The Bitter And The Sweet

qdrum.jpgToday, there were actually three stories that caught my eye that I wanted to highlight; two sad, one happy, all noteworthy.  The two sad stories were about Iraq, as so many sad stories are these days.  The happy story is about hope and help for the impoverished places and people of the world.

The first sad story is about yet another (presumably) unintended consequence of the war and occupation:

For anyone living in Damascus these days, the fact that some Iraqi refugees are selling sex or working in sex clubs is difficult to ignore.

Even in central Damascus, men freely talk of being approached by pimps trawling for customers outside juice shops and shawarma sandwich stalls, and of women walking up to passing men, an act unthinkable in Arab culture, and asking in Iraqi-accented Arabic if the men would like to “have a cup of tea.”


Many of these women and girls, including some barely in their teens, are recent refugees. Some are tricked or forced into prostitution, but most say they have no other means of supporting their families. As a group they represent one of the most visible symptoms of an Iraqi refugee crisis that has exploded in Syria in recent months.


Inexpensive Iraqi prostitutes have helped to make Syria a popular destination for sex tourists from wealthier countries in the Middle East.

Remember how the invasion was supposed to be so great for Iraqi women?  How they were freed from the fear of Saddam's rape rooms?  Yeah, their lives are ever so much better now that they're selling their bodies in a foreign country.  You will not be surprised to hear that the story has no mention of the United States lifting a finger to help these women, or Iraqi refugees in general (the UN is at least working with the Syrian government and they sound optimistic, but I suspect that as long as there is demand, and as long as the refugees have no other source of income, the exploitation will continue).

The second sad story is at least tinged with gallows whimsy:

"They wait for me to let my guard down, like predators," said [Wafaa] Bilal, an Iraqi artist who has holed himself up in a Chicago gallery for a month with a paintball gun that people can shoot at him over the Internet, at, 24 hours a day.

Since May 4, more than 40,000 shots have been fired by people around the world who visit his Web site. The site shows a live image of Bilal from a camera mounted on the gas-powered paintball gun at the edge of his living space. Using arrow icons on the Web site, users can aim the gun and fire a yellow paintball….

…Bilal conceived of the exhibit, called "Domestic Tension," at Chicago's FlatFile Galleries as a nondidactic way to convey the constant stress and destruction that the war wreaks on Iraqis, and the detached, sanitized way the U.S. public and often soldiers themselves experience war.

"I wanted to do something that on the surface is very playful but draws you in with multiple levels of meaning," he said. "The confinement aspect is what my family is dealing with every day. They only go out of their home to run to the market."

It's a very simple and elegant way to give people a sense of what it must like to live every minute of your life in the middle of a shooting gallery.  And yet another way to contemplate just what Bush's war has wrought upon the lives and nerves of the Iraqi people.

And finally, a happy story:

“A billion customers in the world,” Dr. Paul Polak told a crowd of inventors recently, “are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

The world’s cleverest designers, said Dr. Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs an organization helping poor farmers become entrepreneurs, cater to the globe’s richest 10 percent, creating items like wine labels, couture and Maseratis.

“We need a revolution to reverse that silly ratio,” he said.

To that end, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum… is honoring inventors dedicated to “the other 90 percent,” particularly the billions of people living on less than $2 a day.

Their creations, on display in the museum garden until Sept. 23, have a sort of forehead-thumping “Why didn’t someone think of that before?” quality.

For example, one of the simplest and yet most elegant designs tackles a job that millions of women and girls spend many hours doing each year — fetching water…. The Q-Drum, a circular jerry can, holds 20 gallons, and it rolls smoothly enough for a child to tow it on a rope.

Do check out the NYT video of Polak demonstrating some of the inventions, and take some time to explore the inventions at the Design For the Other 90% website.  There's a lot of ingenious stuff, and it gives me joy to see the power of innovation applied to such mundane but life-changing things as keeping vegetables fresh long enough to get to market, or allowing families without electricity to work and study after sunset.  There's even housing for American homeless and Katrina victims.

I wish I could say I had an overarching theme for this post, or some larger point to make, but I don't really.  Just that it's a poignant reminder of the evil and the good, the stupidity and the genius, that mankind is capable of.  And it always seems like there's too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

UPDATE: Siun has helpfully provided a link to Kiva, which allows you to make microloans to overseas entrepreneurs who need to start or grow their business.

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