Few Western correspondents have a background as unique as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s. A native of Iraq at the time of the US invasion, he was working as an architect in Baghdad while dodging the draft. When American forces occupied the city, he went to work as a translator for The Guardian and later became a fixer for The New York Times. An amateur photographer, he also began taking photographs for Getty Images. (A selection appeared in the 2005 book Unembedded.) In 2004, he became a correspondent for The Guardian in Iraq, and in 2008, he received a British Press Award as foreign reporter of the year. As an Iraqi covering Iraq for a Western news organization, Abdul-Ahad was able both to gain access to sectors of Iraqi society that were off limits to most outsiders and to examine them with the detachment of a reporter. He made a particular point of getting to know Iraqi insurgents. He was in Fallujah before the US assault on that city in April 2004, and in Najaf when Shia militia battled US troops that summer. Later, in Afghanistan, he traveled with the Taliban and was twice detained by them. While covering the fighting in Libya earlier this year, he was detained and held incommunicado for two weeks. Now based in Beirut, Abdul-Ahad rejects the idea of distinguishing between Western and local journalists. “Good journalists can be local or Western, and bad journalists can be local or Western,” he says. The Western journalists who reported on Iraq, he adds, “deserve thousands of medals.” At the same time, he thinks that all journalists, Western and local, have missed—and continue to miss—key aspects of the Iraq story. Michael Massing interviewed him by phone during the summer of 2011.
My Life Completely Changed
For me, the 2003 invasion was at the time a welcome event. When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I was drafted. I went to the place where they were sending university graduates off to training camps. I wouldn’t do it. Why would I subject myself to that horrible treatment—and under Saddam? So I ran away. From 1998 to 2003, I studied architecture and then worked as an architect in Baghdad, and during that whole period, I was dodging the draft. It was difficult, but not extremely so. Before, you couldn’t have lasted two or three weeks, but in the late nineties and early two thousands, the regime was crumbling from the inside—from sanctions, from poverty, from twenty years of conflict and war. You could buy fake military ID cards or forge your papers. I’d do odd jobs here and there, living in the architects’ offices and doing the work on the side. But by 2003 the noose was tightening around me; people started coming around and asking questions about me, and three of my friends were detained. It was a race between the start of the American bombing and the mukhabarat finding me.
I had a French friend in Baghdad who worked for the UN, and we would sit in a café and drink, smoke, play backgammon, and talk politics. Before he was evacuated, he gave me his cameras. I kept a journal during the war as a way of telling him what was happening. I also went around the city, taking pictures of bombed buildings. I wanted to record the impact of the war on the city’s architecture.
It didn’t take long for the security service to find me. Three days before the fall of Baghdad, I was detained and taken to mukhabarat headquarters and interrogated. At one point, they took me and stood me up against a tree. I didn’t know if they were using a mock execution to scare me or actually trying to execute me. I was interrogated for eight to ten hours. I then bribed the officer interrogating me—fifty dollars and one of my cameras—and he let me go.
On April 9, while standing in front of my house, I suddenly saw these big armored vehicles going by. The Marines were there, in East Baghdad. With them were all these people dressed like soldiers, but in blue helmets and vests. They were journalists. I just walked behind the American troops as they went to Firdos Square and watched them pull down the statue of Saddam. There were far more photographers and journalists than Iraqis in the square. In a situation like that, something in the back of your mind tells you to record every single moment because this is history, but I had no film in my camera.