The Accidental Correspondent

When war came to his home, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad found his calling

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.

That evening, I couldn’t sleep. My whole life had completely changed. When I was born, Saddam was there. He became this god, this mythical figure. Then one day, you wake up and he’s not there. I wanted to see his palace from the inside, so the next day, I walked to it. I passed American checkpoints, saying that I was a British journalist. When I reached the entrance to the Green Zone, there was fresh blood in the street. At the gates of the palace, the soldiers gave me an escort to show me around. I remember thinking how banal it all was; I was expecting something much grander. When I was done, I went to a bridge to take a shortcut home, but there was fighting on it and the soldiers told me I couldn’t pass. I saw an suv coming and hitched a ride. I said, “I’m a British journalist.” “Oh,” they said, “we’re British journalists.” It was James Meeks from The Guardian. I said, “Okay, give me a ride, and I’ll show you the city.” We drove around, and that afternoon he hired me as a translator.

I had learned the basic English they teach in the schools of the Middle East, but for two years before the war I had decided to stop reading Arabic and just listen to English. For fifteen or sixteen hours a day, I listened to the BBC World Service. That’s how I got into journalism. I translated for The Guardian for three weeks. Then I worked as a translator and fixer for The New York Times for nine months. After the Times, I started stringing for Reuters—mainly reporting, not writing. Then, when a reporter for The Guardian who was writing a column was unable to continue, they asked me to substitute, and I started writing a biweekly column.

A Disastrous Mistake

In April 2004, with the insurgency exploding, I said to The Guardian, “Look, I’m going to Fallujah, Karbala, and Sadr City, would you be interested in photos and text?” They said yes. I spent a month traveling with the insurgency—it is much easier to get to them as a photographer than as a writer, because as a photographer you share the danger with the fighters, and that allows you access. This was the beginning of my reporting.

I was trying to put a face on the insurgency—to describe these people while not falling into the trap of making them martyrs or heroes, but not demonizing them either. In 2003, when the insurgency was getting started, I really couldn’t understand why people were fighting. We had just gotten rid of Saddam—“Just give it a chance,” I thought. But when you talked with them, you realized their frustrations. The Sunnis were losing their jobs, the Shia majority was taking over. And there was the extreme, almost criminal stupidity of the Americans. I mean, what were they thinking?

Up until 2005, most of the media—even the liberal media—were thinking, “What can we do to make things work better in Iraq? How can we stop making these mistakes?” They were not questioning the whole enterprise of the war, the invasion, the occupation. That was a disastrous mistake. How many voices came out criticizing the war in 2003-2004? Very few. At the end of 2004 and in 2005, the situation changed and people became critical, up to the point of confessing that the war was a mistake. But from 2003 to 2004, no one said these things. I didn’t say these things. During the first two or three months, when I saw the chaos, the burning, the looting, I thought, “If only the Americans would do so and so, everything would be okay and there wouldn’t be any insurgency.” But by the middle or end of 2003, I started questioning the whole enterprise. By 2004, I had come to the conclusion that it was wrong. But the media in general—CNN and others—kept going with the narrative of “How can we fix the war?” In the first two years, the media must take a huge responsibility for selling the war to the people—to the Americans and the British.

Dehumanizing a Whole Population

The civil war also took some time for people to grasp. We went through a whole year where people asked, “Is this a civil war? Is it civil strife?” “Do we call it a civil war?” Now, I feel sick when I remember this. This whole notion of progress—we had to highlight it, even while people were being massacred in Baghdad.

Embedding added to the problem. Once you cover a group of people through the prism of an occupation—through the tiny windows of armored vehicles—you demonize a whole nation. It happened to me when I embedded. I was sitting in the back of this armored vehicle, a Stryker. There were no windows. You saw the street through a thermal camera. Everything that was moving was black; everything that was not moving was white. I saw all these black figures walking around the vehicle, and suddenly I began to see them not as human beings but as a threat. They were ghost-like aliens walking outside this cone of safety. I thought, “Kill them, shoot them.” I had so much fear and hatred, because one of them could be carrying explosives. I wasn’t thinking about what was happening in the minds of those people—how they’re disoriented, how they’ve turned into these killing machines because of the war. No, you describe them as ignorant and ungrateful. You dehumanize a whole population.

Still, today, Iraq is described as progress, as being a stirring example of democracy in the region. It’s such a huge, massive lie. What has the US achieved? Eight years, so much money, so many people killed. Then you leave Iraq, and, again, you have a terrorist state. I don’t want the Americans to stay, but I want people to come to terms with the fact that Iraq is not better off than it was in 2003. Yes, fewer people are being killed, but in ten years’ time or five years’ time, people could go back to killing one another, because you haven’t solved the central problems: corruption, sectarianism, one-party rule, militia control of the security apparatus.

The New Mukhabarat

During six or seven years of reporting on Iraq, I managed to create a space for myself where I enjoyed the benefits of being Iraqi and used those benefits to report on Iraq. Yet when I wrote, I didn’t write as an Iraqi. But earlier this year [2011], when I was in Iraq, I didn’t enjoy that space any longer. I just felt the anger. Because now it’s a conflict not between the Iraqis and the Americans—it’s a conflict between corrupted political elites, warlords, and militiamen, and 29 million Iraqis. Every person I talked to who’s been detained was tortured and released from jail only after paying $5,000. Before, Iraq was ruled by one mukhabarat, now it’s ruled by six or seven. In terms of democracy and human rights, the country is not much different from Syria or [Qaddafi’s] Libya.

Neither the Western nor the Arabic press is doing a good job on this. Only the local Iraqi TV networks are doing good investigative reporting on corruption in the government and abuses of power by the security services. I speak as one of the few Iraqis who have benefited massively from the war. It ended my running-away period and provided me amazing opportunities. Yet I think it was a mistake—a disaster.

In 2001, I was sitting in a taxi in Baghdad, listening to the radio. An Iraqi news reader was talking about planes hitting buildings in America, about buildings falling down, in a very Armageddon-like way. That was ten years into sanctions, ten years after the 1991 bombing. Baghdad had been bombed from 1993 to 1998. So there was no love whatsoever between Iraq and America. And yet I couldn’t find a single Iraqi who would say that September 11 was a good thing. Everyone thought, “This is crazy; this is madness; this is wrong.” Now in 2011, in the bars of Beirut, you see Western-minded people who say that September 11 was a good thing. This change has happened because of the Iraq war. It has driven both Sunnis and Shia to such levels of extremism. The viciousness, the massacring—people have lost their sanity. And all because of the war.

Kabul and Saigon

After my experience reporting on the Iraqi insurgency, I tried to replicate it with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Before I went, I assumed that the Taliban had learned their ideas and beliefs in the madrassas of Pakistan and were imposing them on the people in the villages of Afghanistan. But it wasn’t like that. A lot of what we call Taliban extremism is the local village culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban did not come and make the men wear beards, because everyone was already bearded. Every single woman wore a burqa when she went to town. This was their culture.

I eventually realized that the Arabs in al Qaeda in Afghanistan were more hard-line than the Taliban. The Arabs wouldn’t pray with the Taliban because they thought the Taliban weren’t pure enough.

I also was struck by the way people—NGO workers and journalists and diplomats—live in Kabul. It’s very much like what I’ve read about Saigon during the war there, the French restaurants and the parties. In Iraq, journalists and NGO workers couldn’t live openly like that, but in Kabul, where there’s such wretched poverty, you see all these restaurants and guest houses. That was very awkward, very strange.

Still Missing the Story

In Libya, I think journalists repeated many of the same mistakes as in Iraq. Every single media outlet followed the same narrative, which is that of the rebels against the evil Qaddafi. Qaddafi was evil—there’s no doubt about that—and the rebels, the freedom fighters, were good. But why did the Qaddafi people keep fighting? We missed that part of the story, and it might say something about what happens next in Libya, now that Qaddafi is gone.

When I was in jail in Libya—and I was not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome—I got to talk to two officers. I’ve talked before to security and intelligence officers in Syria, Iraq, and other Arab countries, especially under Saddam. You got the feeling that intelligence officers working under Saddam didn’t believe in the system—it was just a job. They tortured people because they were part of the regime. In Libya, the two officers I talked to spoke about Qaddafi in such a way that they saw nothing else but him. They identified Libya as Qaddafi. One said, “We love him; we really love him.” I was in jail and blindfolded—he had no need to impress or convince me.

An ‘Architect,’ Once Again

I travel on an Iraqi passport, which is very difficult. I can only go to failed states, like Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia. I’ve been trying to get into Egypt for three years, but they keep rejecting my visa requests. The Arab world has shut the door on Iraqis, especially in the past three years. It has always been very difficult for Iraqis to go to Egypt, Yemen, or the Gulf region. You need a special security clearance even before you can get a visa. But now, because of the war, there are so many Iraqi refugees. It’s the worst possible passport if you want to be a journalist. I see this amazing revolution in Cairo and I have to watch it on Al Jazeera. (Actually, I prefer Al Jazeera English; it’s far more objective and professional. The standards are much higher in terms of reporting and objectivity. It can’t get away with the things that the Arabic stations can because it competes with the BBC.)

In Beirut, you’re away from the front lines, and the politics can actually seem petty. If you read the Lebanese press, you think you’re in some little mountain village, with these families who have been feuding for about five-thousand years.

But Beirut is the only city in the Middle East where I can say in a taxi that I’m a journalist and not be scared. Elsewhere, you never know who’s working for state security—who’s monitoring you and who’s following you. In other countries, I say I’m an architect. 

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.