Like Mike

Robert Alt

April 14, 2004

Cars spin down the street at night tricked out with blue neon lights and sporting CDs from their rearview mirrors. Thriving shops boom 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” while the young techie at one of the numerous local internet cafés prefers to blast Nirvana. Cell phones with personalized ring tones and text messaging are literally everywhere. And teenage gamers while away their afternoons playing “Vice City” and Tom Clancy’s “Medal of Honor.” Anytown USA? No. Welcome to the new face of Baghdad, where, to quote 1st Sgt. Woods of the Army’s 2d Battalion, 3d Field Artillery Regiment, the kids “want to be like Mike, not like Mahtma.”

Everywhere you look in Baghdad, there are signs of capitalism. The streets are festooned with signs for Samsung and Iraqna, the major local cell phone provider for the city. Satellite dishes—the possession of which was a sin punishable by the state under Saddam—now hang from houses throughout the city. It is difficult to walk down Rashid Street for all the large hand carts, overloaded with televisions, computers, air conditioners, and microwaves.

Not only are the locals snatching up Western goods, but Western culture. As you might expect, this is particularly true among the youth. In addition to listening to Western music, which is increasingly available thanks to the Armed Forces radio station, they also follow the lives of music celebrities in Arabic magazines, which chronicle events like the Britney’s Vegas wedding. And with the proliferation of televisions and satellites, Arabic music videos—which are strikingly similar to Western videos—have become popular. Having experienced rock and roll, sex and drugs must follow. Well, maybe not, but the taboo against alcohol is loosening, as many of the local men sneak around in the evening to taste the forbidden elixir away from the condemning eyes of wives and clerics.

But perhaps the biggest influx of Western culture is in the area of fashion. Young women are increasingly abandoning traditional Iraqi garb in favor of more form fitting clothes. And while the middle-aged woman across from the palace in Adhamiya may scream “Whores!” as the girls pass by in their more revealing Western garb, she does so only as a break from indulging in the her own Western pursuit—hocking Pepsi on the street corner. Men are also quickly snatching up clothes emblazoned with English words, only to ask passing Americans to tell them what their clothes say. (Imagine their chagrin when they learn that their shirt’s logo is not really English, but rather a Greek word for victory.)

There is also a particular fascination not only with things American, but with Americans themselves. If you tell someone from Baghdad that you are from America, you are likely to be met with excitement and the common exclamation: “I love America.” They will want to know where you are from in America, and what you think of Iraq. Without prompting, they will tell you what their life was like under Saddam, and how it has changed. And their children are likely to be drawn to the American soldiers—waving, smiling, and running to meet them. For those whose impression of Iraqi sentiment has been shaped by the nightly news, the response of Iraqis to Americans may be the biggest surprise to come from a trip to Baghdad.

With all these changes, it should come as little surprise that Baghdad is experiencing growing pains. While modern conveniences are becoming increasingly common, many neighborhoods are still struggling to manage basic functions like trash disposal. Having tasted freedom and capitalism, the people want more, and they want it now. This leads to a growing impatience among the locals at the pace of rebuilding, and at the level of security. This impatience is deliberately aggravated by those who are not happy about the influx of capital and higher standards of living; those who would rather see women covered from head-to-toe and relegated to the homes; and those who would, to paraphrase a senior Coalition official, return this country not just to the reign of Saddam, but to the seventh century. And so, walking down Rashid Street you are likely to hear random gunfire. In the Karada region of Baghdad, when a neighborhood begins to prosper, a bomb is likely to go off. The mission of the terrorists is simple: strike at progress, and prevent Iraqis from feeling comfortable in spite of new found comforts.

But it is too late to turn back the clock. As the locals experience greater freedom, their demand is for more and not less. There is still a long way to go: the trash, random violence, panhandling, and vendors selling bootleg DVDs and fake Rolexes make Baghdad look like a Middle Eastern version of New York City before Mayor Giuliani. But Baghdad has come a very long way down the road of freedom and capitalism in just one year—progress that should encourage Americans as much as it angers freedom’s enemies.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.