Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Friday, September 24, 2004
Liar, Liar...
I was channel-surfing yesterday evening- trying to find something interesting to watch. I flipped vaguely to Al-Arabia and Bush's inane smile suddenly flashed across the screen. Now, normally, as soon as I see his face, I instantly change channels and try to find something that doesn't make me quite as angry. This time, I stopped to watch as Allawi's pudgy person came into view. It's always quite a scene- Bush with one of the alledged leaders of the New Iraq.

I prepared myself for several minutes of nausea as Bush began speaking. He irritates me like no one else can. Imagine long nails across a chalk board, Styrofoam being rubbed in hands, shrieking babies, barking dogs, grinding teeth, dripping faucets, honking horns – all together, all at once – and you will imagine the impact his voice has on my ears.

I sat listening, trying not to focus too much on his face, but rather on the garbage he was reiterating for at least the thousandth time since the war. I don't usually talk back to the television, but I really can't help myself when Bush is onscreen. I sit there talking back to him- calling him a liar, calling him an idiot, wondering how exactly he got so far and how they're allowing him to run for re-election. E. sat next to me on the couch, peeved, "Why are we even watching this?!" He made a jump for the remote control (which I clutch to shake at the television to emphasize particular points)- a brief struggle ensued and Riverbend came out victorious.

You know things are really going downhill in Iraq, when the Bush speech-writers have to recycle his old speeches. Listening to him yesterday, one might think he was simply copying and pasting bits and pieces from the older stuff. My favorite part was when he claimed, "Electricity has been restored above pre-war levels..." Even E. had to laugh at that one. A few days ago, most of Baghdad was in the dark for over 24 hours and lately, on our better days, we get about 12 hours of electricity. Bush got it wrong (or Allawi explained it to incorrectly)- the electricity is drastically less than pre-war levels, but the electricity BILL is way above pre-war levels. Congratulations Iraqis on THAT!! Our electricity bill was painful last month. Before the war, Iraqis might pay an average of around 5,000 Iraqi Dinars a month for electricity (the equivalent back then of $2.50) - summer or winter. Now, it's quite common to get bills above 70,000 Iraqi Dinars... for half-time electricity.

After Bush finished his piece about the glamorous changes in Iraq, Allawi got his turn. I can't seem to decide what is worse- when Bush speaks in the name of Iraqi people, or when Allawi does. Yesterday's speech was particularly embarrassing. He stood there groveling in front of the congress- thanking them for the war, the occupation and the thousands of Iraqi lives lost... and he did it all on behalf of the Iraqi people. It was infuriating and for maybe the hundredth time this year, I felt rage. Yet another exile thanking the Bush administration for the catastrophe we're trying to cope with. Our politicians are outside of the country 90% of the time (by the way, if anyone has any news of our president Ghazi Ajeel Al Yawir, do let us know- where was he last seen or heard?), the security situation is a joke, the press are shutting down and pulling out and our beloved exiles are painting rosey pictures for the American public- you know- so everyone who voted for Bush can sleep at night.

Allawi actually said "thank you" nine times. Nine times. It really should have been more- at least double that number of Iraqis died yesterday... and about five times that number the day before. Looking back on the last month alone, over 350 Iraqis have been killed either by American air strikes, fighting, or bombs... only 9 thank yous?

The elections are already a standard joke. There's talk of holding elections only in certain places where it will be 'safe' to hold them. One wonders what exactly comprises 'safe' in Iraq today. Does 'safe' mean the provinces that are seeing fewer attacks on American troops? Or does 'safe' mean the areas where the abduction of foreigners isn't occurring? Or could 'safe' mean the areas that *won't* vote for an Islamic republic and *will* vote for Allawi? Who will be allowed to choose these places? Right now, Baghdad is quite unsafe. We see daily abductions, killings, bombings and Al-Sadr City, slums of Baghdad, see air strikes... will they hold elections in Baghdad? Imagine, Bush being allowed to hold elections in 'safe' areas- like Texas and Florida.

The hostage situations are terrible. Everyone is wondering and conjecturing about the Italian hostages. Are they really dead? Is it possible? Seeing the family of the British hostage on TV is quite painful. I wonder if they'll forever hate Iraqis after this. I saw the plea the made on CNN, asking the abductors to be merciful. Dozens of Iraqis are abducted daily and no one really knows who is behind it. Some blame it on certain Islamic groups, others on certain political groups- like Chalabi's, for example. It's hardly shocking, considering our own PM, Allawi, was, by his own admission, responsible for bombings and assassinations inside of Iraq- there is some interesting information here.

For those who haven't read it, you really should. Juan Cole's "If America were Iraq, What would it be Like?".

Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Fahrenheit 9/11...
August was a hellish month. The heat was incredible. No one remembers Baghdad ever being quite this hot- I think we broke a new record somewhere in mid-August.

The last few days, Baghdad has been echoing with explosions. We woke up to several loud blasts a few days ago. The sound has become all too common. It’s like the heat, the flies, the carcasses of buildings, the broken streets and the haphazard walls coming up out of nowhere all over the city… it has become a part of life. We were sleeping on the roof around three days ago, but I had stumbled back indoors at around 5 am when the electricity returned and was asleep under the cool air of an air-conditioner when the first explosions rang out.

I tried futilely to cling to the last fragments of a fading dream and go back to sleep when several more explosions followed. Upon getting downstairs, I found E. flipping through the news channels, trying to find out what was going on. “They aren’t nearly fast enough,” he shook his head with disgust. “We’re not going to know what’s happening until noon.”

But the news began coming in much sooner. There were clashes between armed Iraqis and the Americans on Haifa Street- a burned out hummer, some celebrating crowds, missiles from helicopters, a journalist dead, dozens of Iraqis wounded, and several others dead. The road leading to the airport has seen some action these last few days- more attacks on troops and also some attacks on Iraqi guard. The people in the areas surrounding the airport claim that no one got any sleep the whole night.

The areas outside of Baghdad aren’t much better off. The south is still seeing clashes between the Sadir militia and troops. Areas to the north of Baghdad are being bombed and attacked daily. Ramadi was very recently under attack and they say that they aren’t allowing the wounded out of the city. Tel Affar in the north of the country is under siege and Falloojeh is still being bombed.

Everyone is simply tired in Baghdad. We’ve become one of those places you read about in the news and shake your head thinking, “What’s this world coming to?” Kidnappings. Bombings. Armed militias. Extremists. Drugs. Gangs. Robberies. You name it, and we can probably tell you several interesting stories.

So how did I spend my 9/11? I watched Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. I’ve had bootleg CD version since early August. (Grave apologies to Michael Moore- but there’s no other way we can see it here…) The copy has been sitting in a drawer with a bunch of other CDs. One of my cousins brought it over one day and said that while it was brilliant, it was also quite depressing and distressing all at once. I had been avoiding it because, quite frankly, I cannot stand to see Bush for five minutes straight- I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with almost two hours.

Three days ago, I took it out while the house was relatively quiet- no cousins, no cousins’ children, parents busy watching something or another, and E. asleep in front of the air conditioner for the next three hours.

The CD was surprisingly clear. I had expected some fuzziness and bad sound quality- it was fine. Someone had made the copy inside a movie theater. I could tell because in the background, there was a ringing mobile phone a couple of times and some annoying person in the front kept getting up to adjust his seat.

I was caught up in the film from the first moment, until the very last. There were moments, while watching, when I could barely breathe. I wasn’t surprised with anything- there was nothing that shocked me- all of the stuff about the Bush family and their Saudi friends was old news. It was the other stuff that had an impact- seeing the reactions of Americans to the war, seeing the troops in Iraq being interviewed, seeing that American mother before and after she lost her son in Iraq.

Ah, that mother. How she made me angry in the beginning. I couldn’t stand to see her on screen- convincing the world that joining the army was the ideal thing to do- perfectly happy that her daughter and son were ‘serving’ America- nay, serving, in fact, the world by joining up. I hated her even more as they showed the Iraqi victims- the burning buildings, the explosions, the corpses- the dead and the dying. I wanted to hate her throughout the whole film because she embodied the arrogance and ignorance of the people who supported the war.

I can’t explain the feelings I had towards her. I pitied her because, apparently, she knew very little about what she was sending her kids into. I was angry with her because she really didn’t want to know what she was sending her children to do. In the end, all of those feelings crumbled away as she read the last letter from her deceased son. I began feeling a sympathy I really didn’t want to feel, and as she was walking in the streets of Washington, looking at the protestors and crying, it struck me that the Americans around her would never understand her anguish. The irony of the situation is that the one place in the world she would ever find empathy was Iraq. We understand. We know what it’s like to lose family and friends to war- to know that their final moments weren’t peaceful ones… that they probably died thirsty and in pain… that they weren’t surrounded by loved ones while taking their final breath.

When she asked why her son had been taken and that he had been a good person… why did this have to happen to him? I kept wondering if she ever gave a second thought to the Iraqi victims and whether it ever occurred to her that Iraqi parents perhaps have the same thoughts as the try to dig their children out from under the rubble of fallen homes in Falloojeh, or as they attempt to stop the blood flowing out of a gaping hole in the chest of a child in Karbala.

The flashes of the bombing of Iraq and the victims were more painful than I thought they would be. We lived through it, but seeing it on a screen is still a torment. I thought that this last year and a half had somehow made me a little bit tougher when it came to seeing Iraq being torn apart by bombs and watching foreign troops destroy the country- but the wound is still as raw as ever. Watching those scenes was like poking at a gash with sharp stick- it hurt.

All in all, the film was… what is the right word for it? Great? Amazing? Fantastic? No. It made me furious, it made me sad and I cried more than I’d like to admit… but it was brilliant. The words he used to narrate were simple and to the point. I wish everyone could see the film. I know I'll be getting dozens of emails from enraged Americans telling me that so-and-so statement was exaggerated, etc. But it really doesn't matter to me. What matters is the underlying message of the film- things aren't better for Americans now than they were in 2001, and they certainly aren't better for Iraqis.

Three years ago, Iraq wasn't a threat to America. Today it is. Since March 2003, over 1000 Americans have died inside of Iraq... and the number is rising. In twenty years time, upon looking back, how do Americans think Iraqis are going to remember this occupation?

I constantly wonder, three years after 9/11, do Americans feel safer? When it first happened, there was a sort of collective shock in Iraq. In 2002, there was a sort of pity and understanding- we’ve been through the same. Americans could hardly believe what had happened, but the American government brings this sort of grief upon nations annually… suddenly the war wasn’t thousands of kilometers away, it was home.

How do we feel about it this year? A little bit tired.

We have 9/11’s on a monthly basis. Each and every Iraqi person who dies with a bullet, a missile, a grenade, under torture, accidentally- they all have families and friends and people who care. The number of Iraqis dead since March 2003 is by now at least eight times the number of people who died in the World Trade Center. They had their last words, and their last thoughts as their worlds came down around them, too. I’ve attended more wakes and funerals this last year, than I’ve attended my whole life. The process of mourning and the hollow words of comfort have become much too familiar and automatic.

September 11… he sat there, reading the paper. As he reached out for the cup in front of him for a sip of tea, he could vaguely hear the sound of an airplane overhead. It was a bright, fresh day and there was much he had to do… but the world suddenly went black- a colossal explosion and then crushed bones under the weight of concrete and iron… screams rose up around him… men, women and children… shards of glass sought out tender, unprotected skin … he thought of his family and tried to rise, but something inside of him was broken… there was a rising heat and the pungent smell of burning flesh mingled sickeningly with the smoke and the dust… and suddenly it was blackness.

9/11/01? New York? World Trade Center?


9/11/04. Falloojeh. An Iraqi home.

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