Into the Iraqi Mind


In May of last year, as Iraqis began adjusting to the chaotic status quo of gunfire, occasional suicide attacks, and failed electricity that followed the American arrival in their country, The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Foreman sent back a letter from Baghdad cheerily titled, "You Have No Idea How Well Things Are Going."

Foreman described smiling little girls and "women old and young" flirting "outrageously with GIs." Iraqis in his account could not stop what he called "love bombing" the Americans with such cheers as "Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson," good-naturedly directed at some African American soldiers. The American presence, Foreman reassured his readers, inspired "no fury" among Iraqis. Around the same time, Nir Rosen, writing for The Progressive, and presumably from the same Iraq that Foreman was in, painted a far bleaker picture of Baghdad, one in which five-year-olds played amid unexploded cluster bombs and AK-47s and grenade launchers were sold in open-air markets. "Already, there is nostalgia for the old regime," he observed. "At least there was a regime, people say."

What do Iraqis feel and think about the American occupation? Many liberal and conservative writers have had no problem answering that question in the months since the end of combat operations, though with starkly different conclusions. In one version of Iraq, the people are grateful and liberated, their salaries and home appliances having increased under occupation, along with their freedoms. In the other, the Iraqis seethe at the occupation of their nation and want the imperialist Americans out, dead or alive.

That opinion journals might paint the situation in black and white is perhaps understandable. The American discussion about Iraq is, after all, more than just about Iraq and Iraqis. It is about ideas, about competing prescriptions for what America’s role in the world should be, and ideologically driven writers tend to choose evidence that fits their point of view. But reporters cannot merely build a case. Their job is to search through the gray zones, to try to grasp the ambiguities. And nowhere has this become more crucial than in Iraq. At this point, the success or failure of America’s occupation depends almost entirely on how Iraqis respond to the United States and its efforts at nation-building. Reporters must find a way to learn what Iraqis really think.

And yet, experienced reporters say that figuring out Iraqi sentiment has become one of the most complex journalistic endeavors in years. Iraq, of course, presents the standard obstacles for foreign correspondents -- uneven translators, brutal deadlines, the difficulty of finding sources in an unfamiliar environment. But it also poses a series of problems particular to working in Iraq. For one thing, journalists fear they could easily become targets for Iraqi insurgents, and this has kept them from venturing out into the marketplaces and street corners where ordinary Iraqis are found. When reporters do speak to Iraqis, the skewed power dynamic of the occupation enters into every interview and interaction. In the eyes of many Iraqis, a foreign journalist, and especially an American one, is just an extension of the conquering army. To complicate matters further, there are almost no nongovernmental organizations or aid groups, or even the United Nations, to provide any kind of independent analysis or to point reporters in the direction of stories. And, finally, there is the psychology of Iraqis themselves. After living under tyranny for more than thirty years, are they reliable sources of information?

The four journalists below, all of whom have spent considerable time in Iraq during the past half year, say those obstacles are real and are specific to postwar Iraq. But in spite of such barriers, they say they have found ways to plumb the grayness of the Iraqi experience, to try to tell a nuanced story that feels close to the sometimes contradictory and cluttered truth.

Accepting the Contradictions

Last August, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post spent a day on Mutanabi Street, a narrow alleyway of bookstores and shops in old Baghdad. Because he is an Arabic speaker (his grandparents were born in Lebanon), Shadid says, Iraqis tend to be more comfortable in his presence. "Gaining trust or gaining personal access and confidence is much harder" than in other places he has reported from, Shadid says, and so his appearance and ability to get along without a translator allow him to get in close. On that summer day on Mutanabi Street, he was able to hear the debates among a group of lounging Iraqi men. One of them, Mohammed Hayawi, a bookstore owner, turned to his friends and said, "I challenge anyone to say what has happened, what’s happening now, and what will happen in the future."

This is how Shadid tries to understand Iraqis. He doesn’t force an answer. "Anybody who says they know how Iraqis feel is talking bullshit," says Shadid. "You are going to find somebody who is going to express contradictory sentiments in the same conversation, at the same moment." Shadid believes the best way to deal with this problem is not to fight it. On Mutanabi Street, when a stationery store owner, Amran Kadhim, challenged his friend Adel Jannabi on his critiques of the American occupation, Shadid printed the exchange. "The Americans are doing well," said Kadhim. "They’re working slowly but they’re doing well. If there were no Americans here, people would end up killing each other." Jannabi countered, "No, no, my friend. There should still be much more progress." "Why do we blame the Americans?" Khadim shot back.

Shadid’s Arabic allows him to understand the small talk, the intonation, the turn of phrase. But he also knows that the nature of the sentiment is complex, and he says the best way to capture this is to lay it all out. "In your interviews with Iraqis you are going to be thrown into a situation where there’s chaos; it’s confusing; everything is all out there," Shadid says. "And to pin down, nail down this one sentiment of what Iraqis feel is impossible. I’m sure a majority is grateful that Saddam’s gone. A majority does have problems with the occupation. A majority is frustrated with where it’s at. A majority is hopeful about the future. All these things are true and you’re probably going to hear them in the same conversation."

Employing the Gift of Empathy

Daily reporters must deal with the tyranny of the deadline, but George Packer, who spent five weeks in Iraq for The New Yorker and produced a stunning 20,000-word examination of the postwar situation, had the luxury of time. He says, "I found I needed two or three hours, if not two or three visits, to understand all the factors that went into Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation." The profiles of Iraqis in his piece -- among others, a Shiite sheikh, a young student, a psychiatrist -- are profiles of people who are complex and, in many ways, conflicted.

But even with time, Packer says, the Iraqi psychology, shaped by more than thirty years of totalitarian Ba’athist rule, made reporting on Iraqis feel more like a job for Freud than for a magazine writer. Perhaps "what was truer of Iraqis than most people was how much talking they needed to do in order to express the fullness of their thinking," says Packer. "It was a bit like therapy. You are peeling back layers and layers of dogma and rumor."

But Packer found that Iraqis do love to talk. Their garrulousness surprised him, although he thought that this, too, could have a certain pathological quality. "There were many interviews where I would be sitting with some guy in his living room, after the three-hour lunch we would always have, and I would just start getting angry at my translator because what he was telling me just didn’t make sense," Packer says. "The conversation just kept on leaping around without any rational back and forth. And he would say to me, ‘George, I’m giving you a word-for-word translation.’" Many of the Iraqis he talked to had a hard time developing clear arguments, explaining themselves fully, and, as Packer put it, "understanding their own situation." Packer thinks this might be related to the fact that the Iraqis were isolated and denied free will for so long. A psychiatrist whom Packer quoted in the article explained that Iraqis lack "the power to experience freedom."

Empathy, Packer believes, can help reporters bridge this divide. Journalists need to "make the little imaginative effort to get into the skin of Iraqis," Packer says. "Then they won’t need hours and hours, and they will be a little bit immune to the tidy sound bite they often end up with."

In the eighties, Packer spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African village. That experience colors the reporting he has done and, he says, has helped him develop an ability to understand other people. Living in such a foreign environment where he was the helpless outsider, he "had to learn how [the local people] saw the world just in order to be able to function." Packer has also written two novels, and he thinks this, too, helped his journalism in Iraq. "The effort to get inside a character is an act of empathy -- it just happens to be with someone nonexistent," he says. "The things you have to notice about people as a fiction writer are not just what they say, but more how they say things. Or, even, what they don’t say."

Getting Beyond the First Thing They Say

For Hassan Fattah, Iraq is more than just a story. It is his past and, now, his future. Fattah’s family left Iraq in 1964 after being persecuted by the government, and eventually moved to Berkeley, California, where he grew up. Iraq was a constant in his parent’s stories and loomed large in his imagination, but he had never been to the country until last May. After the Americans entered Baghdad, Fattah decided to move there to start an English-language newspaper, Iraq Today. As a journalist who had worked for The Economist and Frontline, this was his way of contributing to the rebuilding of Iraqi society and to restoring his family’s name. He would try to bring high journalistic standards and train a cadre of young Iraqis in the ethics and professionalism of western journalism. Fattah also is a regular contributor to The New Republic and Time.

Because he speaks Arabic and his journalists are Iraqi, Fattah can do the kind of grassroots reporting that western journalists often forgo because of the danger of venturing too far afield. Fattah’s reporters live the story of postwar Iraq every day. As he puts it, "You haven’t been in Iraq until you have lived in a house, not a hotel, where the generator breaks down, the electricity goes out, and there is nothing you can do about it." But having his ear to the ground has only made Fattah even more cautious. He understands the Iraqi sensibility because he has shared the Iraqi fate this past year, suffering the consequences of a broken police force and little security. The day before his first issue went to press, he was awakened by thieves thrusting machine guns in his face and demanding money. He says he goes to sleep at night thinking that his house could be attacked. "Iraqis are very conscious that they could go home and that some guy can come in and shoot them and there is nothing they can do about it," he says.

So, with such an understanding of Iraqis, what advice would he give western journalists on interviewing them? "Don’t believe the first thing that people tell you. Remember, people here are survivors. They are programmed and they grew up learning how to say the right thing, to survive. Somebody will tell you something, and you think that’s what they mean, but very often that is far from it. There is always something deeper."

But Fattah also says Iraqis don’t want people feeling sorry for them. The political nature of the story, he thinks, drives reporters to paint Iraqis one-dimensionally, as a people deserving of sympathy. "The sense of empathy, which is the real power of journalism, is lost. And what you get is a kind of sympathy," Fattah says. "The one thing I think Iraqis are very much afraid of is having people feel sorry for them. They don’t want to be forgotten, but they don’t want to be victims either."

Being on Your Own

It was an aid worker who told Vivienne Walt about the children. In a Baghdad neighborhood, Walt, a former USA Today reporter who is now on assignment for Time and The Boston Globe, found them sitting around, nine- and ten-year-olds, grabbing fistfuls of ammunition from a pile and separating the copper casings from the lead of bullets. A little boy, Karar Ali, holding a Kalashnikov shell in his hand, told Walt, "My mother says this is a good job. I give her all my earnings." "Of course, it was a great story," Walt says. But it was also a story she says she couldn’t have found without being pointed in the right direction. As in most foreign countries, correspondents in Iraq depend on independent sources to lead them to stories or offer some reasonably objective analysis when they find them. In Iraq, however, these third parties have almost completely disappeared.

"It’s fairly unique to work in a country where you don’t have international organizations, observers of any kind, either to give you an idea of what’s going on in different towns and neighborhoods or to give you some comments or interpretations about what you are seeing," Walt says. She reported in Iraq before and after the war. "I’ve worked in over twenty-five countries and I can’t remember being in a country where there are no international aid workers," she says.

The absence of this "grassroots information," as Walt calls it, creates great obstacles for journalists eager to tell the Iraqi story. Walt is typical of western reporters in that she doesn’t speak Arabic and cannot easily blend in, and that her work is impeded by a security breakdown in which reporters are targeted as adjuncts of the American occupation. Conditions are such that Iraq "could possibly move towards a situation where western journalists are really too much at risk to operate here," she says. All this makes her incredibly reliant on fixers and translators. This is true of most foreign assignments. But in Iraq, Walt says, the dearth of other sources makes their role even more essential. Translators also know better how to handle Iraqi sensitivities. They smooth questions down, making them more culturally palatable. "A translator is much more than a translator here," Walt says. "It’s someone who can put people at ease."

But translators, however helpful, have not been living in a vacuum for the past thirty years. They are just as much the product of Saddam’s culture of silence and fear as the subjects they help journalists interview. And so Walt finds that beyond translation, they lack the freethinking journalistic skills to perform some of the other tasks that fixers usually do in foreign countries, such as generating stories and finding leads. Under Saddam, a news story was simply a government proclamation. "One of the jobs I have my translator do is read the papers for me," Walt says. "But they would read twenty-five newspapers a day and then say there is nothing in them. They would just see nonsense."

Yet, "slowly but surely," this is changing, she says. Foreign correspondents "have been comparing notes about how we are trying to train our Iraqi fixers to be journalists," she says, "to read and listen to the news in a way they have never done before." And this development might be happening just in time. As tensions rise, and journalists feel even more threatened, both the obstacles to uncovering the Iraqi story and the need to expose it will only grow exponentially.

Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.

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