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SITE SEEING
In Baghdad, a passionate, human voice
BY DAN KENNEDY

Back in December, when there was still some hope of avoiding war, a then-unknown Baghdad resident who goes by the peace-squared pseudonym Salam Pax posted this witticism on his Web log: " There are three things you can do whenever you like in Iraq: get seriously ill; get arrested; get executed. " He added, " It sounds better in Arabic because it rhymes. "

In the past week Pax has been noticed, to put it mildly. With Iraq under bombardment, his online diary, " Where Is Raed? " , has been mentioned in — among other places — the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the New Yorker, the Boston Globe, Slate, and CNN. The suddenly hyped phenomenon of warblogging has attracted practitioners ranging from soldiers and journalists in the field to armchair generals in front of their TV sets. But only Pax is sitting there on the other side, hoping a cruise missile doesn’t fall on him.

Rarely do the media accounts offer the real flavor of Pax’s style. In fact, there is a reflective, literary quality to " Where Is Raed? " that comes through despite numerous syntactical and spelling errors, which I have cleaned up a bit. Pax — reportedly a gay 29-year-old architect — is both a humanist and a thinker. There is pathos, too. The mysterious Raed of the title is purportedly a real person: Raid Jarrar, though that, too, is undoubtedly a pseudonym. Perhaps Jarrar is from Lebanon, where, according to the New Yorker account, Pax regularly travels on business. Several months ago, in the early days of the blog, Pax and Jarrar exchanged e-mails. But now Pax says at the top of his page, " If you have seen Raed today please tell him Salam Pax is still looking for him. "

On Monday, following a tense weekend of Internet silence that could have meant he’d lost his connection, fled, or been caught and executed (or killed by an errant bomb, for that matter), Pax began posting again, offering a harrowing and acerbic account of what war looks like from his perspective — informed, oddly enough, as much by Al-Jazeera as by direct experience. " What was most disturbing are the images from the hospitals. They are simply not prepared to deal with these things. People were lying on the floor with bandages and blood all over. If this is what ‘urban warfare’ is going to look like we’re in for a disaster, " he wrote. " And just now the images of US/UK prisoners of the dead, we saw these on Iraqi TV earlier. This war is starting to show its ugly ugly face. "

On March 16, before George W. Bush issued his ultimatum, Pax posted a self-described " rant " that perhaps the war planners should have considered before confidently predicting that the Iraqis would greet US and British troops with sweets and flowers. It began: " No one inside Iraq is for war (note I said war not a change of regime), no human being in his right mind will ask you to give him the beating of his life, unless you are a member of fight club that is, and if you do hear Iraqi (in Iraq, not expat) saying ‘come on bomb us’ it is the exasperation and 10 years of sanctions and hardship talking. There is no person inside Iraq (and this is a bold, blinking and underlined inside) who will be jumping up and down asking for the bombs to drop. We are not suicidal you know, not all of us in any case. " From there, Pax moves on to a wide-ranging discussion of the damaging and ultimately futile effects of sanctions and the hypocrisy of the US for citing human-rights concerns and weapons of mass destruction as its justification for invasion " five minutes before midnight. "

The question that can’t be answered is whether Salam Pax is who he says he is. For all anyone knows, he’s a precocious teenager living in Queens — although the images of Iraqi television that he’s uploaded look real enough.

Diane, a weblogger who writes " Letter from Gotham " (gotham.realwomenonline.com), has been corresponding with Pax since last fall. Last week she wrote that she’s come to the conclusion that he is real, adding that " there’s a chance this could be a hoax but I’m willing to look like an asshole and say that my doubts have totally evaporated. "

If Pax is a fraud, he’s an unusual one: there’s no ego, no braggadocio on " Where Is Raed? " Just one man’s attempt to make sense of a world gone mad. If he’s not the real thing, he ought to be. And I’m willing to look like an asshole, too.

Salam Pax’s Web log, " Where Is Raed? " , is online at dear_raed.blogspot.com

Issue Date: March 27 - April 3, 2003
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