Due to persistent power outages and failing phone lines, she was unaware that two days earlier she had been longlisted for the £30,000 award with 18 other finalists.
“I was walking on air,” she told Al Jazeera.net when it finally sank in.
Riverbend’s blog Baghdad Burning first began to make waves in late 2003 and quickly became one of the most read Iraqi blogs.
Describing herself as a 26-year-old computer specialist, Riverbend offered an Iraqi woman’s perspective on the US invasion and the first months following the fall of Baghdad.
Since then, her blog has been adapted into book form by UK-based publishers Marion Boyars and New York-based Feminist Press.
In March 2005, the blog was adapted into a play by a New York-based theatre production company.
Commenting on daily political and sectarian strife and “life under occupation”, the blog has also won third place in the 2005 Lettre Ulysses Prize for Reportage and the 2006 Bloggie, an award given by the blogging community, for best African of Middle Eastern Blog.
Established in 1998 and sponsored by an anonymous British businessman, the Samuel Johnson Prize focuses on books published in the UK in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.
The winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2006 will be announced at an awards dinner in London on June 14.
Al Jazeera.net: How did you react when you heard of the nomination?
“We all looked back at the morgue. Most of the cars had simple, narrow wooden coffins on top of them, in anticipation of the son or daughter or brother. One frenzied woman in a black abaya was struggling to make her way inside, two relatives holding her back. A third man was reaching up to untie the coffin tied to the top of their car”
Riverbend: I was surprised. I actually thought the article “Iraqi blogger nominated for prize” was referring to someone else. Then I checked my emails and found my British publisher confirming it. I was ecstatic.
The nomination is for the book based on your blog. What inspired the blog? Was it your intention to adapt it into a book?
Another Iraqi blogger – Salam Pax – who many consider the father of Iraqi blogs, inspired me to blog. I guest blogged a couple of times on his forum and he encouraged me to begin one of my own.
I never thought it would be turned into a book even though I got several offers within a few months of blogging. I didn’t like the idea of turning the blog into a book at first because all the publishers wanted me to discontinue blogging. Feminist Press is the first publisher that didn’t want me to stop blogging.
Iraq also inspires me to blog. While I began blogging as a way to vent frustrations and fears about the instability and insecurity, I continue to blog because I feel that the media covers the situation in my country in a very general way.
Many articles or reports don’t even begin to touch the daily reality Iraqis face.
What are the realities they do face that you feel are not reported in the media?
Real Iraqis, the people currently suffering under a lack of security and a shortage of the most basic necessities like electricity and water, seem to have faded to the background while the media is busy with the failed attempts of the current government to organise themselves.
I’m also frustrated with the way the media oversimplifies certain situations – like the sectarian violence being promoted by the occupation forces and the current government.
Some have suggested that your blog is an important part of documenting history in the making. How do you react to that? Was that your intention when you started it?
“I always enjoy a good Chalabi interview. His answers to questions are always so completely antagonistic to Iraqi public opinion that the whole thing makes a delightful show – rather like a vicious Chihuahua in the midst of a dozen bulldogs”
(Blog excerpts, May 22, 2004)
I’m very flattered, and somewhat awed, with that description of the blog. I began it tentatively, not even sure anyone would actually read it. To say that it is “an important part of documenting history” is beyond any description I ever imagined when I first began writing it.
At the end of the day, I believe all blogs document history – just different chapters in history.
But some of your detractors online have said you are unabashedly biased and anti-American and that you lament the ousting of the previous government. Is that true?
Unabashedly biased towards what? Iraq? One thing that bothers me is that many people equate being anti-occupation with anti-American.
I am not anti-American – I know many wonderful Americans and correspond and communicate with them regularly. I am, however, anti-occupation.
I don’t wish for the “days of Saddam”, if that’s what you’re asking. I am, however, completely against the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
Why do you refer to the current Iraqi government as puppets on your blog?
I refer to them as puppets because almost all of them are allied with one foreign government or intelligence agency or another. None of them seem to have Iraq’s best interests at heart. They are all too busy lining their pockets in preparation for their comfortable retirement from the Green Zone to outside of the country.
Where did you learn to speak and write in the English language – was it in Iraq?
I was raised abroad as a child and was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged me to read continuously in English after we returned.
What types of books did you read?
I read any book in English I could get my hands on. I read the classics – books by Dickens, Jane Austen, William Thackery, George Orwell and others. I also read books by American authors like Faulkner. I read books translated to English from other languages – Russian and French literature. Anything I could find in English, I would read.
The [Emily, Charlotte and Anne] Bronte sisters specifically changed my life – they opened me up to writing.
So you always wanted to be a writer?
No – I didn’t even know I could write until I began blogging.
Are foreign language books easy to find in Baghdad?
The classics are fairly easy to find if you know where to go… Newer books were very difficult to get, especially during the embargo. Sometimes we would ask people coming from abroad to just bring books – any books – because there never seemed to be enough.
Why do you maintain anonymity?
“I feel like I have my finger on the throbbing pulse of the Iraqi political situation every time I visit Abu Ammar. You can often tell just how things are going in the country from the produce available at his stand. For example, when he doesn’t have any good tomatoes we know that the roads to Basra are either closed or really bad and the tomatoes aren’t getting through to Baghdad. When citrus fruit isn’t available during the winter months, we know that the roads to Diyala are probably risky and oranges and lemons couldn’t be delivered.”
(Blog excerpts, February 18, 2005)
I maintain anonymity because it keeps me secure. In the beginning, I decided to be anonymous because it gave me the freedom to discuss whatever and whomever I wanted without fear of retribution – this includes political parties, religious figures, common thugs masquerading as political and religious figures, etc.
I couldn’t do this with the use of my name because I would be worried about detention or worse. People have been a lot less critical than I’ve been on my blog and they’ve gotten into a lot of trouble.
You have kept your blog alive for nearly three years, do you ever envision it ending? What will you do then?
When Baghdad Burning was one of only six or seven Iraqi blogs, I would tell myself that the blog would remain alive as long as there was something to blog about.
Now, there are dozens of Iraqi blogs from inside and outside of the country and where one blog ends, others will continue.
Blogging and journalism seem to be merging around the world. Are bloggers the new journalists?
Bloggers are not exactly journalists, which is a mistake many people make. They expect us to be dispassionate and unemotional about topics such as occupation and war, etc. That objective lack of emotion is impossible because a blog in itself stems from passion – the need to sit hours at one’s computer, slouched over the keyboard, trying to communicate ideas, thoughts, fears and frustrations to the world.
What future do you see for Iraq?
Possibly several more years of chaos. As long as there are foreign troops in the country, there’s going to be violence and bloodshed. I do believe Iraq will rise once more – because Iraqis have a history of greatness.