Listening to Iraq

Recently I heard Haifa Zangana, a novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein's regime, give a speech in Boston in which she urged anti-war activists around the world to work in solidarity with -- not for -- Iraqis to achieve peace. It was a simple yet profound request. But how can Americans who oppose the war work with Iraqis as equals when, to many of us, they are nameless, faceless, and voiceless? It's the details that humanize, that enable us to understand people as individuals. And as the war drags on, we get increasingly fewer details about what life is really like in Iraq, making it difficult for even the best-intentioned anti-war American to see Iraqis as partners, rather than as a political project.

The news outlets that still report from Iraq rarely publish accounts of daily life there. Rarer still are narratives from outside the confines of the Green Zone. Sure, we get snippets of information from Iraqi reporters working with Western journalists, but most of the time, Iraqis' voices come to us in the form of react-quotes after a marketplace bombing or sectarian uprising. We don't see what it's like for Iraqis to walk home from the scene of the violence, then make dinner, then put their kids to bed. We lack the humanizing power of detail.

"How the media deals with the U.S. soldiers is a very good example," Zangana later told me over the phone. "When they tell you Thomas So-and-So was killed in Iraq, they have a page about him or her on the Internet and in papers. You read details about his life, how he's been brought up, how he's been educated, how he left a fiancée who was crying. You come to know the person and identify with him and the family and the pain. You come to value their lives."

Blogs used to fill some of this void. Widely read Iraqi bloggers like Riverbend, the 26-year-old pseudonymous woman who wrote a daily account of life in Baghdad, and Raed Jarrar, whose entire family blogged the first three years of the occupation, gave international readers important insights into the real impact of the war -- in the form of long, winding narratives, not fleeting quotes.

But between 2006 and 2007, almost all of those bloggers, Riverbend included, left Iraq out of fear for their safety. Some continue to blog about the war, but do so from places like Philadelphia or Amman, and primarily rely on news accounts and updates they hear from relatives still in the country. Meanwhile, day-to-day stories of life under occupation have become much harder to find, especially for readers who don't read Arabic.

When I asked Zangana which English-language Iraqi blogs are still active and written from Iraq, the only one she could name (though there are probably more) was A Star from Mosul. In it, a 20-year-old engineering student writes under the pseudonym "Najma" about her stress-inducing course load, drama with her friends, and her adorable niece and nephew. Intertwined with those details, she writes about how the war has intruded on her daily life. In one post, she discusses a class picnic, and just two paragraphs later, she writes:

"We discovered today that a dear classmate, M, was shot few days ago. They told me it hit him in the leg and he's okay. I was shocked to hear the news, nobody has told us, as if we do not care. Last year, he used to be optimistic and his laugh had a special tone to it that I liked very much.... But this year he's become very calm and depressed that I didn't even notice his absence! I look back at last year's photos and remember how cheerful he was, how very different from how he is now. I can't help but worry about the reasons."

This isn't the stuff of car bombs and sectarian violence. Unlike so many media reports, Najma doesn't identify her classmate as Sunni or Shiite or pigeonhole him in any way. He is a young man who used to laugh and is now depressed. And while Najma has also written about U.S. soldiers searching her house and assassination attempts on her university campus, the most striking thing about her blog is how quietly sad many of its details are.

I realize Najma's stories won't provide us with the key to ending the occupation. But her words contain something that the bleak statistics -- more than 80,000 Iraqi civilians killed, 4.5 million refugees -- can never convey. If we pay attention, personal stories like Najma's can help us understand the war's human cost. And in this long-running, seemingly distant conflict, that is no trivial accomplishment.

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