On general security situation and every day life that we saw:
We traveled in a secure manner and met with many leaders and students all over the city. It was obviously a small slice of the city that we covered over the course of 4+ days. Having said that, the parts of Baghdad we saw beyond the International Zone, neighborhoods not far from places like Sadar City – were remarkable. We got an on the ground view ( and an amazing helicopter ride ) where we saw a ton of active shops, cafes which were crowded, shauma stands with long lines, and traffic that was significant on the major roads.
Many people who once worked and lived on secure compounds told us how they have now moved back to living in residential neighborhoods. In addition many had sent their families to live in Jordan or Kuwait, and were now working on bringing the families back to Iraq.
With all that said, violence is still ongoing and people are mindful of which neighborhoods they visit and take other precautions. But everyone universally felt that the security environment had improved dramatically.
On what the staff was like at the the US Embassy, State Dept, Foreign Service, US Military, and the NGOs:
I had heard over the years that it was getting difficult to attract people to Iraq and that NGOs were pulling out, especially after the UN bombing back in 2003. What I found during my trip was quite the opposite, and the people we interacted with were absolutely A-list people — some of the brightest and most accomplished people that I had ever met. Not only were they extraordinary, but they also worked 24/7 – including the weekends. These are people who could be working for top companies back in the U.S., but instead were away from their families and doing really important work. My hope is that I get to work with them again in some capacity in the future.
On impact of oil prices:
In meetings with GOI (Government of Iraq) officials, this was a very big theme as the drop in price is having a real impact on budgets for the coming years. I felt like many of these officials were channeling Tom Friedman at times, who often talks about how the relationship between oil prices and private investment / pace of innovations are inversely related. Many spoke about needing private sector activity to offset the declining oil revenues.
On what role WordPress could play in Iraq:
I saw two immediate ways that WordPress could help.
1) Private sector. Iraq has tens of thousands of highly educated computer science and computer engineering students with very few commercial opportunities. Most of these students will end up in government roles and not in any kind of private firms.
My recommendation to them was to have students get involved with Open Source projects like WordPress, MySQL, PHP, etc — start making a name for themselves, contribute to these projects, work on translations,etc — and get some recognition. Blogging about it doesn’t hurt either :). Once Iraqis start getting involved and becoming experts, they can start bidding on all the available projects that are listed in marketplaces like oDesk. There are thousands of paid projects today that are looking for contractors and where the location of the contractor is not important. There is no reason today that only contractors in India and eastern Europe dominate these marketplaces and not ones from countries like Iraq.
2) Transparency and authentic voices. With tools like WordPress and our other projects like BuddyPress I saw an immediate platform for students, gov’t officials, companies, and really anyone working on interesting things to get the word out and put a face to the new Iraqi society. I heard lots of complaints from various people in Iraq that the media only covered bombings and had a “if it bleeds it leads” mentality. While somewhat true — and to me that’s more about news consumption habits than news producing — the best way to counter that perception is to produce your own content. Unfortunately, at least up until now, Iraqis, an the Arab world at large, is not producing much of it’s own content relative to other parts of the world. As my friend on this trip Ahmad (from Google) often pointed out, less than 1% of the Google index is in Arabic.
One student I met with, Helen, just left a comment here that “reading your blog encourages me to start my own blog, i think there is alot going on that needs to be told!”. Exactly :)
As a proxy for the activity in the WordPress community, below is a map of WordCamps around the world — which are community organized WordPress conferences. Besides the recent one in Egypt and in Israel, there is a huge vacuum in the middle east:
On our personal security:
We had an amazing security detail. I can’t, and won’t, reveal many details on how exactly they protected us, but I never felt in danger and had 100% confidence in our team. I’ll also say one thing: There is something remarkable about the quality of security and military personnel that are produced by free and open societies. These men and women are not only highly trained and have a ton of experience in hostile environments. They also care deeply about their mission, they are highly educated and understand the geopolitical importance of the work being done, and they exhibit a level of professionalism that is unmatched. Anyone thinking of going on a trip like this should feel confident about the security being provided.
On random moments where I took note and jotted something in my iPhone:
- Every meeting had tea & coffee. The tea was bedouin style with plenty of sugar :)
- Heard the word “transitioning” in every meetings — as in “Iraq is transitioning” to the next phase. People had a real sense that they were living through big historical times.
- People spoke of the sanctions of the 90s on the same level, from a negative impact perspective, as the first gulf war and the war in 2003. This was especially true at the Universities where many labs had to be shut down since the “dual use” of these labs was in question.
- During one meeting there was a brief power outage and we found ourselves sitting
partially in the dark. The Iraqis in the meeting didn’t miss a beat and just kept talking. Clearly this happens pretty often.
- Met a few Iraq soldiers and Baghdad police. These guys seemed well trained, friendly, and proud of the work they are doing. A few of them were on break and were off to the side playing soccer — good skills :)
Re: Who organized this trip:
Lots of people asked me about this. The person who put this all together is Jared Cohen who works for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. He’s a really remarkable guy with a ridiculous variety of skills and keen insights about the middle east. Smart, easy-going, and relatively young – you may have read about him in the New Yorker back in 2007, or seen him more recently on the Colbert Report. He is also the author of a recent book everyone should check out: Children of Jihad. Huge thanks to Jared for putting this all together — it was a real honor and privilege to be part of this delegation.
While a big component of the trip was fact finding and a bit of a listening tour, we have some real concrete ideas about ways in which we can engage with various Iraqi stakeholders — stay tuned !