A Thousand Ringtones Have Bloomed in Iraq
By ROGER COHEN
It's one of those Baghdad moments
when everything you thought you knew is turned on its head, an instant in which
the dead dog on the deserted airport road and the early-morning boom of a
roadside bomb and the Apache helicopters weaving across the sky and all the
fear-clouded expressions are banished, and Iraq seems to be lurching from the
dust toward some better place.
Outside Iraq, this great American experiment in pushing the Middle East in some
new direction is debated only in terms of utter conviction. A hopeless debacle,
the critics proclaim. A victory for freedom, supporters insist. Nuance is
shunned; the cacophony rises. But here all this certainty seems absurd. It's
still close to zero hour in Iraq and the Baghdad moment holds more truth than a
I'm ushered into the minister's office. His name is Noori al-Rawi; he has the
culture portfolio. He greets me as the lights go out, plunging the room into
darkness until the generator kicks in. Electricity has not been an American
success here, multibillion-dollar investments notwithstanding. The minister is
unflustered; dignity is an important refuge in wartime.
Culture? Ah, yes, says Rawi, culture. His grave expression suggests he's unsure
where to begin. Which is reasonable enough in that just about everything we
associate with civilization began right here many thousand years ago:
agriculture, village life, the domestication of animals, and the transfer
through writing of knowledge from one mind to another.
The lines of history are seldom straight; civilization's cradle has been upended
for the moment.
Museums are closed and archaeological sites, especially in the south, are still
being plundered. Nobody wants to provide suicide bombers with targets by lining
up for cultural events. The "security situation," as the absence of security is
called here, leaves little room for artistic expression.
Still, the minister has plans. A cultural center has opened in Najaf, the holy
city of Shiite scholarship, and a dozen others are planned. He wants to start a
cultural satellite channel, a forum, as he sees it, for civilized debate. "We
need money," he notes, "but of course water and electricity are more important,
so we don't say anything."
Rawi, a Sunni from an influential tribe in restive Anbar Province, learned
patience long ago. He never liked Saddam Hussein. For saying the wrong things he
spent seven years in jail, including 18 months of solitary confinement in a
lightless cell, fed only on dates. Saddam was an equal-opportunity torturer: he
massacred the Shiites and Kurds but nursed vestigial venom for his own Sunni
Arabs if they failed to fall into line.
The lights go out again. The minister drums his fingers on the desk. It's not
warm in his office. Nothing, he says abruptly, is better than freedom. At 61,
having lived through the monarchy, coups, the Baathist terror, several wars, the
economic collapse of the 1990s and finally America's intrusion, he has a
reasonable claim to know.
Out in Anbar, the heartland of Sunni resistance, Rawi sees hope. He knows the
sheiks and believes they have turned against terrorism. The Sunni tribes, he
says, have started to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But it's not easy. A
relative, Sheik Abdul al-Rawi, was killed last week in Ramadi for speaking out
Turning the tide, after so many mistakes and so much trauma, will take time. The
American clock is not the Iraqi clock. Midterm congressional elections in
November demand demonstrable progress and demonstrable troop reductions, but
building a country from the ground up is painstaking.
Make no mistake, Iraq is an exercise in nation-building such as the United
States has not undertaken in a long time. But Rawi's patience, forged in a
prison cell, is not common inside the Beltway. Americans want to know why $21
billion in reconstruction money can't get the lights working. A fair question
that would take a book to answer. The fact is there's low tolerance on the
campaign trail for the head-turning Baghdad moment whose lesson is that this
game is far from over.
Take those cellphones. There were 500,000 of them at the beginning of 2005.
There are more than four million now. That's an Iraqi statistic, meaning a rough
approximation, but it's safe to say Iraqis are talking to each other and the
world in far greater numbers, which can't be a bad thing.
Another statistic is that 30,000 new businesses were registered last year. Who
knows what that really means. But it's clear that, in addition to ushering in a
bunch of suicide bombers, open borders have ushered in a freewheeling commercial
climate that's generating a lot of cash. The Baghdad property market is solid;
somebody must believe this place has a future.
Then, of course, there are the other numbers, like the 4,000 megawatts of
electrical capacity, little changed since Saddam's overthrow in 2003, far short
of the 6,000 megawatts once promised for 2004, or the 9,000 now needed because
people are buying refrigerators and air-conditioners like there's no tomorrow.
Such failures suggest how paralyzing the absence of security can be.
Beyond the bad numbers lies a drift that's hard to quantify toward sectarian
violence between Sunnis and Shiites that, if uncontrolled, could make the
Lebanese civil war look mild. Thanks to the American military presence, we're
not there yet, which is why the impatience in Washington is so dangerous.
The American military has a phrase for the reckless inclination of newly trained
Iraqi forces to put their rifles on fully automatic and spray the surroundings
with indiscriminate fire. They call it "the death blossom."
It's a rampant flower in post-Saddam Iraq, but not the only one. A thousand
ringtones have also bloomed and, with them, a measure of hope.