“I tell them it will make their souls dirty.”
That's what Hasan Haitham, who I met in 2007 during one of the most violent moments of the Iraq war, says to his friends in Baghdad who spend their time watching a constant stream of violent videos on YouTube and Facebook. Hasan is a 29-year-old dentist who has always impressed me with his ability to translate flowery Arabic conversations into English. He came of age amid conflict and continues to struggle with the power of social media to both connect and divide people.
Seeing the effects of constant exposure to violent, user-generated videos has made Hasan understand the Iraqi government’s efforts to limit access to social media.
We've been chatting like this for a couple of weeks now, through WhatsApp and Skype, which Hasan uses by hacking around the government's attempts to control access to information. His ability to get around the government’s firewall comes as no surprise: he's always managed to somehow stay up to date.
Back in 2007, when I met Hasan to film a New York Times video about young people graduating from college during the war, he appeared as modern as anyone else his age around the world; he was always hip, despite his heartbreak about the horrid state of his country.
Back then, the war brought car bombs almost every morning, and weeks before he finished dental school, a classmate and friend had been killed in a suicide bombing attack at the school. He told us what it was like to be entering adult life during a bloody conflict.
Days later he immigrated to Jordan with hopes of finding a way to the United States. But the visas never came through.
So he ended up back in Baghdad, trying to finally get his life and career started after years of having everything on hold in Jordan. In 2010, he found a job with the government. Eventually he was able to open his own dental clinic. Then with financial support from his mother, who was migrating from Jordan to Australia, he opened another. Now he's making the final arrangements to marry his long-time girlfriend. The wedding is in September.
As of a few months ago, Hasan’s life was looking up; he was just another 29-year-old professional who was building a successful and happy life for himself.
But now his country is coming apart around him once again. As al-Qaida militants make there way towards Baghdad from the north, Hasan’s life is again marked by uncertainty and encroaching violence.
Not only is there the fear of what ISIS militants will do should they reach the capital city, but it's become more difficult for Hasan to make a living in a city where the usual routines and spending habits are subject to the disruption of war.
Hasan says he still feels safe in Baghdad. He and his friends try to maintain a semblance of normalcy and stay connected on social media, despite the government’s attempts to limit its use.
He says he supports the Iraqi Ministry of Communication’s efforts to limit what people can share and see on the Internet, but it hasn’t stopped him and his friends from connecting on social media just about every day. Workarounds are easy, he says.
Using all the tools at his disposal, Hasan has agreed to help Fusion readers understand what's happening in Iraq and how it's affecting the young people in the capital.
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