Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist Award-winning poet Brian Turner recently returned to Baghdad, but this time he was a tourist. When he was there in 2004, he was a U.S. soldier. Turner talks to Steve Inskeep about his trip, and his article in the July issue of National Geographic.
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Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist

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Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist

Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist

Iraq Veteran Returns To Baghdad As A Tourist

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Award-winning poet Brian Turner recently returned to Baghdad, but this time he was a tourist. When he was there in 2004, he was a U.S. soldier. Turner talks to Steve Inskeep about his trip, and his article in the July issue of National Geographic.

M: Sometimes I feel as if I am sort of haunted by - in good ways and bad ways; there's beauty and there's also difficult times - I'm sort of haunted by the things that happened before. But in a similar way, I've been sort of haunting those streets as well, going back in my mind to where I was. And I wanted to just go there and see if I could speak to actual, living Iraqis and see where they are now.

INSKEEP: Without a gun, without a uniform, without his old unit, Brian Turner simply walked the streets of Baghdad, talking to people.

M: Students, writers, cab drivers, welders, machinists, people at a restaurant.

INSKEEP: It must be different to approach the place as Brian Turner, a man not in uniform, as opposed to one of a group of Americans all in uniform, in a unit.

M: I sort of had to adapt myself to the actual time that I live in, not where I was living - 'cause Baghdad is a new place.

INSKEEP: Describe what you mean by that, when you say walking in slow circles. Where were you? You were on a busy shopping street, a kind of bookselling street.

M: Basically what it is, is a fairly narrow lane. And on both sides, there are shops. And outside, there are sort of books that are stacked up on tables and on the ground, on blankets. And as I was walking down the middle of this lane, I realized that every few yards or so, I would do a slow, pirouette turn. That's what I used to do what I had a rifle in my hand, just to see what's around you, if there's anything dangerous behind - that kind of thing.

INSKEEP: There is a single word in your description of this that made me know that I needed to talk with you again. You said, of those turning circles: It's a habit I've mostly broken back home in the states - mostly, after seven years.

M: Yeah, there's - oh, how do I put it? The things that I did as a soldier, many of them I've sort of sloughed away. Like when I drive down the freeway, I don't catch myself off in sort of scanning the overpasses and underneath them for people that might be above the overpass, might drop a hand grenade or shoot at us. But there are other habits that are hard to break. Like when I go into a restaurant, I often want to sit where I can see everything, with my back to a wall. And I also sometimes catch myself watching mirrors to see what's, you know - glass windows to see who's behind me. Or I'll make turns, slow turns, here and there and - sometimes, especially when I'm in a crowded environment.

INSKEEP: That, depending on the person and the degree to which it happens, could be a symptom of post-traumatic stress.

M: I think basically, there's a wide range of trauma. I'm able to lead a pretty healthy life, but there's still the baggage of war.

INSKEEP: Did you find little symptoms of what might be post-traumatic stress among the civilian populace in Baghdad, as you moved about and got a chance to talk with people?

M: You know, I didn't so much, maybe because the pressure still feels a bit ongoing. There's helicopters flying overhead; now and then, you'll hear an explosion or gunfire.

INSKEEP: It's not post-traumatic because there's still the trauma going on, you're saying.

M: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But what I did find was a sort of - with many people, there is sort of a deep kind of resignation. The one gentleman - he was a machinist-slash-welder, I guess. And I was in his shop, and he was telling me about how he felt like - that things, they come in waves, and that there's difficult times now, but things will get better later. And then they'll be difficult again. And he just sort of seems to be taking the day with what the day gives him.

INSKEEP: In conversations with civilians, some people must have offered you their opinions of the American intervention there, whether they thought it was useful or not useful.

M: And I came across that sentiment fairly often as well.

INSKEEP: What does he mean, walls?

M: Well, the T-walls, the blast walls, these huge concrete walls that look like a T flipped upside down. They just line many of the roadways in Baghdad itself. And it's a city that has checkpoints every few hundred meters, it seems. In a sense, I felt as if the city was sort of on pause, and it's waiting for the walls to be taken down at some point, and for the checkpoints to be removed so that they could kind of get back to their actual lives.

INSKEEP: Looking at it now, do you feel you were part of anything that made a difference for the better, in Iraq?

M: And through that bookstore, Edith Sitwell and T.S. Eliot came through there. And that was part of the spark that shifted Arabic verse, which had centuries of, you know, tradition behind it, and created, in part - was one of the influences on the modern Arabic free verse movement.

A: And so I'm not sure if I did any good before. But I'm trying to figure out some way to attend to his question, and see if I can be a part of that conversation.

INSKEEP: Mr. Turner, thanks very much.

M: Oh, it's an honor. Thank you.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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