An Iraqi journalist on the Washington Post Metro desk
Not your average intern: Omar Fekeiki offered help to an American reporter in Baghdad and found a career.
Washington — It was two weeks into his Washington Post internship when the difference between life here and life in Iraq – the different value placed on death, and in turn, life – became startlingly apparent. Omar Fekeiki was asked to write a Metro story about a shooting and he was confused.
If just one or two are dead, he wondered, how do you know it's a story?
"In Baghdad the way I dealt with that was [if there were] 20 or more it was worth going to report," he says. "But sometimes even 20 or 30 wasn't worth going because it was so dangerous." Here, in Washington, he marveled, one person merited 150 words, and a follow-up.
There are so many ways in which life here is different from life there – a gaping chasm, really. There are the large differences, like the war. And then more personal ones. As a reporter here, he is a foreigner, a newcomer.
Yet while his fellow interns at The Washington Post, one of the most prestigious summer programs in the business, cut their journalistic teeth at college rags and big-name regional papers, Mr. Fekeiki was hired as a translator in the Post's Baghdad bureau. He spent two years working 14-hour days, without a day off. At 25 he was promoted to office manager, overseeing a payroll of as many as 44 workers. By the time he left for journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, in June 2006, he was writing under his own byline.
In talking about his daily life in Iraq, Fekeiki is unsentimental: there was the morning ritual of checking beneath his car for explosives, the people kidnapped and people killed, the times – there were three – when his life was threatened because of his work with an American publication.
Over dinner in a French restaurant last month, someone asked Fekeiki whether he had known Khalid Hassan, the New York Times reporter and interpreter, an Iraqi, like him, shot in Baghdad a few days earlier. He was the 88th Iraqi journalist killed since the 2003 invasion.
"Yes," Fekeiki said. "We spoke three weeks ago. He wanted to know about ways to apply for a visa."
Another person reached out and touched Fekeiki's back in sympathy.
"A hundred other Iraqis were killed that day, too," he said, offering a moment of context to deflect the group's attention.
But a few days later, when pressed, he admitted that hearing about Mr. Hassan's death had made him wonder: How could I have survived?
His answer is that he's fortunate. And maybe, in a way, he's right. He is here, in the United States – halfway through his master's degree; at the Post for the summer, where, on his first assignment as an intern, President Bush made an unexpected appearance at the dedication of a memorial; and, where, much to the puzzlement of other interns, Post chairman Donald Graham occasionally seeks him out to chat. Fekeiki attended Utah's glitzy Sundance Film Festival last winter for a screening of the Iraq documentary "No End in Sight," in which he appears.
He is alive, when so many others are not.
Fekeiki's path to the Post was serendipitous. On April 17, 2003, eight days after Saddam Hussein's government fell, he spotted Mary Beth Sheridan, a Post reporter, trying to conduct an interview outside the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad. He asked if she needed help. At Al-Turath University College Fekeiki had majored in English. "But she was the first American I'd ever spoken to," he says. (Though before Ms. Sheridan there was the Oprah Winfrey Show: "That was my first window to the US; it's because of Oprah that I know how to talk to Americans.")
Not long after meeting Sheridan, who was impressed by his language skills, Fekeiki was hired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, then the Post's Baghdad bureau chief. Like so many who meet Fekeiki, Mr. Chandrasekaran was won over. "Omar just has that effect on people," he says. Chandrasekaran has been Fekeiki's mentor and champion, supporting his application to Berkeley and raising scholarship funds when he was accepted. Fekeiki was a groomsman in his wedding. In terms of temperament, Chandrasekaran says, "It's not to say he doesn't have his bad days and moments of sadness, but he may be the most ebullient, optimistic Iraqi I've ever encountered."
There is a slim pamphlet composed of brief autobiographies handed out to all the new interns, a way of acquainting them with one another. Most are breezy and glib, the work of young journalists facile with words and keenly aware of their audience. Fekeiki's reads a little differently:
I was born and raised in a Baghdad family that appreciated and practiced writing, but I never thought I'd become a journalist, because I lived under a dictatorship. To me, it was a taboo profession because the only thing journalists did under the regime of Saddam Hussein was to praise the government and lie to the people.
He comes from a family of professionals: doctors, engineers, a father who was foreign editor for the Iraqi news agency. He worries sometimes that he'll never see them again. His parents, two brothers, the niece whom he named – all are still in Baghdad.
Four years after he first met her in front of the Palestine Hotel, he is working with Sheridan again, on a story about the effort by Washington residents to secure voting rights in Congress.
Fekeiki arrives 30 minutes early to a demonstration planned for noon. He takes a seat along Constitution Avenue, the Capitol on his left. This is a luxury – the chance to arrive early, to linger.
If he were in Baghdad, it would be different. "Here I'm having fun," he says. "There I had to stand apart and look for anything weird that might threaten the rally. I would just do the reporting and escape."
In his black slacks, blue-checked shirt, and tie with a gray lattice pattern, Fekeiki could be any young intern spending a summer on the Hill. He is about 5'8" and lithe – he rarely eats breakfast or lunch. His eyes, liquid brown, are fringed with thick lashes. He wears his hair shaved and has sprouted a tight beard that he trims every other day. In place of a laptop in his black computer bag he carries his passport, the Washington Post press pass he so proudly shows off, and extra pens and notebooks.
As a small crowd gathers, Fekeiki crosses the street. He comes alive as a reporter, animated as he moves from person to person, scribbling in his pink-lined notebook. "I love this," he says, sounding almost bubbly. "It gets to the core of what America says it's about – democracy. I am very excited because this is what people care about. If passed, or not, this [voting rights law] will change something – it's just amazing."
And, seeing it through his eyes, it is.
If he were home in Baghdad, he says, the people he approached would inevitably ask: "What difference would it make if we answer your questions? What difference if we are in your story?"
His answer: "All I can do is write about you and, hopefully, anyone with power will read it and pay attention."
When he returns to Iraq one day, Fekeiki dreams of starting his own publication, a newspaper that will speak truth to power.
Today, though, is about the demonstration, this small showing of American democracy. And getting back to his desk, on the fifth floor of The Washington Post, to write up a feed for Sheridan.
As the rally winds down, Fekeiki walks back to the subway. He takes short, quick steps, making a point of stopping at every flashing "Do not walk" light.
"I don't break the law," he says. "It's just a privilege to have it."