Baghdad Burning

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

Monday, April 18, 2005
Good News and Bad News...
Bad news first: Brave, young Marla Ruzicka was killed in Baghdad while travelling along the Baghdad Airport road. Read more about her work and the lives she touched here: CIVIC Worldwide. Read more about her personally on Justin Alexander's site and Raed's "Raed in the Middle".

The good news: Another shipment of emergency aid for Iraqi civilians has been sent out. Raed's family started and are organizing the whole thing. He has listed all the people who donated money and has taken endless pictures and scanned receipts- it's well documented on his blog. See it on his site.

Some of the amazing people behind this effort:
- Raed and Niki
- Khalid
- Majid
- Faiza

The Hostage Crisis...
I'm sure many people have been following the story of the moment in Iraq: Dozens of Shia hostages taken by Sunni insurgents in a town called Medain?

The first time we heard about it was a couple of days ago. I was watching the news subtitles on Arabiya but the subtitle was vague. It went something like this, "Sunni guerrillas capture 60 hostages in Iraqi town and will kill them if all Shia do not leave the town." It said nothing about which town it was, who the guerrillas claimed to be representing and just how the whole incident happened.

We kept watching the channels and hoping for more information. I remember reading that subtitle and feeling my heart sink with worry. I kept checking other news channels and then finally decided to check the internet. There was another vague news article on Yahoo. This one had a few more details- the town was Madain, south of Baghdad and the person who had called in the hostage situation was some sort of high-profile Shia politician.

News channels were still being vague about it. The only two channels who were persistently talking about the hostage situation were Arabia and Iraqia- but the numbers had risen. It was now 150 Shia hostages in Medain and the Iraqi National Guard and the American army were taking their positions on the outskirts of the town, preparing for a raid.

Medain is a town of Sunnis and Shia who have lived together peacefully for as long as anyone can remember. The people in the town come from the local "Ashayir" or tribes. It's one of those places where everyone knows everyone else- even if only by name or family name. The tribes who dominate the town are a combination of Sunni and Shia. Any conflicts between the townspeople are more of the tribal or family type than they are religious.

The whole concept of a large number of Sunni guerrillas raiding the town and taking 60 – 150 of its members (including women and children) was bizarre, frightening and by the second day of the rumor, a little bit suspicious.

People in Baghdad didn't believe it. Most of them waved a hand dismissing the report and said, "They just want to raid Medain." It's a town that has been giving the Americans quite a bit of trouble this last year, a part of the Sunni Triangle . Many attacks were reported to have come from the area, but at the same time, it's not like Falloojeh, Samarra, or Mosul- it's half Shia. It wouldn't be as easy or politically correct to raid.

Yesterday, there were actually Shia demonstrators from the town claiming that the rumors were false and the town was peaceful and there was no need for a raid or for door-to-door checks.

The last few days, Iraqi officials have been on television claiming that the whole hostage situation was "under control" and things were going to be sorted out, except that apparently, there's nothing to sort out. There have been no reports of hostages, even from the majority of Shia residents themselves. Someone mentioned that it was possible a couple of people had been abducted, but it had nothing to do with Sunni guerrillas chasing out Shia.

Now, Associated Press is claiming,

"The confusion over Madain illustrated how quickly rumors spread in a country of deep ethnic and sectarian divides, where the threat of violence is all too real."

Uhm, no. Not really. See, this whole thing didn't start out as a rumor. Rumors come to you through actual people- the guy who brings you kerosene spreads rumors, that neighbor next door brings you rumors, the man you get your rations from spreads rumors. This came to us, very decidedly, from a news source. It first made its debut as breaking news and came from an "Iraqi Shia official who wished to remain unnamed". The official should have to answer to the rumor he handed over to the press.

And now…

Shiite leaders and government officials had earlier estimated 35 to 100 people were taken hostage, but residents disputed the claim, with some saying they had seen no evidence any hostages were taken.

We know a lot of our new officials and spokespeople are blatantly lying and it's fine to lie about security, reconstruction and democracy- we've gotten used to it. In fact, we tell jokes about it and laugh about it at family gatherings or over the telephone. To lie about something as serious as Sunni-Shia hostage taking is another story altogether. It's unacceptable and while Sunnis and Shia were hardly going to take up arms against each other over this latest debacle, but it was still extremely worrisome and for people who wish to fuel sectarian violence, it was a perfect opportunity.

We have an Iraqi government that bans news channels and newspapers because they *insist* on reporting about such routine things as civilian casualties and raids, yet the Puppets barely flinch over media sources spreading a rumor as dangerous and provocative as this one.

Saturday, April 09, 2005
The Cruel Month...
Thousands were demonstrating today all over the country. Many areas in Baghdad were cut off today for security reasons and to accomodate the demonstrators, I suppose. There were some Sunni demonstrations but the large majority of demonstrators were actually Shia and followers of Al Sadr. They came from all over Baghdad and met up in Firdaws Square- the supposed square of liberation. They were in the thousands. None of the news channels were actually covering it. Jazeera showed fragments of the protests in the afternoon but everyone else seemed to busy with some other news story. Thanks to E. for sending me this link. Check out the protest here.

BBC and EuroNews were busily covering the wedding between Prince Charles and the dreadful Camilla. CNN was showing the Pope's funeral. No one bothered with the demonstrations in Baghdad, Mosul, Anbar and the south. There were hundreds of thousands of Shia screaming "No to America. No to terrorism. No to occupation. No to the devil. No to Israel." The numbers were amazing and a little bit frightening too.

Ever since Jalal Talbani was named president, there have been many angry Shia. It's useless explaining that the presidential chair is only symbolic- it doesn't mean anything. "La izayid we la inaqis." As we say in Iraq. "It doesn't increase anything, nor does it decrease anything." People have the sense that all the positions are 'symbolic'- hence, why shouldn't the Shia get the head symbol? The disturbing thing is how the Kurds could agree to have someone with so much blood on his hands. Talbani is known for his dealings with Turkey, Britain, America and other and his feuds with Barazani have led to the deaths of thousands of Kurds.

The weather is warm now. We often turn on the ceiling fan (or panka) in an attempt to move around the muggy air. April is a month of fresh beginnings all over the world but in Iraq, April is not the best of months. April is a month of muggy warmth and air thick with dust and sand- and now of occupation. We opened the month with a dust storm that left the furniture in our houses sand-colored with an opaque layer of dust. We breathed dust, ate dust and drank dust for a few days. The air is clearer now but everything is looking a little bit diminished and dirty. It suits the mood.

Two years and this is Occupation Day once more. One wonders what has changed in this last year. The same faces of April 2004, but now they have differing positions in April 2005. The chess pieces were moved around and adjusted and every one is getting tired of the game.

Who was it that said April was a cruel month? They knew what they were talking about...

Sunday, April 03, 2005
American Media...
You wake up in the morning. Brush your teeth. Splash the sleep out of your eyes and head for the kitchen for a cup of coffee or tea and whatever is available for breakfast.

You wander to the living room and search for the remote control. It is in its usual place- stuck inexplicably between the sofa cushions. You turn on the television and stand there flipping from one channel to the other, looking for a news brief or something that will sum up what happened during those six hours you slept. You finally settle on the pleasant face on the screen- the big hair, bright power suit, capped teeth and colorful talons- blandly reading the news. The anchoress is Julie Chan. The program is CBS’s The Early Show (Live from Fifth Avenue!).

Guess the nationality of the viewer above. Three guesses. American? No. Canadian? No. British? Japanese? Australian? No, no and no. The viewer is Iraqi… or Jordanian… or Lebanese… or Syrian… or Saudi… or Kuwaiti… or… but you get the picture.

Two years ago, the major part of the war in Iraq was all about bombarding us with smart bombs and high-tech missiles. Now there’s a different sort of war- or perhaps it’s just another phase of the same war. Now we’re being assailed with American media. It’s everywhere all at once.

It began with radio stations like Voice of America which we could access even before the war. After the war, there were other radio stations- ones with mechanical voices that told us to put down our weapons and remain inside our homes, ones that fed us American news in an Iraqi dialect and ones that just played music. With satellite access we are constantly listening to American music and watching American sitcoms and movies. To be fair- it’s not just Iraq that is being targeted- it’s the whole region and it’s all being done very cleverly.

Al-Hurra, the purported channel of freedom, is the American gift to the Arab world. What they do is show us translated documentaries about certain historical events (American documentaries) or about movie stars (American stars) or vacation spots. Throughout this, there are Arab anchors giving us the news (which is like watching Fox in Arabic). It’s news about the Arab world with the American twist.

Our new “national” channels are a joke. One of the most amusing, in a gruesome sort of way, is Al-Iraqiya. It’s said to be American sponsored but the attitude is decidedly pro-Iran, anti-Sunni. There’s a program where they parade ‘terrorists’ on screen for us to see in an attempt to show us that our National Guard are not only good at raiding homes and harassing people in the streets. The funny thing about the terrorists is that the majority of them have “Sunni” names like Omar and Othman, etc. They admit to doing things such as having sexual intercourse in mosques and raping women and the whole show is disgusting. Iraqis don’t believe it because it’s so obviously produced to support the American definition of the Iraqi, Sunni, Islamic fanatic that it is embarrassing. Couldn’t the PSYOPS people come up with anything more subtle?

Then you have the whole MBC collection. MBC is actually financed by Saudi Arabia, but based in Dubai, as far as I know. They have several different channels. It started out with the original MBC which was a mainly Arabic channel that was harmless enough. It showed some talk shows, debates and Egyptian movies with an occasional program on music or style.

Then we were introduced to MBC’s Al-Arabia- a news channel which was meant to be the Saudi antidote to Al-Jazeera. Simultaneously, we were accessing MBC’s Channel 2, which is a channel that shows only English movies and programs. The programs varied from talk shows like Oprah, to sitcoms like Friends, Third Rock from the Sun and Seinfeld. Earlier this year, the MBC did a mystifying thing. They announced that Channel 2 was going to be made a 24-hour movie channel which would show all sorts of movies- old Clint Eastwood cowboy movies, and newer movies like “A Beautiful Mind”, etc. The programs and sitcoms would be transferred to the new MBC Channel 4.

Personally, I was pleased with the change at first. I’m not big on movies and it was nice to know our favorite sitcoms and programs would all be accessible on one channel without the annoyance of two-hour movies. I could turn on Channel 4 at any time and expect to find something interesting or humorous that would end within 30-60 minutes.

The first time I saw 60 Minutes on MBC 4, it didn’t occur to me that something was wrong. I can’t remember what the discussion was, but I remember being vaguely interested and somewhat mystified at why we were getting 60 Minutes. I soon found out that it wasn’t just 60 Minutes at night: It was Good Morning, America in the morning, 20/20 in the evening, 60 Minutes, 48-Hours, Inside Edition, The Early Show… it was a constant barrage of American media. The chipper voice in Arabic tells us, “So you can watch what *they* watch!” *They* apparently being millions of Americans.

The schedule on MBC’s Channel 4 goes something like this:

9 am – CBS Evening News
9:30 am – CBS The Early Show
10:45 am – The Days of Our Lives
11:20 am – Wheel of Fortune
11:45 am – Jeopardy
12:05 pm – A re-run of whatever was on the night before – 20/20, Inside Edition, etc.

And the programming continues…

I’ve been enchanted with the shows these last few weeks. The thing that strikes me most is the fact that the news is so… clean. It’s like hospital food. It’s all organized and disinfected. Everything is partitioned and you can feel how it has been doled out carefully with extreme attention to the portions- 2 minutes on women’s rights in Afghanistan, 1 minute on training troops in Iraq and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reportages are upbeat and somewhat cheerful, and the anchor person manages to look properly concerned and completely uncaring all at once.

About a month ago, we were treated to an interview on 20/20 with Sabrina Harman- the witch in some of the Abu Ghraib pictures. You know- the one smiling over faceless, naked Iraqis piled up to make a human pyramid. Elizabeth Vargus was doing the interview and the whole show was revolting. They were trying to portray Sabrina as an innocent who was caught up in military orders and fear of higher ranking officers. The show went on and on about how American troops never really got seminars on Geneva Conventions (like one needs to be taught humanity) and how poor Sabrina was being made a scapegoat. They showed the restaurant where she worked before the war and how everyone thought she was “such a nice person” who couldn’t hurt a fly!

We sat there watching like we were a part of another world, in another galaxy. I’ve always sensed from the various websites that American mainstream news is far-removed from reality- I just didn’t know how far. Everything is so tame and simplified. Everyone is so sincere.

Furthermore, I don’t understand the worlds fascination with reality shows. Survivor, The Bachelor, Murder in Small Town X, Faking It, The Contender… it’s endless. Is life so boring that people need to watch the conjured up lives of others?

I have a suggestion of my own for a reality show. Take 15 Bush supporters and throw them in a house in the suburbs of, say, Falloojeh for at least 14 days. We could watch them cope with the water problems, the lack of electricity, the check points, the raids, the Iraqi National Guard, the bombings, and- oh yeah- the ‘insurgents’. We could watch their house bombed to the ground and their few belongings crushed under the weight of cement and brick or simply burned or riddled with bullets. We could see them try to rebuild their life with their bare hands (and the equivalent of $150)…

I’d not only watch *that* reality show, I’d tape every episode.

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