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U.S. Occupation Will End, but Its Cultural Influences on Iraq Will Live on
Rickety stands along the street overflowed with goods. Toy guns emblazoned with the moniker "Super Police" sat next to imitation handcuffs and walkie-talkies. A doll dressed in fatigues, with dog tags around its neck, carried an M-16 rifle, familiar to Iraqis as a weapon of the U.S. military. With a squeeze of the doll's hand, Freddie Mercury belted out Queen's "We Will Rock You" to a street speaking Arabic.
"These are the times," Hussein said.
Bootleg copies of "Star Trek," "Valkyrie" and "Marley & Me" were on sale, along with CDs by Eminem, 50 Cent and Massari. On a wall was an ad for a concert by Rap Boys, billed as the "first and biggest rap party in Baghdad."
Youths asked a barber across the street for the latest haircut, which they call "spiky"; one barber insisted that the name came from a soldier's nickname for his military dog. The soldier's version of a crew cut is called "Yankee" (or, sometimes, "bankee").
Businesses hawked camouflage-patterned men's underwear. "Harley," a kind of biker boot, went for $125. "Texas," the cowboy version, cost $100.
For each item, Hussein had a simple phrase: "after the suqut," the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Long Perspective
Iraq remains a proud country, its people bridling at what they see as the condescension inherent in the United States' modern-day equivalent of a civilizing mission. History, thousands of years of it, forms the refrain of any conversation: Mesopotamia gave birth to civilization, and at its medieval zenith, as Europe slumbered, Baghdad was a city of racetracks, law schools, museums, libraries, hospitals, zoos and insane asylums.
The country's past shamed its present, and in the wake of Hussein's fall in 2003, many Iraqis, however suspicious, were willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt. Now, many blame them for everything from sectarian strife to Baghdad's disrepair. The only kind of American most Iraqis have met is a young, gun-toting soldier, and a look of scornful incomprehension often greets a question about the Americans' cultural legacy.
"What are they leaving behind?" asked Mohammed Chayan, a 45-year-old painter sitting with friends at the Madarat Cafe and Gallery, near a wall of concrete barriers.
"There's never really been interaction with society," he said. "When they came to visit, it wasn't artists who showed up. It was soldiers coming down from their tanks."
"They were isolated," admitted Mohammed Rasim Kasim, a filmmaker and photographer. "But," he added, "I have to disagree with my colleague."
Kasim, a bearish, cheerful man, said that before 2003 he had traveled only to neighboring Jordan. Since then, he has visited the United States, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Germany and Austria. And an image lingers from his travels: recognizing a car in Berlin as a U.S. military vehicle not because it was part of an armored convoy snarling traffic for a mile behind it, as in Iraq, but because he spotted the tiny inscription on its license plate: "U.S. Army."