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.
Baghdad — For Iraqis struggling to find a place in a country they don't recognize, the most heartbreaking decision of all is whether to stay or go. Two of my oldest friends here, who over the years have given me the deepest glimpses into Iraq, have struggled long and hard on the paths they've chosen. Nermeen al-Mufti was a single mother on the front lines. She spent years documenting the bitter war with Iran before she wrote children's books and an outspoken newspaper column. She helped me explore the Baghdad of 1001 Nights in the years of Saddam Hussein's rule. Bassim Sulaiman, a soulful bon vivant amid the tyranny and the rubble, philosophized over candlelit dinners on the Tigris River. He invested huge hopes in the US invasion, only to be hurt by it. The ebb and flow of people like them is part of the history and the future of Iraq. "Every Iraqi who lived under Saddam could write a book about his life," a sheikh who, before the war, escaped Iraq in the trunk of a car, once told me. It's still true. Just when you think a chapter is over, the stories continue to reveal themselves. In those pages is my Iraq.
The perky Arabic voice makes the waiting lounge with its 1970s décor and fake leather seats seem almost normal: "Baghdad International Airport would like to announce..." But if you scratch the surface even a tiny bit, there are worlds colliding here – the individual stories that make up a country unfolding one boarding call at a time.
Large, loud American contractors eager to get home – or just away – call to their buddies after buying duty-free Cuban cigars. They push into line ahead of veiled women, largely oblivious to the footprint they leave or the stories that surround them.
At the cafe, a TV blares at deafening levels. The call to prayer interrupts the latest action movie. Both are just a backdrop to lives in transit.
I run into an acquaintance I haven't seen since his cousin, someone I worked with, was killed in an ambush six years ago. He has been accepted as a refugee in the US and is about to leave Iraq for good with his wife and son. He doesn't know where they'll live: "They told me Ontario." He seems less worried than I about what will happen to him. But seeing my quizzical look, he adds that he thought Ontario was in Canada.
It's so much safer now that sometimes it seems as if the violence that erupted here was a fevered dream and that the war is over. It isn't.
I sit next to a woman wearing black and an expression that suggests something terrible has recently happened. She lost her brother in a suicide bombing in January at a tribal reconciliation meeting when one of the sheikhs sent in his 14-year-old son to blow himself up.
A visiting Iraqi friend sitting with us in the shiny, modern airport built by Saddam Hussein tells why he left the country he loves: "I lost faith that it would get better."
Long-lost friends here greet each other like survivors of the Titanic – amazed at their good fortune to have lived through disaster but carrying the memories of who and what was lost; always half-wondering if there's another wave coming.
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.
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.
I met Nermeen in 1998, during a window in which Saddam was trying to improve relations with the West. The regime had invited American TV networks to open bureaus, and CNN's Ted Turner was convinced Iraq and the rest of the world needed to understand each other. I became the only Western journalist permanently based here, a country of 26 million people at war with the West. I hired Nermeen to help me understand the country. It wasn't exactly a plum job for her.
In Saddam's Iraq, every foreigner was thought to be a spy. Iraqis in too much contact with them came under suspicion. My phone was tapped, my hotel room was bugged, and when I moved into a house, it was, too. It was a system so effective that Iraqis worried even their own families were informants.
I knew Nermeen had eloped at 18 and chose to raise her son in Iraq herself, rather than emigrate to the US with her Lebanese husband. "I could never imagine myself living outside Iraq," she says of that time, an echo of the choice she makes today.
I didn't know a lot of other things about her, until the regime fell. In 1991, her closest friend, another journalist, was taken away and hasn't been seen since. Sometimes cold reality is too much even for someone who's seen as much as Nermeen.
"One day, maybe, I always said, he would come back, but because of these concrete barriers and these tons of barbed wire he lost his way to my house," she says. "Maybe he will find it one day and he will come and knock on my door."
"After all this catastrophe in Iraq, there has to be a free press," she rails. "It's not a gift; it's a right from the tons of promises they gave us."
In April, a day after she was voted one of the five best journalists in Iraq by young colleagues, her name was put on an Internet insurgent list of media people targeted for execution. More than 100 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the war began.
"Threats and violence have become the Iraqi way of life," says Nermeen. She takes precautions – not staying home alone, making sure she's not tailed – but believes the only list that determines when you die is that drawn by fate.
I knew dozens of Americans and Iraqis who died in this war. For Nermeen, it numbers in the hundreds. The challenge is to find meaning in it.
On a recent day, I went with her to her apartment on Baghdad's Haifa Street, scene of some of the worst fighting in the war. She has only been back here four times in three years after moving to the relative safety of her parents' Kirkuk house.
"Welcome to my dusty home," she says, her high-heeled boots clicking on the parquet, coated in a layer of fine sand. The kitchen window has shrapnel holes.
"When were you in Fallujah, again?" I ask her.
"When you were there," she says matter-of-factly.
Nermeen was a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent, helping civilians trapped in the devastating battle between the US and insurgents. She later wrote about an entire family – all but a 9-month-old baby – killed by a US airstrike. I was with the American forces as they moved into neighborhoods controlled by insurgents who'd rigged buildings to explode. They rained more artillery shells on Fallujah than in any urban battle since Vietnam. The explosions through the night felt like the end of the world. What was left at the end looked like it.
It's not something we talk about often. The US soldiers are her son's age, and Nermeen wishes they could go home to their mothers and girlfriends.
"That day I left Fallujah, I saw all these dead bodies everywhere, demolished houses everywhere," she says. Iraq has become a republic of need, she adds. "It changed my life to trying to help those poor widows and orphans."
Even more reason for her to stay.
In my years going back and forth between Iraq and the US, I've become convinced that it's only distance that makes things look simple. The labels we use – Baathist, insurgent – don't mean nearly as much to Iraqis as they do to us. Even the Iraqis who returned from exile with their fixed ideas of wrong and right found themselves in uncertain territory. And those who lived here through Saddam find themselves strangers in their own country.
In the '90s, when we first met, Bassim knew almost every corner of this city and walked the streets as if he owned them – greeting old friends, helping people during hard times, pointing out the history of every lane and alley.
The evenings are what he and many other Iraqis miss most. People had little freedom, and, under the US-led sanctions of the '90s, hardly any money. But there was a rich social life – dinners that lasted until 2 in the morning, wedding receptions that went on until dawn.
Bassim has reinvented himself three times. From shipping in Basra, he went to Kuwait as a fund manager and was forced out after Saddam's disastrous 1990 invasion. He became a successful antiques dealer here, selling old watches, carpets, and paintings. And now, instead of the retirement he'd envisioned fixing antique clocks, he's a refugee in Jordan.
All that's left of his life in Iraq fits in a canvas suitcase on his bed. The night before he leaves Iraq again, he pulls painting after painting from the depths of the bag – each like an old friend.
"Look at this one," he says, pushing up his glasses to read notes on the corner of a sketch of the profile of a woman. " 'What is a woman but philosophy?' " he reads, losing himself in the works.
"I'm an encyclopedia of Iraqi history, but they drove me out, the bastards. They drove me out," bitterly notes Bassim, whose family photos show his grandfather, who opened one of Baghdad's first clinics, with a top hat and a sword.
Bassim was born into a social class that long ago ceased to exist; its values intensified his hopes for Iraq as deeply as they fed his disappointment.
Because he had a shop, he was allowed to deal with foreigners. He was more direct than most in letting those he trusted know that people feared rather than loved the regime. When Saddam fell, Bassim was ecstatic and grateful to the Americans.
The fall of the regime was liberating to journalists as well. For a few glorious months, with no one in charge, nowhere was off limits. We wandered palaces and government buildings. We took photos without the supervision we'd chafed under or the fear of being shot that came later.
We actually got to know friends with whom we'd had careful conversations for years. People talked and talked and talked. In the streets where Iraqis had been afraid to do anything but toe the party line, a single question would prompt groups to rant for hours. Listening to it, it felt like a welcome rain.
Bassim jumped enthusiastically into the fray. He got involved in trying to reopen the Baghdad stock exchange. And he ran for a seat on Iraq's governing council in 2005 on a ticket of secular technocrats headed by elder statesman Adnan Pachachi. But Iraqis were interested more in religious figures promising salvation, and no one on that list won.
As the insurgency gathered steam, Baghdad became a shooting gallery. And on an August night in 2005, as Bassim and his family slept, the deafening noise of helicopters jolted them awake. US Special Forces rappelled onto the roof. Others burst through the door in the glare of spotlights.
Their rifles pointed, soldiers blindfolded Bassim and bundled him into a Humvee while others upended the house searching every corner, terrifying his wife, son, and daughter. It was a scene I'd seen a dozen times, but never did I think it could happen to elegant, impeccably mannered Bassim.
"It wasn't a mistake; they showed me an aerial photo of my house with a red circle around it," Bassim recalls now. "They claim someone gave them the wrong information."
After interrogations by increasingly senior officers about what he did and who he knew, he was released with an apology. Bassim, who loved Baghdad almost as much as his own family, decided a year later to leave for Jordan after a bomb threat and a suspected kidnapping attempt.
"I was right to leave; they would have killed me," he says now, reassuring himself that he made the right decision.
Visiting his old haunts now, Bassim is horrified by the sirens and the security convoys. It's a city he doesn't recognize. The trash in the historic Maidan, the wholesale antique district, almost undoes him. The last time I was there with him in 2005, we wandered through a covered market with dappled sunlight streaming through holes in the roof. Bassim stopped to talk to a cast of characters out of the pages of a novel: an old man behind a stall displaying colored stones that promised to cure everything from heart ailments to heartbreak; a retired prostitute selling local soda while her cat, Mish-Mish (Apricot), kept her company.
Five years later there's been a rare rain in Baghdad, and the markets of the Maidan are padlocked. But then, out steps Bassim's old friend, Hussein Jawad Mohammad, locking up his shop. As they greet each other, it's hard to tell where the tear running down Bassim's cheek ends and the rain begins.
"What happened here after 2003?" I ask, remembering the friends we used to drink tea with, their shops crowded with pieces of history. The thought of Al Qaeda fighters in the alleys and bodies in the streets was unimaginable.
"Shooting. People were shooting each other," Bassim says, still dazed at the killings.
I think of an expression that an Iraqi friend who left uses: "I thought I would die of sadness." But there are so many other things to die from here.
A tattered funeral banner for Hussein's brother, shot four years ago by a US sniper who thought he was carrying a weapon, hangs on a nearby brick wall. Below it is a funeral notice for his father, who died of illness. Another banner outside Hussein's shop says, "If you ask what I am, I am Iraqi. I have a Shiite uncle and a Sunni uncle." It's a call for an end to the violence that Iraqis themselves don't understand.
As Bassim left in March, he said it was for good. Yet he was already dreaming of buying a small apartment here when things get better.
Nermeen, packing up on a March morning in Baghdad, stood in the street with a caged orange canary – a gift from a friend for her home in Kirkuk. She's waiting there for national elections in December to see if it's safe enough to move back to Baghdad.
"My home is here and, really, I will fight to restore it; I will never give up," she says. The Iraq that Nermeen, a devout Muslim, dreams of restoring is one she knows never really existed in her experience. But she believes it could one day – a place of religious tolerance and human rights and Iraqis who have access to schools and museums as well as electricity and clean water.
"Even now, after all these years ... when I am really by myself, alone, I am still that young lady who was 20 years old having all those dreams. Maybe one day I will achieve them," she says.