Baghdad Burning : Your Must Read for the New Year

Helicopter Over Baghdad, 2009, by The U.S. Army (Flickr)

By Sarah Benabdelkhalek and Marion Sorant.

Baghdad Burning is a fascinating blog written by a young Iraqi woman, which was recently made into a book. She started to write her blog on August 17, 2003, five months after the beginning of the war, a war which officially aimed to destruct weapons of mass destruction and enforce democracy in the region. She talked almost daily about an Iraq left in ruins post-Saddam Hussein, where the power of Islamist militias and clerics increased without limit. This anonymous woman, nicknamed Riverbend, started her blog with a simple introduction: “I’m female, Iraqi, and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know.” However, the reader learns a few details about her while reading her daily stories: she was a computer programmer, but she lost her job few months after the beginning of the war. She grew up abroad but lives in Baghdad with her family, and speaks fluent English. Her blog has been read worldwide, and has even been dramatized by BBC Radio as part of a series presented during Woman’s Hour. The book itself was published with two different covers: the U.S. edition shows the profile of a young woman’s face in front of a burning city of Baghdad, and the British one shows the picture of few Arabs students, some of them are wearing a veil. Both emphasize the main ideas of the blog: a woman’s point of view on war, the situation in Iraq and the condition of women there.

With its online diary format, the blog allowed a particularly strong link with its readers. The Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, as quoted by Kylie Cardell in her book Read My Lips, explains that “Baghdad Burning brings us as close to the war in Iraq as it’s possible to be. […] ‘Close’ means right inside the heart and mind of a young Baghdadi woman as she lives through the war”. Riverbend draws in her readers with rhetorical questions such as “how is it possible to wake up tired?”, she directly writes to the reader through the pronoun “you” and admonishes the reader by saying: “keep one thing in mind – tanks and guns can break my bones, but emails can be deleted”. She treats the reader as a confidant and expresses her feelings, in particular her anger toward tragic events and politicians : “I’m so angry and frustrated. Nothing is moving forward – there is NO progress and this is just an example”.

“The myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirtroads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats.”

Through her blog, she denounces neocolonialism – chiefly the claim that the U.S. brings freedom, democracy and peace to the region –, and gives her own version of the war, often ironically. She highlights with talent the contradiction between the promotion of democracy and the intrusion in the political life of a country, with many entries dedicated to what she calls “the nine dancing puppets”. This refers to the nine heads of the council appointed by the U.S.A. to rule before having “free” elections. Through this metaphor, she emphasizes how absurd and undemocratic the government is, denouncing the fact that the councilmen were bolstered by the U.S.A for their religious and ethnical background, and that most of them used to live abroad before the war. She also expresses her concerns about the independence of the elections, comparing them to a TV show where the winner will be chosen by the USA and rewarded with the prize of Iraq. Finally, she challenges the dominant narration delivered by CNN that talks about the enforcement of freedom and peace.

The need for Riverbend to use a nickname and the general denial of free speech are the best evidences that the country has not been liberated. Under Saddam, Iraqis could not express their political views and freely discuss politics. In ‘free’ Iraq they cannot either. She writes about the lack of electricity and water, the 400 women abducted in Baghdad, and the 70 cars being hijacked in Baghdad every day, as an answer to Paul Bremer’s declarations that “[Iraq] is not a country in chaos and Baghdad is not a city in chaos.”

Keep one thing in mind – tanks and guns can break my bones, but emails can be deleted.

Another of the multidimensional criticisms she makes of neocolonialism is about the American perception of Iraqi society. She challenges the popular and widely uncontested stereotype of Arabs as “primitive” and Arab women as deprived, and therefore the idea that the U.S.A. should bring modernity. “The myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirtroads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats.” As her blog goes on, she deconstructs the bias step by step. First, as a high-educated woman and a computer programmer, she perfectly knows how to use “Western” tools, therefore she contests myths and stereotypes of Middle Eastern “primitivism”. Everyday she proves that she is on equal grounds with her readers, through her knowledge of current affairs and American culture. Undeniably, writing in English allows a peer-to-peer dialogue with her Western readers, and contributes to changing their minds.

She also gives the readers a few interesting anecdotes about Iraq such as: “you wouldn’t believe how many young Iraqi people know so much about American, British, and French pop culture. They know all about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Whitney Houston, McDonalds, and M.I.B.s… Iraqi tv stations were constantly showing bad copies of the latest Hollywood movies”. What’s more, she takes a feminist point of view. For instance, she highlights that Iraq was the only country in the world where women had equal pay for equal work to men. Parts of her blog also reveal that she is opposed to ‘white feminism’, a movement that only empowers women with ‘Western’ values and points of view. She claims that veiled women were able to study, work, and move freely before the war. She highlights that most of them weren’t obliged to cover themselves until the beginning of war. Since the American military arrived in 2003, she says, there has been a crackdown on women by religious zealots.

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