City Life: Baghdad - Feast that makes mockery of Iraq's famine
The hungry Iraqis who are not dazzled by the fairy lights outside can just make out the candlelit tables and the foreigners inside as they wolf their way through beef and roast chicken, sideplates heaped with fruit and vegetables or - the Babeesh's speciality - shrimp salad. Soft music plays as white-jacketed waiters serve the UN's finest, the sanctions boys and the arms inspectors and the men and women who try desperately to undo the suffering caused by the gentlemen in the glass building on the East River 5,990 miles away.
But despite the white- liveried waiters, whatever you do, don't mention the Titanic. Iraqi state television has shown James Cameron's film three times (he can forget about the royalties) as a balm for hardship, the Baghdad equivalent of bread and circuses. But unlike Titanic, the Babeesh has no third-class diners. This is a restaurant for those who measure money by the kilo rather than by the Iraqi dinar note.
Now that the dinar is worth 0.0006 of a US dollar (thanks to the employers of the Babeesh's clientele), my own meal for three needed a stack of 488 100-dinar notes, a wad of cash a foot thick. No wonder some cafes have given up counting their takings - they check the bills by stacking the dinar notes on a weighing machine.
So you can forget the Weimar Republic in a land where an average villager can expect to earn a mere 3,400 dinars or $2 a month. Which means that our little snack at the Babeesh - and there was no wine because alcohol is banned in restaurants on orders from the man whose name no one says too loudly - cost 14 times the monthly salary of an Iraqi. So why no food riots? Why no revolution?
Take a stroll off Rashid Street in the old part of town and you can see why. The sewage stretches in lakes, wall-to-wall, a viscous mass of liquid so pale green in colour that it possesses its own awful beauty. This is what happens when the electricity cuts out and the water-treatment plants and sewage facilities go unrepaired. Electrical appliance vendors - Rashid Street is where you go for a lightbulb, an adaptor, a piece of wire - hug the walls like nuns to keep the mess from their plastic shoes. "You have done this to us," a thin, bearded man said to me as I asked for an electric kettle. The kettle could only be obtained at a foreign goods shop in the suburbs for just over pounds 12 - about nine and a half times the monthly salary of the Iraqi villager.
Grind down the people to this abject level and survival is more important than revolution. Unless you choose highway robbery. I'm not talking of the kind practised at the Babeesh, but on the long motorways west to Jordan or south to Basra. "That's where they shot the Jordanian," my driver said to me 60 miles out of Baghdad on the Amman road, a reference to the diplomat who chose to travel after dark and paid the price.
You don't drive to Basra overnight for fear of deserting soldiers, so the rumour goes, who have turned to banditry to keep their families alive. By night, the gunmen lurk, by day the village women who sell themselves for "temporary marriage" and a few more dinars.
The latter I didn't believe. Until I left Basra one hot afternoon and drove out through the slums with their own lakes of sewage - warmer than the Baghdad variety, for the Gulf temperatures drive up the heat of every liquid - and saw a crazed mass of men and women, tearing at their faces with their nails, carrying in front of them the body of a child, pushing it into a battered orange and white taxi on the main road. And a young man, maybe only 16, suddenly jumped into the sewage lake beside the highway and plastered his body in the filth, screaming and raging and smacking his hands into the green water, splattering all the mourners with filth.
To what does poverty and hunger drive a people? I soon found out. Seventy miles north of Basra, where the road mirages in the heat between the endless encampments of President Saddam Hussein's legions who are suppressing the Marsh Arabs, a group of girls could be seen, dressed in red turbans and black dresses, their faces cowled like Tuaregs, dancing - actually twirling themselves round and round - in the fast lane of the motorway until we drew to a halt. One of them approached the driver's window, her eyes soft, her voice rasping. "Come buy our fish," she whispered. "Come see our fish and you will want to buy them."
She pronounced the Arab word for fish - "sumak" - with a hiss, and the driver giggled in a cruel, lascivious way. She was maybe 16 and she was selling not fish but herself. And when they realised we were not customers, the fish girls of Iraq twirled back into the motorway lane to offer themselves in front of a speeding Jordanian truck.
Yes, you can forget the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, let alone the destruction of his magnificent palaces and ornamental lakes and colonnaded halls. But I do wonder how the Iraqis in President Street can resist the temptation of breaking through the windows of the Babeesh restaurant and tearing its customers to pieces.
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