I met a young Iraqi guy [in April 2003], college student, secular Shia guy, very street-smart, from a poor family, who became a very close friend of mine and sort of trained me how to be Iraqi — taught me the Iraqi dialect, taught me things I needed to know to fit in in the mosques, fit in on the Iraqi streets. I sort of joined a local gym, mostly Shia neighborhood kids who worked out under horrible conditions. They were lifting bricks. But it was a great opportunity to mix with young men and hang out with them, go to restaurants with them, and because I was their age and I was into exercising, I got to get into the world of young Iraqi men. I never really made contact with young Iraqi women — I think that was mostly impossible. I think most did [know that I am an American], but I stressed the Iranian side of my ethnicity.
[My Arabic is] a little confused now. By now it’s become fairly Iraqi, because I’ve spent a lot of time. Most of the people I speak to now in Arabic are in Iraq. So it’s become confusing; if I’m speaking to someone on the phone, they won’t know where I’m from. They’ll be confused. They’ll know that I’m not Iraqi, but they don’t really know. Who’s this guy? Is he a Lebanese guy? Is he a Syrian guy? Who is this person? It’s confusing. So, that can also be to my advantage. It’s not just speaking Arabic, it’s the gestures, it’s the religious references, it’s the sense of humor, it’s the old — we can talk about movies, old Egyptian movies that we’ve both seen. When they’re talking about some sort of Egyptian pop star I know who they’re talking about, so it’s not just the language, it’s knowing the culture and their terms of reference.
The New York Times
People will say, “If you print my name I’ll be killed,” and you know you have to believe that ’cause it happens all the time. It doesn’t happen as much as you would think. It’s remarkable how even now you can find people who will speak their minds.
[One day] the [Iraqi] police came out and they were dragging a suspect out of the car and they started kicking him in the head in front of our cameras and they saw our camera and they just kicked him harder [laughs]. And I said, “Do you really have to kick this guy?” They just kept kicking him. The soldiers came up to us, American soldiers, and tried to take away the tape. That is their automatic reaction — not of senior people but of police and soldiers. We wouldn’t give up the tape and we held on to it and after a while we talked to a commanding general who said, “Please don’t run that.”
I explained that if it happens in front of you and the camera is rolling, I’m really sorry, but that is not negotiable. But what I would do is put it in context, which I did. The context I put it in was that these are Iraqi soldiers and this is the way — on this day in this police station — they were treating suspects that they thought were responsible for killing police officers. This doesn’t happen everywhere, but on this day it did. And he was okay with that. And that’s the way a lot of them are, and that’s why you develop relationships where there is mutual trust. Because at the end of the day when you explain it to them, they get it. They understand that it’s not going to do them much good if you agree not to show something because it actually did happen.