June 2, 2003
Baghdad was hectic when two blogging friends e-mailed me to suggest that I track down “Salam Pax.” I had no idea who or what they were talking about. I could have handed over the job of sorting out this Salam Pax thing to my interpreter—he was a clever and funny Iraqi who never failed to provide what I needed, whether it was interviews or pizza—but I let it pass. I thought I had better things to do.
“Salam Pax” was the nom de blog of someone, apparently an Iraqi, who was writing from Baghdad before, during, and after the American invasion. His lively and acerbic blog was far better than the stuff pumped out by the army of foreign correspondents in the country. It became so popular that servers hosting it were overwhelmed. The vitality and fearlessness of Salam Pax’s writing, as well as the mystery of who he was—Iraqi? CIA? Mukhabarat? Jayson Blair?—led to stories by CNN, The New Yorker, and the Village Voice, among others, as well as a virtual felled forest of postings on war blogs and other sites: Instapundit mentioned him on two dozen occasions. Salam Pax was the Anne Frank of the war—I borrow that phrase from Nick Denton—and its Elvis.
While I was in Iraq, I was unaware of this. My slow-speed satellite phone all but precluded Web browsing, which meant the only non-Arabic media I was exposed to, from mid-March until just a few days ago, consisted of snatches of the BBC. The fascination and controversy over Salam Pax—when he stopped posting for a brief period, his Web fans worried he might have been arrested or gone into hiding—completely escaped me.
The day after I returned to New York, reunited with my cable modem, I checked out a friend’s blog that linked to an Austrian interview with Salam Pax. I clicked to it. Salam Pax mentioned an NGO he had worked for, CIVIC, and this caught my attention. I knew the woman who was in charge of CIVIC; she stayed at my Baghdad hotel, the Hamra. Salam Pax mentioned that he had done some work for foreign journalists. We traveled in the same circles, apparently. He also mentioned that he had studied in Vienna. This really caught my attention, because I knew an Iraqi who had worked for CIVIC, hung out with foreign journalists, and studied in Vienna. I clicked over to his blog.
His latest post mentioned an afternoon he spent at the Hamra Hotel pool, reading a borrowed copy of The New Yorker. I laughed out loud. He then mentioned an escapade in which he helped deliver 24 pizzas to American soldiers. I howled. Salam Pax, the most famous and most mysterious blogger in the world, was my interpreter. The New Yorker he had been reading—mine. Poolside at the Hamra—with me. The 24 pizzas—we had taken them to a unit of 82nd Airborne soldiers I was writing about.
My inner journalist tells me to draw back at this moment and write about the larger significance of my encounter with Salam Pax. That working alongside—no, employing—a star of the World Wide Web and being blissfully unaware of it is a lesson about the murkiness of today’s Iraq, a netherland of obscurity in which you cannot know who was a Baathist and who was not, or whether the man in the middle of the street with a gun is going to shoot you or not, or whether the country is spiraling out of control or just having teething problems before becoming a normal nation. My inner blogger, however, tells me to skip the What This Means stuff and write about my life with Salam Pax.
So let me tell you about my life with Salam Pax.
In early May, I agreed to hand over a fantastic interpreter I had been working with to a colleague who could offer him long-term employment, as I would be leaving the country at the end of the month. I needed a new interpreter to fill the gap for two weeks or so, and the colleague mentioned that he had just met a smart and friendly guy named Salam. I quickly traced Salam to the Sheraton Hotel. Salam—this is his real first name—was sitting in a chair in the lobby, reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I knew, at that moment, that I would hire him.
Salam, who is chubby and cherubic and hip and speaks beautiful English, and often says “thingy,” had everything you would want in an interpreter, save one trait. When I asked about his road skills, he blushed slightly and said, “To be honest, I am not much of a driver.” A few days later, as we headed out from the Hamra, I suggested that he drive, so that in an emergency he would be somewhat familiar with the workings of my vehicle, a Hyundai SUV. He got behind the wheel. There was just a foot or so between the Hyundai and the cars in front and back. Salam grimaced. “I don’t think I can do this without causing damage,” he said. We switched seats. Salam was my interpreter, but I was his driver.
He never mentioned his blogging, though if I had paid more attention I might have figured out he was up to something. I was spending a lot of time writing my final story from Iraq, so there were occasions when I stayed in my room and let Salam loose for several hours. He usually drifted off to one of the few Internet cafes in town. I assumed he was just writing e-mails to friends, though he often complained about the high cost of downloading and uploading. This struck me as odd, because sending and receiving e-mail shouldn’t require a lot of bandwidth—unless, of course, you are posting photos to your blog and receiving more e-mail than Bill Gates.
His discretion was understandable. Although Saddam Hussein and the thugs of the Mukhabarat are gone in theory, in reality they are still around, somewhere, along with many other weaponized people who might not appreciate the iconoclastic observations of a 29-year old who skewers not only the old Baath regime but the new American one, too. His blog’s epigram is a quote from Samuel P. Huntington: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”
There was a kerfuffle when The New Yorker published a “Talk of the Town” story about Salam Pax (both words mean “peace” in, respectively, Arabic and Latin), because it included a number of personal details that the anonymous Baghdad blogger might not appreciate being published in a magazine with a circulation of 900,000. Because of the continuing sensitivity, I won’t mention Salam’s last name, his e-mail address, or any information that might get him into trouble.
I don’t know what Salam thought about The New Yorker story, but he likes The New Yorker. I happened to have two issues of the magazine, and he was mesmerized by them, especially a story about the selection of Daniel Libeskind’s design for the WTC site. Salam is trained as an architect and is a fan of Libeskind’s work. He was amazed at the length of the stories. “They go on and on,” he remarked. “They start in one place, go somewhere else, then to another place. They are, like, endless.”
His cultural inclinations are impeccable. As we were spending a lot of time in my car, we stopped at several music stores to find acceptable road music; the offerings were meager, but he unearthed an excellent Cranberries cassette at one shop and brought an Oasis CD from his own collection, as well as the soundtrack from Pulp Fiction—the best music imaginable for driving around anarchic Baghdad. And when, in my final days, I wanted to buy a Persian rug or two, his advice was crucial. My living room now owes much to his fabulous taste.
I tried to reach Salam today to tell him that I figured out who he was, so we could laugh about it, but I couldn’t get through to either his father’s sat phone or his home phone (he lives in a neighborhood that has an occasionally functioning telephone exchange). I’ll be in touch with him this week, however, and we’ll all be hearing more from Salam: He has signed up to write a fortnightly column for the Guardian, and he continues to blog. He also continues to be surprised by the reaction to his work. When he was told by the Austrian interviewer that his fans had begun making “Salam Pax” T-shirts and coffee mugs, his response was frank—”Are you kidding?” Nobody is kidding. The coffee mugs are for real, and Salam Pax is for real.