Monday, June 28, 2010

We're on the Move!

When Kevin and I return from Iraq, we're coming back to our new office in Boston. Plymouth has been our home since I founded the company in my basement over 10 years ago. There's a lot of pride, countless memories, and a ton of tapes packed up in that U-Haul that's making its way up I-93 North today!

So thankful to everyone who made it happen -- Sean, Alyssa, Beth (Balaban), Kate, Danny, Jim (Sean's Dad), Alyssa's Dad, Andrew, and Dennis!! You all completely and totally rock!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stray Cats Wanted

Our upscale community on the banks of the Tigris River is peaceful. Safe. Protected on all sides with only one way in. Or so we thought.

River rats don't need to show their badges to the Peshmerga guards at the checkpoint. When they're in the mood to get away, they just wade through the sewers and find a squat toilet to claw up through. The plump one that ran in front of my path on its way from the family room to the bedroom looked right at home. Yes, it had definitely vacationed here before.

Nose to tail this rat was at least a foot long. Threat advisory level: Red. First order of business: Shoes.

Kevin and Carmen jumped off the ping-pong table, trading in their paddles for a baseball bat and squeegie. Since there were no other weapons available, and the rat hunt needed to be documented, I took to higher ground and pushed record. I'd show you my video of the action, but the R-rated language isn't fit for our company blog. Sorry.

The rodent made a clean escape.

Rat: 1
Guardian House: 0

But, rat, know this: next time a stray cat wanders into the kitchen... we just might look the other way.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Electricity Revolution

Next to me on the couch is a plastic bag filled with samoon, the eye-shaped Iraqi bread that Umm Muhammad brings every morning—warm and soft. Now it is hardened from sitting in the hot sun all day. There’s a baseball bat resting nearby—put there by Carmen, a foreign correspondent and our housemate, who uses it to smack the flat bread over the front yard wall. On the other side, it lands with a soft thud, momentarily enveloped in a burst of dust. Even though Jadriya is the most exclusive area of Baghdad—it’s where President Jalal Talabani lives—the streets are dirt and littered with trash.

And the electricity is out, again.

From my seat on the living room couch that’s been moved outside, I can’t see the children playing on the street beyond the wall, but I can hear them—their shouts muffled by the constant hum of generators. “Generator city,” our colleague, Hatam, calls Baghdad.

It’s a rarity these days, but as I’m hanging out under the starless sky, three lights—red, yellow, green—begin to glow on the fuse box. That means city power is back. That means it’s OK to fire up the air conditioning. Any sense of excitement is tempered by the inevitable disappointment that will soon follow.

When we arrived in Baghdad almost three weeks ago, we enjoyed city electricity twenty-two hours a day. But as the mercury rises, so do the country’s power shortages. And they’re more than just an annoyance (I spent most of the night sleeping outside in the swinging chair below); they have the potential to wreak havoc with the external hard drives we use for editing. This morning, Kevin spent more than two hours trying to digitize the same fifteen minute clip. “The idea of editing here is a joke,” he tells me—responding to a "great idea" I had a few days ago.

Despite billions of dollars that have been spent to fix the power grid since 2003, officials are making the hard to swallow argument that Iraqis should be patient and wait at least another two years for a solution. Unable to find refuge from the searing summer heat (and often paying for electricity they can never enjoy), Iraqis are hot and pissed off. They're taking to the streets in what have become violent protests in some of the country's larger cities. One demonstrator calls it “an electricity revolution.”

No matter how often I hear this refrain, it bears repeating: Why can’t a country with the world’s third-largest oil reserves keep power plants running and provide basic services? Iraqis are demanding answers from the government–which itself is a source of simmering unrest. How well, they ask, is their democracy really working? Some signs: Riot police hit demonstrators in Nasiriyah with high powered water hoses a couple days ago, and since the election more than three months ago, there’s still no government in place as wrangling continues over who will become prime minister and who will be assigned to other key cabinet positions.

The idea of coming home to escape the problems that exist around you is a foreign concept here. My front yard living room is 117 degrees by 9am. But at least I can power up the generator and get the sluggish fans turning. The majority of Iraqis do not have this option. They can’t afford generators, and there isn’t enough electricity each day to keep meats from thawing and milk from turning sour.

Seven years after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, the words “mission accomplished” are still difficult to utter. A senior official in Iraq’s defense ministry who has close ties to the U.S. told me in an interview yesterday, “Maybe it was better with Saddam. At least then we had power.” Are we really going to leave this country longing for Saddam?

As I’m typing just now, an Iraqi colleague walked up to my desk. “Guess what?” he said laughing. “Now we don’t have water!”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A) Magic Wand B) Bomb Detector C) Magic Wand Bomb Detector D) None of the Above

Every day people tell us to be careful. That's because every day the bombs going off across the country make it into the news. Many of them are in Baghdad. Most of them are car bombs. Just today 27 people were killed.

Officials have known for a very, very long time that stopping car bombs is a top priority. That's why they invested in expensive bomb detectors, and outfitted every checkpoint with them. When I say expensive, I mean more-than-the-price-of-your-car-expensive. They're between $20,000 and $60,000 a pop. And when I say every checkpoint, I mean the roadblocks that are set up about every ten feet or so. Seriously, it's hard to go more than a minute without encountering a checkpoint. That means every car driving through the city has dozens of opportunities to be sniffed out for TNT and other explosives that will turn the vehicle into a deadly inferno.

So why are there still so many car bombings?

This device has come to be known as the Magic Wand Bomb Detector. You don't need to be an explosives expert to know that any self-respecting bomb detector could never inspire you to want to say, "Abracadabra." You also don't need to be an explosives expert to question how it could possibly work when it looks like a squirt gun with a 1970s TV antenna sticking out of the barrel.

I won't keep you guessing. The device is total junk. The U.S. military determined about a year ago that the magic wand is just as likely to make a bunny materialize from thin air as it is thwart a suicide bomber heading to a shopping market near you. But that doesn't stop Iraqi policemen and soldiers from using it. Everywhere.

Here's video of a policeman in Samarra. If you watch very closely, you'll notice that the antenna swivels toward the truck. What does that mean? RUN! This truck is going to blow!

Of course, the truck isn't going to blow, and this policeman can't even be bothered to pretend anything is wrong. Usually when the antenna points toward your car, you get pulled over for a more extensive (read: waste of time) search. When one soldier was asked why dogs aren't used instead, he lamented turning Baghdad into a zoo. Better, then, to turn it into a morgue.

The only good news part of the story is that the head of the British company that made the device has been arrested for fraud.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blog V Doc

These stories I've been sharing -- and will continue to share -- from the road often have very little to do with the actual subject matter of the documentary we're filming. That's intentional. I don't want to give the whole story away, and I'm contractually obligated not to!

Filming here has all the highs and lows I enjoy about the roller coaster filmmaking business itself. The common wisdom among journalists is to come in wanting 100%, expect 75%, and settle for 50%. Good thing I came in wanting 200%, so now I only have to settle for 100%.

We're filming every day, and so is a local crew we've hired. They are incredibly hardworking and talented, and the cameraman's back story is fantastic. Remember when the guy hucked a couple shoes at President Bush when he visited Baghdad at the end of 2008? Yasser, our local cameraman, is the guy who captured the best video that day. Not only did he get the shoe throwing incident itself, but when security guards wrestled the size 10 journalist to the ground, Yasser jumped into the fray. A picture his brother took shows other cameramen backed up against the wall--far from the action--while Yasser stands over it. (In case you're wondering... the shoe thrower spent nine months in jail. Even though he was tortured behind bars, he says he has no regrets. Hitting someone with a shoe in this society is one of the most degrading things you can do to them. Symbolically it says, "You are the scum of the earth.")

Yasser and his producer brother are going places we simply can't, returning each night with a handful of tapes for us to review and give feedback on. It's frustrating not to be able to film everywhere we want, but it's stupid to try.

I'm considering staying on longer not because we're not getting what we need, but because what we are getting is so important to the film and our understanding of what is happening with those Iraqis who worked alongside American soldiers and diplomats as translators, cultural advisers and engineers.

These Iraqis - our Iraqi allies - have already suffered so much because of their ties to the U.S. And as the U.S. withdrawal gets underway, there is good reason to believe their suffering will intensify. The List Project founder, Kirk Johnson, has come out with a damning new report, Tragedy on the Horizon. His warning alarm is justified, and supported by the horrors happening on the ground.

Just yesterday a man who worked as a U.S. military translator was shot and killed by his own sons. We're following this terrible story today -

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sights and Sounds of Baghdad

The desert knows me well, the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen.

-- Abul Tayyeb al-Mutanabi

Ever hear a new sound -- one you've never heard before but you know you'll never forget? It happened to me once in Etretat, thanks to the shingle beach. The new sound then? Water crushing the small stones. And it happened to me again today, thanks to a coffee vendor who turned his two porcelain coffee cups into castanets while walking up and down Mutanabi Street.

Central Baghdad's Mutanabi Book Market -- it's named after a classical Arab poet, so it's not surprising that this is considered the intellectual capitol of the city. Scholars, students, soldiers and shopkeepers come to buy and sell magazines, maps, magnifying glasses, prayer beads, video games, stuffed animals, and--of course--books. There aren't too many women around, but men are hanging out in cafes, smoking and playing board games. Pictured: Two boys have their pet bird in tow while shopping for books with their grandfather.

All motor vehicles -- except speeding military humvees and pickups-- have been barred from the area since a 2007 car bomb.

I think the ice vendors have one of the toughest jobs in the neighborhood. An umbrella cart and wool blanket shield the ice block from the sun. But it was still almost 120 degrees today.

Below: A woman balances a block of ice on her head.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kurdistan’s Rappin’ Baby ‘Bama

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and 18-year-old Kayan is just emerging from his bedroom. It was another busy all-nighter for this Kurdish musician – writing lyrics for a new rap song about life in Iraq.

Terrorist, Kayan’s first political song, was the way he channeled his anger and sadness when a friend’s father was killed by militias in Baghdad. He hasn’t decided on a title for this new song yet.

“It’s about wishes and askin’ God to bring me back to a day when I can fix things,” he says. “I don’t know how much I remember, but I’m gonna spit some.”

When Kayan sings, his waifish frame is typically in constant motion—a loose silver wrist watch sliding up and down his undulating arm, black dress shoes tapping below well-pressed jeans. This kid is definitely talented, and he carries himself with an endearing confidence.

“I brought hip-hop and rap to Kurdistan,” he tells me with a wide grin. “Aw-ight,” he adds before I have a chance to react. It’s the first time I’ve heard this uniquely American urban English in Iraq, and Kayan has all the right body language to pull it off. Nothing about it would seem strange – except, I suppose, that I’m in northeastern Iraq, not Brooklyn or Compton, and Kayan is a dead ringer for Barack Obama.

If hip-hop was going to start somewhere in Kurdistan, it’s appropriate that it started here in Kayan’s home city, Sulaymaniyah. Suly (what the locals call it) is considered the cultural center of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq that’s tucked into the Azmar mountains. Kids may have been exposed to rap on the internet (Kayan first discovered 50 Cent’s In Da Club online), but before Kayan and his friends started performing, no one was rapping live. And while his bedroom recording studio is still the center of his operations, he opened a “real” studio last year, and convinced a local radio station to play his music. He sings, he mixes, he masters... but most of all he loves writing lyrics.

Let’s just imagine this won’t ever happen… all the family sittin’ down and laughin’… Take me back to the days when I was a little kid….I could use one wish just to fix things a little bit…

At a time when hip hop critics in the U.S. decry the genre’s lack of political substance, Kayan and his friends are turning up the political heat. Like Grandmaster Flash in the 1980s, the youth in Kurdistan—in Iraq—still have something to say, and they want to share it with the world.

For many years, the flower of our hopes was downtrodden, the fresh rose of spring was the blood of the youth…

These words, though, aren’t Kayan’s. They belong to his great-grandfather, Piramerd, the famous Kurdish philosopher, poet and journalist. Piramerd’s face is etched on buildings here, and there’s even a holiday in his name.

“He’s the legend. We have art in our veins – in our blood. I brought hip hop and he brought poetry,” Kayan says, understandably proud of his family heritage. “In our family, there’s a lot of poets, singers – only me rapper – so, that’s something cool.”

Six decades after his grandfather found inspiration from the hardship of his people, Kayan draws from that same emotional well.

There’s a proverb that defines Kurdish life, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. When elephants make love, the grass also suffers.”

God, can I get a wish? 30 million people have one wish. It’s peace.

Kayan is the grass in this part of the world. That makes his music something worth listening to. And his Obama good looks make him one... well, two... in a million.

Agony of De-Feet

Good thing Kevin brought all those anti-inflammatories...

Not a good day for our driver, either. This happened on the streets of Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) just before he was pulled over by the cops for an illegal turn. We're heading back to Baghdad first thing in the morning where, ironically, it may feel a bit safer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I Think We're Going to Need a Bigger Tunnel

The trip to the military's media social should have taken about 5 minutes. But since the bus transporting us (17 international journalists) couldn't fit through Slayer Tunnel, we enjoyed the 45-minute scenic tour through Baghdad's Victory Base Camp... past the True Value Hardware store, Paris Boutique and bowling alley... alongside the never-ending rows of concrete T-walls... and, finally, a right onto Vigilant Road toward the opulent Al Faw Palace and "the juicer" (see picture below - don't you wish you had a massive orange?).

As I met and mingled with our military's impressive key leaders and senior staff on a beautiful deck overlooking Saddam's "Water Palace," a band (whose sole purpose is to increase morale around the country) played hits from the Eagles and Pink Floyd, and some guys hit golf balls into the lake. Our conversations were interrupted by this request: please bow your heads, the chaplain will now say a prayer.

I found myself taking in every word in a way that I'm not used to - "Let us be guided by truth and fairness in our responsibility as the media... and let us move forward in a spirit of oneness... that this country will be made whole... and let us be safe until we meet each other once again." Simple. Moving. And if ever there were a good place to pray, Iraq is it.

While we enjoyed the rest of the BBQ, our media escort tried to arrange a smaller bus to take us back to our cars. No luck. And the tunnel wasn't getting any bigger. Back on the scenic route, she shared stories with me about her 2-and-a-half-year-old son back home in Manhattan, Kansas... once when they were talking on video skype, he thought she looked thirsty, so he poured apple juice all over the computer. And since he's really just beginning to talk, she has trouble making out a lot of his words - the funny pronunciations unique to him aren't familiar enough to her. She can't wait to see him for two weeks in July - but then she's coming back - and like so many other mom and dad soldiers, she'll be here well past the poorly understood withdrawal in August.

GPS Tracker

Before leaving for Iraq, I was thinking that it'd be great to implant a GPS tracking device... in my arm or leg, behind my ear. Anything external can be taken from you, and there are certain areas that mandate alerting others about your whereabouts.

Video Above: Martin Chulov from the Guardian alerted London about our travels into Abu Ghraib.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hard Core Rural Iraq

We headed west out of Baghdad today - toward Anbar Province, birthplace of the Sons of Iraq movement. Also known as the Awakening Council or Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq are Sunni Arabs who once took up arms against the United States, but then joined forces with us to fight Al Qaeda.

Iraqi officials refused to let us into the area without a military escort. "If you go in there alone, you won't make it out alive," the Baghdad Commander told our translator on the phone this morning. (Picture Above: Kevin gets into an Iraqi Army humvee)

Here's what we knew going in: A man and his two sons were shot to death at their home in al-Zaidan village, a farming area of Abu Ghraib. This is still like Iraq's Wild West. Suspicions were that the killers got the wrong guy... that they really wanted the dead man's brother who is a known Sons of Iraq leader.

But what the news story did not share was this: Three days ago, the U.S. military drew attention to this home when they came searching for weapons. None were found, but the family was spooked by how the "visit" would be perceived, and ended up asking American soldiers for help because of it. At this point whether Sons of Iraq members are targeted because of sectarian violence alone or because of some connection to the U.S. - real or perceived - is impossible to figure out.

Here--as in most of our own lives--perception is everything.

As we filmed an animated discussion with village leaders in the back yard, ten Iraqi soldiers and MPs stood in a circle around us. Six humvees were parked in the front near the porch where about 40 mourners sat quietly in three rows of white plastic chairs. This is day two of the funeral, and, as Muslim tradition calls for, it will last for one more day.

The victims were sleeping outside on the ground -- escaping the oppressive summer heat -- when the gunmen attacked early yesterday morning. And it was there on the ground -- in their backyard where we now stood -- that they were killed. As we said our good-byes, we navigated around seven bullet holes left in the hardened dirt, sensing that this is a crime unlikely to see any justice.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Events of the Day

Here are some of the things we've experienced over the last 24 hours: called for: Widespread Dust. And there was - thanks to a sand storm last night that blanketed everything (including our laptop computers!) in a thin layer of dirt. Lots of masks being worn on the streets today - which have an eerie orange glow.

A cockroach in our house was so big, we weren't sure whether to kill it or charge it rent. Our housemate, Carmen Gentile, did the deed, smashing the beast with his flip flop. Carcass remains at the bottom of the stairs. (As you can tell from our living room below, we do have lots of room for extra house guests.)

This afternoon we heard about a killing in Abu Ghraib (the rural farm area, not the city). Information we had linked the victims to America, and we wanted to learn more. Our translator called the Shiekh in the area who arranged for us to film the funeral and talk with the family. I borrowed an abayah (the shapeless black cloak women here wear), Kevin changed from his heavily pocketed cameraman pants into jeans, and we were on our way. But we never made it. Iraqi police at the Abu Ghraib checkpoint told us it was too dangerous to continue without an escort. And they weren't going to give us an escort without a letter from the Baghdad commander - something that could take days to get. So, we turned around and on the way home stopped for coffee at the CNN house, drank a Pepsi with the Al-Jazeera crew, and got a close look at the car bombing that rocked the Al-Hamra Hotel back in January pushing news crews out.

We're learning that the common expression "Inshallah" (God willing)usually means "Ain't sh-t gonna happen today."

Best quotes of the day come from Martin Chulov (The Guardian):

"Everything here contradicts everything you think you know."

At a checkpoint in the International Zone, an Iraqi soldier asked: "Do you have any weapons?" "Only a pen," Martin replied with a smile.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Winged Man

"Let's meet at the Winged Man," or "See you at the Winged Man in 20 minutes," or "The driver is almost at the Winged Man, let's go."

Such is the talk around travel to/from the Baghdad International Airport which we did yesterday to meet General Fadel Barwari, the commander of the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF).

The Winged Man is a statue of Abbas Ibn Firnas, Iraq's very own Icarus. Back in the first century, Ibn Firnas tried to fly by sticking feathers onto a wooden frame (like a glider). He didn't succeed. But he didn't die either.

And I think that's the best way to sum up our last 24 hours. We didn't accomplish much. But we didn't die either. And, hey, Ibn Firnas had a crater on the moon named after him!

After a quick start out of the gate our first day here, we've been humbled by the reminder of just how difficult it is to get things done in Iraq. And it didn't help that we were stranded at the airport overnight because we'd missed the midnight curfew (good laughs, though, at the karaoke bar watching men from Fiji butcher Scorpian hits).

And there are reminders all around of how many people have some of the toughest jobs on the planet. Take General Fadel. As commander of ISOF, units that have been trained by U.S. Special Forces since 2003, much of the future security of the country is resting on his shoulders. And he's starting to fly...

Friday, June 04, 2010

Welcome Back to Baghdad

There’s a saying here in Iraq that goes something like this, “Money is your country.” What it means is: If you have money, you can feel at home everywhere you go. As soon as we touched down in Baghdad, it was clear that airport employees spend a good deal of time trying to make money their country. And we were an easy target. Too many cameras. Not enough paperwork.

It was 119 degrees in Baghdad today. And there is no amount of dryness that keeps that from feeling anything but suffocating. Between the heat, two days of travel, and our extended stay, we thought we’d ease ourselves in. I had definitely led Kevin (D.P.) to believe that today would be a “get yourself acclimated” kind of day. But ten minutes into his afternoon snooze, I pulled the plug on acclimation. Sheikh Moustafa al-Kamal Shabib, a leader in the Sons of Iraq (or Sunni Awakening), was ready to share his experiences.

(My favorite photo of the day is Moustafa using his cell phone as a mirror to adjust his keffiyeh before the interview.)

I have to admit, interviewing Moustafa was a slight detour from the focus of our film (cases of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis drawn from The List Project), but I was excited to hear what he had to say. His story—and others like it—speak to the complexity of America’s involvement and moral obligation here, and I like the discomfort their experiences reveal.

On the way to his home in Arab Jabour, a suburb of South Baghdad, we passed several deserted farms—one belonged to a Palestinian rewarded by Saddam Hussein for killing Jews.

Two years ago we never would have made it out of this neighborhood alive. It was infested with global jihadists. Now, in part because of men like Moustafa, we can travel here. As a partner with American troops in the fight against Al-Qaeda, Moustafa helped turn the tide of war to favor the U.S. He and about 80,000 other Sons of Iraq were paid by the Pentagon and lauded by President Bush as the future of the country. Now America is preparing to pull out of Iraq, and men like Moustafa are being picked off one-by-one by Al-Qaeda. This year alone his son was poisoned, and he has survived two car bombings—one was captured on camera by U.S. soldiers and he showed it to us on his cell phone.

We left Moustafa at sunset and returned to our flat which is in the most protected part of the city. It’s the only area you can walk around freely without risk of kidnapping or death. There’s even a little bodega next door where sodas and snacks can be put on a tab that’s paid up at the end of each week. Every major news organization still working in Iraq is here (since the Hamra Hotel was bombed in January), and we’re sharing a house with some other foreign journalists who know how to host a dinner party: sheesha, G&T and four different kinds of pizza. Now that’s what I call a welcome back to Baghdad.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hands to Hearts

Laura Peterson, Executive Director of Hands to Hearts International, tells the story of how she founded HHI - inspiring us to think about how we can make a difference with a little courage and and insight.

Hands to Hearts International is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of orphaned and vulnerable children and economically disadvantaged women around the globe.