Saturday, May 01, 2004

Unbelievable Internet cafe stories

I was chatting with a close friend of mine a couple of days ago. He has a degree in software engineering but he works at an Internet cafe owned by relatives of his until he runs across better career opportunities. As some of you may know, Internet usage in Iraq prior to the war was the lowest in the region. SCIS (State company for Internet Services) which was the sole Internet provider in Iraq estimated Internet users as less than 15,000 in late 2002, this is in a country of over 25 million. And before 1999, Iraq was the only country in West Asia with no Internet connection at all.

Computer parts and fibre optics imports to Iraq were prohibited under UN sanctions because they were 'dual use'. The regime once described the Internet as an 'American globalist plot to enter into every house', plus the severely damaged telecommunications infrastructure all made it look quite impossible. That was until the year 1999 when we started to hear that the Internet was being slowly and cautiously introduced to high ups in the government and to facilities closely controlled by the regime such as the Military of Defense, Mukhabarat, Special Security, and the Military Intelligence. After a while it was suddenly and unexpectedly implemented into most governmental facilities and to Baghdad University. The regime had obviously recognised by then that the Internet could be used as a convenient propaganda tool, provided it would have central and strict control to be ensured it was used properly. The first Iraqi website on the net was launched by the Iraqi News Agency and Al-Zawraa newspaper (owned by Uday) was the first online Iraqi paper.

The first Internet center was opened to the public in early 2000 at Alawi Al-Hilla near the central Baghdad train station. I vividly recall visiting it a few days after it had opened. I had no background information on the Internet or how it was supposed to be used back then, I had intended to find some resources for a college report and I remember myself roaring at the polite employees in rage because nothing had appeared in the web browser when I typed 'prosthetic dentistry' in the address bar. When word had spread, Baghdadis started to wait in long lines for a vacant computer in order to browse at that center. People were thirsty for any link to the outside world. More Internet centers were opened in Baghdad, and later in governorate centers. By 2003 we had 42 centers all over the country with a total of 546 computers (still not enough). It was illegal to own a modem back then unless you had special authorization from the government, the ban was suddenly lifted and SCIS announced that email (only) account subscriptions were now available for home users. Of course it was still expensive for the majority of Iraqis, and you had to sign under a long list of conditions and commitments which included brief passages from the Iraqi criminal law and warnings of up to 20 years imprisonment if they were breached, something like that. I admit the list was scary but the temptation was overwhelming.

I signed up. After a few days I had figured out how to access Usenet, Yahoo Groups, and the Internet Movie Database by email. A couple of months more and I discovered a fascinating method to access the web by email!! There were a few archaic services, one called www4mail (I think), and another by the University of Vancouver. A few days more and I had my hands on tons of similar 'useful' services. You can imagine the excitement of a deprived soul over that discovery, and what was even better is that it was (we thought it was) uncensored. And like the generous young chap that I am, I started to pass out these services to friends and family. In less than a week the whole country had mastered the trick! Of course when I look back at the situation now I think that I was most probably insane to spread that kind of information. After a few days my email account (along with thousands others) were discontinued. I remember waiting in panic for some time for the dreaded knock on the door, but much to my relief it didn't come. We were lucky, but also foolish enough to actually visit the Ministry of Information later to ask what had happened to our accounts. We were presented with a roll of paper with hundreds of names on it and told that if our names were on the list then our accounts were cancelled because of 'misuse'. Our names were there all right, so we resigned and went back home. The next day I opened another account in my mother's name. I acted like a good boy after that, and the aforementioned services got blocked anyway.

Internet home accounts were finally allowed to the public in 2002. We all subscribed even though it was heavily monitored and filtered, and we continued using them until after a few days of the war.

This post is getting super long and it seems I have digressed. I wanted to share a few amusing stories about some new and first-time Iraqi Internet users that my friend was telling me the other day. Sooo here we go; first story. My friend was helping an elderly lady open a webmail account, he left her slowly typing an email message to a relative. She asked him later to send the message for her. My friend, always so kind and helpful, just went over and hit the send button. "What did you dooooo?!!" the woman shrieked at him. He told her that he did what she asked for. "Didn't you write thanks at the end of the letter??" she asked him, obviously insulted about that fact. "Errr, no. Didn't you finish writing?". She said that she did but that it was awfully rude of him not to remind her to say thanks. My friend was confused at this point and he offered to send another email of thanks to her relative. "No, too late. I want my letter back. Bring it back please". A senseless laugh was emitted from the guy on the computer next to them who was overhearing their conversation, the woman glared at him and he cut it short. S told her that he couldn't possibly do that since he had already sent it. The woman looked bitter so my friend humourously said that if he could run fast enough up to the roof to the main Internet satellite dish he might be able to retrieve the email message just before it was transmitted into space. "Why are you still standing here?!" She screamed at him, "What are you waiting for?!".

Another amusing incident was when a solemn middle aged man entered the cafe and asked to check his Yahoo email account. My friend (who I will call S) opened up the Yahoo Mail main page and left the man to his business. After what seemed like ages, the man called for him complaining of a problem with his account. "Oh, you're still here? What's the problem?". The man said that Yahoo wasn't accepting his password. S asked him for his user ID and password. "My user ID is and my password is baghdad" the man replied in all seriousness. My friend was significantly surprised and told hin that wasn't possible at all, but the man sweared that he used that account all the time at other Internet cafes and that it worked, he then proceeded to rant about the cafe's poor connection and how he had spent a couple of hours achieving nothing at all. S let him leave without paying of course after this exchange. He said the man was elegantly dressed and looked respectable and that it is was no way he was playing any tricks just to browse for free.

There was another guy who had just opened a new webmail account with the assistance of my friend, and then out of the blue said that he was waiting for an urgent reply from an acquaintance of his and that he wanted it sent specifically to this account. S told him that he can't possibly do that if the other party didn't know about this new account. "Oh damn, this happens all the time" the guy said, evidently disturbed. It turned out later that the poor fellow was under the false impression that he couldn't use the same email account from two different Internet cafes, and that he had to open a new one every time he visits a new cafe. He showed my friend a long list of email accounts and passwords on a scrap of paper each with the name of an Internet cafe in front of it. S told him that he was wrong, but he wouldn't listen and insisted that it worked that way. S says there was no use trying to convince him otherwise.

Some tribal sheikhs once entered the cafe and asked my friend to contact some sheikh in Syria by MSN messenger for them. S asked them for an address or an ID but they didn't have any. "Oh no need for that" they told him, "Just say we are from the Albu----- tribe. Everyone knows us". S tried to make some sense from their statements but to no avail. They were convinced that just typing their name somewhere would get their relative sheikh to find them. He inquired if they had a website or an email address or even a phone number, but they didn't know what he was talking about and they also looked insulted by his questions as if he was implying that 'they didn't know anything about the Internet'. My friend resigned and pointed outside in the direction of another Internet cafe and told them that they would find a center not far from here which is specialised in tribes and that they would probably have better luck over there since he was not very experienced in such matters. The sheikhs were very pleased to hear this, and they thanked my friend wholeheartedly with crushing handshakes and left. Thankfully he never heard of them again.

The greatest laugh of all was when someone hurriedly came to the center with a box in his hand and told S that he had to send this box immediately to a contact in Jordan. My friend told him that this was an Internet center not a delivery service. The guy impatiently explained that it was urgent and that he'd rather send it on the Internet because he tried a telecommunications center and they couldn't help him. The package contained a pair of high heels, lipstick, and some cosmetics. My friend was dumbfound and started to wonder whether he was being put on or something, so as usual he pointed the fellow to another center across the street. Shortly later, the guy returned and breathlessly gave S a photo. It was a photo of the box contents. Someone at the other center had took it, printed it out and handed it to the guy with the box for some indiscernible reason. S asked him what he intended to do with the photo, and the guy just broke down in hysterics cursing everything and everyone from Saddam Hussein to Paul Bremer. Before my friend could say anything, the guy had left.