Waiting for an Ordinary Day

A journalist reflects on her stint in Iraq.

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It was a stunning dispatch, one of the best from an American journalist covering Iraq in 2004. I remember being struck by its raw honesty, its insightfulness, and by the fact that it was probably what most reporters covering the war wanted to write but couldn’t.

It wasn’t in any newspaper or magazine. It was an e-mail that The Wall Street Journal’s Baghdad bureau chief, Farnaz Fassihi, wrote to friends and family that September. It eventually spread across the Internet, meeting either praise or condemnation. It was bluntly critical of the American war effort and captured not just the frustration of journalists, but also the overwhelming anger and disillusionment of average Iraqis.

“Iraqis say that thanks to America, they got freedom in exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They say they’d take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler,” Fassihi wrote in the e-mail, which is now included in her book Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq.

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Fassihi wrote those words as the war became more horrific by the day, the insurgency raged, and sectarian killings grew more frequent. She wondered whether the stifling security restraints that she and other reporters endured defied the very reasons she became a journalist, “[T]o see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in faraway lands, discover their ways, and tell stories that could make a difference.”

But the more engaging parts of “Waiting for an Ordinary Day” are themselves proof of the value of war reportage. Fassihi sheds a bright light on the plight of regular Iraqis through the stories of the ordinary people whose lives have been jarringly suspended, at best, or completely wrecked, by the war in Iraq.

Fassihi first arrives in Baghdad in the fall of 2002, months before the American invasion, and soon finds her way into the home of the Nassers, a Christian family busy with the stuff of daily life even as they fret about the possibility of war.

“I wish I could remind Bush there are people living in Iraq. We have lives, get married, have babies, go to work. All you hear is America talking about Saddam, Saddam, weapons, inspectors, war, bombs. Nobody talks about the Iraqi people,” the family matriarch, Marie-Rose, tells Fassihi. War comes anyway, and Iraqis like the Nassers prepare the best they can.

Fassihi is in northern Iraq when Baghdad falls on April 9, 2003. She returns to Baghdad soon after the invasion, when the Iraqi capital “simmers with the excitement of newfound freedom and stagnates with an underlying sense of loss and defeat.”

At that time she is able to move around with relative ease. The fact that she is from an Iranian-American family and that she’s a Muslim woman provides her unique access, such as an audience with a Shiite religious leader or entrance to a women’s beauty salon.

In those early months – before the insurgency has gained full steam – Fassihi discovers the sorts of characters who would come to define the fight in Iraq: young Shiite clerics, an Anbar Province tribesman, and disaffected Sunni families who, like many, were the victims of an American military raid.

One of the most tragic figures is Jinan Ghattam. She is an ultraconservative Wahabi and wears a full abaya and naqab, the Islamic face covering more common in Saudi Arabia than in Iraq.

One August night, American soldiers storm through her family’s house and leave with her husband and 17-year-old son on suspicion that they are involved in the insurgency.

Najim, the husband, later tells Fassihi of the torture he endured while imprisoned at Abu Ghraib. Fassihi, in turn, wonders about the lasting emotional impact the detention will have on the community and the hatred for America that it will stoke in the hearts of its members.

“[M]ultiply that by the tens of thousands of detainees,” she writes.

Fassihi witnesses a country unraveling, and nearly loses her own life as well.

“Waiting for an Ordinary Day” is not a hopeful story, but one that helps to explain the downward spiral of Iraq. Fassihi left in December 2005 shortly before the onset of all-out sectarian warfare.

But even today, as some sense of normalcy begins to creep back into the lives of ordinary Iraqis, Fassihi notes in her epilogue, real stability remains elusive. Many Iraqis, she writes, are still “caught in the midst of open-ended war struggle to survive.”

Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor’s Middle East editor.

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