Dateline: Iraq

How American journalists try to get inside the minds of an occupied people

In May of last year, as Iraqis began adjusting to the chaotic status quo of gunfire, occasional suicide attacks, and failed electricity that followed the American arrival in their country, The Weekly Standard‘s Jonathan Foreman sent back a letter from Baghdad cheerily titled “You Have No Idea How Well Things Are Going.” Foreman described smiling little girls and “women old and young” flirting “outrageously with GIs.” Iraqis in his account could not stop what he called “love bombing” the Americans with such cheers as “Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson,” good-naturedly directed at some African American soldiers. The American presence, Foreman reassured his readers, inspired “no fury” among Iraqis.

Around the same time, Nir Rosen, writing for The Progressive, painted a far bleaker picture of Baghdad, one in which 5-year-olds played amid unexploded cluster bombs, and AK-47s and grenade launchers were sold in open-air markets. “Already, there is nostalgia for the old regime,” he observed. “At least there was a regime, people say.”

What do Iraqis feel and think about the American occupation? Many liberal and conservative writers have had no problem answering that question over the past year, though with starkly different conclusions. That opinion journals might paint the situation in black and white is perhaps understandable. The American discussion about Iraq is not just about the country and its people. It’s about competing prescriptions for what America’s role in the world should be, and ideologically driven writers tend to choose evidence that fits their point of view.

Reporters have a different job. They don’t build a case; they’ve got to grasp the ambiguities and find a way to learn what Iraqis really think. Since the occupation began, experienced reporters say that figuring out Iraqi sentiment has become one of the most complex journalistic endeavors in years.

Beyond the standard obstacles for foreign correspondents — uneven translators, brutal deadlines, finding sources — postwar Iraq poses additional problems. The fear of being targeted by Iraqi insurgents keeps journalists from venturing into the marketplaces and streets to meet ordinary Iraqis. When reporters do speak to Iraqis, the skewed power dynamic enters into every interview and interaction. In the eyes of many Iraqis, an American journalist is just an extension of the conquering army.

Despite such challenges, the four journalists here have found ways to plumb the Iraqi experience and tell stories that feel closer to the contradictory truth.

Vivienne Walt, freelancer

It was an aid worker who told Vivienne Walt about the children. In a Baghdad neighborhood, Walt, a former USA Today reporter who is now on assignment for Time and The Boston Globe, found 9- and 10-year-olds grabbing fistfuls of ammunition from a pile and separating the copper casings from the lead bullets. A little boy told Walt, “My mother says this is a good job. I give her all my earnings.”

“Of course, it was a great story,” Walt says, and she couldn’t have found it without help. But reporters don’t get much help in Iraq.

“It’s fairly unique to work in a country where you don’t have international organizations, observers of any kind” to help journalists understand a situation, says Walt, who has worked in more than 25 countries. Because she doesn’t speak Arabic and cannot easily blend in, Walt must rely even more heavily on fixers and translators than she usually does because of the dearth of other sources. Translators can also phrase a question in a way that’s culturally palatable.

She depends on translators, but they’re as much products of Saddam’s culture of silence as everyone else, and Walt has found they often lack the critical thinking skills needed to generate leads. Under Saddam, a news story was simply a government proclamation. Though Walt had her translators reading 25 newspapers a day in search of stories, they would tell her there was nothing in them: “They would just see nonsense,” she says.

But as foreign correspondents have been training their Iraqi fixers to think like journalists, the situation has slowly improved, perhaps just in time. With tensions on the rise, both the obstacles to uncovering the Iraqi story and the need to expose it will only grow.

Anthony Shadid, The Washington Post

Last August, Anthony Shadid spent a day on Mutanabi Street, a narrow alleyway of bookstores and shops in old Baghdad. Because he speaks Arabic (his grandparents were born in Lebanon), Iraqis tend to be relatively comfortable in his presence, says Shadid, who won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his work in Iraq. “Gaining trust or gaining personal access and confidence is much harder” than in other places he has reported from, he says. His appearance and his ability to get along without a translator allow him to get in close.

On Mutanabi Street, he listened to a group of lounging Iraqi men debate the occupation. In trying to understand Iraqis, Shadid doesn’t force answers. “Anybody who says they know how Iraqis feel is talking bullshit,” says Shadid. “You are going to find somebody who is going to express contradictory sentiments in the same conversation, at the same moment.” Shadid believes the best way to deal with this is not to fight it. On Mutanabi Street, when a stationery store owner, Amran Kadhim, challenged his friend Adel Jannabi on his critique of the American occupation, Shadid printed the exchange. “The Americans are doing well,” said Kadhim. “They’re working slowly but they’re doing well. If there were no Americans here, people would end up killing each other.” Jannabi countered, “No, no, my friend. There should still be much more progress.” And Khadim shot back, “Why do we blame the Americans?”

Shadid’s Arabic allows him to understand the small talk, the intonation, the turn of phrase. But he also knows that the nature of the sentiment is complex, and he says the best way to capture this is to lay it all out. “I’m sure a majority is grateful that Saddam’s gone,” he says. “A majority does have problems with the occupation. A majority is frustrated with where it’s at. A majority is hopeful about the future. All these things are true, and you’re probably going to hear them all in the same conversation.”

Hassan Fattah, Iraq Today

For Hassan Fattah, Iraq is more than just a story. It is his past and, now, his future. Fattah’s family left Iraq in 1964 after being persecuted by the government and eventually moved to Berkeley, California, where he grew up. After the Americans entered Baghdad, Fattah decided to move to Iraq to start an English-language newspaper, Iraq Today. As a journalist who had worked for The Economist and Frontline, he chose this way to help rebuild Iraqi society and restore his family’s name. He would try to bring high journalistic standards and train a cadre of young Iraqis in the ethics and professionalism of Western journalism.

Because he speaks Arabic and his journalists are Iraqi, Fattah can do the kind of grassroots reporting that Western journalists often forgo. As he puts it, “You haven’t been in Iraq until you have lived in a house, not a hotel, where the generator breaks down, the electricity goes out, and there is nothing you can do about it.” The day before his first issue went to press, Fattah was awakened by thieves with machine guns demanding money. He says he goes to sleep at night thinking that his house could be attacked.

What is his advice to Western journalists in Iraq? “Don’t believe the first thing that people tell you. Remember, people here are survivors,” he says. “Somebody will tell you something, and you think that’s what they mean, but very often that is far from it. There is always something deeper.”

The political nature of the story, he thinks, drives reporters to paint Iraqis one-dimensionally. “The sense of empathy, which is the real power of journalism, is lost. And what you get is a kind of sympathy,” Fattah says. “I think Iraqis are very much afraid of having people feel sorry for them. They don’t want to be forgotten, but they don’t want to be victims either.”

George Packer, The New Yorker

Daily reporters must deal with the tyranny of the deadline, but George Packer, who spent five weeks in Iraq for The New Yorker and produced a stunning 20,000-word examination of the postwar situation, had the luxury of time. He says, “I found I needed two or three hours, if not two or three visits, to understand all the factors that went into Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation.” The Iraqis he profiled emerge as complex and, in many ways, conflicted.

Reporting on Iraqis after 30 years of totalitarian Ba’athist rule felt more like a job for Freud than for a magazine writer, Packer says. Perhaps “what was truer of Iraqis than of most people was how much talking they needed to do in order to express the fullness of their thinking,” he says. “It was a bit like therapy. You are peeling back layers and layers of dogma and rumor.”

During many interviews, “I would start getting angry at my translator because what he was telling me didn’t make sense,” Packer says. “The conversation just kept on leaping around without any rational back and forth. And he would say to me, ‘George, I’m giving you a word-for-word translation.'”

Many of the Iraqis he talked to had a hard time developing clear arguments, explaining themselves fully, and, as Packer put it, “understanding their own situation.” Packer thinks this might be related to the fact that the Iraqis were isolated and denied free will for so long. A psychiatrist whom Packer quoted in the article explained that Iraqis lack “the power to experience freedom.”

Journalists need to “make the little imaginative effort to get into the skin of Iraqis,” Packer says. In the ’80s, he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African village. Living in a foreign environment where he was the helpless outsider, he “had to learn how [the local people] saw the world just in order to be able to function.” Packer has also written two novels, and he thinks this, too, helped his journalism in Iraq. “The effort to get inside a character is an act of empathy — it just happens to be with someone nonexistent,” he says. “The things you have to notice about people as a fiction writer are not just what they say, but more how they say things. Or even what they don’t say.”

Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review, which is published by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Adapted from Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 2004). Subscriptions: $27.95/yr. (6 issues) from 2950 Broadway, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027;

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