Living Inside Baghdad Airport

"This place -- well, we like to joke that it's actually a hotel masquerading as an airport."

That's what a Western employee of the Western company that oversees the Baghdad International Airport told me one night recently as I sat during an eight-hour wait for my flight to Dubai. I was leaving Iraq's capital after a short trip in ABC's bureau there, flying two hours on an airline that everyone calls by its former name -- Jupiter -- probably because its current name is too embarrassing.

I mean, would you want to tell your mother you were flying out of Baghdad on Ave.com?

The Westerner I spent the evening with probably wouldn't appreciate my using his real name, so we'll call him "Mike."

Mike and I sat in the new black leather seats that fill the airport's one lounge. In front of us, two small cafes that serve drinks and snacks (samosas, yes, but past 7 p.m. don't ask for water that's not frozen). Behind us was a duty free shop with a bad selection of cheap luggage, a nice selection of expensive Cuban cigars and oddities like polo shirts labeled "Baghdad Country Club." Above us, a strange series of what look like PVC wind chimes that cover the ceiling.

As we spoke a young Iraqi boy zigzagged his way between the rows of leather chairs, making fighter jet sounds. He held a bright blue toy plane in one hand, his arms outstretched as if they were wings. The plane was a model of an American F-16.

"I've seen plenty of weird things here. Good entertainment value," Mike said, taking a drag of his fourth cigarette in the last hour. "I'm not bored yet."

His favorite story: the time a Russian pilot started yelling at the co-pilot after the latter was so drunk, he'd almost crashed trying to land. In response, the drunken pilot had pulled out a gun and started waving it around on the plane.

Mike and I chatted about why he came to Iraq from Washington ("the money") and what it was like to work -- and live -- at an airport in a war zone.

The 40 to 50 Western employees and the 300 or so locals who oversee the airport live in a compound just outside the main terminal. The ex-pats even set up a bar.

"It's quiet now, but a few months ago, it was kind of strange to listen to the sound of mortars as you drink," he says. "It'd be one thing if you were in a foxhole. But you're just hanging out, sipping a beer."

They're not the only ones who live here.

Iraq's chief minister of civil aviation lives in the "penthouse" -- a series of rooms converted into his office and residence. There are so many threats on his life, he never leaves the airport except when he flies, even though the city is only a 30-minute drive away. (The road from the airport to the city, once called the most dangerous in the world, is now mostly calm.)

And three days a week, a young and pretty Iraqi woman who says her name is Sally also calls the airport home. She lives in Baghdad, but it would be too dangerous for her to be seen driving home at night. Her neighbors don't know where she works.

She is a waitress at the airport's watering hole, a restaurant that serves Western food at Western prices (or Iraqi food at Iraqi prices, but those dishes aren't listed on the menu), as well as Heineken and tobacco in hookahs.

"There's no other work in Baghdad," she said as my security team and I cobble together enough Arabic to have a conversation with her.

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