If you watch how nature deals with adversity, continually renewing itself, you can't help but learn.
-Bernie Siegal, MD
Central Baghdad itself is a dense knot of infrastructure – a place where grandiose homes adjoin crowded hives thick with humanity. One of the only consistent theme you see in this area of Baghdad is the omnipresent litter. Every street is lined with random pieces of junk, and every fence line flutters with chattering pieces of plastic and paper. Some fences are so thick with the windblown flotsam they start to resemble lines of Tibetan prayer flags twisting in the wind. The other unifying theme in central Baghdad is the jury rigged electrical lines that seem to tie together every building in a muhallah. As you drive down one of the narrow alleys its hard not to think the entire muhallah is caught in some colossal, haphazard spider web.
Southern Baghdad is a world removed from the twisted maze of streets you find in the heart of the city. For convenience sake you might call the area agricultural, but that description is like a broth with too little substance… it doesn’t provide any real flavor. In some areas of Southern Baghdad you will find small suburbs where multistory homes sprout off of dusty main roads like unripened grapes on a vine. Many of these homes squat in virtual compounds, only their upper floors peeking out over their outer walls. It’s ironic but there is a inverse relationship between a building’s former opulence and its current state of decay. Many of the larger homes are covered with scabs of peeling paint and crumbling masonry. These homes stand all at once both proud and forlorn, as if they were some vain group of actors unable to comprehend that no amount of makeup will hide the march of time.
Although the population is centered on these small urban outposts, the vast majority of southern Baghdad is composed of vast tracts of farmland crisscrossed with hundreds of steep sided canals. The canals are the very essence of the region - access to water is what differentiates the burnt and barren fields from the dull green pastures filled with growth and life. Interspersed in these fields are broad patches of palms arranged in arrow straight rows. The palms stand in their orderly rows like soldiers in formation, the clean precision of their lines broken only by squat mud brick homes hiding in the cool shade. The mud brick homes that rest in the palm groves are identical to the drab and baked buildings that dot the landscape, but here under the palm trees’ they seem somehow different. It is almost as if the long, graceful necks of the palm trees lend some dignity to what would otherwise be a spectacularly unimpressive home.
There is one other community that flourishes in the area, the shantytown. Shantytowns sprout like weeds in the oil soaked wasteland bordering the major expressways. From the expressway these hardscrabble communities look like one long collection of roadside debris, but the scene is far different when you patrol through the area. On foot the details velocity encrypts becomes accessible, and you can see that the jumbled string of forlorn homes are divided into distinct neighborhoods. Each neighborhood clusters behind broken walls of mud brick and discarded material, like travelers huddled together for companionship in a foreign land. The buildings themselves are ugly, utilitarian affairs that line narrow alleyways strewn with trash, but their brusque lines are softened by the throngs of laughing children.
Within a minute of arriving in one of the shantytown neighborhoods children will start showing up, waving and giggling at their strange visitors. The braver children will approach and try to practice their English skills, which usually revolves around the phrase “Mr., Mr., Saddam is a dork”. The people living in these ugly neighborhoods have few comforts, but in spite of their atrocious conditions the children here are the quickest to smile and wave at our patrols. I just wish I could carry more candy out on patrol.