A glimpse of the Baghdad art scene

The Baghdad art scene is thriving despite a lack of security and sense of fear.

mohammedart.jpgBAGHDAD — In the midst of a breakdown in security and squabbling over who will be in Iraq’s interim government, Baghdad’s art scene has thrived in the wake of of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In a quiet air-conditioned gallery near the Palestine Hotel and facing the Tigris, the Akkad Gallery has a new show of established and new artists, arranged by Mohammed Rasim, 30, an artist from Baghdad.
The gallery is a oasis of calm and culture. The cool white walls punctuated by canvases of riotous color are a marked contrast to the hot, brown and dusty city outside. In here, car bombs and sectarian politics seem far away.
You can see a sample of some of the work on a page I set up. Please go see.
But Rasim is an interesting fellow. He organized this show in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Iraqi Communist Party, with whom he became friends when he lived in Jordan from 1997-99. Rasim’s two pieces were moody and brooding, just the kind of art that I like. Both his works were infused with the mythology and history of Mesopotamia, with iconography stretching back to the dawn of civilization and Sumeria. Once piece was an homage to the Marsh Arabs, or the Ma’dan, with their reed boats and reliance on that ancient environment. Another piece explored the life circle that is the menstrual cycle, with deep reds and circles competing with icons resembling cuneiform, all in bias relief made of oil paint.
Kifaah Abd Al-Jibar.jpg(I’m no art expert. Bear with me. And by the way, the Ma’dan used their reeds to pretty much invent the arch, which they use in their homes, boats, etc. As my friend Phillip Robertson of Salon.com reminded me the other day, “First they invented the arch and then they invented cities. No slouches, they.”)
I plan to explore this scene more; it’s fascinating. And like journalists operating in a hostile environment, artists in Iraq are likewise struggling with security while they try to work. I wasn’t able to spend too much time with Mohammed and Haider Hashim, the gallery’s owner. I was just taking a break from the day. But if the creativity and passion evidenced in the artwork in the Akkad Gallery is typical of Iraqi artists, then this should be a tremendously interesting subject to explore.

New comments system and a clarification…

New comment system installed, and a clarification on my previous post.

Hello everyone. I’ve installed a new version of MovableType and it uses the TypeKey registration system for comments. At the moment, I’m having a bit of trouble with it, which is highly annoying, since the comments are the best thing about blogging. What’s happening is that when you finish posting a comment, it relaods the archive window in the small pop-up window. Very annoying, and I’m trying to fix that.
Now, the TypeKey system for registering for comments is not mandatory — yet. I’m trying to avoid that. But if I continue to get a lot of spam — or trolls — I’ll make registering for comments mandatory. This is a pain in the butt, I know, but it looks to be a promising means of controlling off-topic comments and spam, etc.
(If you’ve already registered with TypeKey, feel free to log in and use it. But if you haven’t, it’s not necessary to participate.)
Now, regarding the last post. I’m not stopping blogging entirely. I should have made that more clear. I’m just saying that it will have to be separate from my freelance work, and I’ll have to be a little more circumspect in what I write about here. (Of course, if I pitch a story and no magazine buys it, it’s fair game and I’ll post it here.)
By the way, some people asked for links to stories, etc. in the future, and that will definitely be here. Others asked for where I was freelancing. I’m stringing for Time Magazine now, which is a good gig. They’re very nice, I get along with the team, and from a security standpoint, it’s not a bad wing to be under. There are other magazines that I’m waiting to hear from, so I’ll keep that under wraps until something definite is there. But as far as Time goes, look for a major package in next week’s issue on contractors and Iraqi companies. I did the Baghdad reporting for that, and voices of Iraqi subcontractors are loud and clear. (It’s not online yet, but I’ll post a URL when it is.)
In a comment on the previous post, “Edward R. Murrow” (nice nom de net, dude) said I was compromising my independence, and he’s right, to a degree. But Iraq is a completely different environment from during the war. Ironically, it’s actually more difficult to work here than it was then. And compromising my independence is a necessary, well, compromise to ensure safety. Otherwise I won’t be able to do any reporting because I’ll chained to a radiator in some dusty hut outside Fallujah or something — or worse.
So in the next few days, I’ll try to post some more observations as time allows. (No pun intended.) If the book proposal sells soon — hint, hint, Dawn — that will change a lot. So keep you collective fingers crossed.
(By the way, go ‘head and register for TypeKey… It’s free and you don’t have to give any information you don’t want to. I have a feeling I’ll have to implement more stringent restrictions on comments soon.)

Dear Friends

Reporting in Baghdad is horrendously more difficult than you can imagine. So cut the journalists working here some slack.

Dear Friends–
I’ve not been blogging much lately, and I’d like to explain why.
First and foremost, I’ve doing commercial freelance for a major newsweekly and have been approached by other publications to freelance for them. This is exhaustive work.
Why? Well, first of all, the logistics of moving around are terrible here. Let’s tackle it from the inside out, as if I were an Iraqi.
Baghdad is a city of 5 million (or so) people, and it sprawls on the banks of the Tigris. There has been an influx of hundreds of thousands of cars since the fall of Baghdad last year, and everyone of them seems to be one the streets at once. Traffic lights, when they work, are blissfully ignored. There are a few very brave souls who make up the traffic division of the Baghdad police force, and they stand out and try to direct traffic as best they can, but it’s a Herculean task. Plus, they can cover only so many intersections. I think I’ve seen them at three intersections since I’ve been here — and I’ve been driving around a lot.
Secondly, the U.S. forces have the habit of closing off streets, seemingly at random. At any given time, several major thoroughfares will be blocked off by concertina wire, humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and occasionally M1-A1 tanks. There is no explanation given, but it’s usually because of a suspicious vehicle or a roadside attack.
Combined, these two factors lead to a colossal amount of time spent sitting in traffic as you move around. This is hard going for Iraqis. It’s worse for me, as an American, as it’s pretty damn risky to move around Baghdad. No one has taken potshots at me yet, but I keep a low profile and S. is a very good driver. But it means my movements are limited and I’m dependent on S. to take me around. It is definitely not a good idea for me to go off walking by myself chatting up your average Iraqi.
This safety issue should not be underestimated. It’s a real factor and it is very, very difficult and draining to deal with.
As such, by the time I’m back to a computer line that works, inshallah, I’m exhausted from just daily life. This is what Iraqis probably feel like all the time. There’s really no good way to explain how this stressful environment affects you. The phones don’t work well — Iraqna, the new cell phone company is an Egyptian firm and they haven’t yet gotten up to capacity — and the relationship of sources to the press is very different than it was during the war.
As I implied, the goodwill among Baghdadis has evaporated. They’re very nice and welcoming, but only up to a point. I’ve been unwilling to push people who have so much to worry about just to survive too far.
Secondly, as far as official Iraqi sources go — the bureaucrats and ministers, for example — have learned from their American patrons well. There is a press officer in every ministry now, and there is a deliberate protocol for working with them.

  1. There are no phone interviews allowed. It’s just not done, and the phones don’t work anyway. This means all interviews are done in person, with the concurrent problems of moving around the city. Put a few interviews close together in a day and you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
  2. Reporters must get a permission slip from the appropriate press officers before we can interview anyone. And multiple layers of bureaucracy compound this hassle. At the oil ministry, for example, first you have to convince the press officer’s secretary to ask the press officer for permission to ask for an interview. If he says OK, she will then call the subject you want to interview and ask him if he can talk to you. Your subject will never see you today. If you’re on a deadline of a day, then you’re out of luck. And don’t think about pestering the press officer in the oil ministry. His secretary will make only one request per day on your behalf. If you want to interview three people, she will ask for permission for the first one on Saturday, the start of the work week, the next one on Sunday and so on.
  3. Finally, you have the interview, which — like many interviews is — is more or less good.

This is not to engender sympathy for me specifically but to increase your understanding of how journalists have to work here. You can’t just call up a source — unless you know them well. And even then, there’s a good chance the phone won’t work. The threat of capture or worse is very real. Two Japanese journalists were killed yesterday trying to do their job. An NBC crew was captured in Fallujah earlier this week but — mercifully — released unharmed. There are a lot of kidnappings and detention going on that aren’t reported for very valid reasons: If journalists are captured, there needs to be some time to allow the negotiations to work, and also, no one knows what story the journalists have told their captors. If they say they are Canadian, and it’s all over the news that they’re Americans, it will go very badly for them.
So to the people who think they’re being fed a stream of lies from the press corps here, I’m going to disagree. To those who think the reporters aren’t aggressive enough in sticking it to The Man and reporting on the abuses, you have no idea what it’s like trying to get accurate and verifiable information here. Often it just doesn’t exist, and you can’t just take Iraqis’ words for it. They’re very passionate and have very strong opinions about the current life in Iraq and frankly, they’ll exaggerate, repeat and amplify gossip until it’s conventional wisdom, even though it has only a fleeting resemblance to the truth.
To those who think that reporters aren’t supporting the war effort enough and “refuse” to report good news, well, here’s a shocker: There isn’t much good news to report. The security situation is growing worse. The power is still bad (three hours on, three hours off, or so.) Major U.S. contractors are bypassing Iraqi companies, leading to growing resentment. What kinda sorta good news there is is being pretty well covered. The (maybe) truce between Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in the south, the coming together, however shakily, of a caretaker government. I refuse to reprint the press releases that pour out of the CPA on any given day. Most of the “good news” they release has to do with passing out free soccer balls to kids. Is this what should be reported when U.S. troops and Iraqis are dying every day?
Like the woman on the day of the car bomb who wailed that “The Americans did it!” I got some flack for just quoting her, but I included her not because I believed her (I don’t.) but because her reaction is part of the story. To those who think the press doesn’t pay enough attention to the Iraqis: This woman is a prime, albeit exaggerated, example. I would honestly be shocked if the U.S. had done this and I don’t think it did. You have to examine Iraqis’ statements critically. This one was easy, others are not.
To those who criticized me for even quoting her, if you don’t like that Iraqis feel this way and express themselves by blaming the Americans, well, too damn bad. The occupying forces — including the Americans — are responsible for security under the United Nations resolution. So far, they haven’t done a very good job of providing it.
My point in all of this is that the reporters I’ve met so far are smart, talented and very good at what they do. Many of them most emphatically do not stay in the Green Zone. Most live and run around Baghdad in constant fear for their lives. All of us are trying to a do a job and stay safe at the same time, which is the same thing Iraqis are trying to do every day. And like Iraqis, the journalists I’ve met are frustrated with the security situation.
Now, this long diatribe doesn’t completely explain my lack of postings, and if anyone still cares, it’s because of my freelance work. This work is necessary because, as I explained previously, I plan to stay here a long time. I’ve effectively moved to Baghdad. Reader donations don’t really cover the approximately $4000/month burn rate for driver, housing and fixer. I like working freelance as well, and I want to advance my career. This may strike some of you as “selling out” but I’ve been clear about my intentions since I started raising funds again.
So here’s the deal: I’m going to continue to blog, but not as often, and more like essays on the state of Iraqi life. That seems to be what most people want to hear about anyway. When I proposed this third trip I was open that the donations would go to establishing a beachhead in Baghdad until the freelance work kicks in. I’m still working on that, but it is starting to kick in quickly. I will attempt to work out deals that allow me to blog effectively, but I am limited in what I can do. I hope you will understand.

A Day in Hell

The car bomb yesterday killed a small boy and injured four others. Just another day in hell.

BAGHDAD — The blast came at 8:20 a.m. Tuesday morning. A car bomb exploded about 100m from my hotel. The sound of the explosion and the concussion wave buckled and rattled the windows of the Internet cafe where I was doing some last minute email before S., my driver, was to pick me up at 8:30. The bomb was at the front door of the al-Karma hotel next door to mine, and shattered the guardhouse that S. and I drive through several times a day. But this morning, S., who is usually a few minutes early, and his sleek, black BMW were nowhere to be found.
Four people were injured and one boy, Ali Abbas, an 11-year-old kid who worked at the Fils Take Away restaurant selling cigarettes and chattering with anyone who would listen, died. He had brought me water on my first night in Baghdad.

A., my fixer, and I ran — along with everyone else — toward the explosion. A crater with a blackened rim about six feet across and four feet deep punctured the entrance to our compound. Two cars burned, and one was flipped over onto the other. The car on the bottom was a black BMW.

I began to frantically search for S., at the same time taking pictures and sending A. out to talk to people. The Iraqi police kept pushing us back, and from 20m or so I could feel the heat of the fire on my cheeks. The front doors of the al-Karma, a hotel that houses mainly Iraqi and Egyptian workers, were blown in and shredded.

“I work upstairs,” said Selwa Shakir, 24, a cleaning woman in the hotel. “When I heard the explosion, I didn’t know what I was doing. I found myself outside the building.”

Across the street, in the 8-story bunker are Australians, not Americans, as I was originally told. They were joined on the scene the Americans, led by Col. Mike Murray, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. The troops pushed everyone back down al-Jadiriya Road and strung concertina wire to fence off the area in case of secondary bombs. AH-58 surveillance choppers circled overhead.

We still couldn’t find S., but I kept working despite my worry. There was nothing else to do but try to record what had happened.

The two burning cars were collateral damage, as it turned out. The location of the explosive-rigged car was marked by the crater but the car itself was simply gone. Its hood lay about 100m down the road and the engine block landed in the hotel complex. The rest of the car was in pieces — none larger than the palm of my hand — all over the neighborhood. This was new.

“It’s different than other ones I’ve seen, in the type of debris,” Murray said.

A. picked up some hot shrapnel from the street. Its serrated edges bit into my fingers.

“This is from a mortar or an artillery shell,” A. said. (He was a tank commander in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War.) Instead of dynamite, it seems this car bomb was rigged to use old munitions. It was a rolling IED. The more I looked, the more deadly shrapnel I found. It was easily distinguishable from the car parts which were thin and twisted.

The car itself had been a blue Volkswagen, witnesses said. Several confirmed that its license number was 28692, which is from Ramadi in the al-Anbar province, and indicative that this was probably an attack by Sunni insurgents. Many car bombs originate in Fallujah and Ramadi. The question is, who was the target?

Across the parking lot from me is an old hotel given over to private, heavily-armed contractors and Australian troops. Across the road is that 8-story bunker, a half-finished hotel that people say is the Australian embassy; no one seems to know for sure. Some people in the street said the al Jadiriya road is patrolled by the Australians early in the morning, and that those troops were the target.

Murray didn’t buy that explanation and focused on the location of the blast near the al-Karma Hotel. “As far as we can I can tell, there are no Westerners just normal businessmen in the hotel,” he said. “It seems to be a random act of terrorism against their own people.”

All I know is that I think Ali died for no good reason.

All throughout the neighborhood, there are black banners with silver and gold Arabic script written on them — the names of the Iraqis who have died by violence. Few in the West ever get to read them and learn the names of the dead. Here’s a name to remember:

Ali Abbas, 1993(?)-May 25, 2004.

In her grief, an older woman in a black abaya focused on an the biggest target:

“The Americans did it!” she wailed. “We didn’t have car bombs before, terror before,” she continued. “Everything came with the Coalition forces.

“We don’t like the occupation. Please leave, we don’t like you.”

S. finally showed up at around 6:30 p.m. We had been missing each other all day. I was glad to see him after what people cynically say is just another day in Baghdad.

Iraq: A Nation of “Goo-Goo”s?

The Iraqis don’t hate the occupation for what it’s done, they hate the occupation for what it hasn’t — providing good government, free of corruption and petty humiliations.

Sorry for the lack of posts, folks. I’ve been spending the last few days getting set up, finding drivers, translators, fixers, etc. And my ability to move around is frustratingly restricted. While my area is not wracked by violence and shooting, Baghdad is a big city, and it’s quite possible for a car bomb to go off at, say, the Interior Minister’s home, and people in my neighborhood al Karraddah would not hear a thing. Which is exactly what has happened.
The city might not be as dangerous as it appears on television back in America, but then again, it might be. I can’t tell yet, and I’ve not been able to interact with many Iraqis yet. The few that I have have been sullen and not very friendly. Not like last year. The exceptions are the ones working with American journalists. So what follows should be read in that context.
From my conversation today with a friend of a friend, an ex-Brig. General in the Iraqi Army, (I’ll see if I can use his name in later dispatches) the Iraqis are, as expected, fed up with the American presence.
“Before the war,” he said, “the Iraqi people would have said, ‘Welcome!’ to the Americans. But not now. There has been a change. The CPA has been so bad at running things.”
One of the main concerns is not Abu Ghraib, or violence in the south, he said, but corruption in the oil-for-food program. And corruption in general. The Iraqis are fully aware of the value of their petrochemical wealth, and they want to see some benefit from it.
“The Iraqi people want universities, roads, hospitals,” said the general. “And they say if USA wants some of the oil, OK. But most of the money must go to Iraqis. And Iraqis must run the ministry” of oil.
He explained that the Iraqis had no problem with American companies coming in and extracting the oil. They realize that they don’t have the equipment or expertise to maximize the potential of the oil fields. But the American oil companies should make use of local labor and experience when it comes to contracts and jobs, he said.
Regarding the oil-for-food corruption scandal, he said Iraqis want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, which is why they want the U.N. To look into this, as Kofi Annan has promised to do.
My take is that the Iraqis are as concerned about corruption as they are about security. It’s like the country is made up of what some people have called, derisively, “goo-goo”s, or Good Government, types.
And who can blame them? Good government provides security and isn’t corrupt. So far, the U.S. hasn’t been too successful in providing that security, despite the whatever thousands of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and Iraqi Police that are graduated from academies. And thanks to no-bid contracts for Bush campaign donors and secret sweetheart deals for Chalabi and his camp followers, the Coalition isn’t seen as ridding Iraq of corruption either. Throw in the abuses of Abu Ghraib, and is it any wonder that the U.S. is seen ambiguously or even as no different from Saddam?
That view isn’t entirely fair, of course. The Americans aren’t killing crowds of Shi’a and dumping them in mass graves, nor are they gassing the Kurds. But that’s actually small comfort for many Iraqis. The threat of death or imprisonment at the hands of Saddam’s mukhabarrat wasn’t that great if Iraqis kept their head down and didn’t challenge the authority of the state. Saddam’s worst mass killings happened in the 1980s and up through 1991-92. Since then until last year, he was more or less brought to heel by international arms inspectors and world opinion. The much-discussed “plastic shredders” that he allegedly turned to after the 1991 war have never, ever been found and there’s no evidence for them except from right-wing blog sites and columnists. (That’s not to say he wasn’t a monster and doesn’t deserve whatever fate the Iraqis decide for him, but so far the evidence points to his years as an American client as his most depraved ones.)
But if most Iraqis avoided the torture chambers and mass killings, they almost universally suffered endless personal humiliations and were cruelly taken advantage of by a corrupt state apparatus. Buying a car or a house was an activity designed to rob Iraqis of their dignity and their dinars. So far, as least as the Iraqis see it, this much hasn’t changed. They are still stripped of their dignity by what they see as American cultural arrogance and Washington’s cronyism. And they see their country stripped of its wealth without any benefit to them.
The searches, the guns, the humvees in the streets, they’re all reminders of what the Iraqis consider the petty humiliations of Saddam’s time. And not helping the Iraqis forget those is the real failure of the occupation.