My Iraq: a reporter's 20-year retrospective
The longest-serving Western correspondent in Baghdad tracks the lives of two Iraqi friends – from dinners under the moon and palms to the heartbreak of war.
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Those of us who've been here with them are a little like that, too. A drive through Baghdad is a trip down a six-lane highway of overlapping memories – the concrete barriers and barbed wire just the latest overlay on memories of homes and shops still standing when the war was just a distant rumor.Skip to next paragraph
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I've lived and reported from here off and on for two decades, coming first in 1991 to cover the aftermath of the war over Kuwait. The entire time, Iraq was either emerging from war or about to be plunged into one. For the most part, that's all the outside world cared about.
But what kept drawing me back were the maddening glimpses of this country's interior life. There is the Iraq of headline news – of mass graves barely whispered about during Saddam's time, of bombings, arms deals, and assassinations, of a ruthless and delusional dictator who wrote love stories with himself as the main character.
And then there are currents so far below the surface that you only occasionally see the ripples – of a world where tribal justice trumps any court, where genies mentioned in the Koran can do more harm than men with guns, and where normal people make accommodations to survive in an abnormal society.
In the Saddam era, Baghdad was a vibrant city, aware of its unique place in history. Its complex, conflicted people were convinced that they were heirs to a great – if temporarily ill-fated – civilization. You can still see the remnants of it in the swirling stone monuments to the wives of caliphs and the 8th-century walls that once surrounded the center of the Muslim world.
Under Saddam, Iraqis weren't allowed to leave. After the war, millions couldn't stay. More than 15 of every 100 people left their homes or their country amid the violence and chaos of the reinvention of Iraq.
The dilemma of whether to stay or go, multiplied by millions, affects the very future of this country.
When her father suffered a heart attack and died in a hospital that lacked the drugs that would have been used to save him, Nermeen wrote about that. In response, a "beautiful envelope" from the Ministry of Health was on her desk when she returned to her office. It let her know that the minister had magnanimously ordered the medicine be made available to Nermeen's father as well as every other patient in the hospital.
"I just picked up the phone and said: 'In which way did you read my column? In the first sentence I am saying my father passed away, and now you are going to revive my father's heart?' I was shouting like a mad woman," she recalls, the bracelets on her wrist jangling as she gestures.
She could get away with her criticism because within Saddam's carefully calibrated repression, control was elastic. It occasionally loosened to release a bit of pressure, but it could just as quickly snap back. One day, banned satellite dishes were implicitly tolerated. The next day you could be executed for having one.
And it did snap back on Nermeen. A column disagreeing with the president's press secretary incurred the wrath of Saddam's eldest son, Uday Hussein, who publicly criticized her. She went into hiding, unable even to see her young son. And every Thursday she'd wait hours to see the information minister: "Each week he knew I was there, and each week he would refuse to see me."
She finally was allowed to return to work eight months later. "Maybe [they let me come back] because they knew I was very safe," she reasons now. "I was not trying to be president, or minister, or even a director-general. I was just trying to be a real journalist."
Nermeen, whose dramatic gestures and throaty laugh express the drama, absurdity, and occasional joy of living here, says it takes more courage to be a mother in Iraq than a war correspondent. For four years in the 1980s, she was the only Iraqi woman covering the front lines of the brutal war with Iran. Determined to support her toddler son, she left him with her mother in the northern city of Kirkuk.