Baghdad Dispatch

Baghdad, a City Gone Still

The picnicking families are gone by the Tigris. So are the peddlers. But a twilight walk along the river still offers a sad solace.

Fishermen along the Tigris River in Baghdad.
Credit...Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

Alissa J. Rubin, The Times’s Baghdad Bureau Chief, is on her fourth tour of Iraq since 2003. She was there when the country stopped flights in and out in mid-March to slow the coronavirus and declared a lockdown for all but trips to markets and doctors, or for short walks. We asked her to tell us about life in Iraq since then.

It is dusk, my favorite hour except for dawn, and the muezzin is singing the evening prayer. There will be one more prayer, at about 8:30. These two prayers (for me) are the most beautiful of the day. No matter the temperature, hot or cold, I open my windows to hear them.

Now the mosques are empty, and the religious authorities have closed the shrines to keep people from gathering in large groups. Even the Friday Prayer — the most important of the week, when thousands usually fill the larger mosques and spill into the streets — is done at home. It was a hard step for the clerics to take; mosques stayed open even during the United States-led invasion.

Credit...Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

I often walk at this hour along the Tigris. There is almost no one there now. The families that used to spread their blankets on the strip of park next to the river no longer picnic, and the hawkers of cheap biscuits and orange soda have all gone home. So the silence of this twilight walk makes for a sad if peaceful interlude. Soon it will be too hot for walking even at night, but for now the evenings are soft.

Baghdad, a city of about seven million, is usually a cacophony. The infrastructure is dilapidated and litter lies in heaps, but the city had been defiantly alive. Until the curfew, the streets were a jumble of armored 4x4 vehicles, cheap Iranian-made taxis and the occasional horse-drawn cart. Given that many people live in small houses or apartments, life happened mostly outside. At dusk the streets were crowded with shoppers, kids kicking soccer balls, and men playing dominoes on flimsy card tables. Not anymore.

Even in the worst days of the 2003 war, when the Americans were bombing, it was hard for people to stay inside. But the invisible enemy of the virus has hit people’s nerves differently. They are staying home because they are afraid. Although the number of confirmed cases nationwide is relatively low, about 1,400, there is fear that many more infected people are going undetected because of the stigma associated with illness and quarantine.

Almost all the demonstrators who had gathered to protest government corruption and Iranian influence have withdrawn from Tahrir Square, though many of the tents, tattered by the wind and rain, remain. There are still some food vendors selling bowls of warm chickpeas to the few protesters who have stayed, but the music and art and a sense of political possibility are long gone.

It is as if someone has dimmed all the lights.

I go shopping for food and feel privileged. Many Iraqis are running out of money because they cannot work under the lockdown, so the outdoor markets are filled with women picking things up and putting them down again after checking the price. It seems a small inconvenience that I am getting bored of halloumi cheese. The sweet-tart citrus fruit called sindhi — a cross between a grapefruit and a pomelo but drier, so you can pick up peeled slices and not get your fingers sticky — is still in the markets. Soon, though, its season will be over.

To keep people close to home, there is a car curfew; exceptions are made for “essential workers” and journalists, who are given badges that police can check. The curfew is being observed more scrupulously in wealthier areas. But in poorer places tuk-tuks still zoom around and sidewalk vendors lay out their wares, then quickly gather them up when the police come around the corner. For the most part, though, Baghdad has come to a standstill.

Credit...Sabah Arar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On a recent day in Sadr City, the vast impoverished slum in eastern Baghdad, I said “Shlonich?” (How are you?) to a bosomy lady standing at the gate of her house, grandchildren clustered around her.

“Imam Hussain is protecting me,” she replied, referring to a revered and martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. “I can never get sick.” She pulled a brilliant green scarf from around her neck that she said came from the sacred city of Karbala and stretched out her hand to give it to me. I am afraid that I stepped back and held up my hand in the international signal for “stop.” She looked at me dubiously, as if to say, “You’re really missing something.”

I am grateful that I have not fallen ill and that I am not — like so many Iraqis — anxious about how to feed my family. I am grateful for the silence, and for the few sounds that no longer have to compete with the clatter of the city. A bird’s song. The muezzin’s call to prayer. In normal times, that call draws the men to mosque and signals working people to lay out their prayer rugs wherever they are. Now it echoes down the empty streets and ends with this plea: “Sali fi beitak.” (Pray at home.)