A large part of my daily life involves taking taxis around Baghdad. The drivers often speak little if any English, and I speak little if any Arabic. It is therefore an interesting dance to get where I am going. For example, a common destination is the Green Zone, but I have yet to find a driver who understands the words "Green Zone." After a series of trials and errors, I have settled on the phrase: "Hotel Al Rasheed." Most of the drivers understand this, and will take me to the gate closest to the Rasheed. (Because of the difficuly in getting through security, the taxis drop you off at the gate, and do not attempt to drive through.) On a couple occasions, however, they have taken me to Rasheed Street, which is not particularly close to the gate.
The cars vary tremedously, from old 1970s Toyotas and Peugeots to large American cars, to well maintained BMWs and Mercedes Benzs. The traditional taxis are painted orange and white, but many taxis are virtually indistinguishable from any other car, making it difficult to know who to hail. If you are leaving a gate or your hotel at a reasonable hour, there are often drivers who will call out to people like me who they recognize as foreigners.
The drive itself is generally something straight out of those films they used to scare you in drivers ed. You know, "Blood on the Highway," and "Red Asphault." Driving on the wrong side of the road at full speed toward an oncoming car is not unusual. I have not seen a taxi actually hit anyone or anything yet (which I consider nothing short of a miracle), but a soldier from Ohio I chatted with last week says he has had his foot run over, and has been hit by mirrors of passing cars on numerous occasions.
Last night, the poker game at the Green Zone cafe got out late (just to show that all war zones are like M*A*S*H). I got a ride to the gate from a gentleman who took my shirt in a particulary unfortunate hand of Acey-Ducey, and sought a taxi. It took a considerable amount of time for one to pass by, and the unmarked car ultimately arrived, I was not entirely sure it was a taxi. Nonetheless, when I asked if he was a taxi and gave the name of my hotel, he responded affirmatively, and we were off. As we crossed the bridge, he asked where I was from. I said, "United States." His eyes lit up, "American!" He then said Saddam’s name with something like a spitting gesture, and "America good." Doubtful as always about the sincerity of sentiments offered so freely to strangers, I tried to ask him a question after that, but it became apparent that he did not speak much English. But when we arrived at the hotel, I asked him how much for the trip. He quickly responded. "No, no. For you. No." Funny, after that, I no longer questioned his sentiment.