Saturday, February 14, 2004

We are in Amman, Jordan. K is trying to recover from some nasty Baghdaddy virus that has kept her in bed and nasally dripping for the past two days.

But let me back track a bit while we were in Baghdad.

First, there was the area , Al-Mahmodia town, that we drove to on our way from Babel to Baghdad. The place where K was a star. Near it there is another town called Iskandariya. The day after we left a bomb blew up in front of the Iraqi Police station killing 71 people (I believe, I will fact check all this stuff when I get home.)

And then later on in the week there was the bomb explosion that literally shook me out of sleep. K and I both looked at each other wide-eyed and fully awake at 7 in the morning. We were frozen anticipating…what? Another bomb is what I waited for. But no, just a massive blast, sharp and with a short echo. It felt and sounded so close. My cousin Tareef came in a few hours later grabbing something from his closet and hurrying to work. I was still lying in bed thinking about what the hell was going on out there. I asked Tareef about the blast and he casually remarked that it was just another bomb. I found out it was a recruiting center for Iraqi men to sign up in the military. It was maybe 4-6 miles away from my Uncle’s house and we had passed it many times. 28 people died and about 80 people were injured. A man from Jordan left a note taking responsibility and claiming that he is targeting Americans and Shia’s.

Was there any point in worrying about this? Either we are dead or we are not dead and we continue.

You Iraqis, the ones living in Iraq, you guys really have had way too much war. I would not be able to deal with the constant terrorist attacks and various questionable bombing incidents. I think it creates strength in some and in others a morbid sense of humor. Others, mostly brush it off.

A joke. Why did they call Saddam our Father? Because he fucked all of our Mothers.

I’m sorry if this site has been down. I’ll check on it when I get home.

At the border of Iraq there were several American soldiers checking cars leaving Iraq for contraband. I interviewed a couple of the soldiers. There is something unsettling about a niave looking 18-year-old kid with a giant machine gun strapped to his chest. It was not a very thorough search of cars. Mostly they were making sure that the border patrols were not taking bribes. And then there was the soap. You see anyone with soap may be hiding ancient Babylonian ruins in them. So no soap! We had soap. Actually they searched two of our bags barely checking anything and let us go (we had about 8 more bags that went unchecked). I asked one of the soldiers why not check the other way around? You know from Jordan into Iraq. And he said that they really had no jurisdiction over those borders, but sometimes they do. Huh? It seems to me that half the problem with these looters, car bombs and Al-Qaeda assholes is that anyone with a car or a donkey can enter Iraq. Anyway, I asked the soldiers how Iraqis have been reacting to them. And the dumb looking kid replied that Iraqis do not know what freedom is. Of course this pissed me off a bit, especially coming from a soldier with a giant machine-gun on his shoulder. What exactly does he think ‘freedom’ is? Although, I have heard this statement from Iraqis as well. To some people they may associate ‘freedom’ with some form of sexual or expressionistic type of gesture. To others, it may be religious. I would say that in a sense the Shia’s feel totally free to express themselves now and consider that a great freedom. It varies in meaning. I wish my Arabic was better but from what I can get a sense of, the press has freedom of speech. But still, there are some that are careful in what they say, I mean they are afraid. But it’s changing. Everyday Iraq is changing. And besides, I think Iraqis have the right to do nothing as a form of expression or personal freedom. I mean just living, working and raising their families in post-Saddam Iraq is an expression by itself. They need to have that right.

More on this later…my thoughts are being derailed by loud children.

I have shot over 45 hours of video. Do you think I have something?


Monday, February 09, 2004


It's in me. Iraq is in me and all the memories of my past, my childhood the things I've wanted to return to are once again swarming in my blood. So the cycle, to be cheezy for a second, is complete. Salam says why not go hang out in Beirut first or spend more time in Jordan? And he is correct. I have not returned to the Middle East in 24 years and I come back to Baghdad today? Yes, not the smoothest transition but that is never my personality. I've always been a bit extreme and will continue to be.

The troops are still outside. I want to approach the US soldiers and say what's up? But I don't want to appear as if I know them or anything. Besides they look jumpy and they are targets.

Please no more tea for me.

A few more days Inshallah and we will make the hellish drive back to Jordan.

Ya Allah...

Good afternoon. Just for the record, I got my mom to forward me the very first e-mail I sent her from Baghdad. Here it is:

30 Jan 2004, 04:32:32 AM
Subject: Greetings from Baghdad

Hello! So I am here is busy bustling Baghdad. We are staying in U's Uncle K's house, which is very large and nice, in an upper middle class neighborhood. K is one or Iraq's most well-known scholars, so he lives well. The floors in typical Arab style, are made of marble, and covered in huge rugs. The rooms are so BIG! Everyone tries to feed me all the time, offering my tea and houbous (bread) every hour of the day. Iraqi's complain that it is very cold but it's about 50 or 55 degrees. Compared to Chicago it's quite nice. Very sunny and pleasant.

The houses have cracks in the walls from the American bombs hitting Baghdad. Life goes on as if nothing is wrong, but there are tell-tale signs of war. The electricity is on for three hours and then off again for three hours. But everyone has a battery that automatically turns on as soon as the power goes off. The battery runs a few florescent lights in the main living area. At night they use cerosine lamps to move from room to room. In fact there is a prevalent smell of cerosine in most places from small gas heaters and lights.

Last night we heard lots of gunfire, but we found out that it was not violence, but celebration. Thursdays are the typical day for weddings. Just like in Chicago on New's Year's, Iraqi's shoot into the air to express jubilation. A little unnerving, but I got used to it.

The road to Baghdad was mostly desert - flat and bare and patrolled by big black American helicopters.

Things feel pretty safe, and as I said, the city is alive with people going about their daily business.

Jordan was gorgeous. Amman is in the mountains and looks like Southern California. Both in Amman and here I go to bed about the same time as they sing out the first call for prayer. You would have to hear it to believe it. A chorus of voices from all over the city, filling the still morning air with the melodic chant.

It's a different world here, for certain. But Iraqi's are all very sweet and accomodating. The worst that has happened to me is a mean bout of car sickness from the 11 hour drive from Amman.

So much to tell... On the road I tried to get used to what my father-in-law calls "Eastern toilets." They are not typical in the houses, but in the roadside markets along the highway, they are merely ceramic holes in the ground over which you squat. Next to the hole there is always a plastic watering can with a spout, much like what we might use to water plants. You use that to wash yourself off afterward (no toilet paper). But as I said the bathrooms in the houses are American/European style, but with the addition of a bidet. Very clean. Wish I had one in my apartment.

Ah... what else? Easy to get into Iraq... We had a driver take us in a big SUV. We are to have lunch now with U's stepmother's family. The food here is AMAZING. Love it love it love it! The music too... Everywhere you go, there's music on the radio...

I'm in an internet cafe at the moment. They have their own generator.

I'm learning a few new words of Arabic every day. U's Arabic came back to him quickly. He understands almost everything people say...

U and I just walked a little ways up and down the main drag but felt uncomfortable. There are army tanks and a police car on the corner, close to this very cafe. Last night they were looking for car bombs.

But most importantly.... today we met Salam! Yay! We talked about media, politics, and blogging. And I shared with him the fact that I've been blogging for five years. Yep, I'm an old-timer at this thing.

Should I talk more of pet peeves and emote about my homesickness, or just let it be? I'll vent. I'll bitch. I like to bitch. Today I was shooting U and Salam and U's cousin talking - serious work for the documentary. Someone brought out sodas on a tray. I had my mind on the conversation and on my composition, and trying to get good angles in the harsh mid-day sun. Several minutes later Ua's aunt came out and put the soda glasses on the tray and ordered me to take the glasses inside and wash them. Oh sure, like I'm not doing anything important at the moment. I'm just playing with U's camera... ARRRGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!! I waited til their was a pause in the conversation, then did as I was told. As I walked in the door she said, impatiently "YES, PLEASE!" Gah! I have to rein in my wish to start being passive aggressive. She's not going to have anything nice to say about me after I leave, I just know it.

Salam asked me if I got mad about having to wear an abiya in Kadhamia. Pshhht. That's the very least of my peeves.

Anyway, I really enjoyed meeting him. He's very nice. I like him.

U's cousin asked me, why do I like to write in a blog, but I don't like to talk in person. I've always been this way. I like expressing myself, but not with my mouth. I love to listen to people, but it takes much familiarity for me to speak my thoughts out loud. As well as a sense that I share some of the same references as the person to whom I am opening myself.

But here. On the web. In writing. No problem. Like I said, I like to bitch. It keeps my head from exploding.

What have I already written about? I just wrote last night...

Oh we had curtained rice today. YUM!

So... bye bye. I look forward to home... I'm losing my perspective on this spot in the world. And I think I may be catching a cold...

K and I have finally met Salam Pax! We hung out in my Uncle's yard with my cousin and I interviewed him on camera for a couple of hours. We had a good time and it was just really refreshing to meet a fellow Iraqi that has the whole East/West hybrid thing going. Do you know what I mean? We understand one another. Anyway I showed him my American version of his book and he signed it for me.

After eating lunch today we decided to go walking around Al-Mansoor area by ourselves. We went to the photo shop where I bought some more miniDV tapes and then we walked further down. And there they were. Two large American armored vehicles with maybe 6 or 7 troops. And around us a couple of Iraqi police officers. What's going on? I'm really not sure. Something about a car bomb in the area. We walk around some more and I'm eyeing each car suspiciously. You never know what will happen in Iraq.

Tonight of course we are invited to dinner at one of my father's friend's house but we declined and decided to stay home and chill out.

It's gorgeous out. Sunny and the sky a rich deep blue.

I go back and forth like a yo-yo with my feelings toward the American military presence and occupation. I'm also a bit frustrated with some of the really silly conspiracy theories that come out of Iraqis mouths. It's so hard to explain America to many Iraqis. US pop culture is everywhere and that is the only thing most of the Iraqis are exposed to. That and Jim-Bob in a uniform.

One thing for sure though, is that the longer I am here the more I realize that there is a serious cultural divide between Arabs and Americans. Many of the customs are tribal here. This explains some of the problems I have had with members of my own family that live in the Arab world. I've already been told I behaved rudely to so and so...and vice-versa...I have interpreted certain gestures as being aggressive when I am told they are being super polite. Ah well. To tell you the truth I am an alien and belong nowhere.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Okay, so the fact that Iraqi's are so damn sweet and nice and hospitible offsets any pet peeves I may have. Sometimes I'm a little too hard on this place.

I hit my breaking point when I was told I could not go somewhere because it was "all men." The "Theives' Market" they call it - lots of blackmarket bargains, and one place I thirst to experience. I blew up. In front of family I screamed "It sucks to be a woman here, it really sucks!" And then they calmed me and said, "listen, this isn't normal." It's just because of the lawlessness here. It's just because Saddam let all the prisoners out before he made his exit. Imagine New York City in a black out with no police, and no more punishment for crime, and someone just unlocked the prison gates. Would I, as a female, or as anyone, want to walk around in the streets?

Good point.

Annnnyyyway... Enough about gender issues. I'm over it.

Today we TRIED top go to Babylon. It's now property of the Polish army, so to speak. No one can go in.

On the way back we stopped at a roadside market where I, with my camera, became the center of attention. Hoardes of boys wanted me to photograph them. Then they wanted U. to snap their pictures with their arm locked in mine. It was quite fun. Actually there seems to be a common phenomenon in Baghdad. The moment people see a camera they want to be in front of it. They wave and pose and show off. I've never seen anything like it. In the West you can get punched in the face for snapping someone's pic.

Had a great conversation with Uncle K, the scholar. I explained Wicca (for those who don't know it's a religion which sort of showed up in the 1950s in the West which is earth-centered and polytheistic - my religion) to him. He was excited and delighted that there is a resurgence of the worship of the old gods. He was especially happy to hear that a friend of mine worships Innana. "Very good!" he said "Our mother!" I love this man. He knows so much! He's so hip he doesn't even know it. He is going to publish a paper on Wicca now, all because of our conversation. Have I brought neo-paganism back to where it all began? Perhaps. I'm sending him tons of books when I get back.

We met two Americans who work and live here in Baghdad. Very cool. There experiences are quite different, in that they seem to be carefully guarded by the companies for which they work. They can't go many places. Having family here I'm tossed out into the middle of it all, to swim among the native fishes as if I were the same. But it was quite nice to hear American accents, compare notes, and like, you know, hang out, man... hehe The Iraqi hospitality possesed me and I wanted toinvite them to dinner. But then, it's not my house, and I think it might be rude to have U.'s aunt cook for strangers.

I just lost my important thought... I know I had one... oh well...

I think being a child of an educated Iraqi family must be the best childhood ever. So much value on family, so much nurturing... No privacy of course, but still... food and children seem to be the reason for living here... which makes being a kid pretty cool. Iraqi kids are the most well-mannered children ever!

More Masgouf today. I watched the fish go from floppin' to grillin'at the roadside b.b.q. Fresher than fresh. So fresh it wasn't quite dead when they gutted it.

Umm ummm ummmmmm... Everything is a blur since last I wrote. Copper market... driving, eating, tea, driving, eating, driving, eating, tea...

Trying to explain the value of hip hop to one of my favorite cousins... Seeing the new Madonna video which would never dare air in the US (it is SUPER critical of America)...

And I'm happy to announce that yes, Red Bull is sold EVERYWHERE!!!! There is no corner of the civilized world which is not graced by it's addictive form of tart energy. Also, the grapefruits are sour like lemons and the lemons are sweet. The grapefruit took me by surprise one morning, to the amusement of ther relatives.

Home sick... yes... for toilet paper, and superfoods, and breathing air (instead of car exhaust and cerosine), and my rats, and the absense of social activity. I'm a loner. This is the biggest part of the culture shock. Iraqi's do not know the meaning of lonliness or isolation. For an introvert like me, it's quite a challenge.

I'm spoiled.

You know what I remembered my important thought. Here it is: I love America. We have the luxury of taking things for granted. Maybe I love Holland more than America, but damn it, my country is fucking awesome. I will always be critical of it's politics, and of the often shallow nature of Capitalism, but Americans - you don't even know how good you have it. Use it! Fucking use your freedom damn it! It's valuable.

Lots more. In ten years this place will be very different. I'm glad I've had the chance to see it in transition, so to speak. From being comparably untouched by Western values, to being a thriving international center of commerce. I feel it will happen, and in a big way. For better, and sometimes for worse. One thing I do notice is that postmodern thought has yet to make itself known here. At least among the people with whom I have had in-depth discussions. Consumable fast food versions of postmodernism proliferate where I come from, and I feel it's absense.

Okay, now I have to go and win a bet. Cousin T. says the eighties tune "Don't you want me baby" is a duet with David Bowie. HA! He is about to lose the wager when I print out the lyrics and the band's name... if I can only remember the name of the band...

She was working as a waitress in a blah blah blah...


P.S. forgive my spelling and typos. I simply don't care.

P.P.S. Pet peeve # 206: cigarette smoking in internet cafes. I need air!!!
Baghdad, Iraq
Feb 7, 2004, ...I think. I'm a little out of it. It's almost 7pm.

There were American tanks right here on Al-Mansoor street where we are staying. In fact it was right in front of the internet cafe. Something about a car bomb in this area. I saw a tank moving slowly with soldiers surrounding it. They were searching every car. I pulled out my camera when everyone in my car yelled at me: put it down!! They may think it's a gun and shoot you!!

okay okay.

Yes I know, shooting American troops and vehicles (ahem...with video) is always a risky and slightly stupid act on my part. I aim, start recording and hope they don't mistaken my camera for a gun.

Last night before bed we heard a giant explosion. I went into the living room and asked my cousin what the bomb was, he smiled and said it was a nice bomb.

We hate Bush, we love Bush. That's what I hear. But many of the Iraqis I have met have said some very positive things about the Americans and are very happy and appreciative that they got rid of Saddam. Especially the Shia's. But the US has turned this country upside down. I mean just because Saddam is gone it does not mean that all is well. And in a weird way they are replacing one form of extremism with another...Islam. But not all! okay. There are 25 million people here and I am in Baghdad with a specific view of this area.

We drove to the ancient city of Babel (Babylon) today. We got up to the gate and noticed more troops. There was another car in front of us with a Hungarian reporter. Apparently the troops fired warning shots above their heads to scare them away. Some Iraqis were hanging out near the side of the road warning people to go away. I decided to talk to the troops anyway. So I went alone and waved my hands and said I was an American. They had accents, they were Polish soldiers. After climbing over the barbed wire and slowly moving closer to the gate they aimed and gestured their guns at me, STAY BACK! I told them I was from Chicago where we have a lots of Polish folks, they smiled and laughed a little. It was okay. But nobody was allowed into Babylon. So that's the story, us Iraqis are not allowed into our own ancient city. Ah well. We tried. Driving out of Baghdad I saw several more skeletons of bombed out Iraqis tanks.

I'm a little home sick and all the kerosene, exhaust and chaos is breaking me down a bit. But the food keeps me going for sure...

Today one of my younger cousins said I LOVE BUSH AND I WISH HE WILL TORTURE SADDAM. My other cousin said I THINK BUSH IS STUPID.

We went to the 'Thieves market' the other day after being warned that K would be kidnapped. But we went to the market and we were okay. It was mostly men ( I would sau almost 99 percent men) but still she felt and fine and bought a book that teaches Arabic to English speakers.

In general all the Iraqis we have been meeting have been more then generous and kind. Very friendly and open. We also visited a really sweet American couple, Tyler and Jamie that work for a satellite company. They have been here for almost 8 months, live in a nice big house and have had no problems. Of course they have guns and security. Everyone is armed in Iraq.

K and I have been walking in Al-Mansoor area by ourselves during the day and we feel safe and problem.

You can buy anything in Baghdad!

We just don't have time to do Basrah to reclaim our old house. Also I am told that that it is very difficult to apply any kind of law here. Because there is barely any law here. I will have to come back and maybe go through Kuwait or something to go to Basrah. It will be part two of this documetary. We want to do many things but we are limited with security and time issues.

Tomorrow I meet Salam Pax...Inshallah...yeah...and maybe Raed? Where is Raed?

You get used to the helicopters flying right above your head every so often.

Almost every family we visit has a horror story about a missile that almost hit them, or one that went through their house...many gruesome details and the evidence of a missile shell, bullet holes, large chunks of their house that has been re-patched. My Uncle's Kamal's wife's sister husband was taking a nap on the couch in his living room when a small American missile blasted through his wall, bumped the side of the opposite wall and bounced back and landed right next to the side of the couch. He woke up in a daze and asked: Is something burning in the Kitchen!? I know it sounds funny but they showed me where it happened, the holes have been sealed but you can see them. And they still have the shell of the missile. The only reason the whole entire neighborhood did not blow up was because the missile did not have it's war head on it when it went through. When I asked him what he remembered about the incident he said he preferred not to talk about it.

Yes we are glad we came and it's really difficult for me to get into all the details right now. But many of my impressions of what this war was all about are changing. The Americans need to be here. Apparently when the first months of occupation/war happened there was more of an exchange and intimacy between the Iraqis and the US troops. But now, with new troops and more US isolation in the Green Zone, and such, there is less interaction and more paranoia. Iraqis are taking care of themselves even with no law or police. They all watch out for one another. Everyone is helpful and I have never felt any animosity or hostility from Iraqis. The only people I fear to shoot (on video!) are the US soldiers. But I do it and sweat...

If I pull out my camera in the streets (depending on where I am) I may have some boys all trying to get in front of the camera. Everyone wants to talk and tell their story and their opinion for my video.

They want freedom and they are SO HAPPY that the US got rid of Saddam. They could care less about weapons of mass destruction. In fact many Iraqis say that Saddam is the weapon of mass destruction. Some Iraqis even say: take the oil! Just give us our country and let us run it.

The Shia's seem to be the most appreciative and very warm and welcoming to us. But I have to admit we are getting a little burned out on eating meat, and sweets and bread and drinking tea so many times and day. I miss many things from the US and I feel ashamed to even mention them.

I've also been having some horrifying nightmares...maybe it's when the jet planes or helicopters pass by it brings back memories from the Iraq and Iran war.

We have about 4 more days here and then we make the long trek back to Amman.

I miss Chicago.

Baghdad is so freaking crowded. Cars are everywhere. Trash is everywhere. But there are some really gorgeous homes and new ones being built daily.

There are many rumors and suspicious talk of politics and what this or that person has or may want to do.

Everyone loves K. On the way back from Babylon we stopped at this small fruit market with many poor-farmer kids and other older farmer-men. And my God, they went crazy over K! Almost 15 kids and people surrounding her. One guy held a white chicken near her face and demanded I take their picture saying in Arabic WHO IS MORE WHITE THIS GIRL OR THE CHICKEN? It was a small mob scene. Everyone wanted to pose with K. It was funny and sweet. We love you! They say.

We love America. Some will say...but they are watching...

Ahhghh. I feel a little grumpy today. I miss our privacy and the fumes from all the various kerosene and cars are slowly killing me. And as Tareef's wife said: then we are all dying.

But the future is happening in front of us. Iraq is changing rapidly. Baghdad, if everything goes okay, will be one of the most amazing cities in the world. The technology here is booming. And the kids are brilliant. I was speaking French, Arabic and English to a 12 year old kid today.

My Father keeps bumping into childhood friends and is almost always in tears when he greets his long lost buddies. I mean I just met my half Uncle that I have never seen in my whole entire life. A large part of who I am is here...and another part I suppose is back in Chicago.

Okay friends. I'm not sure if I will have time to write again in Baghdad. Maybe Amman. I will try...

Love to all of you. And a message to America, the Iraqis thank you, but don't fuck with them.

Allah be with you.