In August 2003, a 25 year old Iraqi woman calling herself Riverbend provided eyewitness accounts of the bombings, Kidnappings and night-time raids by US soldiers that constitute daily life in Baghdad. Her journal has gathered a worldwide audience hungry for news unfiltered by the mainstream media.
Both personal and political, Riverbend writes of the impact on her family, of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, of how the rights of women are falling victim to emergent fundamentalisms.
Describing the reality of regime change in Iraq in a voice in turn outraged and witty, both hard-hitting and deeply moving, Riverbend bears witness to the events shaping the fate of her homeland.
“I wish,” says Riverbend, towards the end of her blog, “every person who emails me supporting the war, safe behind their computer, secure in their narrow mind and fixed views, could actually come and experience the war live.” Baghdad Burning brings us as close to the war in Iraq as it’s possible to be. And “close” does not mean just knowing about electricity cuts and water shortages, about street battles and raids on homes; “close” means right inside the heart and mind of a young Baghdadi woman as she lives through the war.
Her career interrupted, her social life blown, “Riverbend” decides to reach out and “blog” her account of the war onto the Internet. “I looked for a ‘rantlog,” she says, “this is the best Google came up with”’ But Baghdad Burning is far from being a rant; it is an articulate, sensitive, often witty, always brave narrative of what it is like to be Iraqi living in Iraq today.
It is a narrative authentic for being firmly embedded in the daily like of her family and friends. While her parents are kept in the shadows, Riverbend’s beloved brother “E” is right there with her, sharing ‘her tasks and her thoughts. And because Riverbend is responsive to questions and comments sent to her blog, she from time to time treats us to a potted introduction to particular subjects: Arab family ties, ,women and Islam, the hijab, Ramadan customs, saving and investment, relations between Muslims and Christians, relations between Sunnis and Shia, university education in Baghdad, and many others. A great many of the questions about Arabs that have so exercised the Western public over the last several years are answered here. For me, also an Arab woman, her accounts invariably ring true. None more so, perhaps, than the riposte to the insidious and recurring charge of “anti-Americanism”: “When I hear talk about ‘anti-Americanism,” she writes, “it angers me. Why does America identify itself with its military and government? Why does being anti-Bush and anti-occupation have to mean that a person is anti-American? We watch American movies, listen to everything from Britney Spears to Nirvana and refer to every brown fizzy drink as ‘Pepsi.”
In fact, far from being anti anything, this book is firmly on the side of humanity and on the side of life. Even the invading troops were once seen as deserving of human sympathy: on May 7, 2004, fourteen months into the invasion, Riverbend writes: “There was a time when people here felt sorry for the troops. No matter what one’s attitude was to the occupation, there were moments of pity towards the troops, regardless of their nationality. We would see them suffering under the Iraqi sun, obviously wishing they were somewhere else and somehow that vulnerability made them seem less monstrous and more human. That time has passed.” The watershed was the publication of the now notorious torture photographs from Abu Ghraib. There have been other watersheds since, the destruction of Falloojeh being the most obvious.
There is, naturally, a fair amount of politics in this book. But it is never abstract or ideologically motivated; it stems from what is happening on the spot. From the invasion itself (“The frontline is our homes . . . the ‘collateral damage’ are our friends and families”) to the appointment of the Iraqi Governing Council and the economy (“For sale: A fertile, wealthy country with a population of around 25 million…plus around 150,000 foreign troops and a handful of puppets”) to the efforts at reconstruction, the (un)desirability of deploying Turkish troops in Iraq, the targeting of Iraqi intellectuals and academics, and the plans for elections—Riverbend’s account is always intelligent and perceptive. Here, after a discussion of his flashy tie, is Riverbend’s take on one aspect of Ahmad Chalabi: “I stare at him when he gives his speeches on television and cringe with the thought that someone out there could actually have thought he was representative of any faction of Iraqi society. I can hardly believe that he was supposed to be one to target the Iraqi intellectuals and secularists. He’s the tasteless joke Bush and Co. sent along with the soldiers . . .” This is pinpoint description of the feelings of the vast majority of Arabs toward the “leaders” selected for them by Western powers.
This book should shame all those with a lingering imperialist bent of mind who see Iraqis (or Arabs, or Muslims, or “third-worldeans”) as somehow lesser or, at best, ‘developing.” For in its astute observation, sharp analysis, and hard-headed interpretation of what is happening in Iraq, Baghdad Burning cannot be bested.
One charge that could be laid at the book’s door is that it lacks geo-political perspective. It rarely ventures outside Iraq and it does not offer a theory for why the Bush administration deemed it necessary to invade the country. I think it is fair to say that the world’s media, main stream and alternative, are not lacking in these kinds of analyses and theories. What they do lack is the voice of an “ordinary” Iraqi, resident in Iraq, to tell us what the invasion feels like. This is the function that Baghdad Burning fulfills uniquely and with power and elegance.
Baghdad Burning makes painful reading. It also makes enjoyable—even fun—reading. It is certainly necessary reading. Never naive, never blinkered, it is a wise and disillusioned book—yet it is not ‘cynical, for it insists on identifying and celebrating what is good and what is hopeful.
English-speaking readers are incredibly lucky that this young Iraqi woman has written her narrative straight into English, that they can hear and relate to her directly without the mediation of a translator. She should not, of course, have had to write this book at all. But that she has written it, and written it so brilliantly, I hope English speakers everywhere will take Riverbend and Baghdad Burning to their hearts.
This book is written by a young woman whom we know only by the name “Riverbend,” who calls her blog “Baghdad Burning” and describes it simply as a “Girl Blog from Iraq.” For more than a year, this anonymous “girl blog” has made the war and occupation real in terms that no professional journalist could hope to achieve.
We don’t know much about Riverbend. She is in her mid-twenties and lives in what seems to be a middle-class section of Baghdad with her mother, father, and brother. Before the war she had a job involving computers. She writes in excellent English with a slight American inflection. New entries to her blog appear sometimes daily, sometimes days or even weeks apart. And to many of her readers, these have become perhaps the most important source of news from Iraq.
Riverbend’s news has nothing to do with troop movements, casualty figures, or the latest from the Green Zone—the subjects of main-stream news reports. For Riverbend, war is something that is lived every day—and every night. She and her brother, “E,” sit on the roof to watch Baghdad burning and have learned to identify different type of automatic weapons by the sound of their volleys. Occupation is a way of life. It means rounding up enough friendly armed men to take the kids to the store to buy crayons. It means trying to bury an elderly aunt in a city where the mosques are all overbooked for funerals and the cemeteries are full. It means jumping up in the middle of the night, when the electricity briefly comes on, in order to run the washing machine—or work on her blog.
Once you are into Riverbend, her war becomes your war. You begin to see things through her eyes and those of her family. You read in the news about a raid on a section of Baghdad, and immediately you want to check her blog, hoping her house wasn’t on that block. You hear of an airstrike and nervously wonder whether her mother got E off of the roof in time. Whenever Riverbend and her family travel out of the neighborhood to a family gathering, you travel with her as she describes every turn the car takes, the tension as it rounds a corner, hoping there is not an American tank in the street. If she does not write for several days, maybe a week or more, you fear the worst—a bomb strike, a tank raid, imprisonment. Then she reappears, explaining that the electricity has been off, or sometimes that things were so depressing that she just couldn’t bring herself to write.
Riverbend has plenty of well-informed, acid opinions on the follies of the Bush administration. She is scornful of the American “puppets” in the Iraqi interim government, and she brings readers fresh insight on the factions within the Iraqi populace. She despises the gangs of religious fundamentalists who make it impossible for women to hold jobs or walk alone in the streets. She slaps back at detractors on the net, sending out a tart response to their jibes. It’s all darkly perceptive, and well worth reading. But what remains are her accounts of war as an experience lived day-by-day. It is both quotidian and absolutely riveting, and once you begin to read River- bend, it’s unlikely you will stop.
Riverbend’s culture is rooted in one of the oldest and richest civilizations in the world. Her nation was created by Western colonialism, driven by a desire to control its most valuable natural resource.
The current political boundaries in the oil-producing regions of the Middle East go back to the opening years of the twentieth century. Even then plotting its strategy against the Germans in anticipation of World War I, the British navy decided to change the fuel for its battleships from coal to oil, and Britain aggressively expanded its exploratory oil holdings in the Middle East. Its early stake in the region—and its victory in the war—left Britain well positioned in the power grab that came with the postwar breakup of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, the League of Nations awarded the British a mandate to govern areas of the Middle East, including what is now Iraq.
Soon the British were awash in Middle East oil and sought to its market into the United States. Until that time, the U.S. oil business had been in the viselike grip of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. In reaction to the British strike at its market, the American oil industry came up with an aggressive plan of its own. The government ad industry issued warnings to the public of the impending dire shortage of petroleum, paving the way for higher prices to support more U.S. exploration and development. Then the Americans pushed into the Middle East themselves, going toe-to-toe with the British. Eventually the competing companies worked out a cooperative agreement for divvying up the oil through an entity called the Iraq Petroleum Company.
This overall arrangement survived the end of the British mandate, years of coups and counter-coups in Iraq, and the rise of the Baath party, up to the growth of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in the early 1970s. It then underwent a series of transformations, with OPEC, made up of state companies, gaining more of grip on the basic oil and gas resources, while Western companies continued to dominate the processing and transportation of the fuels.
British and French influence in the region gradually diminished as their colonial empires withered, while U.S. involvement grew. At the centre of the new order was Aramco, the giant combine of American and Saudi interests that has dominated life in Saudi Arabia for decades. Saudi Arabia long has been the repository of the largest oil reserves in the world. It grew in importance during World War II as a source of fuel for the Allied Armies in the war against the Nazis. It also became an early outpost and resource bin for the United States in the Cold War and in its struggle against emerging Middle Eastern nauonalism, which threatened the U.S.’s control of oil. The Saudis played a role in drawing Egypt away from the Soviet orbit. The United States persuaded the Saudis to help finance covert action against various enemies, most notably the Russians who had moved into Afghanistan. And in Iran, the United States fomented the 1953 coup that ousted a democratic, nationalist government and restored the Shah—and paved the road to the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The United States quickly turned to Iraq—and to its new president, Saddam Hussein—as a counterweight to Iran. American agricultural exports to Iraq were stepped up, along with various forms of aid. This included substantial military aid to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It also may have included the export of components for gas warfare, which Saddam used both on the Iranians and on Iraq’s own Kurdish minority.
Everything changed in an instant for U.S-Iraq relations—and for the well-being of the Iraqi people—when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the United States responded with a brief but deadly war.