Iraq's young generation

Nov 28, 2011

Washington Post staff writer Dan Zak discussed his portraits of young Iraqis as they prepare to inherit a war-scarred nation on the eve of U.S. withdrawal.

Morning. Here to chat about Iraq, or about the Iraq that I saw for seven weeks this autumn. Was my first time there after 8.5 years of reading and hearing about it, so I kind of feel like I represented the average American. Happy to talk about this package of stories on the youth -- which I tried to focus on during my assignment over there -- and about more general issues in the country, from the perspective of a one-time, interloping foreign correspondent.

What, if anything, do young Iraqis want or expect from: a) the U.S. government b) the American people

I think young Iraqis are a bit conflicted. They expect the U.S. government to clean up the mess, but they also recognize that Iraqis are partly responsible for the mess. As one 29-year-old said in the 2nd page of my story, "The Americans made mistakes, but we’re the ones who started fighting ourselves."

A majority of young Iraqis I spoke to said they want the U.S. to remain in the country in order to preserve the small democratic and security gains that have been made. As far as what they expect from the American people, I think they expect understanding and patience. They're also concerned about how Iraq is viewed by young Americans, and by the world in general -- that it's not just a place that is constantly exploding.

I interviewed a couple young Iraqis who attended a journalism conference in Minnesota in the past year; they were shocked to find that their American peers (22-year-olds) did not know exactly where Iraq was. So perhaps they expect the American people to be able to identify Iraq on a map.

(I should note that my impressions are strictly qualitative and anecdotal. They come from many conversations with many young Iraqis, but they are not scientific or definitive.)

Here in the US, we get a regular set of stories every election cycle about how young people don't vote and how the issues of the election don't appeal to them. Is this the case in Iraq as well? Can we expect that the younger generation to actually become a political force in Iraq or are they going to be politically marginalized?

I couldn't find reliable, current statistics for Iraqi voter participation by age. If anyone is aware of any, please chime in. Several young Iraqis told me that they do not believe in the ballot box, that they assume elections are manipulated to keep certain people and factions in power. Take the frustrating situation in Kirkuk: Provincial elections have been delayed two years because leaders are concerned about how the city's  fluctuating ethnic makeup could re-draw the power grid. It's enough to disenchant any young voter. Which is why some Iraqis, like these bloggers, are trying to make an impact through other measures.

Could you describe the back story to your assignment: How you were selected to go to Iraq, why the Post sent a Style section staffer?

The Post's Baghdad bureau chief, the inimitable Liz Sly, was deployed to Lebanon and Syria when the Arab Spring bloomed earlier this year, and the Post has rotated reporters out since then. The Foreign desk, to their credit, was willing to talk to any reporter who was interested in doing a six- or seven-week rotation -- in the interest of keeping a presence there, and of sending fresh pairs of eyes. So we talked, and decided to give it a go. I'm not the first Style reporter to file from over there, though.

were the ones you interviewed Shiite or/and Sunni?

They were a mix. I felt it wasn't important to categorize them in the profiles, though, because that would've perpetuated a sectarian mindset that they themselves were trying to transcend. Would you have wanted to know their religious affiliation from the get-go? It's an interesting factor...

Do you believe that 18-30 year old Iraqis will be able to make changes in their governement that will benefit their country?

I don't know. The deck seems to be stacked against them. They have a prime minister that is brazenly consolidating his power, bit by bit, and the corruption in government is staggering and discriminatory. The next parliamentary elections, in 2013, could be a watershed, or a confirmation of how broken this young democracy is. My sense, in seven weeks of chatting, is that young Iraqis are trying to make change on a level closer to the ground: Online, and via NGOs and community associations.

If you were a 28-year-old Iraqi rather than the American youth you are, what do you think you'd be doing? Did you relate to any of your subjects?

There's a good chance I'd be dead. There were a lot of young men who were kidnapped and never seen again in the early chaos of the war. And there is the constant -- though somewhat reduced -- threat of random bombings, especially at checkpoints (manned by young Iraqi men) and banks (timed to when young Iraqi police officers collect their paychecks).

It was easy to relate to the subjects' frustration with their government. It was hard to relate to their optimism and good attitudes. If I had endured a lifetime of Saddam Hussein, economic sanctions, foreign invasion and sectarian violence -- well, I'd probably be a bit grumpy.

How do you gauge whether the Iraq war was worth it from different perspectives? U.S. soldiers will be dealing with physical and emotional issues from Iraq for as long as they live (60-70 years). Many Iraqi youth you described will deal with the same. 4,500 US deaths and 10's of thousands of Iraqi deaths. A trillion dollars in costs to U.S. taxpayers and counting for resetting U.S. equipment used in Iraq and ongoing treatment costs of soldiers. A question lost to history is whether Saddam would have been swept away by his own people in the Arab Spring. In my mind, it's doubtful it was worth it from the US perspective--I can't say for the Iraqi perspective. How and when will they know?

Only an individual can judge whether it was worth it. In late October I spent a day with the staff of the student newspaper of the American University of Iraq in Sulimaniyah, in Kurdistan. They are bright-eyed students getting an American-style education in a new facility in a peaceful part of Iraq that was especially wronged by Hussein (in the Anfal chemical warfare days of the late '80s). The staff was unanimous in its approval of the American invasion, which they wouldn't even call an "invasion."

But then you spend a couple hours with Muhammed Hamid and his handicapped daughter, and you know it will never be worth it for him.

Some Iraqis told me they thought that the Arab Spring would've made it to Iraq had the U.S. not intervened in 2003. A German freelance journalist told me that Iraq would've initiated the Arab Spring if the U.S. had not intervened. Interesting thought. Impossible to know.

Can you write a bit about how you found the profile subjects? Were there stories that didn't make it? What part was missing for you?

So many parts were missing. It's impossible to represent all of Iraq in six profiles. For example, I wish I could've gotten a profile from the south, from Basra or from Najaf.

I found the subjects through happenstance, through searching, through the Post's brave and dedicated staff of Iraqi journalists and stringers (who are more in touch with local communities than I could ever be). I found "The Agitator" just by going to Tahrir and noting the most vocal participant. I found "The Daughter" through our Fallujah stringer. I found "The Bloggers" by engaging Iraqis online, through Twitter and Facebook.

You have written about Charlie Sheen. Do Iraqis know who Charlie Sheen is, and if so, what do they think of him?

An excellent question. Charlie Sheen did not come up during a single interview of conversation. However, I talked to some Iraqis who really enjoy "The King of Queens." The Americans are coming, and they are bringing sitcoms!

What does the future hold for young Mandaeans, Shabaks, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities?

I have no idea, and this hearkens back to my point about not being able to capture the fullness of Iraq in seven weeks. There are many minorities, and that designation changes depending on where you are at the country. I didn't have the time or opportunity to get perspectives from Mandaeans, Shabaks or Yazidis. Or Turkmen, for example, or the Iranian refugees at Camp Ashraf. So many different people comprise Iraq, and it's easy to lose sight of them when talking about Sunni and Shiite, or Arab and Kurd.

I know this is a broad question, yet what is the general perception of Iraqi youth towards Iranian youth? Is there hope that the two countries will someday reconcile their differences, and perhaps reconciliation might happen when the young become prominent in positions that could make this happen?

Another facet that went unexplored by me. I took a nationalist approach to Iraqi youth: What do they think of their own country? I know that some of them are critical of Maliki's perceived closeness to Iran, and of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's hypnotic influence over young Shiite fundamentalists.

I talked to a dean at Baghdad University who told me that it's going to take a generation born in 2008 to reconcile intra- and inter-national differences. So that cohort will be able to run for office in, like, 2038. Democratic success in Iraq, if it happens, is going to take decades.

Isn't this becoming truer over time?: - The destiny of any nation at any given time depends on the opinion of its young people, those under twenty-five. Goethe

Feels like it, doesn't it? There are more and more tools for young people to circumvent or upend traditional power structures. Read: The entire Arab Spring. How this plays out in Iraq...who knows at this point.

Do you have any thoughts on what the even younger generation (10 and under) will grow up to be like when they hit the ages of the folks you profiled?

Impossible to predict, but there will certainly be a lot of them. As mentioned in the piece, 53 percent of Iraq is under 19 years of age. Not sure what they'll be like when they grow up, but I keep thinking about what the manager of the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims said to me: That trauma can be inherited. 

So where do you think the birth defects are coming from?

No one knows for sure at this point, but I wrote about Zahraa and her father in order to illustrate a point: That the citizens of Fallujah believe it was the fault of the U.S., regardless. That's part of the American legacy: The suspicion that weapons have negatively impacted an entire generation.

What was the toughest part about doing a story like this? Did you find interesting people who refused to be formally interviewed?

I don't recall anyone flat-out refusing to be interviewed, but there were plenty who would speak only on-background, or only using their first name.

There were essentially 1,000 toughest parts of the story. The toughest of the toughest, though, was probably trying to understand the infinitely complex ethnic and sectarian geometry of Iraqi culture and politics. The more people you talk to, the more confusing it becomes. Which is why I decided to break this piece into six profiles -- to convey six individual perspectives rather than presume to understand all of Iraq.

Also, the traffic was tough. But that's what happens when you have a checkpoint every 500 yards.

Do young Iraqis really think they have a democracy on their hands?

I think they think there's a democracy on paper but not necessarily in practice. As the aforementioned dean of Baghdad U. told me, the U.S. focused on enacting the procedural points of a democracy -- a constitution, elections -- while neglecting the core of democracy: The individual.

Thanks for chatting, everyone. If you have questions or thoughts, please e-mail me at zakd@washpost.com. TTFN.

In This Chat
Dan Zak
Dan Zak is a general assignment reporter who was in Iraq for seven weeks this autumn. This year he has written about the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Washington after midnight, Charlie Sheen, combat knitters in Kandahar, Oscar week in Hollywood and the first openly gay U.S. presidential candidate.
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