When a 23-year-old Iraqi in Baghdad named Wisam used to play the Gulf War computer game "Desert Combat," he didn't play as his countrymen. He fought with the American-led coalition forces. Most Iraqi gamers he knows choose that side.
It's not because they have a great affinity for the Americans, who Wisam refers to as "the invaders." There's a more practical motivation, he revealed last week during a late-night interview with MTV News from his home in Baghdad, where he was up at 1 a.m. and home because of a government-imposed curfew. "Let me just tell you, we are impressed by your guns."
Last month Wisam appeared in a five-minute video interview on the blog Alive in Baghdad. With "Final Fantasy XII" running idle on the TV behind him, he talked about his life as a gamer in the capital of war-torn Iraq. The broadcast of his tale was made possible by other young men, including Wisam's interviewer, Omar Abdullah, 22 — a Palestinian correspondent for the blog who has lived most of his life in Baghdad — and Brian Conley, a 26-year-old American who has run Alive in Baghdad as a counterpoint to mainstream-TV coverage of the war in Iraq since late 2004. All agreed to talk to MTV News about the blog, about gaming and why it was so important to tell Wisam's story.
Conley cited a comment he heard from an Iraqi refugee and blogger in Canada who had been asked why she bothered to share her story. " 'If we can tell interesting and compelling stories, it makes it harder for them to shoot us or to kill us,' " he recalled. "The most important thing for us to be doing now is to be saying, 'These are the people in Iraq and this is what they have to say.' "
Conley can't explain why he became fascinated with the country. He remembers watching Operation Desert Storm on CNN. He took Arabic in college and was taught by an Iraqi professor. Curiosities grew. In 2005, he was finally able to visit the country, and with a zeal for reporting, he befriended Iraqis and launched Alive in Baghdad to channel their stories. His team is now spread from the U.S. to the Middle East, and the site has aired dozens of now-weekly five-minute video interviews with Iraqis. Alive in Baghdad has featured conversations with Iraqi police, artists and one of its own correspondents, who spoke of being kidnapped and beaten by the Shiite Mehdi Army, led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Conley knew that subject matter was engaging a certain audience but wanted to expand its range even further.
Abdullah, who had filmed many of the interviews in Iraq, was game. "We've been trying to make a show about what people do at nighttime," he said. The government curfew in Baghdad starts at 11 p.m. on most nights, though Abdullah said people strive to be home hours earlier, before it gets dark. "People just want to get home so they can stay safe."
It was hard, and continues to be, to find interview subjects. "A lot of people are very, very scared to talk on camera in Baghdad," Abdullah said. "You don't know who's your enemy. You don't know who's your friend. Shia killing Sunnis. Sunnis killing Shia. Sunnis fighting the U.S. military. They'll go on in one circle."
Abdullah came up with one workable idea that was close to his heart. A gaming aficionado who reads GameSpot, regularly raves about "Metal Gear Solid" and will voluntarily stop talking about sectarian violence to rant about the graphics in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," he suggested talking to people about games. Wisam was willing.
It turns out that Wisam is often willing to talk about games. He sat for Omar's camera and agreed to talk about that aspect of his life in his war-torn country to MTV News. But in both cases, despite the seemingly innocuous subject matter, he asked that his last name not be used out of concerns for his safety.
What's the gaming life been like in Baghdad? It has followed a path familiar to many European gamers, where the Amiga computer was the premiere gaming system at a time when the Nintendo Entertainment System dominated in America and Japan. Then the Sega Genesis was big. ("Mortal Kombat" on that machine was a Wisam favorite.) Then came PlayStation. Nintendo was never big. The dominant games were always the soccer titles, Wisam said. He couldn't find many folks like himself who, in his words, is a " 'Final Fantasy' freaker."
Wisam says he learned much of his English from "Metal Gear" and "Final Fantasy." (He had trouble with "Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King" because the English in that game is spoken with British accents.) Most of the games he buys are bootlegs, sold for about a dollar in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. "Before the invasion, we could buy a lot of games," Wisam said. "The games are available if you go outside. But maybe I'll get killed by a car bomb or [improvised explosive device]."
The American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime changed Wisam's taste in games. He and his gamer friends used to enjoy first-person shooters like "Medal of Honor" and "Call of Duty." Then a real war started around him. "We hate the attacking, the gunfire in games," Wisam said. "We started to hate it." In fact, there's only one game with guns he can still tolerate. " 'Grand Theft Auto' is the exception. Because 'Grand Theft Auto' is like us."
Abdullah concurs, saying San Andreas looks like his city. "It was very, very similar to Baghdad. We were like, 'Oh my God. These are the same actions that happen in Baghdad.' There are some places that are divided. For each place, there is a gang ruling that place. You can go down the street and drive any car. If you want to jump on a motorcycle, you can do it."
Electricity is sporadic in Wisam's neighborhood. The local generator is on from 4 p.m. to midnight. To power his console, Wisam got a gas-powered generator. To get the needed gas, he waits in lines at a gas station, four hours at a time. He spends about $200 a month on electricity, money he says he collects from rent on some businesses. Otherwise, he doesn't work, which frustrates him. "I recently graduated from the Baghdad University English Department. I'm useless."
All this involvement with Western culture might surprise some Americans, but Abdullah said it has always had a foothold in Iraq. "Some folks in the United States, when they think about Iraq, they think they are just some people in a village riding a camel or whatever," he said.
Not so. Abdullah says he's a metalhead, for example — and that he's not the only one. Until a few years ago, a Western music station played several hours of metal in Iraq a day, he said. "I can assure you that there are more than 50 to 100 thousand Iraqis in Baghdad listening to Metallica right now," he said. He recalls walking through Baghdad wearing a Metallica T-shirt before the war. Neighbors would cheerfully flash a familiar heavy-metal hand sign. "A lot of people wave the devil horns in Baghdad, and if the situation is a bit calmer and the security is a bit better, you can come and try it yourself." The current situation in Iraq, however, compelled Abdullah to leave the country. He's in Syria these days.
After Wisam sat for his interview with Abdullah, Conley tapped him for translation work. Conley has tried to make his Alive in Baghdad effort reciprocal, providing tips and equipment, extra work and friendship to the Iraqis who help him make their stories public. He's got the whole arrangement tethered with shoestrings, burning through $2,000 a month while drawing about 10,000 viewers to each video interview. "We think we have about enough money for one or two more months, and then we're done," Conley said.
Visitors from around the world visit Alive in Baghdad. Each video has a comments section, providing a window not just to the wide-ranging support Conley's project gets but the criticisms of those who see it as propaganda. He resists what he calls "this really bullsh-- simplification of the conflict in Iraq that, 'Oh, they hate each other, and we need to get out of there because it's not our civil war.' " Conley clearly has a position, but he hopes people come to the site with an open mind. "We're trying to get people to think a second thought."
Conley, Abduallah and Wisam are all in their 20s and closely connected through new technology. But because of where they live or what they feel they've been called to do, they're also close to danger. All are on the move.
Wisam hopes to be out of Baghdad soon. "Next month I'll leave, Insha'Allah [God willing]," he said. He says he'd like to play the next "Grand Theft Auto," as would Abdullah. The games come out in the fall. In a sense that's close. But it's also far, far away.