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The Guardian chases down Salam Pax

Rory McCarthy of The Guardian has apparently tracked down Salam Pax in Baghdad, and describes him as a “quietly spoken, 29-year-old architect”. (Found via Tim Blair). Pax is still unwilling to completely reveal his identity, at least partly because he is gay, which is a relatively uncomfortable position to be in Iraq, and also no doubt simply because in a society as paranoid as Iraq must be after decades of Saddam Hussein, speaking too publicly is not something that comes naturally. No doubt the people who believe he is a Ba’athist will seize on this, but Pax seems no friend of Saddam Hussein. (This seems to be happening. Those who found Pax convincing are impressed by the Guardian article, while others are less impressed). He may not necessarily be a friend of the invading British and American forces, and he may not have enjoyed seeing Iraqis surrender, but he does seem to genuinely detest the former regime. (That doesn’t necessarily mean he was entirely unconnected from the regime, of course).

Like all Iraqis, Salam was familiar with the dangers. At least four of his relatives had gone missing. In the past year, for no apparent reason, one of his friends was summarily executed, shot in the head as he sat in his car, and two others were arrested; one was later freed and another, a close friend, has never returned.

Not only had Salam criticised the regime, he had written openly about the fact that he is gay. It was a frank admission in a repressive dictatorship and one that, even in the new, postwar Iraq, which at heart is still a conservative, Islamic society, represents a significant risk. And so he continues to guard his identity. “I am not going to be the first one to carry the flag. I hide behind computer screens,” he says

The simplest explanation may just be that he is introverted and rather shy, like many bloggers.

The article gives the story from Pax’s point of view about how he became a blogger and how his message got out to the world, which is more than a little interesting. He also rather seems to resent the fact that some people assumed that he was a fake because he knew so much about global popular culture. He describes them as “culturally arrogant” and I think he is probably right. People in western countries don’t always realise just how far the details of popular culture stretch into the rest of the world. (The producers of the Academy Award ceremony in Los Angeles are always trying to prevent presenters and winners from making obscure industry in jokes because they don’t believe that viewers outside LA will get the jokes. They are wrong. The viewers in Tashkent are fully aware who Harvey Weinstein is). Pop culture does stretch even to war torn dictatorships, at least among the children of the middle classes.

What do I think? Well, I always believed Pax was authentic in the sense that he was really an Iraqi and was really blogging from Baghdad on his own initiative. As to who he actually was, I found it hard to say. I found the “Tokyo Rose” theories suggesting that he was somehow an agent of the Ba’athists deeply unconvincing, although we should be probably prepared for intelligence agencies to try this trick next time we fight a war. He was obviously middle class, and from a family that largely kept their heads down, and this seems confirmed. It is not impossible that he has some less than savoury connections, but my feeling is probably not. Oddly, I think that this is someone who is exactly what he claims to be.

However, for now, he continues to write very well

A day before that I talked to Rory from the Guardian. He paid for a great lunch in a place which had air-conditioning and lots of people from foreign. You know how much you would pay for a pizza before [attack of the media types II] started? Two thousand five hundred dinar, a bit more than $1. Do you know how much it costs now? Six thousand dinars, a little less than $6. Plus the exchange rate is totally fucked up and the real estate market is getting bizarre. You can follow the trail of the foreigners by how much things cost in a certain district. Of course, Rory didn’t buy me the 6,000-dinar pizza – that would have been too cheap. He paid an extra $3.

What I would like to know is the precise details of how the real estate market is getting bizarre. If we can get some details, this is likely a better way than most of finding out how things are actually going in Iraq post-war.

The Guardian have also signed Salam Pax up to write a regular column for them. This is a smart thing for them to do, and I hope he has negotiated a good fee. That said, Jeff Jarvis’ observations on how the Guardian have edited him already tend to suggest it might be best if we continue to read the blog rather than the newspaper.

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5 comments to The Guardian chases down Salam Pax

  • mad dog barker

    The Iraqi real estate market is “getting bizarre” because no one really knows who owns what. As in the FSU after the decline of communism there is a mad rush to stake a claim on anything.

    The “big” reason often being that the could be oil under them there fields. So any field is a entrance ticket to the black gold lottery. And with millions of dollars at stake – why not err, bend/invent/circumnavigate the rules a bit.

    Of course and as usual it is not the “populo picolo” who get the deal but the “pecce grosse”. It is at times like this that the concept of property must be questioned. I am not saying that it is wrong to own property, far from it, but it will be interesting to discover who ends up “owning” what and how they came by it.

  • Wise words from Mad Dog.

    A surprising amount of post-Soviet reform in the 90s consisted of socialist bureaucrats seizing even more control and wealth under teh guise of privatisation than they had been able to under socialism. I know the idea is that this will work out in the long term, but, as Mad Dog warns, at the cost of some very bitter disillusionment among ordinary people with important ideas like freedom and ownership in the meantime.

    Having allowed socialist crooks to hijack capitalism may yet sweep popular socialism back into favour in Russia, Iraq and elsewhere if we’re not careful.

  • I was about to write exactly the same thing Mad Dog proposed. Not being in Baghdad itself it is hard to be sure, but my guess is that the same kind of people who knew what to “borrow” from the National Museum are now using the billions of dinars they skimmed during Saddam’s reign to buy up, or secure their rights to properties in and around the capital, as well as to arrange for controlling interest in any semi-functioning factories or land cooperatives. I would not be surprised, at all, if lots of middle-class elderly people were offerred 5-20K to sell off their central Baghdad apartments for great apartments in the suburbs, or as an “exchange” for a country house, or just to change the papers to list these buyers as legal residents of the apartment on the condition that when they pass away apartment stays with these newly adopted family members. Needless to say some will pass away faster than others.
    I hope that I am wrong and this will follow a different pattern than Moscow or St. Petersburg but I think it would be highly unlikely.
    ps. The only possibility to slow down such behaviour would be to have US issue a clear proclamation making all deals made now that relate to real-estate and significant non real-estate acquisitions subject to future review and repeal. It will not stop everyone who is well-connected, but might at least slow down the pace of thieving-up the country until things stabilize and people figure out which way is up a bit better.

  • No real disagreement from me on any of this. When we watch the Iraqi real estate market, these are the some of the sorts of things we should be watching for.

  • Jason

    On a related note, there were some stories during the run-up to the war about real-estate prices around Iraq rising in anticipation of a coalition invasion. I seem to remember an interview with an Iraqi pouring thousands of dollars into a renovation of his riverside resturaunt right before the war. When asked about this he responded only that it was a very good location, so why shouldn’t he improve the resturaunt?