Nicole from Crooks and Liars sent me a note yesterday about a new online video project titled Hometown Baghdad . This web based video series is a joint project between Chat the Planet and Iraqi filmakers and profiles the lives of 3 "twenty-something" Baghdadis: Saif has just finished his degree in Dentistry, Ausama is studying at the University of Baghdad Medical School, and Adel is "an aspiring rock musicial living in a very dangerous neighborhood in Baghdad." As the HometownBaghdad team writes: "The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war."
So far, there are eleven episodes of Hometown Baghdad available – both on the site and on YouTube . They have planned 45 in the full series and the filmakers blog and comment at the website so this exploration of everyday life also encourages conversation.
Chat the Planet is also working on more online conversations that bridge geographic and political distance. At their site, which is just getting started, there are three fascinating short videos of discussions between American and Iraqi college students. Let's hope these are just the first of many such conversations they let us listen in on.
Another untold story of the reality of life in occupied Iraq is more tragically reported in an article that appeared in the New Yorker's March 26 edition. (Special thanks to MarkfromIreland for pointing me to this article!) Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America is an extraordinary piece of reporting by George Packer.
Betrayed is based on lengthy interviews Packer conducted in Baghdad with Iraqi translaters who have been working for the American occupation since the start of the war. These are men who welcomed the invasion, hoped for a brighter future for their country and risked everything to help the American forces. Their reasons are varied but their experiences are tragically uniform. Take the story of Ali, an Iraqi who grew up in Pennsylvania until his family was trapped in Iraq on a visit to their extended family during the Iran-Iraq war. Ali was recruited by American troops during the initial invasion to help with translations:
Ali initially worked the night shift at a base in his neighborhood and walked home by himself after midnight. In June, 2003, the Americans mounted a huge floodlight at the front gate of the base, and when Ali left for home the light projected his shadow hundreds of feet down the street. “It’s dangerous,” he told the soldiers at the gate. “Can’t you turn it off when we go out?”
“Don’t be scared,” the soldiers told him. “There’s a sniper protecting you all the way.”
A couple of weeks later, one of Ali’s Iraqi friends was hanging out with the snipers in the tower, and he thanked them. “For what?” the snipers asked. For looking out for us, Ali’s friend said. The snipers didn’t know what he was talking about, and when he told them they started laughing.
“We got freaked out,” Ali said. The message was clear: You Iraqis are on your own.
Ali's story is just one of the many Packer recounts. The Iraqi employees were never protected and never recognized as a critical resource for a military that not only could speak no Arabic but also had no understanding of the culture and country it had invaded. While translaters daily risked their lives, their employers treated them as disposable. And as the Iraqis began to question whether they would be evacuated when American forces leave Iraq, they learned just how disposable they are:
When, a month later, Khalilzad met with a large group of Iraqi employees to hear their concerns, Firas attended reluctantly. After the Iraqis raised the possibility of immigrant visas to the U.S., Khalilzad said, “We want the good Iraqi people to stay in the country.” An Iraqi replied, “If we’re still alive.”
Those who have left – and the new preference in the Green Zone is to replace the Iraqis with employees from Jordan – find themselves unwelcome in the surrounding countries where the waves of Iraqi refugees are overwhelming the capacity of countries like Syria and Jordan to provide a haven and where these translaters are seen as traitors. The Bush administration's refusal to provide asylum is – says Packer – part of the fundamental dishonesty of the war and occupation:
The Embassy officials struck me as decent, overworked people, yet I left the interview with a feeling of shame. The problem lay not with the individuals but with the institution and, beyond that, with the politics of the American project in Iraq, which from the beginning has been conducted under the illusion that controlling the message mattered more than the reality. A former official at the Embassy told me, “When we say that the corridors of power are insulated, is it that the officials aren’t receiving the information, or is it because the construct under which they’re operating doesn’t even allow them to absorb it?” To admit that Iraqis who work with Americans need to be evacuated would blow a hole in the Administration’s version of the war.
In an answer to a reader's question about the article, Packer writes:
On every trip to Iraq, I have met remarkable American individuals in military and civilian ranks, but, like most people I have talked to about Iraq, I am stunned by the level of general American incompetence there. It obviously has to do with leadership. Richard Armitage, when I interviewed him, placed the blame on a complete lack of accountability at the highest levels. But I have also come to believe that Iraq represents a larger failure than just that of individuals in the Bush Administration or the Administration as a whole. Across the board, American institutions have failed. A war on this scale puts a whole country to the test, like a human body that’s been slack for a while and then is suddenly exerted to the limits of its strength. In Iraq, we’ve failed as a country.
His report is a stunning indictment of that failure – and our failure as Americans to look outside our borders. We are fast to invade, but tragically lacking in knowledge, experience or even much curiosity about the the lives of the people of Iraq or the Middle East in general. We can hope that efforts like Hometown Baghdad and Chat the Planet will bring us at least one step closer to understanding and recognition of our common humanity.
And as we seem to teeter on the verge of yet another war in the region, it's important that we learn more about Iran as well. Radio Agonist had a particularly good segment on Iran this week – but then SeanPaul and Ian Welsh's work at The Agonist is one of my top go-to's for reliable commentary on the Middle East. This week's episode discusses the ABC hype story about Iran and is definitely worth a listen. And if you haven't seen SeanPaul's travel piece from his trip to Iran, click here .