In her ongoing blog, the Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend writes in English about politics, shattered days and her survival among the pieces of those days. The recent print collection of her first year of posts Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq is tense and upsetting, but because Riverbend’s voice is as strong and as agile as water moving over and around considerable obstacles, this book is also emotionally compelling and humorous at times. In October of 2003, she writes about how school supplies must be purchased for her cousin’s daughters, who cannot leave their house, not for a trip that adults can accomplish; war has made everywhere outside of the home too dangerous to take any unnecessary chances, and so the twenty-four-year-old Riverbend sets out with her brother and the girls’ parents to the “makatib” or stationary shop. “It felt a bit ridiculous – four grown people all out shopping for Barbie notebooks and strawberry-scented erasers…but I knew it was necessary.”
The good sense and thoroughness with which she selects two erasers for the absent girls – smelling different ones until the shop assistant seems “exasperated”; making sure the erasers look good because “kids don’t take care of their school supplies if they’re ugly” – this sort of no-nonsense care underlies much of the writing in Baghdad Burning. In many of the posts, Riverbend focuses her concern on educating Western members of her audience about her culture. She talks about the ritual of evening tea during which Iraqis discuss the day’s events, their conversation prefaced with “the gentle music of small, steel teaspoons clinking against the istikan” or thin glass teacup. In October of 2003, she explains the reverence that the Iraqi people have for palm trees. U.S. troops are bulldozing ancient groves of palm and citrus trees, collectively punishing farmers for not providing information about the insurgence, and she wants her American readers to grasp just how severe this economic punishment is. She writes that in Iraq the “death of a palm tree is taken very seriously,” for every one of the trees is “so unique, it feels like a member of the family.” The dates produced by the palm are treated accordingly: “families trade baskets and trays of dates” from their own trees with the enthusiasm of “proud parents showing off a child’s latest accomplishment.”
Baghdad Burning is not only a mature political accomplishment but a literary one as well. The descriptions of Iraqi life in the book are vivid and moving, and with them, Riverbend cuts through obliterating lies – that the U.S. is liberating Iraq, for instance – with care.