Friday, May 1, 2009

Hometown Baghdad II: No 'Home Sweet Home' for Iraqis

By Sylver McGriff

Part II
In Part I of my story, I profiled producer Kate Hillis. This week, I take a deeper look into the lives of the three Iraqi students documented in her Webby Award-winning weblog documentary,“Hometown Baghdad.”

The Middle East. Baghdad. An oasis of palm trees, gold-gilded edifices, a heat with humidity thick enough to veil every view behind a blurred, wavy haze.

Like a mirage.

Saif, a 22-year-old student in his last year of dental college at the University of Baghdad, lives such a mirage. His hazy visual is a tease of a spectacled, eager student studying with enterprising intensity the x-ray of a set of damaged teeth. In this segment of Kate Hillis’ documentary “Hometown Baghdad,” we listen to Saif enthuse in heavily Arabic-accented English about his future. “I will earn my [dental] certificate, and go abroad to study to make higher certificates.”

Three months later, Saif’s future is revealed as a mirage.

A dejected Saif slumps in a chair in his undershirt, barely contained emotions – anger, frustration, helplessness - battling visibly across his shadowed face. “Nobody wants to live here if he feels he can live on the road,” he says in a voice scarcely recognizable as the same one that, 3 months earlier, enthused about his future. “So the government noticed that, and they decided something very, very, very stupid...[they] will not give certificates for doctors or dentists who are new graduated [sic] unless they serve 3 years in Iraq.”

His expression darkens. Behind the anger, there is no mistaking the fear. “They want me to serve 3 years here. I can’t bet on myself to live 3 days here!” His anger and fear fuse. “I will leave this country. I want to live. I’ll go to work in a gas station. I’ll go to work to sell peanuts. I want to live!”

This, from a student of a wealthy family that lived in comfort, nee luxury, before the war began. After the U.S. invasion, millions of wealthy and middle class Iraqi families fled their homeland to live as refugees in countries from Syria to the U.S. in order to escape the violence of daily bombings and gunfire in their neighborhoods between U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. According to UN estimates as of January 2009, this military violence has killed 1.7 million Iraqis, including Iraqi civilians – a statistic that remains unreported in U.S. mainstream media.

Though the term 'refugee' tends to conjure images of malnourished hoards living in tents on destroyed acres of land, Iraqi refugees are its upper and middle-class: doctors, lawyers and judges, scientists and technology specialists, college professors and teachers. It is from this highly educated crop that the “Hometown Baghdad” documentary students come.

"Curfew is 8 p.m. So there is nothing called life here,” laments 20-year-old Adel, a talented rock musician whose musical dreams exploded in the violence of the U.S. occupation. “You have no choice but to lay down, very low, and listen to the symphony of bullets.” This is the title of a disturbing segment of Hillis’ documentary: “Symphony of Bullets.”

In this segment, Adel, preparing to go out to meet fellow University of Baghdad College of Engineering students for a study group session prior to impending exams, is forced to make the decision to stay at home. “I was going to meet my friends at college to prepare for exams, but I couldn’t get out today. The reason is...well, why don’t you just hear for yourself.” In the background, a multitude of rapid, overlapping “Pop! Pop! Pop!”’s can be heard as gunfire explodes around Adel’s home.

Lowering himself onto the floor of his bedroom, he sighs, “I just better lay down, and listen to the symphony of bullets.” Though his voice is monotone and his expression cynical, the sudden beads of perspiration - not visible just moments before the gunfire - belie his attempt at indifference. This boy is afraid. And who wouldn’t be, with bullets whizzing around their head in the ‘safety’ of their own home?

“Unfortunately, American kids are only interested in Brittany Spears and her flat abs,” MTV News & Documentary producers informed Kate Hillis when she tried to pitch her “Hometown Baghdad” project to them. Such is a detrimental example of ignorance masking itself as bliss.

“Sadam is not Iraq. You can’t punish 26 million people for the actions of one!” a tearful, angry Iraqi student informs a group of American students in a “Hometown Baghdad” spin-off documentary in which a group of University of Baghdad students converse via satellite with a group of American students from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. In response, an American student defends the importance of oil to the U.S. economy. It is an astonishing, surreal exchange.

Ausama, a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Baghdad Medical School, recounts his story in the “Hometown Baghdad” documentary. “I wanna be a good doctor. I wanna get a global degree in have a Ph.D.”

On the University of Baghdad campus, one day, he encounters a group of female students. “I wish I could...hang out with my friends,” says one. “But as you know, we see each other only in the college. The situation is very bad, so I'm going to have to stay at home. I can’t do anything. I can’t even go out to the market and shopping, or even go out in a car.” Ausama nods with understanding. “I used to hang out with my friends until 1am...those places 
now are destroyed.”

Ausama, it turns out, is the son of the vice president of Iraq before Saddam took power. Ausama’s father was assassinated just prior to Saddam’s presidency, allowing Hussein to place his own choice in the office of vice president. However, Ausama’s feeling about the U.S. invasion is not one of infinite gratitude.

“Their [U.S.] soldiers are arresting [Iraqi] people just because they [Iraqis] have thoughts against the American presence here in Iraq. Iraqis are not allowed to sue for any actions they [U.S. soldiers] do.” He is referring to the fact that his grandmother’s home, in which he resides with her, has been repeatedly broken into, attacked, and nearly destroyed.

In a segment of the documentary entitled “Troops,” Saif ‘s opinion of U.S. troops dovetails with Ausama’s: “I don’t like the American army. I admit that. Because they began a’s a total mess. I can’t do nothing. No one can do anything. Because they are the man [sic] with the gun.”

Clearly, the clean-cut version of “mission accomplished” perpetuated by the Bush administration is not shared by Iraqis trapped in the crossfire.

Sylver McGriff is a student at Rutgers University with a double major in Journalism & Media Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies and a minor in History/Political Science. She is working toward becoming an investigative international correspondent and photojournalist.

For Part I, see:

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