View Full Version : There’s no keeping out Iraq’s No. 1 infiltrator

03-13-09, 08:46 AM
Posted on Thu, Mar. 12, 2009
There’s no keeping out Iraq’s No. 1 infiltrator
The Kansas City Star

BAGHDAD | Iraqis call it “the dust.”

They say things such as “There will be dust tomorrow.” And “The dust is just now starting to get bad.” And even “When the light is just right, the dust can be quite beautiful.”

We, of course, would call it a sandstorm. The wind rolls over hundreds of miles of flat desert, picking up more and more of the incredibly fine sand that blankets this country, this region.

Out in the desert, it’s worse. The desert here doesn’t look the way it does in the movies. It’s wide and open and flat, as flat as western Kansas, but without the green. The rolling sand dunes are in Tunisia and elsewhere, far away. Here, it’s hard-packed.

In 2003, I was with the U.S. Marines when a storm blew in. We were camped in the desert, near Nasiriyah in the south. Even zipped inside a tent, strapped inside “sand-proof” goggles, I found it impossible to see my hand inches in front of my face.

The tent was sealed, and I was huddled inside with a flashlight and borrowed book, hoping to stay safe in the storm by getting lost in a story. But the flashlight beam showed the powdery fine sand streaming in through the tent seams. Soon the book’s pages were spreading apart.

It took years of shaking the sand from that book before I felt comfortable returning it.

But that was in the desert, where nothing stands between a tent and the winds.

This is Baghdad, a city of 5 to 6 million people, filled with wind blocks. The Tigris, as fabled a river as the planet holds, runs through the middle, and the water table supports palm trees in almost every vacant spot.

But even during the calm times, take a close look: The deep green of the palm leaves is muted by a dusty cover. The city is like a grandparent’s attic; run a finger along any surface and leave a line.

Especially at this time of year. About now, the sandstorms begin. They’ll peak in May, June and July.

Already the white tiles of my balcony have to be washed clean of sand a couple of times a week. Buildings, cars, yards are all tinted sand.

The storms don’t spring suddenly. There is usually warning. The wind will blow. In the office, Laith, an Iraqi co-worker, tells me to worry if the wind comes from the west.

“From the east, the north, the dust is not so bad,” he explains. “But from the west …”

The signs are everywhere. The frame of the balcony door is stained brown with the residue of packing tape, futile efforts to keep out the sand.

The first-aid bag kept in a locker in my room has sand embedded in the black leather. Walk barefoot, and you can always feel the sand in the carpet of the hotel.

When the dust comes, it arrives with the smell of a vacuum bag.

There is nothing to do but shut the windows, which even when sealed will not keep it out. Once, Leila, an American co-worker, forgot to shut a window and became convinced her room was on fire, smoke billowing out when she opened the door. It was dust.

Imams will tell their mosques that the sand is a gift, that it purifies the air, much like rain. Asthmatics might disagree.

Some people wet rags and wrap their mouths, but that never helps me. Instead I drink, constantly, to wash the sand down, or I blow it out of my nose every few minutes.

In the city, you measure the severity of a sandstorm by how far you can see. Last week, it knocked the horizon down to about three blocks. Today, perhaps two.

It will get worse in the coming months.

But as Laith noted, when the dust is just right — not too thick, not too thin — it turns the sky a brilliant orange.

And at that time, it is quite beautiful.

Matt Schofield, a Star correspondent, is on his fifth assignment in Iraq. To reach him, send e-mail to mschofield@kcstar.com.