Baghdad Discovers the Internet

I know that I owe you a survey of Austrian reaction to the election in California of the “Governator,” but hold on. (Actually, by this point that’s probably the entry above this one; you’ve already read it.) While working on the French-press entry, I discovered serendipitously this great article in Le Monde about Baghdad residents finally being able to use the Internet. It’s entitled In the Internet Cafés, Baghdadis Discover the Joys of “Chat,” Erotic Sites, and “Real Life”, and yes, the whole thing brings to mind adolescents discovering sex.

Just imagine a place where, instead of slowly dribbling onto the scene at the measured pace of technological innovation and commercial execution (so that people have the chance to gradually acclimate themselves to it) the Internet just all-of-a-sudden shows up, because the political obstacles to its use have fallen away. That’s not quite the exact situation in Iraq, but it’s close. The recollections of Salam Pax, the famous “Baghdad Blogger,” published on-line here on the Guardian Unlimited website back in September (but still available), remind us that, even before Hussein was toppled, there was limited Internet access in Iraq, even from private homes, which however was seriously restricted by government censors. (You could still read most weblogs, though, for example – and it seems that Salam Pax got addicted to them in a big way.)

Now those censors are gone, at least thirty Internet cafés have opened in Baghdad, and interested Iraqis only have to deal with the sort of limits to access customary to Internet users the world over – that is, basically, none.

(Interestingly, the Le Monde article reports that it is Kurds who own almost all these Baghdad Internet cafés. Indeed, the Le Monde reporter, Rémy Ourdan, does most of his reporting from a certain Café Halabja, opened just after the American invasion, and named directly after the Kurdish town that Saddam Hussein attacked with poison gas in 1988. It’s not necessarily the case that the Kurds are more entrepreneurial – although that may be true, too. It’s just that the Kurds have had a chance to have Internet-without-limits (other than technical ones) for a much longer time, in their de facto autonomous state in northern Iraq that has existed since shortly after the Gulf War.)

No limits: Let’s talk about sex, baybee, let’s talk about you ‘n me. Café Halabja customers get into erotic sites in a big way, reports Rizgar, the customer assistant working there, and it’s not just your typical young-man-in-a-raincoat. Rizgar:

“It’s incredible. There are, of course, many single men. But there are also young girls who come in a group to have some fun here, and young unmarried couples who gain for themselves from the Net what they have never yet been able to know in their lives. And there was once an old, bourgeois gentleman, very dignified, who asked me to connect him to an erotic site. When he saw nude girls appear on the screen, he corrected his request and specified that he would rather see men. That was unexpected, but funny enough . . .”

OK, enough of that. There are all sort of other things that Baghdadi Internet-surfers are able to access now, for which they would have gotten in similar trouble for accessing in the bad old days: Israeli websites, texts by Jewish authors, information sites about gaining a visa to a foreign country, about gaining admission to a foreign university, and the like. When it comes to accessing this stuff, too, users still feel an uncomfortable hangover from before, when having the Mukhabarat (Saddam’s secret police) discover you were looking at such things meant severe punishment, including execution; so Café Halabja has built walls around each Internet terminal, to make it into a private cabin.

And then there are the truly marvelous uses of the Internet, namely re-discovering family members who long ago escaped to the West. Here it’s not just about e-mail; apparently, the Café Halabja has webcams set up with each terminal, making video-chat possible. So many users have been able to actually see the face of long-lost loved ones here for the first time, leading to many dramatic scenes. (And to tragicomedy: One little girl saw her father again on the screen after many years and, having yet an imperfect grasp of computer technology, proceeded to get up and look for him in the cabin, behind the computer.) Once they’ve pulled themselves together, naturally there’s a lot of lost ground to catch up on, lives to be updated, which these customers often do for hours on end – while the meter continues to tick, at 3,000 dinars (or €1,50) per hour.

“It’s magic!” is the reaction of many of Rizgar’s first-time customers. As another girl summarized for Le Monde, “Here one can escape Iraq’s realities and discover instead the realities of the world outside, of real life.”

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