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 Writer's Desk  ... introducing NCR's mission of faith and justice based journalism

October 18, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 27



Pat Morrison Iraqi blogs fill empty spaces in reporting

Jeff Guntzel, NCR staff writer

Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin reported for NCR from Baghdad in April and May 2003. Read their reports here: Notes from Iraq, Postwar contradictions on the streets of Baghdad and Where questions are part of the landscape.

At the end of September, Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal correspondent based in Baghdad, sent an e-mail to her friends and family. The e-mail, which quickly found its way to countless Web sites, provided a peek into her life in Iraq.

"I am house bound," Fassihi wrote, "I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike up a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't."

In Baghdad there was a time, not very long ago, when an endless parade of Western journalists snaked their way daily toward the latest suicide attack or press conference. Today, it seems, they are stuck.

And so, now more than anytime since the invasion, we are denied the stories that cannot be gotten racing armored through the streets of Iraq's capital.

News from Iraq is like oxygen: it's just there. What's missing are the voices of Iraqis struggling to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times.

The voices are not gone completely, but you have to know where to look.

Salam Pax (a pseudonym) is an Iraqi architect who became a small-time celebrity for his pre-war and wartime Web diary (known to the Internet savvy as a "Web log" or, more commonly, a "blog") written in English from a residential neighborhood in Baghdad. In an interview with the BBC last week, the "Baghdad blogger" talked about life in his country since the invasion.

"What's really worrying," Salam Pax said, "is when the sight of a tank rolling by your car is just normal. It doesn't freak you out anymore, or frighten you. It's just another tank.

"That's scary, but that's our daily life. But that's just not what normal should look like."

Read More
For related stories, read A soldier's remorse by Claire Schaffer-Duffy, posted Oct. 8 and Exhibit opens eyes, recalls vision of bones rising up by Pat Marrin, posted Oct. 11
Salam Pax's illustrative focus on the moving mark of "normal" is a sort of trademark. His often very simple observations from Saddam Hussein's Iraq were for him perhaps a crude form of therapy. But beyond Iraq's borders, they were a desperately needed peek into life in Iraq beneath the frequent rhetorical rounds fired from President George W. Bush at Saddam Hussein and back again.

By the time the bombs were falling on Baghdad, Pax's blog was the most linked-to diary on the Web. Soon, a London newspaper gave him an online column. Inspired, other Iraqi bloggers emerged.

Today there are only a handful of Iraqi blogs in English. Bloggers are notoriously incoherent at times. Iraqi bloggers are no exception. They are not analysts. They are not journalists. They are not the eloquent, practiced experts we so often lean on to help us understand the war. But they are there. They are eyes and ears on the ground as Iraq stumbles and tumbles -- and sometimes explodes -- into its uncertain future.

And at their best, they are storytellers.

Riverbend (also a pseudonym) is a storyteller. She introduced herself to whomever was paying attention in an August 2003 post to her blog, "Baghdad Burning": "I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway."

For more than a year, Riverbend has been answering headlines with stories that often reach no further than the road in front of her family's Baghdad home. And so it was when word of a recent episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ended up in Riverbend's inbox.

An Iraqi woman was featured on the show: a writer living in Baghdad. She insisted that the situation for women in Iraq is worse than ever before. Attacks. Rape. Murder. No security. She has turned, she said, to Valium. In Baghdad she can get a bottle over the counter for 20 cents.

Through her blog, Riverbend responded: "Valium is a staple during wars," she wrote, "when we were preparing for the war, we would make list after list of 'necessities.' One list was for pharmaceutical necessities. It included such basics as cotton, band-aids, alcohol, gauze and an ordinary painkiller. It also included…Valium.

"We had to use it during the first week of April, as the tanks started rolling into Baghdad. We had an older aunt staying at our house (she had been evacuated from her area) … the house was crowded ...

"Everything seemed to revolve around the attack on Baghdad -- we'd hastily cook and eat during the lulls in bombing and we'd get snatches of sleep in between the 'shock and awe.' There were a few nights where we didn't sleep at all -- we'd just stay up and sit around, staring at each other in the dark, listening to the explosions and feeling the earth tremble beneath.

"Throughout this, we sit around, mumbling silent prayers, reviewing our lives and making vague promises about what we'd do if we got out of this one alive.

Read More Iraqi bloggers
Voices from Iraq, a list of Iraqi bloggers
Where is Raed?, by Salam Pax.
Baghdad Burning, by Riverbend. "I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway."
Women at 30, Around the World with Oprah
"So where does the Valium fit in? Imagine through all of this commotion, an elderly aunt who is … so afraid, she couldn't, and wouldn't, sit still. She stood pacing the hallway, cursing Bush, Blair and anyone involved with the war -- and that was during her calmer moments. When she was feeling especially terrified, the curses and rampage would turn into a storm of weeping and desolation … we were all going to die.

"During those fits of hysteria, my cousin would quietly, but firmly, hand her a Valium and a glass of water."

It is exactly these deeply human tales -- and Riverbend has a tragic many of them -- that Farnaz Fassihi and her colleagues in Baghdad and throughout Iraq can no longer easily report. And so there are empty spaces and missing voices in the news coverage from Iraq.

It is a void Iraqi bloggers help to fill. And it may be mutually beneficial.

Again, Riverbend: "When the load gets too heavy, people turn to something to comfort them. Abroad, under normal circumstances, if you have a burden -- you don't have to bear it alone. You can talk to a friend or relative or psychiatrist or SOMEONE. Here, everyone has their own set of problems -- a death in the family, a detainee, a robbery, a kidnapping, an explosion, etc. So you have two choices -- take a Valium, or start a blog."

Jeff Guntzel's e-mail address is jguntzel@ncronline.org
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