Of all the dangerous situations you can find yourself in in Baghdad, I did not think playing badminton was one of them. I was wrong.
I landed in Iraq two weeks ago. A weeklong curfew had just been lifted, so the flight from Amman to Baghdad was packed. Royal Jordanian Airways had brought in a huge plane to deal with the backlog of frustrated would-be fliers. I was becoming something of a regular -- I have flown in and out of Baghdad nine times.
One of the interesting little facts you never hear about is how no one is crazy enough to man the controls of these passenger planes except South Africans. The Royal Jordanian flight to Baghdad is normally in a small jet, with just four seats to a row, two seats per side.
Greeting the passengers is typically a tall white or black woman who walks down the aisles speaking with what sounds like a slight British accent. Though we depart from Jordan and arrive in Iraq, no Jordanians or Iraqi pilots and crew appear adventurous enough for the crazy corkscrew landing pattern used to thwart RPGs, or rocket-propelled grenades. Until this last time.
ABC always flies its people business class when they go to war. My ticket said I would be sitting in seat 2A, so I wasn't worried about the mobs of people waiting to get on the flight. I imagined I would have a nice, fat leather seat and use metal utensils to eat lunch 30,000 feet above the earth. When the gate agent announced the flight would begin boarding, we were herded onto a bus and dropped off at the plane.
I walked up the stairs to the plane and was greeted by a Middle Eastern face. I wondered where my South African flight attendant might be hiding. I walked past the flight attendant to the sight of six seats in a the row, three seats per side! There was so little space between them I couldn't walk across the aisle to my window seat. I had to push up the empty seat in front of mine and step on the 2B and 2C.
Then I forced my legs down the back of the seat in front of me and tried to sit as far back in the seat as I could. I am 5' 11", 180 pounds, and my knees were unhappy. So was the 6' 2", 230 pound man who sat next to me. It wasn't only the South Africans who were gone -- the airline had moved all the seats up 5 inches so it could cram more and more people on.
But why should you be comfortable before you land in Baghdad, right? The fat flying bus performed a wobbly corkscrew instead of the streamlined precision turns I was used to. My knees banged to the left, the right, to the left, and finally, after 90 minutes of minor torture, I limped into Baghdad International Airport.
It was an uneventful trip from the airport to the bureau, and then it was time to say hello to all of my friends who work with the death and destruction every day.
I am honored to call these local men my friends. Some have moved their families to Jordan, others have come back from Syria after their money dried up, and all of them know it is dangerous to work for an American company. But in the land where there is 60 percent unemployment, being able to provide for your family is a huge draw. We smiled, shook hands, hugged, air kissed to the right, the left, and one final back to the right, and asked about each other's families.
Then it was time to go to work. This is my fifth trip to Baghdad, but this time I am bureau chief. That means I have to deal with all of the other stuff outside of the story. People have to be hired, fired, fed, transported, clothed, housed, exercised, amused, caffeinated, medicated, showered, cooled, bribed and comforted.
That first day we didn't have a story, and that was a good and a bad thing. We work long hours in Baghdad. We are eight hours ahead of the East Coast. That means when I get up at 9:30 a.m. in Baghdad it is 1:30 a.m. in Atlanta. So when New York wants a story they tell us at 9:30 a.m. New York time, which is 5:30 p.m. Baghdad time. We end up working until 2:30 a.m. Baghdad time. So the nights are long too. But when we don't have a story we try to make the most of it. On this day that meant badminton.
One of our local guards loves to smash the shuttlecock. And he has attitude. "I beat you? You ready? I beat you." Such entreaties cannot be denied, even with a game that seems to move in slow motion. The last time I played badminton must have been high school, and it showed. He beat me. He beat me badly. He told me about it. Over and over.
At every meal, "You are not ready. We should play. You need the practice. I give you five points. 10! I give you 10 points. You are not ready." That was dinner. That night we filed for World News.
The next night we worked on a story
On the third day I cracked. "OK, let's play. I can't take this any more. Let's go play." I won the first game.
He was satisfyingly quiet, except for "Again. We play again." Fourteen points into the second game I sprinted to return an overhead smash. That's when I found out how dangerous Baghdad is. My leg gave, someone screamed (me) and my calf muscle went "pop."
My first and, so far, only injury during my time in Iraq happened on that badminton court. I pulled a muscle.
It is the kind of story you're not sure you really want to tell. But I couldn't walk for the next week and had to tell it over and over again. I went limping around here with a cane while random gunfire and mortars broke the silence. The staff is now calling their bureau chief "House" after the Fox television show.
And every time I eat a meal, I am asked, "How is the leg? You play? Now I give you 15 points!"