Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Salam Pax essay

For the first anniversary of the Iraq elections Salam Pax has posted a sad retrospective. Whatever else you may read today, this piece should be on the list.

New bloggers may not know of Salam Pax, but he was one of the original Iraqi bloggers, writing from inside the country before Saddam was defeated. I remember reading his pseudonymous posts and wondering who he was. His sketches of life in Iraq provided a rare glimpse of events seen from the other side.

Story time: A week ago [this was written in March, 2003, as the invasion if Iraq was under way] on the way to work I saw a huge column of blackest-black smoke coming from the direction of Dorah refinery which is within Baghdad city limits, thought nothing of it really. A couple of weeks earlier to that a fuel tank near the Rasheed army camp exploded and it looked the same, stuff like that happens. My father was driving thru the area later and he said it looked like they were burning excess or wasted oil. Eh, they were never the environmentalists to start with; if they didn’t burn it they would have dumped it in the river or something. The smoke was there for three days the column could be seen from all over Baghdad being dragged in a line across the sky by the winds. During the same time and on the same road I take to work I see two HUGE trenches being dug, it looked like they were going to put some sort of machinery in it, wide enough for a truck to drive thru and would easily take three big trucks.A couple of days after the smoke-show over Baghdad I and my father are going past these trenches and we see oil being dumped into the trenches, you could hear my brain going into action, my father gave me the (shutup-u-nutty-paranoid-freak) look, but I knew it was true. The last two days everybody talks about it, they are planning to make a smoke screen of some sorts using black crude oil, actually rumor has it that they have been experimenting with various fuel mixtures to see what would produce the blackest vilest smoke and the three days of smoke from Dorah was the final test. Around Baghdad they would probably go roughly along the green belt which was conceived to stop the sandstorms coming from the western deserts. I have no idea how a smoke screen can be of any use except make sure that the people in Baghdad die of asphyxiation and covered in soot. I think I will be getting those gas masks after all.

Funfact: after the oil wells in Kuwait were set on fire and the whole region covered in the blackest and ugliest cloud it rained for days on Baghdad washing everything with black water from the sky, the marks took a year to wash out. I think Salman Rushdie would have found this very amusing, characters in his novels are always haunted by things past in the strangest ways, the shame of your actions following you and then washing you with it’s black water, no ablutions for you Mr. H watch your city covered with the shame of your actions. We have an expression which roughly translates to "face covered with soot" (skham wijih) which is used to describe someone who has done something utterly disgraceful. Getting your city covered with “skham” once has to haunt you for the rest of your life, now we get “skham from the sky II – the return of the evil cloud”. The world is just a re-run of bad movies, but Mr. W. Bush already beat me to that expression.

Here we are three years later and much has changed. The identity of Salam Pax was revealed and he wrote guest columns for The Guardian. A Google search will tell you more about him than you need to know. Other more influential figures have taken center stage and the voice of Salam Pax joined those in a multitude, a chorus of confused observers as a wave of populism sweeps the country. The people have spoken, and in so doing they have shown, once again, that the political center of gravity is too close to the ground for any great number of everyday voters to have a vision of liberal democracy. History has shown, and continues to show, that populism is not to be confused with a dynamic, forward-moving democracy.

Salam Pax is sassy as usual in this most recent missal. Even the name of his blog is not aimed at winning friends and influencing people. But his points are well-taken and deserve a hearing.
I am still trying to figure out the answer to the riddle of a democratic process that brings in an undemocratic government. We’ve all put ourselves in a very uncomfortable corner, every single on of us who believed that the people will choose what’s ultimately best for their future and the western democratic governments are the first in line.The right to choose your own destiny and all that. The problem is we seem to choose future car crashes for a destiny.

What’s even more exasperating is what he US administration is doing in Iraq because it just won’t admit how wrong it all went. It goes back to “Democracy day” - the first elections, a year ago.
He bounces off a SC Monitor piece and a post by another Iraqi blogger to come up with some penetrating questions that need to be addressed by movers and shakers. If anything else is not clear, it is becoming painfully clear that the wrong people, whatever the reasons, are winning elections and coming to power, not only in Iraq, but other places as well.
Moqtada al-Sadr whom I first took notice of because of his inability to speak intelligibly is going to have a say in my future? 32 years old and not really the sharpest tool in the shed, the only reason he has such a big following is because of a father and uncle who were very respected scholars. Does this make him one? Apparently yes.
One of the things you used to hear a lot during the build-up to the war was that there is a strong secular, educated base of Iraqis which will be the foundation for the reconstruction effort and the political process. I believed that as well, more than believed, I thought I knew this to be a fact. This is the environment I grew up in, secular Shia and Sunni families whose fathers or mothers were educated abroad during the 40’s and 50’s and who sometimes talked to us about a life before the Baath Party was everything.

Thinking of this now it feels like I have been living in a make-believe world, I keep asking myself where are all the secular Iraqis? Where did all this religious extremism come from? And if we really are one of the best-educated societies in the Mid-East why do we keep making mistakes we made in the past?

He concludes with these lines. I suppose they might be called darkly optimistic, hopeful that the future might hold a brighter promise than what we see today. Here is the link again.
To come back to the question, is there a place for democracy? Well. I don’t think either of us has the heart to say no, deep down we know there should be a place. But it’s such an uphill struggle to keep believing that we be able to save ourselves from being hijacked by another form of totalitarian thought.

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