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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.")