Sometimes the little things are the most telling.
Here’s a just-discovered interview with Michael Kelly just before he was killed on assignment in Iraq.
Give me a sense of Baghdad as a tourist. Is it different from Amman or is it similar?
Well, it’s grimmer. A lot of the Arab world is pretty grim. That whole sort of city of jollity and light and magic tends to be lacking in despotic regimes. When you have the feeling that if you get an eensy bit too drunk the Mukhabarat are going to come and remove your fingernails for making a little Saddam joke at the bar, it puts a stifling effect on an evening out with the boys. Iraqis are big bar-goers. There’s a lot of drinking in Iraq. But it’s the grimmest drinking environment you could ever imagine. They could give lessons to the Scots on grimness in drinking.
When you go into bar, and let’s say it’s even a packed bar…. This is a true story. About three days before the war started, I went to a belly-dancing place. There was this woman there belly dancing, or her belly was dancing, whatever. There were forty or so guys there. Everybody’s got their bottles of this horrible, horrible Iraqi-produced knock-off Scotch that’s fake Johnnie Walker red. They’ve got fake labels that say “Johnnie Walker rouge.” Just awful grim stuff to be drinking in the first place. There were like four guys to a table and they were all smoking—swfft, swfft, swfft—and drinking.
Do they smoke cigarettes that they roll themselves?
No, they smoke knock-off cigarettes like Marbrills or Camroll. Terrible existence. It’s like some kind of Orwellian hell. It’s just grim drinking to relieve the misery of life there. They drink until they’ve had enough, which is when they slip silently under the table and have to be carted out by the Mukhabarat.
So, what’s the bar scene like now?
I imagine it’s cheerier, though still a bit glum, but I don’t know. Someone should find out.
Sounds like a job for Christopher Hitchens.