On a Train From Baghdad to Basra, a Trip Back in Time

Iraqis travel on a long-distance train between Baghdad and Basra, which has resumed service now that Iraq's security situation is improving.
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BAGHDAD -- A sandstorm always makes a dreary Baghdad drearier. The sun turns to a moon in a funereal gray sky. Time surrenders its procession, as dawn melts into a cloudy day that feels like dusk. Common these days, the storms bring a gauze of grit that settles over everything, and the eyebrows of Pvt. Bassem Kadhim were no exception.

Standing at a checkpoint at the entrance of the Baghdad Central Railway Station, he leaned toward a car. His eyes narrowed, as he cocked his head in recognition.

Um Kalthoum, the Egyptian diva of another generation, played on a scratchy cassette. It was the song "Siret al-Hob," her peerless voice soaring over the strains of a forlorn violin.

"Let me listen for just a moment," Kadhim told the driver, "then I'll let you pass."

He listened. "From a whisper of love, I found myself in love," Um Kalthoum sang. "I melted in love, spending morning and night at its door." And he let the car pass.

There is a new vigor to the cadence of the Baghdad train station beyond his checkpoint, revived after a long slumber. But like the legendary singer, it evokes a lost world. Two clock towers stand like sentinels on each side of a turquoise dome built half a century ago. Musty ticket counters advertise lines that no longer run: to Mosul, to Husaybah, and across the border, to Syria and Turkey. Flickering chandeliers illuminate distinctions -- Couchette Class, Tourist Class -- that no longer matter.

The station is a door of sorts, as is the train parked there.

Through it is another Iraq, far from the country today that is at once so resilient yet so uncertain. This is an Iraq imbued with the recollection, sometimes imagined, of a past not yet bloodied. It is a nation where names still evoke a place, not an occupier's crimes and excesses -- Abu Ghraib, Haditha, even Baghdad. It is a country that unfurls between two rivers, filled with longing but bereft of borders of sect and ethnicity that cut through even the smallest towns with the blunt edge of a blast wall or a massacre's lingering memory.

"On the train," said Ahmed Murad, boarding the car, "you go straight ahead."

At 6:25 p.m., the horn blew, and workers and students, good sons going home to their families, well-wishers and mourners threw their jackets, shoulder bags stretched taut, sacks stuffed with sandwiches and tightly rolled carpets on the racks overhead. They settled into frayed green leather seats, with murmurs like that of an audience before a play.

The train had no number. There is only one, bound each evening for Basra, 340 miles to the south.

The horn sounded again at 6:30. The train's six carriages heaved, then stumbled ahead, departing on time. The wheels shrieked, the clanging metal otherworldly, and a landscape always so claustrophobic and demarcated fell effortlessly into the train's wake.

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