Far From the Hamra Hotel

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

Being embedded doesn't allow you to report the crisis for women in Iraq through Sulafa's horrifying abuse and consequent divorce, or the transition to so-called democracy through Ali's desire to create a new myth for Iraq. Those are the stories of the country that need to be told. And we tend not to hear or read them because that's not what people who enlist look for (nor do their editors or publishers).

That's what people like me look for. And since people like me don't look for war, we don't tend to end up in the middle of one to tell the stories of life swirling on the margins of war. As I learned last fall, there is nothing glamorous about danger to me, and in fact I mind it quite a bit. If I were one of the salty dogs at the Hamra Hotel eager to trade horror stories over beers, I'd be in Iraq right now, not in a West Village coffee shop, typing as a well-dressed stranger across the table reads the latest such horror story on the front page of The New York Times. And if I were one of those salty dogs, you'd only hear about the war from me as well.

Last week I went to see a public interview with Azar Nafisi, author of the now famous memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. "You have to think other people are not like us in order to eliminate them," she told the audience, reminding me of why I feel so compelled to return to Iraq. I know that at least the people I met in Iraq are quite like me.

They may have experienced things I can only imagine, but they have known love and heartbreak like me; they have had political anger and hopes like me; they like to laugh and eat and gossip and dream like me. In some ways—in reactionary, self-protecting, lazy ways—I wish I could flip the channel. I wish my fatigue and depression in the face of this unfathomable situation could cut my emotional cord to it.

Nafisi endured a nation at war (Iran) for 10 terrifying years. Listening to her talk, I felt the switch that had slid toward "stay" slide back to "go." I kept it to myself. Then came the news about Nick Berg, beheaded on videotape. The switch slid back to "stay."

It's a gut response. Intellectually, I know that every time a headline-grabbing terror like this occurs, I am needed more than ever there, that it is my duty to push the tides of opinion away from the swell of "other" that Nafisi invoked, to beat the drum of commonality. After September 11, it was driven into us that if we alter the course of our lives in any way (keep shopping! Board that plane!), the terrorists have won. For me, for today at least, they have.


Lauren Sandler writes about culture and politics. She traveled to Iraq on behalf of the Carr Foundation to investigate the museum looting in Baghdad, and to report on women's issues forThe New York Times and other publications.

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