Far From the Hamra Hotel


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.

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 for The New York Times and other publications.