Babylon by Bus
Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neumann with Donovan Webster
The representations of young Americans in Iraq are by now familiar: fresh-faced recruits without body armor, scruffy kidnapped contractors, Private Jessica Lynch. They went in for the college money, or out of patriotic duty, or to make a buck rebuilding Iraq. But Ray LeMoine and Jeff Neumann, the authors of Babylon by Bus, are different: they went to Iraq to party.
They went in the first quarter of 2004, when Iraq was under the watch of Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, when the chaos still appeared quellable. Neumann, 28, and LeMoine, 25, friends from the east-coast punk scene, had spent the last few baseball seasons hawking yankees suck T-shirts–a fad they invented–at Fenway Park, using the money to get loaded, gamble, and travel the world in the off-season. But after the Red Sox lost the American League pennant to the Yanks in 2003, they decided a lifestyle change was in order. Their half-baked plan: to see the war on terror for themselves. “We combed humanitarian and Non-Governmental Organization websites, searching for jobs,” LeMoine writes, “but they only wanted Ph.D.s. Instead of applying online for a job half a world away, we decided to apply in person.”
That said, “it’s not accurate to pretend Jeff and I were simply two do-gooders trying to help babies in the third world,” he adds. “Ever since high school, when I’d first gone to Tijuana . . . I’ve had an attraction to the darkest corners of the world. During Iraq’s looting, the thought of loading up a stolen Lamborghini with Persian rugs and Baathist booty had crossed our minds. Stupid, I know.”
Their first stop: Tel Aviv for New Year’s Eve, only to find out that our New Year’s Eve isn’t celebrated in Israel. They sneak into the West Bank for a day, finagle a ride-along on a Red Crescent ambulance, pluck souvenirs from the rubble of the Palestinian Authority compound, and then head to Iraq–to hang out, maybe get some jobs, see how what’s happening in Baghdad compares to what they’ve seen on CNN.
It took me a week to get through the first 30 pages of Babylon by Bus because I was so frustrated with how the story launches itself–killing its own momentum by jumping around between involved narratives about a bus ride through Amman, Neumann and LeMoine’s cultivated postcollegiate sleaziness (strippers as roommates, poker with drug dealers), and way-too-detailed accounts of the various baseball games that affected their decision-making process. Though an authors’ note says both of them wrote the book (along with seasoned journalist and former Outside magazine editor Donovan Webster), the story’s told from LeMoine’s point of view “for the sake of readability,” and the democratic dips into Neumann’s life tend to clunk up the page. The prologue alone will make you want to take after the book’s editor with a whipping stick.
But against all odds–which seems to be the thread that ties all LeMoine and Neumann’s adventures together–they turn it around. By the end of chapter two, as they arrive in Baghdad and begin introducing other characters, the book starts to read less like a blog and more like a story. LeMoine and Neumann are genuine hustlers, and within a few days of arriving they’ve made the rounds of the key Green Zone bars, befriended journalists and influential CPA and military types, and located all the pharmacies outside the Green Zone that sell liquid Valium over the counter. “My signature cocktail became a shot of arack and a shot of Valium with a dab of water,” writes LeMoine. “Jeff called it an Arab Tom Collins.”
In short order they find themselves a job coordinating the 300-odd NGOs attempting to foster a civil society in Iraq and learn how American bureaucracy hog-ties any potential good works in red tape. Granted access to a stash of undistributed donations, they take matters into their own hands–driving to Sadr City, for instance, without protection or weapons to distribute clothes and shoes to orphans. Somehow they impress the right officials and end up with quarters in the Republican Palace. They christen their organization the Humanitarian Aid Network of Distribution, or HAND–“so that we could have HAND jobs every day,” explains LeMoine.
The story moves quickly once they’ve established themselves, and though LeMoine and Neumann seem to pass out on lawns as often as they pass out shoes in the ghetto, they retain a savage wit. Friends and allies get gently mocked; anyone blindly toeing a line gets full-bore fucked with. LeMoine recalls a standoff with a double-talking lawyer representing USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives: “Once, after another frustrating discussion about why more NGOs weren’t being encouraged to help with civil society building and in fact were actually being driven off . . . Sarah Brewer finally couldn’t help herself. She answered a question about why the international aid community was shut out of Iraq by saying, ‘Every postconflict situation is different,’ as if that would explain everything.
“‘Yeah,’ Jeff said. ‘This one’s different because the entire international aid community has been shut out.’
“After that Sarah Brewer never acknowledged Jeff or me as human beings. If we were the only three people in a Convention Center hallway, she would act as if she was there alone.”
These renegade reports add up to a remarkable document of Iraq in the twilight of hope. Some of the funniest, and saddest, parts of the book are just incidental descriptions: a Super Bowl party in the Green Zone feels “more like a truck stop than the Middle East,” with the “least cool” contractor sporting “an extreme goatee, an ‘Iraq World Tour’ T-shirt underneath an open flannel, acid-wash jeans, desert combat boots, and a rainbow-colored NASCAR hat.” The duo’s primary translator is a Kurdish transvestite named Adams, whose face “looked as if it had been glazed by blush.” Through LeMoine and Neumann we meet uptight CPA underlings paddling dutifully up shit creek, good-hearted humanitarian socialites drinking the pain away, and Haydar, who supports 14 siblings and sets up soccer fields in Sadr City slums in his free time.
The authors don’t exactly suppress their left-leaning politics (though just facing the facts of this war is lefty at this point), but politics take a backseat to their escalating desire to help the Iraqi people–and their escalating despair of being able to do so. Though their reverence for their own irreverence can be trying–sometimes it seems like the two will throw themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a good story to tell at the bar–their cavalier stupidity can pass for bravery under low light. Like everyone from the sheikhs to the flacks, they’re doing the best they can to keep their heads above water in a boundless sea of havoc. In the end their approach makes as much sense as any other.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Pepper.