Sunday, January 12, 2003

January 12, 2003
Baghdad (by way of Amman, Jordan)

Dear you,
This is a quick note letting you know I'm fine but
have been unable to communicate outside of Iraq for
some time because of the FUCKING Pentagon and their
email "attack" (the story broke Saturday morning on
CNN.com). The whole Internet infrastructure in Iraq
was shut down because of it. We couriering stuff into
Amman, Jordan, to be sent out.

The situation in Iraq is the same, which is to say not
much. Those who can afford to prepare for a coming war
do, buying petrol and water parrifin for heat and
lighting. Those who cannot pay pray. The rest are busy
trying to get the international media's attention on
the plight of the Iraqi people and the devastation
another war will bring to this country. War
preparation is above all a class issue for me. There
are divisions between the upper, middle, and lower
classes in their perspectives on what can be done
about living through an invasion. Most of the upper
echelons of Iraqi society think that Baghdad will be
ablaze with street fighters beating back the
Americans. The middle class (if you can call it that)
have largely left it to the fates, having had little
to no history of political self-determination. The
poor of Iraq wants to see the invasion over with. The
sanctions have made their life already impossible, why
not a war to shake things up a bit: what's there to
lose? A young poor Iraqi teenage girl summed it up
nicely when she said that she can't wait for the
invasion so she can marry an American soldier.
Desperation and creativity doesn't make that strange
of bedfellows. Despite the differences on how one will
survive a war and how a war will be waged in the
country, they all agree that if there is a war, it
won't begin until AFTER the invasion. It is
incandescently clear that Iraq does not have the
capabilities to fight the American military
juggernaut. The real story of Iraq's survival will
begin after the Americans come (if they come, yes
there is still time and the means to stop the war,
there is always time because tomorrow is today) and
set up their puppet regime. A media escort and veteran
of the Iran/Iraq war said, "They will have an
occupation in hell."

I'm not ready to live in hell. And I assume the
wonderful people I've met here in Baghdad aren't ready
either, regardless of how many litres of petrol they
buy off the black market. I also assume that you
aren't ready for hell either, since by all accounts,
in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey the sentiment is that
there will be no way to contain the resentment an
unjust war will bring to the Middle East. The
resentment is beginning to build into a political
program that promises nothing short of mass political
insurrection, here and abroad, back home, where I live
and you too.

I have tried to make my work here with a certain
sensitivity and language to describe another kind of
Iraq existing in another kind of reality marred by
economic sanctions, the weight of war, and (American)
popular culture. But I can feel myself losing this
sensitivity. The fear is becoming overwhelming and the
space for describing the taste of lamb's head stew
made with food rations and trash is disappearing.

Perhaps the time and space will come again. In the
meantime (what a word) there is (still) a war to stop.
I am sure you've heard about the January 18th protests
(global by the way, since the German, Japanese, and
Italian delegations in Baghdad have informed us of
their country's intention of doing solidarity protests
on that date). I've been rereading Martin Luther King
Jr.'s moving speech against the Vietman war delivered
at New York's Riverside Church in 1967 and will try to
finish off one more piece of writing based on it
before I return to the States.

My return date is dicey at the moment but rest assured
I'm well taken care of. Support group I will contact
you first regarding my flight back. Let your media
contacts know that I'm returning and that I'll talk to
anyone about the work we've done here (can continue to
do, members of the Iraq peace team continue to come
into Baghdad and will do so throughout January and
February, war or no war).

This turned out not to be such a quick note. I'll see
you soon. Baghdad is tense and beautiful, as usual, by
the way.

P.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

thank you germany!
the only european country to position themselves to an absolute "NO TO WAR!".

Monday, January 06, 2003

There has been increasing news reports on Iraqi people (artists, support groups....) here.
We can finally detect a Face in the growd!
Hang in there, we are seeing you.

V

M, I got your email thanks and congrats.

There is a real shift here. Today is Army day in Iraq and the city is at a standstill. A group of peace activists coming back from Basrah, a city south of Baghdad and the one most desvastated by the Persian Gulf War, blew a tire and crashed. One member died and five are injured. The mounting troops around the gulf are beginning to make everything tense. But no one is preparing for war. What does one do when bomb shelters won't save you and the civilian infrastructure is already at abysmal conditions? The Iraq peace team is planning more radical actions in the coming weeks. The air is thick with death and transfiguration.
BAGHDAD, YEAR ZERO?
By Paul Chan

Hijra, the Islamic New Year, doesn’t even begin until March. But if there is any city in the world that deserves to set aside their earthly miseries and celebrate, just for one night, something, anything, with stiff drinks and dancing, it is here.

New Year’s Eve on the streets of Baghdad is a riotous affair, second only to Saddam Hussein’s birthday in April. People chatted and waited in line at the liquor stores on Al Saddoun street, near the city center, to buy whatever was left. Iraqis can’t drink in public anywhere: it was banned in 1995. But that doesn’t stop people from sharing cheap beers and Arak, a traditional Iraqi liqueur, with friends and neighbors at home. Or in vans. Dusty old vans full of young men and spirits sang and yelled out of their windows on Jamia Street, near the Baghdad National Theatre. The traffic, already formidable during regular business hours, turned into gridlock hours before the turn of the New Year. Not to be outdone, young men in Karada, a neighborhood and shopping district in Southeast Baghdad, roamed the streets dressed as dandies, replete with ill-fitting checkered suits and canes, following men with homemade drums as they wandered from intersection to intersection, stopping only to play a few hypnotic beats that would instantly give birth to a dance party. The dandies sprayed matr, a white foamy substance Iraqis like to break out during weddings, onto cars and tempted the passengers to leave their dusty seats and join them on the street, where the real party was.

The police were out in force too. They kept the revelers in line with provocative flashes of their automatic weapons. But beside the guns, not much more separated the two camps on the streets: they were both young and proud and will most likely enter military service soon, called to defend their country against a possible invasion. It is difficult not to see the celebrations as a kind of last hurrah, before the fall and their official status as causalties of war.

This was the sobering thought that kept the rest of Baghdad from celebrating. There are, of course, those who don’t because they are simply too poor. Sadam city, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Northeast Baghdad remained relatively quiet. There are also those for whom New Year’s Eve is meaningless. Since the sanctions, secular Iraq has turned increasingly Islamic. Saddam and the Socialist Baath party is partly the cause. They have turned the virtues of Islam into instruments of the state, building mosques (when completed, the Saddam mosque in Baghdad will be the largest in the world) and mounting “quality of life” campaigns (like banning the public consumption of alcohol) that have steered many in Iraq toward Islam. State sponsored religions are generally a form of social management. With the aftermath of the gulf war and the punishment from the sanctions, the social fabric of Iraq was unraveling. Islam connected the people back together with the state and provided a framework for rebuilding social order. “This is why,” Allah, a media escort with the ministry of information said, “before the sanctions there were public pictures of Saddam dancing with girls and having a good time everywhere in the city. Now there are only pictures of Saddam praying.”

At a moment when history is teetering between hell and reason, prayer, for people who have known only political impotence, makes a lot of sense. This is the politics of salvation, and tonight it is being practiced by everyone; young and old, Muslim and Christian. Zein is a young Iraqi coordinator for Bridges to Baghdad, an Italian anti-sanctions relief agency. She has lived in the US, Italy, Lebanon, but decided to return to Iraq and be with her people at the dawn of a possible attack. Tonight, like many Iraqis, she has turned down party invitations, opting instead to stay home with her parents, to reflect and pray. For many Iraqis, the coming of the New Year brings only dread. “There is nothing to celebrate,” Zein said. “Maybe the rich can forget what is happening and what will happen to our city if something isn’t done to stop it. But I can’t.”

*

At the Orfali art gallery in the affluent neighborhood of Al Monsour, Black Scorpions, quite possibly Baghdad’s only heavy metal band, played their first gig on New Year’s Eve. It was a short set, with only six songs. Unfortunately, they did not play an Arabic rendition of Guns–n-Roses’ classic “Sweet Child of Mine,” although it was rumored that they would. Instead, the four-man band played traditional Iraqi folks songs. They were nervous at first, playing to the sixty or so guests who paid a hefty $15,240 dinars, or roughly $12 US dollars, for dinner and entertainment. But by the third song, the Scorpions had hit their stride, and the mostly middle aged audience began to sing along. Minutes before the New Year, this party immersed itself in a nostalgic haze, reveling in a past infinitely brighter than the bleak future of a coming war.

Now, there are Iraqis who know about the growing opposition to Bush and company. They know about the global anti-war marches in January. There are even those who believe that averting the war is still possible. Here, however, at this swank art gallery and music hall in Southwest Baghdad, they weren’t taking any chances. They were preparing for war by stockpiling memories of their Iraq through song. The New Year was almost upon them, and their country had to be protected, one way or the other.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Jean, I'm back in town and have updated NP with most recent essay and grammatically-correct edit. I just sent you a big email to ivoices detailing latest efforts; have you got it, or are they having problems with receipt? In the interim, please note to ONLY use Yahoo! email address; I am receiving mail there fine when I am in town. Also, ZIP attachment and 3-part email effort have not come thru intact. File says it is corrupt. Can you recompress and post to your Yahoo! group in the file section or send as an attachment to my kbuddy address or FTP to NP account?

Keep it real, avoid the steel, and enjoy a good meal now that we're all at the start of the two-trizzy... -miguel

Monday, December 30, 2002

Miguel can you switch the front of NP to "A Portrait of a Day..." and switch Miserable... to the clean version?
Support team an action is being planned for new years eve here so watch for it on the tele. For those of you trying to reach me by phone keep trying. I'm still at the Al-Fanar, RM 408. Happy New Years and will somebody please stop this march to war.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Portrait of a day in Baghdad
By Paul Chan
Dec 28

2AM
My first drink of Arak, an Iraqi liquor that tastes like licorice and stings like rock candy. The poet Farouk Salloum told me he was drinking Arak at his house when the missiles hit Baghdad in the first gulf war. After his first glass he prayed the attack would end quickly. After the second he wished he had more Arak at his house because there was no way he was going to get more during an attack. After his third glass he screamed at the missiles to bring it on.

9AM
I remember now the party last night at Farouk’s house. Members of the Iraq Peace Team were invited to a private party of musicians, journalists, and poets. Farouk dressed in casual black. He had sleepy eyes. He was gracious and demanding, ordering drinks to be constantly filled, especially for the women. The Socialist Baath Party banned public drinking in 1995. Ever since, Iraqis have taken their drink underground and at each other’s homes. Farouk’s second daughter is named Reem, which means one who is as graceful as a deer running. She doesn't have her father's eyes.

A droll pianist and a veteran of the Iran/Iraq war in the early 80's played Bach and a jazzy funeral march. Earlier in the evening the pianist told me he killed six men in the war and that the men and women of Iraq are all trained in combat, and will take to arms and stones if need be to stop the Americans from entering Baghdad. I ask him if his experience in killing shaped in any way his piano playing. No response.

NOON
A word or two about Kubbe in soup. At the Al-Shadbandar Café, where the Iraqi literati come to drink tea and speculate about the war and who is the number one poet of the week, Almad, a young sculptor, invites me for Kubbe in soup. It is close and it is good, he says. Fair enough. I’m ready for it. Before I left the states, Aviv, a dear friend and member of New Kids On The Black Bloc, an artist political collective in Barcelona, asked me to seek out Kubbe in soup. “I know you’re not going to Baghdad for a culinary tour, but promise me you will try it.”

It is a meat dumpling the size of my head swimming in greasy soup. The skin of the dumpling is thick and wheaty. Inside, a mixture of ground meat of unknown origins and cinnamon. Other spices too, but who can tell. The soup is hot water with onions. Sometimes with tomatoes.

Almad wants me to come. But Haider, another sculptor, says it may not be such a good idea. It will be crowded, he says, and the water is not so good for foreigners. Okay I say to Almad, next time. I drink my lemon tea and dream of dumplings the size of my head. A cinema critic enters the café. He’s the number one critic in Baghdad, Haider tells me, because he is the only one in the city. He jokes to Ellen, my travel companion for the day and a full time peace activist from Maryland, that he would like to do a cultural exchange with her; she can take his post as the number one critic in Baghdad if he could get a visa and go to the US.

3PM
We wander around the booksellers row, a suk (open market) next to the Al-Shadbandar Café. Former engineers sell their collection of books on statistical analysis here and whatever else they can find in their house. Books are indiscriminately piled on the sidewalk for people to browse through. Iraq had, before the sanctions, one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East and the largest number of PhD’s. This is why you will find not only books on mathematics and structural mechanics, but also Hegelian philosphy, Pop Art, and Modern absurdist drama, in Arabic, English, French, German, and even Chinese. I find a nice copy of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Also a beautiful book on Islamic Calligraphy.

We have what’s called a magic sheet. On one side of this piece of paper is an explanation of what the Iraq Peace Team is about and why we are in Iraq. On the other side, the same thing in Arabic. We pass this out and hope to enlarge our family. It does work like magic and a bookseller quickly becomes a friend (because not surprisingly everyone is against the war). It is only paper but has the weight of gold.

I meet a poet named Suha Noman Rasheed. He is slowly selling his collection of poetry books on the row to live. He has published three books of Arabic poetry and promises me he will bring a copy of one next week. A writer friend in the US asked me to bring back some books in Arabic so they can be translated into English. This is our rescue mission, he tells me.

4:50PM
Walking back to the hotel, Ellen and I noticed the pristine quality of the Iraqi police cars. Some of the plastic coverings haven’t even been taken off the seats. Ellen, who served for four years in the US army, and I agreed that one can tell the health of any regime by the cleaniness of the police cars.

6PM
An action planning meeting for the Peace Team. Productive. There will be an action on Dec 31st entitled “Resolutions and Celebrations”. The goal is to throw a party and get Iraqi mothers, fathers, kids, poets, writers and peace activists together to make New Year’s resolutions that would replace the UN resolutions now serving as the litmus test for war. I am in charge of the visuals. I imagine 10,000 Iraqi children dressed in white suits and dresses, singing and waving their hands up as if they were surrendering. Musical accompaniment: Aretha Franklin. Special Guest: subcommandante Marcos. I don’t tell the other about the plan. Let’s see what I can do in four days.


7:30PM
Found out George is leaving the team because his father in Massachusetts is in serious condition after he broke his hip. I’m very fond of George. A Lebanese man who also stays at the Al-Fanar hotel who may or may not be a war profiteer said George has a heart of gold. I believe him. He’s been to Iraq nine times and financially supports eight families here. On this trip he brought two suitcases of medicines and toys. Baghdad is the city of infinite need.


8PM
Saddam is on television. He is sitting on a white leather couch. The reception is bad. Just now there was a cut-away shot to the crowd listening to him speak. It is immense. But there is never a shot of the crowd and Saddam together. Did you know the Russian KGB was the grandfather of Adobe Photoshop? Not only did they make people disappear, they made their appearance in photographs disappear as well. With a razor blade, pen and ink they would retouch photographs with such precision that it was as if the person never appeared in the original photograph. Now, the cut-away is the standard, whether it is used to subtract or add people. Reality has never been so elastic. Now a music video of children singing and images of Saddam at various state functions.

11PM
Saf, a young student who I play dominos with sometimes, asks me if I have any asprin for him. I tell Saf tomorrow.

11:50PM
Every night at 11:30 Iraq television plays a movie. Tonight it's "Mission to Mars" starring Val Kilmer. Kilmer, incidently, came to Iraq in 1998 as a part of a campaign called "America Cares". One of the board of directors on AC was Barbara Bush. The campaign was set up to take the media spotlight away from former attorney general Ramsey Clark's delegation called "The Sanctions Challenge", which was in Baghdad at the same time. It worked. No one paid attention to Clark and his crew, who were campaigning to stop the sanctions. All eyes were on Val and his vague promises to bring democracy and bad movies to the Middle East.

1AM
Cannot sleep. The wild dogs of Baghdad are out, barking and laughing at the few cars that are still out on the street. I find the following quote in a book about Laozi, mystical chinese philisopher, that seems appropriate to the times: "Vulgar people are clear, I alone am drowsy. Vulgar people are alert, I alone am muddled."




Friday, December 27, 2002

jean,
there seemed to be a delay and I didn't get your OK until too late. I'm trying to set it up again. Are you getting the ivoices emails? I got your latest one (wondering if we were receiving) but I'm getting the feeling you didn't get mine explaining all the details. Anyway, I'm passing along your number and hopefully we can pull something together. Thinking of you
Cornelia