I arrived in Baghdad on the eve of the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, a four-day holiday in late June. A sort of Muslim equivalent of Christmas, the Eid is a popular time for weddings, and as I walked into the al-Rasheed Hotel, exhausted and grimy after a fourteen-hour, 550-mile overland trip from Amman, Jordan (no planes fly into Iraq these days), I found the lobby full of women elaborately dressed in puffy white gowns and mustachioed men in smartly flaring suits. Some ninety couples would check into the hotel that evening to celebrate their wedding night in style. On the morning after, each husband, following an Iraqi custom, would take the sheet from the wedding bed and present it to his parents as proof of their new daughter-in-law’s virtue. Should the mark of rapture be absent, the girl can by rights be put to death. Fortunately, small vials of crimson dye are available if needed, so such extreme action is a rare occurrence in modernday Iraq. Certainly on this night the atmosphere in the lobby was festive as families and friends sang, danced, and ululated in an uninhibited display of joy.
Alas, I encountered few other such displays during my two-week stay in Iraq. The Eid is traditionally a time for entertaining friends, but not this year. The UN economic embargo on Iraq was hitting with force, and such customary summertime favorites as watermelon and grapes were well beyond the means of ordinary Iraqis. Even staple foods were prohibitively expensive. A fifty-kilogram sack of rice, which cost six dinars before the Persian Gulf war (about $20 at the official exchange rate) had by June soared to 180 dinars. Flour was forty times more expensive than before the war; eggs almost fifteen times. According to a survey by Catholic Relief Services, Iraqis were spending 90 percent of their household budget on food.
Gasoline, at least, was still plentiful. In Iraq, as in most of the other Gulf states, cheap gas is considered an inalienable right, and the government had worked hard to repair the refineries smashed by US bombing. Unfortunately, problems in the production process remained, and the gas was of very low octane, causing engines no end of trouble. Many of the country’s best mechanics—Egyptians imported during the war with Iran—had returned home after the invasion of Kuwait. To compound matters, spare parts were extremely scarce, and on every block, it seemed, cars were pulled over to the side of the road, their drivers desperately working under the hood as the traffic crawled by. What’s more, two key bridges bombed during the war were still out of commission, making elaborate detours necessary. Baghdad sometimes seemed one big traffic jam.
It didn’t help that Iraq was experiencing one of its hottest summers in years. On most days, the official weather report put the temperature at around 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit), but people were convinced it was much higher. By law …