Sunday, June 25, 2006

Meet up with Jordanian bloggers

As a result of my last post and observation on Jordanian reactions to Zarqawi’s death, I had a pleasant and rewarding meet up with a few Jordanian bloggers last Wednesday.

The rendezvous was at an unpretentious café at Jabal Al-Luwaibda called the Paris Library, which seems to be often frequented by workers of the French embassy in Amman.

4 bloggers, out of 7, turned up, and sooner rather than later they were all deep in intense discussion like old friends.

The bloggers I met:

Lina, a radiant, energetic young woman, was actually the first to respond to my request to meet and had arranged the whole meeting. She has what I believe to be the characteristics of an activist and community leader.

Mariam, a friendly young lady of Palestinian background, back home at Amman, on a break from studying anthropology at London. From her remarks and her blog posts, she is a profound student of the human character.

Laith Zraikat, a 28-year old IT manager and co-founder of the Arabic web site, also a non-practicing dentist. Their motto is to: empower people to enhance their lifestyle by providing community-based innovative web services. I was actually surprised to learn that they hosted several thousand Arabic language weblogs, in addition to a myriad of other services.

Roba, a young, reflective arts student, with an affable American accent, also of Palestinian background.

We briefly discussed the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the state of the Iraqi blogosphere after the initial small talk. They seemed a tad surprised that there were no attempts back in Baghdad to arrange an Iraqi bloggers get-together at any point, a fact that I have lamented in some earlier posts. Salam Pax did once suggest a small meeting back in 2003, which never took place, and I tried the same last year during my blog hiatus when I collaborated with about 30 other Iraqi bloggers to create an Iraqi group blog, a listserv, and a portal (the site is dormant now). We learned at the time that about a dozen of us lived in the very same neigbourhood, but other than small meetings with 2 or 3 bloggers, there was no group meet up.

Jordanian bloggers, on the other hand, regularly meet and collaborate on several projects. They have a successful blog portal at Jordan Planet, which is also a good introduction to the growing Jordanian blogosphere. Bloggers in Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain have also arranged several social gatherings, in addition to maintaining a strong blog conversation and interaction, despite political or ideological differences.

The Iraqi blogosphere, even though it was the first in the region, and probably still the largest, remains fractured and divided, with a few notable exceptions. All out attempts to establish a community or dialogue have miserably failed. Iraqi bloggers very rarely challenge or link to each other (I’m probably even guilty of this myself), and if they do they choose to link to bloggers who share their viewpoint. I don’t really think that is what blogging is about.

Back in 2003, when there were only 2 or 3 Iraqi blogs, and a lack of alternative news sources from the country, I started blogging in the hope of providing ordinary citizens with a voice and an outlet to the world. I was specially encouraged by Hoder’s experience with Iranian bloggers, but I was not just trying to copy his approach. I envisioned a legion of Iraqi citizen reporters all over the country, from Dohuk to Basrah, blogging about their daily lives at a time when the mainstream media concentrated on American casualties, suicide bombings or the irrelevant antics of imported Iraqi politicians.

Iraqi blogs have passed 200 in number today, but less than a dozen are well known. This is largely because most bloggers live in a void. They are like isolated islands.

I don’t want to turn this post into a critique of Iraqi blogs, so I guess I’ll leave it for another time.

The conversation with the Jordanian bloggers shifted to a diverse assortment of topics, from pan-Arabism to tribalism, defining a Jordanian national identity, the genealogy of Christians in the Arab world, local politics, student unions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, democracy and whether Arabs were ready for it, school curricula, the World Cup, and the horrors of visiting the dentist. All in all, a very interesting exchange.

They also invited me to their next meet up, which will involve a much larger group of bloggers. I’m looking forward to it.

Other than that, I’m still waiting for my visa interview on July 3. My 2 weeks residency will be over tomorrow, so I should apply at the Interior Ministry to extend it for another month.

I think I’m having withdrawal symptoms being away from home and family. The violence in Baghdad is at the same level, or worse, notwithstanding the new security operation in the capital. My family is reporting street battles almost every day in their area, and I can’t help but feel concerned for their safety all the time, which affects everything I try to do over here. Somehow, there seems to be no end at sight to this mess.

I’m also going to try to post a photo blog of interesting places in Amman during my stay soon.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I arrived at the Queen Alia airport at Amman around 8 PM Monday. Believe it or not, I was at the Baghdad airport before 1 PM, even though the flight was scheduled at 4. Most of the time was spent navigating security checkpoints and getting clearance to enter the airport.

There were 2 or 3 Iraqi army checkpoints which checked IDs, passports and tickets, followed by another with dogs sniffing the vehicle, a Sonar test for the vehicle, then a small facility where Iraqi security guards frisked me and meticulously went through my suitcase. I noticed while I was being checked that the vehicle was being searched again. After that, we set out on the highway around the runways, flanked by Saddam's former Radhwaniya and Abu Ghraib palaces, and what I assume to be the US airport detention camp. We just went through a final tiny, dog-sniffing, frisking, suitcase-searching checkpoint before we entered the passengers terminal.

I had already spent about an hour going through security, and I discovered that I had to wait at the terminal for the earlier Iraqi Airlines flight to leave before checking in at the desk and weighing my luggage.

The scene at the airport terminal vaguely resembled an experience at the Allawi Al-Hilla bus station. Passengers shouting and complaining that they had booked a flight but their names were not on the list. An Iraqi Airlines desk clerk was trying to solve their problem in between wiping his forehead every 10 seconds. Every now and then, he would give a vacant stare in the midst of passengers huddled around him, reassuring them that there would be a seat for everyone because not all who booked a flight would arrive in time. It appeared that Iraqi Airline agents usually sell an extra dozen tickets or so for each flight, in what it terms 'reserve' seats, in order to compensate for people who don't turn up for their flights. Most of the time it works, but sometimes people have to spend a night at the airport to be added to another flight that has empty seats on it.

Thankfully, my name was on the list. I worked really hard to get that ticket in time this week, since IA flights were all booked until mid July.

There are only 2 IA flights to Amman each day, and another for the Royal Jordanian Airlines. IA tickets are at $622, while RJ's are at $960.

Ran into a couple of interesting characters at the airport terminal. Head of the Sunni Religious Endowments Board, Abdul Ghafour Al-Samarra'i, and the head of the Iraqi Accord Front, the aging Dr. Adnan Al-Dulaimi. I recognised Dulaimi's figure and headcap dozens of meters away. He slowly limped to the gateway, surrounded by bodyguards in beige suits. I was standing alone in the middle of the terminal, and while he walked by he nodded at me and greeted me with a 'Salamu Alaikum'. Nice, I was thinking, he's going to stand in line like everyone else. But he was ushered into the gateway by Iraqi policemen and airport security.

We weighed our luggage, stamped our passports and headed into the waiting terminal. Interestingly, foreigners, mostly American, were all sitting on one side of the terminal, while Iraqi passengers were on the other. We waited for another hour here and went through just one teensy search before the flight left at 6 PM, 2 hours after its scheduled time.

The plane did the obligatory spiral ascent above the airport to reach the right altitude before leaving the area. A precautionary measure to avoid insurgent anti-aircraft missiles from the nearby Radhwaniya, Abu Ghraib and Yousifiya areas. A few first-time Iraqi passengers were not familiar with the procedure, and I tried hard to ignore the curious middle-aged bald man next to me who kept leaning against me to peer out of my window. I sat in the back to keep away from families, but the man's wife and kids saw to it that I wouldn't enjoy a half-hour nap.

Jordanian customs officers were a bit more rigorous in their questions at the Amman airport this time. After learning about the purpose of my visit, they asked for my college acceptance letter and other visa-related documents. Then they strangely asked about my tribe and residence location in Baghdad. He seemed happy to know I was from a Sunni tribe. I can only assume, though I may be mistaken, that Jordanian authorities are trying to limit potential Iraqi Shi'ite immigration to Jordan.

Jordan rarely grants permanent resideny to Iraqis nowadays. But most Iraqis go around it by paying fines, leaving the country for a few days then returning to renew their temporary residency, or by settling illegally. I have dozens of relatives and friends living here for the last 2 years or so.

I was given 2 weeks. The officer insisted that it was enough for the visa application procedure.

I checked in at the US embassy this afternoon. I was only asked for the visa fee cheque and they gave me the application forms and an interview appointment on July 3.

I met an old college friend at the embassy. He was also accepted in an American college, but he mentioned that he was applying for the second time at the embassy, having been refused a visa the first time.

I guess I'm just going to have to bide my time in Amman for now. My family is planning to leave to Syria in about 2 weeks to spend the summer. I'll try to hook up with them later after I get the result of the visa application.

Amman is the same as I left it last time. An ever expanding bustling city that gives the false impression of modernity and a progressive, enlightened society. Yet, every Jordanian I spoke to thinks that Zarqawi is a martyr. One taxi driver frankly told me that one should not rejoice over Zarqawi's death, for one simple reason: Americans and Iraqis are happy about it.

That about sums it up.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Death of a Salesman

My last post on Zarqawi at the Guardian's Comment is Free blog.

Suffering from internet problems again. I should leave Baghdad to Amman this week. Wish me luck.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

7th Century Baghdad

Baghdadis are reporting that radical Islamists have taken control over the Dora, Amiriya and Ghazaliya districts of Baghdad, where they operate in broad daylight. They have near full control of Saidiya, Jihad, Jami’a, Khadhraa’ and Adil. And their area of influence has spread over the last few weeks to Mansour, Yarmouk, Harthiya, and very recently, to Adhamiya.

All of these districts, with the exception of Adhamiya, are more or less mixed or Sunni majority areas. They make up the western part of the capital, or what is known as the Karkh sector (the eastern half of Baghdad is called Rusafa). These areas also witnessed an influx of families displaced by the violence in the Anbar governorate, since many residents of the western part of Baghdad have roots in western areas of the country, such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

People who live in the mentioned districts claim that unknown groups have distributed leaflets (often handwritten), warning residents of several practices, ranging from instructions on dress codes to the prohibition of selling or dealing with certain goods.

The instructions vary between neighbourhoods. Amiriya and Ghazaliya have the full menu, while others stress only 2 or more of them. So far, enforcing the hijab for women and a ban on shorts for men are consistent in most districts of western Baghdad. In other areas, women are not allowed to drive, to go out without a chaperone, and to use cell phones in public; men are not allowed to dress in jeans, shave their beards, wear goatees, put styling hair gel, or to wear necklaces; it is forbidden to sell ice, to sell cigarettes at street stands, to sell Iranian merchandise, to sell newspapers, and to sell ring tones, CDs, and DVDs. Butchers are not allowed to slaughter during certain religious anniversaries. Municipality workers will be killed if they try to collect garbage from certain areas. Private neighbourhood generators are banned in a few areas. And the last I heard is that they are threatening Internet cafés and wireless providers.

As a result, the remaining Iraqi women who haven’t yet covered their heads are now buying veils and more moderate dress. My sister now covers her head when she goes out to college, as do most of my female relatives. Trousers and short skirts have long been abandoned. Guys are now either wearing Bermuda shorts that cover their knees or just plain trousers. Me? I have insisted so far to keep my hairy legs exposed.

Other Iraqi bloggers who have posted about this phenomenon: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I will try to get hold of one of these fliers, but so far no one has produced any.
And while the fliers may be a rumour, the killings of those who failed to observe the guidelines are not.

The capital is rife with all kinds of morbid rumours. Some examples below:

- An armed group stopped a minibus full of high school female students. 2 girls, who had their hair exposed, had their heads shaven clean as an example for others.

- 4 young men wearing shorts near a local bakery at Mansour were all shot in the legs.

- A young high school student at Ma’moun was shot twice in the head with a notice saying that he was killed for wearing jeans.

- A lady was forced out of her car and stripped naked near the Nida’ mosque in Adhamiya.

Why don’t they just blow up the city and erect tents instead? It would make life much easier. We could go to school or work riding on camels. We could sit at the mosque all day, stroking and scratching our filthy beards and waiving flies away, while our women recline in their harems.

In short, they are trying to take us back to the 7th century, so we can experience the simple life of the prophet and his pious companions. We should abandon everything and anything that was not available at the time of the prophet in order to be true Muslims.

Yet the followers of this simplistic, backwards ideology have no problem with using hi-tech explosives, IEDs, machine guns and RPGs. According to their sick creed, it is not against Islam to detonate a car bomb at a bustling market or to shoot a kid twice in the head because he had gel on his hair. No, that is okay in Islam.

Day to Day in Iraq

I am posting again at the NY Times 'Day to Day in Iraq' blog. Excerpts from my most recent posts below. They're behind the Times Select firewall, and I can't repost them in full until another month has passed.

The Emirate Strikes Back:

Abu Hassan is the generator owner. I had a vague notion of what might have taken place, but I hoped I was wrong. I found myself rushing across to the spot that people were still pointing at. There was a body indeed, lying face down, in a pool of blood, and it was Abu Hassan.

I crouched next to him and tried to check his pulse, but my hands were shaking and I couldn’t feel a thing. His neck was still warm and moist with sweat. Some familiar faces from the area cautiously approached me. “Is he still alive?” they asked. “I don’t know.. I don’t know,” I nervously shot back. “But do something. Take him to the hospital. Now.”

They tried to find a car, but it seemed that no one wanted anything to do with it, or were trying to make excuses. Someone stopped a taxi but the driver said no when he saw the corpse. I was still next to Abu Hassan’s body, trying to make sense of what just happened. Even now, when I try to remember those traumatic moments, I get a hazy picture, as if the whole incident was taking place in a dream, and that I would suddenly wake up and go out to find Abu Hassan in his mechanic’s overall, smiling under his big gray moustache as he pours gas oil into the generator.

When I tried to turn him over so they could carry him into a car, my hands touched his blood soaked shirt. I could now see that he was shot four times in the chest. There was also a bag nearby with a box of peaches, medication and a Pepsi bottle; he was obviously going to take that home to his kids. I stared in his anguished face again, then at my bloody hands. And that was when I momentarily lost it.

Reading Iraqis' 'Horrorscopes':

Gemini: Your parents have been nagging you to lay low and leave the country. Yet you are worried about an imminent death squad attack against your area. Plan your escape route carefully and keep a spare grenade for emergencies.
Attack day: Thursday.
Grenade No.: 5

Leo: A tip from one of your friends wrongfully ends you up in an
occupation detention camp. Learn to distinguish friend from foe. Avoid female American jail wardens, unless you like to explore
the arts of exhibitionism and BDSM.
Arrest day: Friday.
Prison cell No.: 26

Libra: Things are slowing down in your neighborhood. Your fellow watch-team members have nothing to do but smoke and trade mobile ring tones all night. It would probably not be a bad idea to take some time off from your guard duties and pay more attention to your love life.
Lucky day: Monday.
Street No.: 27