On Salam Pax, Iraq, Nostalgia and Forgetting

Salam Pax

Salam Pax in Beirut for the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

Six years ago:

One day, like in Afghanistan, those journalists will get bored and go write about Syria or Iran; Iraq will be off your media radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Lucky you, you have that option. I have to live it.

Salam Pax, 2003

Four and a half years ago:

But I needed a break from this Dostoyevsky kid so I started reading The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi by Salam Pax, which is actually a blog, but on paper. This, I thought, was a crappy idea, but once again I was so wrong. For whatever reason I never got into the craze surrounding Where is Raed? even though most bloggers were mentioning him at least as often as I mention my gastrointestinal happenings. I probably checked out a couple posts, but something I’ve noticed is that when I come to a blog with 200 or 300 comments after every post, I get turned off …

But man, this guy’s great. And reading a blog in a book is so much better than reading it on a screen. Everything comes together so much more clearly and effectively when you read through an entire year of some person’s life in just a couple hours.

Me, 2005

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I remember almost everything. I remember the exact way that the furniture was arranged, the upholstery on the chairs and couches, the menthol smell of the senior citizens all around me in La Jolla’s public library. I read The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi from cover to cover in a single afternoon. And I remember thinking, ‘I’d love to grab a beer with this guy sometime.’ I didn’t want to be just one of the 400 commenters on each of his blog posts. I wanted to sit across a table from him and … well, you know, just chat.

Almost five years later and here I am in Lebanon grabbing a beer with Salam Pax.

But the scary thing: I don’t remember anything from his book, his blog, his life. I still remember the sensation of feeling impressed by the rawness and honesty of his words, but I don’t remember the words themselves. And I wonder, how many books have I read since that afternoon? How many blog posts? How many articles and research papers? How many words? And where did all those words go if not to my memory?

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The gang at All Songs Considered have attempted the impossible: to define the last decade in music. Reaching for grandiosity, Robin Hilton suggests that we have reached the “end of nostalgia,” at least when it comes to listening to music. No longer will we yearn for the songs of our youth, because they will always live along side each year’s new crop of music and sneak into shuffle mode. We don’t replace old songs with new ones; we simply purchase larger iPods.

This concern about our inability to forget, the increasing impossibility of re-inventing our past through the trickery of collective nostalgia, has been popping up again and again. Front and center is Viktor Mayer-Schönberger‘s recent publication of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

(A tangent here, but can we all agree that it is super super lame to refer to yourself in the third person on your personal blog?)

While Mayer-Schönberger was working on his book, computer scientists at the University of Washington were developing Vanish, a technology which destroys any type of digital message (including Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts) after a designated amount of time. Then there are lesser-known causes like this Argentine group encouraging their fellow netizens to delete more and hang onto less. (Hat tip Evgeny whose post “Social Media and Social Memory” is worth checking out.)

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I guess I feel a little out of place. All these people worried about their ability to forget, and here I am worried about my inability to remember. I was happy to find the post I had published just a few minutes after reading Salam Pax’s book. Sure, I could have kept those notes in my journal without sharing them, but I’m also happy to re-read the comments on the post. And it certainly doesn’t put an end to nostalgia. If anything, easy access to our uncorrupted past provokes us to dig deeper. I ended up clicking on the links to all of the bloggers who used to comment regularly here. Half of them now no longer write, at least not where I can see it.

Over lunch I told Salam how strange it was to look back on what I had written about him so many years ago, and how I wrote it. My writing style has changed. Growing up was inevitable. Salam concurred. He said he no longer likes to look back at the book because he hardly recognizes the person who wrote it.

Salam is still blogging, but as he predicted back in 2003, the rest of the world has moved on. Americans can now point our Iraq on a map, but their attention is now on the economy, health care, and Afghanistan. During the first year of the war in Iraq his blog used to regularly attract two to three hundred comments per post. Now, working in media development with the UNDP, the majority of his posts have just two or three comments.

Salam is still able to succumb to nostalgia. In March of this year he began a fascinating series of posts to mark the sixth anniversary of the fall/invasion/liberation of Baghdad by looking back at the journal he kept when the bombs first fell. Here is how he introduces the series, “Looking back, one last time“:

In three weeks time it’s the 6th anniversary for the fall/liberation of Baghdad.

Baghdad Falls / Baghdad is liberated.. all semantics. What is fact is our life in Iraq as we knew it ended at that day.

Since the start of the war in 2003 we had to move house three times for various reasons. A lot was given away or lost in those moves including a notebook I used as a diary during the days when we had no electricity or internet access, it also contained flyers and other things from those days.

When the bombing stopped a couple of weeks later and the first place with internet access opened I sent all the notes to my blog friend Diana Moon and she posted them for me on my blog. The blog posts from that time are still online, you can go check them out.

While looking through the boxes of our belongings I found the notebook, with newspapers, photos and the flyers I had kept. As five years have passed and we’re entering the our seventh year of our post-war/post-Saddam lives I thought it would be good to look over these notes and share what I have from that time with you. I will upload it all online and throw the pieces of paper I have away. Hanging on to all of this for six years is enough.

His recollections and reflections of the oil fields being set on fire, the leaflets that were dropped by coalition airplanes, the hacking of every Iraqi email address, and the bombing of the Ma’amun telephone exchange are all worthwhile reads.

Also, check out Leslie Plommer’s feature piece about Salam in The Guardian from January and Salam’s own thoughts about moving back to Baghdad this year after living two years abroad.

1 Comment

  1. As always, such a pleasure and an education to read your words :) and salaams to Salam Pax.

    Reply

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