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Cry Me A Riverbend II

Friday, June 04, 2004

Who Is Riverbend?

Riverbend's description of the ways Iraqis are working around the current difficulties in her neighborhood and country (intermittent electricity) is worth the read to say the least. She had to clean the roof with a relative(?) so the family could sleep on it during the night.

Despite her new sleeping arrangements, our girl may be turning toward optimism despite her better judgement. Her preview of her review of the new government is that it is "interesting". That's ringing endorsement coming from her. She said she would soon put out more on it. She hasn't gotten to it yet for which I can hardly blame her. However, I really wish she had posted a follow-up entry since I could talk more about this. (That's right. Riverbend must sleep on the roof and it's my problem. I'm just like that.)

This combination post/cesura does give me a chance to talk about Riverbend in general. which is fortuitous, I guess. Who is Riverbend? Others have speculated so I will too. It makes sense I suppose, since this blog is indirectly named after her.

Okay. Back to Riverbend. What do we know about her? In her first post she told us:
I'm female, Iraqi and 24.
Early on she gave an explanation of herself and ever since I read it, I've believed her family was well placed in the Saddam regime. Which explains why as early as Aug. 26th, 2003 she spoke openly of nostalgia for Saddam:
Maybe come April 9, 2004, Bremer and the Governing Council can join Bush in the White House to celebrate the fall of Baghdad... because we certainly won't be celebrating it here.
Who is "we" and where is "here"? This is what Riverbend wrote:
A lot of you have been asking about my background and the reason why my English is good. I am Iraqi- born in Iraq to Iraqi parents, but was raised abroad for several years as a child. I came back in my early teens and continued studying in English in Baghdad.
"Early teens" means she returned to Iraq early in the 90s. But before we go any further I need to deal with what has caused the most speculation about her: her English. It's not just good. It's flawless. I'm pretty good at "literary voices" and can usually detect an accent in writing, but she has none (from this American's point of view). She says she was raised "abroad" and she's "bilingual" which suggests she speaks her native tongue and English. So "abroad" is not France or Russia. It's somewhere where the native language is English: Britain, Australia, South Africa, Canada, America, the Carribeans (Am I leaving anything out?). But once again, she has no "accent" in her writing...no non-American idioms or words. For "abroad", I'd say we're looking at America or Canada.

Most Canadians live within 150 miles of the US border. But I think the claim that she's "bilingual" almost dispenses with the possibility that she was raised and educated there. I "was raised" across the lake from Canada. I have several close Canadian friends, and, personally, I've never met a Canadian (teen-aged and up) (even those in Western Canada) who would admit to not being able to speak French (even though, excepting French Canadians, most seem to speak it only marginally better than most anglo-Texans speak Spanish.)

Besides, there's no "Canada" in her posts. She bears no self-conscious pose of superiority over American culture in which Canadians stew. Her tone when referencing aspects of the American movies and government is like an American's. She lacks the subtle quaint false presumptions most Canadians have about Americans from experiencing the US almost entirely from US television yet (because of proximity) believing they know it. There is no self-perceived distance from America. She usually reads like an American exiled to Iraq. She explains her knowledge of American culture in that Iraqis closely follow American culture, but this doesn't answer it for me. Put her posts side-by-side with the Jarrar boys and with The Iraq the Model brothers (whose English is also very good), and I think any American ought to see the difference.

So, I'm convinced that "abroad" means she lived in America. Her parents left Iraq with a little lateefa (I've been learning Arabic with Faiza), but returned home with an American teenager. I suspect she has continued to correspond with American friends over the years which explains why when she (for example) makes a reference to George Bush being selected by the Supreme Court it has the ring of a young American Democrat rather than a boiler-plate slur she picked up from a liberal website.

Okay. So in her early teens....her family returned to Iraq. Return to Iraq? In the early 90s? When would that have been prudent or necessary. The Saddam regime was a paranoid, orwellian government. During the sanctions, it was very hard on average Iraqis. America is full of Iraqi ex-patriots, but none that were looking to return until after the Ba'athists fell, and even now they're waiting for the security to improve. Why would her family have chosen to return to Iraq. The only plausible excuse that I have been able to come up with was if they worked at the Iraqi Embassy in the United States. It was closed during Gulf War I. A few diplomats continued to work out of the building after it was taken over by the Algerians, but I doubt whole families would have remained, at least not for long. This has been my opinion since I first read her old posts, and I've only had this suspicion confirmed for me in her subsequent posts -- nothing has made me seriously question it. (Perhaps I've overlooked something...let me know)

For an example, this understanding places in a new light for me her story about losing her job with the sofware company (state owned it seems) after the fall of Saddam. She describes a society under Saddam (which I fully credit) in which women participate freely in the workforce as professionals. I'll also note that reportedly under Saddam, Iraqi ethnic Christians (Ouch! Niki cracks a stick over my back for that one) had unparalleled freedom in Iraq compared with other Middle East countries. Which is to say, they were not singled out for persecution any more than other ordinary Iraqis. Tariq Aziz was the only Christian in the Saddam inner circle, but Christian representation in the Saddam government was probably unparralled in the Middle East). Riverbend is paid as much as her male coworkers. She interacts with them normally.

Then the invasion came and suddenly everything changed. About three months after the start of the war, she returned to her office. Her description of the transfer of power at the company convinces me it was state-owned. The old director died during the second week of the war (coincidence? suicide? causualty? murder? She doesn't say) and now a lot of new people along with the old are arguing over who will take over. The place is in disorder...there are few women there but there are women.

The first person she meets is a male coworker. He says:
he wasn’t coming back after today. Things had changed. I should go home and stay safe. He was quitting- going to find work abroad.
Next the two of them meet a department head (one they had worked with before):
We paused on the second floor and stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when they thought things would be functioning, he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes stayed glued to A.’s face as he told him that females weren’t welcome right now- especially females who ‘couldn’t be protected’. He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because ‘they’ refused to be responsible for what might happen to me. Ok. Fine. Your loss. I turned my back, walked down the stairs and went to find E. and my cousin. Suddenly, the faces didn’t look strange- they were the same faces of before, mostly, but there was a hostility I couldn’t believe.
As I first read this, I found it confusing. People with whom she had worked at ease suddenly found her presence unacceptable because she's a woman. There are other women there, but she is sent home because she's a woman. People don't turn on a dime like that. They don't. And no amount of arguments will convince me they do. Her male co-worker says he isn't coming back either...he's looking for work out of the country. Why was the situation there so uncomfortable that he was leaving immediately as well? (CMAR II quietly drums his fingers on his desk for effect)

Something is being left out here. I fully believe that that Islamic conservatives moving into the company probably looked forward to straightening out all this "unlawful" female involvement in the workforce. But I don't believe a department head would feel it necessary to look a lowly female programmer in the eye (as was apparently typical before the invasion) if he didn't want to. If there was hostility in the heart of her coworkers three months after the war, it was there before the war. It just wasn't in their faces. And what about the new environment was forcing the male programmer out as fast as Riverbend? But what if the department head and Riverbend's other coworkers felt they had to treat her with prudent respect because of her family connections? And what if those very connections are part of the reason for the hostility from her coworkers...and the hostility toward her male coworker as well? In her most recent post, Riverbend says that people in Iraq get government jobs based on who they know:
Some of the ministers are from inside of the country (not exiles) and the rest are from abroad and affiliated with different political parties. This will, naturally, determine the types of employees in the various ministries. You can't get a job these days without the proper 'tazkiyeh' or words of approval from somebody who knows somebody who knows someone who knows someone else who has a friend who has a relative who... well, you get the picture.
Is that really very different from the way it worked before? Is that how people got jobs at her company? Last August was she was in the uncomfortable position of her sponsors being the losers? When the department head says "expecially women who 'couldn’t be protected’" were unwelcome, there are more ways than physically that a woman can be protected or lose her protection.

Throughout her posts, but especially in the early ones, Riverbend identifies the fall of Saddam with the rise of Sharia oppression. She draws a picture of Iraqi life before and after Saddam as one of secular freedom and theocratic totalitarianism. She expressed repression from Imam-led militias well before we heard about it in the news. This is so like Raed's recent posts that I posit that many backers and participants of the Saddam regime justified its crueties and corruption in that it was "better than Iran" or Saudi Arabia or any other Islamic country you can name. This point is not without merit. But just as I said in my last Raed post, Saddam was increasingly becoming less even of a secular alternative to the Islamic regimes. The answer is not for her to hope for (or even expect) the new Iraq to fail. I'm not superstitious but saying things too loudly and often have a way of helping them come to pass. The Ba'athists are not coming back (if Iraq is anything but cursed), and the Coalition vison is the only one that will see her once again be able to safely go out wearing blue jeans after 4pm again.

[UPDATE]
Reader BK has some further speculation about Riverbend including her name...

CMAR II--
Your speculations on the I.D. of Riverbend is very good. Like many others, I have guessed she was party affilliated. And I've asked her about the American idioms (no reply--no surprise). The timeline you lay out seems to fit the story as I know it. I also think her neighborhood is very near the bend in Euphrates River (hence Riverbend) which is very near the government offices. The structures and surrounding area are under repair so the electricty would come and go often. The university of which she frequently speaks is also not far nor is the cafe at which she meets her freinds. She's an uptown girl from across the river where many government workers lived. I could be wrong. Riv writes beautifully.

[UPDATE]
From the Comments at Healing Iraq as part of a discussion about the January 2005 elections in Iraq, a poster named Insider From Baghdad writes:

Riverbend is the eldest daughter of a Saddam-appointed ambassador, and a high ranking Ba'athist, to a western country during the eighties.

Raed Jarrar is the eldest son of a Palestinian refugee who was driven out of the Gulf after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and granted asylum in Iraq by Saddam's regime.

Both persons do not count in this historic day and will instead make it to the dustbin of history.

Then he writes:

I am a Sunni from the Zayuna district in Baghdad, originally from Mosul, and I personally know both the people I have mentioned.

I have sent an email to Zeyad asking him to confirm that this poster was at least writing from Baghdad. No word at this time. If I hear from him I will update this post. Of course, I can't vouch for the source, but it sure sounds like confirmation of what I have said here and what others have deduced about the Jarrars.

[UPDATE]

See this post for more information on special privileges granted to Palestinian immigrants during Saddam's reign. This could help explain why freedom under "occupation" today seems so much worse to the Jarrars than life under Saddam.

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