"Riverbend" – a Voice of Reason
During the war in Iraq, the "Baghdad Blogger" achieved a certain fame; under the pseudonym "Salam Pax," a young Iraqi described the events during and after the US invasion. Pax's blogs were characterized by an intelligent, anarchist wit – reason enough for him to choose anonymity for a long time. "Riverbend," whose Internet entries have been published under the title Baghdad Burning, also conceals her identity.
According to the book jacket blurb, she is a young Iraqi who studied computer science and works as a programmer and network specialist – "that is all you have to know," she writes in a brief statement about herself. In almost 400 pages – the English edition was published in two volumes – she provides an incredible wealth of material which is exciting to read and makes the Iraq conflict more vivid than any of the usual news photos and shocking reports.
Everyday life and war
To begin with, there is the intense experience of the war itself – the preparations for the announced liberating blow of "Enduring Freedom," the initially unfamiliar sounds of bombs, tanks, and helicopters, all of which you gradually learn to distinguish according to type.
A day without an explosion is considered a "bad day," meaning the worst is yet to come. Riverbend documents how the occupation changes the everyday life of a middle-class Iraqi family living in a more affluent district of Baghdad, how the traditional festivities – Ramadan, the Eid Fests – have to take place amid increasing obstacles. In addition, the Shiite Ashura processions, which were banned under Saddam Hussein, bring large numbers of strangers to the city, creating new tensions.
However, the greatest challenge is the desperate attempt to maintain a normal household after years of economic sanctions and violent conflicts. Under the occupation, there is still a shortage of gasoline, gas, water, and electricity, and it is dangerous to leave the house to obtain the necessities of life.
What Riverbend's rational, intelligent voice perhaps conveys most clearly is the fact that Baghdad is not per se part of the periphery. During the "Dark Ages" – which people see setting in again today – the city numbered among the greatest metropolises of the world. In the 1950s, world-class architects like Le Corbusier gave it a modernist facade. Only the past decades of dictatorship, the Gulf War, boycott, occupation, and civil war have plunged the country into an – avoidable? – barbarism.
Against this backdrop, the blogger is quite personal, yet she goes far beyond that by continually quoting figures and dates and making comparisons about victims, refugees, occupying forces, incompetent members of the government, and misappropriated funds and contracts.
For example, she comments at length on the outrageous awarding of reconstruction contracts to Dick Cheney's company, Halliburton. Much lower bids by local engineers were ignored. With caustic humor, the blogger exposes the manipulation of her Internet presence by an American who paraphrases her blog in Bush jargon for propaganda purposes.
The young Iraqi also adjusts the black-and-white image of Saddam's rule with details about the educational system, for example, correcting the misconception that only loyal Baathists were admitted to the university. Despite the boycott, educational standards were high, and women enjoyed more equality than those in other countries of the region.
Eclectic range of information
Baghdad Burning is subjective but independent. In contrast to the "embedded journalism" of western reporters, the blog allows access to a wide range of sources. Riverbend compares events in the mirror of various international magazines and provides links to official papers and statistics, blogs of Iraqis inside and outside the country, music downloads, and Iraqi recipes.
The day-to-day context and personal involvement create coherence in this moving and entertaining anthology. Riverbend received the Ulysses Award in 2005, a kind of Nobel Prize for literary reportage presented by the cultural journal Lettre International.
The book, with an introduction and comments by the prominent American journalist, James Ridgeway, runs to September 2004, then the entries appear only sporadically. Riverbend's ironically sarcastic remarks are no longer as expansive as earlier. Immediately after Abu Ghraib and the execution of journalist Nick Berg, exhaustion and growing frustration seem to be perceptible in the young author.
If you read Riverbend's blog directly in the Internet, in the last entry, from September 2007, you learn that she and her family now live in Syria – like 1.5 million other Iraqis. "I always had a certain mistaken idea of what refugees are, in transit with a bag and a tent. Now we are refugees ourselves." It can happen to anyone.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson