Coming home for the first time
Media Reform Programme Advisor, BBC Media Action, Iraq
I never thought that a BBC project called Consolidating Media Freedoms would be the impetus behind my first ever trip to Iraq, but a few weeks ago I found myself on a plane to Baghdad to do exactly that.
The trip promised to be both interesting and complex. Our mission was to meet with a wide range of the Iraqi media community, from media professionals to parliamentarians to civil society activists, and begin a dialogue around public service broadcasting, its fundamentals and merits.
Our work would hopefully help nurture the Iraqi Media Network, a public service broadcast organisation launched by the Coalition Provision Authority in 2004, and enable it to wholly represent and complement the needs and nuance of Iraqi society, politics, culture and people.
But for me the trip had added personal resonance – I was an Iraqi native who had never been to Iraq.
Social and political circumstance has meant that my two Iraqi parents have lived between the UK, Kuwait and Jordan since leaving Baghdad, their native city, in the early '70s.
As a result, despite growing up in the Middle East, speaking Arabic (with a strongly Iraqi dialect) and holding an Iraqi passport up until my late teens, I’d never actually visited the country itself.
I’d heard stories from my family of growing up there: of coffeehouses, cinemas, sleeping on roofs under the stars and walks down the Tigris.
What was it going to be like now? After 35 years of wars, brutal sanctions, an invasion and occupation, and now heightened sectarian tension and violence?
My reaction was a conflicted one.
On the one hand I was excited and overwhelmed by the beautiful old colonial houses, the avenues that looked like they were straight out of the old Arabic soap operas we used to watch, the beautiful Abu Nawas Street that stretched out along the Tigris River, with gorgeous green parks and gardens and the delicious Masgouf (local grilled carp) that I’d heard so much about.
It felt good to be in the country of my origin, to finally put a picture to the stories.
But on the other hand, it made me ache inside that life in Baghdad was so tough.
A day in the life of every Baghdadi means a series of endless checkpoints, sniffer dogs, armed forces and tanks, military helicopters flying low and the occasional sound of a suicide bomb in the distance. The beautiful parks of Abu Nawas Street were pretty much empty the entire time I was there, except for the occasional group of soldiers taking a break.
We had good meetings, lots of them, with Iraqis wanting to find a way to deal with the current political and security situation. There was hope and encouraging action for us to progress and develop.
The Iraqi Media Network’s headquarters in Baghdad.
We facilitated a unique meeting with the Parliamentary Media and Culture Committee and the Board of Governors of the Iraqi Media Network who met for the first time to discuss, with our advice, the future of the IMN, the development of a truly Iraqi public service broadcaster and how this would be reflected in new laws that should be passed.
However while all of this was taking place, civil war is currently raging in the province of Anbar, threatening once more to alter of course of planned elections in April.
For the resilient residents of Baghdad, meanwhile, daily life goes on.
Consolidating Media Freedom is a strategic programme funded by the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United States government's Department for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour and EuropeAid.