A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles Since the U.S. invasion, 4 million Iraqis have had to leave their homes. An additional 2 million have left the country entirely, and many are still outside its borders. NPR's Deborah Amos tells the story of these displaced Iraqi citizens in her new book, Eclipse of the Sunnis.
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A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles

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A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles

A Grim 'Eclipse': Deb Amos On Iraq's Sunni Exiles

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Among the unintended consequences of the war in Iraq and the U.S. occupation was a mass exodus of Iraqis fleeing the sectarian fighting that broke out after Saddam Hussein was deposed. As of 2009, two million Iraqis had fled the country. Sixty percent of them are Sunnis, the minority Muslim group in Iraq, which had been the group in power during the Saddam Hussein era.

My guest, Deborah Amos, has been covering the Middle East for NPR for many years. In between stints at NPR, she worked for ABC News. Amos has written a new book about the mass exodus out of Iraq, why it happened and how it's reshaping the region and parts of Europe. One questions she asks is: Will it ever be safe for these refugees to return to Iraq?

She traveled to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to interview members of this growing exile population. Amos' new book is called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East."

Deborah Amos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that, you know, Americans tell themselves the story of the surge and how successful it's been, but you think the story of the exiles from Iraq is an important and kind of forgotten or never known story. And this is a story of sectarian violence and displacement that's been left out of the American narrative. Why did you want to tell this story?

DEBORAH AMOS: When I got to Iraq in 2003 - I had been there during the Iran-Iraq war. When you went under Saddam's time, it was practically impossible to talk to Iraqis. It was illegal. They'd have to report. So they just didn't bother. It was too much trouble.

So I was in a country that I couldn't talk to anybody, and it was frustrating and annoying. When I came back in 2003, that's all anybody wanted to do was talk and talk and talk. And so I began to know Iraqis, and from that moment on, I sort of assigned myself that job.

You could cover American soldiers. You could be embedded. Those were all reasonable things to do. But I just got so taken with talking to Iraqis, and by 2005, that was now becoming impossible. And a year later, I realized that there were more than a million Iraqis outside the country. And so if I went to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon, I could continue what I was doing and tell that story. And I realized...

GROSS: Wait, let me just stop you for a second. Why was it becoming impossible to talk to Iraqis in Iraq?

AMOS: It was too dangerous. The sectarian war had already started. We didn't go very far outside of our compound. We had Iraqi translators gathering tape for our radio pieces.

The translators who had proudly invited us home in 2003 could no longer be seen with us. It was impossible to talk to anybody on the street. You couldn't go to a restaurant. You couldn't speak English in a cab. You couldn't get in a cab. You couldn't wander around a neighborhood. And so the only way that you could actually talk to Iraqis is follow them into exile, and there they were willing to talk. And the stories were so remarkable and so revealing about what was happening inside of Iraq because you had, you know, a fresh batch.

There were 2,000, 4,000 people crossing the borders every single day. So, in some ways, you could find out more about what was happening inside the country by sitting on mats over cups of coffee in Damascus and Beirut and Amman than you could in Baghdad.

GROSS: Why did so many people flee Iraq?

AMOS: Because the violence was so, so awful. What would happen is you would get a letter thrown into your front yard that would say leave or die. Sometimes, it would be wrapped around a bullet, and these killers were not kidding. And so people had just hours sometimes to pack up and leave.

You know, when I first started writing this book, what I was really interested in is the experience of exile. Iraqis are not people who expect to go someplace else, to leave the country. The Lebanese do that. It's a small country with a good education system, and there's not enough jobs. So Lebanese do expect to leave the country, and plenty of them do.

Iraqis don't. They're - you know, a country that's like Iowa. It's in the middle of the region. They have the values of farm people. You know, it's family. It's land. It's country. And they don't move.

And in the beginning, it was about exile. What I began to realize, the more I talked to these people, is that the displacement had a very, very political meaning, that Iraq was shedding its diversity. The Christians were the first ones driven out. And when the sectarian war ended, the Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost, and it was the Sunnis who were being driven out.

GROSS: You describe the Sunnis as having lost the sectarian war. In what way did they lose?

AMOS: In some ways, they started the sectarian war. They felt that the Americans had sided with the Shiites when they came into the country. The first insurgency is a Sunni insurgency. Al-Qaida is a Sunni movement. And some in the Sunni community actually welcomed al-Qaida because they saw it as their militia, as their way to fight against the Shiites.

Eventually, they turned against al-Qaida because al-Qaida became so violent and so specific about these rules that Iraqis really, at some moment, just said that's too much. Their young girls would have to wear veils. They weren't allowed to smoke. They weren't - women were not allowed to buy cucumbers under al-Qaida's rules in some communities because women could only buy tomatoes. I mean, it was insane, these rules.

GROSS: Because the cucumber was too evocative of the male form.

AMOS: Exactly. You know, it was nutty stuff that they would do. You couldn't have ice in your drink because Muhammad wouldn't have had - Muhammad, Islam's prophet, wouldn't have had ice in his drink. I mean, these people were so obsessed with rules, and the Sunni community eventually turned against them, which is how we get the movement called The Awakening, which happens in 2006.

But ultimately, the Shiites do turn against the Sunnis. They exhibited enormous patience for the first couple of years of those attacks. Then there is a bombing of the great shrine in Samarra, and this is when the Shias essentially say that is enough, and there is an all-out war in the country, and the Shias are in the majority in Iraq. And the second thing is they had government institutions.

They were the head of the interior ministry, the defense ministry, and so they had militias in government uniforms, in police uniforms, and they went after the Sunni community very seriously, as did the militias that were not tied to the government. And ultimately, the Sunnis did lose the war, and many of them fled because of it.

GROSS: Now, the Sunnis that fled Iraq - and it's a Sunni population that's the largest population that has fled. Are we to assume that they were mostly Saddam Hussein supporters since Saddam Hussein was Sunni, or that they were mostly supporters of al-Qaida because al-Qaida is Sunni?

AMOS: Not necessarily. I know that there are people in the Iraqi government today who believe that all of the exiles are Baathists or supporters of al-Qaida. I remember talking to a former U.S. ambassador, and he said the prime minister thinks there's a Baathist under every bush and that his sympathy for the exiles has been blunted by this belief, but it's not true.

You can ask U.N. officials. I've certainly spent enough time in this community. Most of these people are simply middle-class Iraqis. They are the architects, the teachers, the government bureaucrats, the television producers, the poets. It was the middle-class elite of Baghdad who were primarily Sunni. These are the people who've gone.

Now, of course, there are Baathists who left the country, and there are al-Qaida supporters who left the country. But it's not, by far, it is not the majority.

GROSS: Now, you describe this as a really different migration than any other of the migrations in the region. What makes it different?

AMOS: Primarily because it's a middle-class migration, and the U.N. has had to invent all kinds of new programs for these people. For example, it turns out that when there is a food program, you simply can't dump a bar of soap and a bag of rice on the floor for middle-class Iraqis. They would rather starve. And so the U.N. found itself having to package nice little pieces of cheese and better bread for these people.

They learned that the way that you get Iraqis to show up for a food distribution is that you text them. The other thing that they did is they used ATM cards to hand out cash, that you had to rethink a refugee program because these people were college-educated. It's really stunning the percentage of college graduates who - and, you know, advanced degrees that are in this population. And so it makes them different.

The second thing that this population does is they stay in touch. This is not a poor population that lives in tents. These people can live wherever they can afford, which makes it a little difficult to find them, but they stay connected to the country. They're on their cell phones every day. They're watching Iraqi television. They're in chat rooms.

It means that you have an exile population that is still, in some ways, connected with Iraq and with whatever family they have back in the country. So as they sit in their homes in Amman, Damascus and in Beirut, they are watching what is happening at home, and they actually play some sort of political role there. They voted in this most-recent election, and they voted in...

GROSS: So the exiles can vote, even though they're not living in Iraq.

AMOS: Of the 100,000 Iraqi exiles in Sweden, for example, some 30,000 of them voted. Jordan had a particularly high number who voted. About 42,000 voted in Syria.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Deborah Amos. She's covered the Middle East for NPR for many years, and now she's written a new book called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Deborah Amos. She reports on the Middle East for National Public Radio, and she's the author of the new book, "The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East."

Now, just about everybody who you interviewed who is now living in exile from Iraq had a horror story to tell about why they left. Tell us one of the people's stories that you think is representative of why people have fled Iraq.

AMOS: I think my example of the kind of thing that happened to people is Nissir Nabras(ph). He was a young, Christian man. He lived in a neighborhood called Durah. It's south of Baghdad. It was a mixed neighborhood, although it's not so mixed today. Most of the Christians are gone.

Nabras wanted to go to college, and he would get up every morning at seven and work on his application and head out to the college to see if he could get into a computer class there.

His activities came to the attention of a local gang who said that they were members of al-Qaida, certainly shared the ideology of al-Qaida. And because he left the house at a specific time every day, they were certain that he worked for the Americans, because why else would you be doing that?

So they kidnapped him, threw him in the back of a car, and they had set up a jail in a house in Durah, which they locked him inside with 11 other people that they had, quote, "arrested." And over time, over about two weeks, he witnessed the beheading of three groups of them, including an 11-year-old boy who had been picked up for telling American soldiers where explosive devices were in the neighborhood. And the boy was asked if he did it, and he's a kid. He said yes. And that, for him, was a death sentence.

GROSS: And what made this story just particularly gruesome and horrible is that the guys doing the beheading didn't really know how to do it, and so it just made the whole process even more horrible than it would have otherwise been.

AMOS: You know, beheadings were introduced into Iraq by al-Qaida, and those videos circulated around. But - this is an odd thing to say, but beheadings aren't so easy to do. You have to be strategic to do it in the way that the guys in the video do it.

And these young men had no idea how to execute a human being. And so they began by making them drink some caustic acid, something to subdue them, and you know, they - as far as I was told, they sawed off these heads.

And so the horror of this was made even worse for Nabras, who had to watching it three times. He told me that he fainted. He fainted each time. You know, it's almost unbelievable to think about the horror of an event like that.

GROSS: A lot of Iraqi exiles have gone to Syria. You point out in the book it's the only remaining Baathist regime in the world. So there's a lot of Sunni in the country. So Sunni exiles from Iraq have the potential of feeling comfortable there. But for the exiles in Syria, they're not allowed to work. Why aren't they allowed to work?

AMOS: They aren't allowed to work any place they go. This is not just a Syrian rule. It's in Jordan. It's in Lebanon. It's everyplace they go in the Middle East: Egypt, Turkey. Refugees really can't work in those communities because those communities are having their own problems with enough jobs for their own population, although there is plenty to do in the gray economy.

Mostly, it's the kids who work. You can get a job putting charcoal on a narguila(ph) at a restaurant. You see little boys doing that in a lot of places. You can put you 14-year-old out to work in a factory. And many, many of the women have turned to what's called survival sex, and I spent plenty of time with Iraqi prostitutes, women who were not prostitutes when they left the country but turned to it because it was one way that you could support your family.

And when you arrive as a single, female-headed household - and about one-quarter of the exiles in Damascus are in that category - and you have no skills and your family is not going to support you because you almost - most likely have come from a mixed marriage. You're a Sunni who'd been married to a Shiite, so your family is no longer going to support you and his family is not going to support you - you turn to survival sex.

GROSS: You interviewed one person in particular who admitted that she was into that. You knew other people who did but wouldn't necessarily admit it. And you went with this woman to a club where, basically, men find prostitutes.

And I'd like you to describe, first of all, her physical transformation when she went to the club with you.

AMOS: Well, I had met her at her home. We had been - I had an introduction from a translator from Iraq. And the first time I saw her was at 11 o'clock in the morning, and she had on a chartreuse track suit, velour, runny makeup, her hair up in a ponytail, cracked fingernails, and, you know, she looked like she'd had a very hard night.

She eventually invited me to come to her favorite nightclub, and we met at midnight, and I didn't recognize Umnor(ph). She looked fabulous. Her hair was as shiny as a horse pelt, tons of mascara, big ruby lips. Her fingernails were long and red and a very black, clingy pair of pants. I would have walked by her in the street.

I, of course, was not quite prepared for what it was going to take to pass myself off as an Iraqi professional in this club. You know, I'd bring running clothes with me, but nothing revealing. So what I didn't have in cleavage, Umnor asked me to make up in mascara.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: So I did an Iraqi version of makeup in the bathroom, where I befriended all these other women who had come there that night to do what Umnor was going to do, which was leave with a man at the end of the night and make money to survive.

GROSS: So how does the man choose the woman at the club?

AMOS: Well, there's a big, round dance floor in the middle of a very dark club, and, you know, in all nightclubs, this seems to be universal. There's one of those balls with all those sparkly pieces of glass that spin around, and there is a singer and there are traditional Iraqi songs. And you get up and dance.

Now, I have to admit, there is a moment where I do get up and dance, and I do it because it is much safer in the light dancing than it is in the back of the club, where I kept getting people kissing me on the head as, you know, the alcohol flowed freely. So I thought, at least I'm safe up there.

And I met my friend, a woman who I'd met in the bathroom earlier in the evening, and she held my hand and we danced together. And I thought oh, boy, this is great. At least I have a pal up here. And you could stay up there for hours.

So the men dance with the men and the women dance with the women, because anything else is considered a business contract, and you don't do that until the end. And people are just sort of looking at the merchandise.

GROSS: You know what I find fascinating of spending the night in the club where the prostitutes go? It's like the flipside of the veiling. You know, on the one hand, these are some of the women who would've been expected - in Iraq, certainly - to wear the veil, particularly after the fundamentalist militias were taking over. And then the only way they can survive now is to become prostitutes.

AMOS: Indeed. And here's the other thing: Some of the women dance on the stage in a veil, in a short skirt and a veil.

GROSS: Now, that's too odd.

AMOS: Yes. In the beginning, I thought: What is that? Is that a religious woman who's had to turn to prostitution? But my guide, Umnor, explained to me no. Here's what this is about, that if you ever think that you're going to go back to Iraq, that you need to keep your identity a secret. You could run into, you know, your uncle or your cousin in this club. And here you are, selling yourself up on a stage. So you bring shame to your family, which could ultimately lead to your death if you went back to Iraq. So to dance in a veil is anonymity.

GROSS: But, of course, if your uncle or cousin showed up, there'd be no shame on them?

AMOS: Not at all, because the way that a shame culture works is a woman is part of the family's honor, not a man. And so if you shame the family as a woman, then, you know, that's what honor crime is all about, that they are duty-bound to kill you.

So there are women who are dancing in what's called a niqab, which, you know, comes right under your eyes so that you can't see their faces and because they want to see and make sure that not one of their relatives is out in that audience.

GROSS: Deborah Amos will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with Deborah Amos. We're talking about the mass exodus out of Iraq, a consequence of the sectarian fighting that broke out after the U.S. occupation and the deposing of Saddam Hussein. About 60 percent of these over two million refugees are Sunnis, the minority Muslim group in Iraq which had been in power during the Saddam Hussein era. Amos' new book is called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East." She's covered the Middle East for NPR for many years and has also been a reporter for ABC News.

Because so many middle class professional people have left Iraq, there's been a brain drain and the Iraqi government is trying to lure some of the middle class back, and has even offered money for people who are willing to return and resettle. But things haven't gone that well with that, and as an illustration, you tell a story of a bus that took Iraqi exiles; I think it was from Damascus?

Ms. AMOS: It was from Damascus.

GROSS: Yeah, back to Iraq to resettle there. And tell us what happened.

Ms. AMOS: Well, it was so shambolic because the government announced that they were going to have caravans of buses taking Iraqis back and they made announcements in Damascus. However, the man who was to arrange those buses failed to consider a couple of things. One, if he hired Syrian buses, they didnt really have the passes that they needed to drive all the way to Baghdad, and he didnt know that until the first 20 buses left Damascus, got on to the other side of the border, and then had to wait for buses from Baghdad to meet them on the other side of the border, which took about 16 hours.

The government wanted to have this as a demonstration project - this is in 2007. And so they sent police escorts and helicopters so nobody would shoot these people on their way back to Baghdad. And now they had the international press there for this arrival and they handed out the money that they had promised, $800 for everyone who returned, but many of them on the way to their old neighborhoods were either kidnapped or killed and the money stolen because of this was on television. So if you wanted $800, you knew exactly who to follow out of the hotel. It was a disaster.

The Iraqi government tried it again the following year and they have done it on a yearly basis to ask people to come back. We'll give you a plane ticket. We'll pay your way back. But so far the returns have been really quite low. There are people who come in and out of Baghdad. Theyll send one member of their family in to maybe collect pensions or, you know, have a month's worth of work and come back to Damascus, but for the most part the professionals have not come back.

There has been a program to get doctors back. They're given free houses. They're given large salaries. They're allowed to carry guns. But you know, what a lot of these doctors say is, I dont know how to protect myself. Yeah, okay, thank you very much for a gun, but it is still too dangerous for professionals to show up. We still have been targeted, and so they aren't coming back.

GROSS: Targeted because they're Sunni?

Ms. AMOS: Targeted A) because they're Sunni, targeted because there are people who - this has been a tribal problem that I've been reading about - you are a doctor in a hospital and they bring in a relative, you can't save him, and so now there's a blood feud against you. And this happens quite a bit, enough that people say no thank you, I'm going to stay where I am.

GROSS: Another big problem that a lot of Iraqi exiles face if they want to return home to Iraq is that its likely that somebody else is living in their home, because the neighborhoods have been so changed by these sectarian battles, so a lot of former Sunnis neighborhoods are now Shia neighborhoods and there's likely to be a Shia family living in your home if youre a Sunni and you return home.

Ms. AMOS: This was the great real estate switch. Mainly, it was the Mahdi militia, which is a Shia militia, who decided that they would make money. They figured out early on that you could hijack cars and make money selling them. And then the great real estate boon, you could make even more money by moving Sunni families - forcing Sunni families - out of their homes and moving Shia families in and charging rent.

The World Bank has estimated there's about a million homes that are in dispute in Baghdad. And so part of the problem when you think about, okay, maybe I will go back to Baghdad, but you can't move into your house. And there's been a couple of government programs to try to work out moving people out, but the numbers are small enough that you know that when you come back youre going to have to find another place to live, that your furniture, your belongings, your pictures are all in somebody else's house.

And I had heard a story when I was in Baghdad about a home in Huria(ph), which is a predominately Shia neighborhood, and one of the Sunni families came back and the army was there. They stood outside the house. They made the family who had been squatting get out and they allowed the Sunni family to come back in. But what they came back to was a shell of house, that everything, everything, even the floor tiles, the refrigerators, everything was taken out of the house, and on one of the walls was a great big picture of a Shia imam on the wall and the Sunni family was terrified to take it down because now they live in a predominately Shia neighborhood and they wouldnt dare, you know, touch this religious iconography, and they - so its a very tough decision to stay in this house with nothing in it or to move to a Sunni neighborhood where they may feel more comfortable.

GROSS: So I'm wondering how the U.S. is doing in terms of opening up our doors here to Iraqis who have been forced to leave the country as a result of the after-effects of the invasion?

Ms. AMOS: You know, the Bush administration for years just wouldnt acknowledge that there was a refugee problem at all. Towards the end of the Bush administration there was a push to open a program, and mostly that came from the military. There were so many Iraqi translators whose lives had been threatened, and some of them had been killed, that it was the military who demanded a program to get these people out to save their lives. And it was the late Senator Kennedy who sponsored a bill to allow 5,000 what's called SIVs, special immigrant visas, for these Iraq translators.

And then there was also additional legislation to raise the numbers of refugees, Iraqi in particular, who could come to the United States. And by the end of 2009, 33,000 Iraqis have arrived here, and over the next couple of years I expect that number to double. And so our numbers have certainly gone up. Not compared to Sweden, which has 100,000 Iraqi exiles in Sweden. But American numbers actually have gone up quite a bit.

The problem is that the way that our refugee system works is based on a good economy. We support people for just a couple months and they are expected almost as soon as they arrive to begin applying for jobs and to be self-sufficient, certainly within the first six months that they are here. In this economy that has been impossible, and this community of Iraqi exiles in this country is suffering greatly.

Many of them have, you know, doctors degrees, dentists degrees, and they can't get themselves re-certified because they dont have the money to do it. And the second problem, and probably this is more serious than the first, is so many people arrive traumatize by what's happened to them. There have been occasions where people get off the plane and have a heart attack as soon as they arrive here.

It's almost like theyve been waiting to have it that, you know, this is the first place that they can be calm enough to think about whats happened to them and they are rushed off to the hospital right from the plane. But it's been a very, very rough time for exiles who come to the United States.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Deborah Amos. She's covered the Middle East for NPR for many years. Now she's written a new book called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Deborah Amos. She's covered the Middle East for NPR for many years, and now she's written a new book about the exile of Sunnis from Iraq, and it's called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East."

What have you learned about the state of Iraq - the state of sectarian division in Iraq from how the elections have played out so far?

Ms. AMOS: I had hopes that some of those divisions had been healed in the provincial elections last year; candidates were reaching across to Sunni candidates and Sunni voters. There was a rollback, I think, in this election, and you heard many more sectarian themes. That's very, very troubling, especially because last year had actually held out hope for people. And I think that these wounds are deeper than anybody imagined and it will take time.

GROSS: Do you think the refugees are watching the election, and what are they looking for?

Ms. AMOS: I think they are. I think they watched very closely. There was an interesting percentage who did vote and what they're looking for is power sharing. How will the Sunnis be integrated into this country? Will there be a Sunni president or will there be a Kurdish president and the Sunnis will be left out? We know that there will be a Shia prime minister; that's a foregone conclusion. How will they be able to make a living in a country that so depends on the government? You know, most jobs - there is no private sector to speak of, so you have to get a job through the government.

And if the government is primarily Shia, if youre a Sunni, what are you going to do? So those are all the things that these exiles are watching to determine whether they will come home. And if they dont, this is a rather huge population in a region that's not particularly stable and has a history of refugees roiling the place.

GROSS: So if they dont come home, that could be very destabilizing to the whole region.

Ms. AMOS: Considering that these people are not working, except in a gray economy, many of their children are outside the education system, these are middle class people sliding into destitution - this is not a good sign for the future of Iraq.

GROSS: It's really tragic too because education is so important in that region and professionals are so important and there's been a strong middle class in Iraq and its been so eroded.

Ms. AMOS: If I were king, I would forget about putting so much attention on food packages and put much more attention on education packages, online scholarships, you know, keep the middle class the middle class, find ways to let these people have their kids go to school so that you keep a middle class intact.

GROSS: Are concerned about what's going to happen in Iraq when U.S. troops leave?

Ms. AMOS: Yes, and I think Iraqis are too. We have an election process that could take months. In 2005, it was more than 150 days of negotiations for a government. I expect that that time will - could, in fact, be doubled. And so as the American troops are beginning their drawdown, you dont have a government in place.

I think what Iraq thought that they were voting for is the government that would be there when the Americans left. But we dont know for sure what it's going to look like. And this is a huge test for this country, if they can manage to not - to solve their problems politically rather than on the streets. And it is not clear yet if that is the case.

GROSS: Deb, I remember at the start of the Gulf War, and I guess it was '91, you were one of the people putting on your gas mask and telling us, your listeners, as you were doing it, and I am sure most of your listeners were so worried about you then. Of course...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...everything worked out and you came through, but youve been following the region. Youve seen going back for years, and I wonder what keeps you what has kept you following that region?

Ms. AMOS: You never get to the bottom of it. There's always something else to know and always something interesting. You know, I began in 1982, and so I watched, you know, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, al-Qaida - now Turkey is an interesting player in the region. There's just no end to, in my mind, the fascination of it. And I actually love the culture. I do. I love the food and the people. I think I probably spent more of my life in the Middle East than I've spent in the United States by now. But I'm always happy when I get off the plane and it hardly matters where I land.

GROSS: There are several countries you've gone to in the Middle East where you have to wear veils and the veils vary from one country to another. So do you have a closet at home - at your home in the United States that just has various forms of headscarves and body coverings?

Ms. AMOS: I do. I do have a good collection. And you know, some are more stylish than others. I remember once that the Saudi government in '92 handed out beautiful, thick silk chadors to all the female correspondents. We didnt wear them, but I had it, and it was really nicely cut. And I was in - walking down the streets of Tehran and I had it on and women would stop and go, wow, that's really great. Where'd you get that? And so these things do become fashion statements.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMOS: You know, you - I've got some scarves that are better than others. We do trade each other - you know, fellow correspondents will find a particularly good headscarf, one that, you know, because you have to decide whether you want a little hair showing or no hair showing, depending on what group youre going to go to see. So yeah, you get pretty specialized about these get-ups, you do.

GROSS: On the cover of your book...

Ms. AMOS: Mm-hmm?

GROSS: ..."Eclipse of the Sunnis," there's a man wearing the headscarf - the kafiya - and he looks like he's in shadows and looking warily at the world around him because - I suppose because he's in exile. But I'm wondering, do you know who that guy is? Like...

Ms. AMOS: I dont. I dont.

GROSS: Did they just ask somebody to pose or is he like a guy you know?

Ms. AMOS: No. I think that's just a troubled man photograph.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMOS: What has been interesting and the reactions to that photograph, it's rather like a psychological test. All of my friends from the Middle East, they wondered, who's that guy? Is he a Saudi? Are you sure he's a Sunni? And who are those two guys behind him? That they dont see it as the representation of, you know, some existential angst, which is how I take that photograph. You know, its just a representation of an eclipse of a group of people. But Middle Easterners are - first of all, they react much more strongly to that title.

I think for Americans, you know, it's alliterative, perhaps, its, you know, evocative of the sun. For Middle Easterners, it's shocking, that title. It's controversial. It's frightening, that title, to say out loud - the eclipse of the Sunnis - I find from people I know from the Middle East just makes them uncomfortable.

GROSS: Because youre saying you lost - these guys lost.

Ms. AMOS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And they dont want to hear that.

Ms. AMOS: And they do not want to hear that. You know, and I say eclipse, it means a phase, remember? But it's very interesting how they react to it. Dont like it, said that clearly, and it's a very American thing to do. I think American readers will not see that title as a controversial title. But I just find my friends in the Middle East, they dont like it.

GROSS: And do you feel bad about that?

Ms. AMOS: Well, I didnt think about it, to be honest, until I started getting that reaction, and then I did have to think about it. And look, I've had this reaction before with the bluntness of the way Americans deal with things and that the Middle East culture is, you know, behind the curtain, behind the veil, around the corner. Arabic is a language that is imprecise for all of these reasons, these ideas.

We are such a blunt culture. I mean that was part of what the problem was in 2003. You know, these spacemen arrive in Iraq with these suits on that look like they came out of the movies and we just were blunt. We didnt understand that you have to sit and have tea and it takes an hour before you can ask the right question. All that had to be taught to these soldiers over the years and theyve finally kind of gotten it. So it was just another affirmation of this culture clash that always happens in almost every trip I take. And so the book title was just another example of that.

GROSS: Well, Deborah Amos, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Ms. AMOS: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: Deborah Amos is an NPR correspondent. Her new book is called "Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East." You can read the first chapter of the book and find links to her reports from Iraq on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

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