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About Baghdad: An Exiled Iraqi Poet Returns Home To Witness the Effects of War, Sanctions and Occupation

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The new documentary About Baghdad tracks the return of the poet Sinan Antoon. He joins us in our studio with Adam Shapiro, one of the filmmakers. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier in the program we heard from Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi writer and poet who was exiled under Saddam Hussein. Since then, he has lived and worked in the United States — He currently teaches Arabic and Arab literature at Dartmouth college. Last summer, as the invasion of Iraq was still in its early stages, Sinan Antoon returned to Baghdad with a group of activists and filmmakers. They walked around Baghdad with their cameras and talked to people from all walks of life and with many different opinions on the occupation. The result of their trip is a new film that is set to be released in a few weeks. It is called * “About Baghdad.”* It was produced by InCounter Productions. Sinan Antoon joins us again as does Adam Shapiro.

  • Sinan Antoon, Iraqi poet, novelist and translator. He studied English literature at Baghdad University before coming to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. He is featured in the new film * “About Baghdad.”* He currently teaches Arabic and Arab Literature at Dartmouth College.
  • Adam Shapiro, organizer with the International Solidarity Movement. He has spent extensive time in Palestine. After the US invasion of Iraq began, he travelled to Baghdad to film a documentary called “About Baghdad.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Sinan Antoon joins us in the studio along with another of the filmmaking team, Adam Shapiro. And we welcome you as well, Adam. And welcome back, Sinan. I thought we’d start with a clip of the film. And I was wondering, Sinan, if you could set this up for us. First talk about the trip and your spending the month in Baghdad and who you talked to. And then set this up.

SINAN ANTOON: Well we spent three weeks we wanted to spend more time, of course, but because we are independent and we have limited resources, we couldn’t spend anymore time but those three weeks — literally 7:00 in the morning to 7 at night before the curfew — we just spent basically going around Baghdad, interviewing, as you said, Iraqis from all walks of life and basically asking them how they felt about the legacy of living under Saddam’s dictatorship and going through three wars, sanctions and how they feel about the U.S. and the results that we got which we kind of expected as to show just the complexity that goes beyond the Manichean view that Bush wants us to believe about Iraqis either being Saddam-lovers or U.S.-lovers and what we got from most if not all the Iraqis that, you know, their worldview is much more complicated than that. And as complicated as any other human being. The scene, I believe, we are going to see if one of the spontaneouswe also although we had planned and organized forays into certain places in Baghdad where we thought it would encapsulate the whole complex relationship but we also went around the streets and had spontaneous interactions with people. And one of them, I believe, a man on the street, and he just said, you know, he came to the camera and said, you know, you know, this, this, in his view summarized everything how that, you know, what he believes the whole relationship and the complexity of what has happened that Saddam, you know, having gone, that the student has gone but now the master is here and that that summarizes everything for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Say it again. The student

SINAN ANTOON: The student has gone basically and the master is here. He said that summarizes everything and the people are the victim. And he said, “write,? you know, “put that down as the summary of everything that has happened.? And to me, I mean, we’re always haunted by this because, really, if you want not that that there should be always a sentence that summarizes everything, but that does still, until today, summarize everything for Iraqis, especially after the recent revelations with Abu-Rabin and whatnot, basically that the Iraqis have changed hands.

AMY GOODMAN: The student is here, the student has gone and the master is here. We’re going to listen to this without translation over it and the film is in Arabic with subtitles. This is a scene from the street of Baghdad.

ABOUT BAGDAG CLIP SUBTITLE: The student has left and the master has come. The student has come and the master has come. This summarizes everything. The people are the victim.

Our voice is not being heard. What is being heard is the voice of those who yell and shout and screw around. No one has heard the voice of those at the core of society.

AMY GOODMAN: That, a scene from around Baghdad. And, Adam Shapiro, the last person we heard from, the man speaking very softly said “You have to show..hear voices from the core of society.

ADAM SHIPIRO: Exactly. This was one of the people who worked at Sinan’s high school where we went to visit and to show what had happened to his school and to meet some of the people from his past, and he made this point that the only voices that were coming out of Iraq these days that we’re hearing are those who are screaming, those who are yelling, and that the society the core of the society, the people themselves aren’t having their voices heard there, their concerns, their needs, heard by the media and by, you know, people in this country, especially Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like for you to return, Sinan? Why did you leave?

SINAN ANTOON: I left because I always wanted to leave to escape Saddam’s huge prison. But to go back although I kept abreast of the news and followed the country’s descent but I was still shocked because no matter how much you read and see even, I mean, I was in Egypt at the time, and I was watching Al Jeezera and reading all kinds of newspapers. But it was very shocking to see the actual destruction, not just of the war, but, to me, the most damaging and that’s what a lot of people in our film also say is to the social fabric of Iraq. Really, the destruction of the structure of Iraqi society which basically had gone on for a long timestarted by Saddam as he was aided by the U.S. but the crucial, crucial factor is the 13 years of the sanctions which really had, you know, driven Iraq to the edge. So that the war was the final blow. And, to me, it was just really depressing to see how drained and destroyed Iraqis are. I mean, they’re still resilient, at least, when we were there, and wanted to rebuild the country. But, really, people are really drained. And that’s what the man said. I mean, the core of the society that was, was supposed to rebuild Iraq. The intelligencia, the middle class is completely destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Shapiro, a comparison please between occupation of Iraq and the occupied territories. You’re most well known for having gone into the compound of Yassar Arafat who was under siege in Ramallah. The Israeli military, now we hear that the Israeli military has pulled out of Gaza. Can you talk about having spent time in both places?

ADAM SHIPIRO: I think it’s hard to compare although what we’re seeing today in Iraq, unfortunately, and really tragically, is very reminiscent and of the tactics of the occupying forces that we find among Israeli forces. Even the very notion that soldiers are taking pictures of what they’re doing. We find Israeli soldiers doing that as well to Palestinians at checkpoints a they’re occupying cities and whatnot. And the people, the reaction, of course, from the people that they, that they resist, that they do not want this occupation. They do not feel in control of their lives, just their daily life of trying to get to work, trying to get to school, trying to just sort of raise a family. This..the impact of occupation on how people understands what they control in their own personal space. This is something that, that we really don’t have a sense of until you’re living under occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Israeli military pulling out of Rafah in Gaza? You feel that they’ll stay out?

ADAM SHIPIRO: I don’t think so. I mean, I think even today, I think some, some Israeli generals have said this is just a pause in the operation. And the pause is probably to give to soldiers a chance to catch their breath and they’ll go back in.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Shapiro and Sinan Antoon, I want to thank you for being with us. The film that is just coming out is called “About Baghdad.”

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