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

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A Journalist's Take On 'An Ordinary Day' In Iraq
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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. As the Baghdad bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal from 2003 to 2006, Farnaz Fassihi watched and documented the deteriorating situation in Iraq. She was there during the period when insurgents were attacking Americans about 87 times a day. She reported on this in the Journal, but as we'll hear, it was a personal email about life in Iraq that got the most attention and generated the most controversy.

That email is reprinted in her new memoir, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq." The book includes stories about the challenges she faced as bureau chief. Fassihi is now The Wall Street Journal's deputy bureau chief for the Middle East and Africa and is based in Lebanon.

Farnaz Fassihi, welcome to Fresh Air. Let's talk about one example of what you had to deal with as one of the co-directors of the bureau, The Wall Street Journal bureau in Iraq. One of your drivers was kidnapped with his uncle, who was a well known surgeon in Iraq. So, here's somebody who's like working for you, he's kidnapped. What were his kidnappers demanding?

Ms. FARNAZ FASSIHI (Deputy Bureau Chief, Middle East and Africa, Wall Street Journal): The kidnappers demanded first half a million dollars, and gradually, as the family negotiated, they managed to bring it down to $20,000. But the first hours that we heard Nahid, who was our driver for the bureau, kidnapped were terrifying because we had no idea what were the circumstances, whether he had been nabbed because he worked for the Wall Street Journal, whether he had any evidence on him that associated him to an American company, and whether the kidnappers could trace him to our bureau and what kind of a threat it would pose for us and the rest of our Iraqi staff.

GROSS: So you had to help figure out how to get him released from his kidnappers, at the same time, how to protect you and the rest of the staff at the Wall Street Journal who might be vulnerable because he was kidnapped.

Ms. FASSIHI: Exactly. We consulted with a security company about what to do, and he first advised the family to negotiate to a price that they can actually pay. And then he advised us to take very extreme measures. For example, the Iraqi staff were ordered not to come to the house where we were staying or to the bureau with their own cars. They had to take different routes and get off at neighboring streets and walk to the bureaus so nobody could trace them. That we were ordered to hunker down and stay in the bureau for at least a couple of days and not take the regular cars out and particularly answering the phone. I was told I should not answer the phone. If anybody speaks Arabic, I should just immediately hand it over to my translator, the idea being that if the kidnappers would go through the phone of my driver and figure out that there were foreign names and would call, that we would be at risk. And eventually, we had to evacuate our house because we just didn't know what was going to happen.

GROSS: You were also warned that the kidnapped driver might give up your names under torture.

Ms. FASSIHI: Absolutely. This is one of the things that had already happened when another colleague - Iraqi staff had been kidnapped, that under torture, they make them give up some information about our whereabouts, the names, the security details that we had. In one instance, when an Iraqi translator was kidnapped, the kidnappers had asked him access to the house with the foreigners. And when Nahid was eventually released, we had to make the very, very difficult decision to terminate his employment because his security had been compromised, and thus, our security had been compromised.

GROSS: That's, I guess, one of the details that really got to me and made me think what difficult decisions you had to make because, while he was kidnapped, he managed to erase the phone numbers in his cell phone of the people who worked at the Journal, so that he was doing his best to protect you. And then, when he was released, you decided that he needed to be terminated. You know, that he can no longer work at the Journal because it would make everybody else who worked there vulnerable. That must have been such a difficult decision to make.

Ms. FASSIHI: Terry, it was very, very difficult. I, you know, couldn't sleep at night. I was very upset constantly, and we went back and forth discussing this with my other colleague at the Journal about what to do when it was, you know, I felt that it was unfair that this man had been put through this horrible ordeal, and now, he's out. And as you mentioned, he had done his best to protect us. I think the kidnappers couldn't figure out how to turn his phone on, so they had handed it to him, and he had erased our names quickly.

And, you know, to decide to terminate his employment was extremely difficult and, to some extent, unfair, but, you know, on one hand, I could let him come back. But then we thought, you know, the kidnappers could trace him back. They could figure out that he works for a foreigner. They could kidnap him again and demand ransom from the Wall Street Journal, or they could kidnap us. It was just too vulnerable of a position to be in, and it was in 2004, where security was slipping considerably.

GROSS: How did he take it when you fired him?

Ms. FASSIHI: He understood. You know, we gave him several months of salary in severance before we terminated his employment. He was out - he, you know, wasn't happy, but I think he understood. I think the thing about Iraq was that every Iraqi understood exactly what the circumstances on the ground were and the difficult decisions we had to make.

GROSS: So, do you know what he's doing now?

Ms. FASSIHI: He's still in Baghdad. He - after he left work for us, he moved back to Mosul. He was from Mosul. But I think he's recently come back to Baghdad. I don't think he has a job right now, the last I heard.

GROSS: The thing we've been talking about, the kind of decisions you had to make when someone in your staff is kidnapped, not the kind of thing they prepare you for in journalism school. Not the kind of thing you could possibly be prepared for when going to Iraq as a young reporter. Did you feel up to it? Did you feel capable of making these decisions that - I mean, you were a young journalist, first time in a war zone. How do you rise to the occasion with decisions like these?

Ms. FASSIHI: You know, I think I had been in war zones before in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories in Israel, but I had never been responsible to run and manage a bureau and to run the local staff, so in that sense, Iraq was new. And I think it was extremely challenging for anybody because you constantly were put in a spot where you had to make life and death decisions for not just yourself but also for the staff. You know, I had to, when I even demanded that the staff arrange an interview. Sometimes I had to think, you know, do I really want to send this person to this area? Is he at risk because he's a Sunni, and this is a Shiite neighborhood? Is it safe?

What's the security around each place? And I remember one time during the 2005 elections, Fallujah was an incredibly newsworthy story because the Sunnis had decided they were going to vote, and I couldn't get any of my staff to go and report from there. They just refused and said, we don't want to do it. We're at risk. And, you know, so I was put in a position where it was newsworthy, but I couldn't demand for them to do something that would potentially put their lives at risk.

GROSS: About how many times would you say you had to move because of kidnapping threats?

Ms. FASSIHI: I think, of the three and a half years that I was in Baghdad, I moved at least seven or eight times from different places, both kidnapping threats or a car bomb that happened outside our door twice. The Wall Street Journal bureau was demolished twice in Baghdad. Once our house in Mansur, once at the Hamra Hotel after a truck bomb, so there was a lot of movements, and it was very disruptive because it took a lot of effort to set up an office and to get the infrastructure going. And then we had to pick up and move and then pick up and move.

GROSS: My guest is Farnaz Fassihi. Her new book, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day," is about the period when she was the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Farnaz Fassihi, and she co-directed the Iraq bureau for the Wall Street Journal between 2003 and the end of 2005. She's written a new book called, "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq." She's now the deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal's Middle East and Africa Bureau, and she's based in Lebanon.

While you were in Iraq in 2004, you wrote an email to friends and family in which you told what was going on around you from a very first-person point of view, as opposed to the more distanced kind of running that you did in your newspaper articles. And this email, which talked about what a disaster Iraq had become, ended up being circulated around way beyond friends and family, kind of went all around the globe. And it became very controversial that a Wall Street Journal reported had written something so subjective and so negative about the war in Iraq. So before we talk about the consequences of this email, I want you to read a couple of the most talked about excerpts of this email that you wrote.

Ms. FASSIHI: OK.

(Reading): I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping anymore, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a fully armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at check points, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been unleashed onto this county as a result of American mistakes, and it can't be put back in a bottle.

GROSS: So, let's give one - as we hear this, this is written in 2004, and I think a lot of what you said in this email became more commonly known later on. So what was the reaction to this email?

Ms. FASSIHI: The reaction was just astounding. I was getting emails from people from all over the world, from Australia to South Africa and India, and people all over the world were writing to me asking, is it really that bad in Iraq? Are the circumstances that bad, and why don't we know this? This was the reader reaction.

There was also another reaction. It was September 2004, right before the presidential elections, and it was a very polarized American society back then. So I was kind of under attack from both sides, the far left saying, this is the truth that the media never tells us. Why aren't we hearing this? And, you sensor your pieces. And the far right was accusing of not being objective and of being biased and not fit to cover the war.

And I think that both accusations were untrue. If you, or somebody, had examined or went back and read my pieces for the Wall Street Journal or any other report, that they would see that we had reported all those terrible facts and the fact that Iraq was slipping and things were not going as planned.

And the fact that I was not objective was also not true because we're human beings. We have an opinion and feelings about things that go around us. But I had never allowed my personal feelings about the war to enter any of my published pieces for the newspaper. So it was a tough position to be in, and I felt like I had to constantly defend myself against both sides. But, of course, I think, ultimately, it was a good thing because it really opened the conversation about what was really going on and whether what we were doing in Iraq is kind of - the style of journalism we were doing was really resonating with the public home.

GROSS: Was the Wall Street Journal pressured to fire you or to reassign you to a different place?

Ms. FASSIHI: I don't think so. I never got the indication that they were pressured to fire me or to reassign me. I think that they were concerned. They definitely didn't want the paper to come across as having a non-objective reporter on the ground or someone or that their points of view weren't balanced. The editor then, the managing editor of the Journal, Paul Steiger, came out with a public statement supporting me and saying that my published pieces were a model of objectivity and balance. So they did support me.

GROSS: You know, you write, the emotional and personal tone of the email grabbed the public in a way that your published pieces for the newspaper seldom did. So what did that make you think about in terms of the pieces that you wrote for the newspaper? Did it make you think that maybe they should be more personal and maybe they would be more revealing of what was going on that way?

Ms. FASSIHI: I think so, Terry. And I think, after my email caught so much attention, a lot of reporters from Iraq started writing first-person dispatches and first-person pieces about what it was like to be there. I think that was - is an incredibly difficult and traumatizing and emotional experience to go through and to witness. And I think just having a distant voice doesn't necessarily convey the feelings of being on the ground, and I think that, when you write first person, you're a bit liberated. You can really reflect on what you're seeing. You can talk about what's happening to people around you. And what's happening to you as a person there. And I think it helps readers connects to the narrator.

GROSS: What has it been like for you to read about the relative improvement in Iraq in terms of safety and quality of life?

Ms. FASSIHI: It's been nice. It's been heartwarming to hear that things are improving in Iraq, that security is getting better for people, and that some resemblance of normal life is returning. However, I have to say that most of the Iraqi people that I'm in touch with, our staff and my friends, say that the situation is still very fragile, that the factors that have contributed to the security and stability are not long term solutions, that it could very easily unravel.

GROSS: One of the things you had to learn how to do in Iraq was to pray like a Sunni. What's the difference between how the Shia and Sunni pray? What did you have to learn?

Ms. FASSIHI: The prayer that Shias and Sunnis recite is the same. But what sets them apart is the hand gestures and the body gestures of the prayer. The Shias place their hands on the side of their body as they pray, and when they kneel on the ground and place their foreheads as a sign of submission to God, they place their foreheads on a compact soil. It's this round stone-shaped clay object.

In Sunnis, they do the opposite. They fold their arms across their chest, and when they go down, they place their forehead just on the bare ground. And also, in the call to prayer, they omit the words Ali Ammamali (ph), which is the successor of Muhammad in Shia belief. So my Sunni translator, Haki (ph), was trying to teach me how to pray like a Sunni because he thought, if we get kidnapped in the Sunni area, he would want them to think that I was a Sunni Muslim and save my chances of getting released.

GROSS: One of the things that you write about in your book is your relationship with your partner, Babak, and you have a lot in common. You met in a war zone in Afghanistan. He was covering the war in Iraq for Newsweek, you for the Wall Street Journal, and you both spent the first 10 years of your life in Iran and left with your families for the United States. After that, reading your book, I couldn't help but think, it must intensify a relationship to begin that relationship and continue it in a war zone while you're covering for the press - you for the Wall Street Journal, he for the Newsweek.

Ms. FASSIHI: It was definitely an intense experience to go through with my partner, Babak. It was interesting to be based in both Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. We know we went through life and death situations together. We had to deal with a lot of the same emotional issues, difficult decisions and dealing with the staff in coverage. And I think it was also very helpful because there was a sense that your partner understands what you're going through, and you can relate to them. So, in that sense, I felt like I was very lucky to have him. Also, it was a crazy place to be, and it was just nice at the end of the day to be able to kind of relax and have your partner near you and have dinner or talk and have at least a little bit of a normalcy.

GROSS: Were you able to live together? Because he works with Newsweek, you with the Wall Street Journal, each publication had their own house or compound.

Ms. FASSIHI: Actually, our publications were very good in trying to join together. The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek have always shared the same compound because, I think, partly because of me and Babak, and it's just sort of that the tradition went on even after we left Iraq. So we lived together, and we were able to be in the same house, and I think that was very lucky because of security and because of curfew. If we weren't in the same house, we might have not been able to see each other as often or even visit each other for dinner because traveling after dark was very dangerous. There was often curfews in Baghdad, and security was a problem. So we were lucky.

GROSS: Did you do things to protect each other? Is there a story about that?

Ms. FASSIHI: We would definitely call each other up if we were out reporting, and there was an explosion or a car bomb or something, just to let the other person know that we were OK. We were also very good at telling one another where we're going, what road we're taking, when we're expected to come back home, just as a security measure.

I left Baghdad at the end of 2005, but Babak stayed there. He went back to be Newsweek's bureau chief and just left Baghdad about two months ago. And we spoke often. So in some sense, although I physically left Iraq, it stayed with me because I had now my loved one there, and I was talking to him a few times a day. So I was still very personally connected to the story.

GROSS: Did you worry about him any more or less when you were gone and he remained in Iraq?

Ms. FASSIHI: It was horrible, Terry. I really got a perspective of what I'd my put my family through when I was there. It was really hard to think that someone you care about is in the line of danger, and he's getting mortared, and he may get kidnapped or killed. I think, for a while, even when I was in Baghdad, I often worried about him and about my Iraqi staff more than I would worry about myself. And I think it was a just way for my mind to kind of handle the dangers we were in. The anxiety was not inward, it was outward.

GROSS: So where is he now?

Ms. FASSIHI: He's at Stanford doing the Knight Fellowship for Journalists this year.

GROSS: I guess you don't have to worry about him there.

Ms. FASSIHI: No. Thank God.

GROSS: Farnaz Fassihi, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. FASSIHI: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me. A pleasure.

GROSS: Farnaz Fassihi was the Wall Street Journal's Baghdad bureau chief and is now the paper's deputy bureau chief for the Middle East and Africa. Her new book is called "Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq."

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