DATE September 18, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Editor Ian Katz discusses tracing and verifying the
identity of Baghdad blogger Salam Pax for The Guardian
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you want to know how the Internet has changed the flow of information
during war, consider the story of my guest, Salam Pax. Since a few months
before the start of the war in Iraq, he's kept an Internet Weblog, a blog, of
his experiences and observations in Baghdad. He didn't expect many people to
read it, but he was wrong. It was mentioned in news reports and caught on in
places around the world.
Since he was criticizing Saddam Hussein's regime, he couldn't use his real
name. So he wrote under the pen name Salam Pax, combining the Arabic and
Latin words for peace. His love of Western pop culture led some readers to
wonder if he was truly an Iraqi. But the British paper The Guardian tracked
him down in Baghdad and, with his permission, started printing his pieces in
the paper. Now his blogs are about to be published in book form in the US
under the title "Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diaries of an Ordinary Iraqi."
Salam Pax is in London this week doing publicity for his book. Before we meet
him, let's talk with Ian Katz, the features editor at the Guardian, who
brought Salam Pax's Weblog to his paper.
How did you find out about Salam's blog?
Mr. IAN KATZ (Features Editor, The Guardian): Well, I actually came to it
quite late. A couple of my colleagues had been reading it fairly regularly.
And a couple of days, probably two or three days before the war, one of them
sent me a whole chunk of it and said, `You just have to read this.' And I sat
down and read it, and it was this extraordinary compelling account of life in
Baghdad in the run-up to the bombing, of all the detailed preparations that
people were making, of the changing cost of a ride to the Syrian border, of
people bringing down the shutters on their shops. And it was just the most
compelling thing I'd read on Iraq in the whole run-up to the war. So I then
looked to the Web site and sat down for probably two or three hours and
virtually read the whole thing.
GROSS: How did his reports compare to what your reporters were saying about
what was going on in Iraq?
Mr. KATZ: Well, I think there were two or three things that were instantly
striking. The first was that here was an Iraqi, he was plainly telling it
exactly as he saw it. And, I mean, I've reported from Iraq a few times myself
in the past and, in fact, come away more than once after a week or two in
Baghdad thinking that I didn't have a clue what people thought because they're
speaking in such incredibly difficult circumstances. I mean, you know, we
often forget that until the war, any Western journalists, any journalist
working in Baghdad was working with a mikoverat minder, so no one in their
right mind was going to say exactly what they thought.
And suddenly you picked up this blog, and here was Salam describing things
that you wouldn't imagine any Iraqi talking about. I remember reading about
him at one point saying that he'd just heard there were going to be
presidential elections and saying, `I don't know whether to laugh or cry,'
just the sort of comment you wouldn't get in a report from a Western
correspondent in Baghdad.
I remember another where he talked about noticing that ditches had been dug
around the city and speculating that the regime was likely to burn oil in them
to create a sort of smoke screen, something that actually did happen later in
the war. Well, you know, there's no way any Iraqi would have talked to you
about that and would have talked to a Western journalist because it would have
been suicidal to do that. So the first thing that was really striking was
that you had someone speaking very, very freely and being, in quite a thinly
veiled way, critical of the regime.
And I'd say that the other thing that struck me instantly was that Salam was
clearly a type of Iraqi who we'd had very little exposure to. One slightly
felt reading the reporting, however good the reporting, that Iraqis tended to
be kind of pigeonholed or tended to be depicted as kind of slightly
hysterical, rather desperate, always fearful, never kind of lighthearted,
funny or sort of Western in there sensibilities. And Salam was all those
things. I mean, suddenly you had this Iraqi who one moment was talking about
the coming war, the next moment was talking about Massive Attack and how he
wished they'd get on with it and release their next album. You know, he would
talk about listening to his Coldplay albums, and he would refer to articles in
The Economist; he loved the New Yorker. And it was like hearing a voice that
was similar to your own, and I think that added to the appeal of it.
GROSS: So how did you trace Salam Pax's identity? It's something a lot of
his readers wanted to do but were incapable of.
Mr. KATZ: Well, the truth is, we got lucky I think. One of the--Fye,
journalist at The Guardian, had actually had contact with Salam before we
published the first extracts of his blog. And, in fact, we'd asked then if we
could write something about him, and Salam had urged him not to, I think,
feeling that it was one thing to write what you felt on the Internet, but once
a foreign newspaper started reporting it, it would place him in real danger.
So actually, we had actually held Fye the first time.
We didn't hear from him for quite a long time, and no one heard from him
because he didn't post on the Web for probably at least six weeks I think
during the war. But when he finally did come back at the end of the war and
post a kind of catch-up on the war, one of the things he mentioned in a very
off-hand remark was one of the characters, one of his friends and one of the
regular characters in the blog--He goes by the name of G in the blog--had done
some translation work for The Guardian. So what we immediately did was mail
all The Guardian correspondents who'd been in Iraq and said, `Look at this
description, look at this guy, G. Can you figure out who it is? Because if
we can get to G, then we're one step away from Salam.'
And happily, G was quite a forceful personality who most correspondents in
Baghdad remembered, so we got to him pretty quickly. And then, happily, Salam
agreed to meet us, and we ran an interview with him fairly soon after that.
GROSS: So were you confident, when you met Salam Pax, that he really was
Salam Pax? I mean, the thing on the Internet is, you never really know who
anyone is, if they're--you know, they could say they're somebody and really be
Mr. KATZ: Well, I mean, Salam Pax isn't Salam Pax. That's irrevocably clear.
GROSS: Well, you know what I mean. I know that's just a pen name, but--you
Mr. KATZ: Sure. I mean, what I was confident of, and I was confident of it
a long time before I met him-0I mean, I only met him physically for the first
time about two weeks ago when he came to London, but what I was confident of
virtually from the off was that, you know, this was someone sitting in Baghdad
because I've spent enough time in Baghdad and read enough about Baghdad to
just have a feel that this was someone who was writing about what they were
looking at. The level of detail was staggering, and you know, from what we'd
seen of the performances of intelligence agencies in recent years, they would
be doing a lot better than that have done of late if they'd managed to create
something with this level of verisimilitude.
So while not knowing exactly who he was, I was satisfied very early on that
this was someone writing from Baghdad. And in a way, we felt initially that
that was enough.
GROSS: Ian Katz, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KATZ: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Ian Katz is the features editor of The Guardian. He wrote the
introduction to the new book, "Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an
Ordinary Iraqi," and it's the Weblog of Salam Pax.
And with me now is Salam Pax. Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. SALAM PAX ("Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi"):
GROSS: Now that Saddam Hussein is out of power, what can you tell us about
who you are? I know you don't want to reveal your name, and frankly, your
name wouldn't mean very much to Americans anyway.
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: We wouldn't be likely to recognize your name, but what can you tell us
about your life, your identity, and if you can't tell us much that's fine,
too. I'll leave that to your discretion.
Mr. PAX: I studied architecture. I spent, almost in total, half of my life
abroad but have been in Iraq for the past seven years. No, it's more like
eight years. And my English comes from the time I was abroad, I was in
Austria. I started architecture there. I finished it in Iraq. I worked as
an architect for a couple of years in Iraq before the war. I was not in Iraq
during the first Gulf War. Actually I was in Austria. And these are, you
know, small, little memories about that and how it happened and when we first
got back to Iraq. So, I mean, that's basically it. Yeah.
GROSS: How old are you?
Mr. PAX: I am going to be 30 in a couple of days.
GROSS: During the war, what did you think the risks were if your identity was
Mr. PAX: I'd be hanging from a ceiling somewhere. You know, what happened
at the first week of the war--you know these satellite phones? They were
tracking people down who were communicating through these satellite phones,
putting them on TV, calling them traitors. And you know they're going to get
executed. They basically were going after every single person who was, in a
way, giving information to the outside world, saying what's happening,
because, you know, they're going into war and every bit of information might
be of some importance.
I didn't realize that right at the beginning. I was writing--there is this
one week at the beginning of the war where the Internet did not go down, where
we still had Internet and I was posting. And I was writing about all the
places I was going to, what I saw there, what the bombing was like. And then
I saw that on TV and I'm thinking, `This is not good.' I was seriously
worried, and besides, there was on BBC World Service and Voice of America a
report about the Weblog. And that was actually the scariest time I've ever
had, was this two weeks before everything totally fell apart, and I was sure
that they're never going to track me down because the Internet is down;
they're worried about other things. But the first two weeks of the war, they
were looking for people, and I was really, really worried.
GROSS: One of the amazing things about your story is that not only did the
Saddam Hussein authorities know who you were; your parents didn't know who
this Weblogger was. Your family had no idea that you were that guy. How did
you manage to keep it a secret from your own family?
Mr. PAX: Oh, you know, that's the beauty of doing things on a computer on
the Internet. Nobody has to know anything. You're sitting there and you
have, you know, a couple of windows open. One of them is work; one of them is
something on the Internet. And the other one is the, you know, the blogging
site. And you'd write stuff all the time, and of course, when they found out,
my father would go, `Oh, so this is why you're spending so much time in front
of your computer.' It's not very difficult. You just don't talk about it.
You make sure that you do not talk about it. There is only one friend, Raed,
the site is called Where is Raed? And he knew about it, he used to read it
all the time. He's in Jordan.
GROSS: So did your family feel like you had endangered them by writing the
Mr. PAX: Oh, Yeah. Yeah. There was a moment of--of course, they only found
out a couple of weeks after the war started because that's when the BBC thing
went on. So, yeah, there was a moment where, `You know that you could have
gotten us all in serious trouble. You know that this was very, very
dangerous, and we all were just very lucky,' which is true, very, very, very
true. It was very reckless. It was sometimes foolish. It's just, you get
carried away. There this space where you can say what you want to say, and
you just do it. It's this, you know, outlet. You can talk there. People
respond to you.
GROSS: You mentioned in your writing that there were points where you felt
like your readers knew more about what you were thinking and feeling than your
family did because you were writing all this stuff in your blog.
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: And, of course, you weren't telling it to your family, and they didn't
know that the blog was written by you.
Mr. PAX: No, I mean, they didn't read it. They didn't know about it. So,
look, blogging in general, I've been reading all these people for a very long
time before I started blogging. And they'd put all these things about their
lives, and it feels like they're sharing with you. They're telling you what's
happening with their lives. They're giving you little very, sometimes
intimate glimpses into their lives. And at one point, when I, you know, I
decided I'd start my own blog, you kind of give back some of what they give
you. It was wonderful reading them. It was like you get to know other
worlds, and yes, I did put a lot on the Weblog consciously thinking I'm
sharing, you know, my little world with all these people who from whom I've
learned so much or just, you know, got to see other parts of the world, of
other lives through these Weblogs.
And that's what it was in the beginning. It was really just bloggers. It
doesn't feel like you're writing now, like all these people reading the
columns and coming online to read the Weblog. It was much smaller. You don't
feel you're giving too much away because it's like having a conversation on a
really big table where, you know, you get the chance to talk and everybody
listens and somebody else starts talking and you listen. And it was just this
big table where everybody was telling stories.
GROSS: Right. But you felt more exposed once it got into newspapers?
Mr. PAX: Of course. I mean, some of the stuff, when I read it now, it's
funny to know that all these people would know so much about your life.
GROSS: My guest is Salam Pax. His now-famous Weblog about life in Baghdad,
before, during and after the war is about to be published in book form in the
US. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Salam Pax, and he has kept a
Weblog since a few months before the war in Iraq. He lives in Iraq, and his
blog became internationally known. It's now being published in The Guardian
and there's also a book version, which is called "Salam Pax: The Clandestine
Diaries of an Ordinary Iraqi."
Salam, has anyone in your family been hurt in the war or the postwar?
Mr. PAX: During the war there was this one incident where our neighborhood
got--on the main street there was a convoy going by, and we had a couple of
Baathists sitting at the end of the street at an empty house, and I think one
of them shot something at the convoy. The convoy stops, they go back and one
tank stays, and it shoots something like 20, you know, tank shells towards the
block where we live. Luckily no one got hurt, but this was actually after the
statue fell. And it's very scary having--it's so close. I mean, in the end,
we have three houses in the block that were totally destroyed, one house
burned. Our house, some damage. Two girls got hurt, but luckily no one died.
It was just a very, very--so this was really the most dangerous time we had.
The thing is, we live in a--not in the center of Baghdad. We live, you know,
quite a bit far away from the center. There is nothing near us. And what we
did is that we got all the family to come over to where we live. At one point
I think we had something like, you know, 25 people living in our house because
it was pretty safe. There was nothing around it. So we'd just go and check
on friends and relatives and places where, you know, they did get bombed. But
we were lucky. We were really lucky there.
GROSS: And you have a lot of friends or family who lost their homes.
Mr. PAX: Oh, yeah. I mean, look, during the beginning of the war, especially
in Baghdad, the air raids, you would be amazed just how--I mean, precision
bombing is just scarily precise. They're just incredibly precise. And as
long as you don't live near one of the government buildings or Saddam's
palaces, which nobody does anyway, you were actually very safe. I mean, stay
in your house, don't go out. We were worried more about the Iraqis than the
bombers, you know. OK, there'd be stray bombs going here or there and they'd
get false information, but actually the bombing part of the war was pretty--it
wasn't as frightening as the time when the actual troops were coming into
GROSS: What made that part more frightening?
Mr. PAX: You didn't know what will happen. I mean, the first nights of the
bombing, of course, there was fear, uncertainty, you did not know what is
going to happen. When you hear the air raid sirens, I mean, your brain just
stops functioning. There is just fear. And you keep listening. You just
keep listening to what's happening, and then you hear them drop somewhere.
There's a Boof! Big explosion. And then another comes and another one comes
the first two nights. And then the next morning, we actually, me and my
cousin would go and see the places the bombs dropped and everything and look
at them. And you kind of start realizing, no, you actually are not afraid of
the big bombers. You're worried about the Iraqis, the Iraqi army, what they'd
do. There were all these rumors about getting all the men in the city, you
know, to carry weapons and pushing them out to fight, you know, lots of
GROSS: What precautions did you take in your house to protect against the
armies and to protect against possible chemical or biological warfare and to
protect against the bombing in case there was a stray bomb?
Mr. PAX: You know, this was actually the good part of the Weblog where
people would tell me about--give me tips on things. For example, everybody
was drilling these, you know, wells. The water table in Baghdad is pretty
high, so it's not very hard to get a small well. And everybody was doing this
because we were worried that the water would stop at one point. So I went on
the Weblog, and I was telling, you know, people what we were doing and how I
finally convinced my family that we actually need to drill a well, and I
got these responses of people telling me how deep I should go and how to make
sure that the water is usable. It was actually very helpful.
And then we had to dig, you know, very deep holes in the garden and stock gas
and kerosene for the generator. Because all the family was coming over to our
house, we had to--it looked a bit like a hotel actually. It was funny at a
GROSS: You called it Hotel Pax in your Weblog.
Mr. PAX: Yeah, because there were so many people coming. It is good, you
know. It is so good to have so many people around you in difficult
situations. It just takes--I mean, lunch becomes a huge production.
Everybody has to do this and that, and you know, you have to prepare for so
many people, it gets your mind off of things you don't want to think of.
GROSS: Salam Pax will be back in the second half of the show. His Weblog is
about to be published in book form. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Salam Pax. That's the
pen name of the architect from Baghdad who has written a Weblog on the
Internet since just before the start of the war describing daily life in his
city. The blog became famous. Even journalists have praised its
descriptions. Now the blog is in book form and will be published in the US in
a couple of weeks under the title: Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diaries of an
Ordinary Iraqi." Salam Pax is in London this week doing publicity for the
Salam, is `liberated' the right word to describe how your country feels to you
Mr. PAX: Of course. But, you see, I mean, when you say `liberation,' there
is with it a feeling that there should be a huge sigh of relief. The problem
is at the moment we didn't have this, you know, collective, `Oh, God, it's
over,' because it's still difficult. The day will come, I am sure--I mean,
there's this one, you know, hour and a half when--I'm sure everybody's seen
it--they were pulling down the statue of Saddam. And it was at that point,
yes, this was the moment where everybody--we were sitting in front of TV. We
didn't have electricity; we had to run the generator because we were getting,
you know--someone from the end of the street, a neighbor, was going, `Turn on
your TVs. Turn on your TVs. Look what's happening.' So we turn on the TVs,
and you see this and you're thinking, `Oh, my God.' You know, I'm sort of
going, `No way anybody thought this was going to happen in our lifetime. And
we're just totally dumbstruck. This is amazing.'
Of course, you are optimistic at that point, but things started getting a bit
more difficult. And you start to worry. It was just as the troops were
moving into Baghdad, and there was still this uncertainty about what was going
to happen. Yes, I would say we are freer now, of course, and we are
definitely moving on the right way to a truly free, liberated Iraq. It's just
going to take a bit of time. We need patience.
GROSS: What kind of encounters have you been having in your daily life with
US soldiers who are stationed in Iraq and trying to keep the peace there?
Mr. PAX: Oh, all sorts, all sorts. It's, you know...
GROSS: Give us an example of a good and a bad one, there is such...
Mr. PAX: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. PAX: I mean, a good one would be I think it was the second week when they
were in Baghdad, and the Americans weren't sure about the people, and the
people in Baghdad weren't sure about the Americans. But then slowly I'd
have--you know, a cousin went back to his home because it was a bit safer by
then. And at the end of his street the Americans had, you know, just a small
station where--a couple of tanks, and they were staying there. And they
weren't so afraid of Iraqis as they are now. He'd come back to me and tell me
about, you know, them letting him take a look at the tank inside, and they
would come over and actually have lunch at his place.
At the beginning, the first couple of weeks, you'd hear lots of this, some
actual, true interaction between the Iraqis and Americans in Baghdad. And
it's later on they withdrew a bit more. There was this fear that things
aren't as stable as everybody hoped. And at that point you'd get the thing
you just called a bad example because they come over from thousands of miles
away. They have no idea what the culture's like. This comes across as
hostility. It's maybe just--you know, sometimes you get the feeling that they
don't know how things go. And they just act the way they see it's normal, but
it's sometimes offensive to Iraqis.
GROSS: Well, can you think of an example of what happened to you where you
felt that an American or a British soldier misinterpreted a kind of standard
thing because they didn't understand the culture and they responded
inappropriately to what they had seen?
Mr. PAX: During house raids...
GROSS: What are house raids?
Mr. PAX: Oh, they'd raid a whole neighborhood and check for weapons and go
into houses, check what is in the house, who is in the house. And they'd do
this throughout--I mean, because it was everywhere in Iraq, in Baghdad and
other governors. They'd just go into neighborhoods, block them off and go
into houses. So, you know, if anything bad is going to happen, it's going to
happen there during these raids. It's at night. People are just--suddenly
you have someone banging at your door, and, you know, they want to go into
your house. They don't come with enough translators sometimes, which is a bad
So someone comes out who doesn't really speak the language. I mean, both of
them: Neither the soldier speaks Arabic nor the Iraqi speaks English. And
you have them standing at the door. Now the Iraqi has his, for example,
daughter and wife sitting in the room just behind the door, just behind him,
you know, without hijab, without, you know, their head cover or the abaya.
And, I mean, because they do this--and, you know, these are very simple or
very religious places. You have to be very careful. So the man outside is
trying to explain, `Do not come in because, you know, my wife, my daughter,
whomever, needs to cover herself.' I mean, a stranger shouldn't be looking at
her if she hasn't covered her hair. It's just, you know, that's the way her
So of course he cannot bring this across to the soldier because he doesn't
speak English. The soldier doesn't understand this. What he understands is
that someone is pushing him away, and so he thinks, `He doesn't want me into
his house. Something is wrong.' Down he goes, sack on his head, tie his
hand, put a gun on his head and, you know, start shouting at him things the
Iraqi does not understand anyway. Now the women come out, and they see their,
you know, father or husband down on the ground, and everybody starts wailing
and going. And you have a scene, and it creates, you know, lots of tension.
It's down to communication. It's down to understanding. You know, lots of it
comes down to these things: not being able to understand just simple things.
Going into a mosque with our shoes, a big no-no. It's just you don't do it.
And sometimes they just go, `Back, back, back, back, back.' And they see
them, and they're, `Oh, my God, what are you doing with your shoes on?'
GROSS: Was your house ever raided by soldiers?
Mr. PAX: Yeah. Yeah, it was. It was.
GROSS: What was your experience like? You speak English, so the translation
thing wouldn't be a problem.
Mr. PAX: Yeah. Actually I'm sure it was much easier for--I mean, it was
scary. I wasn't at home. My mother was actually a bit freaked out. I wasn't
at home. So I came back the next day, and they were telling me, `No, the
Americans were, and they've been through the house and everything.' Yeah,
because everybody was able to talk to everybody else, like my father, my
brother and my mother, it's like everybody was making sure that they
understood, `There is nothing in here. You shouldn't be afraid of anything.'
There were no problems.
It's just the point of being very uncomfortable. I mean, you have 20 people
suddenly at 12:00 at night climbing over your fence, you know, with guns
pointing at you telling you to come out of your house because they want to
look through it. So it's just this point it is a bit uncomfortable. And they
wouldn't tell you why or what happened or what have you done wrong. So, no,
they just want to do it. And, of course, because you're talking to them, the
hour they spent there wasn't probably as tough as it would have been somewhere
else. It's not always like this. When they have translators around with
them, it's no problem.
GROSS: My guest is Salam Pax. His now-famous Weblog about life in Baghdad
before, during and after the war is about to be published in book form in the
US. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Salam Pax. This is the pen
name of an Iraqi who has written a blog, a Weblog, since a few months before
the start of the war. And he's continuing to write it. He's also writing now
for The Guardian in England. And there's a book collecting the entries in his
Weblog, and that book is called "Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diaries of an
You have one of your entries in your Weblog in which you wrote about watching
Paul Bremer on the news every night. And you said it was like watching Saddam
Hussein, you know, because he's all over; he's always making these statements.
You said, `Next we'll have statues of him in the streets.'
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: And then you added you didn't believe him either. Is there a general
feeling now that the American interim administration has problems of...
Mr. PAX: Communicating.
GROSS: ...credibility and communication problems...
Mr. PAX: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...like the actual Iraqi government did before?
Mr. PAX: Yeah. They are in their--they call it the green zone, which means,
you know, the safe zone. It's the old palace grounds. You know, you bring up
the wrong associations. You wall yourself in again in the same place. You
are not as transparent as everybody was hoping. And sometimes you say things
which feel like you're on another planet. It comes down, again, to
communication. They are in this green zone. They are afraid to go out and
see people, see what they're doing, see how they're living. They do things--I
am sure there is a lot happening. I'm not only sure. I know there's a lot
happening but not things that people feel like they're changing the daily
It's something that's on a much higher level. It's very slow. It takes lots
of time. You don't see it. But it's not coming down to them. Nobody's
communicating with them. The only thing they see is, you know, Bremer on TV
talking a foreign language, looking really nice and neat, very clean. And,
you know, it's just you see images--you click the channel. At least now we
have satellite TV; we don't have to watch that.
GROSS: You know, all the reports I've been hearing about life in Iraq now
make it sound really anarchic with lots of crime and still looting. When you
go out in the streets, do you do anything to protect yourself or even to arm
Mr. PAX: No, you don't arm. But, I mean, now it's not as crazy as it was a
month after the war. And, I mean, businesses are back, banks are back.
Buses, taxis--the streets are full of cars. Of course, you have these crazy
things happening that didn't happen before, like the other day on Karada
Street there was this man, you know, on the street with his, you know, leg
just couple of meters away. And when you ask, they tell you, `Oh, there was a
hand grenade in his pocket.' It's like, `What's he doing with a hand
grenade?' Or you hear too much shooting at night.
But it's not total anarchy anymore. Iraqi police are on the streets. They're
replacing the American soldiers we had. And life is a little bit normal. I
mean, up to something like 4 PM, it looks very normal. And then later you see
the streets emptying. People close shops pretty early. We have this 11:00
curfew, but you can see the streets are just as empty as anything after 8 PM.
GROSS: Do you have any money? Are you working?
Mr. PAX: Yeah. I mean, look, most...
GROSS: Well, you probably got money from your book advance. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAX: No, look, I mean, personally the place where I used to--I mean, the
architectural place where I used to work and the consultancy there, they're
not open again yet. I mean, they're open, but they're doing nothing. And
that's what most people do. You know, civil servants, government employees,
they just go, you know, sit for a couple of hours and go back to their homes.
I mean, at least they're getting paid; that's very good because the the first
couple of months they were not. So that's one of the things that are missing,
just a general sense of purpose that you're doing something with your life.
It's just at the moment the whole country has come to a standstill. We're
kind of living off charity. So it gets to you sometimes, you know.
GROSS: Now in your blog you make it seem like you didn't really want to come
back to Iraq to live. You'd been living in Vienna, where you went to
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and worked. And you'd lived there during part of your childhood
because your father was working there.
Mr. PAX: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So, in order words, you didn't want to come back to Iraq, but you say
that your parents really wanted you to come back. Can you talk about why they
wanted you to come back and how you felt upon returning?
Mr. PAX: It's not not wanting to come back. It's just when you spend--you
know, when you're, 15, 16, 17, 18 in one place, you kind of get seriously
attached to it. These are the years where, you know, you make your friends.
So when I first got to Baghdad, I felt just as a stranger. I hadn't been
there for quite a while, and I was used to other ways. But you kind of
rediscover your Iraqiness pretty quickly. With a little help from friends,
you just get really attached to the place. It's really funny, but I got
serious--you know, I really love the city Baghdad. It's different when you
spend all your life in a place, and then when you go away and come back to it
and kind of rediscover all this because you've seen something else, and you
know kind of now you can appreciate what you had much more. And it's just
It is very different. It's not perfect. It's not something that--there are
lots of things I don't approve of that I would wish were different. But you
kind of, you know, `This is my city.' It grows on you in ways which just
totally you get very attached to it.
GROSS: If President Bush came to you--if you knew what you knew now and you
were able to turn back the clock and President Bush came to you and said,
`Well, should we go into Iraq or not?'...
Mr. PAX: Oh, God. That's a difficult question.
GROSS: Yeah--what would you have told him?
Mr. PAX: Be a little bit more patient. Don't run into it like you did.
Iraqis know that they need foreign intervention to get rid of Saddam, but we
also need to feel that it's not about--you know, we need to feel it's that
more of an effort the world wants to do to get, you know, rid of that bad
regime. The way it was done gives just too much chance to people to come and
say, `Look, this is just American imperialism. Look what they're doing.'
You're giving a chance for the, you know, bad people to say bad things.
You're just giving them so much chance to do that.
GROSS: You were reluctant to return to Iraq from Vienna. Is this the place
you want to be now?
Mr. PAX: I'm almost talking to my friend Raed, who is now in Baghdad, every
day, and I just cannot wait until they let me loose here and I just go back to
Baghdad. I just miss the place so much.
GROSS: And you're talking to us from London now.
Mr. PAX: I am. Yeah.
GROSS: And you're in London because your new book, which collects your blog
entries, has come out.
Mr. PAX: Yeah, they yanked me out of Baghdad.
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: And you're writing for The Guardian now; you're keeping a blog for
Mr. PAX: Yeah.
GROSS: So you probably could have a life in England or the United States, but
you prefer to go back to Baghdad.
Mr. PAX: No. How can you leave a place which is, first, your country, and,
second, going through this...
Mr. PAX: ...very important turn. You know, this is something that history
will forever, you know, talk about in your country, and you are so lucky to be
part of it. You can be part of it. You can, you know, do something amazing
now and see it happen and see it develop. Of course I have to be there. Of
course I have to be there.
GROSS: Salam Pax, thank you very, very much for talking with us.
Mr. PAX: Thank you.
GROSS: Salam Pax's Weblog about life in Baghdad before, during and after the
war is about to be published in book form in the US until the title "Salam
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about the Triangle Shirtwaist
factory fire that killed nearly 150 workers in 1911. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David von Drehle's new book "Triangle"
TERRY GROSS, host:
On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out at the
Triangle Shirtwaist factory located just off Washington Square in Manhattan.
One hundred and forty-six workers died, almost all of them young Jewish and
Italian immigrant women. Until September 11th, the Triangle fire was the
deadliest workplace disaster in the history of New York City. Washington Post
reporter David von Drehle has written a new book about the tragedy, which he
says was a catalyst for change in America well beyond important workplace
reforms. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
In the prologue to his superb book "Triangle," David von Drehle takes readers
to a pier in Manhattan known as Misery Lane. There, on March 26th, 1911, some
100,000 people lined up to walk into a makeshift morgue and view the bodies of
146 workers who had died the day before in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory
fire, a fire that had started in a scrap garment bin. Some of the onlookers
at the pier were sobbing relatives of the dead, who identified their loved
ones by a plait of braided hair or a shoe insert that mysteriously escaped the
flames. Most of the others present were voyeurs, some even chewing gum and
giggling. A police official, outraged by their behavior, finally ordered the
viewing line purged of these ghouls.
The danger of a book like "Triangle" is that we readers step into the place of
the gawkers vicariously thrilling, for instance, to the spectacle of young
women leaping to their deaths from the windows of the factory. Like the
Titanic disaster that took place a year later, the Triangle fire contains all
the melodrama needed to make a blockbuster Hollywood weepy. So it's part of
the triumph of von Drehle's book that while paying homage to the dead and the
terror of their last moments in that burning factory, he also successfully
urges us to look beyond the fire, which lasted a scant half-hour, to the
larger political and social world the Triangle workers inhabited.
In detailed yet readable fashion, von Drehle ambitiously traces how, because
of the Triangle fire, the burgeoning women's rights movement, the labor
movement and the progressive movement all joined forces for a remarkable time
in American history, transforming the Democratic Party and clearing the way
for the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt. "Triangle" is such a rich
book and such gripping narrative history that listing all the topics and
colorful personalities gracing its pages would do it a disservice. Let's just
say that if you want a short but substantive history of sweatshops or Tammany
Hall, a background on the gender politics underlying the invention of the
shirtwaist or an understanding of why the 1909 general strike garnered an
unprecedented coalition of female factory workers, women's college graduates,
lower East Side socialists and progressive high-society matrons, this is the
book to read.
Maybe I'm predisposed as the daughter of a lifetime union shop steward to be
moved by von Drehle's account of the 1909 general strike begun when thousands
of young female factory workers gathered at a meeting hall at Cooper Union in
Manhattan, raised their right hands and pledged to struggle until the end.
But, conversely, I think you'd have to be a latter-day Simon Legree not to be
touched by this all-too-forgotten story of working-class women standing fast
against a hostile police force, hired goons and even neighborhood priests, who
preached to the Italian girls among the strikers that striking was a sin.
Two of the bosses who mounted the most violent resistance to the strike were
the owners of the Triangle factory: Max Blank and Isaac Harris, themselves
Jewish immigrants like many of the workers who were beat up by their goons.
Von Drehle says that, `Blood then was already the Triangle's legacy, even
before history paid another visit in the form of the fire.' Blank and Harris
would later be accused of causing workers' deaths by blocking a vital exit
door to guard against employee theft. They were acquitted, despite damning
evidence to the contrary. Figures like Al Smith and Frances Perkins were so
outraged by the verdict, they worked to usher in a new era of political and
At the center of his book von Drehle retells the story of the fire and goes
into detail, for the first time, about the lives of some of the women workers
who died. One surviving Triangle employee von Drehle quotes recalls that, `We
used to have a lot of fun working together at the factory, all young girls.'
The pathos of the Triangle fire is so embedded in the story, von Drehle wisely
recognizes that he doesn't have to underscore it. With restraint and
intelligence, he makes good on the claim of his subtitle; the Triangle really
was the fire that changed America and changed, at least for a time, the way
Americans regarded the dignity of ordinary workers.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America" by David von Drehle.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Way back in time someone said try some. I tried
some. Now I'll buy some. I bought some for you.
GROSS: David Bowie has a new CD. On the next FRESH AIR we talk with him
about his life and music. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) And that's so you...
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