Friday, June 02, 2006

I am working on two new 'Video Blogs' for Newsnight and as usual it takes a bit of time until I find out what it is I am looking for in Baghdad these days. I started going around the city with a camera 6 days ago. and it took me all these 6 days to know where I was going with this.

I thought this was going to be about violent death and how it has become part of our lives but I guess it is turning out to be about more.

In the 80s Kanan Makia wrote a book about Iraq under Saddam called The Republic of Fear. Today Saddam is in prison and we Iraqis are constantly being told that we have been liberated but when I look around I still see a Republic of Fear.

Life seems to have lost its value and we are shutting up and shutting down because of fear. This is about how when everyone came to destroy what was wicked they killed what was good as well.

(OK so the last paragraph is lifted off a Pet Shop Boys song but you know I believe that the wisdom of centuries can be found weekly on Top Of The Pops. I am shallow).

I started off wanting to ask do life and death take on a different meaning when we live with them everyday? Or does fear of death stay the same, even when it is a constant presence?

But I quickly realized that fear of death isn’t what has been turning my stomach into a tight knot whenever I go near one of the so-called hot zones in Baghdad. It is the life we live that fills me with fear.

I have newly found out that I should avoid getting out of Baghdad through a certain road to the south because the Iraqi Army battalion situated there really hates my family name. People driving through that route towards the city of Hilla have been arrested just because they have that name.

The reasons people are killed for are absurd to the point of being funny. On the top of my list is wearing shorts. Teenagers in my neighbourhood have been killed for that unforgettable crime and probably it is the reason why two sportsmen who play for the Iraqi Tennis team and their trainer have been murdered.

I have been going around trying to film for this video blog for five days now and it has been a constant struggle. People do not want to talk. They politely ask me to take away my camera they do not want to get in trouble.

You know that thing about barbers being big chatterboxes? Well that is everywhere except Baghdad apparently. I spent a whole morning going from one barber to the next asking them to tell me why they are so afraid and they just won’t on camera. I finally found one who only agreed to do it after I showed him that we could do it without showing his face or the name of his shop or where it is.

Physicians are also difficult, and so are bakers. I did find a baker who was willing to talk on camera but when I was walking out it was one of the workers in the bakery who followed me and told me “you do realize we have families who depend on us staying alive”. I know, and I know why everybody is so reluctant to talk. Because we don’t know what is the next thing that will get us killed. The deal with bakers seem to be somewhere between selling to Iraqi Army or Police and being the wrong religion in the wrong neighbourhood but no one knows for sure why they are being targeted.

A friend of mine, after seeing how desperate and frustrated I was getting trying to get someone to talk on camera, said that I should go to the Kadhimiya district. People will talk there he said. Right. I haven’t been there for ages and I had no reason to believe that it will be different there, but I was getting desperate. I decided to go there the day after a bomb exploded by a bus in that neighbourhood and killed 13 people.

In case you didn’t know Kadhimiya is a Shia district, I have a Sunni family name. The knot in my stomach was getting tighter the closer we got to the check point through which we get into the market area near the Kadhimiya Shrine. What if they ask me for my Iraqi ID? They had an explosion here yesterday and I have a Sunni family name? No this is not paranoia. I have the wrong name and I need to get myself a new forged ID with a Shia name. Anyway, I was lucky they were happy with my NUJ card (the first time I was really happy I had it on me, I usually fear that if people see it they think I’m a foreign journalist).

Once inside I had the biggest eye opener. I saw the future of Iraq, or at least Baghdad. Inside the barricade and past the checkpoint was a piece of the old Baghdad. Shops full of people, all relaxed and smiling. Everybody wants to talk and tell me how their lives are and I even got invited to have tea and accepted the invitation without thinking that this man saw my camera and he is just delaying me until the kidnappers arrive.

You know what was different? Kadhimiya is set up these days like a fortress. Entrances are tightly controlled, no unknown cars get in and they basically had their own secret police there; when I lingered too long with my camera in front of the shrine I was quickly called inside and a security guard demanded IDs and wanted to look through the film, I thanked heavens again for the NUJ card.

So people I give you the future of Baghdad. Districts will become tightly controlled fortresses that are ethnically/religiously homogeneous. Outsiders are only let in after being inspected and checked. I really want to go back to Kadhimiya but only after I get my fake Shia ID.

Having trouble getting into a Shia district doesn’t mean that I am OK in Sunni areas. Sunni areas are even tougher. To start with they have their own set of fashion rules. There is a whole What Not To Wear spin-off for the west of Baghdad and the prize isn’t just a special wardrobe but you get to stay alive.

Let me give you a quick run down. Let’s look at men’s fashions first. Things that can get you killed include:

A goatee beard
Jeans that are a bit tight or are too fashionably “distressed”
Colourful shirts
Hair Gel!!!
A necklace
A Shia name (anything that has anything to do with Imam Hussein or a member of his family)

Before I started shooting for this video blog I was talking to one of my uncles about this whole death and value of life thing. He told me that today our lives are as valuable as an empty bullet casing left on the road after a shooting. Absolutely worthless.
I found a couple of empty rounds on the street the other day, I keep them in my backpack with my camera as a reminder.

It is tough. Everything is taking double the usual effort and the constant rejection is undermining my confidence.