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?