“Baghdad Burning” Heats Up World History

By Jody Sokolower

Illustrator: Jordan Isip

“The trouble with world history is it started so long ago,” I complained to anyone who would listen as I wrestled with the best way to start the year for my 10th-grade World History students. In their first journal entries, many of my students had already told me they thought history was “boring.” I wanted them to see history as something alive that really mattered, filled with the stories of interesting, everyday people. How could I generate some enthusiasm for the past?

At the same time, I was worried about how to integrate curriculum about the war in Iraq. During the lead-up to the U.S. invasion, the topic came up naturally in class. But now students seldom raised it and were often resistant when I brought it up. “We’re burned out on Iraq,” they told me. How could I teach world history and not explore the current events that were sure to have an enormous impact, both on my students’ lives and on the world’s future? I knew I didn’t want to relegate today’s news to a few weeks in June, but I hadn’t had much success with such formulaic approaches as current events days or weekly news assignments.

At just that point of confused frustration, I stumbled across an extraordinary resource: Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq and Baghdad Burning II. The author, whose pseudonym is Riverbend, was a young computer programmer in Iraq when the war started. First trapped in her house by the bombings and fighting, then barred from working because of the deteriorating situation of women, she turned to blogging about her everyday life, events in Iraq, and the international situation. These first-person accounts are extraordinarily well-written and compelling (Baghdad Burning won the 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Literary Reportage). As an example, here’s an excerpt from one of her first blogs, Aug. 21, 2003:

My New Talent
Suffering from a bout of insomnia last night, I found myself in front of the television, channel-surfing. I was looking for the usual—an interesting interview with one of the council, some fresh news, a miracle. . . . Promptly at 2 a.m., the electricity went off and I was plunged into the pitch black hell better-known as “an August night with no electricity in Iraq.” So I sat there, in the dark, trying to remember where I had left the candle and matches. After 5 minutes of chagrined meditation, I decided I would ‘feel’ my way up the stairs and out onto the roof. Step by hesitant step, I stumbled out into the corridor and up the stairs, stubbing a toe on the last step (which wasn’t supposed to be there).

(For those of you who don’t know, people sleep up on the roof in some of the safer areas because when the electricity goes off, the houses get so hot, it feels like you are cooking gently inside of an oven. The roof isn’t much better, but at least there’s a semblance of wind.)

A few moments later, my younger brother (we’ll call him E.) joined me—disheveled, disgruntled, and half-asleep. We stood leaning on the low wall enclosing the roof watching the street below. I could see the tip of Abu Maan’s cigarette glowing in the yard next door. I pointed to it with the words, “Abu Maan can’t sleep either.” E. grunted with the words, “It’s probably Maan.” I stood staring at him like he was half-wild—or maybe talking in his sleep. Maan is only 13—how is he smoking? How can he be smoking?

“He’s only 13,” I stated.

“Is anyone only 13 anymore?” he asked.

I mulled the reality of this remark over. No, no one is 13 anymore. No one is 24 anymore. Everyone is 85 and I think I might be 105. I was too tired to speak and, in spite of his open eyes, I suspected E. was asleep. The silence was shattered a few moments later by the sound of bullets in the distance. It was just loud enough to get your attention, but too far away to be the source of any real anxiety. I tried to determine where they were coming from.

E: How far do you think that is?

Me: I don’t know . . . ‘bout a kilometer?

E: Yeah, about. Me: Not American bullets—

E: No, it’s probably from a . . .

Me: Kalashnikov.

E (impressed): You’re getting good at this.

No—I’m getting great at it. I can tell you if it’s ‘them’ or ‘us’. I can tell you how far away it is. I can tell you if it’s a pistol or machine-gun, tank or armored vehicle, Apache or Chinook. I can determine the distance and maybe even the target. That’s my new talent. It’s something I’ve gotten so good at, I frighten myself.

I keep wondering . . . will an airplane ever sound the same again?

Riverbend’s blogs fueled my determination to bring the U.S. war in Iraq into the classroom from the very startWe already had a pre-1500 project planned: a research-based poster on an empire or culture from 1000 to 1500 CE. The project serves as a review of the medieval world and an introduction to research skills, but its most important role is to explore the wealth of extraordinary and diverse cultures in the world before European colonial conquest began in the 1500s. I want to be sure that my students realize that the current division of the world into rich and poor countries, “developed” and “underdeveloped,” is a result of colonialism.

I decided to use the Abbasid Caliphate in Iraqas an example before the students began their own projects. The Abbasids, who came to power in Iraq in the mid-8th century, established Baghdad as an extraordinary center of intellectual and cultural development. During this “Golden Age” of medieval Iraq, 100,000 architects, craftspeople, and workers built a four-gated “round city” that soon had a population of half a million; Baghdad’s House of Wisdom was a center for Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, who collected and translated the known world’s knowledge; Muham mad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi invented algebra; Ibn al-Haytham became the “father of optics” and a pioneer of the modern scientific method; Ibn Sina summarized the medical knowledge of the time; Islamic astronomers perfected the astrolabe and brought it to Europe; Rumi wrote poetry still beloved today.

We spent several days exploring the political, scientific, and literary achievements of the Abbasid Empire, practicing the note-taking skills I wanted them to apply to the pre-1500 project. I created placards with illustrations and a couple of paragraphs of text on each of the topics listed above, and posted them around the room. I told the students they would be working in pairs to create posters representing the achievements of the Abbasid Empire. Then I gave them graphic organizers and asked them to take bullet-point notes on each of the placards. (This activity is adapted from Teachers’ Curriculum Institute materials on the medieval world.) Once the posters were finished and presented, we turned our attention to present-day Iraq.

I used “Assignment: Present-Day Baghdad” to make connections between the past and the present, to generate a base level of understanding of the impact of the war on Iraq, to spur critical thinking, and to introduce Riverbend’s blog.

Assignment: Present – Day Baghdad

We looked at historical records, original sources, and artwork from Baghdad during the Abbasid Dynasty. We will return to Iraq at different points this year, but I want us to take a little time to talk about Baghdad since the current war began in 2003.

There are four sets of readings:
Two articles on the destruction of Baghdad’s museums during the US invasion
MECA (Middle East Children’s Alliance) description of Baghdad since the war began
Recent speech by [then-President Bush] on “progress in Iraq”
Excerpts from Baghdad Burning (blog by Riverbend, a young woman living in Baghdad during the war)

For each set of readings, answer the following questions (please think about these questions and answer in depth):

1. Who is talking?
2. Where did they get their information? Does it seem biased (one-sided)
to you? Explain how or why.
3. How do they describe the situation? (This can be in bullet points, but should include at least 5 important details.)
4. How do you think this person (or organization) feels about the importance of Baghdad’s history as a cultural center?
5. What do you think this person (or organization) hopes for the future of Baghdad? What would they see as a positive outcome of the war?

Answer these questions at the end:
6. What are your thoughts and feelings about the readings? Which reading or readings struck you as particularly important? Why?
7. What do you see as the best way forward? What should we do to resolve the situation in Baghdad (and Iraq in general?

I gave the students several class periods to do the readings and answer the questions in their journals. They discussed their responses in small groups and then we talked as a class. The articles about the destruction of the museums had brought me to tears, but I was surprised at how upset the students were. “Algebra got discovered in Iraq,” Melanie said, “so this isn’t just Iraqi history that got trashed, it’s really world history.” They were disturbed by the contradictions between Bush’s version of reality in Iraq and that portrayed by MECA, particularly the situation for children.

The discussion also revealed the depths of their feelings of powerlessness. “I went on a bunch of antiwar marches,” Alan explained. “My sister got arrested when everyone was sitting down in the streets in downtown San Francisco the day after the war started. But none of it made any difference, so now I don’t bother. What’s the point?” Other students described relatives who had joined the military because it was the only job they could find or the only way they could afford to go to college. It was clear they could easily envision themselves in the same bind.

I described my own participation in the Vietnam antiwar movement, and how many years we fought against the war, to say nothing of how many years the Vietnamese fought for their own independence. But I could see that I had my work cut out for me: throughout the year, I needed to keep coming back to resistance, especially successful resistance. As progressive teachers, it’s so easy to build a case against injustice; it’s much harder to develop enthusiasm and confidence about fighting for justice.

The first step was to build my students’ connections to Riverbend. I gave students more excerpts from Baghdad Burning I and II and showed them how to find her blog on the internet. Then I demonstrated how to set up a dialogue journal and gave them the “Dialogue Journal for Baghdad Burning” assignment sheet.

Assignment: Dialogue Journal for Baghdad Burning

As you read Baghdad Burning, keep track of passages you want the class to come back to for discussion. Write your reaction to these passages.

Here is how to create a dialogue journal:
Set up a few pages in your journal labeled Baghdad Burning. Don’t forget to note the date and title of the entry you are reading.
Draw a line down the center of each page.
Label the left column Observations/Quotes.
Label the right column Reactions and Reflection.
As you find thought-provoking passages in the text, quote or summarize them in the left column. Then respond or react on the right.
You should have at least 10 entries. Reactions and Reflections should be at least a paragraph each. I want to see what you are thinking and feeling— don’t rush!

Here are some of the things I would like you to look for. This is by no means an exclusive list. The whole point is to generate discussion—so take note of the things that you’d like to talk about.
1. Everyday Life in Baghdad—How has the war affected Riverbend’s family and neighbors? What do you think Baghdad was like before the war? How has it changed?
2. Women and the War—What does Riverbend say about the impact of the war on women in particular? What are your thoughts about that?
3. Questions—Take note when you don’t understand something in a passage or have questions about its significance. Does Riverbend refer to people or events that we need to know more about?
4. Future of Iraq—What does Riverbend think and feel about the future of her country? How are her goals different from those of the U.S. government? The Iraqi leadership?
5. Resistance—How do Riverbend and other people in Baghdad try to fight for what they think is right? What are your thoughts and feelings about their choices?
6. Great Writing—This is history class, but it’s always good to recognize great writing. Usually we associate great writing with fiction or poetry, but nonfiction writing counts, too. What examples can you find of excellent writing in Riverbend’s work?

A week later, we met to discuss the dialogue journals. I divided the class into groups of four. I asked each group to choose a facilitator and also a scribe to write the quotes on newsprint. Then each member of the group took a turn or two suggesting a quote for the group to discuss. After the groups had discussed at least four quotes, they picked a quote to share with the class.

Baghdad Burning provided a context to discuss many of the complex issues raised by the war, including the impact on women and children. The girls, in particular, were outraged by the changes in Riverbend’s life: she could no longer work or even go outside by herself. We understood all too vividly the daily struggle to deal with the broken water system, lack of electricity, omnipresent death, and constant fear of physical attacks at home and on the street. Riverbend’s description of the impact of the war in polarizing Iraqi society was a sharp challenge to all of our media-influenced images of Sunni and Shi’a sectors long at each other’s throats.

Throughout the discussions, it was clear that the students could imagine Riverbend as a big sister or a friend. No longer was the war in Iraq a distant abstraction. I felt I had succeeded in making the connection between “historical events” and the lives of individual people and families. As we threw ourselves into an intense year of exploring the Renaissance; Colonial Conquest; French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions; and two World Wars—all the complex eras that comprised World History—I made a promise to myself to continue searching out first-person sources, to continue tying current day issues to the history we were studying, and to stress the role of everyday people in creating history.

Riverbend Blog Excerpt

Over 65 percent of the Iraqi population is unemployed.

. . . The story of how I lost my job isn’t unique. It has actually become very common—despondently, depressingly, unbearably common. It goes like this:

I’m a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company located in Baghdad as a programmer/network administrator (yes, yes . . . a geek).

No matter what anyone heard, females in Iraq were a lot better off than females in other parts of the Arab world (and some parts of the Western world—we had equal salaries!). We made up over 50 percent of the working force. We were doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, deans, architects, programmers, and more. We came and went as we pleased. We wore what we wanted (within the boundaries of the social restrictions of a conservative society).

. . . During the first week of June, I heard my company was back in business [after the bombing and invasion of Iraq]. It took several hours, seemingly thousands of family meetings, but I finally convinced everyone that it was necessary for my sanity to go back to work.

. . . The moment I walked through the door, I noticed it. Everything looked shabbier somehow—sadder. The maroon carpet lining the hallways was dingy, scuffed, and spoke of the burden of a thousand rushing feet. The windows we had so diligently taped prior to the war were cracked in some places and broken in others . . . dirty all over. The lights were shattered, desks overturned, doors kicked in, and clocks torn from the walls.

. . . My little room wasn’t much better off than the rest of the building. The desks were gone, papers all over the place. But A. was there! I couldn’t believe it—a familiar, welcoming face. He looked at me for a moment, without really seeing me, then his eyes opened wide and disbelief took over the initial vague expression. He congratulated me on being alive, asked about my family and told me that he wasn’t coming back after today. Things had changed. I should go home and stay safe. He was quitting—going to find work abroad.

. . . A. and I left the room and started making our way downstairs. We paused on the second floor and stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when he thought things would be functioning; he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes stayed glued to A.’s face as he told him that females weren’t welcome right now—especially females who “couldn’t be protected.” He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because ‘they’ refused to be responsible for what might happen to me.

. . . I cried bitterly all the way home—cried for my job, cried for my future, and cried for the torn streets, damaged buildings, and crumbling people.

—Riverbend, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2003


Riverbend’s blogs are anthologized in: Riverbend. Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2005. Excerpts reprinted with permission.

Riverbend. Baghdad Burning II: More Girl Blog from Iraq. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006.

The entire blog is archived online at: http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com

Wiltenburg, Mary and Philip Smucker. “Looters Plunder in Minutes Iraq’s Millennia-Old Legacy,” Christian Science Monitor 14 April 2003. (www.csmonitor.com/2003/0414/p08s02-wome.html)

Aldiner, Charles. “Rumsfeld Denies U.S. Blame for Iraq Museum Blunder.” Reuters 15 April 2003. (http://reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=2571384)

Middle East Children’s Alliance: www.mecaforpeace.org/index.php.

See also www.mecaforpeace.org/article.php?id=427.

Teachers’ Curriculum Institute. History Alive: The Medieval World and Beyond. New York: TCI, 2005.