Iraqi drivers can't resist 'Monica'
Michael Currie Schaffer
IRBIL, Iraq - It's a car.
It's a truck.
It's a "Monica."
In Iraq, no set of wheels is held in higher regard than the large, mostly white Toyota Land Cruiser sport-utility vehicles long favored by government officials, intelligence agents and VIPs from Basra to Kirkuk.
Locals call the vehicles Monicas - as in Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who was involved in a sex scandal with President Bill Clinton.
"She's a beautiful girl, and it's a beautiful car," said Ghazi Abdullah Dormari, whose auto-trading lot in the Kurdish city of Irbil features several late-model Monicas.
"They are a very tempting car," said Marwan Shaban, a car dealer in the nearby northern city of Mosul. "Just as Monica tempted Clinton, they will tempt you."
Nicknaming cars is an Iraqi tradition. A slightly older Land Cruiser model is known as the Layla Alawi, after a glamorous Egyptian actress. A Nissan SUV is named after Najwa Karam, a famous Lebanese singer, Shaban said.
The Monica nickname shows the extent - and the limits - of global popular culture.
News of the U.S. presidential sex scandal reached even those parts of Iraq that were under the grip of Saddam Hussein, whose government-controlled media were happy to broadcast a crisis that humiliated its American enemies.
But where Americans remember a sleazy affair, many Iraqis view the saga in a somewhat different light.
"We think Clinton was a very lucky man," said Hamid Mustafa, 55, a car trader in Irbil. Mustafa said he was baffled by the political crisis triggered by the then-president's affair with the intern.
Yet today, the Monica, like its namesake, is trailed by the scent of scandal.
Thousands of cars were looted from Iraqi cities in the chaos that followed the collapse of Hussein's regime. Many of them were Monicas stolen from presidential compounds. A series of carjackings cemented the vehicle's reputation as a crook's favorite.
As a result, the four-wheel drive's reputation has taken a hit.
Last month, the U.N. office in Iraq ordered its fleet of white 4-by-4's painted royal blue. The decision arose from concern that drivers of the ubiquitous vehicles would be mistaken for bandits, said Sonia Dumont, an Irbil-based spokeswoman for the U.N. Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.
In Irbil, many of the Monicas on the streets have Baghdad license plates - suggesting that they, too, were recently liberated.
"The people here, they bought them from looters," said Jabar Mohammed-Amin, 47, a car trader. "The Kurds couldn't get to Baghdad in time to steal them, so they bought them from Arabs."
The vehicles, said Jawad Mohammed-Amin, 40, Jabar's brother and the owner of one of the trading lots, are "less valuable now, because so many are around and because they're associated with looters."
Raqib Aziz, 32, who trades vehicles in a Mosul lot, said the loss of cachet had to do both with the glut and with the danger of buying a car that might be repossessed if Iraq ever gets a functioning government.
"People don't want to buy it because they're afraid that in the future, when things settle down, it'll prove to be looted."
A Monica with "good papers" costs $30,000, limiting ownership to the same stratum of fat cats who owned them before the war. But a Monica from someone who says he will never see you again can go for just $10,000.
On the street in front of Irbil's auto traders, men behind the wheels of several Monicas bearing Baghdad tags quoted prices of $8,000 to $14,000.
The owners of official, licensed auto-trading lots all insisted that they did not have commercial relations with looted Monicas.
"We don't sell looted cars here," said Dormari, one hand resting on the pistol tucked into his trousers. "They don't come to [the trading lots]. People sell them only in secret places."
What about the white 2002 Land Cruiser with Baghdad tags that was parked right in front of his office door?
"That car has been here for nine months," Dormari said.