Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Baghdad Burning - Girl Blog from Iraq

I drove my dusty eighteen wheeler into Baghdad for the first in August of 2004, the same month that "Riverbend" began composing her first months of blogs. . Writing under an anonymous name, this young woman who'd worked as a computer programmer before the war, began to document the everyday story of her family, her neighborhood, and the country, even as I began to haul supplies around her country. It was absolutely fascinating, two years later, to retrace the history I'd lived, to hear and see the contrasts and connections with this other set of eyes and ears, to see how she brought other eyes and voices to her pages through various media - as well as the texture of everyday domestic life and culture. Within these narratives, she embedded links to recipes that her family loved to cook, to political commentary, to music she danced to, to comics and satires, to movies, to explanations of local customs and holidays, to Al-Jazeera coverage and to American TV shows, to photos of the Abu Ghraib. She writes mini-reviews of media that move or anger or spur her to find out more or teach her how to cope or to connect with us who she'd like to be able to simply call enemy - when writing about Fahrenheit 451, the Michael Moore movie, she writes about the mother of an American soldier

"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." (Riverbend Wednesday, September 15, 2004)

Sontag writes that Salgado's, grand-scaled, beautifully composed images seem to focus on anonymous powerlessness globalized to a scale of suffering that invites passivity..."invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local political intervention. With a subject conceived on this scale, compassion can only flounder - and make abstract. But all politics, like all of history, is concrete." (Sontag 79) Riverbend shows a complex weave of the concrete with the ongoing historical context on both the global and local level. Her work gives history an essential human scale.

On Riverbend's blog "I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend.." is the first line that met me and she seemed to address it to everyone, Americans included, even when she broke out in outbursts of frustration with just what dunderheads we were acting like. Sometimes her blogs read like little mini-theses, as she used the language of eggheads and politicos, sometimes she sounded like the postcards Postsecret, sharing snatches of such personal, intimate response and everydayness, sometimes she sounded like she was writing letters to me, one of the soldiers whose everyday decisions and choices to be decent or not really did make a big difference. She gave pretty specific advice on how to help make a few, concrete things better by the ways we could behave within the limits we were given. Sontag says "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers." (Sontag 101) Riverbend gave some detailed recipes for how to translate our compassion into action within the very particular time and place that she had some clues about, being kind of an expert on being an Iraqi. Good manners are a big plus, she wrote - here's how you might express good will and respect even if you don't know the language she prompted. I still thank her.

1 comment:

Ashlee said...


I absolutely adored your connection and reference to the Riverbend blog. It must have been so great to discover two years after your time in Baghdad that her story and experience paralleled your own.