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Too Much Time, Tips & Terror

Rebaba's tips
This photo hardly needs explanation, but, yes that’s me holding
up a 100 dinar note. We received so many of these bills that
their true value became meaningless to us. Each night’s haul
only added to our ongoing burden to getting this money out of
Iraq undetected. Within Iraqi borders that note was worth $330.
Can you imagine the fortune we were sitting on. But, that fortune
had a price and it was not worth the sacrifice of staying a minute
longer in Baghdad!

Queen of Denial:Chapter 10

by Rebaba (Rita Schwartz)
posted June 26, 2012

Six weeks into my three month contract, my Lebanese band, including my two closest friends, left Baghdad for home. My companions’ departure left me by myself for the first time since my arrival and forced me to focus on the war going on around me. I realized how terrified I felt to go on alone for another six weeks! My friends’ departure also coincided with a surprise visit from my agent who came to Baghdad to meet with my current boss. My agent had been summoned to negotiate a contract addendum that would allow me to perform a second show at the nightclub located inside the Hotel Baghdad that was also operated by the owner of Al Kawakab.

My agent found me extremely upset, and I was adamant that I couldn’t possibly stay in Baghdad for another six weeks. I desperately wanted out of Iraq, and cried and pleaded with my agent to make it so.

Band member
Circled is the band member who was detained
and then taken away at the airport. He was a
sweet young man, but also very stubborn. He
insisted upon going against all sane advice
with regards to hiding his money, and hid it
exactly where he was told not to, inside his
guitar and guitar case. He paid the ultimate
price for his lack of judgment, something I
wouldn’t wish on anyone, anywhere. After he
was dragged away by soldiers, I heard that
his parents travelled to Baghdad to beg for
his release. All his money was confiscated
including six months’ salary. I did hear that
he was released, but he had to stand trial
in Baghdad. That is the very last news I ever
received about his scary predicament.

Of course, that was the furthest thing from his mind as he mentally counted up his additional commission for the second show he was about to negotiate for me. Bottom line, there was no breaking of contracts or I would be blackballed from ever working in the Middle East again. Much to my dismay, and as scary as Baghdad had become, it was the most lucrative contract I had worked to date. In spite of this fact, the six weeks I had left to work might as well have been six years, and in my frightened state of mind, it felt like an eternity.

As I was leaving the airport after bidding a sad farewell to my dear musician friends, I witnessed one of the younger band members being detained. I watched, mesmerized and helpless to do anything as the terrifying scene unfolded in front of me. My sweet musician and friend was held at gun point and then dragged away by Iraqi soldiers.

Later, I learned that his hidden tip money (in Iraqi dinars) had been discovered and seized by the customs agents. Stupidly, he had hidden his ample stash of cash inside his instrument case–despite being warned against doing so by his older and wiser band mates. You see, it was illegal to take Iraqi money out of the country at this time, and the penalty for being caught was confiscation and imprisonment. Our entire negotiated salaries were paid to us the day before our scheduled departure flights. We were paid in travelers’ checks and in the currency of our individual countries of origin. We had been advised by the bank in which we picked up our earnings, to carry the travelers’ checks and accompanying government paper work in a separate bag in order to facilitate inspection by customs agents at the airport.

Despite the consequences of taking Iraqi money out of the country, our tip money was far too valuable to us just to leave behind. It was a “given” that the only reason to work in Baghdad during the war was to get in and out alive with as much cash as possible. As a result of this consensus of thinking, there was a constant urgency to find a fool-proof way of getting our hard earned tip money out–undetected. Daily brainstorming of how to hide our money became our main past time away from work. As our personal stash of tips increased, so did the dilemma of getting them out of the country, which, in turn, escalated and became more critical as our departure dates inched closer.

My search for the perfect hiding place began almost at once upon my arrival in Baghdad and would continue on without my Lebanese comrades. The arrest of the departing band’s guitar player had only served to reinforce the importance of finding a way to get most–if not all–of my tip money out of the country. It certainly didn’t scare me away from the idea, young rebel that I was; it just made me more determined to succeed where he had failed.

Band and Dancer in Red
My new larger band members, with us all of in red
we looked quite the ensemble (like a choir) ready for work.
They were extremely nice and good musicians.
However, I never had the personal connection to any of them
that came so immediately with my first band mates.

Pictured is another "Vodka" party thrown by our Polish disco band members and house mates
(after receiving a care package from home). Pictured center is the
disco band’s lead singer and band leader a very gregarious and talented man.

Today, remembering these times makes me wonder how I ever survived! My decision to risk my freedom for my tip money may seem ridiculously foolish and extremely dangerous to many of you now. However, the truth of the matter was that I was in constant danger with or without my tip money. In wartime, there are no decisions that can guarantee safety, so my seemly foolhardy decision to get my tips out seemed like the most logical thing to me at that time.

My stash had already started to outnumber my actual pay per night, and I had six more weeks to go. To give you an idea of the amount of money I am talking about: at that time one Iraqi dinar was worth $3.30 US, but only in Iraq. I was planning to sell my money in Beirut as there was a huge currency black market, and I could sell them for half their worth at approximately $1.80 US per dinar. According to my Lebanese friends, this price would be the best exchange I could hope for outside of Iraq. I was making $250. per show, and then $450 (for two shows per night), seven nights a week along with a food allowance and travel expenses. Before I finished my contract, my tip money equaled well over $500 per day -but only in Iraq.

There was less and less merchandise to buy in Baghdad of any value–apart from hand woven rugs (which you couldn’t get out of the country) and gold jewelry, which was scarce. I would walk the souk in old Baghdad almost daily now to kill time, get out of the house and try to find something to buy that held some monetary value.

Gold of any kind was extremely overpriced (especially when compared to the countries I had visited so recently). In particular, Syria boasted the lowest gold price per gram in the Fertile Crescent countries at that time. Lebanon was known for better workmanship, but a higher gold price. Both these countries’ gold price per gram was significantly lower and the workmanship much finer than the small amount of jewelry I could find to purchase in Baghdad .

In the month of May, the temperature sored into the hundreds. The Tigress River had dried up to mostly mud flats with a creek running through the middle. You could actually walk across at certain places where the river had all but evaporated away with the increasing heat. During this time I would take walks in the late afternoon. It was still cooler outside than in the villa where the air conditioning hadn’t worked well since my arrival.

In normal times, a woman walking alone wasn’t altogether acceptable. However, as the majority of the male population was out fighting the war, women walking alone had become a more common sight and much more tolerated than their society would have dictated in the past. The villa occupants were welcomed with smiling faces in the neighborhood markets because we were always spending lots of money. I was known locally as the “Americania” and well treated by the merchants I regularly visited.

One afternoon while walking home alone from a shopping trip, I had a most unfortunate incident just a few blocks from home, on a deserted residential street. It happened in the late afternoon heat when the neighborhood was still and very quiet. I remember the whooshing sound of wheels on dirt getting closer and closer to me from behind. I turned just in time to see a man coming straight at me on his bicycle. My first reaction was that he was going to try to snatch my purse while riding by as fast as he could. Nope! I was wrong; he tried to grab my ass while riding by as fast as he could! It took me by complete surprise as I jumped out of the way of his bike yelling obscenities at him in Arabic and English.

After almost two years working in Middle Eastern countries with no unwanted sexual aggression in any form, here comes this guy on a bicycle trying to grab my ass; I don’t think so! My anger burned inside me like hot coals as I realized he wasn’t going to just give up and go away.

I would be damned if I was going to allow myself to be menaced by a man on a bicycle.

On his third attempt, I reacted instinctively, and as he raced towards me, I kicked out hard at his front wheel. It all happened in an instant and after kicking and connecting with his wheel, all of a sudden I found myself jumping up and down on top of his bike, screaming at the top of my lungs.

A high pitched cry finally penetrated my own fear and rage, and I looked down at what was probably (at most) a 15 year old boy, now trapped under his bike–crying. I will never know how badly he was hurt as I turned and ran home crying myself without ever looking back. While remembering this horrible experience, I hope he never tried that stunt on a lone woman again, and I sincerely hope that I did not break his legs!

To Be Continued…

Coming soon in Chapter 11:
On my last afternoon in Baghdad, I took a walk down to the outdoor market. To every child I passed, I handed 100 dinars, and when I ran out of children, I started handing money to the women and old men who had started following me. I figured it was a kind penance for attacking the young bicyclist and perhaps, seriously hurting him. Although I believe to this day that he deserved to be punished, I felt that I had lost control, and that scared me even more. The dinars I passed out were what I had left of my accumulated tips after hiding as much as possible in my luggage. Finally, I had discovered what I hoped would be a fool-proof way to hide my Iraqi tip money…

 


Me posing with our Lebanese singer and my new drummer.


These large bronze statues line the banks of the Tigress and memorialize Saddam’s rein.


A very old building typical of "Old Baghdad" style architecture. I was told that in the last century women were housed above with the men and animals sleeping below.


A more modem version of the "Old Baghdad" style building with iron work on the balcony reminiscent of New Orleans architecture.


During the spring, when the daytime temperatures are in the 70 degree range;
and the river is at its’ fullest, these little outdoor fresh fish restaurants open up all along the river banks.
They have outdoor BBQ pits where you can buy fresh river fish for the equivalent of one dollar and then thev cook them for free!

 

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   |       |    1 Comment

  1. No Gravatar
    elizabeth morton

    Jun 27, 2012 - 11:06:53

    Amazing and scary.

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