A Journalist's Take On 'An Ordinary Day' In Iraq

Farnaz Fassihi i i

hide captionIn May 2006, Fassihi was awarded the prestigious Henry Pringle Lecture Award for coverage of Iraq by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Kate Brooks/PublicAffairs
Farnaz Fassihi

In May 2006, Fassihi was awarded the prestigious Henry Pringle Lecture Award for coverage of Iraq by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Kate Brooks/PublicAffairs

Iranian-American journalist Farnaz Fassihi was stationed in the Middle East from 2002 until 2006, where she covered the Iraq war and the daily struggles of the Iraqi people. A Shiite Muslim, Fassihi established close personal ties to many Iraqi citizens, who invited her into their homes. She recounts their stories — and their suffering — in her memoir, Waiting for an Ordinary Day.

Now The Wall Street Journal's deputy bureau chief for the Middle East and Africa, Fassihi grew up in Tehran and Portland, Oregon. She received a B.A. in English from Tehran University and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Excerpt: 'Waiting for an Ordinary Day'

'Ordinary Day' Book Cover
Waiting for an Ordinary Day
By Farnaz Fassihi
Hardcover, 304 pages
PublicAffairs
List Price: $26.00


Yes, Yes, to Our Leader Saddam

My first glimpses of Baghdad are burned deep into memory, as if they belong to a vanished place.

Palm groves swish in a soft autumn breeze, as the muddy waters of the Tigris River stream through the city. The green riverbank is lined with shabby fish restaurants, and the skyline is dotted with an architectural variety of marble palaces, blue-domed mosques, gigantic statues made of steel, colonial houses with engraved balconies, and multistory, seventies-style office buildings. The roads, wide and well paved, are jammed with cars. In a crowded market, peddlers push wooden carts full of fruit and fresh herbs, and a bookstore is stocked with old translated copies of Russian literature and Shakespeare's poetry.

Iraqis are rushing around carrying out their daily chores. Cafés are packed with old men playing backgammon and younger men puffing on cigarettes or hookahs. Iraqi women stroll down sidewalks, peer into shop windows, and lock arms while crossing the streets. Dressed in stylish hip-hugging pants or knee-length skirts with matching colorful shirts, they sport artfully blonde-highlighted hair. From their high-heel sandals, nail-polished toes peep out.

The city pulses with the rhythm of an urban life, almost deceptive in its normalcy.

And then I notice that Saddam Hussein's face is everywhere. In whichever direction my eyes dart, on walls, shops, schools, and commercial buildings, a life-size or larger picture of Saddam Hussein grins down at me. He is portrayed in various outfits: wearing a military uniform, commanding the troops; sporting a mafia-style black hat, firing a shotgun; sitting cross-legged, sipping tea in traditional Kurdish baggy pants and fringy head wrap; and in an Arabic robe, greeting children. And he is always smiling.

Outsize Iraqi flags, green, white, and red, flutter atop government buildings. White banners stretched thin between walls announce in proud, blood-red Arabic script, "Yes, yes, yes to our leader Saddam Hussein."

In a few days' time, Saddam plans to stage a national referendum to counter world opinion about his lack of popularity and strength at home. In America, a United States–led military invasion into Iraq seems imminent. After spending a week sitting idly on a rigid chair in the waiting room at the Iraqi embassy in Amman, faking smiles and exchanging formal, empty greetings with Iraqi bureaucrats, my visa finally arrived. Saddam has apparently decided now is as good a time as ever to allow hordes of international journalists a rare visit (albeit controlled and strictly monitored) to his Iraq.

Once this ancient capital was famed as the jewel of the Arab world; it was a place of discovery, literature, and progress. It's been decades since Baghdad's fortunes reversed. Brutal rulers have gripped its reign, and years of war, global isolation, and sanctions have turned it into a suspended place, trapped between a glorious past and an ever-ambiguous future.

Iraq has long been linked to my own trajectory. During the fall of my fourth-grade year, my little sister Tannaz and I were sprawled on our bedroom floor in Tehran, playing with Barbie dolls, when a thundering sound rattled the windows. My father scooped us up in his arms as he and Mom dashed down the stairs, taking shelter in the basement apartment of a neighbor.

"It's Iraqi war planes," I remember someone saying. "They have broken the sound barrier. We are at war."

Soon after, state radio and television introduced us to the sound of the "red siren" and "white siren," which signaled when war planes were in the sky and when the threat had cleared. In school, we practiced bunker drills, our little feet stomping down the stairs to the dark basement where we huddled together on the ground. My dad taped our windows with huge Xs to prevent smashed glass from flying in the case of an attack. There were nightly blackouts, to our grave disappointment, often right around 8:00 PM, just as our favorite television show, Pippi Longstocking, aired. Food coupons for basic goods such as rice and cooking oil were distributed to households, and milk became an extravagance of the prewar days. We rationed gasoline. Days went by without hot water, forcing my mom to boil water and pour it by the potful into the chilly water of the tub to give us our lukewarm baths.

My family left Iran soon after the war began to settle in Portland, Oregon. I eventually returned to Iran with my family, where I attended university and stumbled into journalism by chance by becoming a translator and stringer for foreign correspondents traveling to Iran. Ever since my childhood, I have had an irresistible attraction to my roots in the Middle East and a yearning to make sense of the constant upheavals in the region that shaped my own life from a very young age.

Now, nearly two decades later, I find myself evoking those childhood memories as the driver points out an array of monuments commemorating Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, including a massive replica of Saddam Hussein's fists, about the size of a six-story building, crushing actual helmets of Iranian soldiers seized from the battlefield.

We disembark from Jordan a few hours after midnight in an SUV driven by a burly Jordanian driver who is accompanied by his chatty assistant. Inside the car are enough entertainment and snacks to sustain us for days if we get stranded in the Jordanian desert. There's a flask of hot water, another one filled with Arabic coffee, paper cups, napkins, a plastic bag of pita bread, and the sort of Turkish cookies that resemble small, round sandwiches stuffed with banana cream. In addition to a top-notch radio and CD player with speakers loud enough for a disco, there is a small television screen above the glove box. Easam, the driver, says he makes frequent runs to Baghdad, and the music prevents him from dozing off in the dull landscape of highway in western Iraq, where miles of brown swaths of earth devoid of life yawn endlessly outward. As I settle in the backseat, he puts on an Arabic music video. A popular Arabic pop song blares out and an attractive, busty woman sways her hips.

"You like?" he turns to me and asks. "I have Madonna and Celine Dion, too."

More than anything, the two Western journalists with me and I want to sleep. At the crack of dawn, Easam wakes us up. We have arrived at the Iraqi border, where we negotiate our way through a labyrinth of bureaucracy at customs: we register laptops, satellite phones, and Internet transmitters and bribe our way out of an on-the-spot AIDS test. I repeatedly offer my smiley explanation as to why someone with an Iranian-sounding name was standing before them holding an American passport: I was born in the United States to Iranian parents.

Our destination is the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, a tower of gray cement and one of the city's many seventies-style architectural monuments. The hotel serves as a landmark and registration point for arriving journalists.

Easam points out the hotel as it appears in the skyline and reassures us of its luxury, "It's a four-star hotel. Very nice. Good location, you can find taxis easily."

"Can we go out on our own?" I ask. "Won't we have government minders?

Do you think people will talk to us?"

"Yes, yes," he replies, pausing and then adding, "But this is Iraq. Everyone is afraid of Saddam."

The building looks gloomy, even from afar, like a piece of neglected furniture. The rooms are caged behind balconies that are slightly angled and covered by geometric panels. We wind around Ferdous Square, which is littered with dilapidated cars run down by almost a decade of sanctions. In the middle of the circle, atop a patch of green, is a giant statue of Saddam Hussein. One hand raised, he is saluting, dictator style.

Inside, the hotel lobby bristles with excessive Middle Eastern decoration and kitsch art-deco furniture and light fixtures reminiscent of the hotel's better days. From within a tribal tent at the entrance, colorful carpets are sold. Traditional abayas made of fine camel hair and long hand-embroidered dresses dangle from hangers. There is a newspaper kiosk that sells only Iraqi newspapers owned by the government and a handful of postcards from Babylon, dating back to the 1970s. The hotel souvenir shop has a window display of the usual items—clunky silver jewelry, lapis boxes, and hand-carved knives—but it's the Saddam memorabilia that stands out. Lighters, wristwatches, alarm clocks, bumper stickers, plates, and jugs depicting his face are for sale. An art gallery next door has a few canvases of Iraqi landscapes tucked away among the dozens of brightly painted portraits of Saddam.

The Ministry of Information, which assigns minders and translators to journalists, has conveniently set up a desk in the lobby. A middle-aged man, Mr. Alla Khalil, shakes my hands warmly and scans his list for my name. He is short, with a patch of shiny, black-dyed hair and a thick, bushy moustache. The Saddam-style mustache is in vogue in here; practically every man, young or old, seems to sport one.

Mr. Alla is constantly interrupted by a bevy of international journalists streaming in and out of the lobby with inquiries about their permits for filming on the streets or whether a press conference has been scheduled. Mr. Alla's first question of me is whether or not I have a satellite phone. "Before we check you in, we have to seal your equipment and take it away from you," he says in a flat voice. "You can pick it up on your last day here."

Then, like a skillful matchmaker on a dance floor, Mr. Alla checks my name off his list, grabs me by the hand, and walks me over to a small crowd of Iraqi men hovering nearby, government minders assigned to monitor each reporter as well as double as translators.

"Miss Farnaz, these are our translators. What language do you need? English or Farsi? We have many translators, Spanish, Russian, and French," Mr. Alla explains.

"English is good. I write in English," I say.

Eventually, I'm matched with a smiley middle-aged high school English teacher named Mr. Nuri, who is new to the job. His lack of experience as a person who monitors and reports our every move and the fact that no one in the ministry has ever heard of the newspaper I represent, The Newark Star-Ledger, allow me a great deal of wiggle room in the days to come. I quickly discover that reporting in Iraq requires a great deal of patience. Official interviews are seldom granted and accurately gauging the mood of the public is challenging in the presence of a minder, who reports back to the ministry. When we do man-in-the-street interviews, Iraqis eye Mr. Nuri suspiciously and praise Saddam. I can't continue to press the issue until I get a satisfactory, truthful answer. I am acutely aware that my questioning can get Iraqis into trouble.

The day I arrive at the Palestine Hotel, a much sterner young man from the group of minders whisks me away. He leads me through a maze of stairs and hallways and up an elevator to a room on the ninth floor, where confiscated satellite phones are stored. I have no choice but to surrender my equipment and watch him jot down its serial number. He is polite but firm and ignores my attempt at casual talk. He informs me that there is a reliable Internet café at the Rasheed Hotel, where I plan to stay, but most electronic-mailing websites like Hotmail and Yahoo! are blocked. To work around that problem, the information ministry will issue me a temporary e-mail from their government servers, from which I can file my stories and they can easily monitor the content.

Before I finally settle in my room on the second floor of the notorious Rasheed Hotel, decidedly the most luxurious and modern establishment in the country, my roommate, journalist Vivienne Walt, a more seasoned colleague who has been to Iraq before, warns me against getting too comfortable: "The room is tapped, the phone line is tapped. They are listening to everything we say. There is a secret camera in the ceiling. You must change with the lights off and only in the bathroom."

For the rest of my stay, Vivienne and I develop a schoolgirl method of communication, giggling and passing notes to each other while sitting two feet away. Often we returned to our room at the end of a day's reporting to discover our suitcases opened, clothes rifled through, our notebooks misplaced.

On that first night in Baghdad, I set out on my own for a stroll around the hotel. No one seems to notice me quietly walking out of the hotel lobby. The streets are well lit, and small groups of Iraqis are roaming around. I notice a family eating at a hole-in-the-wall eatery that serves roasted chicken; the mother scoops up bits of chicken with a piece of bread to feed her toddler perched on a rickety table. The father chats away with the cashier as they watch a small television screen broadcasting a marathon of singers praising Saddam. I have been here only a day and I already feel cut off from the rest of the world. There are no cell phones, and dialing any number, domestic or international, from the room is forbidden. One must call up the hotel operator, surrender the contact, and request a connection, yet another of the regime's clever tactics to monitor foreign guests.

Satellite dishes, common in the rest of the Arab world, are nonexistent in Iraq, and with no access to round-the-clock news channels like CNN, BBC, or even Al-Jazeera, journalists are left in a disassociated cutoff zone. The state owns and operates all media, strictly filtering the flow of information, particularly broadcast news. On TV, reruns of Arabic soap operas, music videos from the 1980s, and brief news clips of Iraqis jumping up and down on camera, holding framed posters of Saddam to their hearts, and pledging their devotion to the regime dominate.

"Victory is yours, oh Saddam, with our blood and with our soul, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Saddam. . . ."

The Rasheed Hotel is surrounded by government landmarks. Directly across the street is the Convention Center, home to the Iraqi parliament, and down the road is the notorious Assassin's Gate, a massive arch leading to Saddam's palace compound from which he resides and rules. The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Information are each a few blocks away. I am surprised at the lack of extra security in the streets. There are only policemen guiding the traffic and soldiers standing guard at the entrance of some buildings.

For dinner I join Vivienne at an Italian restaurant on Arasat Street, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of two-story houses with front gardens and low walls. The restaurant, Saj al-Reef, feels out of place with its cozy red and white checkered tablecloths, fine dinnerware, and the faux antique clocks and ceramic plates that decorate its walls. Around us, well-to-do Iraqi couples and families chatter away and dine on pasta. A man in a tuxedo plays Frank Sinatra tunes on the piano and we are served salad in a tortilla-style bread shell and green lasagna Bolognese. Ever since Saddam invaded Kuwait and decided he was a devout Muslim, alcohol has been forbidden in restaurants and only Christian liquor-store owners are allowed to sell their goods. We have sneaked in our own bottle of red wine, which the waiter cheerfully cracks open and pours.

On the way back to the hotel, without a minder, we try to chat up the hotel taxi driver, who speaks enough English to offer his sober point of view. He won't give us his name. He says he is in his late forties. When we ask him what he thinks of the referendum and whether he will vote for Saddam, he looks at us from the front mirror, takes one hand from the wheel, and makes an impassioned speech about how voting yes for Saddam is really a no for President Bush. He asks plaintively why America wants to attack Iraq. "For what?" he demands. We ask him what he thinks will happen if the United States declares a war on Iraq.

"We will fight very hard. Not just the army but the people, because we don't like foreigners to tell us what to do. There will be a lot of blood; you will see."

From the book Waiting for an Ordinary Day by Farnaz Fassihi. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.

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Waiting for an Ordinary Day

The Unraveling of Life in Iraq

by Farnaz Fassihi

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