This is Baghdad. What could be worse?
There was an almost forgettable exchange earlier this month in the Iraqi National Assembly, itself on the fringe of relevance in today's disintegrating Iraq. Lawmakers debated whether legislation should be submitted to a committee to determine if it was compatible with Islam. Ideas were put forth, as well as criticism. Why not a committee to determine whether legislation endorses democratic principles? one asked. In stepped Mahmoud Mashadani, the assembly's speaker, to settle the dispute.
"Any law or decision that goes against Islam, we'll put it under the kundara!" he thundered.
"God is greatest!" lawmakers shouted back, in a rare moment of agreement between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Kundara means shoe, and the bit of bluster by Mashadani said a lot about Baghdad today.
It had been almost a year since I was in the Iraqi capital, where I worked as a reporter in the days of Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and the occupation, guerrilla war and religious resurgence that followed. On my return, it was difficult to grasp how atomized and violent the 1,250-year-old city has become. Even on the worst days, I had always found Baghdad's most redeeming quality to be its resilience, a tenacious refusal among people I met over three years to surrender to the chaos unleashed when the Americans arrived. That resilience is gone, overwhelmed by civil war, anarchy or whatever term could possibly fit. Baghdad now is convulsed by hatred, paralyzed by suspicion; fear has forced many to leave. Carnage its rhythm and despair its mantra, the capital, it seems, no longer embraces life.
"A city of ghosts," a friend told me, her tone almost funereal.
The commotion in the streets -- goods spilling across sidewalks, traffic snarled under a searing sun -- once prompted the uninitiated to conclude that Baghdad was reviving. Of course, they were seeing the city through a windshield, the often angry voices on the streets inaudible. Today, with traffic dwindling, stores shuttered and streets empty by nightfall, that conceit no longer holds.
Even the propaganda, once ubiquitous and often incongruous, is gone. One piece I recalled from two years ago: a map of Iraq divided into three colored bands. In white, it read, "Progress." In red, "Iraq." In white again, "Prosperity." The promises are now more modest: "However strong the wind," reads a new poster of a woman clutching her child, "it will pass." More indicative of the mood, perhaps, was one of the old banners still hanging. Faded and draped over a building scarred with craters from the invasion, it was an ad for the U.S.-funded Iraqi network, al-Iraqiya. In Arabic, its slogan reads, "Prepare your eyes for more."
As I spoke to friends, some for the first time in more than a year, that was their fear: more of the kundara.
"When anyone is against you, when anyone has differences with me, I will put a kundara in his mouth, I will shove a kundara down his throat, I will hit him with a kundara, and so on," another friend told me.
"We live in a kundara culture today."