Spamming the Gap

02 January 2004

Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were restricted in terms of the television they could watch and the newspapers they could read.  Access to global satellite TV and the Internet was forbidden to all but the top fat-cats in Saddam’s inner circle of butchers and thieves. 

Now that Iraq is a free country, its citizens for the first time are experiencing the joys we in West take for granted.  They can watch television programs that are critical of the interim government or sit down with a coffee and a paper to read a blistering editorial about the progress of reconstruction in the new Iraq. 

In his book, The New Iraq, Joseph Braude tells a joke familiar to most in Baghdad.  During the previous regime, a man with a broken television set walks into a repair shop.  The repairman takes the TV into the back and returns moments later with a picture of Saddam taped to the screen.  “All fixed,” he announces.

Today, Iraqis can watch anything they want.  Sales of satellite dishes are sky-rocketing and the average Joe…er…”Mo” (as in Mohammed) is as familiar now with Fox News as he is with Al-Jazeera.  Recently, one of my translators asked me for an advance on her pay so that she could purchase a weight-loss belt she’d seen on TV.  “There was a half-an-hour program on it,” she told me.  “It’s all very scientific.  You put on this specially designed belt and the fat just melts right off.”  Her first infomercial!  How exciting.  The irony was not lost on me as I explained to her that, as with Saddam’s channels, you can’t believe everything you see on TV.

The arrival of unfettered email has brought with it some unexpected consequences.  Readers may be surprised to learn that many, many people in Baghdad have access to email.   As the coalition contracting offices do most of their communicating electronically, scores of Internet cafes have sprung up around town to satisfy the people’s need for online access.  So that they could also be riders on the Information Superhighway, I had all of my Iraqi staff sign up for their own Hotmail accounts.  Stupidly, I completely forgot to warn them about spam, and so was quite taken off guard when they peppered me with questions about breast enlargements, diet pills, Nigerian investment opportunities, and XXX-hardcore sorority girls looking for a good time.  While I was able to convince them that these missives were not directed to them personally, I was less than successful in explaining why Americans seem so interested in such things.

For most Iraqis, 2004 will literally be the year in which they come out of complete darkness and into the light.  Sorting through all that information and deciding what is garbage and what is fact will be a fascinating challenge.  No doubt they will rise to the occasion.  Just as one day the rubble of Baghdad will be replaced with magnificent towers of glass and steel, we can expect that an Edward R. Murrow or a Walter Cronkite will rise up from a media landscape formerly dominated by government mouthpieces.  Of course, there will be an Iraqi Jerry Springer and Geraldo, too.  Such is the full bounty of freedom and, in the case of the latter two, something I can’t wait to see.