Reporter's Notebook: Back from Iraq

An NPR's correspondent talks about her time covering the war in Iraq.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

You know, it takes a special breed to be a correspondent in a war zone. Some are drawn to it like a moth to the flame - the excitement, being a part of history, the ability to be a conduit for people listening in their homes. Now the romance of the flak jacket and the microphone in hand comes with the reality that the Center for the Protection of Journalists calls being a member of the press in Iraq one of the most dangerous jobs in the planet. One hundred and twenty-four journalists have been killed there since the war started in 03. Thirty one have been murdered in Iraq this year alone.

BILL WOLFF, host:

NPRs Jamie Tarabay worked 18 hours a day for six - on six-week rotations for the last two years, and shes laughing as I recount it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: She cant believe she went through it, I suppose. As Baghdad bureau chief, she was one of the few female war correspondents in Iraq, reporting from the bedlam of Baghdad to the al-Qaida stronghold of the Diala province.

STEWART: Now shes given NPR listeners incredible insight into the daily life in a war zone. Lets listen to part of her report she filed this past October about an Iraqi who feared for his life.

JAMIE TARABAY: Hussein Ali(ph) sits quietly on a sofa, counting the worry beads gathered in his right hand. He has a mustache, which he keeps rubbing with his shirt sleeve. And even in the air-conditioned room, the sweat gathers on his brow. Hes rearranged his entire life -his job, his family obligations so that he rarely has to leave home. As much as he hates this small living room, he stays inside. Hussein begins to shake when the violent sounds of Baghdad echo through his small apartment.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Mr. HUSSEIN ALI (Resident, Baghdad): (Through translator) What you hear right now, thats why I dont go outside. Im scared.

TARABAY: Theres one image in his mind he just cant shake. Several months ago, he was grocery shopping in downtown Baghdad when a bomb went off. Among the broken bodies and blood, he saw a womans head.

WOLFF: Now, Jamie Tarabay is starting a new adventure, one as a civilian of sorts. This past weekend she packed up her things in Baghdad and headed via Paris and Washington, D.C., as we learned - back here in New York. She joins us now in the studio to talk about some of her favorite stories, some of the worst moments, the toughest challenges during her days in Baghdad, and what her future holds.

Welcome back to the United States.

TARABAY: Thank you. Im so excited. That sounds really great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Lets hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You were just recounting how long it took you to get home. You left Baghdad on Sunday?

TARABAY: Yeah. Yeah. And then we flew to Jordan, and then the flight out to Paris was at 2 a.m., but it got grounded because of fog. So we were there until 8 oclock the next evening. Then I flew to Paris, and I was in Paris for about seven hours or so, and then I flew to D.C. And I cant remember what day it is today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: Seriously, like, what day is it? I dont know.

WOLFF: I believe it is Thursday.

STEWART: Thursday.

TARABAY: Its okay. Good. Good. Im sorry.

WOLFF: Its okay.

TARABAY: I have no idea what day is it today. Now I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: It is Thursday in New York. Can we speak first about Iraq, where you just left? How was it different the day you left from the Iraq you encountered the day you got there two years ago?

STEWART: We should - I mean, Jamies been there for four years, right?

TARABAY: Right.

STEWART: But shes with us for two years with NPR, and two years with AP.

TARABAY: AP, right.

STEWART: Shes got a much longer horizon, even.

TARABAY: Yeah. I mean, when I got in there - and I got in there right after the war in 03 - and the difference that is its two different countries. It was a place where the Humvees didnt have doors on them, and soldiers walked around without their body armor, and they used to line up in cafeterias and buy pizza with everybody else. It was so different back then.

I felt completely different. I could stroll around. I used to go out for lunch. You know, Id be like, Im going out. Id go shopping. Id go out to restaurants. Id go and stay over at peoples houses and, you know, youd have parties and dinner, and you could hang out. You could have a social life. And I remember getting a tip from a correspondent who was there before me, and I just wanted to know what to bring. And she said, dont bring a backpack. All the women here are carrying purses. So, I mean, it was really very social. It was a completely different atmosphere to what its like now.

Now, its, you know, you get out of the way when you see military convoy or a Blackwater convoy, or, you know, private security. You just get out of the way. And people - they dont talk to each other as much. Its much more - theres such an air of distrust there now. People are really suspicious of each other, and its really - its changed so much. Its a completely different place now.

WOLFF: And would you say that there was a moment or a policy change or an incident that caused a steep change, or was it a slow change from what you described at first to what you see now?

TARABAY: You could see it coming. There were different signs that you could, I mean, just the ineptitude of the administration in 03, and just watching them make one mistake after another, and you, you know, you were kind of staggered at just the lack of awareness. And there were obvious things that they didnt know about that you could see coming a mile away. And they just there was no - I mean, and it still exists today. I was at the U.S. Embassy a few days ago, and I was interviewing a Marine general from - who has just come out of Anbar to do a couple of interviews with the Pentagon. And we were talking, I was talking with the Marines there, and who, by the way, miss you Rachel, very much.

RACHEL MARTIN: Ah. Tell me about it. I love the Marines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: And, you know, they were - we were talking about how things were going, and theyre very frustrated because theyre in a province that is majority Sunni, and theyre not getting the support that they need from a majority Shia government. And we were talking about all the problems there. And there was an embassy flack in the studio who was listening to all of this, and he kind of trust this newsletter at me and said, you know, there is good news going on here. You should be reporting this sort of stuff. And I looked at their newsletter and it was about scouting, like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the Green Zone in Iraq.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TARABAY: It was just...

MARTIN: Its almost surreal, that (unintelligible).

TARABAY: I couldnt get over it. I mean, I actually brought it back with me, because I just think that is so emblematic of, you know, you live in a bubble. You have no idea what its like outside. You have no idea how people are living, and the fact that they live under restrictions that you have no idea about because you live in this Green Zone, in this bubble, and I just couldnt believe the guy. I just I went, yeah, thank you. But I am keeping it as a souvenir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You know, I went to hear Kimberly Dozier, who works for CBS News. I want to hear her speak. People dont remember the story. She was badly wounded, her legs crushed. People didnt know if she was going to survive or not. And she said she got so many letters from people who were so impressed that she was a woman in the war zone, a woman reporter. And her point was that shes a reporter, and any reporter deserves respect who goes into a war zone. But I wondered about the reality of being a woman reporter in Iraq, specifically, in these past four years. What specific challenges did you find, if any?

TARABAY: I think - well, you know, youve got it on both sides. You got it when you work with the military, and you got it when you dealt with Iraqis. Its very difficult for Iraqis to accept a woman doing something on her own, traveling with men who werent related to her, and, you know, they always want to ask you, are you married? And if youre not married, then how does your father let you do this sort of thing? Particularly with me, because I speak Arabic. My parents are Lebanese, and so they felt like they could say that sort of thing to me. Theres a cultural, you know, oh, youre an Arab. I cant believe youre not doing what were doing sort of thing. So you have to kind of overcome that.

MARTIN: Which is more difficult, I think, than even to Western reporters, because youre held to a different standard...

TARABAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...because you can speak Arabic.

TARABAY: I mean, it doesnt matter what you do, and it doesnt matter how you dress sometimes, you know? I was going through a check point once with Abdullah, and one of our staff, and the Iraqi was talking to him, and I was I was all wrapped up, you know. I had a head scarf on. I was wearing a long kind of coat thing. And, you know, Abdullah came away just kind of chuckling to himself. And I said, what was so funny? And then he said, oh, the guy was asking if you were wearing a headscarf out of security reasons or out of religious reasons. He thought I was local.

MARTIN: Hmm.

TARABAY: And I said, well, why would he ask me something like that? He said, well, because he wants to hit on you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: I mean, it was - it doesnt matter. Theres no such thing as being covert if youre a woman, especially if you are in a war zone. You know, if youre in the military, youre working with the military with the soldiers, theyre like, oh my God. Youre a female. And youre surrounded by infantry men. So, I mean, the guys that I embed with, they say, you know, Jamie, theres no, like, ranking system from one to 10 for women. Its like youre either - its a binary world. Youre a one or a zero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: You know, and so, I mean, theyre just gratified to have women around them sort of thing. So that can help you, and that can also work against you.

STEWART: I do want to get to a little more of your reporting.

TARABAY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: One of the last stories you did before you were leaving was about a 13- year-old girl. Can you tell us a little bit about her story? And then well play a clip of it.

TARABAY: She, literally, was a girl who was on the brink of the becoming lost. You just knew that she was doing things that were going to lead her down this path of just despair. You could see that she was becoming very curious about interacting with men and the flirting and the dressing. The way that she was dressed, she was wearing, you know, these tight jeans, this tight T-shirt, you know, and she wasnt - she was very lax about making sure her head scarf was on. And everybody who knew her was saying this is a girl whos on her way to becoming a prostitute. And, you know, there were moments when she would deny it. But then there were moments when she would - she knew too much about it...

MARTIN: Sure.

TARABAY: ...to be able to, like, you know, feign innocence. So you just knew she was on - just about to fall. You just kind of can see it coming, you know. It was really quite depressing.

MARTIN: Well, lets listen to a little bit of Jamie Tarabays report.

RHAGAD: (Through translator) And I warned her. They said, behave yourself, or else well shave your head and take you to a mosque and punish you by religious law.

TARABAY: But whatever the threat, its not enough to convince Rhagad to avoid trouble. Their neighbors, a friendly husband and wife, say they tried to help. The wife wants to buy Rhagad more conservative clothes, and appeals to the young girl to follow her elder sisters more chaste example. But Rhagad is also like any teenage girl growing up: shy, and at the same time curious.

RHAGAD: (Through translator) I asked my friends what is it in me that men find so attractive. They tell me, they just want to have fun.

TARABAY: She says she tries not to pay attention to the men, but its hard to look away.

MARTIN: I was lucky enough to be able to be in Baghdad the summer when Jamie was there. And I remembered one particular story that you reported about this group of folk musicians in Baghdad. And this is a really - it was a special story. I, actually was gone. I was on an embed when this really neat concert happened, but I wanted Jamie to explain kind of the context of this, and then well go to the tape.

TARABAY: The group, they are very - its a - they do the traditional -its called the Baghdadi Square, and its called the Square because the lyrics are written in a, you know, kind of four by four sort of - I dont know how they do it. But its a very tradition way of singing. And this troupe, they dress in traditional costumes and they, you know, when they used to work publicly, they could dress in their costumes, go through the street singing and, you know, playing their instruments, and people would just kind of come with them and follow them to where they had to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: And - but they cant do that anymore. You know, they hide their instruments. They dont wear their costumes anymore. You know, when they came to our office, you know, one of them had he stuck his drum in a flower sack, and another one had this tambourine in a gym bag, or - you know? But our staff was so happy when these guys come and played, and they were all singing and clapping, and it was just - you could see what it was that made them so much fun. And its just something that...

MARTIN: Sounds like a fun time.

TARABAY: Yeah. Its just it was, you know, another thing that you know, it was bittersweet to be able to watch it, and - you know.

MARTIN: Lets listen to a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of music)

TARABAY: A graduate of Baghdads Music Institute, al-Obeidis been playing the tabla for 27 years. He wishes the troupe didnt have to perform secretly, leaving its costumes at home.

Mr. AHMED AL-OBEIDI (Musician): (Through translator) I really feel frustrated that we cannot perform as we used to. Music is the food of the spirit, and the artist is above all the politics. I really feel pain that the situation has come to this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: This was special in large part, Jamie, because life is so tough there. You just dont get to see musicians - I mean, when this happened, they performed in the front lawn of the NPR house, right?

TARABAY: Yeah. It was really amazing. One of our drivers was so moved by it. He actually had to get out and sit in the kitchen, and he cried. It was just really...

MARTIN: Hmm.

TARABAY: ...you could just its gone. Its something that just they cant do anymore.

STEWART: Well, Jamie, youre in New York for a very lovely reason. And I dont know you that well. Ive listened to you on NPR forever, but so I feel like I can ask you about this: Youre getting hitched.

TARABAY: I am. I am, in like three weeks. In a bit.

STEWART: And your biggest decision - come on, tell them - is now...

TARABAY: Oh, God. The Manolos or the Jimmy Choos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Oh.

TARABAY: Exactly.

STEWART: Is that just the weirdest thing...

MARTIN: NPRs Iraq correspondent making decisions about designer shoes.

STEWART: I know. A few weeks ago you were in Baghdad, and now you cant decide which heels to wear on your wedding day.

TARABAY: Its...

WOLFF: Its Jimmy Choo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You have to see them. They are pretty sassy.

WOLFF: Im saying. Ive done some inspection in this area, and Im (unintellgible) Jimmy Choos.

STEWART: But Jamie loves just dressing up when you come home, right?

TARABAY: I do. I do. Its part of what I like to do. And, you know, and just you feel like a girl again, because you - I had the same wardrobe for, you know, how ever many years that I was there. And literally, I was one of those people who didnt have to pack a bag to go to Baghdad, because all of my staff was there already.

STEWART: Well, Jamie Tarabay, we wish you the greatest luck, and have a fantastic wedding. Youll look beautiful, Im sure.

TARABAY: Thank you.

STEWART: And thank you for all your work that youve done. As an NPR listener, Im (unintelligible) as an employee. But as a listener, thank you for all the work youve done in the past...

TARABAY: Thank you.

STEWART: ...few years.

TARABAY: Its my pleasure.

WOLFF: Mazal Tov.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TARABAY: Thanks.

STEWART: Thanks for joining us for this hour of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. Were always available online at npr.org/bryantpark.

Im Alison Stewart.

WOLFF: Im Bill Wolff. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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