Fatima and I ran for a couple of miles, her sandals making a scraping sound on the pavement. After a time she indicated that she needed a rest. We stopped at one of the open-air fish restaurants. Everyone seemed to know Fatima; she seemed to know them. A man walked out onto the sidewalk, put a hand on Fatima's shoulder and ran a finger across his neck. "Mother, father finished," the man said. He pointed to the sky, as if to suggest they had been killed by bombs. "Fatima live here," the man said, gesturing with his hand to encompass the restaurant and its environs.
Then a second man walked up, twisted Fatima around and gave her a long and ugly kiss on her lips. He laughed and walked away. Fatima looked at me with very sad eyes, and I suggested that it was time to go.
We ran some more, and after a while Fatima stopped. She suggested, without saying so, that it was time for her to go back. "Bye-bye. Tomorrow, O.K.?" she said, and she turned and walked up the street.
I never saw Fatima again.
As the anarchy spread, my running route shrank—whole sections of it lost to blast walls, razor wire and military checkpoints. By the summer of 2006, when my tour in Iraq finally ended, the country had sunk into something close to civil war. Abu Nawas Park was criss-crossed with barbed wire, deserted. Each day 50 people were kidnapped in the capital, another 100 dumped in the morgue. My once-sprawling 2 1/2-mile route had shrunk to about 500 yards. It stood as a symbol of the dying city that Baghdad had become.
But while I could track the collapse of a country through my running, I found, remarkably, that I could also follow its resurrection. Last summer I returned to Baghdad after nearly two years away. Driving in from the airport, I could scarcely wait to pull on my shoes and hit the streets.
On that first day back I went out again. It was dusk, another orange sun sinking over the Tigris. I stepped through the metal door. I trotted past the blast walls, parted the same coils of razor wire. I headed for Abu Nawas.
And I found the most astonishing thing: calm. The park, the dying place I had left two years before, was filled with Iraqis, perhaps 2,000 of them. The violence had plummeted in Baghdad, and the park had come back to life. Parents walked with children. Kids played on swing sets. Women, most remarkable of all, were walking alone.
I weaved among the Iraqis, trying to keep up a decent pace. For the first time since 2003, I made the full 2 1/2 miles to the Jumhuriya Bridge. I stopped just underneath it, panting and sweating in the summer heat, feeling as though I were in a time warp.
An Iraqi soldier approached. He was in uniform, standing post. He looked me up and down. He held out a bottle of water. "My friend," he said, "what are you doing here?"