When I arrived in Baghdad in late June 2003, I found a city stuck some 20 years in the past, rapidly trying to catch up. I was held wondrous by the sight of the streets, seemingly just ripped from my TV screen, since I had been in the preceding weeks glued to the news reports about Iraq. Now, actually here, I was greeted by the sight of hundreds of men, all mustachioed of course, like their recently toppled leader Saddam Hussein, milling about the main roads and thoroughfares, with little purpose, unsure of what to do in a country stripped of its identity and purpose almost overnight. Searching, these people were allowed to discover the technologies that had been until then denied to them by a paranoid and controlling regime. The shops of Baghdad as a result were filled with satellite dishes, washing machines and other electronics that offered something new.
The national, analogue, phone system had been rendered useless and there was no local mobile phone network apart from one that had been set up after the invasion for the use of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was now running Iraq. Communication, as I knew it, was reliant on satellite technology and that first morning in Baghdad, I did not have either a satellite phone or any other kind of device to connect me to the people I was coming to stay with, in the Karadah neighbourhood. I had been told we would meet at the National Theatre, close to the house, but we had agreed I would let them know when I had arrived so they could pick me up. The driver who had brought me from Amman did not know Baghdad well and was reluctant to help me look for the theatre. Instead he dropped me off in a part of Baghdad that I didn’t even know the name of and was directed to the door of a building where I could see other people sitting and waiting in a ground-floor, glass-walled shopfront.
There, in the office of a transport company affiliated to the driver and convoy that had brought me across the border from Jordan, in an 11-hour journey including waiting time on either side as my passport was stamped, I sat worrying and pondering. On the Iraqi side of the border with Jordan, I was one of the first people to receive an official immigration stamp since the US-led invasion. In the passport control room, a very tired but pleasant American soldier had directed me, in halting Arabic, to read the signs telling me to “wait here” and then motioned me to sit, while Iraqi officials dealt with the travel documents piled in front of them. I was very curious about the soldier, as he seemed such a normal boy, suddenly plucked from his life back home and finding himself in a strange country, surrounded by a strange people who did not share his frame of reference. At one point, he exclaimed, to no one in particular, that he had been craving a Mochaccino, showing the room a water bottle of brown liquid, a sad attempt to make his own.
No one responded and he shook his head and smiled, returning to his job, as he stepped up to inform the latest person to come through the door to “Iqra” (meaning to read in Arabic), the soldier clearly bewildered by how he had found himself there. In hindsight, this was a sign of the great gulf between two societies; an Iraq that had stopped evolving, having taken no part in globalisation up to that point, and an America refreshed by the paradigm shift brought on by the internet and all of its possibilities.
For Iraqis, coming face to face with both the military might and the advanced technology of the United States, the result was what then American President George W Bush called “shock and awe”.
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqis had been denied access to mobile phones, satellite television and the internet. There was no infrastructure for modern communications by the time of the US-led invasion in 2003. Cars were typically a decade old. When Saddam fell and the people had the freedom to make more choices, they rushed to install satellite dishes, bought consumer electronics, watched Hollywood films, logged online in internet cafes and imported newer BMWs and Mercedes. However, the country was almost starting at zero in terms of how technology was used in everyday life. Despite this, Iraqis took to it with enthusiasm and a surprising amount of confidence given how few of them had been exposed to new technologies up to that point. They were ready and eager to enjoy the lifestyle that those in Europe and the United States had and the freedom to embrace technology seemed an important part of the way life was lived in the West.
My own experience of Iraq, the country where I was born and where I worked as a foreign correspondent in 2003, was bittersweet. So much hope, optimism and excitement, turned to fear and despair. Yet fast-forward to 2019 and there are signs of a cohesive country emerging from war, most recently caused by ISIS, before its reign of terror fell in 2017. Despite the scars left by years of conflict, reconstruction is underway, with the economy chugging along and oil production on the rise. The heavily militarised Green Zone at the heart of Baghdad has been opened to the public just three months ago, symbolising the end of an era of war. There is hope for Iraq.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief for The National. A British national of Iraqi descent, he helped launch the newspaper Iraq Today in 2003