Far From the Hamra Hotel

Don't come back to Iraq, my friend said. I don't care how badly you want to.

When I returned to the States in October after two months of reporting in Iraq, everyone asked me the same questions first: What do they think about us? Did you see any dead bodies? Were you in any gunfights? How close were you to the bombing? Those are the questions I think most war journalists live to answer. Indeed, at the pool of the Hamra Hotel, where so many of them congregate in Baghdad, those are the salty-dog stories they spin, never pausing mid-yarn for a sudden blackout or the crackle of shots nearby. The battlefield questions had nothing to do with the stories I wanted to tell, the ones I heard in Baghdad living rooms—stories of divorce, crises of faith, personal and national mythmaking. I was the only reporter I met not rushing to a daily briefing or chasing the page-one story. I had been sent to Iraq by a human rights foundation and didn't have to write a word until I was safely back in New York. I could just sit and listen.

As winter fell over Brooklyn, I started to lobby magazines to send me back. Finally, after months of e-mails filling my inbox explaining that no one had a budget to send me anywhere, I got a call. The foundation that had sent me in August was starting up a new documentary company and wanted to send me back to Iraq to make a film about democracy, and I could report about anything I wanted while I was there. I was elated and spent seven hours making conference calls to jump-start the project. I wrote to my dear friend Ali, telling him he could stop pestering me—I was on my way.

I woke up to the news that while I slept, two bombs had exploded beside two mosques on one of the holiest days of the year. One mosque was where my beloved driver, Abu Reem, and his family pray in Baghdad (I have no idea if theirs were among the charred bodies—I haven't been able to reach him since we wept at the airport). The other mosque was about 50 yards from where Ali's large family lives. Hours later, I received an e-mail from Ali that was different in every way from the ones I had received for months goading me to return. Don't come back here, he said. I don't care how badly you want to. You can have no idea what's happening here from watching CNN.

I was terrified. No kidding, you're thinking. But when I boarded a late-night Royal Jordanian flight bound for Amman on August 6 of last year, Americans were still the liberators. There was still talk of hope. War seemed like a thing of the past. And while the tide turned in the sweltering and electricity-impoverished months that I was there (how many rapes without police protection could women stand? How long could people live without telephones and clean hospitals?), even the week the United Nations was bombed seems like a spell at summer camp compared to recent days. It was certainly no less tragic, but somehow less menacing, less mysterious, less random, less sadistic. In that climate, I fell in love with the place and the people I knew there. I felt secure and happy in their homes. Thoughts of them reassured me that I could be safe in Iraq. I had never even searched for the opportunity to know them—I usually write about American culture, not the crises of the Middle East—but perhaps that's what drew me to them. In New York, I missed them every day.

Over the next few weeks, the violence accelerated. Hostages were abducted, and the ghost of Daniel Pearl loomed anew. Insurgents dragged human beings through the streets, in front of cheering crowds. I spent sleepless nights agonizing about whether or not to return to Iraq. In the dark, the prospect of going back felt more like enlisting than reporting. Something had shifted in me. I'm someone who charges straight ahead at life. I knew that this would be the first time I chose to step to the side.

While I appreciate the seriousness with which my family and friends treat that decision, I feel sickeningly like a dilettante about the whole business. The people in Iraq who I know and love have no choice. They live there. They couldn't leave under Saddam and they can't leave now. The hand-wringing I do with my friends over brunch in Soho feels des- picable. It feels similarly absurd to think of myself as needed in Iraq today. But in many ways, the fear is legitimate—and illuminating.

When only war reporters go to war, all that is reported is the war. That's what they're there for. Danger is glamorous to them, or they just plain don't mind it. Furthermore, any publication that spends a fortune to send reporters into a conflict zone is doing so to get a high volume of high-impact stories with high news values. No one—as I learned in my months trying to return—wants to send you there to hang out and see what people talk about. This combination of an editor's requirements with a violent situation isn't exactly ripe for immersion journalism unless you're embedded, in which case you're still reporting the war.

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