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.