A Journey Into the Iraq of Recollection
Baghdad-to-Basra Train Offers Respite From Divisions and Pain

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.

"Is that Dora?" someone asked idly.

"Kadhimiyah?" another wondered.

Wind poured through the car as the train gathered speed. The colored banners of Shiite Muslim devotion faded from view. So did checkpoints adorned with plastic flowers, gathering dust in the storm. The train rumbled past blurred scenes of traffic snarled as cars waited for inspection, past police trucks with sirens wailing and past blast walls plastered with tattered election posters. Soldiers were illuminated in the streaming headlights of cars, recognizable for a moment before they fell back into the dark of night.

For perhaps the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, an American convoy stopped for someone in Baghdad. It waited on the road to the airport, as the train cut across.

By 6:54, the train reached full speed, and Aqeel Moussa dragged on a cigarette, watching a timeless scene of squat houses spilling beneath date palms.

"There's no Sunni, there's no Shiite here. We're all part of the same hand," he said, thoughts wandering. "I know someone only through the conversation we share."

In spirit, if not reality, the train is part of an older line and an older Middle East, the product of a 19th-century vision of the Ottoman Empire and its German allies to build the Berlin-Baghdad Express, eventually ending in Basra and running unfettered across the borderless expanse of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

With little fanfare, service began again in December to Basra. For 18 months, it had been too dangerous for the train to venture through the treacherous stretch of eucalyptus trees, date palms and ocher-colored villages spilling south of Baghdad, an area once known as the Triangle of Death. Snipers took potshots at the train. The railway's director general was ambushed and shot in both legs in 2004. A bridge near Latifiyah, in the heart of the triangle, was blown up time and again.

These days, though, the train is full, its fare of $7 a fifth of what a taxi can cost. And as it passed Latifiyah, no one seemed to deem the threat too great anymore.

"The evidence is that I'm sitting here," said Hilal Karim, bound for a job in Basra.

The soiled green drapes of Car 499 hung over cracked windows. The springs of Seat 23 were broken. A few of the lights worked overhead, one of them drawing a moth that danced along the roof, frenetic and tireless. Brown walls added to the drabness.

"Mohammed, leave open the door!" one passenger shouted toward the back of the carriage, jabbing two fingers clasped around a cigarette. "Let's let the smoke get out!"

His butt joined sunflowers seeds littering the floor.

"What are you doing? Trying to light the train on fire?" he shouted at a youth in front of him who vainly tried to prop a burning stick of incense where a screw once was.

"Is this Latifiyah?" another passenger asked.

"Mahmudiyah?" his friend guessed.

A medley of songs played from cellphones. There were Iraqi artists like Yas Khudr. Jokingly, someone offered a martial ode to Saddam Hussein. A Syrian singer named Asala performed another song by Um Kalthoum. "I fear for you, and fear you might forget me," it went. "But longing for you kept me awake, overtaken by nostalgia."

The words were barely audible to Wala Hassan, standing at the train's open door.

"I'm fed up with this life," he volunteered, sipping scalding tea.

Nineteen, married and the father of a 9-month-old baby named Ali, Hassan had come to Baghdad for work. It was his fifth trip on the train. The night before, he had slept in the street, hoping to be first in line for an application to the police. It didn't matter.

"There's no future, I swear to God," he said. He tossed the dregs of his tea out the door and stood up. "I don't even have a single dinar to give to my baby."

He propped a sinewy arm against the exit and forced a smile of hospitality. With a faraway stare, he looked out the train at other lives that were lived. His wasn't yet. "When I stand here, I want to take the grief from my heart and throw it out the door."

He smiled again, tightly. "It feels good to talk," he said.

The train slowed. "Are we in Musayyib?" someone asked.

A few rows away, another song played. It was "This Iraq," by Taysir al-Safir. "We will light your roads with candles," he sang. "We will dry the tears from your eyes."

The history of Iraq's internecine war in 2006 and 2007 has yet to be written. It lacks even a name. Sometimes it is called "the sectarian time" or "sectarian war." Occasionally, "the events." Often, one word suffices, taifiyya, which simply means sectarianism.

The checkpoints that litter Iraq's roads, sometimes every 100 yards or so, are a legacy of that war. In a country rife with borders and barriers, barricades and barbed wire, many find them loathsome. Inspections are arbitrary, soldiers are sometimes rude and delays can stretch hours, in ribbons of traffic that can unwind for more than a mile.

"It always bothered you when you saw American convoys stopping us, not letting us move in our own country," said Ali Zeid, a 20-year-old student who had been visiting in Baghdad.

"And now Iraqis have caught the disease from the Americans," added his cousin, Abdullah Hamid. "It's like a virus spreading through your computer. You can't delete it."

Hamid, garrulous and stout, studies computers, but his true love, he said, is for poetry, ranging from the work of Umru al-Qais, from before the dawn of Islam, to Nizar Qabbani, who died in 1998. Hamid's favorite line goes like this, inspired by the taifiyya: "Tears of Baghdad, millions of tears. Who do I have in Baghdad, crying for me, as I cry for her?"

There is a poetry to the train, he said. It is the education of a journey.

"You have an idea of the country you live in when you pass through it so freely," he said, his head leaning against a window coated with dust. "I want to move from place to place. If I can't know about the world, at least I can know about my own country."

More songs played, one of them an ode to a train.

"I remain waiting at the track, counting how many stations till Basra," sang Yas Khudr, from a muffled speaker. "Did they reach Tel Alaham, or have they passed it?"

As midnight approached, more fell asleep, save for a rowdy bunch in Row 29. By 2 a.m., even they had quieted, though passengers still stirred whenever the train slowed.

"Where are we now?" one asked.

"What town are we in?" wondered another. "Samawah or Suq al-Shuyukh?"

Toward Basra, the sky hinted gray. Gas burned from oil wells in the distance, like bonfires on the horizon. Flags for Shiite saints again became distinct. So did the graffiti scrawled in black along the walls. Checkpoints returned, with the borders they drew. The train rattled past stagnant canals filled with trash in a city once Iraq's most beautiful.

The train stopped at 5:58 a.m. "Welcome to our Basra Railway Station," the wall read, near a ticket counter that offered "High Class Reserve." The train was two minutes early.

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