Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Review Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog

Review Salam Pax, Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog, London: Atlantic Books, 2003

Salam Pax, real name Salam Abdul Munim, was an Iraqi blogger from Baghdad that came to prominence in the west before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His blog “Where is Raed?” started off as irreverent posts about his life, his friends, his family, and his job. As the invasion drew closer it eventually took center stage in his writing. The blog also captured the attention of Westerners and its media because Munim spoke English and constantly referenced Western culture. It made people think that Iraqis weren’t so foreign after all if they were versed in western language and norms. The book covers some of his posts from September 2002 to June 2003. Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog gives a mix of humorous and serious takes on the life of one Iraqi as things were turned upside down by the Iraq war.

Most of the book revolves around Munim explaining some of his daily thoughts on his life. You get a sense of his humor right off the bat when he listed what he needed to go through the expected bombing that would start the invasion. That included snacks, books and some wine. Munim would flip between all kinds of topics each day. Sometimes it would be about his work where he hated his boss. Other times it would be the music he listened to, always something western, his friend Raed or news about the coming war. One post from October 2002 showed his sarcasm when he wrote, “Draft of the US-British Resolution on Iraq: ‘…in order to restore international peace and security.’ Peace and Security. Ha. Bomb us, already. Stop pussyfooting.” In another in 2003 after the invasion he posted, “And three more governorates are going to get Internet this week: Tamim, Anbar and Salah al-Deen. Happy porn surfing to all.” Munim knew that the war was drawing closer when he first started his blog, but he was more interested in the other aspects of his life, especially his friends, which was why he first started writing. Still, you could tell the invasion was always coming up, and he especially liked poking fun at the U.S. and British who were demanding regime change and the western media that seemed clueless about Iraq.

As the war drew nearer Munim’s posts became more serious. For instance one day he talked about how his family was making preparations by taping up the windows so that if a bomb went off nearby the glass wouldn’t shatter and hurt someone. They also bought particle masks in case the government lit the oil ditches on fire that ringed Baghdad, and prepared a room for family members that were already coming in from other parts of the country to avoid the invading forces. Munim still had time to drive around Baghdad to see how other people were dealing with the coming conflagration, and he didn’t let events ruin his flippancy when commenting on things.

The aftermath of the invasion came to dominant Munim’s writings. Baghdad immediately fell into crisis after the fall of Saddam. There was mass looting by regular citizens, but gangs also came out to rob facilities. Guns suddenly became for sale across the city. He once got into a taxi where the driver said he had a grenade with him, and wanted to know how he could get it through American checkpoints. He came to question the competence of the U.S. occupation because it didn’t seem to know what it was doing and actively provoked the population. For instance, the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the military leading to large protests by ex-soldiers outside the Green Zone. At one event the Americans fired into the crowd wounding several Iraqis and making the demonstrators even angrier. The U.S. also began conducting mass arrests as the first signs of the insurgency began. Munim’s friend Raed set up a group to try to count war casualties in the main cities of the country. He organized groups from Baghdad down to Basra and found several thousand civilians had been killed or injured during the invasion. The horrors of Saddam’s regime were also being exposed as mass graves were being uncovered. There were also new powers in Iraq besides the Coalition. A never ending stream of Iraqi exiles returned and tried to lay claim to power. The Dawa Party put up lists of its members who had been killed by the Baath to show what it had sacrificed to try to change the country. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq came back to the country from Iran leading a large convoy through southern Iraq. One of the Iraqi royals, whose family had been overthrown in 1958, came to Baghdad. Munim laughed at the fact that he held a press conference in a suit under a blaring sun, while sweat dripped down his forehead. Even worse, his Arabic was horrible as he’d lived in the west. Munim had contempt for all of them, seeing them as opportunists. The Shiite religious authorities, the Hawza were also making its presence felt. It began organizing within universities, but only amongst male students. Male students also began telling their female peers to dress moderately at school out of respect for Islam. Munim gave an interesting perspective on the immediate postwar situation. It wasn’t just his personal experience, but a slice of Iraq as well as he was travelling up and down central and southern Iraq to help his friend Raed’s casualty group. He also commented on how Iraqi society and politics were all changing in just a few weeks of the overthrow of Saddam.

Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog provides a brief and not so serious first-hand account of one Iraqi immediately before and after the invasion. It’s both a comment on his day to day life, and what happened during the 2003 war and its immediate aftermath. Things were suddenly new, and full of opportunities such as Iraqis finally being able to openly express their views. At the same time, the Americans were quickly losing control of the situation, and all kinds of groups were trying to fill the vacuum left by the overthrow of Saddam, none of which Munim was especially happy about. At the same time it’s ironic that Salam Pax became such a personality. If he hadn’t known western culture would people and especially the media have picked up on him?

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