Earlier this week I encountered a pretty interesting piece in the New York Review of Books. Entitled “As Iraqis See It,” the piece gives an inside look into the lives of Iraqis working for the McClatchy news organization, one of America’s biggest. McClatchy provides these reporters with a blog, called Inside Iraq, which is where most of the stories in the piece originate. One of the most striking passages was this:
While courteous, the men look right through her. One of the Americans begins searching the living room. In it is a large bookcase filled with books in English. “You read a lot Ma’am?” he asks. “Yes, in fact I do,” she replies, using English for the first time. “What’s this?” he says. “Heinlein? Asimov? Grisham?”
He turns to look at me again, this time with a different expression in his eyes. “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes, of course. It’s in that cabinet.”
He opens the cabinet and looks closely inside.
“You play Diablo?! And what’s this?! Grand Theft Auto??” He forgets all about the weapon and turns to us with a wide grin on his face, and astonishment in his eyes. My son asks him, “Is ours the first house you search?”, “No, why?”, “Because all my friends have these games, why are you so surprised?” The serviceman looks embarrassed, and turns to inspect the weapon.
They went through every room, every cabinet, closet and drawer silently. After they accomplished their mission, in about thirty minutes, they walked out, gray shadows in the twilight.
With its quiet exploration of the subtle interplay between occupier and occupied, the vignette reminded me of Orwell’s writings about his imperial service in Burma. Interested in learning more, I reached Sahar via phone at McClatchy’s Baghdad office. She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, “He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn’t see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can’t imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else.”
The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. “People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same,” she said. “They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep.” Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, “don’t know this. And when you don’t know a person, you can’t feel for them, can you?”
She continued: “How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It’s our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog.”