Shortly after the airstrikes came streaking into his country but before Saddam Hussein was plucked from a hole in the ground, a young Iraqi student wrote and directed a play. This video documents its second public showing to a thousand Iraqis in September 2003, but the debut was that May. "I was thinking that the drama must act some new things, so I want to study what was not allowed before 4/9/2003," he tells me. That was the day when many in Baghdad celebrated the end of Saddam's regime, and despite his professors' reluctance, the student convinced them to collaborate on his play, which expressed how “Saddam and evil were brothers”, as he puts it to me. "I told them that I have plan to change the theater history in Iraq," he recalls. "It's not easy to do that, but in theory I can talk what I want..."
In September 2003, Second Life was undergoing upheavals of its own. The tax revolt was just winding down, leading to SL's re-birth as a true user-created world a couple months later. And though it may seem strange, it was probably inevitable that the Iraqi student and the virtual world would eventually converge. This year, they finally did: on August 5th, a Resident named "alsarmady Eel" was born. Because by then, the student had become an arts teacher based in Babylon, with an Internet connection that was strong enough for him to discover Second Life, create an account, and reach out of Iraq and touch the metaverse. But only just barely.
Thousands of blogs rage around the topic of Iraq-- though most aren't about Iraqis themselves, who are generally relegated to abstract concepts in a larger debate. This blog
is not part of that conversation. In any case, most will agree that this is among the war's most unlikely consequences: one of Second Life's greatest advocates is an Iraqi professor who visits the world in search of Philip Linden, the man he's anointed the inventor of "the 8th art". When he can even log in, that is.
alsarmady Eel discovered Second Life in his research, he tells me, after passing over other 3D chat programs.
"When I discovered Second Life it was a dream," he writes to me in fractured but eager English. (I am interpreting many of his statements, rough hewn as they are through an Internet translator.) Since Professor Eel didn't have a bank card, he created a free account, and explored-- and reveled.
"The second flight is the dream of life, [offering] the possibility of meeting all the people from anywhere [around the] world... and to see how they want to be in the imagination." This led to an insight from his computer terminal in Babylon. "[T]his is very important, what distinguishes Second Life from all previous experiences in the digital world." Now he had a mission, not just for himself, but for the people of his tattered country: "I hope all Iraqis register and I will work to achieve this through the books [I] write about Second Life. It's the last art. This is a fundamental assumption."
This is what he means by calling Second Life the eighth art: "There are seven arts we all know," he argues. "Poetry, painting, music, theater, singing and photography and cinema. And there [are] subsidiary arts graduated from [them], but not as major as the seven arts." All of them are substantially the same, he says, "[B]ut in Second Life, man lives in the world of art through the production of a new digital life, without physical or philosophical borders, such as exist in real life... we have a life in our mind and it's ours, but if we can share it! That is a big move to a better world."
And this is why he is hoping to get in touch with Philip Linden. "NEW life need a new philosophy," he says, "but he is not a god so we have to [create] a philosophy of art!" Professor Eel says he's creating this very thing in his writing, but with limited resources, it's difficult to convey it to anyone outside Iraq, let alone the Lindens. He attempted it with an obscure comment to an unrelated post on Second Life's official blog, a YouTube video scored to Jon Bon Jovi, and most striking, a direct video plea to Philip, who's depicted in a visionary pose-- to which Eel has added the caption: "This man had no idea what he did to the philosophy and the art!"
His dream is to have an institute where he can teach Iraqis about Second Life and its role as a new form of human expression. A Second Life Institute based in Babylon, one of the world's most ancient cities-- capital of Hammurabi, the king who codified the first known written laws of civilization in 1760 B.C.
"Babylon's a safe city," he assures me, "So I can teach the 8th art and Second Life." A supporter of Saddam's removal, he finds fault with much the US has done in his country since 2003, but hopes they'll restore Iraq as they did Germany, after World War II. He thinks Second Life can help in this regard. "Let's don't forget that SL is the United States' front door now!"
But that will require Internet access that is faster and less sporadic than what he has. After several tries, we're unable to meet in-world, even through Movable Life, the web-based SL viewer, and resign ourselves to talking in Skype. One night, however, his Internet connection across the Middle East to San Francisco stabilizes, and for a few minutes, a Babylonian scholar appears at the river near my office:
alsarmady Eel's connection is so poor, he appears like the shell of an avatar, every limb and plane displaying the notorious "Missing Image" message. The reason for this is a mismatch between what I see on my monitor, and his avatar's appearance; due to a bug, the textures of his identity fail to load properly on my computer-- or for that matter, anyone else in Second Life looking at him. (When I tell him this later, he fears that's how all Iraqis will be seen here, ambiguous and unrecognizable.) Trouble is, somewhere in between Iraq and the Western world, what this Iraqi yearns to be is obscured, and lost in transmission. But then again, that is not a problem confined to Second Life.