November 04, 2003,
BAGHDAD, IRAQ If you want to feel the pulse of a city or so the saying goes talk to local cabbies. Personally, I've found this advice rather ill-advised in New York, where taxi drivers are more likely to offer some alarming conspiracy theory than rough-hewn wisdom from the street. In Baghdad, though, the chestnut is true: Cabbies are good meters of public opinion. Ranging from working-class guys to teachers and other professionals forced by economic hardship to drive for a living, these men are generally honest and observant. Best of all, they're mostly pro-American.
When asked about their opinion of the U.S., drivers will smile, brush their palms together in a "good riddance" gesture and crow, "Saddam gone! America good!" Others will flash the thumbs-up gesture and exclaim, "America, thank you!" One cabbie became so worked up over the liberation of his country, he exclaimed, "We love U.S.A., do you believe me? They bring us freedom! We need U.S.A!" Worried, perhaps, that I was not American (I try to avoid revealing my nationality unless directly questioned), he added, "We also need Britain, Spain, Poland even Turkey!"
Some cabbies, however, take a more temperate view of the U.S. "America not good, not bad," one driver mused. "Right now good, because they want what we want. But in the future ?" Another told me, "Bush finish Saddam good. Now America go home" a sentiment echoed by many of his colleagues. Others express qualified support for the occupation, but complain about the slow restoration of law and order: "Iraq people very tired. When will America bring peace?"
Occasionally, you meet cabbies who are straightforwardly anti-U.S. "America no good," one maintained. "We thought when American people come we sleep safe in our homes. But no, Iraqi people very afraid. When I drive, my mother prays I have no troubles with thieves, fedayeen, the U.S. Army." The more critical the hack, I've found, the greater the chances he is a Sunni Muslim: Long favored by Saddam, Sunnis stand the most to lose in a democratic Iraq, where power will almost certainly shift to the more numerous Shias. This, in part, explains one Sunni's diatribe: "America good only for America, not Iraqi people. Where are their promises of security, jobs, peace? Where is freedom?" When I asked what "freedom" meant he replied, "Good government respectful of Islam not freedom to drink alcohol on the streets or believe what you want or have women do what they want." I had the feeling this last possibility was the real scenario he feared.
Still, even the most anti-American drivers treat me with respect. Which is good, considering that cabs are my main means of transport (unlike many NGOs and high-profile journalists, I can't afford to thunder around town in a dreadnought-like SUV). They are ubiquitous, these groaning, rattling, overheating Volkswagen Passants, Chevy Malibus, and Nissan Sunny Super Saloons, each car a marvel of mechanical persistence in the face of ten years of crippling sanctions. Windows fail to open, upholstery is torn or nonexistent, shocks are gone, while exhaust fumes frequently seep into the vehicle's interior, adding another nuance to Baghdad's palette of aromas. The windshields of many cabs are spider webbed with cracks and bullet holes from the war: In one cab, you could actually trace the trajectory of projectiles as they pierced the front window and burrowed into the upholstery of the backseat. By the same token, even though newer cabs increasingly appear on Baghdad streets, many drivers and their fares, as well prefer these broken-down jalopies, believing they make less-attractive targets for carjackers and thieves.
Cabbies work 12-hour shifts, making around $7.50 working days, and $8.00 working nights a "good:" amount, one driver told me. Fares are incredibly cheap: to travel four miles from my hotel to Coalition headquarters I offer $2.00 an amount some Iraqi hacks have actually refused, claiming it's too much. (Fortunately for these drivers, gas is also inexpensive, around 15 cents a gallon.) In a small, but telling, detail of Iraqi life, a single passenger rides in the front seat to sit in the back, New York-style, implies that you are somehow subservient to the driver, a gaffe abhorrent to the Arab sense of egalitarianism.
Not everyone agrees with my informal cab poll. An Iraqi woman critical of both the U.S. and her own people argues that "Iraqis always curry favor from whoever's in power. If Saddam ever came back, the taxi drivers would sing `Oh, Father Saddam, we love you." Perhaps (although I doubt it). Still, how would she explain this cabbie, perhaps my most memorable in Baghdad to date? A big, burly, genial fellow, he picked me up on al-Rasheed Street, his Super Saloon festooned with strips of artificial flowers and the familiar 1970's rock-star-like images of the Shia icons Hussein and Ali. When I asked for his opinion on the occupation, he bellowed, "U.S. good! U.S. fantastic!" After I revealed that I was American, he cried, "God bless President Bush!" Calling Karl Rove, I thought.
Over the tape-recorded sermons of a Shia cleric, my driver related how last spring he took his two children on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, something he couldn't do under Saddam. "I was so happy, my family happy!" His comments began tumbling out one after another. First he criticized "Arab media Al-Jazeera and Arabia TV. They only say bad things about U.S., only talk about bombs and killing Americans. Never about how things are growing in Iraq, getting better." Then he turned to the entire Arab world. "They fear Iraq will become a democracy, then every country will want to become democratic and the rulers will be in trouble-they only want people with one thought, one mind." As for Iraq's future, he had great optimism, provided that the new constitution included religious freedom for everyone "Muslims, Christians, Jews, because Mohammad said 'Let there be no forcing of religion.' Mohammad said we are all brothers and to kill a man is to kill your brother."
By the time I reached my hotel, I had a Koran-sized lump in my throat. I peeled off a wad of dinars, but the cabbie refused to take the money. After I implored him to accept payment, he finally took the bills, slipped them in his shirt pocket, then took them out and handed them back to me. "You give me the money, now I give it back to you a gift to my friend from America." Then, turning up the volume on the imam's sermon, he gave me a big missing-toothed smile and drove off in a cloud of exhaust. Watching him disappear into traffic, I had tears in my eyes, and they weren't from the Baghdad smog.