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Wartime Diary of Iraqi Woman Goes from Internet to Stage

Since the start of the Iraq war, several Iraqi citizens have become stars of the Internet by writing blogs. These online journals posted on the worldwide web for anyone to see offer personal perspectives of ordinary people living in the heat of war. "Salaam Pax," the pen name of a young Iraqi architect, was considered one of the most gripping and reliable sources of information during the invasion and he continues to cover events in Iraq for the British newspaper The Guardian. Now a young woman calling herself "Riverbend" is becoming known for her Web site. Her online diary has been published as a book in the United States and recently transformed into a theatrical performance in New York City.

On a small New York stage, actress Maha Chehlaoui gives voice to the words of Riverbend, the anonymous author of an online diary she calls Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog.

CHEHLAOUI: "I never thought I would start my own web log. A little bit about myself: I am female, Iraqi and 24. I shall remain anonymous. I wouldn't feel free to write otherwise. You will know me as Riverbend. You'll share a very small part of my daily reality. I hope that will suffice."

Riverbend is an educated Muslim from a family of Sunni and Shi'ites, who writes of Ramadan as well as celebrating Christmas with her Christian neighbors. Playwrights Kim Kefgen and Loren Noveck rearranged sections of Riverbend's journal to create this theatrical performance, but say the script is verbatim. Ms. Kefgen describes the prose as sometimes lyrical, other times critical.

KEFGEN: "She is funny. She is empathetic. She is angry, but she never feels sorry for herself. She looks for ways not to blame."

CHEHLAOUI: "Someone wrote that I was naïve and probably spoiled. 'Not one single American soldier deserves to die for you.' I completely agree. No one deserves to die for me or for anyone else. Just as it is not fair that I have to spend my 24th year suffering this whole situation, it does not seem fair that they have to spend their 19th, 20th, etc., suffering it either."

Riverbend offers a window into life in Iraq that Ms. Kefgen says she did not find on the evening news.

KEFGEN: "I felt fairly educated about what was going on and realized in reading her blog I knew nothing. I had bought what I had seen on the news. I had distanced [myself from] the people in Iraq. I realized she could be one of my good friends. She could be us."

CHEHLAOUI: "I am a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company as a programmer/network administrator. Yeah, a geek. I lived in jeans and comfortable shirts. Now, I do not dare leave the house in pants."

In her diary, Riverbend writes about the situation women face in the new Iraq, where some have been barred from working, a few even killed. In 2003 after the bombing stopped, Riverbend tried to return to her own office, where male and female employees received equal salaries. On stage Maha Chehlaoui describes the radically changed atmosphere in the office.

CHEHLAOUI: "The moment I walked through the door I noticed it. There were strange new faces, fewer of the old ones, and I was one of the only females. We stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when they thought things would be functioning; he wouldn't look at me -- females were not welcome right now. He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because they refused to be responsible for what might happen to me."

Riverbend's true identity remains a mystery even to the playwrights. Though the production has the young woman's blessing, Kim Kefgen and Loren Noveck have never spoken to her directly and receive only sporadic emails. Riverbend, who has not asked for any compensation, is reticent out of fear of repercussions. Already an uncle has been kidnapped and a neighbor murdered. In July she suddenly quit writing, which alarmed Kefgen.

"We're extremely worried about her and when she doesn't write for periods of times, we check the blog every hour," she said.

By September, however, Riverbend broke her silence. Writing after Hurricane Katrina slammed the United States, she pondered whether natural catastrophe or war was worse and lamented the growing list of Iraqi dead. Hers is just one young woman's viewpoint, but Kim Kefgen believes people need to hear her voice.

"If they can hear, we'll actually face the real consequences of this war," she said. "And whether you're for it or against it, I think that that's healthy."

Riverbend's ongoing story can be read on her Web site: