An event took place in Baghdad, Iraq, on December 5, where a woman organised a joint bike ride for women. The event was called “I, the society”, and was set up in order to motivate women to bike in public.
This is Bahgdad, too. The photos are from the Facebook page “Republic of Baghdad“.
Christmas Eve yesterday in Baghdad, Iraq. The photos are from the Iraqi photographer Ahmad Mousa, founder of the @everydayiraq project. The captions are the original ones from Ahmad Mousa’s Facebookpage.
Iraqi Christian girls light candles on Christmas Eve at a church in Baghdad
Christmas mass in Baghdad, Iraq
Isn’t it sad that the supporters for the country of Iraq are constantly working against the odds? With the frightening delevopment of the ISIS terrorists, Iraq has once again taken several steps back from potential stability and coexistance – 11 years after the outbreak of the war they didn’t start themselves.
Now the Americans are out and Iraq is left on their own to fight against the dark powers that seem overwhelmingly strong. Do they have the capacity to resist? I asked my friend, the human rights activist Hayder Hamzoz, how he saw the situation. He is coordinator of Iraqi Network for Social Media, a community for bloggers and citizen journalists in Iraq, and he has been very active in promoting development and human rights through social media. He sees dangers not only in the threats of ISIS but in how the Iraqi government is handling the situation:
“The situation now is very bad outside Baghdad like in Diyala, Mosul, Kirkuk, Alanbar, and Salahaldeen,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of fake news are coming from ISIS through social media and we’re facing that through the trust news from the citizen there under the hashtag #insm_iq.
This can bring many potential dangers for us (activists, my comment), like they can say you are supporting the ISIS terrorists because you don’t have direct tweets to support the army, this comes from the government. Also, from ISIS they will attack us at least in social media, unless they have group in Baghdad to follow us, because the community knows us, because our sharing about the daily life in Baghdad and other provinces, and they share the fake news. Also, from government’s side again, since we’re teaching the activists how to remove the banners from the banned social media; from the governments perspective we are doing something illegal.
Can Iraq’s government handle the threat of the terrorists without becoming oppressors themselves? The challenge has two sides. I hope the activists won’t give up.
Photo: Copyright Hayder Hamzoz
On the evening of the Iraqi elections yesterday my Facebook newsfeed was filled with Iraqi friends and aquintances who happily showed their ink coloured fingers on snapshots uploaded from smartphones. Iraq has been tormented by more violence the last weeks before the elections – still so many Iraqis seemed happy and hopeful.
I caught myself thinking, when was the last time I had a snapshot of myself on election day? That was a long time ago. The last years I have been so worried by the increasing intolerance in Sweden that I haven’t enjoyed the moment of voting.
I asked Dina Najem, women’s rights activist in Baghdad whom I previously interviewed for my blog, on her thoughts about the election and the future. She answered:
“We hope in this elections we vote for new faces to be in our new parlement. We hope that they can hear our voices and we want a new Iraq. We want to build the future and change our country from the war to the new Iraq that can be developing and educating. The outcome will be better for us because we need to change and we need to achive our dream. I am very happy today because I believe in change, and all the Iraqi youth want that change.“
With such a hope for the future it’s hard to stay pessimistic. I’ll borrow some of the Iraqi courage this September, when our next election is due.
Photo credit: Dina Najem
This article was originally published on Brave New World’s website
After invading Iraq in 2003, the American troops needed assistance, and a large number of national staff was employed to help the often ill-equipped young soldiers with the cultural and linguistic challenges they faced. Being a part of the American military was often dangerous, sometimes lethal; many Iraqis who took on this mission were murdered by militias. Still local staff was easy to recruit: the jobs were well-paid and the inflation was sky-rocketing why other jobs hardly could make you earn a living.
I wanted to know how someone who was working for the Americans now is reflecting over the time served, 11 years after the invasion. And so someone put me in touch with Louis Yako.
Louis is a bit reluctant at first when we speak. He points out to me that I as a non-Iraqi will write about an Iraqi rather than the Iraqi writing the piece himself, and we end up speaking about the problematic issue of me as a white woman portraying Middle Easterners.
“When a Middle Eastern person is being interviewed it’s handled as a story,” he says.
He’s right; how often do you see a blog from the Middle East discussing Europe? But Louis still gives me the confidence to write about him and his experiences.
Even though he was only 21, with a BA in English literature from the University of Baghdad Louis was an attractive candidate for the Americans. And for him, his university had closed following the collapse of the infrastructure, and he was looking for a job.
“I didn’t understand much about was what at stake,” he says. “I wanted to practice my English, I was a young person.”
He got himself a job as a linguist in Kirkuk, one of the most violent-ridden cities after 2003; also his hometown. He spent in total two years working as a linguist, translator and local government specialist for US army, USAID and the US consulate. The duties varied but included working with the combat forces when they went to the villages to look for suspects. Two years later Louis had to leave the country:
“I was threatened personally because I worked for US army”, he says, without wanting to dwell more on the subject.
He has never been back.
Louis also had colleagues that were murdered, just like I had when working for a humanitarian NGO, even though my colleague was not killed due to his work but due to his religious belonging. We discuss this and the many Iraqis that have been killed by their fellow countrymen since 2003 when militias started their ruling by fear. But still so, and even though Louis had to flee his own country, he doesn’t want to fall into simple explanations.
“If we’re talking about the killers as ‘bad guys’ we’re using a slippery term. Nobody is truly good or evil; nobody is truly innocent or guilty. Once you call someone a bad guy; once you demonize somebody, you can easily apply your agenda on that person. We need to always understand before we use such adjectives.”
So what is his opinion now about the US invasion? He has a different take on it than the very obvious aspect of the actual war; instead the starting point to him is the many malls and American coffee shops that have popped up in no time, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Erbil, mall after mall is being established to meet the needs of both local people with new money, but also the many expats that have arrived with the contracting agencies and NGOs establishing in the region, sometimes spending their salaries of lunatic standards.
“The real invasion was cultural, economic, and political,” Louis says. The military was paving the way for something much bigger than that. Real invasion is when malls, Starbucks, and other corporations of what I call the ‘transnational mafia’ mushroom, things you haven’t made with your own expertise and by your own raw materials. If you don’t understand that you’re being duped you cannot do something about it. The first step is to understand that you’re not free.” He points out: “I’m talking in a global way, not only Iraqi.”
I want to know how he sees Iraq before 2003 and he wants me to think twice about my question. He wants to shift the focus from the issue of the previous regime versus the country after the invasion:
“We are often forced to compare Iraq between the previous regime and the invasion, as if there is no other option. Let’s put that aside. Yes, Iraq was much safer and it was one nation before the war. But as for killing dissidents, for example, they kind of do that all over the world in any regime. Have a look at Snowden for example.
Iraqis could have liberated themselves, but the West’s support of the previous regime made it impossible. The West always talks about the liberation of women – that’s bullshit. Women cannot be free in a society that is occupied and not free. The ‘women card’ is always played when they want to invade a country. But women’s freedom is inseparable from men’s freedom.
As an Iraqi in the middle of the invasion you didn’t have an agency, and if you did it was because you were a convenient actor in the game. The average Iraqi in the middle of the street has nothing to say. Some voices are purposely unheard.”
We come to talk about the international aid to Iraq and how effective it really is. I ask him what kind of support he thinks the country would really benefit from.
“The concept of support from the outside needs to be reexamined,” he says. “True support can only take place when any two parties are allowed to negotiate on equal grounds.”
“In what ways?”
“Well if I have to take your ideas and they become my reality that is not support, that is very dangerous– indoctrination. So far I haven’t seen two groups treating each other equally. The withdrawal of the US troops is irrelevant; it’s the systems that are important. The soldiers are like any regular employees doing their job. They don’t have much power or say on what should happen none of them. The US presence in Iraq is not military based; it’s political, in the oil fields, in the malls. It makes Iraqis sedated consumers instead of produce what we need by ourselves.”
Now a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, and also an American citizen, Louis was able to get out of the dangerous situation he once was in when he received a Fulbright scholarship to Lehigh University. But he points out that he was one of few and says that it was a bottleneck, where some threatened local staff with the US army got out and some didn’t.
Still he doesn’t regret his work experience with them or the missions he carried out. What is bothering him today is that the fatal consequences of the US invasion of Iraq doesn’t seem to interest people anymore.
“The US invasion is fading away as if it didn’t happen, that’s discouraging. Not because we always want Iraq to be on the front pages but because the lessons experienced should not be forgotten, in order not to repeat the same mistakes. It’s important for humanity. International conflicts are all connected to Iraq, even before there was the invasion of Iraq, you can’t separate them. I’m totally worried that forgetting Iraq is confirming what Hegel says…”
Louis pauses and asks me if I know what Friedrich Hegel says. I don’t, so he tells me:
“‘The only thing we learn from history, is that we learn nothing from history.“
Photo credit: Louis Yako
The beauty queen contest was once a natural part of the Iraqi society and the country is still represented in international beauty contests, at the moment being by Ruth Benyamin. But it’s no longer possible to hold the competition in Iraq. Here are some glimpses of former Iraqi beauty queens.
Thank you Talat Model Management for allowing me to publish these photos!
1947: Renee Dangour, the first Miss Iraq
1972: Iraq’s Maiden of Beauty Contest. Wijdan Sulyman, no 19, won the pageant and went on to represent Iraq in Miss Universe the same year
1972: Miss Iraq Wijdan Sulyman in the middle, during the Miss Universe Pageant in Puerto Rico
Miss Iraq’s logo 1987-2006
Photo credit: Talat Model Management
When was the last time you heard some positive news about Iraq? It’s been a while, huh? I’m as guilty of charge with my blog posts, but the suffering that often takes place south of Iraqi Kurdistan is hard to ignore, which is a strong reason to happier news from Iraq hardly making headlines.
When I first saw the page “Tourism in Iraq” on Facebook I wondered what was the idea with it. And who was behind it? It didn’t seem to be one of the many ironic sites you can find on the net; there was no “Postcards from hell” feeling over the updates. Beautiful photos showing nature and tourist sites in Iraq with explanations in English and Arabic were being posted on a daily basis. Photos from a game of women’s beach volleyball in Baghdad mixed with photos of new construction sites. Over one reads the conciliatory phrase “God bless Iraq from the north to the south.” I decided I had to find out what or who was behind this page.
Soon I was in touch with Nawar Al-Saadi from Baghdad, who started the Facebook page “Tourism in Iraq” with the intentions of enlightening people in Europe about his home country. He was more than happy to answer my questions.
“There is a marginalization of the civilization of Iraq. All current generations of young people in Europe believe that Iraq is only a country of terrorism, and that all Iraqis are people like the killers,” Nawar writes to me in one of the many emails that we exchange. “This is not true. Iraqi people love peace, love life, love people, social sciences and they hate retardation and intolerance. But because of the impact of media under the control of US, people only see the negative aspects about Iraq.”
Nawar tells me he is studying a PHD at the University of Bucharest in Romania, specializing in tourism.
“My thesis is about the role of international relations in the development of the tourism sector in Iraq,” he says. “I chose Iraq because I want to serve my country.”
How can tourism be found in a country that has been plagued by violence since the US invasion 11 years ago? Nawar starts his explanation with a small history lecture:
“Iraq is a veritable treasure house of antiquities, and recent archaeological excavations have greatly expanded the knowledge of ancient history. Prior to the Arab conquest in the 7: th century Iraq had been the site of a number of flourishing civilizations, which developed one of the earliest known writing systems; Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria.
The capital of the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad in the 8: th century and the city became a famous center for learning and arts. For this reason we started this page, with the wish to be the face of tourism in Iraq. Iraq is one of the most important countries in the world of tourism and antiquities, where there is the passage between two oceans and a bridge between three continents.”
Iraq really does have an amazing history, but I wonder how realistic the situation is for tourism in Iraq at the moment. I ask Nawar how he sees the future potential for this. He admits that it might take time, but is optimistic.
“Iraq is now in international openness, but it needs security and stability. After that it will take a great position in the global tourism. The reason is that Iraq has one-third of the effects of the world and the most ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia such as Babylon, Assyria and Sumer. As for religious tourism – Iraq has buried most of the prophets and saints of all religions in the world, such as the Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Adam, Prophet Noah, Imam Ali and many others.”
He has ideas on how Iraq will be an attractive country for tourists, in an age where sunny beaches in comfortable tourist resorts are reachable for so many:
“People outside want to know a lot about Iraq, especially that Iraq were in international isolation for three decades because of the wars. In addition to this most of the tourists in the world are bored after repeated visits to archeological countries as Egypt, Greece and Italy. Now people are looking for something new, a civilization to visit like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the palaces of Baghdad and tales of Shahriar and Chehrzac and A Thousand and One Nights. All of these things are famous in the world and taught in all grades. For this reason people are hungry for a visit.”
Women’s beach volleyball in Baghdad
Nawar has lived in Bucharest since 2011 and is planning to return to Iraq after completing his PHD. He says his family is living in Sweden but he has no plans to prolong his stay outside of his country:
“When I will go back to Iraq I will work in tourism development projects or a professor at the University of Baghdad, I will see next year.”
Nawar attaches many photos in his emails that he allows me to publish. He’s happy to share information and photos about his home country and his efforts have had effect. The page now has over 12.000 followers and he claims around 5.000 of those are foreigners (non-Iraqis), many of them European, and that he receives many emails with questions about how it will be possible to tourist in Iraq once it’s secure for foreigners to travel there.
Until then Nawar continues sharing information about his home country, posting photos such as the one of the sunny Tigris River with the message “Good morning Baghdad” and a thumbs up. Showing Iraq as the place it once was; the place of intellectuals, of culture and a beautiful nature, a place that it hopefully will become again. Far away from the depressing news in international media. Or as one of the messages on the page states:
“I never meant to be Iraqi, I’m just a lucky man. “
Photo credit (all photos): Nawar Al-Saadi/Tourism in Iraq
Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.
“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”
Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.
“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”
After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.
“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”
She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.
“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”
Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.
After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.
Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.
“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”
Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.
Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.
“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”
Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.
The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.
To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:
“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”
Participants in “Rights Without Words”
Photos: Copyright Dina Najem