Iraqis Complain of Western and
Arab Journalistic Practices
A freelance writer living in New York City, Steven Vincent recently traveled to Iraq to see how life was after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He stayed in Baghdad from mid-September to late October, with a four-day trip to the southern city of Basra, before publishing the account of his experience in Reason, a monthly whose editorial staff was against the Iraq war.
Although my experiences were by no means exhaustive, I feel confident that they were intense and profound enough to offer a valid perspective on the state of Iraq today. I spoke to cab drivers, Islamic clerics, waiters, Western journalists, American and British soldiers, anti-war activists, human rights activists, Iraqi housewives, employed and unemployed academics, children, U.S. government officials — as close to a full panoply of current Baghdad life as I could. What I saw and heard surprised, delighted, and horrified me in ways I could never have predicted.
"Where were the U.N. and our ‘fellow Arabs’ when we were suffering?
Where were the peace activists and leftists?"
In a small building north of [Baghdad's] city center lie the final traces of many victims of [Saddam Hussein's] crimes. Their bodies are dust, their voices gone; now only documents exist to indicate their unpleasant fates. Imprisonment, exile, torture, rape, disfigurement, amputation, execution — the list of the horrors experienced by Iraqis at the hands of the Ba’athist regime goes on. I stood in an upstairs room of this small building, home to the National Iraqi Association of Human Rights, surrounded by thousands of battered folders, many of which were taken from the Ba’athist headquarters in Baghdad, each folder an individual story of misery, loss, and death. "We have 17 more rooms like this in our offices across Iraq," said Asad Abady, deputy director of the human rights group.
As Saddam’s role model Josef Stalin once noted, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic." For that reason I hesitate now to recite the horrendous acts of Saddam: the hundreds of thousands killed in his wars; the thousands buried, sometimes alive, in mass graves; the barbaric tortures involving acid baths and wood chippers, electricity, power tools, and ravenous dogs. For what do they mean? Amnesty International reports how Ba’athist guards sliced chunks of flesh from the bodies of women prisoners and then force-fed them to the captives. Abady told me of seeing buildings in northern Iraq filled with captive Kurdish women: A man could go to these buildings, fill out a form, and take a woman away for his own pleasure. The mind resists contemplating such deeds — and this resistance is the first step to denial, and then forgetfulness.
An Iraqi cab driver told me he spent two weeks in prison because his uncle was a communist. "I had to cover my ears because of the screams of the women being raped," he said. … Exacerbating the pain of many Iraqis is a keen awareness of the world’s record of apathy toward their plight. "Where were the U.N. and our ‘fellow Arabs’ when we were suffering?" Hasan asked. "Where were the peace activists and leftists? How can they all accept the crimes of a dictator for so many years, then rise up in protest when a war begins to remove that dictator?"
"We were afraid the U.S. wouldn’t invade. We knew there would be death,
but we chose war to get rid of Saddam"
Saddam was always watching: Haider Wady described being interviewed by a European film crew interested in his sculpture. "A ‘minder’ from the regime stood behind the interviewer, next to the camera, and if they asked a sensitive question, she opened her eyes to warn me not to answer incorrectly or else she would report me," he said. "Of course, if I’d hesitated, or looked defiant, she would report that, too." Saddam was always listening.
"When I saw the statue of Saddam fall, I couldn’t believe it; I thought I was dreaming," said sculptor Haider Wady. "We use to pray to live for just five minutes without Saddam Hussein. Now we have the rest of our lives!" Painter Mohammad Rasim remarked: "We were afraid the U.S. wouldn’t invade. We knew there would be death, but we chose war to get rid of Saddam." Naseer Hasan, a poet and former member of Iraq’s national chess team, put it in personal terms: "Throughout my nearly 40 years, I’ve seen only oppression, terror, and murder. But the removal of Saddam shows me that history can actually smile. Now, each morning I wake up, I find parts of my soul that I thought were dead are slowly coming back to life. April 9th was like a second birthday for me."
"European and Arab journalists talk to us, but
they … only want us to make anti-American comments"
Besides the Hewar, the other must-see destination in Baghdad is the Shabander Teahouse. It’s down on Mutanabi Street, in an old part of the city where buildings dating from the Ottoman Empire sag with age and neglect. On Fridays, Baghdad’s booksellers crowd the muddy thoroughfare, hawking everything from Saddam’s potboilers to English-Arabic dictionaries to American engineering manuals a quarter-century out of date. Friday was also the day my artist friends gathered in a dirty, open-air, turquoise-colored teahouse where, for 1,500 dinar (about 75 cents), you can purchase a glass of bitter lemon tea, rent a narghile (water pipe), and sit for hours. Like the Hewar, the Shabander is a social scene favored by Western journalists eager to interview Iraqi locals. I was one of the few American reporters this crew had met — and boy, did I get an earful.
"A lot of French journalists are shit," Wady, the sculptor, observed one afternoon as we shared a narghile filled with apple-flavored tobacco. "They come here and talk against the U.S. in a stupid way. They don’t care about the crimes of Saddam Hussein." And it’s not only the French, noted Esam Pasha, a painter and translator for the U.S. military: "European and Arab journalists talk to us, but they don’t care about our happiness in being liberated. They only want us to make anti-American comments." Even a cabbie who took me to the Shabander one afternoon weighed in. "Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia TV, no good," he said. "They only show pictures of bombings and killings of Americans — always how things are bad in Iraq, never how they are getting better."
Worse, I heard many stories at the Shabander about foreign correspondents staging news events to discredit the U.S. One young man introduced me to a Spanish photographer who, he later reported, had just finished posing an Iraqi woman in a nearby pile of rubble looking plaintively toward heaven, as if seeking deliverance from U.S. bombs. Rasim, the painter, claimed he witnessed Arab TV journalists pay idle Iraqis to light a car on fire and throw rocks to create an "anti-American" demonstration. "These journalists come here with their minds already made up," he groused. "They’re not interested in anything that contradicts their anti-American viewpoint."'
Questions for the Masters in the Art of Detecting and Punishing Liars
So, guess what, folks. I have a couple of questions. In fact, you know what? I have a whole bunch of questions. I have a bunch of questions for the world champions in the art of true democratic rule, for the specialists in the art of uncovering lies and punishing the liars, for the men and women who are solidarity incarnate, humanism incarnate, justice incarnate, fair-play incarnate, and truth incarnate. I'd like to know what exactly these specialists in uncovering and punishing the practice of lying propose to say about the behaviour of Western journalists (not to mention the Arab ones) in Baghdad, as well as that of their editors who gave them their instructions. I'd like to know what these holier-than-thou élites in the Western world propose to say about these countrymen of theirs to Haider Wady and to Esam Pasha and to Mohammed Rasim.
And when Iraqis come to you and say "We Iraqis believe that the refusal of France and Germany to offer us help, and the promised departure of Spain, are a catastrophe", I'd like to know what you propose to tell them. Will you make them read your interminable articles, columns, fillers on the lies of José Maria Aznar? Will you make them listen to your jeers, wisecracks, and guffaws concerning Bush and Blair and the threat of WMD? Do you intend to show them the headlines of France's five top dailies during the Iraq war, 29 of which were critical of Saddam Hussein and 135 of which lambasted George Bush and his allies? Will you distribute 10,000 copies of Bertrand Le Gendre's pre-war piece reassuring French readers that the American president's "horror vision of Irak [as a place with an inhumane prison system] is not totally false, but it is simplistic"? Will you make them read every article droning on about every supposed sin in American society?