Sunday, April 26, 2009

Understanding Iraq Through the Taxi Cab



"It has often been said, on those rare occasions when the brutal climate eased up a bit, that a beautiful day is wasted on Iraq." With these words, New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland begins his article, "Iraq's False Spring," on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, "Week in Review" section, for April 26 ("Iraq's False Spring").

A photograph of a young Iraqi watering beautiful flowers on a large field in a Baghdad park is set above the article. But the contrast between the photograph, on the one hand, and the pink coloring of the words "False" in the title, and the general negativity of much of the article is striking. Obviously the author and the editors at the Times sought to contrast the "illusion" of progress in Iraq as seen through the blossoming of beautiful flowers, with the "reality" of the situation on the ground as described by correspondent Nordland.

But the more important question is how does Mr. Nordland arrive at the negative assessments of Iraq that question whether any of the changes, such as the decline in violence, will in fact be durable? Clearly, the taxicab is one of his main sources in arriving at his assessments. Thus we learn that Mr. Norland has returned to Iraq after "an absence of six months." Riding in his taxicab from Baghdad International Airport elicits this comment: "Driving along the airport highway once was a trembling quarter-hour on a road that defied taming. Now it’s getting landscaping. Neighborhoods like Jihad alongside it once treated the highway like a carnival duck shoot. Now they’re pacified behind anti-sniper walls painted in bold diagonal stripes: yellow, orange, white, pale blue, purple, pink and green."

Other scenes from the taxicab window inform us that the Council of Ministers' compound has murals that offer scenes that "range from Sumerian through Greco-Roman to abstract Arabic." Correspondent Nordland also points to the famous water fountain by Iraqi sculptor and artist, Khalid al-Rahhal (b. 1926) that sits in front of the Rashid Hotel, and the efforts to revive al-Zawra Park, "once best known for its sorry zoo and its suicide bomb craters," but now hosting the "first Baghdad Flower Show." Mr. Norland goes on, "No doubt there are many better flower shows, but this one stunned with its incongruity. Flowers were almost as rare as beautiful days before, and as wasted on Iraq."

So what is the reader of the April 26 Sunday Times to take away from Rod Norland's article? Where are his references to some of the reasons violence has declined in Iraq and now Iraqis can pay more attention to beautifying Baghdad and other areas of the country, including organizing flower shows? The reader wouldn't have a clue because like much of the reporting on Iraq since 2003, change is never explained, usually because journalists haven't done the hard work of learning the intricacies of Iraqi society.

Where, for example, is his discussion of the Iraqi Peace Network (IPN), an official NGO with 60 chapters that developed out of the Nahwa al-Salaam ("Towards Peace") project. The IPN includes young and old, tribesmen farmers and urban professionals, men and women and secular and religious Iraqis, i.e., Iraqi from all walks of life? Why is there no emphasis on the Iraqi business sector? The Iraqi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IACCI) has been involved in developing middle level commercial and industrial projects since the fall of Saddam Husayn's regime, even during the worst of the sectarian based violence from 2004 until 2007. These projects have often brought together businessmen from different sects, e.g., Kurds and Arabs.

Nor can Mr. Nordland explain why Sunni and Shiite Arab youth still intermarry or why many youth paint murals depicting peace on blast walls in Baghdad and elsewhere as a message that they reject sectarianism. The public opinion poles that show a trend towards a unitary Iraqi state (not one divided along ethnic lines, and a rejection of organizing politics along sectarian lines are also not discussed. The January 31, 2009 Provincial Elections that occurred with no reports of violence and that were considered very fair according to Iraqi and foreign observers likewise does not appear to be an appropriate topic.

Instead Mr. Nordland has focused on such topics as the interest of wealthy Iraqis in Hummer automobiles, Iraqis Snap Up Hummers as Icons of Power ("Iraqis Snap Up Hummers as Icons of Power"; the return of vice to Baghdad ("Secure Enough to Sin, Baghdad Revisits Old Ways"); and attacks on the Baghdad gay community, ("Iraq’s Newly Open Gays Face Scorn and Murder"). These articles represent an attempt to discuss daily life in Iraq, as opposed to Iraqi politics, such as US-Iraqi relations, the security situation and the problems of integrating the Sons of Iraq/Awakening Movement into the army, police and government bureaucracy. While these "human interest" stories, such as violence against gays, are very important, why can't Mr. Nordland find time to focus on positive developments in Iraq? Is there any society on the planet where everything is going in a negative direction, with no positive developments?

When I was a graduate students many years ago at the University of Chicago, I drove a taxicab. Like my fellow cab drivers, I would expound on almost any topic my passenger raised. However, I never told my fares that the best way to understand Chicago politics and society was to ride around the city in a taxi cab. American reporters need to get "out of the taxi cab" as it were, focus less on interviewing the power elite in Iraq and elsewhere in non-Western countries, and put in the time and effort to really get to know they societies on which they are reporting. They owe that to both their Western readers and the societies, such as Iraq, that they describe and analyze on a daily basis.

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