The Girl Blogger from Iraq

On Aug. 17, 2003, Riverbend posted the first entry of her blog, where she introduced herself to her readers: "I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway."

Nearly two years later, the readers of “Baghdad Burning” know a whole lot more – both about Riverbend and Iraq. We now know that she has not just survived the war, but prevailed over its horrors, emerging from its ruins as a passionate advocate for her people and an incisive critic of the occupation. Even the most casual visitor to her site cannot fail to be impressed by her insight into the tragic, onerous, and sometimes absurd reality of everyday life in Iraq. As Village Voice correspondent James Ridgeway notes in the introduction to her new book -- an eponymously named collection of her blog entries -- "this anonymous 'girl blog' has made the war and occupation real in terms that no professional journalist could hope to achieve."

She responded to AlterNet's questions via e-mail from her home in Baghdad.

Lakshmi Chaudhry: Let's start with the obvious: why did you start writing a blog?

The first person to encourage me to write a blog was Salam Pax of "Where is Raed?." After the war he suggested I should start my own blog as I could write in English and after thinking about it for a while, I eventually did. I liked the idea of blogging because I was very frustrated with the Western media for telling only half the story in Iraq. No one seemed to know what was going on inside of the country -- all the damage and horror Iraqis were facing on a daily basis.

In addition to this, blogging proved to be therapeutic. It was a way to vent fears and anger that I couldn't really express in front of family and friends because it was always necessary to stay strong and, to some extent, positive.

Reading your blog entries, it's obvious that a significant portion of your audience is not Iraqi. Was this your original intention or did it just turn out that way?

I don't think I wrote the blog for any particular audience. I simply wanted to express my emotions and thoughts and I wasn't sure who would read it. I never expected many Iraqis inside of Iraq to read it because Iraqis are far too busy coping with daily realities to read blogs or even write them. I liked blogging in English because it's a language people in many different countries understand. I would have been preaching to the choir if I blogged in Arabic.

What role does the blog play in your life today, especially given its immense success?

The blog for a while became a part of my daily life. I began seeing things from a blogging point of view in many situations and wondering what the readers would think if they could do or see what I was currently doing or seeing! My family is sometimes curious about it but more often than not, they worry about my safety. I try to make time for reading and answering emails and sometimes blogging, but it all depends on the electricity/phone situation.

One of the most powerful aspects of your writing is your ability to convey how much all that is horrifying in the human experience -- death, violence, terror -- has become a part of an Iraqi's everyday life. Could you talk about the ways the experience of war and occupation has changed you? First, as a human being, i.e. how you you see yourself, and secondly in terms of your politics, i.e. how you see the world.

I think the occupation and war has made me more aware of the world. I think the average Iraqi has begun to look differently at certain world situations -- for example the tsunami. Before, it would have been difficult to empathize with the thousands of people who were living in fear and without the basic necessities. Now, seeing them without homes and running water and schools, etc. reminds us of our own refugees who come from cities and villages being bombed or evacuated.

Personally, I think it has hardened me in some aspects. We're accustomed now to hearing explosions and sirens. It becomes less frightening and shocking with time.

It has helped me realize that the many people all over the world (but especially in the U.S. and UK) are quite naive and uninformed. It was disturbing to see their emails making claims that simply weren't true. For example, the Western perception of women in Iraq prior to the war. Until I began writing the blog, I had no idea that many Americans thought Iraqi women were like Afghani women or Saudi women. I had no idea that many Americans thought their military had brought computers and internet into Iraq. It has been disturbing and frustrating to know that so many people who supported the war supported it for the wrongest reasons.

The blog has also helped me realize that many people support certain issues not from certain beliefs but because they support a certain party or political group. This was made especially apparent after the whole WMD fiasco. It always amazes me how chameleon-like many Bush supporters are -- how they go smoothly from WMDs and protecting America to human rights and protecting Iraqis to terrorism and protecting the whole Middle East.

There is an important debate going on within antiwar advocates in the United States about our goals should be as a movement -- immediate withdrawal, an orderly transition to an Iraqi or U.N.-controlled authority, full reparations etc. What would you say to the anti-war movement here in America?

My advice to antiwar advocates is to push for a timetable for withdrawal. I think that at this point it's vital that the U.S. make it perfectly clear that eventually, there will be withdrawal from the country. I think it's also important for Americans to push for no permanent military bases in Iraq. Iraqis fear that even if the Americans leave, they will want to leave behind permanent bases. It is important that these issues be addressed clearly by policy makers in America.

As for reparations and worry about Iraqis and the infrastructure -- I have a lot of hope in Iraqis, especially after we reconstructed the country after the war of '91. I think that once we have security and independence, it will be easier to rebuild the country.

There is a lot of disagreement as to what the recent elections meant to the average Iraqi. Do you see it as a sign of hope or just an empty exercise in perception management?

I think elections are a nice concept. They give the image of democracy, but what we currently have on the ground is far from democracy. The problem is that the people who were running in the elections were the same people being rotated for positions during the first year of the occupation. It was just a process of choosing the best of a bad bunch.

You have written about the threat to women's rights from Islamic fundamentalists. Do you worry that those rights will be threatened even in a democratic Iraq -- especially if religious parties gain power? Or do you think the Western media overplays the religious ideology of the Shiite parties?

The problem right now isn't so much with laws as it is the complete lack of security, and the fact that attacks against women by common criminals or fundamentalists are not being taken seriously. The new government has many religiously inclined Shia who openly support the Iranian model of government. Asking women to cover up or quit work or act properly is not seen so much as an illegal act as it is a religious one to many of these people currently in power.

I'm afraid we'll be relegated to living in a situation where no precise laws are made to curb women's rights, but where the lack of security and behind the curtains support of fundamentalist groups will result in a situation Iraqi women haven't seen for almost half a century.

Finally, what are your hopes for the future -- both for your nation and in your own life?

My hopes for the future are like those of millions of Iraqis. I hope for a peaceful, independent, secure country. I also hope for prosperity for the millions of Iraqis who certainly deserve it after all these hardships. I think if Iraq can have the above, there'll be nothing lacking in my life personally.

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