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.