Sometimes there is nothing more gripping than the mundane. Consider “Baghdad Burning,” the online diary of a young Baghdad woman who goes by the pseudonym of Riverbend. Her story begins in the summer of 2003, almost five months after the American invasion, and by the end of the book version, compiled here in two volumes, she has provided us with the most comprehensive Iraqi view of the war to date. In one entry she describes her tragicomic efforts to battle boredom as she accompanies her brother and cousin on a mission to fill up the family car at the local gas station. (She gives up, she tells us, after the first six hours; the two young men will be forced to stay for another seven.) She documents shopping expeditions on which she takes note of the growing number of women who are covering themselves in hijab, or catalogs the travails involved in coping with daily power outages, such as setting up a bucket brigade to fill the family’s rooftop water tank. She offers a primer on how to react when you notice that soldiers are cordoning off your street:
My aunt went into a tirade against raids, troops, and looting, then calmed down and decided that she wouldn’t hide her gold tonight: her daughter and I would wear it. I stood there with my mouth hanging open—who is to stop anyone from taking it off of us? Was she crazy? No, she wasn’t crazy. We would wear the necklaces, tucking them in under our shirts and the rest would go in our pockets….
We went on with our usual evening activities—well, almost. My aunt wanted to bathe, but was worried they’d suddenly decide to raid us while she was in the bathroom. In the end, she decided that she would bathe, but that E. would have to stand on the roof, diligently watching the road, and the moment an armored car or tank found itself on our street, he’d have to give the warning so my aunt would have time to dress….
Here we were, 10 p.m., no electricity and all fully clothed because no one wanted to be caught in a raid in their pajamas. I haven’t worn pajamas for the last…6 months.
Americans, by now, can be forgiven for believing that we know something about the situation in Iraq; we hear about it, after all, every day, in what seems like benumbing detail. And yet, in reality, what we know about the lives of individual Iraqis rarely goes beyond the fleeting opinion quote or the civilian casualty statistics. We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them merely as appendages of conflict. The language of foreign policy abstraction and a misplaced sense of decorum on the part of the press and television also conspire to sanitize the…
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