Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Salam Pax Americana

President Bush was caught out last Wednesday after a speech about Iraq to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. In the speech he claimed things were improving in Iraq and as evidence he pointed out how two anonymous bloggers say the city is safer. According to the transcript of the speech, Bush said "I want to share with you how two Iraqi bloggers -- they have bloggers in Baghdad, just like we've got here -- (laughter) -- Displaced families are returning home, marketplaces are seeing more activity ... We hope the governments of Baghdad and America do not lose their resolve."

His point was that Iraqi people are seeing signs of progress as demonstrated by the positiveness of the blogs. Later that day a White House spokesman deflected questions on the identity of the bloggers, diminishing their importance by referring to their blog as one of "many different inputs." The reason for the deflection became apparent on Thursday. The New York Times reported that the two unnamed bloggers Bush quoted are brothers who met with the president in the Oval Office on 9 December 2004.

As well as brothers, Mohammed and Omar Fadhil are both dentists and they write an English language blog from Baghdad called The lines that Bush quoted from the blog were from an op-ed the brothers wrote which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 5 March. The pair vigorously defended their blog saying it contains "both good and bad news — we witness an explosion and we write about it and we see progress and we write about it”. Unsurprisingly traffic to the blog has tripled since the Bush reference making the pair the most famous Iraqi bloggers since Salam Pax.

Bush may have expressed surprise that people are blogging in Baghdad “just like we’ve got here” but clearly he has never heard of Salam Pax. Salam Pax’s blog “Where is Raed?” shot to world attention in 2003 for his entries on life in Baghdad before, during and after the American-led invasion. His diary became the ordinary voice of a nation under attack.

The blog started in September 2002 when a then 29 year old Iraqi calling himself 'Salam Pax' (both words mean "peace" in Arabic and Latin) started posting descriptions of daily life on the internet. He had no idea how influential his diary would become. In some respects it was no different from blogs in the West as Salam described his passion for music and pop culture. In other respects it was vastly different as Salam displayed his fear of death from allied bombs or Saddam's secret police.

But Salam was not a typical young man in Iraq. He was an architecture student from a wealthy Iraqi family. He lived abroad in Vienna and has a Shia mother and a Sunni father. He himself is an atheist and a homosexual, neither well regarded in Islamic Iraq. His anonymous diary became a place where he could express his private feelings. For the world’s media, it was an insider’s view of the biggest story of the 21st century.

As the deadline for the invasion approached, thousands came to his website to check out his unique and honest take of the slide into war and the last days of Saddam’s dictatorship. During the war he gave accounts of bombings in his suburb of Baghdad until his Internet access was interrupted. Pax remained offline for weeks, writing entries on paper to type later. Salam came back online on 5 May 2003 and posted all his handwritten thoughts during the invasion period. His entry for 24 March (four days into the war) reads “Last night’s bombardment was very different from the nights before. It wasn’t only heavier but the sound of the bombs was different. The booms and bangs are much louder… The air raid sirens signalled an attack around 12 and never sounded the all clear signal. Sleep is what you get between being woken up by the rumbles or the time you can take your eyes off the news.”

Salam documented the day-to-day life of the invasion. By the middle of April, Baghdad was in American hands. Later entries discuss the chaotic post-war economy with rampant inflation, gas prices rising ten times and tanks on the street. Telephones and the internet weren’t working so the Iraqis themselves never had a chance to read the diaries. But despite the perils of the invasion, Salam’s accounts remain livelier, closer to the truth and more humorous than anything coming from the mainstream media.

As Salam’s fame grew worldwide, many doubted he was a genuine article. Many suspected he must be an implant, maybe a CIA agent, a Baath Party renegade or someone from Mossad. Eventually a US journalist Peter Maass realised Salam Pax was his Iraqi interpreter. Maass described him as “chubby and cherubic and hip”.

Pax stopped blogging at “Where is Raed?” (Raed Jarrar was a student friend) in August 2004 and started up a new blog called “Shut up you fat whiner” that same month. The new blog remained active until 18 July 2006. Salam Pax was employed by The Guardian to cover the US 2004 election and a year later he produced a series of filmed reports for BBC’s Newsnight. His real name remains a mystery to this day. His famous blogging clearly remains a mystery to the US president.


Anonymous said...

raed jarrar is an iraqi blogger, he blogs at raed in the middle

nebuchadnezzar said...

thanks - you are right. I thought I had picked up somewhere that Raed was Jordanian but no, he was born in Baghdad.

Have fixed up the error.