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Babylon by Bus
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"This all-access, inside-out view of what the American occupation of Iraq really looks like on the ground is the story of two young Americans who went to Baghdad without any real plan and discovered they weren't the only ones. Underqualified but ingenious, Ray and Jeff found work with the Coalition Provisional Authority providing humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people amid an appalling atmosphere of corruption, incompetence, and horror. Gritty and irreverent, this is a wild ride inside the Red Zone and a strikingly original portrait of the real Iraq."

"This delightful book is Innocents Abroad meets Fear and Loathing. The story of Jeff and Ray. two Valium-popping, hard-drinking, Red Sox-loving twenty-something do-gooders on their own buddy trip inside the mess of post-liberation Iraq is compulsively readable, hilariously irreverent, very sad, and very real all at once, and, for all the right reasons, it could well become a cult phenomenon."--Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Fall of Baghdad and Che Guevara

"Weird, dumb, hilarious, wise -- a book that makes you think, What the hell? And then you realize that's exactly the point. When the apocalypse comes, I want these guys to be my tour guides." --Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of It All

A conversation with Ray LeMoine & Jeff Neumann, authors of Babylon by Bus

What motivated you to go to Iraq in the first place?

RAY: The Red Sox 2003 American League Championship Series loss forced a few decisions about my future. At this point I had been selling YANKEES SUCK t-shirts at Fenway for five years--a long time to do something you never planned to do as a career. Jeff was my roommate at the time and the two of us decided to take a trip during baseball's off-season. Both of us had already done a fair bit of traveling, so going to the Middle East didn't seem too revolutionary. There was no set plan for Iraq, really. We went to Israel, and then to Jordan. In Amman, the peaceniks at our hostel gave us word that Baghdad was relatively safe and completely wild. There was a cheap bus; we took it. (Baghdad and its relative safety rocked us the morning after we got there with a car bombing that killed 26 and injured 100.)

So you ended up taking a bus to Baghdad. Is this where you got the title of your book?

JEFF: We crossed into Iraq from Jordan on a Middle Eastern version of a Greyhound bus, only this one was decorated with a few bullet holes and full of women covered from head to toe in abayas and men wrapped in keffiyahs and wearing plastic sandals. We broke down several times in the heart of Anbar Province, quite possibly the worst place on earth for a couple of white guys to be hanging around. After sharing all this with our editor, he asked us if we liked Bob Marley, and he reminded us of the live record "Babylon by Bus" and suggested we borrow the name. Needless to say, it fit perfectly.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Baghdad, you had a job with The Coalition Provisional Authority. Were you surprised that this happened so quickly?

JEFF: We were really surprised that we found employment so quickly, and especially with the US government. With not so much as a background check or anything, we two schmoes walked into the Baghdad Convention Center and talked our way into jobs with the Coalition Provisional Authority. It just goes to show you how haphazard the CPA's operations were. It was disorderly and inefficient: all the way down to us receiving badges, mine giving permission to carry a weapon in the main palace.

Customer Reviews:

  • I was impressed
    I just finished this book and was impressed with these guys' observations and their obvious concern for the Iraqis' plight. They went there almost as a lark then couldn't avoid seeing the ramifications of the conflict. They did take the bull by the horns and did what they could to help, even though nothing anyone could do would be enough. They did seem like doofuses at times but I don't think that matters to the book. I didn't like all the drugs and alcohol and wonder how they survived, but still they seem to have meant well....more info
  • A Good Read
    This book reminded me of P.J. O'Rourke's classic 1980s Rolling Stone articles. The authors provide an interesting outsiders' description of Baghdad circa 2004. While they worked and lived (most of the time) within the Green Zone, they were no strangers to the surrounding areas. Their descriptions of the restaurants, bars, hotels, pharmacies and housing in the surrounding Red Zone were a highlight, as were their descriptions of the military personnel (generally favorable), security contractors (not so favorable), and assorted reporters and social workers. After reading of the authors' trips to the suburban slums to pass out clothing, Sadr City will no longer be just a location I hear mentioned on the nightly news. The authors left Baghdad just as things were starting to really deteriorate, and many of the places they frequented outside the Green Zone are no longer safe for Americans. (Not that they were all that safe even then. An example is the evening the authors were near a massive hotel bombing.)

    The map at the front of the book was extremely useful for following the authors' Baghdad adventures. All in all, a fast-paced, enjoyable way to learn about the post-invasion Iraq you don't hear about on the cable news networks.

    ...more info
  • I actually read the book....
    Seems like some of the other reviewers are reviewing the authors' appearances on C-Span and at various Q+A's. Being someone who's never met these guys (although I must admit I come from a similar background and through degrees of seperation may even know people they hung out with in decades past) I feel I can comment on the book itself, not on the writers or any appearances they may have made.

    This book has a very easy, narrative style. It was a quick read, and on one level it is a simple adventure story about two globe trotting slacker types who decided to head to post-invasion/pre-civil war Iraq to see if they could insinuate themselves into the nation building efforts of the US military. Their motivation seemed to be that they had never been to Iraq, and that they had crossed a lot of the other typical third world destinations off of their list. That they ended up in the position they did, and accomplished what they appear to have accomplished, is amazing. Seems like on one level these guys succeeded in spite of themselves.

    With that as the premise the book itself plays out along two central themes.

    First there's the personal story of two easy going, booze and drug loving Red Sox fans and the adventures they have. This part of the book will appeal to those who like to read travel diaries and stories of personal revelation set against a back drop of drugs, booze and good old American apathy.

    Secondly, in addition to the recounting of the story of these two guys, there is what I felt was a very fair and candid assessment of the way things are going in Iraq. These guys weren't peace activists, and going into this they did not appear to have an agenda. As a result I felt that they provided an easy to read and easy to understand account of what they saw and how they felt it was going. Sadly, it doesn't sound like it's going all that well, as they seem to have encountered a logistical nightmare coupled with a real sense of hopelessness on both sides of the fence.

    This book is fast paced and easy to read. If you want a take on the situation in Iraq that might not be what you're seeing on the nightly news, but you don't want to be bogged down with a lot of statistics and source material, this might be the book for you....more info
  • Top Notch Cultural History
    This book was a serendipitous discovery and is a very enjoyable and enlightening read. On one level it's a riveting and picaresque tale of modern day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer-like adventures; on a more serious level it is good cultural history of how the US dug itself ever deeper into a hole from which there seems little chance of a happy return.Great summer reading.One laughs and cries simultaneously....more info
  • Edgy
    This book, while edgy and occasionally sarcastic, was a breath of fresh air this summer. With raw wit and crystal vision, Ray and Jeff have been able to capture a moment in time that most will never experience. Thank you for sharing your first hand account of your experiences. There were many laughs and many tears. ...more info
  • Insights unique outside of the occupying forces.
    BABYLON BY BUS is for any counter-culture reader or autobiography fan who wants something different: a kind of Kerouac bus trip extended overseas to Iraq. The two young, directionless American men went to Baghdad in 2003 in search of truth and adventure, giving up their jobs selling 'Yankees Suck' t-shirts at Fenway and becoming volunteers for the U.S. Government Coalition's Provisional Authority. BABYLON BY BUS recounts their eye-opening new duties as volunteers, which allowed them access to the streets of Baghdad and gave them insights unique outside of the occupying forces.

    Diane C. Donovan
    California Bookwatch...more info
  • Mildly Entertaining and Somewhat Insightful
    This is a mildly entertaining firsthand account of Ray and Jeff's experience in Baghdad, from a period of relative calm when they arrived, to the ensuing chaos a few months later which began with the clash between U.S. forces and Al Sadr's Mahdi army. In January, 2004, Ray and Jeff traveled to Baghdad via Israel, The West Bank, and Jordan. The two pill popping adventurists worked as volunteers for the CPA, where they built a charity organization called HAND and lived in the Green Zone for most of their four month stay in Baghdad. They traveled frequently to the slums of Sadr city to distribute donated goods to the needy. Just when the situation in Iraq began to take a turn for the worse, Ray and Jeff managed to get themselves barred from returning to Iraq during a visit to Jordan after a petty altercation with a Jordanian shop owner and his brother which nearly landed them in jail for 11 years if it weren't for Uncle Sam's help.

    The narrative is a mixture of analytical thought and blabber. Every now and then, there was a refreshing glimpse of everyday life in baghdad not covered in the mainstream media.

    The authors' decision to visit and work in Baghdad was met with criticism from friends, family, and apparently a few reviewers on Amazon, but at least they experienced life in a way that most people wouldn't have the guts to....more info
  • A unique perspective
    There's plenty of literature out there on the Iraq war, most of it written by journalists, pundits, and government or military employees. Here we have a book by two young men who came to Iraq as backpackers with nothing better to do. Rarely sober and sometimes not very sensitive to the culture they're visiting, Ray and Jeff are not always likeable people. They did manage to make a positive difference in Iraq through their humanitarian volunteer work in Baghdad, which took them to areas few American civilians would have the guts to explore. This book tells the story of their work and the people they meet- soldiers, profiteers, mercenaries, journalists, and drifters alike. It makes for an interestinig anecdote on how the collapse of a tenuous, temporary peace in Iraq looked to two foreign laymen watching from the inside. If you're looking for a story of the war as told by military tactical experts or experienced political and cultural analysts, look elsewhere. ...more info
  • Irreverent, obnoxious, and accurate
    These guys are over the top in every sense, but perhaps that's fitting for a war and occupation that somehow makes their antics seem quaint. Initially arriving in Baghdad as little more than idiotic war tourists, the intense reality of post-invasion Iraq quickly sinks into them, and they find themselves deeply and emotionally invested, while still remaining outsiders to the CPA (despite bunking in a hallway in the Palace).

    Is this book well written? I don't know. It has a certain amateur rawness to it that is authentic, even unanalyzed, which is welcome relief from the many excellent but highly impersonal books by authors such as George Packer and Anthony Shadid that are not able to capture the day-to-day intensity the way these guys do.

    I was in Iraq, working in the NGO sector, for over 4 months prior to their little adventures. While I wasn't a part of their Valium and pot subculture, their depiction of the general scene rings true. I would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in understanding what it really meant to be down in the trenches of post-war Iraq reconstruction in those early days when hope was still an option and tireless devotion was an emotional and moral imperative, no matter what your political views or position on the war.

    Another reviewer wrote that "the narrative lacks content and purpose". Maybe that's exactly as it should be when describing an occupation that meets the same description....more info
  • One of the best reads ever
    I love the approach. as a fellow traveller and adventurist, I felt jealous reading through the good times, hard times, and strange times these two young people come across.

    It's a escape and completely trendy approach to what had been going on in Iraq, pre-Abu Girab...more info
  • A real sleeper among Iraq books
    I can't remember how this book was brought to my attention, but I am glad that it was. I took a break from "Cobra II", "Fiasco", and other "big books" about the war to get these guys' "off the beaten path" perspective. I'm a longtime independent traveler and, although Baghdad is not on my list of current destinations, I can readily understand how and why these guys blundered into Baghdad. The book is great fun because of the "slacker" attitude and the perspective that's outside the usual journalistic channels. My guess is that "the guys" had a lot of help writing this. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little embellishing, but I'd also guess that some of the wildest stories are the most credible.

    Essentially, two professional screw-ups decided that their love of dangerous destinations warranted a trip to Baghdad. Despite the security measures in place there, the guys made it across the border and took up residence, initially outside the Green Zone. The book is full of soldiers of fortune, NGO workers, courageous Iraqis, and the mix of US military personnel, embassy types, military contractors, and journalists. The guys eventually wind up running a small aid operation as part of the effort to set up a viable NGO infrastructure in the country.

    The book's strengths include its first hand descriptions of the Green Zone and non-Green Zone Baghdad, the guys' interactions with ordinary Iraqis and their perspectives on some of the "innovations" in Iraq (e.g., reliance on contractors, national guard, and Hertiage Foundations-connected interns). They also mention the little discussed problems of drug use among the military (and just about everyone else), particularly steroids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines. The book is unflattering in its description of the occupation administration and the military contractors (who operate in a legal grey zone) come off as arrogant and troublesome for the occupation, while the national guardsmen come off as dolts. Other books such as Crawford's "The Last True Story.." paint a different picture of guardsmen (Crawford was in the Army National Guard himself, and is one of the few accounts to talk about drug use among the military), but the view of the contractors seems consistent with other sources.

    The book clearly goes for the absurd and other accounts would suggest that they probably had much from which to choose. Along the way, the guys befriend a variety of soldiers, embassy folks, NGO types (Iraqi and Western), and ordinary locals. They largely stumble into doing aid work and the lead author comes to enjoy it and develop some expertise. Along the way, friends die or slip into substance abuse or insanity, and the whole seen finally becomes too much. The book is a vivid adventure and great fun in places, although one never loses sight of where this all takes place. Even if you know that the war has become a "fiasco", that interns from the Heritage Foundation aren't the way to rebuild a country, and that Baghdad is a dangerous place, the book allows you to see these things from fresh perspectives. There's probably too much about the authors' previous lives in the early parts of the book, but otherwise, this is an adventure worth reading....more info
  • Review of "Babylon by Bus"
    If you have visited Fenway Park in the past decade, then you are well aware of the colorful T-shirts that are hawked outside the Park. The "YANKEES SUCK" T-shirts are part of the soft underbelly of the culture of Red Sox Nation. I find the phrase and Red Sox fans' continued use of the phrase to be sophomoric, at best. But, it is what it is, and it is part of the Fenway experience.

    The two young ne'er-do-wells who conceived of the T-shirt franchise are Ray Lemoine and Jeff Newman. They made a lot of money selling those souvenirs of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and decided to travel the world. If you are a rich, young Red Sox fan, what constitutes the ultimate "Road Trip"? Their peregrinations led them eventually to Iraq in 2004, in the early days of the U.S. occupation of Baghdad. They found work volunteering for a non-government agency that was set up to serve as a liaison between the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi people. From their unique perspective, they observed and wrote about the initial stages of the U.S. efforts to bring order out of the chaos of the post-Saddam era. In collaboration with Donovan Webster, they assembled their thoughts into the book, "Babylon by Bus." Their account provides an interesting counterpoint to the memoirs I have read and recounted in the pages of The White Rhino Report.

    These hard-drinking sons of the counter culture offer their unique perspective on what they observed on the ground in Baghdad. A quotation on the book's dust jacket sums up very well the zeitgeist of this book:

    "If Iraq is a Shakespearean tragedy, `Babylon by Bus' is its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, without the funny ending."

    Their route to Iraq took them through Israel and included dangerous encounters with Israeli security officials as they attempted to visit Nablus in the Palestinian West Bank. Their brief sojourn in Israel was memorable and prompted an observation that I found intriguing:

    "This experience was about as far away as a person could get from the Israel Jeff had experienced with his grandmother and her church tour group. His three days with them in Jerusalem and over to Qum'Ran and Ein Gedi hid many truths about this place and its always rolling conflict. In the American Church Tour Version of Israel, a strange fusion of evangelical Christianity and Zionism, all Arabs are reduced to being street peddlers, friendly waiters, and the smiling face of `Holy Land' souvenir shops." (Page 21)

    Ray and Jeff eventually made their way via Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, where they were offered lodging and an opportunity to volunteer for a fledgling NGO called the Iraqi Assistance Center (IAC). For these "Kings of New England" living in Baghdad's Green Zone, Red Sox sensibilities would often obtrude themselves upon the dusty landscape of daily living:

    "The Green Zone was a constant reminder of 9/11, right down to the offices and desks of soldiers and civilians. Among them, `Wanted Dead or Alive: Bin Laden' posters were the most popular. Jeff hung up a picture of Sox slugger Manny Ramirez to lighten the mood." (Page 68)

    A case of Manny being Mahdi!

    The book is a loosely woven fabric that highlights massive confusion and bureaucratic gridlock interspersed with inspiring vignettes of individual courage, humanity and good will. Ray and Jeff at one point were responsible for overseeing the distribution of a warehouse full of items intended to help the Iraqi people to improve their quality of life. Their stories of adventure and quixotic misadventure in trying to find the right allies in setting up this distribution network are among the most entertaining and the most disturbing in the book. Their non-profit endeavors led them to the boiling cauldron that is Fallujah.

    I will share their commentary on their experience of Fallujah as a way of summarizing their overall thesis for this book:

    "In 1920, Fallujah had provided the spark in Iraq's nationwide uprising against the British, with the initial fighting costing five hundred British lives and six thousand Iraqi ones, prompting Arabist T.E. Lawrence to later write:

    `The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap . . . it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster. Our unfortunate troops . . . under hard conditions of climate and supply are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad.'

    Did America's leaders think she was exempt from history?" (Page 137)

    If Lemoine and Neumann were to design a T-shirt that would succinctly offer their commentary of the mismanagement of resources they observed in Baghdad during the inchoate stage of the occupation of Baghdad, the T-shirt might read:


    We might not agree with their assessments, but through their sweat and months of volunteer activities on the ground in Baghdad, Lemoine and Neumann have earned the right to offer their experiences and observations.

    Al...more info