At the front desk, the hotel manager tells me to settle up my tab; it’s been a long time and the bill is rising. “Tomorrow,” I tell him. He places his hand on his chest and bows his head. “No problem. Anytime,” he says with typical Iraqi politeness. I go to my room, pull out the chair at my desk to settle in for a night in front of my computer.
Boom! A blast hammers the night. A woman’s scream tails it. I grab my camera and rush outside. I run past people walking toward the exit of our guarded compound. Did someone blow themselves up at the entrance? This place hadn’t been a target since 2005, when someone blew up their car outside. I smell sulfur in the air, but I’m not sure where it’s coming from. People are standing at the entrance, around the AK 47-toting Iraqi security contractors hired by one of the news outlets based in the hotel next to mine. No one knows what happened. Some look down the street, others shrug their shoulders and walk back to their hotels.
I walk down the street with a colleague. People are sitting outside a restaurant on plastic tables, eating with their families. Men are carving chicken shawarma off giant skewers. A couple is chatting in the front seat of a parked car. A boy whizzes past on a bicycle. “Where did the blast come from?” I ask a man at a kiosk. He tells me he doesn’t know. He is clearly disinterested.
We go back to the hotel and go onto the roof to look for signs of emergency in the surrounds. I see a flame in the distance, but quickly realize it’s coming from the smoke stack of an oil refinery. The nighttime air is dusty and we debate whether we see smoke rising from another direction. “Whenever explosions happen the sound always seems like it’s coming from the opposite direction,” a hotel attendant tells us.
I go back to my room and turn on the TV. I flip through the news channels. Iraq has over a dozen news channels. I find nothing. I turn on my computer and type “Iraq” in the search engine on my web browser’s tool bar. I scan the page for words like “blast,” “killed,” and “Karada,” the Shia-dominated neighborhood I am living in. Still nothing. Almost everything is about the trial of the man who threw his shoes at George Bush.
I think back to a conversation I had with an Iraqi journalist who lives in South Baghdad. He told me about the fights that would happen between his Sunni neighborhood and its Shia neighbors in 2006. Whenever the militias would near, he told me, everyone would get on their roofs and fire in all directions with AK-47s to prevent them from getting too close. Another time militias fired mortars into his neighborhood throughout the night from miles away. He said he could count 10 seconds between their firing and landing. These incidences, like so many in the frenzy of violence in 2006, never made the news.
Apparently, the news hangover of violence in Iraq still persists. The distant firefights I hear, though occasional, are almost never reported. Killing has dropped sharply in the last year, but there is still a background of violence, the occasional distant booms or cracks of gunfire. I still don’t know what happened with that blast last night. Nobody here seems terribly interested. Violence in Iraq isn’t news.