked with me in Mosul just got killed. That was so hard on his family."

"Will they be getting enough compensation money to live on from his company?"

"The widow got $50,000 from the company. But still. Who can put a price on losing the father of your children?"

Once we landed at KWI, I ran like a quarterback in a Superbowl game -- or at least as fast as I could on my old-lady knees, almost knocking down toddlers and guys on crutches in order to get to the visa-issuing counter first. Touchdown!

Now I'm back in the Middle East.

PS: I have gotten as far as an American airbase in Kuwait so far. Tomorrow I get on a C-130 and fly into BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).