I flew into Baghdad over the 10th anniversary of the invasion. The international headlines were filled with 10-year roundups on the war and its destruction. But I wasn't coming to tell the tired story of needless death, or give airtime to the small band of extremists tearing what's left of the country apart like hyenas.
I came to elevate the voices of brave young change-makers working to heal their country against all odds, to listen to their stories, and to work with them to make a music video for global unity rising from the youth of our generation's biggest war.
If I came with impossibly high goals, what I experienced was beyond my, or anyone's, dreams. The trip was organized in less than a month. Three weeks of outreach, and I was working with members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, Youth Orchestra, Iraqi Film Center, TEDx Baghdad, Iraqi Culture Day,World Peace Day, I CARE, Tawasin Cultural Society, Sada, and more.
I can't say I wasn't scared. The monthly death toll was its highest in 5 years, and my Arabic minimal. In Baghdad, it's said three in ten taxi drivers deliver unaccompanied foreigners to kidnappers.
My native heritage and features were my passport into Iraqi society: the long Mesopotamian nose and square jaw protruding like the Ziggurat of Ur. I'm American of Iraqi descent with a large extended family in Baghdad and Mosul going back over a thousand years. But I had never been there. It was going to be an emotional homecoming.
Nearly a dozen artists and culture workers were at the Palestine Hotel an hour after I arrived to set straight to work. My stay would be short. We had to start shooting the next morning. I'd meet and interview as many young change-makers as I could Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, we planned a flash-mob style video shoot outside in Abu Nawas Park.
Life isn't easy in Baghdad. Organizing anything is an Augean task. Bombings happen constantly, checkpoints move, and it often takes an hour to drive a mile. Innocent people lose their lives in scores on a regular basis. But, Iraqis take the chaos in stride together. It's as though the war has produced a nation of Zen masters.
The Sunni, Shia, and Christian youth working with me were eager to be involved in something positive. They have unlimited energy. They don't just want, they desperately need a great call for unity to rise from the ashes and change their world. They support each other. These youth may be our greatest hope.
Over the next two days we shoot numerous interviews with everyone from musicians and graffiti artists to development workers and architects. All of them are trying, in their own ways, to change things for the better, to rebuild their fracturing society.
People tell me, "Outsiders always come to report on us. But this is the first time someone's come here to work with us, to tell our stories."
For the music video, we shoot in Zawra Park,al Rashid Street, on the banks of the Tigris on the sun cracked alluvial clay. It's illegal to film in most places, but we shoot anyhow, slipping in quickly with small camera and no set-up. We want to show a side of Iraq the outside world hasn't seen, a beautiful side: the majority of everyday people that are holding things together.
Friday came and we started at the Wasfi Center in Mansoor, where hundreds of kids learn music to transcend the chaos. I explained the vision quickly and handed out paper and markers. Their messages were mind-blowing. Children of war have the language of peace on the tips of their tongues. They're just waiting for someone to hear them.
It was Good Friday. Two bombs had gone off across the city already that morning. A four-year-old boy came to me. I showed him how to write "love" in Arabic ("hub"), folded the paper into an airplane and gave it to him as a present, a paper fighter plane filled not with bombs but love. He flew it, unfolded it, and held the sign above his head dancing in the garden.
Two more bombs went off across the city. The lines at the checkpoint back across the bridge into Karrada were miles long. We had called the flash-mob outdoor video shoot for 3pm in Abu Nawas by the statue of Scheherazade. We arrived 2 hours late, but a dozen or more collaborators were there waiting.
They started making signs, "Peace," "Love," "We have the tools," "We have the passion," and stood in a line holding them. People in the park for a festival nearby began flocking over to see what was happening. The thought that a great message to unite the world could start here caught fire. Soon there was a line of people, young and old, writing messages to the world.
A band of young boys swarmed around me listening to the song coming out of my cell phone. Beneath the statue of Scheherazade, her hands lifted to the sky, they lined up, spontaneously doing hand motions to the choruses, "Love, make the world go round. Fill it with your sound, rising up from every nation and town!"
I am back from Iraq, but what I experienced there will be with me forever. The magic that happened there sprang instantaneously from the sheer will and spirit of these resilient people, dying for life, dying to be heard. Together, we had made a document of the impossible transformed into the possible, in real time, bombs exploding in the background.
If a message of global unity can go viral on the streets of Baghdad, it can spread around the world if we do our part like these unstoppable youth.
If we believed, like they have to just to get through each day, we could create change on a level never before achieved.
If we listened to and enabled the people who are spreading hope in the most challenging circumstances across the planet, we could create a more equal world before it's too late.