A sniper crouched next to a pile of sandbags, taking aim at anything that moved. Return fire came in bursts, from behind a palm tree.
“Go! Go! Go!” one fighter yelled.
“I’m hit!” shouted another.
Then, abruptly, the combat ended. The fighters yanked off their protective masks and let out exhilarated laughter.
These college friends had just finished a round at Baghdad’s paintball field, and they didn’t mind in the least that the role-play might seem macabre to foreign observers of the real-life war unfolding on the streets outside and, farther north, in the pitched battles between Islamic State extremists and militia-backed Iraqi security forces.
“The most important thing is that, here, there’s no blood,” said Ahmed Raad, 31, whose coveralls showed splotches of yellow paint.
So goes life in this capital of a nation on the verge of collapse. It’s not that Baghdad residents are cavalier about the ceaseless violence — nearly everyone has a story of death, displacement or detention — but they’ve become resigned to a normal that would strike most anyone else as surreal. They hold fast to their daily rhythms, knowing that at any moment the fragile government might fall or the city could explode into full-blown warfare, forcing them once again to adjust their definition of the ordinary.
“To make it short: This has become what our lives are like,” said a 30-year-old mother of two who’d give her name only as Marwa. She was spinning her children on a merry-go-round at a busy playground on the same day Islamist militants captured new territory not even 50 miles from Baghdad.
“My children say, ‘Mama, we want to go out,’ ‘Mama, we want ice cream,’ ” Marwa said. “We do worry, but we leave it all with God.”
Unlike the fierce clashes in northern and western provinces, violence in the capital is low-intensity for the moment, with assassinations and disappearances and bombings that haven’t yet spiraled into the level of bloodshed required to keep war-hardened Baghdadis indoors.
Instead, they carry on in parallel realities, with restaurants so crowded that reservations were required even on a day when militants gunned down 28 women and 10 men at a brothel across town. Young men in the latest Western fashions spend their evenings racing motorcycles along roads that by morning will serve as funeral routes for cars carrying baby-faced volunteer fighters to the cemetery.
At the gleaming new Mansour Mall, guarded by men with assault rifles, well-heeled couples hold hands as they line up for movie tickets. Now playing: Maleficent.
Abdullah al Rawi, 22, works at the mall in an accessories store next to a boutique for Paris Hilton’s designer handbags. He first said Baghdad was stable, insisting that media outlets exaggerate the tensions. But he reconsidered after hearing himself describe his own family’s displacement, and how some of his co-workers can no longer reach the mall because of dangerous checkpoints, and how as a Sunni Muslim he feels under constant threat from Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government.
“It’s here, under the surface,” Rawi finally concluded. “Maybe in a week, a month, who knows when, it'll all come to the surface. But we must live our lives. We’ve learned how to keep going under difficult circumstances.”
In Baghdad’s famed literary district, second-generation bookseller Najah Abdelrahman is happy for any business, but he’s dismayed that readers today prefer religious texts and tawdry romance novels over the highbrow Arab and Western literature that used to be in demand. Still, he doesn’t blame his customers for seeking a little escapism in tales of faith and love.
Just look at Iraq’s own story, Abdelrahman said: After years of brutal dictatorship, foreign forces swoop in, dismantle every institution, help install an authoritarian government and then leave Iraq at the mercy of gunmen who might execute a person for something as small as having a name they dislike. In the latest chapter, a fanatic appears who gives himself the antiquated title of caliph and promises to restore justice for all by imposing a form of Islam that’s unrecognizable to most Muslims.
“This is beyond fiction,” Abdelrahman said.
So, how does the story end?
“Maybe this is the end,” he replied, the sadness heavy in his voice.
Other Iraqis said there was no sense in succumbing to defeatism. Kareem Ali and his wife, Haneen, sat in a garden swing one mild summer evening, rocking back and forth as their year-old son slept between them. Haneen shared that her family had been displaced; her father was shot at in a recent attack. And Kareem said the country was “wounded,” and would never see peace for as long as regional forces made it their battleground.
Yet the young couple didn’t hesitate for a second before deciding to have a child. Too many people are dying, they explained, and they’re counting on a new generation to make things better.
“We have to accept our life as it is,” Haneen said.
“Our strength comes from these shocks that just keep coming and coming,” her husband added.
Ali al Saffar, a 66-year-old retired accountant, has found the perfect way to steer clear of the fear and unpredictability of the current circumstances. He owns a rickety wooden boat that he uses as a water taxi, ferrying customers across the Tigris River from the majority-Sunni side of Baghdad to the majority-Shiite side for the equivalent of 50 cents a ride.
“I deal with nature because nature is friendly,” he said, navigating the river one recent afternoon. “Out here on the water, my biggest worry is the wind.”